Book Review: The Quest for the Historical Adam

HistoricalAdam5__70127.1421354609.1280.1280The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins, William VanDoodewaard. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Hardcover, 400 pages, $37.85.

Once in a very rare while I come across a book which brings me to think, “If I had the means, I would get a copy of this into every single Canadian Reformed home.” This is one of those books. If I couldn’t get it into every single CanRC home, I would settle for getting it into the hands of every single minister, elder, and deacon. The Quest for the Historical Adam is not only relevant, but crucially important for these days in which a biblical view of origins is under pressure. This volume could do a world of good if it would only receive the careful attention it deserves.

The author, William VanDoodewaard, is a church history professor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also a minister of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). For those unfamiliar with this church, the ARP is a long-time member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Alongside his seminary teaching, Dr. VanDoodewaard is also an ARP church planter in Grand Rapids. Apart from his doctoral dissertation, this is his first published book.

The title of this volume plays off a much earlier book by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In that book, Schweitzer examined how historical conceptions of Jesus led to a variety of Jesuses. While his book had some value, unfortunately, Schweitzer did not honour the authority of Scripture, so his conclusions were necessarily flawed. However, VanDoodewaard has the highest view of Scripture as he traces out how people have variously conceived of Adam. The author points that contemporary debates over origins are often afflicted with what he calls “historical amnesia.” This volume seeks to recover our collective memory of how ages past have written about, preached about, and thought about our first parents and their origins.

The first chapter provides a general overview of what Scripture says about Adam. From this overview, the author reaches this conclusion, “…there is no inherent ground to posit anything aside from a special, temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve as the first humans on the sixth day of creation” (18). The following five chapters trace out the post-biblical history of how Christians have looked at the early chapters of Genesis. If anything is clear from these chapters, it is that there has been a consensus view for millennia. The consensus is that the first chapters of Genesis must be taken seriously as a historical record. When it comes to human origins, the vast majority of Christian interpreters have understood Scripture to teach a special or immediate creation of Adam and Eve, a creation which allows for no prior biological ancestry of any sort. The Quest for the Historical Adam concludes with a chapter entitled, “What Difference Does It Make?” In this chapter, the author lays out ten areas of doctrine that are affected by how one views the origin of Adam. What are those ten areas?

  1. Scripture and hermeneutics
  2. Man and the ethics of human life
  3. Marriage and unity of race
  4. Human language
  5. God, the Creator
  6. The goodness of creation
  7. In Adam’s fall sinned we all?
  8. Christ as Creator and Redeemer
  9. Adam, Christ, and the Covenants
  10. Adam and accountability: the last things

Dr. VanDoodewaard convincingly makes the case that no one can soundly argue that one’s view of origins can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of one’s theology. Even taking an agnostic view or allowing for latitude in the matter will invariably have some impact.

The heart of the book is the historical overview. Let me mention five highlights that are worth sharing. There are many more highlights that I could mention, but I hope these five will whet your appetite and motivate you to buy the book.

Today we sometimes encounter the idea of pre-Adamites – human beings or human-like creatures (hominids) who lived before and beside Adam. One of the first to promote a form of this idea was a Frenchman named Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676). While he worked with the text of Genesis in his book Men Before Adam, he did so in a rather revisionist way. He argued that only the Jews were descended from Adam and Genesis 2 only described where the Jews came from. Everyone else came from other groups of human beings who had existed long before Adam. What motivated La Peyrère to develop this theory? He wanted to make Genesis more reasonable so that unbelievers would be more receptive to the Christian faith (143). Does this sound familiar?

La Peyrère developed a small following in Europe. His ideas were widely discussed, but uniformly rejected by Reformed theologians. His ideas were also rejected by Roman Catholic figures such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Following what Scripture taught on this matter, Pascal held to a young earth of about 6000 years age and “was also explicitly critical of pre-Adamite thought” (122).

Another valuable contribution of VanDoodewaard is his critique of historian Ronald Numbers. Numbers wrote an influential 1992 book entitled The Creationists in which he argued that a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis only exists in our modern day because of the influence of American creation scientists, and particularly through the writing of a Seventh Day Adventist, George McCready Price. “However,” writes VanDoodewaard, “more thorough scholarship reveals significant evidence of a strong stream of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources that remained firmly in the millennia old tradition of a literal hermeneutic” (157). What Numbers and others have failed to see is that, entirely apart from twentieth-century creation science, theologians and clergymen have for centuries maintained a literal reading of Genesis, reaching their conclusions based on the text alone. Our author gives several good examples with Dutch-American Reformed theologians like Geerhardus Vos, William Heyns, Foppe Ten Hoor, and Louis Berkhof.

An important part of the work of a historian is discerning patterns. The Quest for the Historical Adam reveals an important pattern in thinking about origins. It starts with sources outside of Scripture and Christian theology pressuring an alternative explanation – these sources could be philosophical, scientific, literary, or archaeological. Under that pressure, interpreters begin to make allowances for alternative explanations. Other generations eventually arise which take things a step further and assert these alternative explanations more stridently, also following through on their logical consequences. This pattern is evident throughout the book.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. VanDoodewaard is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. It is not surprising then to find his church and its struggles with this question mentioned. He notes that the ARP adopted a synodical teaching statement in 2012 that affirmed the clear biblical teaching on origins. He contrasts that with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He notes that efforts were made to have the PCA clearly rule out aberrant teachings on origins. A 2012 effort to have the PCA General Assembly issue a teaching statement on this matter floundered. Why? There was a convergence of two broad camps. VanDoodewaard writes:

Some argued that the confessional standards of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms provided sufficient clarity on the topic – positing that if there were concerns, they ought to be pursued through the means of church discipline. Other delegates held that belief in evolutionary biological processes in human origins, as circumscribed by Collins, Keller, or others, was harmonious with Scripture and represented a legitimate latitude of ecclesiastical theology (248).

These two lines of argument paralyzed the PCA and prevented it from taking a stand. The result is that various forms of theistic evolution continue to have a comfortable home in the PCA and very little, if anything, can be done about it. Will we in the Canadian Reformed Churches learn from this history while the opportunity is still there?

Obviously, I have a great deal of appreciation for this book. However, there are a couple of oversights that I noticed. Chapter 3 deals with “Adam in the Reformation and Post-Reformation Eras.” While the author does spend some time with the Westminster Standards (especially the issue of “in the space of six days”), he disregards the Three Forms of Unity or other Reformed confessions. This is important in our day when we hear it asserted by some that theistic evolution falls within the bounds of our confessions. Nevertheless, VanDoodewaard’s research certainly does support the position that in the era in which these confessions were originally written, it would have been unthinkable for forms of theistic evolution to be tolerated in Reformed churches. Chapter 6 deals with the 1950s to the present. The author has some discussion about developments in the Christian Reformed Church, but there could have been more said. For instance, it would be helpful for readers to see how the tolerance of theistic evolution in the CRC grew out of a weakened view of biblical authority starting in the 1950s, especially under the influence of the Free University of Amsterdam.

The Quest for the Historical Adam is a unique contribution to a vitally important topic. It might be a bit technical at times for some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. As intimated in my introduction, this is especially an important book for office bearers. As those who have promised to “oppose, refute, and help prevent” errors conflicting with God’s Word, we need to educate ourselves about those errors and the patterns that lead to them being accepted. This is all the more case when an error is right before us, threatening to undo us. I heartily commend Dr. VanDoodewaard for writing this valuable book and Reformation Heritage Books for publishing it. May the day hasten when historians look back and say that the publication of this book was a turning point for the maintenance of orthodoxy on origins!


This review was originally published in Reformed Perspective magazine and reappears here with their gracious permission.