Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? A Review
February 20, 2012
C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who Were They and Why You Should Care (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011)
Dr. C. John Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary, has written a book that deals with a subject that may turn out to be a watershed issue for many within evangelical and reformed groups. Although Collins argues for the historicity of Adam and Eve, the way the argument is presented raises significant concerns not only for the interpretation of Scripture, but also for the character and authority of Scripture. The purpose of this review will be to try to lay out the argument of the book and then to show the problems and implications of the argument.
Collins acknowledges that what is driving a reconsideration of the historicity of Adam and Eve are recent advances in biology (p. 12). The goal of the book is to show why the traditional view of Adam and Eve should be retained even though there are pressures to abandon it. He is also concerned about good critical thinking by which he wants to try to guide this discussion. This type of thinking includes the maxim, "Abuse does not take away proper use." This maxim may allow adjustments to the traditional view without having to get rid of it altogether (p. 15).
Collins uses the phrase "traditional view" throughout the book. It is important to understand what he means by this phrase. The traditional view of Adam and Eve, by which he is going to judge other views, is that Adam and Eve were actual historical persons, from whom all other human beings descend, and whose disobedience to God brought sin into human experience (p. 11). The traditional view also includes what he calls special creation, which he understands to mean that God intervened to set apart the first couple as human beings. In other words, the emergence of human beings is not a natural process because God intervened in the process to set apart the first couple. He concludes that to stay within the bounds of sound thinking certain conclusions must be upheld (he sees these as what is required by Scripture). These conclusions are that the origin of the human race goes beyond a natural process, that Adam and Eve are the headwaters of the human race, and that the "fall," in whatever form it took, was both historical (it happened) and moral (it involved disobeying God).
The way Collins defines the traditional view is problematic because he omits from the discussion the very text that is at the heart of the debate. He explicitly says that how God created Adam in Genesis 2 is outside the purview of his analysis and that the origin of the material for Adam's body is not going to be addressed (p. 13). In other words, he bypasses an exegesis of Genesis 2:7, the main text that should be at the center of this discussion. By narrowly defining the traditional view he opens the discussion to other scenarios of how God could have set apart Adam and Eve. The traditional view, however, should include not just the historicity of Adam and Eve and the immediate special creation of Adam and Eve, but also the traditional understanding of Genesis 2:7, which is that God took soil from the ground and made Adam from it.
The basis for Collins approach is rooted in the way he thinks the Bible should be read. He wants to approach the Bible from a literary point of view that stresses rhetorical and figurative language. He defines history as signifying that the author wants the audience to believe that the events that were recorded really happened. However, he so stresses the figurative aspect of the literary approach that he actually says that the Bible should be understood as non-literal, pictorial, and symbolic (pp. 17, 20, 31). He even says that what we are left with in Genesis 1-11 is an historical core (p. 35). This allows him to move away from clear statements in the Bible concerning the formation of Adam in Genesis 2 and to entertain other scenarios. In fact, there are several places where he warns against a literal reading of the Bible (pp. 58, 85, 92, 124). Thus, we cannot be sure of the exact details of the process by which Adam's body was formed, or whether the two trees in the garden were actual trees, or whether the Evil One's mouthpiece was a talking snake (p. 66)
The literary approach, as defined by Collins, is the door that allows the consideration of views that contradict the clear statements of Genesis 2:7. Such views seek to redefine the genre of Genesis 1-11 as something other than historical narrative. However, Genesis 1-11 is historical narrative like the rest of Genesis. The historical narrative marker, the imperfect waw consecutive, is prominent throughout Genesis 1-11, just as it is prominent throughout the rest of Genesis. Of course, there can be figurative language in historical narrative, but the predominant way to read historical narrative is not in a symbolic, pictorial way. It is extremely problematic to argue that there is only an historical core in Genesis 1-11. Who decides what is the historical core? It almost seems like the term "literal" is the major enemy and Collins does not nuance what he means by the term "literal." Thus, he states that we should be careful about applying "too firm a literalism in relating the words of Genesis 2:7 to a physical and biological account of human origins" (p. 154).
The payoff to Collins' approach comes when he analyzes different scenarios of how Adam and Eve may have been set apart as the first couple. Although Collins is critical of many of the scenarios he presents, he also allows the possibility that views that favor population size approaches based on evidence from human DNA are acceptable. In other words, instead of thinking of Adam and Eve as the first couple, some want to think of groups of human beings, or even groups of hominids, that existed from which God chose two individuals to set apart as Adam and Eve. Collins notes that in order to maintain good sense, such a view should envision these humans as a single tribe with Adam being the chieftain of the tribe (p. 121). He is quoted in a recent Christianity Today article on "The Search for the Historical Adam" in the following way: "'If genetics eventually forces reconsideration,' Collins remarks, 'he could perhaps reconceive of Adam and Eve as 'the king and queen of a larger population' and thereby preserve Genesis' historicity.'" (1)
Although Collins is trying to maintain sound thinking, the acceptance of groups of humans from which Adam comes has implications for the place of Adam in relationship to the human race. It is hard to know how to conceive of these other human beings who existed with Adam. Genesis 2:7 says that when God breathed into Adam the breath of life "the man became a living creature." But were there other living creatures already in existence? If so, then what God does with the first man does not seem all that special. The implication of Genesis 2:7 is that this act of God sets apart the first man. Paul agrees when he states, "The first man became a living being" (1 Cor. 15:45). If there are other groups of humans around then how can Adam be the first man? Genesis 2:18-20 states that no helper of Adam's kind was found, which led to the creation of Eve. Scripture presents Adam as the first man from whom all other human beings descend.
Collins might respond that he himself is not arguing for these different scenarios. In fact, he argues in his book Science and Faith that 'dust' in Genesis 2:7 refers to soil out of which God fashioned the first man. If that is Collins' view, then what is the problem? The problem is that not just the views which a person affirms are important, but also the views which a person is willing to accept are also very important. For example, what if a person affirms that he believes that Scripture teaches the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but then he is also willing to receive as acceptable, or within the parameters of what Scripture teaches, the view that Christ only arose in a spiritual sense? Such a stance would cause major problems because it would allow the possibility for unacceptable views to be considered as acceptable. This has implications for what should be considered as acceptable views for ministers of the gospel within our churches and presbyteries. Should presbyteries accept candidates for ordination who do not hold to the view that God created the first man Adam from the dust of the ground?
The answer to the above question is extremely significant. There has been an ongoing debate in the reformed community concerning how God created in Genesis 1. Many denominations have allowed a variety of views concerning the meaning of "day" in Genesis 1. In other words, a variety of answers have been acceptable concerning the question of how God created in Genesis 1. Although I am not advocating for a new discussion of that question, the issue of how God created in Genesis 2 has now become the center of discussion. Many of us have been operating on the view that the question of how God created in Genesis 2 is important. Now it appears that not only is the question of how God created in Genesis 2 an open issue, but the nature of the historicity of Genesis 1-11 is also being questioned. Presbyteries are going to have to decide what are acceptable views concerning Genesis 2:7.
The line in the sand must be drawn concerning the interpretation of Genesis 2:7 and the historical nature of Genesis 1-11. The reason is that the nature and authority of Scripture is at stake. The current discussions of Genesis 2:7 are being driven by science. Scholars are willing to allow the findings of science to determine which interpretations of Genesis 2:7 are acceptable. In fact, the findings of science are the basis for denying clear statements of Scripture. We must make a stand on what Scripture says; otherwise, Scripture is not our highest authority.
The implications for allowing other views of Genesis 2:7 are serious and have significance for the interpretation of other Scripture passages. Must we now adjust our view of Genesis 2:22, which states, "And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman" (ESV). Must we deny what the Bible clearly teaches about the creation of Eve? It also seems that if we accept other interpretations of Genesis 2:7 that some of Paul's statements must be adjusted, reinterpreted, or denied. Although Collins refers to Paul's statement to argue for the historicity of Adam, he does not deal with the implications for Paul if other scenarios are allowed for Genesis 2:7. In 1 Corinthians 15:46-47 Paul contrasts the spiritual nature of the resurrection body with the earthly nature of the earthly body, which is "of dust" (vv. 46-47). It is clear that Paul would have understood the "dust" of Genesis 2:7 as soil from the ground. If other views of Genesis 2:7 are accepted, then Paul's understanding of "dust" must be false. Paul also refers to Genesis 2 in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12, where he supports his argument that the woman is the glory of man by appealing to the fact that woman was made from man. Here he refers to the statement of Genesis 2:22 that Eve was created from the side of Adam. Again, the other scenarios of how Adam and Eve were set apart as the first couple would contradict Paul's understanding of Genesis 2. The same could be said for Paul's argument in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 where Paul argues that Adam was created first, then Eve was created.
The interpretation of Genesis 2:7 is a watershed issue because it brings into focus whether the clear statements of Scripture are going to be accepted, or whether they are going to be denied based on scientific concerns. Genesis 2:7 is clear that God took dust from the ground from which he formed the first man. To allow other interpretations that emphasize population size approaches rather than seeing Adam and Eve as the first couple created by God affects the authority of Scripture. The clear statements in Genesis 2 by which God created Adam and Eve must not only be denied or reinterpreted, but statements of the apostle Paul concerning Adam and Eve must also be adjusted to fit a different understanding of Genesis 2. The implications of such views are grave. The line in the sand must be drawn in the affirmations of the full historicity of Genesis 1-11 and the acceptance of how God created Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.
Richard P. Belcher, Jr. is professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, he is the author of The Messiah and the Psalms (Ross-shire: Christian Focus), among other books and articles.
1, Richard N. Ostling, "The Search for the Historical Adam," Christianity Today 55.6 (June 2011): 27.