Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Adam and the Apostle Paul

I’ve recently been in e-mail correspondence with a real friendly chap, and he asked me whether I thought an historical Adam is important for those who embrace a Pauline theology.

Here is the issue: a) Only by appreciating the importance of Paul’s understanding of Adam can we understand Paul’s theology, especially his soteriology. b) I’m quite sure that Paul thought Adam was an historical and real figure; I see no reason why he should doubt it. However, c) surely the Genesis story is not literally what happened.

So I suggest that, for us, Adam is important for Pauline theology in the role that he plays in Paul’s ‘social construction of reality’ (to use Berger’s language). This ‘social construction’ doesn’t initially need to necessarily be correlated or demythologised for it to become meaningful for us, but first needs to be understood as part of a bigger narrative. Understood in the light of this narrative, I don’t think an insistence on the historicity of elements of this ‘construction’, here Adam, adds much of significance.

Furthermore, if Adam is not an historical character, death need not be straightforwardly linked with sin. I’m thinking of Moltmann’s reference in The Coming of God to the death of the dinosaurs before human sin existed! I would understand the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 to be interpretations of the present (to the author and to us) and sad human state of affairs, which aim to show, among other things, that the presence of sin and death in creation is not God’s ultimate goal, and not the product of divine vindictiveness or darkness.

My friend asked: ‘But does this mean that Genesis is just about the present?’. I answered that I don’t think so. Genesis surely forms a massively important part of the scriptural narrative, and therefore penetrates the question of inner-biblical hermeneutics, and so I wouldn’t want to restrict the matter to existentialism.

These are seriously late night cut and paste ramblings, so I should go to bed and shut up.


At 8/02/2006 11:56 AM, Anonymous Volker said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important passage. I fully agree with most of what you say, also that the creation story was not necessarily an account of historical events. However, is there not a problem with the theological statement that "death need not be straightforwardly linked with sin"? Certainly Paul seems to have a problem with that when he says in Romans 5:12 "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-..."
So, if you want to safeguard Adam for the sake of Pauline theology, I think the link of sin and death needs to receive the same treatment.

Apart from its importance for Pauline theology, giving up the link of death and sin also raises a question for your thought "that the presence of sin and death in creation is not God’s ultimate goal". Why did dinosaurs die if death was not part of God's original creation?

I have to admit, I cannot answer this last question myself. My present strategy is that I remain agnostic as to how to solve this tension: theologically I believe in the link between death and sin, because otherwise major strands of biblical theology no longer make sense to me. However, science seems to "prove" that animals died long before the human species (and thus sin) arrived on this planet. Hence, 7-day-creationism appears to make no sense either.

At 8/02/2006 3:50 PM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

You raise some thought-provoking issues here. I agree that Genesis is in the realm of myth rather than of history (at least the opening chapters). And that does lead to some profoundly significant theological questions.

On the issue discussed by Volker: perhaps the problem is with our definition of death. We naturally think of death as the cessation of bodily functions, but clearly it means more than that in the biblical record. Arguably the spiritual and moral aspects of death (separation from God, slavery to sin) are primary, and the physical consequences are secondary.

That way we could separate the death of dinosaurs from the picture. Their physical death is irrelevant to Paul's assertion, "death came through sin".

But that in turn brings us to the New Testament emphasis on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. (People may doubt the bodily nature of the resurrection, but that is certainly how the New Testament depicts it.) The New Testament doesn't compartmentalize the different elements of death — and salvation from death — in the way that I propose.

Still, a solution must lie along these lines … no?

At 8/02/2006 11:22 PM, Anonymous Volker said...

Hi q,
thanks for your very justified reply to my thoughts. Indeed, death is a lot more than the cessation of bodily functions. However, like you indicated, I also do not think that one can separate bodily death from spiritual death (perhaps the latter is the cause of the former, although that terminology is not necessarily that of the Bible?). Generally speaking, I think both OT and NT have often a holistic view of death that includes physical death, the departing of the person and the sadness that is part of this process.

What does this say about the genesis of live and death on earth?
I think that even the death of animals means suffering (see, although I didn't read all of that), but space forbids a discussion of this. However, more obvious, if human species evolved and died along this process of evolution, it means that "human" death would have been in the world before sin. Put more bluntly, it would mean that the principle of "eating and being eaten" was ready at work BEFORE sin/"death" came onto the scene.
While this is to my mind logically problematic, it is also theologically troublesome because it would mean that death and suffering was part of the creation as God intended it BEFORE it was corrupted by sin/death.

So, I still think one either holds the biblical and the scientific perspectives dialectically in two camps of one's mind, as I suggested above, or one tries a kind of synthesis of both.
That could perhaps look like this chronology(?):

- big bang (initiated by God)
- plants & animals are created
- both plants and animals mutate over a couple of 1000 years or so, but no animals die
- God creates Adam & Eve and puts them into "the garden" of plants and animals (including dinosaurs, though they are not mentioned in the creation story, perhaps because by the time that the story was written, dinosaurs had been forgotten)
- through sin, death comes into the world
- humans and animals die (including dinosaurs)

Well, this is a wild guess and I'd be interested to get some feedback!

At 8/03/2006 4:35 PM, Anonymous Dave said...

A few thoughts:

Though I certainly understand the "c) surely the Genesis story is not literally what happened." motivation, the matter of Paul misunderstooding the historicity of Adam gives me some pause.

In any case, if human death (at least spiritual, but really all of it) is not the result of Adam's sin, is it the result of human sin? If so, how? If not, why human death?
(Plant death and possibly animal death seem present before the fall in scripture, and as humans are God's image bearers, these human death questions seem to bring matters to a head for me. I do recognize the possible scriptural out of Satan being active from early on and this being reflected in creation, but does this square with creation being called good?)

As to the synthesis question, I'm not sure how we can do anything but attempt synthesis, especially in areas of important, apparent conflict. However, with the presented guess at a chronology, I'm not sure how we get rid of animal death without going hardcore YEC and claiming all animals ate plants before Adam's sin. If you go that way, why worry about big bangs, thousands of years, or mutations. If you go with modern science and accept animal death before any humans, wouldn't your chronology look a lot different? Not sure what the current version is going for.

Hope that made sense. Appreciate any further insight.


At 8/03/2006 7:17 PM, Anonymous David Wilkerson said...

There can be no period of no animal deaths. Consider insects which rapidly reproduce. We would have live flies stacked to the stratosphere after just a few years if they didn't die.

Likewise, bacterial decay is a necessary process for life, consider digestion. Death is sewn into the fabric of life.

At 8/04/2006 12:20 AM, Anonymous Volker said...

Hi guys,
thanks for your very helpful comments! I wish I could reply properly, but I am off to a 5-day conference in Prague.
So, perhaps let me just come back to this statement of Chris:
"If science says something different at an empirical level I see no reason to reject the science, but to allow both to speak to the different areas are addressing, and allow for the different and epistemological claims they make."

Yes, I would do the same. However, in our present discussion Paul's message and science are making a claim with regard to THE SAME AREA. As far as I can see, Paul (and Genesis) is saying that the earth was created without suffering (sin -> death). However, scientists (at least evolutionists, who make up the majority of scientists) are saying that suffering is the very motor of evolution ('Death is sewn into the fabric of life.’), right from the very beginning. None of these are "meta"-claims that could be treated as if they would not relate to the actual history of this very plannet on which we live. Hence it seems that one has to decide for one or the other!?

At 8/04/2006 1:46 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Volker,
"However, in our present discussion Paul's message and science are making a claim with regard to THE SAME AREA."
Good point.
Perhaps we can think of the same area being spoken of in two different ways, though (?).

At 8/13/2006 3:30 PM, Anonymous Jon Rumble said...

Hey, interesting Adam and Eve graphic -> I notice that they both have belly buttons :)

At 8/14/2006 8:10 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Jon, well spotted!
That can't be theological, can it? what with belly buttons and all.


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