Was Adam a Real, Historical Individual?

Throughout this history of the church, good theologians have always maintained that God gives us two kinds of revelation: one that comes through his word, i.e., that which we have in the Bible and is necessary to know Christ (2 Tim. 3:15-16, 2 Pet. 1:20-21), and the other that comes through the natural world (Psa. 19:1-6, Rom. 1:20). Furthermore, since God is the author of both, there can be no ultimate contradiction between the two. In cases where such apparent contradictions exist, we have necessarily misinterpreted one or even both modes of his revelation.

In the famous case of Galileo, for example, it turned out that the fault was with biblical interpretation. Many in the church thought that the biblical language demanded that the sun revolve around the earth, rather than the other way around. This incident involved a classic mistake of pressing phenomenological language—like “the sun rose”—to a literal meaning it need not convey. (Note that we still speak in these terms, even though we’re aware that the sun doesn’t literally revolve around the earth.) In this particular instance, scientific evidence eventually helped to bring us into a better understanding of the biblical text.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. Correct understanding of the biblical text can and should correct the improper views we may have of the natural world. To cite another example: someone who takes biblical authority seriously will have an extremely difficult time accepting any scientific assertion that man is solely a physical being, consisting only of matter and energy and nothing more.

I mention all of this as some partial background to what may be shaping up to be an increasing debate in the evangelical world over Adam. Tremper Longman, a well-known evangelical Old Testament scholar has recently stirred the pot with this video. In it, he states that “you could only insist on the idea of that there’s one historical Adam if you read Genesis 1 in a very highly literalistic way”* and offers the possibility that references to “Adam” point to mankind in general, since the Hebrew word can bear this meaning at times.

This position has the obvious advantage of better apparent agreement with the prevailing (although not uniform) opinion that man is the product of macro-evolutionary processes. Whether it coincides with the overall biblical perspective, however, is extremely problematic. In response to Longman, James Anderson (professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Charlotte) recently offered twelve reasons that Adam was a real, historical individual. He then posted some follow-up comments dealing with a few objections. I highly recommend reading both posts in their entirety, but I’ll summarize by saying that Anderson has made a strong case that numerous problems exist for the interpretation of several biblical passages (not just Gen. 1) if Adam was not an actual historical individual. That Anderson makes his case in a respectful, evenhanded manner is so much the better.

*In response to this particular assertion: for a good example of someone who believes in a historical Adam, but does not read Genesis in what I would think Longman means by a “highly literalistic” way, see the discussion in C. John Collins’ Science and Faith in our bookstore. I would add that Collins carefully builds his interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis from details in the text itself.

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