Friday, June 7, 2013

Historical and Theological Adam

Peter Leithart's argument on historical Adam confuses me. On the one hand, he subscribes to Pope John Paul II's distinction between "historical" and "theological" humanity. In order to understand Christian ethics, it is necessary to go back to the beginning:
Historical humanity is the humanity enslaved by sin, turned here and there by mixed motives, the humanity of domination and control, of objectification and shame. But the Bible begins with an account of a different form of human life, which John Paul labels the “theological,” according to which humanity is made in the image of God to be God’s covenant partner.

...And this theological form of humanity is still normative. Christians can’t stop at the boundary. We can’t concede that there is only “historical man” in all his evil and shame and abuse. We can’t really understand the career of historical man, John Paul says, without knowing that it is a deviation from the original state of man.
On the other hand, having accepted this distinction between "historical" and "theological," Leithart goes on to assert that,
Unfortunately, Evangelicals appear eager to replicate the liberal error. Today, many, perhaps most, Evangelicals still believe that Adam was an actual man, but there is a growing body of opinion asserting the contrary.
What does "actual" mean in this context? Does it mean ... historical?

Leithart gives theological arguments which suggest that if we give up on the historical reality of the creation of Adam, we will lose our theological and ethical foundation. This is problematic because it simply forbids us from asking any questions about the material reality of Adam. If we buy his argument, we accept the existence of Adam as recounted in the Bible because of the theological implications that come with it. Forget whether or not archaeology, biology, geology, or physics might have anything to say about the possible physical existence of such a human being, or the age of the earth, etc.

While I have never much appreciated the notion that theology and science are wholly separated spheres, the other extreme seems equally problematic. N. T. Wright's description of biblical cosmology has always stuck with me: it's the intersection of two worlds. Just as in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series there are two distinct worlds which intersect, so heaven and earth in the Bible appear to have such a relationship.

So what of historical Adam? Is it necessary that we accept this belief on theological grounds? Would it not be more appropriate to accept the existence of theological Adam?

The common objection from evangelical circles is that this is really a way to say Adam never existed in any real way. My response: this is a limited view of "real." If heaven is real, indeed if God is real, but is not perceptible by the methods of historical humanity--that is to say by the sciences and reason--I don't see why the same can't be true of Adam.

It's difficult to capture the distinction, here, but I'll try to do so with the Resurrection, the fundamental turning point for Christian theology. Christians historically believe that the Resurrection really happened--that is, Jesus physically, literally, really rose from the dead. But what we don't believe is that there is any scientific explanation for this. How could there be? Science insists on explaining things in terms of things we can control or observe repeatedly. We can't repeat the Resurrection. If it happened, it happened once and for all, and we hope it will happen to the rest of us some day. What can we say about it, then? Is there an explanation of the Resurrection? The most we can say is that the power to raise the dead came from heaven. This is inaccessible to us, but we believe it is there, and we believe we will have access to it again one day.

So with Adam, what analogy can one draw? Adam is inaccessible to the sciences. We can't see him with archaeology, we can't verify the historical records and find he is there. But we believe he was there, in the sense that we believe humanity was in a real sense created in the image of God. We don't have access to this. We believe that one day we will, but for now, all we have is the historical tools of historical humanity, which don't have access to theological Adam.

I am not suggesting the Bible is describing another world which has no relation to ours. But then I am suggesting that the Bible is not describing solely our world. If there really are two world which intersect (and sometimes collide?) then it should not be surprising of sometimes the Bible describes things which are simply inaccessible to any rational tools we have.

Whatever the appropriate response may be, I've found conservative evangelicals consistently failing in addressing this issue, because they always give me theological reasons to believe something historical, rather than theological reasons to believe something theological (or historical reasons to believe something historical). As someone who believes both science and theology are very important, I believe the distinction is worth making and then exploring.

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