Can you Adam-and-Eve it?

Posted on October 2, 2011


[For non-UK readers, ‘Adam-and-Eve’ is traditional London Cockney rhyming slang for ‘believe’.]

Various sources, print and online, highlight a debate that has taken off in the States on the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve as the two parents of the human race. At least one tenured scholar at Calvin College has apparently lost his job over the question. (Google will get you to lots of sources on the question; I couldn’t find one that summed up both the issues and the recent events in an even-handed way, so I decided not to post a link – if someone else knows of a good one, by all means put it in a comment.)

On the one hand, we have a claim that the sequencing of human genomes has provided a body of data that is incompatible with an account of human origins from a single couple; on the other, a claim that belief in a historic Adam and Eve is necessary to the gospel. My scientific expertise, such as it is (an undistinguished performance in a physics degree from Cambridge in the fairly distant past), and my knowledge of journalistic reports of academic research (which is rather more expert and recent) both lead me to suppose that reports asserting scientific certainty are unlikely to be accurate (particularly on an issue where repeated and controlled experiments are impossible; I presume the scientific consensus is more like ‘every plausible model we’ve proposed for the data we have demands multiple ancestor-pairs, and we’ve proposed a lot of models,’ which is certainly a significant claim, but falls some distance from proof, even in the weakened and imprecise sense that word usually carries in science). My topic in this blog, however, is theology, and so the other side of the debate is the one I will discuss.

On what basis might we propose that it is important that Adam and Eve were historical figures? Two seem possible: a theological basis; and an exegetical basis. It might be that we can’t make sense of the gospel unless humanity shares a common ancestor; or it might be that the point is incidental to the gospel, but clearly taught in Scripture, and so should be believed (that Jesus was born of a woman is central to the gospel; that his mother’s name was Mary is incidental, but nonetheless to be held to be true).

Are there plausible arguments in either direction? Theologically, the best candidate seems to be that some explanation needs to be given for universal falleness/sinfulness, in the face of the necessary teaching that God’s initial creation was good; it seems that some are therefore suggesting that it is necessary to postulate a single ancestor, who sinned, and whose guilt and brokenness was then transmitted through processes of biological reproduction to the rest of the human race. This argument, however, is implausible on a number of grounds.

First, the biological transmission of guilt and sinfulness is not a necessary claim. Within the Reformed tradition, federal Calvinism more-or-less denies the point in terms. Adam is established head of the human race by divine decree, not by biological priority: our fates are bound up with his fate because God has determined it to be so, not because of any process of genetics. (Of course, most classical federal Calvinists happened to believe in the biological priority of Adam and Eve, but this was in a sense incidental to their argument, as was the sinfulness of Eve: Adam alone was the federal head. Had it been the case that Eve surrendered to the serpent’s blandishments but failed to convince Adam to follow her, she would presumably have been held guilty of her sin, but her children would have been free of taint, as they were ‘in Adam’ and Adam had not fallen.)

Second, the biological transmission of guilt and sinfulness is not just not a necessary claim, but a rather difficult one. To put the point bluntly, moral standing is not encoded in genetic material. More pointedly, Christian anthropology has classically, rightly or wrongly, supposed a human being to be composed of body and soul (or body, soul, and spirit); the body, on this account, is the product of sexual union; the soul either created directly by God and infused into the body, or pre-existing in heaven and joined to the body in utero. But the soul is the primary seat, at least, of moral standing, and so to assume that the biological generation of the body somehow necessarily infects the directly-created, or other-sourced, soul seems difficult. (Even Augustine, so brilliant a mind, struggled and probably failed on this point: he suggested that the essence of sinfulness is misplaced desire, and that, east of Eden, every sexual act is infected with inordinate desire;  conception therefore happened in the context of sin, and so infected the child with original sin. Augustine, however, was a creationist when it comes to human souls, and – as far as I know; he wrote a lot… – failed to explain how the context of inordinate desire damaged the soul, newly created by God.)

Third, even if the above points can be overcome, the ‘biological transmission’ argument fails to prove its point. At most one might claim that every one of the first ancestors of humanity fell into sin at the same time. Imagine they were a tribe, bent together on a sinful act (building a tower that would reach up to heaven, say) and so together they all sinned. Biological transmission would then ensure the sinfulness of every succeeding human being, without the need to postulate a first pair.

I suggest, then, that there is no necessary theological reason to believe in a first pair of humans. To preserve a classical account of sinfulness, it is probably necessary to believe either in a federal head appointed by divine decree who fell into sin, or that our first ancestors, whether two, twenty, or two hundred, all fell into sin together. It is not necessary, though, to believe specifically in a unique first pair (of course, nor is there any theological reason not to believe in a unique first pair, but that point does not seem to be at issue). It is simply not important to gospel faith that we confess a first pair, a historical Adam and Eve.

What of the exegesis? The contours of debates over the first three chapters of Genesis are well-known enough not to need rehearsing here; at the very least we must say that there is no exegetical consensus that the passages ask to be taken as historical accounts. (Nor, I take it, is there any consensus regarding the fall narrative in particular that denies that it asks to be taken as a historical account; responsible interpretation now seems to demand that we do not assume that Gen. 1 is intended to be history; we cannot, I think, say the same of Gen. 3.)

It is striking, but true, that the Adamic root of original sin is a doctrine unknown to the canonical Old Testament (Hos. 6:7 is, at most, a claim that the sin of later generations is comparable to the sin of Adam). The doctrine is Pauline through-and-through: it is expounded in Rom. 5 & 1Cor. 15, and assumed in 1Tim. 2 – and that is it, in terms of Biblical support (yeah, I take 1Tim as ‘Pauline’; so shoot me…). Of these texts, only 1Tim. 2 even mentions Eve. In Rom. 5 and 1Cor. 15, ‘Adam’ functions as a representative of fallen humanity. Without going through the exegesis at length, I note that the parallels between Adam and Christ are at least inexact (‘as in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive’ – well, that’s either straightforward universalism or a very nuanced statement…); assuming that Christ has priority (something I tend to assume…), ‘Adam’ here is not functioning as the ancestor who infects the whole human race with sin, so much as an archetype which explains the devastating seriousness of the human condition…

…which is to say that there is no over-riding exegetical reason to insist on a historical Adam and Eve. We might, in reviewing the evidence, become convinced that the simplest explanation theologically and exegetically is a historic first pair of humans; but someone can confess the truth of the gospel, and the truthfulness of Scripture, without being committed to this belief.

*       *       *

So what? Well, just this: the stories circulating suggest that someone lost their job over this. I don’t know the details or the person, but I do know that in similar situations, politically-powerful people pushing an agenda that is – not unBiblical, but also not the only possible position a Biblical Christian could take – have damaged not just careers and families, but mission movements and national Christian churches, by condemning positions entirely defensible from Scripture as unBiblical. Jesus had some harsh things to say about the one who causes a fellow-believer to stumble, things involving mill-stones and deep oceans.

Those of us who presume to teach need a finely-tuned awareness of the difference between ‘I think this is right’ and ‘I believe in good conscience that no true Christian could believe anything different’. Of course, I know that conservative Christians – Evangelical or Catholic – are almost always vastly more tolerant than their liberal counterparts, but being better than someone else does not equal being right. We – I – need to be endlessly suspicious about our own assumptions about where the lines of unacceptability do fall, not because everything is acceptable – of course it isn’t – but because our own views of what is acceptable are, just, our own views. And we can always be wrong.

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