The Reality of Adam and the Story of Christ

On Friday of last week, David Opderbeck asked a challenging question. I had posted on “Anthroposis,” the idea that what we really need is to become more truly human than we already are. Or, in the biblical narrative, to return to the humanity from which we have fallen. David asked,

Here’s a question: anthroposis Biblically is a recapitulation of the first man before sin. But, scientifically, there was no “first man”. How do we hold this missional narrative together if human evolution is true?

I have been wrestling with this question quite a bit lately. I just finished a book on narrative theology, and found that I couldn’t tell the story of Jesus without constantly conversing with Genesis 1-3. The Adam theology of the NT, the Jesus theology of the NT, is written in innumerable ways as an echo of the creation narratives of the first few chapters of Genesis. What, then, if these aren’t literal accounts of what happened? Where does that leave the story?

This is a difficult question, and I want to try to hold onto two things at the same time.

First, to say that they are not literal or historical accounts of how things came to be as they are now is not to say that these stories are not true. They are true narratives about the world. But how are they true and what truth do they teach is a more complex question.

Second, one of the ways that these stories work is that they tell the story of the past in such a way that it becomes clear that the people telling the stories are God’s present means for bringing the world/humanity to a destiny something like what the stories depict.

Genesis 1 uses sonship language to describe humanity as kings, ruling the world on God’s behalf. And what do you know? The Davidic kings are envisioned as God’s specially chosen agents who are enthroned to be God’s sons, ruling the nations for God.

Genesis 1 borrows the imagery of the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths that would place humanity in perpetual servitude, enslavement to the gods, and Marduk in particular. And what do you know? In this retelling of the story not only is Israel’s God shown to be the real creator, and one much more powerful than the other gods who have to fight their way to victory, but humanity is the pinnacle and glory of creation, not ever-oppressed slaves. When God’s purposes for humanity are realized, Israel will not be enslaved to Marduk in Babylon, but participating in the reign of its king, the reign of humanity over the earth.

The point is that stories of beginnings are written to plot a trajectory for the story that follows. Genesis 2 is a bit more on the descriptive side, indicating why the world is the way it is. But even there, I think there are indications of this story of origins setting a trajectory for a world that Israel is at the middle of.

For me, once we realize that these stories were not made to give a disinterested account of some hoary past but rather to speak to God’s plans for a particular people to bring the world from a certain kind of disorder into a certain kind of (what we now see as) restored and glorious future, the historicity question takes a back seat.

The story is still true, and we still plot the story of Jesus within that story, recognizing now that he is the surprising answer to the unrealized destiny of Adam. If we can recognize those pictures as idealized projections into the past of what God intends for the future given his present commitments, then I think we can keep moving forward with them firmly kicking off our story.

I think that some such process is tied up with God’s binding himself to this particular story of Israel.

What do you think? Can something like that work, based not on “we have to trash these stories because of evolution,” even, but “we have to rethink these stories based on what we know about their place in the history of Israel and their ancient environment?

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