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#588 The Historical Adam

July 22, 2018

Greetings Dr. Craig,

Thank you for your work in philosophy and theology. I've followed you for over 10 years now. I must say that I am a recipient of your monthly news letters, and upon reading it, I don't know exactly what you're getting at. It seems to me that you begin the newsletter offering an old testament classification of Genesis as etiology to the effect that there would not necessarily had been a historical Adam. Second, you provide an explanation of Paul's mention of Adam within the framework of Paul referring to the literary Adam. You then clarify the challenge that the science plays in the discussion of the historical Adam. You end the paper by claiming that the historicity of Adam has implications for the inspiration and authority of scripture. It was hard for me make the connection between your claim that the inspiration and authority of scripture was a at stake. What was the purpose of offering classification of Genesis by old testament scholars as etiology and Paul as perhaps not referencing Adam as a historical person. Are you arguing that Adam is not a historical person, that Genesis is mytho-historical. Thus, this classification offers wiggle room as it were to interpret Genesis as offering something historical that you don't identify. Do you find it more plausible that there was no historical Adam? This is my question. I am the facilitator of an online apologetics group and this has been the cause of much confusion and argument. If you don't publish this question, I would be satisfied with a response via email that I can take to the members.

Thank you,


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Dr. craig’s response


Just this afternoon I was reading an essay by the Old Testament scholar Richard Averbeck which opens with these words: “No matter what you say (or write) about the early chapters of Genesis, you are in a lot of trouble with a lot of people.”

This is particularly the case with regard to the historical Adam. This is an issue which is rife with controversy these days, some of which I described in our last two Monthly Reports (June and July 2018). As I shared in those letters, now that my work on the atonement is completed, I’ve turned my research focus to the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve. Amidst all the debate, one thing I am relatively certain of is that the traditional view of the church (not to mention Judaism) is that Adam and Eve are the sole progenitors of the entire human race. The question is whether that view is correct.

Investigating that question involves two independent tasks which are, unfortunately, too often conflated: first, determining what the Bible teaches about this subject and, second, formulating  an empirically adequate doctrine of man. The first task belongs to biblical theology, the second to systematic theology. The biblical theologian will seek to determine the proper interpretation of the Old and New Testament texts pertinent to Adam, not only deploying linguistic studies, but also drawing upon extrabiblical materials from the Ancient Near East and Second Temple Judaism. The systematic theologian will then attempt to construct a doctrine of man which is not only biblically consonant but also adequate to the established findings of contemporary science, such as archaeology and genetics.

It is crucial that each of these two tasks be pursued in pristine isolation from the other. There is an almost irresistible tendency to allow science to guide our biblical interpretation. This sort of interpretive approach to Scripture is often called “concordism.” Beginning with what modern science tells us about the origin of the world and mankind, we approach the biblical text and read that science into the text, or, at least, read the text in such a way that it comports with modern science. The flaws in such a hermeneutic are obvious: (1) It does not interpret the text as the author and its intended readers would have understood it but imports meanings foreign to them; (2) As science progresses, every generation will read its own science back into the text, e.g., pre-relativistic Newtonian physics. 

I suspect that many of the outlandish interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis (e.g., so-called “functional creation” or the day-age theory) are motivated by the dread fear that biblical theology pursued independently of modern science would reveal that the Young Earth Creationists are right and, hence, the task of the systematic theologian becomes hopeless. If the Young Earth biblical theology of creation is the correct interpretation, then we face two very difficult choices: either (1) try to defend the scientific viability of a 10-20,000 year old universe, which seems, as I said, hopeless, or else (2) revise one’s doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority so as to allow Scripture to teach error.

I think you can see already, Sean, the relevance of the question before us to biblical inspiration and authority. To illustrate, I’ve been reading this week the Genesis Commentary by the eminent Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. Again and again von Rad seems to side with the Young Earther that Genesis is to be interpreted scientifically and factually rather than mythically or figuratively. Does he therefore agree with Young Earth Creationism?  Of course not! Rather he regards Genesis as antiquated and erroneous in many of its scientific, historical, and geographical affirmations, while holding to the spiritual truths expressed in Scripture.

We cannot allow modern science to guide our biblical theology so as to avoid the Young Earth interpretation. But we can, in light of modern science, be motivated to consider afresh our interpretation of the biblical texts to see if we have properly understood them. Scot McKnight adroitly avoids concordism when he explains, “My encounters with trustworthy scientists taught me to go back to the Bible with other questions and other possible interpretations and to ask what Genesis meant in its world.”[1]

That is the project being pursued by many at the Creation Project conference I shared about in our Monthly Report for July. I wasn’t “arguing” for any position; I was just sharing with our readers some of the key questions that were discussed at the conference and thereby familiarizing them with the issues that need to be addressed. For example, if Genesis 1-11 is mytho-historical writing, then a lot of what it says needn’t be taken factually, for it wasn’t intended to be read that way. Adam could be a historical person, but we shouldn’t take the narratives to be factual in every respect (e.g., a talking snake). Paul seemed to regard Adam as a historical person, but, as I shared, even here there is, as you put it, some “wiggle room” for the biblical theologian.

I began to work in earnest on the question of the historical Adam only a few months ago, so I don’t have any settled views on these difficult questions. Once the task of biblical theology is completed, there still remains the task of systematic theology. So, no, I don’t “find it more plausible that there was no historical Adam.” Such a conclusion at this point would be utterly premature and hence unjustified.


[1] Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2017), p. 95.

- William Lane Craig