A Theory on the Historical Adam

(Jay Nelsestuen) #1

##NOTE: I am not looking to debate the historic Christian doctrines of original sin and total depravity. If you don’t agree with those doctrines, please refrain from commenting, as this will not appeal to you.

After some thinking, I have come up with a perspective on Adam. This perspective will really only appeal to Reformed Christians such as myself, who attempt to place necessary emphasis on the idea of federal headship when it comes to Adam and Christ. Indeed, this is not so much a harmonization of Genesis 2-3 with modern science, but a harmonization of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 with science. I submit my theory to you in humility, willing to be corrected, but only corrected on the basis of Scripture.

(As I haven’t read very many opinions on this matter, this perspective may already be held to by some in the evolutionary creationist community.)

###A Reformed and Evolutionary Perspective on Adam

Suppose, for a moment, that evolution by natural selection is the best explanation for the origins of life on this planet, and that animals and humans evolved in large groups via natural processes under the sovereign guidance of God. What then becomes of original sin and the story of Adam? Here is what I think.

When human evolution reached a sort of climax, God endued humanity with His image, blessing his creation to be His image bearers in the world. It is at this point that God sovereignly chose from the group of humans two individuals, who would later become known as Adam and Eve to the Hebrews. He placed these individuals in a special garden in Eden, and so ordained and purposed that they should be the federal representatives of not only their progeny, but also of all their contemporaries, having given them a single command: do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a time of bliss, with the Creator and two of his creations communing with one another, a foretaste of the New Creation. These two were endowed with free will, the ability to choose independent of any outside coercion. Ultimately, however, because of the deception of the serpent, according to God’s most holy decree, the pair transgressed the single command God had given them, and so were cursed. They were sent forth out of the garden as fallen creatures, the whole of their beings impaired, and the rest of the new humanity fell with them.

Therefore, man to this day is totally depraved, born with original sin; as Augustine put it, mankind is naturally non posse non peccare, not able to not sin. All mankind does is sin, and apart from the regeneration of the Holy Spirit and faith in Jesus Christ, all a man or woman ever will do is sin. We are sinners. The sin of Adam was imputed to us all. In this sense, the doctrine of original sin is still very real. The first humans to sin were Adam and Eve, federal heads of the human race.

Is this unfair of God? No, because God can do (and does do) whatever he so desires. Federal headship is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 5, and without it, original sin and the atonement make no sense. (And, by the way, Ezekiel 18, when interpreted properly, is in no way contrary to this position as classically held by the Reformers).

So what about the biblical account? This may sound heterodox, but I think that the accounts are what one might call “mythologized histories.” What do I mean? Well, history tends to be mythologized as it goes from one generation to the next. The details are embellished and the story made more fantastical. One must discern the bare-bones story underneath all the icing on top. The Holy Spirit so chose to inspire a legendary account of the two individuals known as Adam and Eve. The story at the core is indeed true, and represents reality, but some details may be incidental.

This has implications for inerrancy (duh), but I lean towards Denis Lamoureux’s idea of the “message/incident” principle (I disagree with Lamoureux about Adam, though).

Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell. It is highly speculative and by no means concrete. Please, let me know of improvements, or of other people who hold this or a similar perspective on this issue. (I think that John Walton holds to a perspective similar to this, perhaps without the federal headship; I need to do some reading.)

(George Brooks) #2


There are many ways to address the sin of Adam. I find the Catholic Church’s views sensible and reasonable:

"In the theology of the Catholic Church, original sin is regarded as the general condition of sinfulness, that is (the absence of holiness and perfect charity) into which humans are born, distinct from the actual sins that a person commits.

This teaching explicitly states that “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants”. In other words, human beings do not bear any “original guilt” from Adam’s particular sin, which is his alone. The prevailing view, also held in Eastern Orthodoxy, is that human beings bear no guilt for the sin of Adam."

(George Brooks) #3

Here are the usual PROs and CONs of transmission of GUILT … and corresponding punishment.

Which do YOU think prevails… do the sins of the father also belong to the descendants?

Yes, they do.

(Exodus 20:5)–“You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”

(Deuteronomy 5:9)–“You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”

(Exodus 34:6-7)–"Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth; who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

No, they don’t.

(Deuteronomy 24:16)–“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”

(Ezekiel 18:20)–“The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”

(Jay Nelsestuen) #4

I’m not looking to redefine the historic doctrine of original sin and total depravity, thanks.

(George Brooks) #5


Did you not write these words?

" I submit my theory to you in humility, willing to be corrected, but only corrected on the basis of Scripture."

Have I not provided you several points of scripture for you to discuss? And what is your response?

That you refuse to discuss it.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #6

I did not invite you to attempt to argue against the doctrine of original sin or total depravity; I invited you to improve upon my theory for a historical Adam. You, however, as the unitarian universalist that you are, have no biblical basis to critique my OP because you do not agree with its basic presuppositions. You are about as unorthodox as it gets.

It is true; doctrine divides.

(Christy Hemphill) #7

Tim Keller wrote a piece for BioLogos a while back that touched on federal headship, if you are interested.

Something you might be interested in reading up on is the idea of “image bearers” in the ancient world. We have sort of conflated the idea with a human soul or moral reasoning, but that is probably not the best interpretation. Scot McKnight has written on this some in various books. So has Pete Enns, here.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #8

I watched a presentation by Michael Heiser (not an evolutionary creationist, but a first rate biblical scholar) on making sense of Genesis, and he included a section on the image of God. His conclusions were certainly fascinating, and probably similar to the resources you have pointed me to. I will give them a look, thanks. :slight_smile:


(George Brooks) #9

If your historical Adam calls for a 6000 year old Earth … then each day, your vision of Adam runs counter to the plain testimony of physics that God makes plain to all of us - - about the extreme antiquity of this planet he gave us.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #10

Have you read my post? I started my theory with the assumption of the truth of billions of years and evolution. The theory was intended to harmonize scripture with science. “My” historical Adam, according to my OP, does not require a 6000 year old earth.

(George Brooks) #11


Okay … now you really have me puzzled.

You insist on a Very Old Earth … but he has to have ORIGINAL SIN and a FALL.

Usually, those who oppose a 6000 year scenario are also the same who find “Original Sin” as equally speculative as a 6000 year Earth.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #12

I already told you, I’m a bit of an anomaly.

Perhaps you ought to learn more about what Reformed people believe about these important doctrines before you attempt to understand my argumentation.

(Albert Leo) #13

Jay, what field of work are you in? I have spent the greater part of my adult life working alongside scientists who are unselfishly devoted to finding cures for human ills. Many of them claim to be atheists or agnostics. And you say “all they ever will do is sin”. That does not make sense to me.
Al Leo

(Mervin Bitikofer) #14

We all, without exception, fall short and need a savior. That is fairly standard historical Christian doctrine. So in the context of this Christian-sponsored venue it would seem that you, Al, should have the greater obligation to explain why this is not so, rather than Jay needing to demonstrate that it is.

That said, Romans 3 would probably be the main “go-to” for this. None of it need be taken as a stipulation that all your friends are specifically damned. We can’t know who all Christ has been pleased to save … we only know that apart from Christ we are lost. Even those who claim to have turned their back on Christianity does not mean we suddenly know their eternal future. Trying to climb up into the judge’s seat about these salvation issues is never granted to us anywhere in Scriptures, Matthew 18:18 notwithstanding.

(George Brooks) #15


I am learning about Reformed folks by learning about your argumentation.

If you are an example, I wouldn’t be surprised if other Reformed folks aren’t very patient …

I know you will find this hard to believe, but lots of people participate on these boards to teach others the intricacies of their beliefs … rather than stiff-arming a questioner with admonitions that virtually say “figure it out for yourself”…

Ironic, aye?

(Jay Nelsestuen) #16

Well Albert, consider this verse from Romans 8:

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romans 8:8

Now, you said that many of your coworkers are atheists or agnostics, so they do not have faith in Jesus Christ and are therefore “in the flesh.” Let me ask, is the pursuit of medicine to find the cure for human ills pleasing to God? I’d say it is. But these people are of the flesh, and therefore cannot please God. Whatever is not pleasing to God is sin.

Point being, everything a man or woman does in this life apart from Jesus Christ, both good and bad, is sin, or at the very least, tainted by sin. Can you be sure that the motives of these people are absolutely pure?

Anyway, hopefully that somewhat answers some concerns.


(Jay Nelsestuen) #17

There. I’ve edited the OP. :slight_smile:

(Christy Hemphill) #18

You must not hang out with Calvinists. (They don’t always make sense to me either, for the record. :open_mouth:)
It’s the T of TULIP. Total Depravity. It’s one of the five basic doctrines.

(George Brooks) #19


Wonderful. So how many BioLogos supporters do you think will AGREE with you that Genesis’s treatment of the Fall of Adam should be believed?

I would propose that precious few would.

Which means that you have come to BioLogos to concur with other Christians that we can’t give up the literal aspects of Genesis.

But that doesn’t make any sense, right? You wrote this paragraph:

“So if Genesis 1:1-2:3 was not intended to be taken as a literal history of the events surrounding the creation of the universe, what was it intended to be? I believe the author’s intention to have been polemic, meaning that the ancient writer wrote this creation account in response to other ancient near eastern creation accounts. He wrote it as a corrective, demonstrating to his audience the falsehoods of the other polytheistic creation accounts.”

AND, simultaneously, you believe Adam experienced a FALL, and is guilty of ORIGINAL SIN:

So… what was this ORIGINAL SIN?

In the OP above, you wrote: “Ultimately, however, because of the deception of the serpent, according to God’s most holy decree, the pair transgressed the single command God had given them, and so were cursed. They were sent forth out of the garden as fallen creatures, the whole of their beings impaired, and the rest of the new humanity fell with them.”

SO: Point 1 - there was a serpent, and a tree of life, and Adam and Eve acting contrary to God’s commands.

Point 2: The serpent is not literal. The Tree of life is not literal. Adam and Eve’s transgression is not literal.

What are we to make of this … shall we say (to use a term you have favored) … hogwash?

(Christy Hemphill) #20

To be fair, I think the theology around the Fall and original sin are pretty big issues for lots of BioLogos readers, whether or not they use those exact terms or see Adam as the federal head of humanity. Getting Genesis right is linked to getting Paul right in more than a few people’s minds. And the concept of an inherited sin nature is foundational to more than one tradition’s atonement theology.