Carl Trueman Weighs in on the Historical Adam

Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), carl trueman has an excellent post on the importance of the question of Adam. Trueman’s main thrust is not to defend the traditional view, but to insist on the centrality of this issue for theology. He writes, “the question of Adam is arguably the biggest doctrinal question facing the current generation.”

Trueman discusses “doctrinal atomism,” which he defines 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…

He goes on to argue, rightly in my mind, that it is incumbent upon elders, pastors, and teachers to ensure that “they are transmitting the gospel in a stable form from one generation to another.” In other words, while we might allow that genuine believers can differ on certain important points of theology, we ought to insist that those in positions of authority in the Church have a coherent and “stable” theological system, within which the gospel has a sound foundation. Trueman continues by noting two areas that will be affected by one’s view of Adam. He is worth quoting here:

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.

By now, I’ve almost quoted the whole post, so you might as well just go and read the rest of it. This is an important issue for our day, and Trueman brings up some pertinent points that are worth reflection.


About Peter Green

I am a doctoral student at Wheaton College. My dissertation is on vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, particularly as it is used to convey the theme of Creation to New Creation. My interests are (in no particular order): biblical ethics, epistemology, apologetics, sacramentology, science and faith, biblical theology, OT theology, biblical political philosophy, and intertextuality. I consider myself to be in the historic Reformed tradition, and attend a PCA church. I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary--the PCA's denominational seminary--and hope work for Reformed University Fellowship, which is the PCA's campus ministry, following my PhD studies.
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4 Responses to Carl Trueman Weighs in on the Historical Adam

  1. ganv says:

    This is a well stated summary of a main justification of the use of statements of faith to ensure maintenance of a stable theological system. But it doesn’t address the other way that systems can go unstable…by external circumstances and evidence making belief in the previously stable system become unstable. Right now, the claim that Adam had no evolutionary ancestry has become unstable in the face of evidence from paleontology and genomics. Simply claiming that the traditional understanding of Adam is the only stable one is to completely misunderstand our situation. If the choice is between the young earth creationist’s Adam as the only stable foundation for Christian doctrine and abandoning Christianity all together, it seems that most intelligent people exposed to the evidence seem to abandon Christianity all together. That is unstable. Many people are trying to find new understandings of Adam that are a stable foundation for theology of future generations. But you never know how stable new ideas are until they are lived out. The logic you use is commonly used by traditionalists to justify tradition…since it survived in history it is stable. But in fact, we are at a point where it is the traditional views of Adam that are the most unstable. Which of the new interpretations of Adam turns out to be stable will only be discovered by Christian communities encouraging their best scholars to explore new ideas. This is something that the use of statements of faith that are not ‘minimal’ tend to hinder rather than encourage.

  2. Peter Green says:

    There is a lot here that needs to be addressed.

    First the unqualified claim that paleontology and genomics are making the traditional understanding of Adam unstable dismisses the excellent work done by respected scholars of science and theology. Vern Poythress has written on this in a number of contexts. Most recently, though, his article on WTJ deals with the most current genomic research. (Poythress, Vern S. “Adam Versus Claims from Genetics.” WTJ 75 [2013]: 65–82).

    Data is not self-interpreting. The “data” from paleontoloy and genomics needs to be interpreted and this must be done with a particular interpretive framework (i.e., presuppositions that make sense of the data–on which see Poythress, Redeeming Science). Some intelligent Christian scientists believe that the data creates problems for a traditional view of Adam, some intelligent Christian scientists don’t. The question is, are these scientists using a Christian interpretive framework and are they dealing with the evidence in an honest and excellent fashion. Both questions are equally important.

    You mention the “traditional” view of Adam, then link it with Young Earth Creationism (YEC). I don’t know, but I would be quite surprised if Trueman is a YECist. Here the question is what is the “traditional” view of Adam. Some would like to link it to YECism (most YECists and most theistic evolutionists for polemical purposes as you did), but I for one think that is a mistake. The “traditional” view of Adam is that he was created apart from any preexisting living thing, that he was the first homo sapien, that he and his wife Eve were the progenitors of the entire human race (e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism Q 22-31). The traditional view of creation is YEC, which many people have abandon. However, a much smaller number have abandon the traditional view of Adam. These are important distinctions since the traditional view of creation is not very important for passing on a “stable” theological system, whereas the traditional view of Adam affects so many other issues that abandoning it has dire consequences (Trueman’s point).

    As far as tradition goes, you misunderstand why most people appeal to tradition (or at least most Reformed people). The argument is not that it is stable because it has been stable in history. The argument is that the tradition has arisen out of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church for the last 2,000 years, and thus, must only be rejected with fear and trembling, and only in the face of overwhelming evidence that the tradition was wrong. This has decidedly not been demonstrated in the case of Adam.

    As for Christians encouraging their “best scholars,” I’m all for it, as long as they do so under submission to the Lord Jesus in all areas of their lives, including and especially the areas of their scholarship. And submission to Jesus also means submission to his Body and Bride, the Church, and the traditions she has passed down through the ages, especially in the form of statements of faith.

  3. ganv says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for the response. Indeed libraries can be filled with attempts to cover the entire range of issues here. I agree with you about the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the handing down of tradition…my comment probably was too critical of tradition. God has spoken to his people throughout history. As a protestant, respect for tradition is tempered by the realization that there are times for rejecting traditions because they have departed from the truth, often by creating false essentials out of human traditions. You imply you are reformed, so you probably agree that we can’t simply ignore the book written in the creation when it doesn’t seem consistent with the way tradition has read the written word of God.

    I read key parts of that article by Poythress. Compare it with the arguments of Francis Collins in the Language of God, and I think you will see that Poythress doesn’t seriously engage the scientific evidence that leads most scientists (Christians (like Francis Collins and many lesser minds including me) as well as non-Christians) to conclude that humans share a common ancestor with other primates. The problem with accepting theistic evolution but not evolution of humans is that the evidence for human evolution is also very strong. Our genome happens to be one of those that we have most extensively studied. As we enter the era where large fractions of humanity have their DNA sequenced (likely within a generation), it is highly unstable for the church to be proclaiming that the obvious implications of measurements are incompatible with orthodox Christianity. Hiding behind claims that scientific conclusions depend on ‘assumptions’ and ‘presuppositions’ only works for so long, particularly when biologists working from a Christian worldview draw the same conclusions as their secular counterparts. At some point, the anti-evolutionists have to come up with a theory that better explains the measurements and predicts the outcome of future measurements. Most of us conclude they are very far from producing a useful scientific theory.

    On a note closer to home, have a look at the history of Wheaton’s position on evolution. The statement on Adam was actually added to the statement of faith in the 1964 to assure conservatives that the faculty remained fully opposed to theistic evolution, so it isn’t a long-standing tradition. (Bechtel, A Heritage Remembered 1984). The statement wisely focuses on Adam, but the conservatives were actually opposed to all forms of evolution. Wheaton has held the line on Adam, but most of the faculty already when I was a student there two decades ago had accepted the evidence for an old earth and evolutionary relationships between animals and identified interpretations that respected this data and the Biblical text. In the process they rejected the strict literalism that the conservatives wanted to hold the College to. I write so much about this because it pains me to see Wheaton making it difficult for the next generation of Christian scholars to integrate what we know from measurements with what God has told us in his Word. It is not clear exactly where the truth lies about the historical Adam, but it seems to me and many other scientists that the truth is near or outside the boundary line that Wheaton has drawn for their orthodoxy, making it very hard for scholars associated with the college to make major contributions to guiding the church toward a stable theology for the future.

  4. Peter Green says:


    I do accept that the “book of creation” and the Bible have no contradiction between them when each is properly interpreted (and there’s the rub!). And I am even willing to very cautiously admit that there are times when changing scientific theories ought to cause us to change our interpretation of Scripture.

    Certainly, Poythress is not actively involved in scientific research, so he’s not as up on the scientific issues as Collins, but Collins is likewise not a professional theologian, so he is going to be weak in that area as well. And for what it’s worth, as far as I know Collins only has formal study within the sciences, whereas Poythress has numerous degrees in the field of Bible and Theology as well as outside of it. So between them, we ought to expect (at least initially) that Poythress would be more trustworthy when it comes to integrating faith and science.

    Poythress is a theologian publishing in a theological journal, so of course his article isn’t going to be as scientific as you would like. My main point is that he, and the many others that he cites, represent substantial voices that are looking at the same data and coming to very different conclusions. People who hold to traditional views have little sympathy (understatement) for claims that we are backwards, behind the times, or that in order to be relevant we have to simply abandon the traditional view and get with the times. You may not be saying that, but others have (Bruce Waltke, I’m looking at you). In fact, good faithful Christian scientists are coming to very different conclusions, so saying “join the consensus” when “consensus” really means “consensus only when we exclude most evangelical Christian scientists” isn’t really conducive to making friends.

    Claims like “most scientists” are often power-plays by a majority (or plurality) attempting to silence and shame minority voiced. And such a claim is frankly irrelevant to me. Most biblical scholars think that Isaiah didn’t write the book of Isaiah, that Jericho is a made up story, that the Pentateuch is a hodge-podge of diverse, inconsistent, and contradictory stories that were stitched together by editors. But I don’t believe any of that, either.

    So “most scientists” must be qualified. Most Christian scientists? Most evangelical scientists? Most scientists who have training in both science and theology? Or just “most scientists,” which includes the majority atheist scientists, as well as the liberal Christian scholars, as well as evangelical Christian scholars who haven’t thought carefully about how their faith intersects with their profession as scientists?

    As for Wheaton, they may have recently added the statement about Adam, but I suspect because it wasn’t a live issue before then. There wasn’t a serious concern that evangelicals would abandon the traditional doctrine of Adam. Now there is, and so a statement on Adam is necessary. And I have to admit I am deeply thankful for it, though I wish there was a little bit more vigilance about ensuring conformity to the standard that all faculty have agreed to abide by. I recognize that that limits who can apply to Wheaton and whom Wheaton can hire. So be it.

    There may come a day when alternate explanations for the data have been exhausted and we must simply accept that TE evolution is true. However, we are no-where near that day–it is at best a long way off in the distance. And considering the fact that the history of science is as often the history of failed (and at times morally repugnant) theories as it is the history of successes, scientists (especially Christian scientists) should have a much larger dose of epistemological humility than most of them do.

    And when they are advocating a change in our theology that entails massive theological restructuring, including overturning millenia old theological answers to such questions as the origin and spread of sin, the nature of humanity, and so on, those advocating for change, ought to be without any doubt that they are wrong.

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