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Paul’s Adam, Part I

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March 9, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Paul’s Adam, Part I

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

In my last post I suggested that the Adam story could be viewed symbolically as a story of Israel’s beginnings, not as the story of humanity from ground zero.

But some might ask, “Why go through all this trouble? Why not just take it literally? The Bible says Adam was the first man. That’s the end of it.”

It’s not that simple, and if it were, people wouldn’t be talking it about it so much. First of all, reading the Adam story symbolically rather than as a literal description of history is not a whim, and it is certainly not driven by a desire to undermine the Bible. Rather, as we have seen, the Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel (to name two factors).

There is also considerable external evidence that works against the “just read it literally” mentality.

The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.

This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.

There are human cultural remains dating well over 100,000 years ago. One recent example is 130,000-year-old stone tools found on Crete. (Their presence on an island presumes seafaring ability at that time.) Ritual/religious structures are known to have existed as far back as 40,000-70,000 years ago. Recently, a temple complex was found in Turkey dating to about 11,500 years ago—7,000 years before the Pyramids.

In addition to cultural artifacts, there is also the scientific data from the various natural sciences that support a very old earth (4.5 billion years old) and the evolutionary development of life on it—things most readers of this Web site hardly need me to point out. Most recently, the genetic evidence for common descent has, in the view of most everyone trained in the field, lent great support to the antiquity of humanity and sharing a common ancestry with primates.

There is a third line of evidence that is a problem for a literal reading of the Adam story. Archaeological evidence gathered over the last 150 years or so has helped us understand the religions of the ancient Near East during and long before the Old Testament period. As is well known, Genesis 1 and the Adam story bear unmistakable resemblances to the stories of other peoples—none of which we would ever think of taking as historical depictions of origins. (We looked at some of this in previous posts.)

A strictly literal reading of the Adam story does not fit with what we know of the past. Some choose to ignore the data altogether. Others marginalize or interpret the data idiosyncratically to salvage some type of literal/historical reading. But, by and large, everyone—even including this latter group—has to do some creative thinking about how to handle the Adam story. A “just read it literally” mentality is not an available option. “What do I do with the Adam story?” is a real and pressing question for most people of faith.

In my experience, a lot of Christians—I might even guess most—have come to some peace with all of this. They may handle it in different ways, and some may not have arrived at a conclusion, but they at least recognize that something has to be done. They sense that a simple literal reading of the Adam story won’t work without creating a lot of cognitive dissonance, and so they are open to ideas.

But, sooner or later, another issue comes up that is hard to get around and for some simply ends the discussion entirely.


Christians have to account for more than Genesis vis-à-vis archaeology and science. They have to account for what Paul says about Adam. As I see it, this is as non-negotiable as accounting for the data mentioned above.

In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul draws a parallel between Jesus and Adam: Adam disobeyed (eating of the fruit) and brought death to “all”; Jesus obeyed (in his crucifixion) and (in rising) brought life to “all.” Jesus came to undo what Adam did. He came to reverse the curse of Adam.

There is really little doubt that Paul understood Adam to be a real person, the first created human from whom all humans descended. And for many Christians, this settles the issue of whether there was a historical Adam. That is what Paul believed, and for his argument to have any meaning, both Adam and Jesus have to be real people. If there was no Adam, there was no fall. If there was no fall, there was no need for a savior. If Adam is a fantasy, so is the Gospel.

For people who take the Bible seriously, Paul’s understanding of Adam can be an insuperable obstacle to accepting what we know about the past from other sources. Some feel there is really no choice but to reject science and archaeology completely. I really don’t think this is a viable option.

Others will accept to some extent the data we have, including evolution, but will insist that at some point along the line there was a first historical pair chosen by God to bear his image and from whom all true, image-bearing, humans are related. Placing an “Adam” somewhere on the evolutionary timeline is hypothetically possible, and there are knowledgeable people who find this a good way to reconcile Paul and science. (Although for others, this kind of “Adam” is too far from the kind of Adam Paul was thinking about, so it is not much help.)

However you slice it, what Paul says about Adam is a very important point of Christian theology. Clearly, what Paul says must be addressed.

But there is a factor in all of this that does not always get as much airtime as it should. It is regularly assumed that what Paul says about Adam is rather obvious, a sure starting point from which to engage this issue. “Well, I may not know what all the scientific and archaeological data are, but I can read English and I KNOW what Paul says. That is obvious, and I have no intention of messing around with that.”

Yes, we must take Paul seriously. But what if what Paul is saying about Adam is not as straightforward as a simple reading suggests? Maybe the matter is more involved than “Paul says it, that settles it”?

Paul’s Adam is not a simple matter. There are numerous factors that come into play in gaining a broader perspective on what Paul is saying and why he says it. In my next post, I want to list what some of these factors are. This is an issue that cannot be resolved in the series of a few (or many) blog posts. I am only interested in laying out on the table the issues that need to be kept in mind as we think about what Paul says about Adam and why he says it.

The tensions between science and faith, specifically evolution and Christianity, center on the issue of Paul’s Adam. As such, I think this is where our theological energies need to be invested.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Norm - #6350

March 9th 2010

Here is how I would best describe what happened. The Gentiles were sin personified because of their pagan non relationship with God. (See Eph 2:12) They are in a natural state of separation from God called the desert wilderness with no plant or rain. (Gen 2:5) This is metaphor for mortal man’s natural state of being outside of a covenant with God. Adam or if you like Israel was given the opportunity as a called or covenant people to leave this existence through Garden life. This is metaphor for intimacy with God in right standing.
Here is where the rub comes though. What we call the fall is Adam or Israel’s failure to hold up their side of the bargain (covenant life) with God because of the weakness of the mortal human nature to obtain righteousness through works or ones own effort. This means then that God’s chosen ones were cast back out of the Garden into the fringes of their former realm of mortal existence. In other words they lost immortality and were not much better off than their original state of Gentile existence, however they were still the chosen ones and there was this thing called the promise that gave them hope and to all humanity through them as well.

Norm - #6351

March 9th 2010

Until the time of the messiah they were living in a covenant “Sin” lost condition under the burden of the Law which relegated them back to the dust of the Earth just as the lost Gentile world remained. However it was a covenant “Sin” that was reversible through the promised seed of the coming messiah which restored them to Garden status contrary to pagan humanity’s natural lost existence. The catch though is that this Sin was removed only for those in Covenant while humanity that still resides outside the New Jerusalem are still in the desert wilderness without the river of life. In Gen 3:18-19 we see this condemnation back to the “dust of the earth” or mortal status that hung over their head until the coming of the promised “seed”. These stories about Israel are told using metaphorical symbols that one can determine if you set your mind to it as they are found in various forms throughout all scripture. That is why it’s possible to decipher what Paul is talking about in Rom 5-8 and 1 Cor 15 and put the puzzle together. What Paul calls a mystery often times.

Chris Massey - #6352

March 9th 2010


“Inspiration-of-the-Gaps” Haha, I like that. Point taken. I totally agree that the absence of historical/scientific error about a particular biblical statement does not amount to evidence FOR its inspiration. This would indeed amount to an inspiration-of-the-gaps approach.

I’m not trying to mount a proof of inspiration. I’m simply trying to say that a belief in the inspiration of Scripture is not incompatible with a recognition that Adam wasn’t historical.

Your initial question seems to presuppose a particular view of inspiration. Namely, that on every subject the Bible touches its treatment of the subject matter should be 100% accurate by all criteria (scientific, historical, theological, etc.). If that is the view of inspiration that one holds, then it makes perfect sense to say “If Paul is not reliable on X, inspiration is disproved. Therefore I cannot trust him on Y.”

Chris Massey - #6353

March 9th 2010



But what if inspiration is more like this: God gave specific messages to specific men throughout history and permitted them to convey those messages in a fashion that reflected their (sometimes inaccurate) cultural, scientific, and historical understandings. If this is one’s view of inspiration, then the discovery that an author’s particular historical or scientific understanding has now been surpassed by 21st century science, archaeology, etc. does not shatter one’s view of inspiration. It may, in fact, help us to distill the core message from the incidental messages.

What’s the inspired message and what’s incidental? That the challenge, I suppose. It may be a difficult task, but I think it is one we’re forced to attempt. I don’t have any easy answer for you. Although I do think it is fairly obvious from Paul’s preaching and the NT as a whole that the cross of Christ as an atonement for sin is the central message.

Your question really boils down to “Why should we believe the Bible is inspired at all?” If you used to answer that question with “Because it is 100% accurate about everything it says as judged by any criteria” then you will probably need to find a new answer. I know that’s the journey I’m on.

JHM - #6356

March 9th 2010


Interesting points. When you said:
“Your initial question seems to presuppose a particular view of inspiration. Namely, that on every subject the Bible touches its treatment of the subject matter should be 100% accurate by all criteria (scientific, historical, theological, etc.).”
I’ll admit that strict Biblical inerrency is the tradition I’m coming from, but that’s not exactly where I was trying to come from. Instead I think I’m trying to look more at the idea of “interpret Scripture with Scripture”, which I suppose presupposes at some level that Scripture can be trusted to do that with. So a question would be, “if we can not necessarily rely on other parts of the Bible to aid in the interpretation of difficult passages, what do we do?”. This is basically the crux of Pete’s work here I guess. We’ve declared that every Biblical author believed Adam to be litera/historical, *but* then said they must have been mistaken so we need a new theology on the origin of sin.

Gordon J. Glover - #6357

March 9th 2010

@Gregory Arago - #6347

“Does anyone know, what does Dr. Enns call his approach/position?”

I’m pretty sure this is the “incarnational” view of Scripture.  Rather than float down through a hole in the clouds (which nobody actually believes even though many evangelicals act as though they do), the Bible is actually a product of a messy human process, and can be studied as such.  But its human qualities do not make it any less “God breathed”—and its inspired qualities do not make it any less a piece of ancient Near-Eastern literature.  The model for this approach is the incarnation of God in the flesh—hence the title of Pete’s book, “Inspiration and Incarnation”.

JHM - #6358

March 9th 2010

The importance of how we, as Christians, interpret the Fall has really come home for me in recent discussions with small group I attend. We have been talking about the “problem of evil” and how we are to deal with things like the Haitian earthquake, the massive tsunami a couple years ago, or Hurricane Katrina. We have both YEC and EC perspectives in our group and the difference in how they view such “natural evil” is starkly different.

The YEC (and many old-earth creationist) thinkers will immediately point at the Fall and assert that it was humanities choices that ultimately cause both natural and moral evil. The Fall, from this perspective, not only caused humanity to be thrown into a “lineage of sin” but that the world is also cursed as a result of Adam.

On the other hand, the EC contingent can assert “at some point humanity fell and was separated from God, introducing ‘sin’”, but they have a much harder time with natural evils because God has declared the natural order “good”, and the Fall had no physical consequences (the Fall is only spiritual).

Now will both assert the same essential Gospel? Certainly. Will they view sin and “natural evil” the same? I don’t think so.

Joe Francis - #6359

March 9th 2010


Yes the problem of natural evil appears to be a driving force for how some individuals move from one view to another. It appears that Ken Miller solves the problem of natural evil using evolution….for instance, God cannot be held responsible for the mosquito because he did not make it.  Charles Templeton the famous evangelist abandoned Christianity altogether….in his writings he struggled with natural evil.  Could it be that EC and TE cause some people to move toward atheism because of their inability to resolve the problem of natural evil?

CH - #6374

March 10th 2010

ken_the_confused, (#6314)
I think you make an excellent point.  And to your predictions more could be added:
6) Origin of languages at Babel / nope
7) Historicity of the Exodus / nope
8) Historical accuracy of Daniel / nope
9) Confirmation of incredible astronomical events like the sun going backwards / nope.

At some point we have to ask, “Is it right to believe the unverifiable parts of scripture (theology) when the verifiable parts (history, science) fail verification?”

Nick Altman - #6375

March 10th 2010


What might be instructive to your question at the end of #6359 is temepletons book on his losss of faith. What is interesting to me is that pages 193-220 give as part of his reason for his deconversion the problem of evil. Out of those 27 pages about 8 pages concern natural evil.

The book however spends the rest of its time in a way which is fairly instructive to some of the background issues concerning this discussion. He spends 41 pages on the OT, speaking about everything from the implausibility of the exodus to the issues of Job. Another 4 pages is spent on racism in the bible, another 38 on issues with Jesus and historicity/archeological evidence, another 10 pages on issues of women and the bible and most instructively his largest category, in two sections, is on the action and sin of the church and his time with Graham, 43 pages in all.

I would reckon his faith might have been salvaged by a more nuanced view of the ANE, rather than harmed by his acceptance of EC of TE - It seems that (based on his choice of topics) fundamentalisms answers to those questions just weren’t enough and that was the straw that broke the camels back.

Pax Christi…Nick

Joe Francis - #6376

March 10th 2010

Thanks Nick,  That was informative. However, what I have read about his struggle with natural evil suggests that he was not a fundamentalist….but perhaps he had a nuanced view.

It is interesting also, that many of the Darwin movies this past year made Darwin’s struggle with natural evil central to his rejection of faith (?)

Karl A - #6377

March 10th 2010

Fascinating discussion.  Although I would call myself an EC, I mourn the loss of the coherent cosmology I had as a YEC.  Here’s how it used to be: God created the world good, in fact you could describe it as paradise.  Man sinned, and separation from God and physical death came.  At some point Satan rebelled and added more nasty stuff to the equation.  Jesus’ first coming solved the separation from God issue, and his second coming will solve the other nasty stuff, and usher back in paradise. 

I guess my question is, if there wasn’t a paradise to begin with (as we would define it, no disease, no disasters, no comets striking the earth, no extinctions), will the promised echatological paradise be something we would agree is paradise?

Nick Altman - #6378

March 10th 2010


Must have missed those flicks. To clarify I don’t think he was a fundamentalist at the end of his faith life, but at eh height of it he was Mr. Fundamentalist (in the historical sense of course, not trying to use it pejoratively.)

Joe Francis - #6379

March 10th 2010


Thanks, but if he left fundamentalism, I assume he moved toward a more open creation view, which appears to lead many to have a conflict of faith over God’s character regarding the existence of natural evil…..what kind of God creates by death and destruction?....it would sure create a conflict in my mind.

Karl A - #6381

March 10th 2010

Tying in with Joe’s (6379) post…
Another way of stating my question is, if the creation of the first heavens and earth involved millions of years of volcanic eruptions, violent plate tectonics, “nature red in tooth and claw”, what does that say about the creation of the new heavens and earth?

Gregory Arago - #6383

March 10th 2010

Re: the ‘incarnational’ view of Scripture (#6357)

Gordon wrote: “the Bible is actually a product of a messy human process, and can be studied as such.”

Is this a difficult or controversial thing to accept for many American Christian Evangelicals (ACEs)?

This seems rather obvious to me, Gordon, so I support what you say.

My question was more about Dr. Enn’s sophisticated engagement or lack thereof with history. Was Jacob a historical figure? If we call the ‘studied as a messy human product/process’ approach to the Bible ‘literary’ rather than ‘literal’, then some of the symbolism opens up that might otherwise be obscured. Enns is clearly anti-literalism.

To suggest that ‘Adam is Israel,’ however, *seems* to likewise suggest a ‘historical disunity of humankind,’ on anthropological, philosophical *and* theological grounds. I’m sure Norm will have a theological response to this. As of yet nobody has spoken of ‘polygenesis,’ but I wonder if Pete goes that far, since he is defending and promoting ‘common ancestry.’

I still find the idea that ‘not-Israel’ equals ‘not-imago Dei’ highly problematic.

Gregory Arago - #6386

March 10th 2010

There’s also 1 Tim 2: 13, 14 to deal with, in respect to Paul’s Adam, which someone here recently alluded to as a cause of great strife in his understanding of ‘evolution, creation and religion.’ This speaks to the relationship between women and men and the issue of being ‘formed first’ and being deceived.

I still don’t see why Joe needs a ‘young earth’ in order to promote his position. It reminds me of Mike Gene’s appeals to ‘design,’ which, no matter how hard he tries and how balanced he is, will never escape from negatively colo(u)ring him as “one of those intelligent design people.” I’ve suggested that Mike change his terms to avoid associations with the IDM.

Joe is not a geologist or cosmologist, which are the two main fields in discussing ‘age of Earth.’ That Joe is offering “answers to problems like Paul’s Adam and the problem of natural evil” has little or nothing to do with “the age of the Earth.” Yet his current position on geology and cosmology is what makes it very difficult to take him seriously as a source of knowledge or advice.

If you don’t like the label ‘Creation Science/tist’ then simply refuse to wear it and stop promoting it.

norm - #6396

March 10th 2010


The reason I read the scriptures theologically is that is the primary purpose and thrust. The closest analogy I can give you regarding this literary genre is to compare scriptures to an Aesop fable. It tells the story through Hebrew established symbolism that cannot be taken literally but are images representing coherent and consistent themes. One has to develop the skill to read it and interpret it in that manner or you will be chasing your tail looking under every rock and finding nothing rational there.

The study of ANE background is important but it is secondary to an investigation of the Hebrew theological intent which is what fundamentally drives scriptures.  A good place to start is to learn the meaning of what Heavens and Earth represent. There are some good books out there by Preterist authors such as Gary Demar, and others in that community that have already begun that work to help one start cleaning up our literal mess. What you find is that H & E is an encompassing term that represents God and His people in Covenant and there was an old one under the previous dispensation and now there is already a new Heaven and Earth established. Has nothing to do with a physical paradise being created.

Karl A - #6397

March 10th 2010

Norm, I figured you’d say something like that.   (I do appreciate your input.) So what do you think will happen when you die?

norm - #6399

March 10th 2010


I hope some of my thoughts help stimulate thinking.

It’s pretty simple; when I come into covenant with God through Christ I become a child of God eternally. I put off the mortal man and clothe myself with immortal standing which means at my physical ending I continue with God in Heaven. I do not then have to enter the Hadean (Sheol) realm waiting for some future salvation as the OT saints were in Heb 11. Christ has destroyed that realm for the faithful so that there is no more waiting in the “dust of the earth” which simply points to mortal existence and demise without faith in God through Christ. See Dan 12:2.

Let me recommend a book that many of you might find answers regarding some of these issues. It’s called “Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation”. It is a good basic introductory book that will probably change your perspective on how to read and understand scripture. It ties both the beginning and the endings together to illustrate the cohesiveness of scripture.


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