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A “Historical Adam” For Every Occasion

Yet another new book explores the history of Christian belief in America, though this one begins its survey in the ancient Near East and tracks one very narrow (if surprisingly versatile) strand of theology. It concerns the first man Adam, the nature of his existence, and his many creative interpreters.

In Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, Karl W. Giberson tells two connected stories: the sordid history of the interpretation of a few short chapters from the Bible (Genesis 2-4),  and the story of the author’s expulsion from the halls of evangelical academia. Giberson’s own evolving views cost him his job and saw him branded a heretic and worse – a “liberal.” At times palpably bitter but always in command of his impressive research, his contention is that Adam has been a sort of blank slate onto which Christians have projected their ideological interests. To put it another way, Adam is the lump of clay we have fashioned into our own image.

Giberson’s history of Adam as a moral and theological mascot is often outrageous, as he traces it across centuries and continents, right up to our own cultural moment. It is amazing what Christian thinkers and gatekeepers have done with these few ambiguous Bible passages, and how insistent they have been that their views are not only obvious and true, but necessary to one’s spiritual well-being.

The Historical Adams

The Apostle Paul may be to blame for Adam’s eventual role as a theological gun-for-hire, though it’s unfair to hold him accountable for how future writers may have blown his work out of proportion. Paul appealed to Adam in new and innovative ways, taking a far greater interest in the first man than previous Jewish interpreters had done. The apostle imagined Adam as a sort of prototype of Christ, the one who inaugurated sin and death instead of faithfulness and life. By taking this creative juxtaposition as a literal, legal reality, later thinkers took Paul’s innovation to further extremes. What was meant rhetorically to exalt and draw eyes to Christ engendered an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with Adam and the precise nature of his life and malefaction.

Giberson’s book accuses St. Augustine of crafting this sort of Adam-obsessed theology and foisting it upon later generations as a burdensome appendix to the gospel. Augustine took Paul’s Adam analogy off-road, galvanizing a doctrine of “original sin” that made the first man more than a type or an example. It made him a key player, and belief in him (and his literal, historical existence) became a prerequisite of divine salvation. In a phrase that echoes throughout the history of Adam interpretation, “no historical Adam, no gospel.” Suddenly the “good news” of Jesus came with some fine print.

From there, Giberson traces the history of the church, which at every turn finds Adam useful for new and creative reasons, but always emphasizes his literal role as the first sinner and father of all humans. There is the superhuman Adam, anywhere from seven to a hundred feet tall, immortal and gifted with superpowers, all lost in “the fall” (another interpretive golden goose not actually found in scripture). There is the racially ideal Adam, genetically perfect, displaying only the most “desirable” traits before his offspring are “marked” or made otherwise imperfect through the consequences of sin, resulting in a “hierarchy” of world races. There is also “traditional marriage” Adam, and “deceived by a temptress” Adam, and today’s model, “young earth creationist” Adam. In each case, argues Giberson, the configuration and re-mythologizing of Adam reflects the cultural and social concerns of the Christian gatekeepers of that time and place. In western civilization, we observe, racism, sexism, classism, and all manner of imposed human division have as their foundation or rationalization some interpretation of the early Genesis stories.

The Absurdity of Doctrinally Mandated Belief

The implications of the book’s thesis are many, and could generate many responses. For my purposes on this blog, the most relevant takeaway is the absurdity of what I’d call “doctrinally mandated belief.” That is, believing something, regardless of evidence, because we “need to” believe it in light of some preexisting belief or assumption. And so: Adam lived six thousand years ago and passed his sin-tainted genetic material on to every other human being, implanting them with a legal stain of sin. Why are we told we must believe this? Not because it is likely or evident or even taught by the Bible, but because our other doctrines (depravity, original sin, penal substitution, young earth, etc.) demand it.

Believing something dutifully out of obligation to other unexamined beliefs is dishonest, backward, and fruitless. It is also harmful to people who refuse to play along, as many like Giberson have discovered. This is what “biblical inerrancy” and “historical Adam” have in common: neither is evident and both are affirmed out of responsibility to some other pre-established theological construct. We must affirm inerrancy or the technical trustworthiness of the Bible (and thus our own credibility) will collapse. We must affirm a historical Adam or original sin, young earth creationism, and/or the gospel itself will collapse. None of this noise has anything to do with the real gospel and legacy of Jesus, in fact it only serves to obscure and damage it. If belief and trust in Jesus cannot be proffered without burdensome technical baggage, it is not worth the confusion and harm it causes. But as long as there have been Christians, Giberson’s book demonstrates, there have been Christian gatekeepers, eager to commandeer the gospel for their own small purposes.

In a follow-up post I will lay out my own thoughts on the value and meaning of the Adam and Eve narratives in Genesis.

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