Is it true that “no one in the Bible believed that construct of the historical Adam” but that the idea originates with the church father Augustine (354–430)? Such is the assertion of Scot McKnight, a leading NT scholar, in this video from the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation.
Last time we laid out the Scripture texts that consistently identify Adam and Eve as the original couple, from whom the whole human race descended. These texts expose McKnight’s pronouncement to be false, and no Scripture text can be advanced that supports his position. I realize that McKnight is depending not only upon Dennis Venema’s biological study in their co-authored book, but also upon the OT scholar John Walton’s claim that Genesis 1–2 is an account of origins that speaks only of the function and purpose of the parts of creation, not their material or temporal origins. Walton relativizes the message of Genesis 1 & 2 by claiming that he is reading it within its Ancient Near Eastern context. I’ve attended an entire conference listening to Walton and have read some of his books as well as critiques of them. Maybe his views can be explained and critiqued in a future blog, but aside from Walton’s treatment of Genesis 1 & 2, all the other Scripture texts I advanced last time clearly treat Adam as a real historical person who was the first man, and origin of the human race. Therefore it would not in the least surprise readers of the Bible to find writers from the early church saying the same thing. But recall McKnight’s second assertion, “I think we can blame this one on Augustine and those who followed after him, that they created this construct, that we need salvation because of the sin nature that has been passed on from Adam to everybody else.” If McKnight is correct, we would not find writers prior to Augustine holding out Adam as a real historical person who passed on sin to us.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. A. D. 180)
Let me highlight one early church apologist who does the very thing McKnight says didn’t happen. Irenaeus was a student of the apostolic father Polycarp, who himself had sat at the feet of the apostle John (all three are connected to Smyrna in Asia Minor). Irenaeus particularly opposes the Gnostic heresies in his book Against Heresies. One of their teachings was that material reality came about by a mistake or defect by some lesser divine being, and was not intended by the uppermost First Principle or highest “God.” Salvation therefore now involves the escape of “us,” who are like little sparks of the divine currently trapped in material bodies, and such escape is achieved by learning the higher mysterious system of the Gnostics. Gnostics therefore tended to say that Christ only “seemed” to have a human nature. They then took disciples like Thomas and wrote “gospels” in his name, praising his doubt. In their Gospel of Judas, Judas’s greatest deed, praised by Jesus himself, is to secure Jesus’ death, so that Jesus could escape from his material body. In that context Irenaeus found it necessary to affirm Adam, Jesus, and us all as historical persons with material bodies. He also strongly affirmed the resurrection of the body, a very counter-cultural teaching in his day.
Let’s see what Irenaeus writes in Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 23. In this first quotation he is arguing against some false teachers who asserted that the rest of humanity could be saved, but not Adam.
But this is Adam . . . the first formed man . . . and we are all from him: and as we are from him, therefore have we all inherited his title. But inasmuch as man is saved, it is fitting that he who was created the original man should be saved (3.23.2).
Irenaeus then affirms that Adam’s captivity to sin and death was inherited by all humanity, when he writes,
For it is too absurd to maintain, that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy, and was the first to suffer captivity, was not rescued by Him who conquered the enemy, but that his children were—those whom he had begotten in the same captivity (3.2.32).
He illustrates this by speaking of how unjust it would be to rescue children from their captors while leaving the parents under the power of those same captors, to do as they please. What Irenaeus means by this captivity is something he explains in the preceding section, where he writes that Satan made Adam captive by “bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under colour of immortality entailing death upon him,” and, further, that when God rescued the captive Adam, he was “loosed from the bonds of condemnation” (3.23.1). Though Irenaeus doesn’t use the language of original sin and doesn’t distinguish mediate and immediate imputation, he certainly understands that Adam’s sin had brought him and all humanity under God’s condemnation.
A bit further on, he states that God put enmity between Satan and the woman, and that it was to be continuous until the promised Seed of the women came, born of Mary. To that Seed would apply the promise of Psalm 91, that, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra; you shall trample the great lion and the serpent” (Ps 91:13). In Irenaeus’s version, the translation of “serpent” was “dragon,” and either term is taken in Scripture to refer to Satan (see Rev 12:9). Irenaeus then interprets the text as follows:
indicating that sin, which was set up and spread out against man, and which rendered him subject to death, should be deprived of its power, along with death, which rules [over men]; and that the lion, that is, the antichrist, rampant against mankind in the latter days, should be trampled down by him . . . wherefore, when the foe was conquered in his turn, Adam received new life; and the last enemy, death, is destroyed 1 Corinthians 15:26, which at the first had taken possession of man (3.23.7).
He adds, finally, that if Adam, as the lost sheep, had not been found and saved, “the whole human race [would] still [be] held in a state of perdition” (3.23.8).
Later, in Book 5 of Against Heresies, Irenaeus again affirms Adam as the first created man, “For in the same way the sin of the first created man (protoplasti) receives amendment by the correction of the First-Begotten” (5.19.1). The historical reality of Adam is further affirmed by Irenaeus’s teaching that just as the Lord Jesus Christ died on the sixth day of the week (Friday) as the Passover Lamb, so Adam sinned on the sixth day of the week of creation (5.23.2).
I suspect that one could read more widely in the apostolic fathers and early church apologists to find more about their teaching regarding Adam, but our perusal of one treatise of Irenaeus shows that McKnight’s assertion about Augustine is incorrect. Irenaeus wrote this more than 200 years before Augustine. Again, we should not be surprised, for, like us, these men were reading and explaining the Word of God. The clear message of Scripture itself is that Adam and Eve were real, historical people, that the entire human race descended from them, that Adam and Eve sinned and thereby dragged all humanity into condemnation, that our Lord Jesus Christ himself inherited the same human nature, though without sin, and that in that body he paid for sin. Therefore those who believe in him shall rise again to new life in body and soul, to live with God in a new material creation, forever.