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.
Are all 4 of the alternatives to the literal reading of Genesis 1 equally dangerous? Or do you think there is room within Christian orthodoxy for some or all of them?
I don’t believe that we should ever say there is room in Christian orthodoxy for “lesser” error: if something is unscriptural we should not give it a pass. Christian orthodoxy should not be viewed as the “core concepts” of biblical Christianity; orthodoxy is the whole counsel of God’s Word. Our job is to be committed to being conformed to Christ, to the Word, in all things. This should be our passion and joy, pursued in love for Christ, His church, and a world in desperate need of the complete gospel.
But Christians are at various points in their spiritual growth, so, as one theologian said, “a man may be in error, and yet not be a heretic.” Someone may hold to an error at some point and still be a Christian. Understood this way, the first alternative view on human origins is the least problematic: you can hold to view #2 and retain an orthodox view of Adam, but it is nonetheless error requiring correction because it requires hermeneutical choices which set the stage for worse alternative views, in Genesis and elsewhere. Views #3 and #4 move significantly further into error. #5, with its flat out denial of Adam, brings one into the realm of heresy. The Quest for the Historical Adam details the historical realities and theological consequences of each of these in contrast to the coherence and orthodoxy of the literal understanding of our origins.
Should the average Christian church-goer get informed about this issue, or is it one where we can allow the scholars to work it out?
Average Christian church-goers cannot afford to ignore this issue. Its erosive impact is continuing, if not gathering steam, in American evangelicalism. It may impact you directly through the minister you call or the elders you ordain: discernment here is essential for the church’s life and future.
Our children are likely to face the denial of the historical Adam at many Christian colleges—under the guise of Christian education. The issue is not just for us, but for our children’s future in the faith and for the continued expansion of the kingdom of Christ. Despite the naysayers who say “there is no slippery slope,” church history shows over and over that those who buy into alternate views of human origins are getting on the road that leads to complete abandonment of biblical Christianity.
I believe the best way to be informed is not found in immersing ourselves in books that present various views of the creation account, but by understanding Scripture’s richness, beauty, and cohesiveness on our origin, taught by faithful expositors and theologians for millennia. We must begin recapturing the marvelous reality of the literal understanding of our origin, all it entails, and how it applies to our lives. This was a key part of my aim in The Quest for the Historical Adam. When we understand the reality of what God has said and done, we will not trade our birthright for a pot of stew. We will worship our Creator and Redeemer.
Beyond your own book, what are some other resources that could prove helpful in getting oriented in this conversation?