Does the Bible present Adam as an historical person, a man who actually lived at a certain point in history, the very first man and the father of all the members of the human race who followed after him? And if so, what is the theological significance of that fact? Or, to put it another way, what would be the theological consequences of denying the historicity of Adam?
It has been popular among many 20th century theologians, particularly those usually labeled "Neo-orthodox," to deny the historicity of Adam. Emil Brunner spoke of Adam as mythical, not historical. What Genesis 3 gives us, Brunner said, is story but not history.
Karl Barth, the father of Neo-orthodoxy, taught that what we have in Gen. 3 is not history but saga, a term he preferred to the term "myth" because he felt that "myth" still suggested, perhaps, some connection with history, nebulous though it might be; and he wanted to emphasize that Adam is not at all to be thought of as an historical person but rather as a symbol which stands for every person who has ever lived. "We are all Adam," Barth said, which simply means that we are all sinners. In fact, there was never a time when man was not a sinner and therefore guiltless before God.
Bringing matters a bit closer to home, H. M. Kuitert, successor to G. C. Berkouwer as professor of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, in a little book entitled, Do You Understand What You Read?(1) , put forward the same interpretation but used the term "teaching model" rather than myth or saga. When the apostle Paul speaks of Adam, Kuitert says, he is not speaking of that one who was literally the first man, a man who really lived – no, the first humans were the primitive savages pictured in the textbooks of evolution. "Adam" is simply a story, an illustration, which served Paul by helping him preach Jesus. Jesus is Paul's real interest, and Adam simply illuminates the meaning of Jesus Christ. In Romans 5, Kuitert says, in order to help his readers understand their relationship to Christ, Paul brings in the contrasting story of the relation of sinners to Adam, but it is only that, only a story.
THE FIRST MAN
Before dealing with Romans 5, I want first to cut right to the bottom line and examine the theological consequences of denying the historicity of Adam. The issue is not, "Well, who was the first man? Was his name really Adam?" or anything like that. The question is whether there really was a first man specially created by God, morally perfect in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, as the apostle Paul teaches us, who by his own free act, for which he alone was responsible (not God, not Satan) sinned against his Maker and brought sin and death upon all his posterity.
When we speak of the Fall, we are speaking of the first sin of the first man – and the consequences of that first sin for all that race of men and women who are viewed by God as in that first man – in him because he was ordained by God to be their Representative, their Covenant Head, so that (1) the guilt of that first sin was imputed to their account, and (2) its punishment, death, was conveyed to them, as well as (3) a corrupted, depraved nature, or heart, from which all their thoughts, words, and actions flow, so that all are defiled by sin.
The question “Was Adam an historical person?” is really the question “Was the Fall a real event in human history?” For if Adam is simply which stands for the truth about every person who ever lived, from the very beginning of that person's life, what does that mean? That means that sin is simply a part of what it means to be human!
SIN: PART OF MAN'S BEING?
J. P. Versteeg wrote, in a small book criticizing Kuitert, entitled Is Adam a "Teaching Model" in the New Testament? (2), "If Adam only lets us see what is characteristic of every man, because Adam is man in general so that ... Adam may no longer be regarded as the one man through whom sin has come into the world, it is apparent that in a certain sense sin (then) belongs to man as such. Sin has thus become a given ‘next to’ creation. (Not following creation but along with man's coming into being, RBS) ... In essence, then, one may no longer speak of the guilt of sin."
If sin is simply one aspect of what it means to be human, how can we speak of the guilt of sin? If it is the case that “to err is (simply) human,” there is nothing for which to be forgiven. Is God to “forgive” me for being what he created me to be – a human being?
Now, I should warn you that many who actually deny the historicity of Adam and the Biblical account of his special, direct creation by God and his subsequent fall into sin, continue to speak about a “Fall.” But because their evolutionary presuppositions make it impossible for them to believe that there was a first man created perfect morally by God and in fellowship with God, that historic Christian term, "Fall," simply becomes for them a symbol of the fact that mankind is not morally perfect, and never was. But that is to deny that there was a real Fall in history at all.
NO FALL, NO REDEMPTION
The Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, teaches us that man was created “very good” (Gen. 1:31) – and that expression as applied to a rational, moral, religious being like man must mean very good rationally, morally, and religiously – and that's exactly what Paul says by implication in Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 in speaking of the new man in Christ: that man was originally created as the image of God, characterized by knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. If Adam never really lived as pure and perfect man, God's unblemished image, then Ecclesiastes 7:29 is not true in teaching that God made man morally upright but they have sought out many evil devices.
But, mark it well, without a doctrine of the Fall there is no hope of Redemption. There is no “Good News!” There is no Biblical Christianity! That's what is at stake here, nothing less than that.
You see, biblical Christianity, over against all other world and life views, is unique in viewing human sinfulness as the result of a Fall. Other religions and philosophies – and myths – look to sin's origin elsewhere; e.g., in the very constitution of man as composed of a lower as well as a higher nature, or in man's evolutionary past and his natural tendency to revert to a more primitive stage, or in the fact that he has not yet evolved beyond such a stage in certain respects. (And it is evolutionary theory regarding man's origin, of course, which has caused many to deny the biblical teaching regarding man's creation as a holy being whose sin is the result of his own mysterious free act of transgressing God's law.)
Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, views human sinfulness as a Fall – an unnatural development, a lapse from man's proper state – and thereby asserts that to find sin's "explanation" in the original constitution of man is to slander the holy Creator – and thereby also assures man that there is hope: hope for restoration, hope for redemption, hope for Paradise Restored.
On other views of the origin and nature of sin, human sinfulness must be seen as really inevitable (Adam = all men = sinner; to be human is to be sinner); and therefore how can sin ever be remedied or removed? The Bible, on the other hand, gives grounds for hope because, as another has written, the Bible “represents the ills in which man is involved not as the necessary faults of a being low, earthy, and animal by his constitution but as (the) effects from the fall of a being made in the image of God.” (3)
The biblical pictures of fallen human nature are painted with very dark colors, speaking, e.g., of man's heart as “deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (Jer. 17:9 RSV). But we must never forget that what is so pictured is not man but fallen man – not man as God created him but man as he has turned his back on God – not man the co-laborer with God but man the rebel. And the hope of the Gospel is that through the accomplishment of the Second Adam and the power of the Creative Spirit, man may be all that he was meant to be.
A PARADISE REGAINED?
In recent years so-called “theologies of hope” have received a lot of attention, ranging from Roman Catholics like Teilhard de Chardin to Protestants like Jurgen Moltmann. Tragically, however, because these theologies reject the biblical revelation of the Paradise man lost by his Fall, they can have no solid basis for faith in a true Paradise to be regained for man by the Second Adam by God's grace.
Most of those “theologians of hope” were trained, in seminary, in Neo-orthodoxy, in Barthianism. Karl Barth taught that we must not view the Fall as an historical event by which man passed from a original state of righteousness to a state of depravity, because “in the matter of human disobedience and depravity there is no ‘earlier’ in which man was not yet a transgressor and as such innocent.” Human history “constantly re-enacts the little scene in the Garden of Eden. There never was a golden age. There is no point in looking back to one. The first man was immediately the first sinner.” Barth insists that “it is the Word of God which forbids us to dream of any golden age in the past or any real progress within Adamic mankind and history or any future state of historical perfection.” (4)
And as I say, one like Jurgen Moltmann or H. M. Kuitert, by continuing with Barth to deny the historical Adam (which is just to say, to deny the historical Fall) have no Biblical basis for a true theology of hope.
I want us to read Romans 5 now. We won't be able here to read any other texts that speak of Adam. But let me simply say that I don't think it can be questioned that the careful and unbiased reader will find that wherever Adam is mentioned in the Bible, he is presented as an historical person.
Please read Romans 5:12-19. Note that when Paul says in verse 12 “because all sinned,” he means that they sinned in that one man, as the rest of the passage makes clear.
Notice how very interesting verse 14 is as refuting Kuitert's or Barth's interpretation. Paul emphasizes concerning whole generations of men that they did not sin in the way that Adam did, by willfully breaking a known law, and that is exactly contrary to what is claimed by the mythical or symbolical interpretation, which says that Adam simply represents the truth about all men. Here Paul carefully underscores the difference but nevertheless the connection between men in two historical periods: (1) Adam, (2) those between Adam and Moses.
And notice also how Adam is described as a “type” (Greek, typos) of the one to come, i.e., Christ. In the Bible a type is always an historical person, action, or event appointed by God to be a foreshadowing, a pointer, to the fulfillment, yet to come in history in Christ. To speak of a type is to speak in terms of redemptive history. A type is not merely an allegory but an historical reality.
At verse 18 many have stumbled at the apostle's use of the word “all” there to speak of those who receive justification and life as a result of Christ's one righteous act, without qualifying the “all” by a reference to the fact that only believers receive these blessings in Christ. Certainly it is clear from the overall teaching of Paul in his letters that he does not affirm universal salvation. We must therefore see that Paul's interest in this passage is not in the question of how many will be saved, nor even, at this point, to emphasize again the clear need for faith in Christ; but his interest now is to focus upon the analogy between God's modus operandi in the two covenant heads, Adam and Christ. Just as the disobedience of the one man, Adam, resulted in condemnation and death for all those in covenantal union with him, so also the obedience of the one man, Jesus Christ, results in justification and life for all those in covenantal union with Him.
It is important to notice where Romans 5:12-19 comes in the argument of Paul's letter to the Romans. This passage comes as the conclusion of Paul's extended presentation of the good news of justification by faith in Christ, by faith alone and not by works, just before he enters into the truth of sanctification in Christ – and indeed this passage comes as the climax, the “clincher” of his argument for the justification of sinners on the ground of the righteous obedience of Christ imputed to them who trust in Him. Thus this passage is in no way a strange intrusion into the flow of the letter, as some have suggested, but really is the heart and center of the letter. Kuitert is quite correct is saying that Paul's interest is in Jesus Christ and the good news of justification in Him, and in saying that Paul brings Adam into the picture in order to teach us the truth about Christ and our salvation in Him. Adam and Christ are not placed next to each other on the same level, so to speak, as equals. Christ as “the one” towers far above Adam as “the one.” (5)
But to say that is one thing. To say that therefore Adam is to be understood as nothing more than a preacher's illustration, a story which conveys its message whether or not it is historically true, is to say quite another thing. The fact is, as I have already stressed, that unless we really stand guilty, condemned to death on the basis of the disobedience of Adam, there is no reason to believe that we are justified, declared to be righteous, on the basis of the obedience of the Second Adam, Christ.
Despite the great difference between Adam and Christ, Paul points to the all-important redemptive-historical analogy between them. Paul sums up all of God's dealings with men under two great Representative Heads: Adam and Christ. As he says in I Corinthians 15, there is none before Adam, for Adam is the first man. And in terms of covenantal Headship there is none between Adam and Christ, for Christ is the second man. And there is none after Christ, for Christ is the last man. Adam and Christ sustain unique relationships to men. In each case the covenant response of the Representative Head, whether of disobedience or of obedience, is not merely illustrative of the condition of those in union with him but determinative of the condition of those in union with him.
If Adam is merely a symbol that stands for the truth about us, then perhaps Christ is merely another symbol that stands for another truth about us.
And lest you think that my saying that is merely a “scare tactic” on the part of a cranky conservative Christian, let me point out that that is precisely the conclusion reached by Karl Barth. I have said that for one like Barth, Adam is merely the symbol we use for the truth about all men, that they are sinners. The more we study Barth, however, the more clear it becomes that Christ is the symbol we use for that which is also true for all men. For just as sin in Barth's theology is “built-in” sin, and goes along with our humanity, just so is grace “built-in” grace. And as such it is the final truth about all men who have ever lived.
Now that may be called a doctrine of Universal Salvation and that can sound great; but is it a doctrine of salvation at all? There is no true guilt in that theology, but there is no true forgiveness either. The reality of eternal death in Adam may be suppressed in that theology, but the glorious reality of resurrection life fades in the mists of allegory as well.
And don't think that that is the conclusion of Barth alone. I submit that that is the ultimate direction of contemporary theology in general in our day, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.
If we deny the historicity of Adam, “then the question will never allow itself to be finally suppressed: Is not Christ in his resurrection also a ‘teaching model’...?" (6) If the historicity of the first Adam is considered irrelevant to us, why then should the historicity of the second Adam not also be irrelevant to us?
To conclude: Our understanding of the reality of Adam affects our understanding of sin, of redemption, and of the Redeemer. The one who rejects the Biblical teaching regarding the historical Adam and the historical Fall will find no firm basis for accepting the Biblical teaching regarding the historical, Incarnate Redeemer.
(Originally published in Christian Renewal June 20, 1989)
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