There is always one truth or another that is being disputed. There is always some doctrine or another that is under attack. And speaking personally, I find it hard to keep up. Sometimes it is best to recruit some help, and I did that very thing recently. I keep hearing about differing views on the historical Adam, with more and more people moving away from a strictly literal understanding that Adam was divinely created by God on the sixth day of creation. Knowing that William Vandoodewaard had just written a book on the subject (The Quest for the Historical Adam), I asked if he would help me sort it all out. He did that in this brief but helpful Q&A.
Can you briefly (and as objectively as possible) lay out the different options when it comes to the historical Adam? What are the predominant views?
There are really five possible views:
- Adam was specially created by God on the sixth day, as understood by the literal interpretation of the Genesis text. Adam is created without ancestry, apart from any evolutionary processes. He is the first human.
- Adam was specially created in the manner that Genesis describes (out of the dust, life breathed into him), but without the time frame of six days of ordinary duration—it occurred at some unknown point in the ancient past. Adam is created without ancestry, and apart from any evolutionary processes. He is the first human.
- Adam was created through a combination of natural processes and supernatural, divine intervention at some unknown point in the ancient past. Evolutionary processes played a part in Adam’s creation, he had animal ancestry, but God intervened, doing something special in his conception, or making him human after birth, even though his biological parents were not. Some argue that God’s intervention included changing Adam’s physical constitution; others argue that it was only God’s gift of a spiritual constitution or soul that set Adam apart from his animal ancestors.
- Adam developed the same way as in #3, but he was simply an individual whom God entered into relationship with, making Adam religious. The immediate change that made Adam “human” was relational, not constitutional.
- There was no Adam. Adam is simply a figure or type for early humanity as a category.
While these are the five main categories, it is helpful to be aware of their place and proportion. The historic, mainstream understanding of the Christian church is view #1. Despite continuing efforts to the contrary it remains the predominant view among evangelical Christians. By contrast, view #2, rooted in post-Enlightenment geological theories, is actually a minority stream. Views #3–5, while trendy, very vocal, and on the evangelical edge (where broad evangelicalism merges into theological liberalism), actually represent an even smaller fringe than view #2.
Ongoing round-tables and “four views on Genesis and origins” type books produced by parts of evangelical academia are misleading. They give the impression that the literal understanding of origins is a minority when it actually remains an overwhelming majority commitment, much to the chagrin of its opponents.
What is really at stake here? What does the church stand to lose if we widely accept an alternate view of the historical Adam?
The teaching of God’s Word is at stake here. God’s character is at stake. The gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. Accepting an Adam with evolutionary origins immediately impacts what it means to be human, created by God in His image. It opens a Pandora’s box of theological problems—from Adam’s relationship with his animal parents and surrounding community, to the doctrine of sin and the fall, to God’s holiness, goodness, and justice. It immediately impacts the doctrine of Christ as the One by whom all things were created, as well as His incarnation and work of salvation. It’s an issue that touches so many others: from soteriology to race relations to sexual ethics to the new creation at the second coming. Those who take the logically consistent step beyond an evolutionary Adam to a figurative Adam join a line of thinkers including Voltaire and Kant.
Do you think there is an inevitability here? Do you think that those who deny a historical Adam are necessarily on a slope to full-out theological liberalism?
The denial of a historical Adam is already theological liberalism, beyond the bounds not only of evangelicalism, but also historic Christianity. There is an inevitability of further decline, not always in the case of the individual who departs further from Christian orthodoxy, but almost always in the next generation, and in any institution or church that allows this. The underlying problem is the capitulation to reading Scripture through the lens of this world’s culture and thought, rather than reading culture and thought through the lens of Scripture.