Book Review: "Four Views on the Historical Adam"

Net Galley Review
By Matthew Barrett , Ardel Caneday , Denis Lamoureux , John H. Walton , C. John Collins , William D. Barrick , Gregory A. Boyd , Philip G. Ryken , Stanley N. Gundry.
Grand Rapids, MI 49530
ISBN:  9780310499275; $19.99, 10 December 2013.
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur.

We were sitting in one of the local pubs, doctoral students from diverse denominations and deep in our ministries. We were talking about our theses topics, when suddenly the conversation turned on whether or not Adam and Eve were genuinely historical persons. I was the only one in a self-professed Evangelical denomination. The others came from clans that had a reputation for being rather “broad” on Biblical authority and historicity. It was a relatively awkward moment, until things moved on. But I distinctly remember thinking then, in 2006, that I was glad to be an Evangelical where this subject was not up for grabs. Nevertheless since that time the discussion has come around to our part of town. A prime example can be found in the newest 288 page paperback installment in the Counterpoint series, edited by Stanley Gundry, and clearly titled, “Four Views on the Historical Adam” published by Zondervan.  To put it in a nutshell, the discussion in the book revolves around answering two questions: (1) Is Adam a historical person who really lived in time, space and history? And (2) Does it really matter to the Christian Faith? The “Four Views on the Historical Adam” follows the format of the other Counterpoint installments; (1) One dialogue partner makes their case for their position; (2) the other interlocutors pipe in to point out various holes or slips in logic; (3) then there is a rejoinder by the main chapter writer; (4) and the cycle begins with the next dialogue partner.

Matthew Barrett, Associate Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist Seminary, and Ardel Caneday, Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at North western College, launch into the introductory chapter. The authors of this chapter rightly note that “when conflict emerges among Christians, our quest for truth must not avoid conflict but face it, even if this makes us uncomfortable” (14), so they busily unpack the rules of the game, parameters for discussion, history of the subject, and the ideological background that will often flow just beneath the surface.  An important observation made in the chapter quickly becomes clear as the book unfolds; “( . . . ) how one understands Genesis, evolutionary theory, and even the age of the earth to a certain extent will impact, in one way or another, what one believes about Adam and Eve” (25).

The first chapter is handed to Denis Lamoureux, Associate Professor of Science and Religion at St. Joseph's College in the University of Alberta. Lamoureux works out a case for Evolutionary Creation, and specifically that there was no historical Adam. He draws from his Seminary and Scientific training to build his argument. Though holding to the inerrancy of Scripture, he stresses that the writers of the Scriptures penned their material from within the framework of ancient science. That God, accommodating his revelation to humankind, used the vehicle of ancient science to teach “inerrant, life-changing, spiritual truths” (41), giving numerous examples where he sees this is the case. To tease out how he can hold to both, inerrancy as well as “( . . . ) Holy Scripture makes statements about how God created ( . . . ) that in fact never happened” (54, 56), he proposes the “Message-Incident Principle” (49-55). This brings him to construct his reasons for rejecting Adam as a historical person; “To use technical terminology, Adam is the retrojective conclusion of an ancient taxonomy. And since ancient science does not align with physical reality, it follows that Adam never existed” (58). Lamoureux also delves into the New Testament, and explains how his “Message-Incident Principle” works in regard to the New Testament’s mention of Adam at crucial places.

Next John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School, addresses the role of Adam and Eve as archetypes. Though Walton emphasizes that he personally thinks Adam and Eve were real historical persons, his main accent is to show how they were representative and not essentially the biological forbearers of humankind. He walks the reader through the early chapters of Genesis, pointing out the archetypal emphasis of the Biblical writer, especially with the way role or function is being presented in those chapters. Walton then turns to Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature and shows how Israel’s neighbors did not depict human origins “in terms of a single couple being created as progenitors of the entire human race” (99). Nevertheless the ANE material did picture chosen humans as archetypes (99-104), as do the New Testament documents (104-8).  Walton then presents one possible scenario where a Christian who is convinced that evolution is consistent with reality and the Biblical witness is true might work out “Adam and Eve” as archetypes, where the image of God was endowed to hominids.  However, in this setup, Adam and Eve would be “neither the first people nor the biological/genetic ancestors of all” (115).

In the third chapter C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, comes at the subject from an old earth position. He holds that Adam and Eve “were both real persons at the headwaters of humankind” (143) and that they are one of the essential elements in the Christian Faith. After defining what he means by “history” and “historical” Collins then drafts up how ANE texts, specifically with regard to origins, and the Biblical account of Genesis 1-11 are similar and where they are dissimilar. His point seems to be mainly to show that the “front end of the worldview story” (151) shapes the rest of the narrative, as well as how people defined themselves in relation to those accounts. “So it is fitting to find in Genesis an alternative front end to the worldview story, which aims to tell the story the right way” (153). From here he goes on to show Genesis tracing humankind back to a common source, therefore affirming human unity which lays the groundwork for “Israel’s calling to bring light to the world” (154). Next he unpacks the harmony of Genesis 1-11 as a literary piece, which harmony splashes on over into 12-50. Thereafter Collins takes the reader through the Biblical storyline displaying how the Biblical writers took Adam and Eve as real people at the headwaters of humankind. From this Biblical story line, which includes a real fall into sin by an original Adam and Eve, he sketches out how sin is an intrusion into God’s good creation, an “alien intruder” (160), that affects the unified whole of humankind. Collins ties together the essential hope that comes from a real Adam and Eve at the headwaters of humankind, “If we have a good explanation for why things have gone wrong, then maybe the Christian hope that somehow God will put them right is a secure comfort also – a comfort that will help us to live fully human lives, as God’s beloved people, even now” (167). In the end, he does open the door, ever so slightly, for the possibility that there might have been more than Adam and Eve – maybe a tribe under their chief, Adam. He draws this possibility from Derek Kidner (172-3).

Rounding out the dialogue, William Barrick, Professor of Old Testament at The Master's Seminary, comes to the table promoting a young earth position. He stresses the point that if the later Old and New Testament writers built their case on earlier events that didn’t actually take place, then their position is falsified (203-5; see also 221 fn 79). Further, he brings out the basic and usual reasons that creation happened in the six 24-hour days stated in Genesis 1-2, showing the flow and connection of the passage. From here he puts together the reasons for seeing Adam and Eve as the original pair of humankind from whom we all spring, with all of the specialness of their creation. Next he describes how the following chapters in Genesis grow out of the realness of the first couple; including the fall of all humanity in their rebellion. Moving from Genesis Barrick surveys Old and New Testament sections that either assume or specifically reference the first couple. This brings him to the conclusion that the “historical individuality of Adam as the parent of the race forms the basis of New Testament theology. A mere archetype cannot fulfill the same textually and theologically significant role” (218). Barrick then raises the stakes by declaring that the holding to a historical Adam is “a gospel issue” (222). Finally, the author rightly reminds the reader to be cautious about throwing their lasso around the present scientific star, because “declarations by scientists represent their interpretation of the evidence, not the evidence itself. Science changes, the Scriptures do not” (227; see also 223 fn 84(4)).

“Four Views on the Historical Adam” ends with two articles coming from pastoral reflections. Gregory Boyd, pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, shows from his own personal experience why a historical Adam is not essential to the Christian Faith. He goes on and makes a passionate plea for Evangelicals to exclude it from the definition of Evangelical Orthodoxy.  Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and former senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, summarizes the reasons why Evangelicals must continue to hold onto the historicity of Adam as the originating parent of humankind. Ryken takes a wise, level-headed stance with regard to science and Biblical revelation, noting that as “our faith seeks understanding, we are wise to exercise patience both in our study of Scripture and with the progress of science” (269). He then fleshes out seven well-reasoned points for maintaining our hold on the historical Adam. In my personal opinion this was the best chapter in the whole work; pastoral, evangelistic, missional, and compassionate.

To read “Four Views on the Historical Adam” is something of a stretch due to the nature of the book. It is intended to be a gentleman’s serious discussion of an important subject. It is presented as a civil debate, which on occasion gets edgy. But overall it is a worthwhile read. No matter where the reader falls on the spectrum, he or she will gain insight, and be challenged. I recommend the book.

Thanks to Net Galley and Zondervan for the e-copy to write this review.

{As always, feel free to publish or post this review; and give credit where credit is due. Mike}


Unknown said…
Interesting review. Having read Collins, I think he re-defines history to suit his view. The substance seems depressing, apart from what you say about Ryken. The fact that most of these men are involved in training pastors gives this 'idiot in the pew' little comfort. The scriptures are either true or not. I believe that they are true, not least because Jesus does.

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