Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?

Q. Tim Keller makes the argument that when Paul says we are “in Christ” or “in Adam,” he is talking about being in federation or covenant with them, meaning that their actions are essentially attributed to us. He then asks how we could be in federation with someone who never existed, and he concludes that Adam and Eve must have been real historical figures.  What do you think of this?

Let me say first that I have tremendous respect for Tim Keller as biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor, so I hope that nothing I write here will be taken to disparage in any way his excellent ministry.

Personally, however, I do not believe it is necessary to conclude from Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians (“as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive”) and Romans (“as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”) that the human race must have begun with a single, directly created individual named Adam.  And I believe I can say this on biblical grounds.

It could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual.  I believe that to understand the Bible’s meaning, we must carefully consider the immediate context first, and the larger canonical context only second.  But once we do place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures, I think we can justifiably understand the phrase “in Adam” to mean “member of the human race,” rather than limiting it to “descendant of this named individual.”

This is because the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives.  Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”  But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God.  Note how ‘adam in this case takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female:

“When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.”

Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, the term ‘adam refers to the growing human race.  The statement translated in the NIV as “when human beings began to increase in number on the earth” is more literally in Hebrew “when the ‘adam began to be numerous upon the face of the ground.”

So in light of the use of the term in the book of Genesis, I understand ‘adam to mean essentially the human race, at whatever stage of its expansion may be in view.  By putting Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Romans in conversation with the Genesis narratives, I understand his phrase “in Adam” to mean being a member of the human race.

I feel that I can do this fairly because I don’t think Paul’s argument depends on Adam being an individual who performed certain actions that are then attributed to us.  At least as I understand the way covenants work in the Bible, if A has a covenant with B, and C is “in” B (in covenant terms), then all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that B has with respect to A also extend to C.  But it is not considered that C has personally done for A everything that B has.

For example, David took care of Mephibosheth because he was the son of Jonathan, with whom David had a covenant of friendship, protection, and provision that extended to all of their descendants.  But it was not considered that Mephibosheth had personally performed all of the acts of friendship and kindness for David that Jonathan himself had.  Mephibosheth was rather the extended beneficiary of David’s response to those actions.

In the same way, as members of the human race, we are alienated from God because of the disobedience of our race.  Mercifully, I am reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, if I join through faith in his covenant relationship with the Father.  But even then it is not considered that I have personally lived a sinless life and died on a cross for the sins of the world.  Jesus alone did those things.  Rather, I am included in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with my covenant identification with Jesus, which include both forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God, and a duty to offer the same kind of loving obedience that Jesus did.

So, in short, I do not believe that Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans require Adam to have been a historical individual.  We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.  As I’ve tried to explain here, I think the language of the Bible can accommodate this.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?”

  1. I understand how the Hebrew word “adam” can mean either an individual person or the human race, depending on context. However, I don’t understand how the phrase “one man” in Romans 5 might refer not to an individual but to the human race in general.

    There seems to be a parallel between a single (original) individual through whom sin entered into humanity (although, come to think of it, it was Eve that first ate the forbidden fruit and then got Adam to join in) and a single individual, Jesus, through whom the grace was provided. The trespass of one man brought death to many, and the grace of one man overflows to many.

    If “man” in Romans 5 means humanity or the human race, what does the modifier “one” do? And what happens to the contrast between “one” and “many” in Paul’s argument?

    1. I acknowledge in my post that “it could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual,” so your points are well taken. As I also say in the post, it is only when we “place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures” that we can “justifiably understand the phrase ‘in Adam’ to mean ‘member of the human race,’ rather than limiting it to ‘descendant of this named individual.’”

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