A responsible Bible interpreter is sensitive to the historical context of any given scripture passage. Those who hold to the doctrine of inspiration understand that God didn’t robotically push and pull the hands of the writers. Rather, through the mystery of His sovereign will, he moved them to write what he wanted, utilizing the distinctions of their personalities and cultural norms. Since those ancient writers were writing to an ancient audience, we understand when we see the following mentioned in scripture:
-The earth is upon pillars (“[God] shakes the earth out of its place; so that its pillars tremble.” Job 9:6 [cf. Ps 75:3])
-The heavens are also on pillars (“The pillars of the heavens tremble and are amazed at his rebuke.” Job 26:11 [cf. 2 Sam. 22:8])
-The earth rests upon a foundation (“Where were you; when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you possess understanding!” Job 38:4; [cf. Ps. 104:5])
-The netherworld exists, and it’s underground (“Even if they could dig down into the netherworld [Sheol]; my hand would pull them up from there. Even if they could climb up to heaven; I would drag them down from there.” Amos 9:2. [cf. Ps. 139:8])
The book of Job speaks of the foundations of the earth, that it has pillars upon which it stands, as do the heavens. Amos mentioned heaven as the highest place and spoke of digging down into the deepest place–the “netherworld”–in the same breath. The psalmist marveled at how the Lord could take the four corners of the earth in hand and shake the very ground under our feet. These are just a few examples of how the scripture reflects and interacts with ancient cultures and ideas. As God inspired the writers, he could have led them to write on a level that we would have found more palatable in our modern scientific era. The book of Job could have said that God placed the earth in its orbit and established the heavens around it. Amos could have put a footnote on his comment about the netherworld, stating that there really isn’t a place underground where the dead live out eternity. The psalmist could have put in Hebraic parentheses “I’m just being poetic here!” (there are no parentheses in Classical Hebrew, but if there were…!).
But that’s not realistic. Instead, God interacted with ancient people using ideas common to the ancient world. Scientifically verifiable statements written to such an old world would have been wholly irrelevant to a pre-scientific culture. The writers of scripture were ancient people, and the Holy Spirit moved through them to reveal eternal truths by using pre-scientific conceptions of reality.
The Apostle Paul, too, was an ancient writer who had a pre-scientific awareness of reality. Therefore, we would expect that his theology assumed that Adam was literally the first human being God created.
In my previous post, I described some of Peter Enns’s new book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, and I found it a challenging yet enlightening read. He shows how one might reconcile the ideas of evolution with the creation account of the Bible. He argues that Adam may have never existed at all. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to this position is Paul’s view of a literal Adam. Paul’s theology about Christ seems to rest on his understanding about how sin and death entered the world. Paul stated that Adam’s disobedience introduced sin and death to the world. In contrast, because of Christ’s obedience, death, and resurrection, we might all have victory over that sin and death.
So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned (Romans 5:12)
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. (1 Cor. 15:21)
Enns makes a very good point here. In the Old Testament, we don’t find the doctrine of depravity or Original Sin as presented in the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible does not highlight the sin of Adam as the bringer of death to the whole world, but Paul (in the New Testament) does. Why? Because that theology was common among the Jewish community during Paul’s lifetime. The idea that Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden developed during the intertestamental period and was a part of the way people thought in Paul’s day. Paul was interacting with the theology of his day. In his own experiences, he had seen how Christ brought forgiveness of sin and victory over death. Based on an ancient yet normative understanding of Adam, Paul proved both of those points. Christ physically resurrected from the dead, and showed that those faithful to Christ would be forgiven of sins.
Paul was an ancient man, who thought that Adam was also a real man. That was a cultural reality in his lifetime, and so to be culturally relevant, God interacted with those concepts to reveal eternal truths. Just like he did through those who wrote about the pillars of the earth, the netherworld, and the corners of the world. These concepts are not scientifically accurate, but we excuse them because they were culturally relevant at the time. In these cases, the theology is correct–scientific truth is not the point! Similarly, Paul’s use of Adam is not scientifically accurate, but we excuse it because it was culturally relevant in his day. The theology is correct–scientific truth is not the point! So, an evolutionary view does no violence to good theology.
Peter Enns’s book has helped me a great deal (Thanks a lot Dr. Enns!). It’s challenged me to grow, giving me a new theological paradigm. I’ve got to say, it is not a comfortable or easy shift for me to make (…thanks a lot, Dr. Enns!). I’m very uncomfortable even posting this entry, but feel it is necessary to codify my new position. I’ve had to remodel my theology in an important way. I’m very happy with the results but I’m certain folks within my own theological circles will not approve. Still, I think that’s the way personal/theological growth goes.