Doctrinal Atomism and Theological Adamism

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A few posts ago I raised the question of the stability of individual confessional points when isolated from a more elaborate confessional framework. Perhaps I might coin a term at this point: doctrinal atomism, defined as the ability to hold with sincerity individual points of theology without fitting them in to an overall doctrinal structure.  It is not that people who, say, deny the unity of the origin of the human race in Adam necessarily abandon an orthodox understanding of the gospel; it is rather that they ultimately have no stable basis for not abandoning or redefining the gospel.  Individuals can be remarkably inconsistent and thus this type of inconsistency can sometimes have little impact on their personal faith; indeed, for new church members, as I have repeatedly argued elsewhere, a fairly minimal doctrinal confession should be all that is required; and the new believer may well not understand all the doctrinal connections and implications of such a brief confession.  

The situation is different, however, when we are talking about elders, churches as confessing bodies, and big organisations who have a significant teaching role.   Such entities have a responsibility to make sure that they are transmitting the gospel in a stable form from one generation to another.  To do that, there has to be an understanding of how any individual doctrine connects to other doctrines within the larger confessional structure.   Minimal doctrinal statements tend to doctrinal atomism and thus are vulnerable to the concern underlying P. T. Forsyth's two generation rule: each generation needs to reflect on what its teaching or doctrinal formulations might lead to in two generation's time.

Different doctrines can have greater or lesser impact on the overall doctrinal confession.  For example, whether or not the civil magistrate can call a synod is an important question; but one's answer to that does not have any real significance on how one understands justification.   Something as significant for theology as the origin, nature and significance of Adam, however, is structurally very important; and, in terms of Forsyth's rule, shifting convictions on this matter will probably bear fruit, for good or ill, within a much shorter time frame.

To make this matter pointedly relevant, the answers to the key ethical question of the day (What is the nature of human gender and sexuality?) and the key question of all time (Who is Jesus Christ?) cannot stand apart from the answer to the key question of human origins: Who was Adam?     Those who wobble on the last one really have no grounds for not wobbling on the first two.  And those who shift on the issue of Adam need to reflect on how that impacts the rest of their theology.  When it comes to Adam, doctrinal atomism is not an option.

There is no need to take my word for it.  I am just an historian so here are a couple of quotations from a pair of real theologians about whom many in the current reformed revival are rightly enthusiastic:

Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics II, 526):

The unity of the human race, as Scripture teaches, is .... finally, not a matter of indifference, as is sometimes claimed, but on the contrary of the utmost importance: it is the presupposition of religion and morality. The solidarity of the human race, original sin, the atonement in Christ, the universality of the kingdom of God, the catholicity of the church, and the love of neighbor--these all are grounded in the unity of humankind.

Warfield (Works IX, 258):

So far is it from being of no concern to theology, therefore, that it would be truer to say that the whole doctrinal structure of the Bible account of redemption is founded on its assumption that the race of man is one organic whole, and may be dealt with as such. It is because all are one in Adam that in the matter of sin there is no difference, but all have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:22 f.), and as well that in the new man there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11). The unity of the old man in Adam is the postulate of the unity of the new man in Christ.

In conclusion, the question of Adam is arguably the biggest doctrinal question facing the current generation.  Further, mere agreement on ethical positions - for example, complementarianism - is really meaningless if there is no agreement on the conceptual theological foundations for such. Unity on ethics alone paves the way for a Christianity understood primarily in terms of cultural preferences.    That is not biblical Christianity.

Posted January 18, 2013 @ 8:30 AM by Carl Trueman

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