A Response to Tim Keller’s “Killer Argument” Against a Mythological Adam

Several weeks ago, Christianity Today published the cover story of their June 2011 issue online.  As a subscriber to the magazine, I decided to wait for my hard copy to arrive before delving into Richard Ostling‘s article “The Search for the Historical Adam.”  Although it took me several breakfasts to get through the article, I eagerly anticipated the conclusion, hoping for a positive sign that certain prominent Christian pastors and scholars (beyond the usual suspects) were exercising their God-given reason and giving science a chance to illuminate the historical reality surrounding the origin of our species, all the while retaining belief in the spiritual reality in which our species has found itself since the beginning of our interaction with the Supreme Creator and His moral law.  As I read the final paragraphs this morning and swallowed my last spoonful of Frosted Mini-Wheats, the milk seemed to suddenly sour.  I was wrong.

While I greatly admire the ministry and works of Tim Keller, I was taken aback considerably when Ostling quoted a paper Keller wrote for a BioLogos workshop:  “[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures.”  My spider-sense (courtesy of a distant evolutionary cousin) manifested itself as a tingling at the base of my skull.  Was Paul’s discussion of Adam in Romans 5:12-21 really meant to instruct his audience in the historicity of Adam and Eve?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Although living in Rome, the historicity of Adam and Eve was already something assumed by his Jewish audience.  There was no need for Paul to remind his readers of something that was part and parcel of their culturo-religious milieu.  They did, however, need to be reminded of something much more important:  the reality of their spiritual condition and their dire need for a savior, Jesus the Christ.  That, Mr. Keller, is the focus of Paul’s teaching.

If that wasn’t enough, Keller went on to write, “If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument — that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’ — falls apart.  You can’t say that ‘Paul was a man of his time’ but [then say that] we can accept his basic teaching about Adam.  If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”  Once again, nothing could be further from the truth, specifically in regard to our salvation hinging on the historicity of Adam and Eve.  While the scientific evidence of our primordial heritage is clearly recorded in our DNA and argues forcefully against a historical Adam and Eve — traditionally understood to be the first pair of human beings created de novo approximately 6000 years ago — our collective observations and human experience argue just as forcefully that we are spiritual victims of our own genes.  We are subject to some of the same primal instincts that caused our particular evolutionary lineage to survive and thrive.  We are driven to eat, drink, and sow our wild oats.  We are compelled to protect that which is ours, desire that which isn’t, and bond together in a society for utilitarian purposes.  Despite all the survival benefits that our genes have conferred upon us, we still envy.  We still murder.  We still commit adultery.  We still bite the hands that feeds us.  Our motives aren’t purely altruistic.  It is clear to me that we human beings, as enlightened as we are as a species, are still quite in need of God’s power to transform our minds, allowing us to transcend that which makes us human and move us to new stage in human evolution:  adopted children of God with truly transformed spirits, destined to experience a new dimension of relational living with each other and the Creator who made us.  Destined, as heirs of eternal life, to survive in some fashion beyond the grave, no longer subject to the gene-ridden flesh which made us sinners unable to move beyond ourselves by our own power.

Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures declare unerringly the truth that is the crux of Paul’s argument:  We are sinners in need of salvation.  Salvation from ourselves and the propensity to sin that is inherent in our species, from the moment of our conception to the moment fog no longer graces the mirror in which we see clearly our imperfections.  To paraphrase the Mexican bandit in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles,* “Adam?  We don’t need no stinking Adam.”  To prove our need for Christ, all we need is to be ourselves.  To be human. For example, if I were to develop cancer, it would concern me much less as to the cause of my condition than the fact that I was suffering from a deadly disease.  In the same way, how and when the human race became sinful is infinitely less important than recognizing our sinful state and seeking out a way to remedy it.

The “core of Paul’s teaching,” Mr. Keller, is that we are sinners who require redemption from the bondage of sin — inescapable sin brought on by our inherited flesh — through recognition of the loving, faithful-unto-death act of the very historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth.  While we don’t need the First Adam, we still need the Second Adam in order to make us more human than human.  To deny that fact, Mr. Keller, is to deny the “core of Paul’s teaching.”  That would crumble the foundations of the Christian faith.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Oh, yeah … I almost forgot.  I’m back!  :D

* Which, in turn, paraphrases a line from the 1948 film adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

UPDATE:  At Joel Watts’ suggestion, I’ve changed the title of this post for the sake of accuracy from “A Response to Tim Keller’s ‘Killer Argument’ Against Theistic Evolution” to its current title.  Thanks, Joel!

21 Comments

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21 Responses to A Response to Tim Keller’s “Killer Argument” Against a Mythological Adam

  1. Glad you're back! And a great fresh start, Mike!

    You put words to the very thoughts that have been churning in my mind of late. The essence of the gospel — that we are prone to self-destructive, self-centered behavior, and that the grace and forgiveness of God can deliver us into a more fruit-filled and joy-filled life — is evident from our experience, and does not require a O.T./N.T. literal metanarrative either to validate it or to elucidate it. Certainly that Biblical metanarrative illustrates it, but it's ability to do so does not hinge upon wether we understand it literally or mythologically.

    Thank you!!

  2. Hi Mike,

    I agree. It seems that Keller's stuck on the idea that mankind has fallen from a state of "primal innocence" and he needs a historical Adam to make that happen. He also wants to place an enormous amount of weight on the "as" in "as in Adam", as though it makes Adam's fall a condition precedent for salvation through Christ's vicarious death. I certainly don't see it that way.

  3. Chris

    "While we don't need the First Adam, we still need the Second Adam in order to make us more human than human."

    To understand it as a coherent myth or story-not even as a metanarrative-I think we need the First Adam…without the First we would not understand the Second. To remove him would like trying to cut out a foil from a novel that explains and gives light to the protagonist…and more than that, the meaning of Paul's statement would be lost without the presence of a First Adam.

    @cognitivediscopants
    The introduction to Genesis is the story of mankind's fall "from a state of 'primal innocence'", whether you believe it to be historically accurate or not. If it is purely a story then it a great story-the Great Eucatastrophe–where this introductory event, the great catastrophe, is put under a "reversal" (aristotle) by 'Deus im homine'.

    If the intro to Genesis is not historically accurate than I must ask what the "problem" is, when it started, and how it started? I don't believe the myth of universal evolution is an acceptable explanation for our core problem.

  4. Welcome back, Mike! I appreciate your thoughts, eloquently expressed, and hope this is a sign of more to come. And this was a welcome counter-point to the posts on BioLogos on the Christianity Today article and editorial.

  5. Thanks, Cliff and Nancy, for your kind words. I had just been wondering what would spark my desire to blog again and the CT article hit home with me. Voila!

    As far as BioLogos goes, I'll have to now go back and read what they've written. I purposely avoided reading any reviews or responses to the article in order to (1) not spoil the read, and (2) not allow anyone else's views to influence my own prior to publishing my post. I figured I'd get more enjoyment out of it. And I did!

    Thanks again!

  6. @Chris:

    Perhaps you misunderstand my argument.

    To understand Paul's point, yes, we need a First Adam in order to understand the need for a Second Adam. But that's only within Paul's 1st-century Judeo-Christian paradigm. While we 21st-century Christians can appreciate Paul's analogy and use of typology for what they are, we possess knowledge to a greater degree unfathomable to the early Church fathers and, therefore, have the capacity and responsibility to break through that ancient paradigm into another that reflects reality to an exponentially greater degree. For us, an historical First Adam is not necessary in order to recognize that entering into a relationship with an historical Second Adam — who is God incarnate — remains a requirement for us to move into the next stage of human evolution: a Spirit-filled life.

    Can you not imagine a reformulation of the Gospel message without the use of the terms "First Adam" and "Second Adam"?

    If the intro to Genesis is not historically accurate than I must ask what the "problem" is, when it started, and how it started?

    The problem, Chris, is identical to that which would be if an historical Adam actually existed to take an historical Fall! I ask you to reread my post again, especially the part where I highlight the reality of our spiritual situation: "Despite all the survival benefits that our genes have conferred upon us, we still envy. We still murder. We still commit adultery. We still bite the hands that feeds us. Our motives aren't purely altruistic. It is clear to me that we human beings, as enlightened as we are as a species, are still quite in need of God's power to transform our minds …"

    I don't believe the myth of universal evolution is an acceptable explanation for our core problem.

    I beg to differ. In fact, I think the evolutionary explanation undergirds the biblical argument of mankind's universal sinfulness in a much more scientific way (with arguably more explanatory power) than the idea that Adam's physical nature transformed at the moment of his fall to such an extent that he was destined to physically pass on this new nature (which is oddly not mentioned in the Fall account) to his progeny.

    @cognitivediscopants:

    You're right that Keller is stuck on the idea that "in Adam" requires a historical personage for our collective propensity for sin to be a physico-spiritual reality. But the phrase "in Adam" can just as easily be equated to "in man" or "in humanity" and retain the same argumentative force. Would you agree?

  7. Chris,

    As I like to point out, in a move not at all unlike contemporary rabbinical fashion, Paul creates here a typological comparison in the inverse: one was a death-giving person, and one a life-giving person. Paul's analogy to Adam adds the credibility of typology to Paul's contention that Jesus' redemptive work was for all. Typological analogy asserts that the type (here Adam) and the subject at hand (Jesus) share a similar pattern, not that the type existed solely to foreshadow the matter at hand. It certainly doesn't demand the historicity of the allusion. If Paul had instead said, "For as from one vessel (Pandora’s box) all evil entered the world, so from one vessel (the tomb of Christ) sprang into the world the remedy for all evil," we'd think, "Ah, nice analogy there, Paul," not, "So Pandora must have existed!!" Using typology to justify a position is at best propositional, not authoritative, because nothing more can be done than citing precedent and asserting that the principle holds for the present issue. In short, it doesn't matter whether Paul believed an historical figure named Adam literally fell and passed death down to all his descendants in some genetic or federal fashion through resultant "original sin". Christ's work was not dependent on the sin of one man alone: every man's sin necessitates Christ’s work. And every man sins.

  8. The Keller comment is an important one because it reveals (divine?) the sorrowful state of evangelical hermeneutics. If this is one of evangelicalism's foremost leaders, then what does it say about the average person in the pews?

  9. One practical problem I always come up against when considering evolution vs. creation is the idea of courtship during the eons-long process. Why would any male of some half or semi-formed specie-gradually-becoming-human wish to mate with some ugly three-legged flopping four-eyed scaly fish thingy? The poetry and symmetry of the male and female bodies as we now know them, flawed though they be, seem hard-pressed to stand alone (no pun) while mating down through those long corridors of time, particularly during the pre-humanoid phase. How did all that work? And it begs the question — why would an intelligent and willful God determined to create something and pronounce it ‘good’ wish to put in the painful time watching those hideous creatures morph into what we have now? A slightly rhetorical question, of course, but after awhile it all starts to sound like science fiction no matter what side you buy into ~~

  10. @Michael:

    One practical problem I always come up against when considering evolution vs. creation is the idea of courtship during the eons-long process.

    It's quite easy to explain: 99.9% of the time, the male member of a particular species only mated with a female member of the same species. (The remaining 0.1% accounts for individual members of a species who couldn't get a date with a member of the opposite sex for some reason or another.) Certainly, some members of the opposite sex were uglier than others, with faces only a mother could love; but generally speaking, the primal instincts to procreate overrode any aesthetic concerns (much like the role of excessive beer consumption in modern-day relationship building).

    Why would any male of some half or semi-formed specie-gradually-becoming-human wish to mate with some ugly three-legged flopping four-eyed scaly fish thingy?

    You have to admit, Daryl Hannah was pretty hot in Splash.

    The poetry and symmetry of the male and female bodies as we now know them, flawed though they be, seem hard-pressed to stand alone (no pun) while mating down through those long corridors of time, particularly during the pre-humanoid phase. How did all that work?

    I highly suggest you check out the this resource.

    And it begs the question — why would an intelligent and willful God determined to create something and pronounce it ‘good’ wish to put in the painful time watching those hideous creatures morph into what we have now?

    Hideous? You should know, Michael, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I'm confident that the Beholder, for Whom "a thousand years in His sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night" (Psalm 90:4), delighted in watching His creation unfold into the untold billions of various galaxies, suns, planets, and species of life in existence today.

  11. These aren’t great answers, but maybe I didn’t ask great questions either. Thanks for trying though ~~ : D

    You addressed the one-eyed cyclops problem rather routinely, but ‘mating’ is the easiest part of this whole thing. Almost too easy. What about afterwards? The rearing, the nurturing, the social and familial intricacies throughout the lifespan of the specie …. just look at your own life from birth to the present in all of its infinite and subtle detail. It’s a miracle you got to where you got, but you purport that these other lopsided semi or even vaguely humanoid creatures were able to get beyond the flopping during the ‘middle stage’ of evolution and work out a lifetime (very short though it may have been) of social networking on some kind of primitive primordial level? Do you really believe all that? If so, how would you describe an average day in the teenage life of a creature that would make a mongoloid look like Charles Atlas, not only physically but intellectually and socially, us being social creatures and all?

    Again, it’s a somewhat rhetorical question, but I believe its valid for the novice man-on-the-street like myself who doesn’t know shit from Shinola about all the specific scientific details. All I can think about are these practical socio/physical problems that work against my rational belief in the evolution theory (or ‘fact’ as it supposedly now is according to yourself, Ojo Taylor and other notable minds of the world ~~ : )

    I have not formulated an opinion, btw, and am not playing any advocate of any devil. Just wondering about stuff.

  12. p.s. I think I need to dig out those books you gave me and give them a good read once and for all!

  13. @Michael: I gave you some books??? Are you Heather's husband?!?!

  14. I'm also impressed that you know who Ojo Taylor is. Good taste in music.

  15. Anonymous

    Perhaps one can have their historical Adam cake and eat it too.

    If the viewpoint is taken that Paul is speaking of the first physical human biologically then Paul obviously has some problems. However if Paul is speaking of Adam as the first faithful from which Judaism and Christianity have evolved then perhaps there is some limited historicity to Adam as typological of Christ the last Adam.

    When I say limited it’s obvious that the Hebrews clearly had no idea historically to pin the Adam label on a particular identifiable individual. Perhaps there is though the possibility that the ancient Adapa character may be in view from their perspective. Thus the generic use of the term Adam representing faithful humanity appears to be inclusionary of a faith seeking YHWH people; the church.
    Historically Judaism and Christianity had to have a logical beginning. We attribute Christianity to Christ the last Adam, the OT attributed their church origins to the nebulous first Adam. The answer to Paul’s dilemma very likely resides in understanding his perspective of a faith people and not a biological people. The biological only become inclusionary from Paul’s perspective through faith otherwise they are outside the narrative.

  16. Steve Douglas–*applause*.

    Mike, I'm afraid Keller is constrained on this subject by his confessional vows to Westminster and their interpretation by the PCA. As an ordained minister in the PCA, he *cannot* express any doubt that Adam and Eve were historical persons and retain his position as a teaching elder. His interpretation of Romans 5 is inerrantist boilerplate and allows him to plausibly affirm his subscription to the WCF and deny that he is an evolutionary creationist before his Session and Presbytery. Believe me, there are *plenty* of his colleagues in the PCA that, (for starters) because of his connection to Biologos, do not believe he is sincere in denying evolution and would be all too happy to have a smoking gun with which to bring him up on charges. Disappointing, yes. But human, all too human.

  17. Thomas Fasoldt

    Please help me. How exactly does the DNA argue against a historic Adam and Eve?

  18. You may make your case elsewhere for why the CT author is missing the facts of science, and I’m sure you could find (if you wanted to look) the evidence that those scientific evidences are circular and full of assumptions. So instead of talking about the science, I’ll give two arguments.

    Theological – Ex. 20:
    Why does God write with his finger that he made the world in 7 days? He used it as evidence that we should rest every 7th day. We can forgive a prophet, if it’s Moses’ mistake, but how do we reconcile that God Himself wrote it? Is the Sabbath rest somehow figurative? Primitive man wasn’t that stupid. It wouldn’t have been hard for God just to say, “Because I said so.” Why would God lie in the same set where He commands us not to?

    Historical:
    Jewish history doesn’t consist of only one book. One of the most neglected was found in multiple manuscripts (among the most popular) of the dead sea scrolls: the book of Jubilees. It clarifies and expounds on Genesis. If it wasn’t literal history, how do you make sense of Jubilees? What’s more, the European kings have genealogies that go back to Noah. The pagan gods, according to ancient historians, were deified ancestors whose stories were embellished. History proves that we don’t diverge from apes. The evidence of that is here:
    http://FromNoahtoHercules.com/

  19. being contentious can be quite futile when failing to grasp the intend of the message of Paul, Tim or whomever… which it often has to do with considering a particular angle rather than concluding an exclusivist point.

  20. Jim Brubaker

    I agree with Brian. No answer has been given. That may mean that it is hard to fault his logic.

    It seems you are basing your convictions about evolution being true on the degree of similarity in DNA between humans and primates (chimpanzees?). The evidence is out of date. I suggest anyone fairly evaluate this before going down the road of using genetics to believe evolution is true: http://creation.com (search for “human chimp dna similarity re-evaluated”. creation.com is great for most any presumed evidences that the biblical account cannot be taken as intended, at face value.

    Please do not try to connect a reliable revelation from God with the suggestion that God did not speak truthfully about creation, the extent of the flood. You can reconcile a belief in Jesus and salvation and the Bible being true in some areas, with Gen. 1 not being true as written because you were taught by those who did believe the Bible was fully trustworthy. You have the memory of those who did believe it. The next generation will take your stance to the logical conclusion and say simply that the Bible is not true. How can we believe any of it?

    I hope you think long and hard, with prayer, about what you say on Biologos, as it is a very destructive stance logically and spiritually.

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