Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Was there a historical Adam?

Though I am not Reformed, I greatly respect  Josh Mortiz, and would argue that his perspective is not so much Reformed as catholic in its effort to balance faith and reason. I find this to be a fitting option for Christians today who are trying to understand scripture and science.

From the dust: Genesis 2:7 and election of imago Dei


A friend of mine asked me to explain how I understand Genesis 2:7, given my evolutionary creation view of history and influence by John H. Walton regarding the Genesis creation account. Genesis 2:7 says, “The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NET). He said that he is seeking for a consistent view because “inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument”—an astute aphorism from a godly man that we both respect, Dr. James R. White.

It pains me whenever I am forced to agree with him (because his theology denies the gospel) but on this point Denis Lamoureux would be right. It would indeed be an error to think that Adam was formed literally from actual dust or that this activity somehow represents man’s evolutionary climb. But Lamoureux commits a far more egregious error by denying that Adam was an historical person. I insist there is another way which does not commit those errors and which exhibits a beautiful consistency that is typical for a position which is logically sound, biblically coherent, and theologically systematic—given a Reformed commitment as you and I possess—in addition to taking scientific discoveries seriously.

This view is largely informed and influenced by the work of Dr. Joshua M. Moritz, lecturer of Philosophical Theology and the Natural Sciences at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and adjunct professor of Philosophy at University of San Francisco, as well as Dr. Denis Alexander, molecular biologist and emeritus director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. And I suspect I will be further influenced by Dr. John H. Walton as well once his latest book is finally published, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (forthcoming from InterVarsity Press).

So Adam was not literally formed and shaped by God from actual dirt on the ground, but neither should this be thought of as a picture or symbol of man’s evolutionary ascent. Neither of those seem right. You and I are both convinced that Walton has it right about Genesis so we must continue setting aside our English language and modern categories and enter the text with the redemptive-historical hermeneutic of our Reformed heritage. I believe the key to interpreting this passage rightly is to understand what dust means, what it means for God to form something, and what imago Dei means.
Relevant to its usage in our passage, throughout scriptures we see that dust often signifies futility or an absence of value (Job 4:19; Psalms 7:5; Isaiah 47:1), human frailty or mortality (Genesis 18:27; Job 34:14-15; Ecclesiastes 3:19-20), humiliation or lamentation (Joshua 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:2; Job 2:12), a state of lowliness (1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 113:7; Micah 7:17), and to experience defeat is to lick the dust (Psalm 72:9; Isaiah 49:23), which is interesting when you consider the curse that the serpent received in the garden. (Conversely, to be restored from defeat is to shake off the dust, Isaiah 52:2.) Throwing dust is also how one expresses cursings, such as Shimei (2 Samuel 16:13) or the crowd in Jerusalem who wanted to hear no more from Paul (Acts 22:23), and shaking dust off one’s sandals expressed renunciation (Luke 10:11), which was “practiced by the Pharisees on passing from Gentile to Jewish soil” insofar as it was “a rabbinical doctrine that the dust of a heathen land defiles” (taken from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “Dust”).

From there we must look more closely at what it means for God to form something, and I am not sure anyone could express the matter more clearly than Moritz, but that is to be expected given that it featured so significantly in his dissertation. I would simply encourage you to watch that video I told you about where Moritz gave a presentation of his basic thesis at Graduate Theological Union on April 14, 2011, called, “Chosen from among the animals: The end of human uniqueness and the election of the image of God” (0:49:35; the essential and relevant material begins around 0:35:00, if you want to skip the scientific preface). In this lecture Moritz explains how the act of God forming something is an electing activity which is also creative (e.g., Isaiah 43; for God to form the nation of Israel was for him to create it) and how this involves the elect fulfilling a kingly, priestly, and prophetic function as imago Dei, observed with Adam and recapitulated throughout scriptures (e.g., Israel), consummately perfected of course in the Son and true image of God, Jesus Christ.
I particularly enjoyed his emphasis that the Hebrew idea of what it meant to be made in the image and likeness of God functioned as a firm polemic against the pagan ideas of their ancient Near Eastern contemporaries; it was neither elite individuals nor royal classes but rather all of humankind that were imago Dei by virtue of our covenant relationship to God in Adam or Christ (which will underscore the importance of Adam’s historicity). You could read his three-part series called “Chosen by God: Biblical Election and the Imago Dei” for more information, which is a highly condensed version of that lecture published at BioLogos Foundation.

So with all of that said (albeit briefly), the theory which is developing in my mind is that God forming Adam from the dust of the earth is a covenantal description of the election of mankind before God as his image-bearers to serve and guard his sacred space, chosen by God in a concrete historical act that uniquely equipped and set them apart as God’s possession for his purpose and through whom he would bless the whole of creation (cf. Abraham’s calling to be a blessing to the nations, or Israel’s to be a light to the nations). The dust from which mankind is formed then represents his former humiliated and lowly state, unclean and without God throughout evolutionary history, a primitive animal who would face a divine appointment at the inauguration ceremony of God’s cosmic temple when he revealed himself in electing grace to a neolithic couple in the Near East, our archetypal parents. Genesis 2:7 would recount not man’s evolutionary history but rather that divine election. That is when man went from Homo sapiens to Homo sanctus (Moritz) or Homo divinus (Alexander), equipped by God and set apart as his image-bearers in covenant relationship to him. Perhaps not coincidentally—i.e., maybe due to this?—it is at this same period in history that the inexplicable neolithic revolution occurred: a worldwide population explosion, the first kingdoms and states (theocracies), sophisticated food-crop cultivation, advanced domestication of plants and animals, arts, culture, writing, organized religion and so forth.

“Adam and Eve, in this view,” writes Alexander, “were real people living in a particular historical era and geographical location, chosen by God to be the representatives of his new humanity on earth, not by virtue of anything that they had done but simply by God’s grace. When Adam recognized Eve as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ he was not just recognizing a fellow Homo sapiens—there were plenty of those around—but a fellow believer, [a Homo divinus] like him who had been called to share in the very life of God in obedience to his commands.” The population of the world during this neolithic period is estimated to have been several million, “genetically just like Adam and Eve but in this model it was these two farmers out of all those millions to whom God chose to reveal himself” (taken from “How does a BioLogos model need to address the theological issues associated with an Adam who was not the sole genetic progenitor of humankind?BioLogos Foundation).

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