The parish priest told the class, with all the authority of a papal decree, that the creation account in Genesis, including the first human couple, was a myth. It was enough to raise not a few eyebrows, mine and my wife’s included.
As a murmur began to build among the stunned attendees, a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters came to mind—the one where the title demon writes glowingly of a pastor “who has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for [a] supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his parishioners with his unbelief, not vice versa.”
Not about to let his assertion go unchallenged, I raised a few objections. They went nowhere. The man was fully entrenched and no argument was going to move him.
We saw this coming a few weeks earlier when he announced that his undergraduate degree was in evolutionary biology, presumably to allay any concerns a modern inquirer might have of whether he was “up with the times.” Rest assured this was surely no pre-Scopes Trial fundamentalist (i.e., pre-Vatican II traditionalist) trapped in the demon-haunted world of talking serpents and forbidden fruit.
The next day we withdrew from the class by letter, explaining to the organizers how the pastor’s statements were in conflict with Scripture and Church teaching. For instance,
The Catechism (CCC 289) teaches, “The first three chapters of Genesis express the truths of creation, its origin, order, and goodness.” In the numerous instances Adam and Eve are referred to in the catechism, it is without hint or suggestion that they are anything but historical persons. To those who would argue otherwise, Pope Pius XII warned, “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.”
Sadly, such errors are far from the exception in Christian circles.
Take the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), which bills itself as “a fellowship of Christians in science”: According to a 2010 survey, less than 12 percent of its members believe “Adam and Eve had no contemporaries, and were the biological ancestors of all humans.” Many survey respondents referred to Adam and Eve as “metaphors,” “symbols,” “representations,” or “fictional characters.”
Then there’s prolific author and bible commentator N.T. Wright, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham.
In his book “Surprised by Scripture,” Wright suggests that the biblical significance of Adam and Eve is not their order in creation, but their calling. As he explains, “God chose one pair from the rest of early hominoids for a special, demanding vocation.” (Emphasis in original.)
In case “early hominoids” doesn’t make his point sufficiently clear, Wright adds, “this pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race.” (Emphasis added.) All this is under a chapter tellingly titled, “Do We Need a Historical Adam?”
For the reader not sufficiently surprised with that rendering of scripture, Wright frames “young-earthism” as not only a “regrettable alternative” to the creation narrative, but a “false teaching.” The “true” teaching, given his prominent association with BioLogos—a faith and science forum that promotes theistic evolution—is a glacial, mud-to-man process inwrought in nature by God.
More recently, Old Testament scholar John Walton weighed in on the Adam question.
The Historical Adam
In a Christianity Today (CT) interview, Walton, who teaches at Wheaton College, described himself as a “theologically conservative evangelical” who “wants to maintain and articulate the authority of Scripture.”
Walton told CT that he believes in the “historical Adam” but, was quick to note, “that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological origins that are often assumed.” Right, like the implication traditionally maintained by those who are theologically conservative, that Adam was the first human, a point Walton makes clear later in the interview.
John Walton is also a luminary of BioLogos. However, for Walton, the Bible is not only the handmaiden of science; it’s the dutiful servant of ancient literature as well. “We dare not ignore ancient Near Eastern documents—or science, for that matter,” he warned. We dare not?
Suggesting that references to man in Genesis 1 are not about two individuals but “humans as a whole,” Walton explained, adding “ancient Near Eastern accounts … always emphasize people as a whole.” As I recall, those accounts also tell of polytheistic gods who, despite their super-human abilities, lacked omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and even moral virtue. Just sayin’.
Real, Not First
At the same time, Walton believes Adam and Eve were real people with a priestly role in the Garden. Out of all humanity, “they are the ones given entry into [that] sacred space” with “access to God’s presence” and the duty of “mediat[ing] revelation.” As to what, how, and with whom they mediated from that sacred space, he did not say.
When asked about Paul’s view of Adam in Romans 5, Walton suggested that Paul presents Adam an “archetype” not “prototype”—that is, “Adam” as a representative of man and man’s nature, rather than as man’s ancestor and first sinner.
Somehow, I think the man who called Adam “the first man” and named him as the one through whom “sin entered the world” would beg to differ, as would the first historian of the church whose lineage of Jesus ends with “the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”
Then there’s Paul’s statement that “death reigned from the time of Adam” against the professor’s belief that “there was death before Adam and Eve.” The notion that pre-Edenic folk (call them early hominoids, if you like) lived and died is not a problem, he insisted “for those who are willing to accept evolutionary [mud-to-man] theories”—those, like him, who believe there is nothing in the Bible contradicting “some sort of common descent or evolutionary theory.”
Out of Ignorance?
Poor Paul. Had he only known, he could have nuanced his references to Genesis and put an early end to the “regrettable alternative.” Thing is, he did know.
In Paul’s day, atomism was an evolutionary theory of common descent that had been circulating for five centuries. According to atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, everything from inert dirt to thinking beings came about from the chance collisions and combinations of infinitesimally small grains of matter (“atoms”) over eons of time.
As a highly educated man, Paul was certainly up with the “science” of the day. But he was also up with what the Torah said about variegated species of flora and fauna created, ex nihilo, fully formed and functional, with the ability to adapt to the environment within built-in, “after-its-kind,” limitations. What’s more, he knew what Jesus had said about the matter: “But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female.”
As we approach the opening book of the Bible we would do well to ask, “What is God trying to tell us?” Does he want to give us a scientific explanation for how and when the universe was formed? Or does he want us to know that “all that is” is a product of his “is-ness” and that in his is-ness, he spoke and it was.
While the answer could be “yes” to both, it is certainly “yes” to the latter.
The take-away from Genesis 1 is that creation is not the product of some glacial process of nature and necessity, but of an abrupt outpouring of divine intent and power. It is an example of divine agency that forms the warp and woof of Scripture.
Throughout the biblical narrative, God’s creative, curative, and miraculous works come not in partial installments over geological time frames, but suddenly and completely:
With an utterance, the universe is created, plants appear, animals appear, a man is formed, then a woman.
With a command, the waters rise, a tower collapses, plagues erupt, a sea is parted, manna falls, and demons scatter.
With a touch, the blind see, the deaf hear, the sick are healed.
With a word, a virgin conceives, fishermen follow, and a Savior is raised.
So, do we need Adam and Eve? No, unless you’re interested in maintaining and articulating the authority of Scripture, as is proper for a “theologically conservative evangelical.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Adam and Eve” painted by Jean-François de Troy in 1718.