This article, originally published on October 1, 2014, is the second in a series reviewing NT Wright’s 2015 book Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. This book is comprised of a collection of essays, three of which have themes relevant to origins, and two of these were talks originally given at BioLogos events.
BioLogos has not taken an official stance on a historical Adam. We affirm common ancestry, and we are persuaded by the science that it is unlikely that there was a single couple from whom all humanity descended. But there are still several options available for dealing with Adam and the origin of sin. Some among us think there are legitimate biblical and theological reasons for believing there was a real Adam in history who served in a representative capacity for all human beings. Science has nothing to say about that; it’s just not a scientific issue. Others in our community think the relevant biblical texts are best understood as symbolic, and they can marshal evidence for why that is the best interpretation of Scripture regardless of what we learn from science. And still others here are undecided, preferring to let the discussion play out a bit longer. We’re committed to continuing this important discussion, and consideration of Wright’s chapter provides a great next step.
In this chapter Wright homes in immediately on the two drivers for people to believe in a historical Adam: biblical authority and Adam’s role in our understanding of salvation. Regarding the first, many seem to think that the authority of Scripture hangs in the balance here and treat it as though it were a collection of “true but miscellaneous information” or “an early version of the Encyclopædia Britannica.” But Wright says that’s not the kind of authority that Scripture is. “The risen Jesus doesn’t say, ‘All authority in heaven and earth is given to... the books you chaps are going to go and write.’ He says, ‘All authority has been given to me.’” It would cause some logical consternation to say that the Bible authoritatively claims that all authority lies somewhere else! Wright continues, “The phrase authority of scripture can only, at its best, be a shorthand for the authority of God in Jesus, mediated through scripture” (p. 28, his italics and ellipsis). And the authority of God is about reclaiming his proper lordship over all of creation. The Bible’s role in this is to point us to Christ and to equip us as the royal priesthood charged with “bringing the saving rule of God in Christ to the world” (p. 29). That is what the Bible does authoritatively. It is not a collection of timeless truths to which all people everywhere and every time must intellectually assent in order to be saved. It is the dynamic means through which God transforms people into Christ-followers no matter what their context.
This emphasis on the dynamic nature of Scripture might trouble some. Wright’s goal doesn’t seem to be to uncover the one correct interpretation of the text that must be imposed on everyone. He says, “No, the Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text” (p. 29) and “Each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up, not simply to look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition” (p. 30).
In this vein, Paul routinely reinterpreted Old Testament texts, infusing them with new meaning which the original audience of these texts would not have understood. His rereading of the Adam story into his own context of first century Judaism is a prime example. In so doing, did Paul establish that as the normative context for all future Christians? Or did he model for us what we should do too—reread the Adam story in our context, which means to do so in light of what God has allowed us to discover about genetics, prehistoric human beings, and our relatedness to (and distinction from) the rest of created life? Those are hard questions. They could have implications for how we interpret other parts of Scripture too, and answering them demands wisdom and sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading. We should have confidence, though, that the “authority of Scripture” to do what God intended it to do is not in question.
Wright’s treatment of the second theological driver—Adam’s role in the story of salvation—is focused on Paul’s comparison of Adam with Israel. There is a commonly held approach to salvation which posits that a perfect creation was marred through Adam’s sin, and Jesus came to pay the penalty for sin, thereby allowing us to go to heaven when we die. Adam’s role in that story is crucial: “no Adam” means “no reason for Christ to come.” But according to Wright, that is not the story that Paul tells, and it is a distortion of the Gospel. Instead, Paul connects our salvation to the story of Israel—their being placed in the Promised Land, given a commission to bless all nations, then breaking the Law and being exiled. Paul uses Adam to retell Israel’s story: “placed in the garden, given a commission to look after it; the garden being the place where God wanted to be at rest, to exercise his sovereign rule; the people warned about keeping the commandment, warned in particular that breaking it would mean death, breaking it, and being exiled. It all sounds very, very familiar” (p. 37). Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account. Lots of other Jewish authors around the time of Paul appropriated Adam to get their points across too. The genre of this literature was not historical journalism.
Wright does suggest it is possible that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids to be representatives of the entire human race. God’s purpose of making all of creation a place of delight and joy and order was to take place through them. But they failed and “abdicate[d] their image-bearing vocation and follow[ed] the siren call of the elements of chaos still within creation” (38). Instead of reflecting the glory of God back to creation, through their sin of worshiping created things they ended up reflecting death to the rest of the world. It was Jesus who became the obedient human—what neither Israel nor Paul’s Adam could do—even to death on a cross. “He does for Israel what Israel couldn’t do for itself, and thereby does for humans what Israel was supposed to do for them, and thereby launches God’s project of new creation, the new world over which he already reigns as king” (39).
In this narrative there is still the question of why the created order was in need of rescuing in the first place. Wright acknowledges that it was in such a state before human beings arrived on the scene, but he doesn’t offer simplistic answers for why this is so. This is a difficult question for us today, and we’ll not find the answers of previous generations satisfactory if they don’t take into account what we have learned about the created order. We’re confronted by facts that bear witness to an almost incomprehensible age of the earth and to the history of life on the planet that advanced through fits and starts and no shortage of suffering. We humans were late comers to this drama, but with abilities developed and honed through millions of years of evolution. We find hints of language, reason, and morality among higher life forms, but we have these capacities to such a degree that we can now be image bearers and stewards for the rest of creation. Perhaps this was God’s purpose in creating us through evolution.
Why didn’t God just zap us into existence fully formed? We might as well ask why God didn’t just create a perfect and final heaven and populate it with us from the start. I’m not sure we can say much more to such questions than that God seems to delight in partnering with his creation in order to bring about his intentions. And those intentions seem to be for transformation—not some far off neverland of a heaven that has no connection to this world. If that were the intention, God would have just done that directly. But as Wright keeps reminding us, God is in the business of re-creating this world into the new heavens and new earth, and of transforming us through Christ from what we were into what he would have us be. “The point of it all, once more, is vocational: if we can study Genesis and human origins without hearing the call to be an image-bearing human being renewed in Jesus, we are massively missing the point” (p. 39).