Did Paul think Adam actually existed? Observations.

by | Nov 1, 2012 | Biblical History, Science | 3 comments

Yesterday I introduced a couple quotes from another blog which represent some current ways of talking about this issue: Does the New Testament teach that Adam existed as a historical person, and was the ancestor of all humans?

Today I want to begin responding to the two quotes point by point. The point of all this is for us in the Young Adults fellowship to grow, both in our ability to preach the gospel faithfully to nonbelievers, and in our ability to discuss these things with brothers and sisters in Christ.

The scriptures in discussion here are Romans 5:6-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:12-58. I recommend you grab a bible and read them over before diving in to this…

First here’s the quote from Alistair McGrath:

“Now the key question, and it won’t go away, is whether Paul is seeing Adam as a representative figure—in some way, here is a figurehead of humanity as a whole—or whether Paul is seeing him as a specific historical figure who in some way gave rise to the human race as we now know it.”

I am familiar with, but still puzzled by, the idea McGrath alludes to here–that for Paul, there could be some some difference between “a representative figure” and a “historical figure.” The idea of headship which runs throughout the entire Bible is that a person can be a figurehead for others because of a familial relationship, whether it’s genetic or adoptive. For instance, Abraham and Jacob can be representative figureheads of the later nation of Israel because the individuals in the nation were related to them genetically, or through conversion (which amounts to being adopted into the family). But the idea that you could have a representative figurehead of a family who didn’t actually exist seems to miss the whole point of what headship entails–namely, relationship. And do we have any indication in scripture that any of the writers believed that we could have a relationship with a non-existent person?

So, in discussing this idea, we might grant that there could be such a thing as a fictional character who could represent a larger group of people (like, say “Uncle Sam” for the U.S.A.), but could that person be called a figurehead in the sense that what Uncle Sam did affects all of us? And even if we thought that way in our culture, we’d still have to check to see if the Biblical writers wrote that way.

This leads into the next quote, by David Wenham:

“What was Paul’s view exactly about how the world was created? What was his scientific point of view? Now, Paul was somebody who lived in the first century, and Paul did not understand modern science. When he thought about creation, he wasn’t thinking in terms of modern science. It wasn’t the question he was asking.”

I’m always interested when someone asks a question like, “what was Paul’s scientific view?” because it usually comes from someone who will want to stress that Paul didn’t think in scientific terms. So it seems to muddy the issue.

Regardless, to say that Paul “wasn’t thinking in terms of modern science” seems to me to be nothing more than a language move to change the terms of the discussion. Nobody claims that Paul would have thought or spoke in the technical terms of modern scientific theory. (And really, couldn’t the same be said for people who lived just a few hundred years ago, like say…the Founding Fathers?)

But doesn’t this miss the point? I think it’s crucial for all of us to be able to navigate these kinds of thoughts–The issue isn’t what terms Paul used or what paradigms he ascribed to, the issue is, did he think in terms of an actual physical world which existed in some definite, discoverable, describable way? In other words, when Paul spoke, did he think his words referred to the actual world we live in, or only that they referred to the realm of ideas? The answer, especially if you read the Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 passages, is that he insisted that everything he preached referred not only to the “spiritual” but also the material, historical, world–or it was meaningless.

Take, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15:12-14, which ends this way: “If Christ is not risen [that is, if He did not actually rise in history, and if these words don’t refer to that historical, material event], then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.” He goes on to say that he himself would be nothing more than a liar if he said “Christ is risen” and it did not refer to an actual event.

Now, do we have any reason to think Paul would have thought differently about any other truth he preached? Would he have said that Christ’s life and resurrection must have happened, but not Adam’s sin? It seems clear to me that the answer is no–his thinking is consistent across the board.

So I think we can conclude that the question “Did Paul think in scientific terms?” is unhelpful in thinking through this issue. The relevant question would be something more like, “Did Paul think his message referred to the actual world of physicality and history, or only the world of ideas?” (Interestingly enough, if we grant that Science shares this concern with Paul–to describe the world that truly is–we can see that, regardless of the terms they used, they actually did have very similar concerns, even if we grant that often their focus is different.)

Tomorrow I’ll finish looking at the rest of the quote.