Richard Gaffin on the Historicity of Adam

Today’s guest post is from Richard Gaffin, who is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, at Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Gaffin is also leading the translation team for Logos’ English translation of Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics. Last month Tremper Longman posted on the historicity of Adam from a evolutionary creationist perspective. Dr. Gaffin is joining us today to present a counterview.

Views that deny or question the common descent of all human beings from an original first pair—whether or not they affirm the historicity of Adam and the fall—are, in my view, beset with insuperable exegetical and theological difficulties. Most pronounced are those difficulties encountered in the teaching of Paul.

1. In both Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 44b–49  the controlling interest is clearly Christ, his person, and his work. In both passages two more things are equally plain: 1) a sweeping historical outlook on Christ and the salvation he has accomplished, and 2) within this historical outlook, and fundamental to it, a contrast with Adam makes itself evident. In 1 Corinthians 15:44b–49 this perspective is the most comprehensive possible, evidently intended to cover the whole of human history from its beginning to its end, from the original creation to its consummation. Accordingly, in verse 45 Adam is in view as he was by virtue of his creation, before the fall (Adam in Genesis 2) and is contrasted with Christ, “the last Adam” as he now is resulting from his resurrection. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 the scope of the historical outlook is only slightly less comprehensive, with Adam on the one side now in view as he was after the fall: a sinner (in Genesis 3). For Paul, redemptive history has its clear and consummate ending with Christ as it has a definite and identifiable beginning with Adam.

In both passages the significance of Adam and Christ as historical individuals is more than an individual significance. They are contrasted as each represents others in a way decisive for those “in him”: For himself, and all those “in him,” Adam by his disobedience has brought into the originally good creation sin with its consequences (condemnation and death; there is no sound reason to question that bio-physical death is included). Likewise for all “in him” Christ by his obedience has brought salvation from sin and its consequences.

We must not miss the significance of the identifying terms in this union-based contrast with the representation involved. Christ in his saving work is both “second” and “last”; Adam is “first” (1 Corinthians 15:45, 47). The uniquely pivotal place of each in the unfolding of redemptive history is, respectively, at its beginning and its end. Further, their roles are such that no one else “counts”; no others come into consideration. Only Adam is the “type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14). As Christ is the omega-point of redemptive history, Adam is its alpha-point. It cannot be stressed too emphatically that these passages teach that essential to Christ’s work of saving sinful human beings is his full solidarity with them (personal sin excepted) (Hebrews 4:15), as he is the “second” and “last,” and, further, that he has, and can only have, this identity if Adam is the “first.” Without the “first” there is no place for either “second” or “last.”

2. Views that consider the issue of Adam’s historicity immaterial for Paul’s teaching typically hold that in our passages “Adam” is a personification (or a “teaching model” as it has been put) to highlight the universality of human sinfulness. Suffice it here to point out that this Adam-as-everyone view flatly contradicts a cardinal and sustained emphasis in Romans 5—Adam’s sin is the one sin of the one man, and it has its significance precisely in distinction from the sinning of “many” or “all” as the consequence of his one sin (verses 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19). To conclude that the historicity of Adam is irrelevant for Paul’s teaching makes responsible exegesis irrelevant.

Other views affirm Adam’s historicity as an archetypal figure. They view Adam as “first” in the sense that at a subsequent point in human history God set him apart as a representative from among a considerable number of already-existing human beings for his dealings with humanity initiated at that point. Such views face an insurmountable difficulty. In 1 Corinthians 15 Adam is not merely “first”—he is that “first” for those who “bear [his] image” (verse 49).

Image-bearers of Adam would hardly be an apt description (much less a valid or even intelligible description) of human beings who existed before Adam and subsequently did not descend from him. Adam is the representative of all who—by descending from him—are in natural union or solidarity with him, and he represents only them. It is not enough to simply affirm “the historicity of Adam.”

This is not a minor point. Paul is clear in verse 49. Believers will bear Christ’s “heavenly” image, the redeemed and glorified image of God, as they have borne Adam’s “earthly” image, the original image of God defaced by sin. It is quite foreign to this passage—especially given its comprehensive outlook noted above—to suppose that some who are not in the image of Adam will nonetheless bear the glorified image of Christ. There is no hope of salvation for sinners who do not bear the image of Adam by ordinary generation. Christ cannot and does not redeem what he has not assumed, but he has assumed the nature of those who bear the image of Adam—by natural descent.

These comments presuppose that the divine image is not only functional but also ontological and as such includes a psycho-physical component—the body. Among other biblical considerations, we can see that the body is an inalienable aspect of the divine image from the fact that its resurrection is an ultimate hope of the salvation of believers. This hope is nowhere made more clear and emphatic than in these verses from 1 Corinthians.

3. I hope to never be guilty of unduly escalating the stakes in matters of our biblical and theological understanding—including its implications for scientific endeavors. But on the question of common descent, there is no room for mixed messages. Let’s not suppose that we are faced here with just one more “Galileo moment,” as it has been put, where we Christians need to adjust our thinking and get on board with the current results of science. The issue here is not an aspect of our ever-revisable and often changing understanding of the physical workings of ourselves, our environment, and the universe at large. Rather, we are discussing perennial and unchanging matters basic to who we are as human beings—what it means to be created in God’s image and the kind of relationship with him that entails.

In my view then, if Adam is not the first, who subsequently fell into sin, then the work of Christ loses its biblical meaning. If it is not true that all human beings descend from Adam, then the entire history of redemption taught in Scripture unravels. The result is no redemptive history in any credible or coherent sense and so the loss of redemptive history in any meaningful sense.

* * *

Learn more about Dr. Gaffin’s views on Adam at Justin Taylor’s blog, or see Jared Oliphint’s survey of resources on this topic.

Disclaimer: Logos Bible Software provides resources for everyone who studies the Bible. Guest posts reflect the views of their authors. You can read more about our publishing philosophy.

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Jonathan Watson
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  • Although I agree that both Rom 5:12-19 and 1 Cor 15:21-22, 44b-49 point to Christ, his person, and his work, it does not justify that the reading of Gen 1-2 have to be literal. 1 Cor 15:1-3 could be read as Paul was relating to the Corinthian readers from the religious traditions, ‘in accordance with the scriptures’ concerning Christ. We cannot be adamant that Paul was relating historical data, though Jesus did resurrect from the dead. So, following the discussion, Paul was employing Adam and Christ as a comparative analogy for his message. Even if Adam was the first human, it does not preclude the creation of other human beings, or how do we explain where Cain’s wife come from.

    The historicity of Adam cannot be proven directly by simply stating it. We cannot deny the fact the Adam was human representative, but this forms part of the religious traditions in the OT and NT. It is possible that Adam is both historical and archetypal; however, the former is derived from implication, rather than factual. I think the best proof will be from archaeological finds.

    I think when discussing the biblical and theological understanding of the biblical truth, we should consider the convention of the genre, which I find that many scholars are reluctant to deal with. It has been for decades that conservative evangelicals, though out of good intention to assist the Christian churches to cope with their faith, have not dealt with the biblical scholarship honestly. The Bible has various genres and that is a fact. We must read these genres within their convention. I do agree that theology is intermingled with literary study when comes to interpretation; however, we should endeavour to integrate or reconcile both literature and theology, rather than turning on a defensive mechanism to deny these facts. Genesis is relating the religious tradition to the contemporary Hebrews, so that they know who is the creator, what happens between God and humans, and how they come to the condition they are now. There is no contradiction to the theological understanding of Adam, Christ, humans, sins, and redemption, whether Gen 1-2 is read literal or non-literal, or whether Adam is historical or archetypal.

    • In other words, you don’t actually believe the Scriptures? I guess your forgetting that you can’ actually PROVE most of the things in the Bible if you get right down to it……

  • Hello Biblesch:

    I appreciate your informed response. However, I think it’s a very slippery slope to say that Adam was not a literal, historical figure, or that Adam and Eve were not necessarily the first humans (or that the weren’t the only humans by act of direct creation). First of all, you mention Genesis 1-2 in your comment, but obviously Paul is referring to the Fall, which is recorded in Genesis 3. So if Genesis 1-2 are not historical, neither is Genesis 3. If you disregard the historicity of Genesis 3, you disregard the presence of sin in the human race altogether. Or at the very least, you would have to reduce sin as some kind of Pelagian/Islamic-type lack of knowledge or morality, when both King David (Psalm 51) and Paul (Romans 5-8) regard it as a hereditary and imputed malady. All who were “in Adam” (i.e. his seed) sinned when he sinned and therefore died when he died. That is imputed sin. Whereas all who were “in Christ” (i.e. are His seed, spiritually speaking) suffered when he suffered and were therefore declared justified with His righteousness and will one day be raised as He was raised. This is penal substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness. The whole theological argument in Romans 5-6 rests on the fact that BOTH Adam AND Christ are literal, historical figures, and that their literal, historical actions have ramifications for us. Adam would have to be the FIRST man and the only DIRECTLY CREATED man, or else there would have been some outside Adam’s Fall, and Paul didn’t really mean that “all” sinned and “all” died in Adam. (Note: Regarding Cain’s wife, he would have married his sister or possibly even a niece, as Genesis 5 is clear that Adam and Eve had other sons and daughters). If only Christ is historical and not Adam, the whole constrast in Romans 5 is “apples to oranges” and it fails.

    And if Genesis 1-3 is not historical, then neither is Genesis 4-5 for that matter. And maybe even Genesis 6-11? How far are we going to go with that? When Jesus talked about both Adam and Eve, as well as Abel, he sure seemed to regard them as real people. In fact He said that His generation would be held responsible for Abel’s blood (all the blood of the martyrs between Abel and Zechariah). That’s an empty threat, if Abel wasn’t a real person.

    And finally, when were we called to have “archeological finds” as the decider of the veracity of the Scriptures? Do you need archaeologists to find the Ark to confirm the historicity of the Flood account? Judging by the fact that we’re talking about the first humans many thousands of years ago in the antediluvian period, I’m not holding my breath for the discovery of the bones/fossils of Adam and Eve.


    • Thank you for responding. Perhaps, I should be more clear in my writing. I think, in principle, we are agreeable on the historicity of Gen 1-2. However, there is a difference between reading the genre as it is, and reading all genres as literal history. If you ignore all literary types, then I would agree with absolutely. But we do know that there are different genres in the Bible. Perhaps, you also misunderstood me saying reading Gen 1-2 non-literally means the account is non-historical. What I said was that the historicity cannot be proven by reading Gen 1-2 as literal history despite the account had happened. Mythical reading does not disqualify historicity; it is simply a literary device to record ancient events, which Gen 1-2 falls into such categorisation. It is often our modern definition of myth that marred our understanding of that genre when relating to biblical interpretation.

  • Gaffin totally punts regarding the science. While it is honest of him to admit that he has not the expertise to debate the various scientific issues, he then goes on to just ignore the discoveries of modern science.

    This is akin to saying one doesn’t understand medicine therefore you’ll just ignore all medicine.

    Not just archeology, paleontology, and anthropology reject the assertion of a single first couple 6000 years ago, but genetics completely disproves the assertion that we all today descend from just two people.

    • I do understand science and genetics. I have close friends who study genetics and evolutionary science with doctorates in their field and strongly disagree with what you have said. Science has not proven anything of what you say. All scientific evidence must be interpreted. There are those who choose a naturalistic interpretation. They assume there is no God and that only natural processes we can study today can be used to make life. That is a foolish assumption as ‘the fool has said in his heart there is no God’

      The other approach is intelligent design, and while many vocal atheists try to ridicule it, all the genetic evidence can and does support a designer that is not only intelligent but a genius, a designer who created all life giving it the flexibility to adapt to changing environmental pressures while reproducing after it’s kind. Natural selection gives animals the ability to adapt to cope with their environment not create life and not create new species. Intelligent design fits the observations we make today and what the bible says in Genesis. It does not force a fit, it doesn’t need to, they fit naturally.

      Many scientists claim that are talking about facts when talking about evolution. It makes them sound better to fund their research. It dishonours God. These same scientists would be in uproar if someone plagiarised their work, passing it off as their own or someone else’s yet they do this to the creator of the universe. It’s theft and it’s sin against the almighty. God didn’t need to spend billions of years of trial and error to create life as we know it. He made it right first time and we screwed it up.

      Thankfully He’s still in control and will get the glory for all He has done, on that day millions of people will discover they were wrong.

  • If we could prove creation took eight days we’d have no obligation to believe any of the Lord’s promises.

    Read any paper and know that Genesis’s account of the fall is historically accurate.

  • These are some good reasons for trusting that Adam was a historical person, and we ought to have faith that this was the case.

    The science that is called upon as witness is never going to be 100% in its analysis. There isn’t enough data to be sure. What happens is that scientists attempt to derive the answer based on their limited data. Any conclusion will be interpretative, and with our sinful natures, this interpretative lens is flawed.

    Science will never be able to account for the hand of God. The premise that science can measure what God has be able to do, when he has existence outside of the measurable universe, is unsustainable. The idea that science can eliminate the possibility of God’s action on the world is flawed. The “linear” rules of the measurable universe are easily broken by the hand of God. Science cannot assess the complete truth of a world in which God has been active.

    God’s hand was visibly active on the world at the time of Gensis. Therefore science will not be able to explain those times. To say that science is able to dictate the interpretation of Genesis is to presume what happened was measurable, to presume that the hand of God was not active.

    God is always active, never absent, and never without total control, but he is not always openly showing his hand as he did in Genesis, in Exodus, and in Christ and at so many other times. Science cannot account for the hand of God.

  • If Adam is a fiction, so is God, the Bible, and Christ. Salvation is nothing other that a fantastic self-delusion, “and we are to be pitied more than all men.”

  • This is supposed to be the “academic” blog, right? A post on the historicity of Adam? Really? How about some legitimate academic writing here rather than a constant stream of conservative, evangelical (and I would say that this post even borders on being fundamentalist) writing that is completely disconnected from the academic work being done on the Bible and the work of the scientific community?

    For Logos users who aren’t conservative Christians, posts like this feel like a slap in the face. We are part of the user-base, too. If you’re going to provide theological commentary (which seems completely unnecessary to me), then how about at least making it more diverse, especially on the academic blog?

    • I do think it makes sense to say that if there is to be an academic blog, it should be academic.

      The Logos user-base is diverse, and if space is to be given for academic discourse, it should be kept for that, and with courtesy and academic generosity.

      Let informed adult debate of an academic nature take place around an academic blog.

      There is plenty of opportunity for other forms of discussion and comment elsewhere.

      • I agreed. I am glad to have an academic blog to discuss and/or explore certain issues over the web, and thus, we should writing and response in courteous and academic fashion. That means, we should agree or disagree scholarly, as the above comment advocated. I do know that we have our personal theological positions that may differ from others, however, disagreeing from theological standpoint does not help in this academic blog. Please provide informed debate that deals with research finding to help stir this academic discussion.

  • Confidence in the credibility of the message of salvation through Christ as revealed in the Bible, is not necessarily the enemy of academic investigation. Reason should be the handmaid of truth. We may well differ on what evidence means, however, to maintain that the Bible is made up of fiction and truth is to undermine that very credibility, which must cast serious doubt on the veracity of its message. This surely is the real issue.

    • Confidence in the message must accompany with logical argument such as scholarship. Likewise, salvation message through Christ must also be logically seen in biblical-theological arguments through exegesis. I agree that reason is the handmaid of truth, but yet reason must be logically presented. It may not be scientifically proven but may be logically argued through textual evidence, language, genre, etc. Simply believed that the Bible is God’s revelation without a rational faith make Christianity no difference from other religions, except we insisted that Christ has risen from the dead. Reading the Bible literally and non-literally do not curtail the validity of the Bible. The problem is that we read with a modern mind which is scientific, and neglect to consider the cultural and literary contexts. One would not tolerate the inclusion of myth as part of the biblical genres because it would distort our faith. This is perhaps our refusal to acknowledge the diversity of literary types, or our failure to understand them. I understand that if Christ is a fictional character, then our faith is a sham. However, this discussion pertaining to the historicity of Adam may not necessarily lead to the historicity of Christ; they are independent case which I maintain that the salvation message does not change. There are historical arguments to prove the historicity of Jesus; however, Adam may not be the only way.

Written by Jonathan Watson