Who Cares about Adam?

I don’t get it. Even after all these years studying conservative Christianity and creationism, I still don’t really get it. I mean, I understand the logic and history, but I have a hard time making sense of the ferocious emotion that goes into debates over the existence of an historical Adam & Eve. An author interview in Christianity Today outlines some of the tricky questions involved.

Who cares?

Who cares?

But first, a primer for those like me on the outside looking in: The debate over the historicity of Adam & Eve has a long history in conservative evangelical Protestantism. For us outsiders, making sense of this issue will go a long way toward helping us understand the theological underpinnings for young-earth creationist belief. Without making sense of this theology, it can be easy for mainstream scientists and observers to conclude mistakenly that young-earth creationism is nothing but some kind of cult of personality, a quirk of history.

At least since the 1960s (of course it is an ancient belief, but in 1960 it gained popularity among conservative American evangelicals as a vital theological notion central to orthodox belief), conservative evangelicals have insisted that the obvious meaning of Genesis is that God created two first humans in the Garden of Eden. These two, Adam & Eve, became the progenitors of the entire human race. Theologically, creationists have insisted, our belief in an historical Adam & Eve underpins our trust in the Bible. As Simon Turpin of young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis expressed it,

The debate over whether Adam was historical is ultimately a debate over whether we trust what the Scriptures clearly teach. If we cannot be certain of the beginning, then why would we be certain about what the Scriptures teach elsewhere? The uncertainty of truth is rampant in our culture partly due to the influence of post-modernism which is why many believe the issue over Adam’s historicity is unimportant.

For many creationists, believing the plain truth of the creation story in Genesis means believing in the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ. As Andrew Snelling of the Institute for Creation Research explained,

It is impossible to reject the historicity of the book of Genesis without repudiating the authority of the entire Bible. If Genesis is not true, then neither are the testimonies of those prophets and apostles who believed it was true.

Of course, for mainstream scientists, the notion that human genetic diversity came from only two original humans does not fit the evidence. In order to have today’s genomic sequence, I’m told, humanity must have begun with thousands of original humans.

John Walton of Wheaton College explains to Christianity Today why evangelicals can accept this science while still remaining true to a conservative reading of Scripture. In his new book, The Lost World of Adam & Eve, Walton argues that Adam & Eve can be read as the “priests” of early humanity, not the only two first humans.

Again, for those of us outside of conservative evangelicalism, the controversial nature of such claims can be hard to figure. Recently, theologian Peter Enns was booted from Westminster Theological Seminary for advocating similar ideas. Walton explains in this interview why it is possible to respect the authority of the Bible while still reading Genesis in a way that is not contrary to modern science. Walton insists that

You can affirm a historical Adam, but that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological human origins that are often assumed.

The key, Walton argues, lies in reading Genesis as the original readers would have. To them, Walton says, creation would be more about how the world of Adam & Eve was “ordered,” not just how it was “manufactured.” We can understand Adam as both a real person, a real creation, and as an “archetype” for humanity. Though there may have been other early humans, Walton explains, Adam & Eve served as the ones in God’s sacred space.

Why do such ideas matter? Again, for folks like me trying to understand conservative Protestantism from the outside, it can be difficult to make sense of the ferociously controversial nature of such arguments.

Yet they are at the heart of conservative evangelical Protestantism. As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have never agreed on the proper relationship of Genesis to either modernist theology or science. From J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Harold Lindsell in the 1970s, conservative intellectuals battled to affirm the notion that any compromise is deadly to faith.

And as I’m finding in my current research, these battles have long sent shock waves through the world of conservative higher education. Recently, Bryan College has firmed up its insistence that faculty members affirm their belief in an historical Adam & Eve. In 1961, Wheaton College did the same thing.

And fundamentalists are not the only ones who will spring to repudiate theories like Walton’s. Leading atheist pundits, too, agree that Genesis requires an historical Adam & Eve. Jerry Coyne, for example, laments the apologism of folks like Walton. Of course, Coyne does not want people to reject mainstream science in favor of a belief in an historical Adam. Rather, he hopes people will simply accept the obvious conclusion that the Bible is a book of myths.

If all of these whirling debates make your head hurt, join the club. For those of us outside the circle of evangelical Protestantism, it can be very difficult to understand the ferocious feelings at play in the Adam debate. But that ferocity lies at the heart of evangelical belief. Historically, any attempt to rationalize our reading of the Bible, any attempt to explain away the most obvious interpretation of Scripture in favor of one that accords with modern science, any effort to bring our faith into harmony with science…all have been seen as the beginnings of apostasy.

For evangelical readers, Adam & Eve matter. For those of us trying to understand conservative Christianity, this complicated debate will be a good place to start. Why would professors lose jobs over it? Why would Christianity Today dedicate a major article to this interview with John Walton? Why will Walton’s position provoke such furious responses?

Leave a comment


  1. Welcome to my world. I’m the only one in my fundamentalist family who doesn’t accept Biblical inerrancy, literally true. I am the outsider at family gatherings.

  2. Absolutely the subject comes up EVERY time for many families. Recall Bob Jones’ anecdote about the student who came home from her first semester in college (during the holidays), declared her atheism, and committed suicide? MANY family patriarchs/matriarchs and relligious church-school systems relate to children/students by triangling them in a relationship where the elder/authority and God/God’s Word/What WE believe stands over against the “individual,” and any deviation as evidenced by litmus tests about evolution (or whatever) marks rebellion, spiritual sickness, the insidious effects of secularism, etc.

    Something like this is common to many if not all family psych. processes. The Anglo-American Protestant Right also has particular historical and anti-/intellectual reasons reasons for expressing anxiety about family and group cohesion through “evolution” or any topic that introduces modern critical approaches to texts, history, and humanity. If you look at the history of specific denominations you’ll see how this has worked for over a century.

    The LCMS Lutherans are a good case study since they still officially dogmatize YEC and did so in the late 1920s or early 30s after coming under the influence of the Adventists and originally the British Anglican sources that were part of the protestant resistance to modernism. Catholics and Jews notably went in very different directions. A major 18th century rabbi actually popularized a strong, literal, grammatical reading of Genesis that has it actually describe biological evolution and almost a type of process theology that Evangelicals are deeply disturbed by when it surfaces among them.

  3. charlie

     /  September 29, 2015

    Your article implies that Walton does not hold to a historical Adam. Its also implied that the similarity of his views with Enns might imply that Walton’s employer is suspect for not firing him.

    By Walton’s own claims, neither of these implications is true.

    In the addendum to the paper by Steve Ham on The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Mr Ham seems to be accusing Mr. Walton of being an outright liar.

    Please don’t be a Ham.

  4. Ross Purdy

     /  September 19, 2017

    If I was in a position at Wheaton, I would fire Walton in a split instant. His view is simply not a Fundamentalist acceptable position. While not a proper fundy myself, I would take Henry Morris over Walton every time. My family never had arguments about Creationism vs Evolutionism ever as all are creationists nor were they all very fundamentalist. My wife and two children all graduated from college in science based fields. Our view of science is totally compatible with science. Our view of Evolutionism is that it is not in the least scientific but is rather more of a cult which has taken over the science community as an elitist group. And if you are not on board with their agenda, you will not get a job or keep a job typically. Cronyism is evident and documented. Creationists may not have all the answers nor might some of their answers be correct, but they are mostly honest and have demonstrated that Creationism is not just superior to evolutionistic nonsense but is really the only correct answer. Fundamentalist doctrine might be described as anti-intellectualism, but understand that they are not against rationality nor intelligence. Rather they oppose a corrupt guild of intelligentsia holding sway in our academic institutions.

    • Dan Knauss

       /  September 20, 2017

      It does not work to argue your religious views fit with “science” as distinct from “the science community,” a “corrupt,” “elitist cult” of “cronyism” that dogmatically enforces “evolutionistic nonsense.” Science is the science community, just as Fundamentalism is the fundamentalist community. Fundamentalists who reject the foundations of science as defined by the scientific community would not become scientists if they took control of the scientific community. Their work would not become “science.” They would simply call fundamentalist ideology “science.” The ways Muslim and Christian fundamentalists both do this to assert their empirically falsified “theories” are clear enough — it amounts to bullying and cultural conquest when that is politically possible.

      What do you really mean by “evolutionism,” as an ideology?

      Usually I see “evolutionism/evolutionists” used polemically by conservative protestants to accuse non-religious “evolutionists” of carrying along an ontology (typically “naturalism” or “materialism”) as necessarily implied or reinforced by evolution. It’s also assumed that naturalism/materialism are necessarily incompatible with theism, and that orthodox Christianity specifies a rival ontology. This is where unexamined assumptions take over as there is almost no work done or attention paid in evangelical theology and philosophy to things like the sense in which gods and religious experiences may be “real.” Aquinas’ Christianizing of Aristotle defined God as ipse actus essendi subsistens — something quite amenable to “naturalism” or “materialism” — but an Evangelical will tend to see it as too impersonal and even pantheistic because they get little to no education in these things whatsoever.

      Amos Funkenstein’s classic Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century famously traced the origins of the modern scientific mentality and its materialist-naturalist assumptions to prior Christian theological thought, specifically four key concepts that simplified or reduced reality to the physical, observable, and quantifiable. Reality, so described, is reduced mainly to explanation by material causes, teleology is strongly excluded, and the foundational metaphysics of classical and medieval thought are destroyed. That is the standard intellectual history of scientific modernity where theism if not religious faith becomes intellectually incredible. Gods, angels, demons, miracles, etc. are relegated to a “supernatural” category that can only be accepted through “blind faith.” Since faith must become “blind” (divorced from reason) in this equation, it is rightly dismissed as a non-falsifiable “god of the gaps” argument that has no place within the understanding of reality that we accept in every other domain of human knowledge. Christian theology/philosophy generated these conclusions, however, and they have not offered compelling alternatives.

      • Ross Purdy

         /  September 20, 2017

        As far as Walton is concerned, if I were running a Fundamentalist school, he would have to go. If I were running an Evangelical school, I would make sure he would have to hold his own among alternative views. Then again, you would not find me running a school! The fact is that my “religious” views are fully compatible with the science I use and understand. Not only are they compatible, they are reinforced and enhanced. I believe in a full supernatural world integrated with the material world. Perhaps someday we might be able to almost explain the supernatural and thereby demote it to the natural. That will in no way demote the spiritual aspect of creation nor the reality of the existence of God and entities that can now only be understood in supernatural terms. While my faith may have been blind when I was young and unlearned, my learning and comprehension of the natural world through science has equipped my faith with evidence. The science with which my “religious” views are compatible are not distinct from the science community, that science which can be demonstrated through experiment and measures etc. I believe that science stands in contrast to a kind of fundamentalism of the evolutionary mythology variety. It is a false secular religion that has taken control of the science community and terrorized it with a tyrannical cronyism. The god of the gap has been organized politico-religion’s attempt to deal with the unknown. As a coping mechanism, one might argue its ups and downs. But because science has and does narrow the gap does not diminish the Creator. It merely glorifies God’s nature in demonstrating His design of nature. As for compelling explanations compatible with Evangelicalism, I would suggest listening to Ravi Zacharias.

      • Still waiting to hear your definition of “evolutionism” and also “evolutionary mythology”.

  5. Ross Purdy

     /  September 21, 2017

    Well, I am referring to macroevolution of course. It is the notion that one species can evolve into a new species and that simpler life forms can evolve into more sophisticated life forms.

    • Dan

       /  September 21, 2017

      There is no such thing as “macroevolution.” That is evolutionary theory since Darwin. This sort of language was popular in some reformed circles that still officially dogmatize against “evolutionism,” but it dropped out of common use after the 80s. Genetic research has made it even more untenable to maintain this position. Yes, it is a conceptual hurdle to grasp the enormous apparent differences between species as well as the time it took for them to emerge, including life itself and cosmic formation simply on a stellar and geologic level.

      Philosophically expressed, the conceptual or theoretical problem science cannot solve is the succession of forms. We cannot conceive of origins in anything, or the precise transformation between one form — it is like Zeno’s paradox or a curve infinitely approaching its limit. Reality cannot be reduced to stasis points in space and time where “aha! this is the moment of creation!” — certainly not at higher levels, and it is relatively meaningless to say the early life and death of zygotes is a mystical event that can be mapped to “human rights.” This is what the religious reactionary mind wants, a creation far simpler than the one we have.

      Origins are beyond the horizon of our existence, so Creationists and Scientists alike talk arrogant nonsense about them when they speak as if we can have real knowledge of them. The original moment and the origin of the origin are mysteries. We can only describe a succession of one thing to the next. “The original” in texts and biology must always be beyond us in an infinite regress. There is no “last visible dog” accessible to us, as in The Mouse and His Child, a wonderful children’s story that illustrates this predicament.

      I remember Ravi Zacharias as a third-rate polemicist/apologist with no scientific or philosophical qualifications.

      • Ross Purdy

         /  September 22, 2017

        For a term that is supposed to have gone out of use in the 80’s, there sure are an awful lot of people still using it. In fact the first search result is from Berkeley.edu: What is macroevolution?

        Macroevolution generally refers to evolution above the species level. So instead of focusing on an individual beetle species, a macroevolutionary lens might require that we zoom out on the tree of life, to assess the diversity of the entire beetle clade and its position on the tree.

        Macroevolution encompasses the grandest trends and transformations in evolution, such as the origin of mammals and the radiation of flowering plants. Macroevolutionary patterns are generally what we see when we look at the large-scale history of life.

        It is apparently far more in vogue than what you would like me to believe. You are right that science can’t figure out the origins conundrum because there is nothing scientific to support evolutionary thinking. I heard Dawkins spouting the long imperceptible minuscule ever-changing advance of evolution explanation, as well as, his dismissal of all the frauds of evolutionists as being that “Victorian” science in an effort to distance himself from the fraud of evolution. It is nonsense. It is not a problem for Christianity because we have a historical record of the event and there is no friction between it and real science.

        You must have confused Ravi with someone else because he has unqualifiedly shamed any and all anti-Christians he has faced.

      • Dan

         /  September 22, 2017

        You misunderstood me. “Macroevolution” as a section of evolutionary theory that Creationists can break off and still say they support some lesser type of evolution was something respectable, educated evangelical and reformed protestants quit doing by the 90s.

        You read the Bible as a historical record in the way Ussher did — you use some type of chronology like that? It’s really more like taking Sumerian king lists as accurate and literal rather symbolic, mythical constructs.

      • Ross Purdy

         /  September 22, 2017

        I am not reformed and don’t closely keep up with them. In any case I do not believe in new species appearing but I am sure many have gone extinct. Yes I read the Bible pretty much like the Irishman did all though I don’t try to stick tightly to a rigorous chronology at least for the most ancient times. Generically creation is no more than 10,000 years.

  6. Chris Downey

     /  August 25, 2018

    If you don’t get the gravity the Genesis-as-history argument, you pro’ly wouldn’t’ve gotten Athanasius either.

    But if you get John Walton, you pro’ly get Carlos Castaneda in ways most people don’t.

    Pretty sure he’s the dude I had an interview with at Wheaton when looking for a masters program. The whole place had a creepy vibe; it was my first and, presumably, last visit.

  1. Bad News for Creationists | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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