Editorial Attacks on Theistic Evolution
Recent genetic studies show beyond all reasonable doubt that humans evolved from other primates. These discoveries are forcing evangelical Christians who value intellectual integrity to re-evaluate their traditional support for a sudden creation of Adam and Eve out of dust or ribs. According to Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, “If the data is overwhelming in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult.” This trend towards theistic evolution is decried in articles and columns in recent issues of respected evangelical periodicals. The cover story (“The Search for the Historical Adam”) of the June issue of Christianity Today closes with quotes claiming that acceptance of the evolutionary origin of humans will completely undo Christianity:
“If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’—falls apart. .. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.” [Tim Keller]
…If there was merely a population of pre-Adamic hominids that “collectively evolved into modern man, then the theological foundation for the nuclear family, sin and death appears to be eroded. The credibility of the Bible when it speaks on these issues seems to be damaged: If it does not correctly explain the origin of a problem, why should one trust its solutions?” [John Bloom]
An editorial, “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel”, in the June Christianity Today keeps the stakes high: “…the entire story of what is wrong with the world hinges on the disobedient exercise of the will by the first humans… the entire story of salvation hinges on the obedience of the Second Adam.”
WORLD is a biweekly news magazine with a Reformed perspective. It has intelligent commentary on world and national events, along with nuanced reviews of books, movies, and music., and is normally one of my favorite reads. In a cover story in the July 2, 2011 issue WORLD proclaimed that the books they had selected as Books of the Year were two that “Defy Theistic Evolution.” The WORLD article implies base motives for theistic evolutionists, and piles on more alarm, e.g. with another Tim Keller quote: “… it is clear that Paul definitely does want readers to take Adam and Eve literally. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of biblical authority.”
Both of the books touted by WORLD attempt to associate evolutionary creationists with ancient heresies. In Should Christians Embrace Evolution?, essayist Michael Reeves presents them as Pelagians. Reeves claims that if there were no historical Adam, there would be no need for a historical atonement, and that altering the origin of evil “would require an altogether different means of salvation.” In Marvin Olasky’s monthly column in that issue of WORLD, Darwinism is linked to all sorts of more recent bad thinking, including Nazism.
Why All the Uproar?
Two main concerns underlie these attacks on evolution. First, Reformed theology holds that Adam is the “federal” head of the human race, such that when Adam sinned, we all sinned “in” him. Thus, we bear not only the consequences of his sin, but also the direct, actual guilt for Adam’s transgression. This imputation of Adam’s sin is seen as paralleling the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Thus, the loss of literal Adam and literal Fall seems at odds with historic Christianity. If humans as a group developed gradually from earlier primates, that seems to undercut Paul’s teaching on how the first man’s first sin set up the need for, and method of, redemption.
Second, if secular scholarship drives us to abandon the literal Adam and Eve that Paul clearly believed in, that seems to start us down a slippery slope towards the denial of other biblical events, even the Resurrection. Was Paul wrong here? Is that a problem? To what degree should we allow physical evidence to move us away from the literal Bible teachings?
This post is a summary of a much longer essay ( Adam_Evolution) I have written on this subject, to be posted soon on this blog. In that essay I go into detail on the Biblical issues, the scientific evidence for evolution, and its theological implications. Here I will just focus on the two concerns above, i.e. the significance of Adam’s Fall, and the implications of Paul being mistaken regarding a specially-created Adam and Eve.
Does the Bible Teach That the Guilt of Adam’s Sin Is Imputed To All Humans?
The notion that we all sinned in Adam supposedly derives from Romans 5:12-21, the text of which is given here (NASB):
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.  The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,  so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Where in this passage does it actually say that we sinned in Adam, and that we bear the guilt of his sin? The answer is: nowhere. This concept is not taught in this passage or anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, the Bible directly teaches against it.
Echoing Jeremiah 31:29-30, Ezekiel 18 treats this topic at length. In earlier Old Testament times it may have been true that, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek. 18:2). By the time of the Exile, God pronounces a new regime: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son – both alike belong to me. The soul that sins is the one who will die (vv. 3-4)… The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v.20). This passage leaves no room for the federal headship of Adam.
So, where did the notion come from, that the guilt of Adam’s sin is directly imputed to his descendants and that God deals with all of us through Adam as our representative? It was originally formulated by Augustine (c. 400 A.D.), in his dispute with Pelagius. Augustine was a great man and superb thinker, but was not a competent reader of Greek, which was the language of the New Testament manuscripts. Eastern Orthodox Christians, who work from the original Greek text, note that Augustine’s view was based mainly on a faulty Latin translation of Romans 5:12 which implied that all men sinned in Adam. Modern translations correctly render this phrase as “because all sinned”.
Even on a traditional, literal reading of both Genesis and Romans, the most we can say is that humanity inherited the consequences (flawed nature and death) of Adam’s sin, but not the guilt. Because men now have that flawed nature, they also all sin, but their guilt is for their own sin, not Adam’s. Thus, the doctrine of the federal headship of Adam is not actually taught in Scripture, but is merely a “tradition of men.” Disavowing the federal headship of Adam does not make the Orthodox “Pelagians.”
Is Adam’s Fall (Original Sin) a Central Christian Doctrine?
We showed above that the specific doctrine of the federal headship of Adam is not a Biblical teaching at all. What about the broader notion that Adam’s sin ruined a perfect creation, and that our flawed nature is due to his unique transgression?
As with the federal headship of Adam, the first passage that gets cited here is Romans 5:12-21, which was given above. In verses 15-21, Paul compares and contrasts (“even so,” “is not like,” “much more than”) the work of Adam and the work of Christ in several dimensions. We list these statements about Adam and Christ in the table below.
The statements here about Christ go to the heart of the gospel. This explains the alarm over the loss of an historical Adam. A vital question then becomes: Are the statements in the right-hand column only true if the statements on the left are true? The answer is: no. Paul does not make the truth of these redemption statements contingent upon the truth of the statements about Adam. He merely believes both sets of statements to be true, and proceeds on that basis to draw rational parallels between them. His teachings here about Christ’s work of redemption stand on their own, being backed by dozens of related passages in the New Testament. Thus, the contention that “if there was no historical Fall, there is no need for a historical atonement” is false. Also false is the claim that we need the literal Fall in Genesis 3 to resolve the problem of the origin of evil – the Eden story does not evade the fundamental tension between man’s free will and God’s sovereignty, or the question of how evil could arise in a reality created and governed by an all-good and all-powerful God.
The same considerations apply in I Corinthians 15:21-49. In this passage Paul discourses at length on the future resurrection of Christians. Believing (mistakenly) the Genesis 1-3 narrative to be literally true, he quite reasonably draws on it for comparisons between death coming via Adam and life coming via Christ. Again, Paul’s statements regarding the reality and effectiveness of Jesus’ resurrection stand on their own. He never makes them logically dependent on the historicity of Adam. We shall all be made alive in Christ (v. 22) and we shall all bear the likeness of the man from heaven ( v.49). The ground of our confidence in these matters is not the factuality of the Eden story, but the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection, as attested by more than 500 individuals (v.5-8).
Paul never sets out to teach that the Adam and Eve story is literally true, he merely assumes it. There is a big difference. The references to Adam in Paul’s letters are never essential to the teachings there; they are always add-ons, to illustrate or buttress a point being made on other grounds. In both Romans 1-8 and I Corinthians 15, Paul is motoring along with his arguments (e.g. on salvation by grace through faith, or on the reality of a bodily resurrection), and simply adds in the references to Adam as they seem to fit his discussion. If those Adam references had not been included in Romans or I Corinthians,we would have never missed them. Shocking, perhaps, but true.
Paul does the same in I Cor. 11 and I Tim 2. In I Cor. 11:2-16 Paul insists as a matter of propriety that women wear a covering (e.g. shawl or veil) on their heads in church, though this is not meant to demean them; he brings in the Creation references (“man did not come from women, but women from man; neither was man created for women, but woman for man”, vv. 8-9 and “as woman came from man, so also man in born of woman”, v. 12) to support the points that he is making anyway. In I Tim 2:11-15 Paul again lays down rules for women’s conduct in church. He commands that that women should remain silent in church, presumably lest their unlearned chatter be disruptive. This is similar to the directive that Paul gave in I Cor 14:34-35, but here in I Tim 2, he adds, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner”(vv. 13-14). The Adam-and-Eve reference is again merely a supportive afterthought.
So, how central to the Christian faith is the doctrine that Adam’s fall is responsible for our present sinfulness and that God deals with us through Adam? It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, apart from the two passages discussed above, where we have shown that it was merely an add-on to the points Paul was making anyway. Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam. In all of the gospel proclamation to both Jews and Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts, there is not a single reference to Adam’s sin.
The Fall is never mentioned in the sayings of Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own transgressions and their personal need for mercy. We might have expected Jesus, in addressing the seemingly random tragedies of unjust executions and the collapse of a tower (Luke 13:1-5), to tie this seemingly fallen state of affairs to Adam’s sin. Instead, he warns his hearers to be mindful of their own sin and its consequences. When his disciples asked for an explanation of why a man was born blind (John 9:1-3), that was another golden moment to teach on the effects of Adam’s fall. Instead, Jesus rejected the disciples’ suggestions that this malady was attributable to either the man’s own sin or the sin of his ancestors (parents), and then modeled a godly response by alleviating the man’s suffering.
Three great early creeds of Christendom are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The versions used by the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) are given here. These creeds affirm lots of things, but have absolutely nothing to say about Adam and the effect of his Fall.
This can come as a surprise to those of us who are steeped in Reformed theology. The overarching meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption, and the series of covenants which start with Adam and culminate with Christ, have structured our worldview for so long that losing the literal Adam seems like losing “historic Christianity.” But taking the witness of the Scriptures and the Creeds into account, we find that that the doctrine of original sin is not core to the gospel. All the alarm over the loss of a historical Fall is groundless.
Why Did Paul Believe in a Literal Adam? Does That Mean We Should, Too?
Paul clearly believed that Genesis 2-3 narrative to be literally true. Of course he did! How could he not? Any pious Jew or educated Christian of the first century accepted the Genesis narrative at face value. That is what they had all been taught, and they had no reason to think otherwise.
Unless we are prepared to claim that God would give Paul supernatural knowledge of science, beyond the understanding of his age, we must accept that Paul would share the beliefs of those around him regarding the origins of the physical world. Paul did receive some special revelation, but that was clearly circumscribed. Its content was that Jesus is the Son of God (Gal 1:11-16) and that Christ in you is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). Paul also passed along the core gospel message that he received from earlier believers, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised and appeared to many (I Cor 15: 3-8). The “mystery” that God revealed to Paul and the other apostles was God’s eternal plan to “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10), and that Gentiles are included in the promise along with the Jews (Eph 3:4-6). This mystery of God boils down to “Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2: 3).
In most other respects, Paul was a man of his age. We noted above the passages where he insists that in church women must keep quiet and wear head coverings, invoking the seemingly timeless examples of Adam and Eve. Nearly all Protestants utterly set aside these teachings. Why? Because, as we have said, Paul was a man of his age. That entailed certain convictions regarding the place of women, just like it entailed a literal acceptance of Genesis.
Paul was not omniscient (see Acts 23:5; I Cor 13:12). He acknowledges that not everything he writes is an oracle of God; some is simply his opinion (I Cor 7:10-12). He does not claim that every statement in every letter is absolute truth. The fact that he was mistaken in believing in the literal Adam story does not obviate the authenticity of the revelation that he was given.
Paul gives a clear statement as to the purpose and scope of the biblical revelation in II Tim 3:15-17. He writes that the holy Scriptures are: ..able to make you wise for salvation though faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
These are matters of theology and morals; nothing about physical science. Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) agrees that the function of the Old Testament is to reveal Christ, especially his sufferings and subsequent glory. Again, nothing about physical science.
In summary, God gave Paul revelation, which had to do with Christ as the Son of God, our hope of glory, and the chosen head of all things. However, there is no reason to believe that God gave Paul (or other New Testament writers) special, supernatural knowledge of science or history (including creation/evolution) that would correct the factually inaccurate views of their age. Thus, to the extent that Paul treats matters of science, we expect him to operate within the (partially erroneous) views of his culture.
Given Paul’s training in Jewish traditions which included a belief in the historicity of Genesis 1-3, we would expect him to retain that view (whether or not it was true) unless God gave him specific revelation to the contrary. We therefore expect him to draw on that tradition to illustrate and support his teachings on doctrine (e.g. I Cor 15, Romans 5) and practice (as in women’s head coverings discussed above). The fact that he does exactly that should be no surprise and no cause for alarm. We can honor the revelation that God did give him, without fussing over the knowledge that God didn’t give him.
What About Biblical Inerrancy?
God declares, “My word…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and will achieve the purpose for which I sent it. “ (Isaiah 55:11) The Bible is authoritative and inerrant with respect to the purpose for which it was sent. But we must be rigorously biblical in affirming what that purpose is. As noted above, Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44), and Paul stated that it is useful for teaching and training in righteousness, to make us wise for salvation and equipped for good works (II Tim 3:15-17).
The Bible never asserts timeless authority in the scientific realm, and wisely so: because human understanding of the universe changes with time, it is logically impossible for any detailed treatment of the natural world to make sense to both the ancient and the modern conceptions of the physical world. (Why God chose to give a creation story rich with imagery, as opposed to limiting it to a noncontroversial “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” is a topic we will not address here). According to Revelation 22:18-19, adding to the Word is as serious an offense as taking away from it. Those who claim that Biblical statements regarding science and history are timelessly authoritative are adding to the Word, layering on mere human opinion. There is no biblical or logical basis for biblical inerrancy in matters of science and history.
As an example, the statement of faith for Answers in Genesis, a Young Earth Creationist ministry, includes these statements: “The Bible is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science. Its assertions are all factually true.” This would seem to be a very pious position, but is in fact unbiblical and untrue.
The earliest deviants from the pure gospel message were not the Pelagians or Gnostics, but the Pharisees who challenged Jesus and the judaizers who dogged Paul. These were pious men, zealous to defend a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, but their zeal was not according to knowledge (Rom 10:2).
Today’s defenders of complete Biblical inerrancy are making the same mistake as yesterday’s Pharisees. They think they are upholding the honor of God’s word, but in fact distort it by injecting their own opinions on what “must” be the case on the scope of biblical authority. As with the Pharisees of old, the effect is to hinder other people from entering the kingdom of God. Thousands of Christian young people eventually find out that their pastors and parents were misleading them about physical reality (e.g. evolution and the age of the earth). With the absolute inerrantists telling them, “If evolution is true, the Bible is false,” these young people quite understandably walk away from their faith. To cause young followers of Jesus to stumble is a dreadful offense (cf. Mat 18:6).
How can we trust the Bible’s statements about the Resurrection if we cannot trust its statements on Adam and creation?
The discussion above can seem like the beginning of a slippery slope down to complete dismissal of biblical content. In the Christianity Today article, Richard Phillips asks: “If science trumps Scripture, what does this mean for the virgin birth of Jesus, or his miracles, or his resurrection?” These are serious questions. However, the fact that the Genesis narrative reflects the science of its time provides no grounds to doubt the New Testament testimony. These are two very different cases.
We note that Old and New Testament authors and readers operated within an ancient physical worldview; there is nothing that would lead us to believe that God gave them supernatural knowledge of science beyond that of their age. God wisely chose to frame his revelation in terms of the physical worldview of the original hearers, in order to facilitate communication to them and to readers for the ensuing 3000 years.
While the Genesis creation story is at odds with known history, this is as it ought to be: we expect the writings of the Bible to reflect ancient views of origins, which includes some sort of special creation of humans as opposed to development from earlier species. It is important to note that the Genesis creation account is not eyewitness attestation. The writer just starts right in telling the creation story. There is believed to be an authorial connection to Moses, but we don’t know how the book of Genesis took its final form.
In contrast, the New Testament presents the key Jesus-events as being well-known and well-grounded in history. The gospels are written by eye-witnesses or from interviews with eye-witnesses. Paul notes in Acts 26:26 that these things were “not done in a corner,” and appeals in I Corinthians 15:6 to hundreds of witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. The apostles spent the rest of their lives spreading the Christian message, and in most cases suffered grisly deaths as a result of their proclamation of the Resurrection. The New Testament narrative is groundbreakingly realistic as ancient literature goes, and is found to agree with known history in a plethora of details.
It would be emotionally comforting if the Bible were 100% accurate in every subject it touches (i.e. in physical origins as well as in theology), but there is no logical necessity for this. It is common for us to trust an individual or an institution to give us authoritative guidance in certain areas of expertise, without requiring them to know everything about everything. I would not change physicians if my doctor made a remark about the stock market which seemed sensible at the time, but later turned out to be untrue. There is no reason to doubt the historicity of the Resurrection, unless one has a prejudice against Christianity or against miracles in general. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe in the historicity of the Genesis creation account, unless one clings to an unbiblical standard of biblical inerrancy.
We have shown that the uproar over the loss of a specially-created Adam and Eve has no basis. The vaunted covenantal headship of Adam is not taught in the Bible at all, and the two big Pauline references to the Fall (I Cor 15 and Romans 5) are incidental add-ons to Paul’s main discussions, not stand-alone teachings. Adam’s sin is barely mentioned anywhere else in the entire Bible, except of course in Genesis 3. The whole rest of the New Testament, including Jesus’ teachings, develops the universal sinfulness of mankind quite apart from Adam.
Christianity Today and WORLD and other respected Christian publications do their readers a disservice by stoking their fears on this issue. Evangelical Christians are panicked by those fears into an anti-evolutionism which is wrong, which makes Christianity look stupid, and which turns young and educated people away from Christ. Let’s stop doing this. Instead, let’s take a biblical position on the Bible’s purpose and the scope of its authoritative revelation.
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