I’d like feedback on a different way of viewing Augustine’s contribution. Before him, Jewish and early Christian tradition drew two main points from Adam. First, that Adam’s story is our own story: in some sense, we are Adam. Second, that we all descend from Adam and receive something (ranging from an evil inclination to guilt) from him. Both Adam as us and Adam as ancestor sit side by side in traditional readings of Adam.
I see Augustine’s contribution as tying these two ideas together in a logical way. When he wrote, both ideas were so ingrained that neither could be dismissed while claiming continuity with tradition. But the ideas seemed impossible to put together in a literal narrative. Either Adam represents everyone, or Adam is a literal first man. Augustine saw a way get both ideas from a literal first man. Drawing from an ancient view of procreation that claimed children were present in their father in seed form before they were conceived, he saw all humankind present in Adam’s loins and, in some mysterious way, acting with him while within him. We all contributed, in Adam, to the sin that corrupts human nature. At our conception we each inherited the nature we helped corrupt. Adam is us because Adam is our ancestor.
Later scientific discoveries made the details of Augustine’s synthesis look foolish. Since a woman provides far more than “fertile soil” for a man’s “seed,” it’s apparent that people don’t predate their conception. In response, most who followed Augustine downplayed the “Adam as us” part of his view while strengthening “Adam as ancestor.” This led to Adam only being us in a loose way of speaking while the truth is that Adam was our ancestor who sinned, changed human nature, and bequeathed this fallen nature to his every descendant.
As a result, the Augustinian view has become what Augustine himself rejected. He thought it compromised God’s goodness to say God spread Adam’s sinful nature to humans who had not contributed to it. But, often through various appeals to mystery, his followers don’t feel the same tension.
Anyway, it’s probably due to Augustine that the modern church has lost half of its two-pronged explanation of Adam. He didn’t intend it, but by tying “Adam as us” to a faulty conception of conception, he made it easy for later Christians to walk away from the whole idea. Thanks to him, we’re now in the place where one prong, “Adam as ancestor,” has become the whole, making any challenge to the historical Adam a threat to the entire theological system.
I wonder how the historical Adam debate would look had the church chosen to rest the theological weight on the other prong. In Genesis, Adam tells our story, both as individuals and as the human race. Echoing Paul, we’d grapple with whether we remain in Adam or find ourselves in Christ. If “Adam as us” had been the centre of our understanding of Adam, perhaps “Adam as ancestor” could be rethought in less literal ways without jeapardizing so many other beliefs. Then, if science were to point away from a solitary first male as strongly as it points away from male-only seed, the theological stakes would not be so high.
I realize that’s a bare outline without much supporting detail. But any thoughts or push-back? What do others see as the essential thing to preserve with original sin or our view of Adam?