The Historical Adam and the Theological Virtues: A Suggestion

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What exactly do we lose if we hedge our bets on the historical Adam? This has become the question in ongoing debates over how important the idea really is to Christian faith and life. Most of these debates, animated as they are by the perceived stakes, tend hastily to gloss over some important distinctions, however, such as the distinction between the historical Adam and the process of his creation. These are not necessarily connected to one another. The same goes for the historical Adam and the nature of the creation "week" or the age of the earth: however these ideas line up in a given theologian, few positions on the process of Adam's creation, the "week," the age of the earth in fact require an unhistorical Adam and this is too infrequently kept in mind. (For instance, this nuance has sometimes been overlooked in critical reviews of the work of Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute who believes both in the historical Adam and in evolutionary origins for humankind.) Regrettably, given the relative ignorance (yes, it is improving) among theologians regarding the sciences on the one hand and the serious questions and difficulties in biblical studies on the other, there are many ways to argue unhelpfully and tendentiously for the historical Adam. But of course the same is true for any other biblical and theological question.

One way to orient ourselves properly to the Adam question is to keep in view the bigger biblical picture of which the Adam story of Genesis is a part, and to remember what is easily forgotten: Genesis is written by and from within the world after the Fall and specifically as an authoritative rule of Israel's self-understanding as Israel. More particularly, at the heart of the question of a historical Adam is - in the Israel-centric world of the Bible, at least - the historicity of the Fall at the heart of Israel's very historical and real-world experience of sin, judgment, and hope. Theologically, too, it is difficult to find a more intimate connection than the one between Adam and the phenomena of the Fall, and the question of Adam's historicity must turn in large part on how important the historicity of the Fall is to Christian theology. Answering this question carries with it the larger part of the answer regarding the historicity of Adam.

Is, then, the historicity of the Fall elemental to the biblical thought-world and thus non-negotiable in Christian theology? This is not difficult to answer. More so than with most topics, the historical Fall - and thus the historical transition from an experience of grace or benevolence to a situation of curse, guilt, and defilement - alone accounts for the personal and communal dynamic of the entirety of the biblical witness, both Old and New Testaments. It is the drumbeat of the canon. The hope of the patriarchs, the cries of the psalmists, the lament of Lady Zion, and the warnings of the prophets all speak in one voice, saying: there is the world that once was, there is the world that now is, and there is the world that is coming and shall be. Within this biblical world, sin consistently is what it is as a departure from original purpose and design; faith attaches to the witness of God in Scripture to the reality sin obscures from sight; hope attaches to that same witness regarding what shall be; and love attaches to the same as the distinctively faithful form of godly patience in the interim. All of this, from Genesis forward, presupposes the realism of the historical Adam and the historical Fall in him, and the burden of proof for those who would marginalize the importance of the Fall's historicity rests squarely on the need to account satisfactorily for the biblical (and not narrowly philosophical) dynamic of faith, hope, and love without it.

To be more specific about one feature of this intra-biblical realism regarding Adam and the Fall, consider the phenomenon of waiting. I have been working on this topic for some years now, and as the end is coming into view I wonder how an ahistorical (I would say "mythological" to satisfy expectations but I stubbornly hold on to the old meaning of the word "myth" as simply life-ordering story rather than as untrue, not least because we are created to be mythological creatures in this beautiful old sense of the word, but I digress) ... I wonder, I mean to say, how an ahistorical Adam could fit with waiting in the biblical world. Biblically, waiting (both faithfully patient and unfaithfully impatient) is a phenomenon rooted in the unexpected, astounding, and world-altering (and world-saving) historical gap between Adam's sin and the judgment of the Day of the LORD. As  Yahweh approaches newly-defiled Adam in the Garden in "the Spirit of the Day" (Gen. 3:8; I am persuaded by this rendering of the Hebrew), the reader fully expects, with Adam, Eve and the serpent, that the final and full death of which our parents were warned would - and should - preemptively end the story of humanity. Right then and there, all the cosmos leans in to watch the tragic train-wreck of the humanity project gone ultimately and terribly wrong.

Instead, Yahweh suspends the fullness of that Day. Death is indeed tasted and death indeed begins its calamitous reign on the earth, and continues to wreak havoc as the gasping throes of an age whose end is nigh, but it does not yet wholly immerse humankind. In Gen. 3, it does not yet drown humanity as such. Children continue to be born, men and women laugh and rest and work with a hopeful, even teasing satisfaction, plants and animals grow, and though creation convulses as in the pains of childbirth, it still is.

Importantly, by suspending the Day of judgment in order to create space for a story of redemption of the world, Yahweh also created space for the ongoing, parallel story of evil. Thus, in one of the more bitter ironies of modern skepticism, we discover from within the realism of the biblical world that atheism is only impatience (as per Tomáš Halík, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us, trans. by Gerald Turner(Doubleday, 2009).). I mean those particular versions of atheism that are explicitly rooted in the problem of ongoing evil rather than those versions of atheism that are implicitly so (there are only these two kinds). Misreading God's patience in bringing the full Day of judgment, the atheist concludes from the present reality of not-yet-destroyed-evil that the final Day in which all is put right is not coming, and that there must be no Judge either. Setting aside for now the question of evil's origins, turning the ongoing story of evil against God is ironic since the ongoing story of evil is paradoxical testimony of his goodness and benevolence rather than his apathy or nonexistence. By delaying the Day, he created the otherwise absent space for redemption. It is this delay which makes the Scriptures of Genesis 3 to Revelation possible, which informs its role in shaping the faith of God's covenant people, and which visibly punctures the text every time we encounter warnings and encouragements regarding the coming Day. That just about covers all of Holy Scripture.

What does this have to do with Adam? Historical Adam debates, when they focus on Paul's teaching in Romans 5, tend to miss this broader portrait of things. Preoccupied with the important assumptions at work in Paul's Adam-Christ history of the world, we might easily forget to ask what world the Apostle is assuming in his typology. If it is not our world, then his world in which the matters of sin, death, and life in Adam and Christ are accounted for has nothing to say to us in the sin-and-evil ridden world that "really" is. To put it in recognizably Van Tillian terms (for those who are helped by it), we ask, under what cosmological-historical-theological conditions is Paul's teaching on Christian existence in this world possible? To answer this we must lift our eyes above the narrow question of Adam-Christ to the broader one of the world that was, is, and is to come, and ask, too, how much Paul's teaching on the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) requires an attachment to the realism of the biblical world in historical (but not merely historical in modern terms) form.

The Apostle's vision of the world in the Epistle to the Romans pulsates with this realism. This is his faith-attachment to what God through the Scriptures had said long ago through the fathers regarding the world that was and is and shall be. And this faith-attachment which we may call in some sense a stubbornly "pre-critical" biblical realism, the Pauline Rule of Faith, accounts utterly for the place of hope and of love in his teaching. Unmistakably  in Romans, the Christian's waiting in hope for the adoption to come, and the Christian's restlessness in love toward other Christians and the world, are drawn directly from the Apostle's commitment to a realistic theological narration of the Fall in Genesis. Because of the historical transition from grace to wrath, the world, and humankind in it, writhes in anguish and in waiting. The whole notion of waiting, biblically, requires it. (And existentialism is best seen, then, as a philosophical school of thought derived from human wrestling with the phenomenon of waiting in relation to meaning, but that, too, is for another time.) Because Yahweh suspended the fullness of final judgment in an act of unfathomable yet continuing common grace and benevolence, humankind is called to mirror that same activity of God in love for neighbor. Here is the biblically realistic, theological rational for love for neighbor before the eschaton: by delaying the Day, Yahweh is benevolent toward his wicked neighbor. And because Yahweh has been faithful to his promise to provide the Seed promised, the Christian waits in the mode of hope, not futility.

The Apostle Paul's biblical realism, then, accounts in large measure for his teaching on faith, hope, and love. (The same is true of Scripture as a whole.) Empty his theology of this biblical realism regarding Adam and the Fall, and you do a lot more than allegedly create space for some currently cherished scientific perspective, whatever that perspective might be. To speak as he does assumes necessarily the historical realism of the biblical world with respect to the transition from grace or benevolence to curse and death in the story of Adam. Not Paul alone but Scripture as a whole narrates the theological virtues not as ahistorical or purely natural virtues (as per the ancient Greeks) but as participation in the biblical world as the only real world, and particularly participation in Christ in whom the real world is given and experienced by the Spirit.

More on all this later, but the suggestion I am commending is simpler than I've made it sound so far: lose the biblical realism of Adam's Fall and it would appear you lose the theological virtues as well, and with them the irreducible realism of the biblical world at the heart of Christian faith (not sight) and life. Lose the historical Adam and the historical Fall, you lose any meaningful connection to the real world the Bible commends to the eye of faith. Lose that, and the Church loses her voice. She has nothing to say to the problem of ongoing evil.