Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Matthew Barrett on the question of whether or not Adam was an actual historical figure.
Topics of conversation include:
- Some of the various evangelical views on creation
- Two of the Christian doctrines at stake if we deny that Adam was a historical person
- The false dichotomy between science and Scripture: God reveals himself through nature as well as the Bible
- Where the historicity of Adam falls in relation to theological triage
- Resources for further study on this subject
Dr. Matthew Barrett is associate professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the founder and executive director of Credo Magazine, as well as the host of Credo podcast. He is the author of several books, including Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Baker, 2021), None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker, 2019), and God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (Zondervan, 2016). Dr. Barrett is the editor of Four Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan, 2013).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:18):
Very few books change the world, but that’s exactly what happened in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species. Darwin made it possible to be an atheist and have an intellectual alternative to creation. Darwinism has since been an ideology that has swept across the world and become a significant concern in Christian apologetics, opening up lots of questions like—does evolution answer the question of human origin? Did humans begin in some primordial sludge and evolve slowly from fish to apes over millions of years? Or did God uniquely create human beings in his image and likeness? As Christians, do we need to believe in a historical Adam? What would happen if we lost the historicity of Genesis 1-2? With us today to talk about the historical Adam, we have with us Dr. Matthew Barrett, who is associate professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s also the founder and executive director of Credo Magazine, an evangelical publication making theology accessible to those in the church, and host of the Credo podcast, which I would strongly recommend you listen to. He’s also the author of numerous books, including Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, and God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture. And he is the editor of Four Views on the Historical Adam, which is going to be the topic of our conversation today. Dr. Barrett, welcome to the podcast.
Matthew Barrett (01:42):
Thank you for having me. And love the name of the podcast, by the way.
Brian Arnold (01:45):
Well, it’s Anselmian. I figure most people will pick up on that, my theologian friends, yeah. And just the goal being—how can we help Christians understand the faith? They have the faith, let’s lead them in to more understanding of it. And with that in mind, our big question today is this—was Adam a historical person? I’m assuming that a lot of people listening might not even know that there’s other options to this. To hear that there’s a Four Views book on this, they would assume that there’s one view—that we take Genesis one and two directly at its word, six day creation, God created Adam uniquely. But that’s not necessarily the case, is it? There’s some people, even within evangelicalism, who hold different views. So walk us through a couple of those.
Matthew Barrett (02:28):
Yes, well, it can be overwhelming. And so it is important to just walk our way through them. And believe it or not, there are quite a number of views. Let me just see if I can rattle off some of these. First of all, you have some evangelicals who really have gone the route of evolution, or what they would call evolutionary creation. And on that basis, they say, no, there is no historical Adam, and that really does change the entire creation narrative in their mind, though they don’t necessarily believe that denying a historical Adam has significant consequences for the Christian faith. Another view, which is a bit more nuanced, we might call it an archetypal creation view, which basically says, well, there is a historical Adam, but that’s really not the point of Genesis. We shouldn’t even be going to Genesis to affirm or to even see if there is a historical Adam. Rather this Adam figure is meant, more or less, to be an archetype.
Matthew Barrett (03:33):
And in this view, he may or may not really even be the first human, or Adam and Eve may not be the first humans. There may be others before them. Then I would say…well, there’s another view, which is a bit more traditional in terms of evangelical beliefs. And that is a view that says—well, there absolutely is a historical Adam, and to deny historical Adam has significant consequences for everything from original sin, to evil in the world, to our Christian doctrine of justification, to the resurrection, and so much more. But in this view they would say, well, the age of the earth, we still think it’s old. Now, those who argue for this view may or may not be open to evolution. In fact, many of them say no to evolution, but nonetheless they think that there is an explanation for an older, more mature earth.
Matthew Barrett (04:30):
And then the last position I’ll mention, though there’s probably many other views and nuances in between all of these, the last one says something similar. Yes, there’s a historical Adam, and the consequences…well, the stakes are very high for the Christian faith. And this view argues that there’s really big exegetical reasons, both in Genesis and across the whole Canon of Scripture, for affirming the historical Adam, as well as theological reasons, but it also says…they also say, well, the earth is actually young. And there’s all kinds of explanations for why they think that perhaps God created it in a very mature state. And so this view is affirming a historical Adam, but is saying, well, we don’t think the earth is old or has large gaps, maybe even millions of years—rather, it’s quite young. So that’s a quick survey.
Brian Arnold (05:21):
I think that’s really helpful, and for people listening to recognize how intertwined this is with a broader discussion of views of creation. I mean, as you were mentioning those, it really does matter—old earth, young earth. Is there some sort of a theistic evolutionary process involved in this? The discussion about the historical Adam is tied up in all of that, and for me, I think some of those questions are challenging. I think we need to look at things, we need to use the minds that God has given us but recognize—I think Adam is kind of a linchpin in this. And you’ve said this a couple of times already—there’s a lot at stake in this question of whether or not Adam was a historical figure. Be laser clear on this: what is at stake if we lose the historical Adam?
Matthew Barrett (06:11):
Well, I’m so glad you asked this question because sometimes it gets dismissed. But I would argue there is so, so much at stake. Let me just say right away that even when we’re just looking at the text of Scripture, this isn’t just a Genesis issue. In fact, we see a historical Adam, I think in all kinds of ways across the whole Canon of Scripture. So not just in the opening chapters of Genesis, but as the story continues, Genesis 4-5, we see Adam and Eve presented as the first parents, and we see them doing what parents do and raising children. And the story is going to take quite a curve from there, but even as you move on, you think of 1 Chronicles or the New Testament, Luke, chapter three, in which the genealogies on which the whole storyline of humanity is based—it goes right back to Adam.
Matthew Barrett (07:01):
What’s so fascinating is that Jesus himself, sometimes just in passing, makes reference to Adam—Matthew 19, or Mark 10, and Paul, of course, is going to get theological with us. And he’s going to, in a passage like Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is actually going to really set in motion an entire doctrine of justification, all the way to the resurrection, really hinging on whether Adam exists. But you’ve asked the question, a really important question—well, what’s at stake? Let me just mention a few things, though there is so much more. First of all, our Christian doctrine of original sin. I think this is where Paul goes in Romans, chapter five, and not just our doctrine of original sin, but our doctrine of justification. So in Romans, chapter five, Paul is very clear, I think, that we have solidarity with Adam. In other words, in Paul’s mind, there are two types of people in the world.
Matthew Barrett (07:56):
You are either in Adam or you are in Christ. And Paul basically says that because you are in Adam, that is…that explains why then we receive his guilt and corrupt nature. And it also explains why there’s this terrible, terrible reality we call evil in the world. And so for Paul, if he’s ever going to get to any hope of overcoming the sin within us and the evil that he sees in the world, well, it entirely hinges on Adam being a historical person. Or in theology, we might call this Adam being our federal representative, our federal head. Well, the good news, though, on the flip side of that, is that, well, Paul can really emphasize that—well, if you are in Adam, you have hope if you are in Christ. In other words, the first Adam plunged us into the depths of our corrupt nature, but the second Adam comes, and he actually obeys where the first Adam failed.
Matthew Barrett (08:57):
He too represents us and rather than giving us guilt and corruption, the second Adam comes and actually justifies us. He gives us his perfect imputed righteousness. And of course, from there, when Paul writes to the Corinthians, for example, he’s going to move from Adam to the resurrection and say, well, yes, you have the image of this man of the dust, which is terrible news after the fall, because we know where that leads—death itself, but the good news is you also have a second Adam. You actually have the image of the “man of heaven,” as Paul calls him. And so our bodies will one day be raised. I think all of this assumes that we’ve been made in God’s image, but none of that is actually true, unless Adam actually is a historical person on which the whole destiny of humanity really depends.
Brian Arnold (09:51):
One of the words you introduced, that may be new to people, is this idea of federal headship. And you described it as this representative kind of view, that God considered all of humanity in Adam. And when Adam sins, that leads to our sin in him, right? The doctrine of original sin—because he sinned, that’s transferred to us. We are all born in sin. We are all born sinners. We have a sinful nature, and that’s a problem, and that’s the plight of Scripture. And so, you know, losing Adam, you lose the fall. You lose the fall, you lose the concept of sin, and you lose that concept of federal head, which you mentioned. And one of the things, Matt, and maybe this has been your experience too, is the fairness question comes up. Why should I be blamed for Adam’s sin? Either the hubris of saying, “if I had been in the garden, I wouldn’t have eaten from the fruit.” Or just the basic question of fairness—why would God give me sin that wasn’t on me? And yet I’ve never heard them turn around and say, “it’s not fair that Christ’s righteousness can be given to me.” So they want the one side of the equation without the other side of the equation.
Matthew Barrett (10:59):
No, you’re absolutely right. We love to complain that we’re in Adam, but we don’t often complain that, by no choice of our own, by nothing on our own account, did we do anything to deserve the righteousness of Christ, our second Adam. I think it’s a reminder, really. If there’s no…like you said, if there’s no federal head, we could say…there’s no covenants, right? I mean, the whole story of Scripture is really intertwined with this whole idea of a covenant. Are we part of the covenant that Adam broke, or are we a part of this new covenant that Christ has fulfilled? Well, all of that really explains why there’s even sin in the world. I like to tell people if we just, you know, throw Adam overboard, so to speak, aren’t we just left with kind of Pelagian options at this point, in which sin is just explained by, well, the individual choices we make externally, rather than getting to the real problem, which is internal?
Brian Arnold (12:02):
Well, and again, you’ve mentioned Pelagius—for those who don’t know who he is, who are listening, that’s a fourth, fifth century guy from England, comes to Rome. Augustine, the great church father, he and Pelagius have this big debate about this question. Pelagius saying, “if God says you can obey, then you must be able to obey.” And Augustine really establishes, in the conception of Christian theology, this idea that no, we are dead in Adam. Obviously, he’s getting that from Paul. But we are dead in Adam, original sin is real. And that debate…really Augustine settles it, but we see it flare up from time to time. And would you say you’re seeing more of that, even today? A bit more of a Pelagian bent, even on this question?
Matthew Barrett (12:53):
Yeah. And I think where it really shows itself is, you know, suppose you’re having this type of conversation and someone says, “Well, I don’t see why there’s rany eason to hold to historical Adam, and it really doesn’t have any consequences on the rest of the Christian faith.” I think right there is an opportunity, right? To say to them, well, let’s think about this—where does sin come from? What about death? And what is wrong with us? Clearly, there’s something wrong—is it just the individual acts that we do, perhaps because we see a bad example in front of us, or do we actually have a deeper identity that goes back to Adam, that explains that our very inclinations are twisted? And in order for that to be undone, we actually need the Holy Spirit to regenerate us. So all of this really hinges on this grand story that goes back to Adam. And I think this is one of the reasons why, when you go to the gospels…you think of Luke’s Gospel, for example, just before Luke’s about to introduce the story of Christ, he’s going to trace Christ all the way back to Adam. I think Luke’s sending us a message there.
Brian Arnold (14:07):
I think, you know, you mentioned the genealogies before. That’s a really important place to say—the biblical authors certainly believed that Adam was a real historical person, that that was not just poetry in Genesis one and two, but that we needed Adam as a real figure to give us this great succession and line in which Christ would come and be the second Adam, as Scripture describes him. So let me ask you this in a really provocative way—if it was absolutely scientifically proven, as some would say that it has been—I disagree—but if it’s absolutely scientifically proven that Adam was not a historical figure, is the Christian faith false?
Matthew Barrett (14:47):
Well, I tend to agree with that hint that you just gave him a minute ago. I would agree with you that, well, proving something like this scientifically is probably a no-go from the start. It might bring us back to questions about what science actually is there for, and what it can or cannot—or should not—try to accomplish. I think oftentimes when people raise this question, right, they usually have in mind the theory of evolution or at least some type of evolutionary theory. And oftentimes what happens is they feel like they’re in this pinch—okay, I either have to choose between the Bible or science, right? And maybe some of our listeners out there really have felt this pressure. And all of a sudden, you start to feel the pressure of that question.
Matthew Barrett (15:40):
Okay, well, I guess I’ve got to get rid of a historical Adam, because, well, I’ve got to believe in science. And I guess what I want to say…I mean, there’s lots that we could say in response, but I think the first thing to say is—don’t buy into that false dichotomy, right? Oftentimes people want you to think, well, it’s a debate between Bible and science, but it’s really not. We have to remember how God has revealed himself. He’s revealed himself yes, through the book of what we call Scripture, but he also has another book, called the book of nature. In other words, God’s revelation is so grand that he’s revealed himself in a special way through a written revelation, but he’s also revealed himself through what we call general revelation as well, which is seen both in the creation, in nature,
Matthew Barrett (16:30):
You read about this in the Psalms as they glorify God when they look at creation, as well as in us, as human persons made in the very image of God. Now, if that’s the case, then actually, well, the whole question gets turned on its head, because it’s not then a debate about, oh, the Bible versus science. As Christians, we very much do believe in science, and believe that when done right, it’s going to be consistent with the Scriptures. Rather it’s more or less a debate between science and science, if we can put it that way. And so I guess that…I know I’m kind of beating around the bush with your question, but I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that we don’t have to buy into sort of those modern rules of the game. Actually, we can take a step back, and we can affirm a historical Adam, and actually then look at science and use science in a way that will complement those biblical beliefs.
Brian Arnold (17:30):
And certainly I would agree there’s a false dichotomy there, and I would also not buy into that—that it’s somehow Bible versus science. I like how you said it’s science versus science. There are plenty of people on the intelligent design side of the argument who are brilliant scientists, just saying, you’re adding up the facts differently, right? Like you’re putting this puzzle together rather differently and in ways that we just think are not true. My question was just to say—how central is this to the Christian faith? So that if it’s not there, it’s gone? Because one of the things that I’ve found very helpful in teaching theology is helping people in theological method think through triage, right? This has become really popular in the last decade or two, of thinking—which doctrines are central? If we lose the Trinity, we lose the Christian faith. If we lose the hypostatic union, we lose the Christian faith. Where on these tiers…I mean, do we have brothers and sisters who deny the existence of a historical Adam, but are within the faith, right? I mean, I think that’s where this question can be so central and challenging.
Matthew Barrett (18:43):
Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I would say in response—it is central. I do think it’s central. It doesn’t mean that, you know, obviously there’s Christians out there, and I would say, yes, they’re genuine Christians. I personally think they’re probably inconsistent at this point. But in terms of the belief itself—because that’s what we’re really after—it is absolutely essential. If you take out Adam, you actually remove the very fabric of the whole story of Scripture, including redemption, and that doesn’t leave us with much hope. And so I would say—yes, it is central. Can there be some differences among Christians? Sure, I mean, when we go back to some of those views I outlined…I think, for example, when you have one Christian saying, well, I do wholeheartedly affirm historical Adam, but the age of the earth, well, it might be older. And you have another Christian saying, well, I also agree with you on a historical Adam, but I think the age of the earth might be younger than you think.
Matthew Barrett (19:53):
Okay. That that’s a fair dialogue to have. And I think, at that point, we’re still holding on, though we might disagree on certain things, we’re still holding on to the central belief of a historical Adam. But the minute that the historical Adam starts to go, or it starts to be undermined in certain ways, then at that point, I think we’re actually in significant trouble. You know, this is a broader point, but I think one of the things we have to be careful of, especially young people out there, because I know, you know, as a young Christian, rightly so, you’re so excited about the Christian faith and you want to learn, but there is a tendency to, especially among evangelicals, to sort of go about our theology…it’s what I call Las Vegas buffet theology. What do I mean? I mean we tend to approach theology as if we come to the buffet and we ourselves decide, well, I like this, but
Matthew Barrett (20:49):
I don’t like that. I like this, but I don’t like that. And at the end of the buffet line, we end up with a plate. Goodness, it’s just an amalgamation of all of our likes and we’ve gotten rid of all of our dislikes. And then what happens is you end up with about as many views as you do evangelicals. That, I think, is…well, goodness, on an issue like this, it can be quite catastrophic. I think at this point, on a central issue like this, we need to say—okay, that method is not going to serve us well in the end.
Brian Arnold (21:18):
Yeah, it is detrimental. I think what’s helpful for our listeners to hear is just how intertwined this is with all Christian theology. This isn’t something that sits on the periphery, because of that connection that Paul makes in Romans 5, in 1 Corinthians 15, saying that this is true of you because of Adam, this is also true of you because of Christ and to lose that picture is to lose some fundamental things. Now my curiosity is why it has to be a Las Vegas buffet, of all places, but you know what, we’re not that far from Las Vegas. So sometime I’m going to have to take my theology students up there, just to prove a point, I think, to grab the buffet. But I think that’s well said. I think we cannot afford to have the “I’m going to take, I’m not going to take,” but I think you were careful in the way you answered the triaging question—that this is a central piece of Christian faith. And yet we are going to have people who are genuine Christians who may disagree on some of these pieces, but likely they’re inconsistent in where their theology is. So if somebody is listening to this, and they’re saying, what are some helpful resources I could read in addition to your Four Views book, which I found very helpful when I taught on this several years ago, what else would you point them to?
Matthew Barrett (22:30):
You know, the Four Views book that you mentioned—Four Views on Historical Adam with Zondervan Academic, that’s a great survey there, where you begin to see some of the major differences that we’ve mentioned. Though the thing I like about it so much is at the very, very end, there’s this little chapter by Philip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College, and we asked him to be a theologian, of course, and so much of what we’ve been talking about, as you just mentioned, that’s really what we’re after, right? We’re not saying, okay, look at this text and then make some big decision. We’re actually saying, no, you’ve got to think about this theologically, not just across the whole Canon of Scripture, but what are the theological implications that the biblical authors draw out? That’s what I love so much about Philip Ryken’s little chapter at the end.
Matthew Barrett (23:16):
It’s called, We Cannot Understand the World or Our Faith Without a Real, Historical Adam. He’s very pastoral, but he gets at these huge questions, and really shows you how much is at stake. There’s another book, published not that long ago by IVP press, called Mapping the Origins Debate. If you’re new to this whole discussion, this might also be a good place, just to catch your bearings, but those who have heard me before, they won’t be surprised about what I’m going to say—I think sometimes the best thing you could do is read the old books. Maybe in the spirit of the title of this podcast, of course, just to give one example—I was reading Thomas Aquinas, an old medieval theologian, one of the great theologians of the Christian faith. And there’s this point, this brilliant point, where he says, he’s talking about creation,
Matthew Barrett (24:18):
And he basically says—and this is before any ideas of evolution have even come in—but he basically says, in light of God being eternal and unchanging, he says, well, of course, God has to create the world out of nothing. And he goes on to say, if creation is not actually creation out of nothing, but just God changing something or something mutating, well, Thomas Aquinas says, well, then all of a sudden, the grand uniqueness and how spectacular and how good creation is—it starts to lose that feel. And then we start to wonder—is God himself changing in this whole process, rather than creation itself? This is one of the reasons I say—go read the old books, because these types of insights, well, you just don’t always get them out of some of the contemporary books.
Brian Arnold (25:12):
Couldn’t agree more, as a church historian, and I always want to see people go back to the old wells and drink from them. Thank you so much for joining us. This is a critical issue. I appreciate you taking the time to write the Four Views book several years ago. I hope people realize how significant this is for Christian doctrine, especially as there’s so many other voices clamoring in society to tell us about human origin. Matt, thanks so much for joining us today.
Matthew Barrett (25:34):
Thank you for having me.
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