I. The Historical Consensus of the Church
Throughout the history of the Christian faith the common consensus has been that Adam is a literal, historical person. So much so that Sacred Scripture actually gives us an age for him at death. The New Testament certainly presents this view (see for example I Corinthians 15:45) and thus, since the earliest Christians viewed scripture as inerrant and divinely inspired this consensus is evidenced in the writings of the early church. For example, Irenaeus presupposes a literal historical Adam in his discussion of salvation and the curse that followed the Fall of Adam.
Tertullian, in writing of exomotgesis also presupposes a literal, historic Adam as the first man and progenitor of the human race. He states,
“I cannot easily be silent about that thing concerning which also the very head and fountain of the human race, and of human offense, is not silent. I mean Adam, who was restored by penitential discipline to his own Paradise.”
The examples from the Patristic witness of the early church are numerous and span all of the Church Fathers. This understanding of Adam as an historical and literal person has informed Christian theology across denominational barriers down to our modern era. Indeed it is a fact to say that New Testament soteriology and christology are founded upon this historical consensus and understanding.
II. Challenges to the Historical Consensus
The consensus of the church on this issue went largely unchallenged (outside of minor philosophical debates or heretical sects such as the Gnostics) until the development of what has become known as Darwinism. Darwinism presented the case against a divine Creator and replaced the historical, literal Adam with the “scientific” myth of the gradual evolution of humanity from ape-like creatures millions of years in the past. In such mythology there is no room, nor need for a historical, literal Adam. Today many Christian teachers, pastors, and apologists, in an effort to accommodate Sacred Scripture to what they perceive as unassailable science, have capitulated on the historical consensus. In simple terms, they have rejected the necessity of the historical, literal Adam. Rather than “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered” (Jude 1:3), they have simply compromised that faith. Jewish scholar Louis Jacobs is quoted as saying, “There is no doubt that until the nineteenth century Adam and Eve were held to be historical figures, but with the discovery of the great age of the earth . . . many modern Jews [and Gentiles] have tended to read the story as a myth.” (Jacobs, L. 1995) For such Theistic Evolutionists, Adam ceases to be a real person, and is instead demoted to a mere symbol of the human race in its infancy. Others, such as Alister McGrath, a popular English theologian, see Adam as a gnostic figure. He claims that Adam represents “human potential as created by God but also with the capacity to go wrong”.
These modern attacks on the historicity of Adam are not new (in fact they were addressed even by the Church Fathers), and in their current form find their origin not so much in Darwin himself, but in the work of a Jesuit priest, of whom it can fairly be said that he is the modern father of Theistic Evolution. This Jesuit was a pantheist philosopher and self described paleontologist by the name of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin's philosophy is what can be described today as Scientism. He wrote of evolution:
“It is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow, and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts.”
The problems with these challenges are numerous and will be discussed herein not from the scientific viewpoint, but from their theological and, to some extent philosophical viewpoint.
III. The Challenges Fail
In addressing the challenges to the traditional Christian understanding of Adam what must first be stressed is their impact on Christian theology as a whole. As noted, such mythologies (albeit under the name of science) undermine soteriology and christology. Indeed the entire soteriological history of Sacred Scripture is rendered a fallacy if Adam is not a literal, historical person. If there was no Adam, then there is no inherited depravity. And if there is no inherited depravity, then there is no need for a “last Adam”, as Paul calls Christ (I Corinthians 15:45). Even such adherents of Scientism as Richard Dawkins noted this impact on the theology of Christianity.
“Oh, but of course, the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic? So, in order to impress himself, Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual? As I said, barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant.”
Teilhard stated rather honestly that:
“Creation, spirit, evil, God – and more specifically, original sin, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Parousia, charity – all these notions once they are transposed to an ‘evolutionary’ dimension become amazingly clear and coherent.”
So rather than allowing Scripture to interpret itself, or relying on the Apostolic Tradition and consensus of the church to inform theology, Teilhard (along with the modern Theistic Evolutionists) attempt to view Scripture through the lens of evolution. Teilhard states openly what most modern Theistic Evolutionists rarely ever dare to admit; that is, fusing evolutionary principles with Christian theology produces an entirely different religion- one that collapses and fails in light of orthodoxy. Furthermore, it is one that cannot embrace the inerrancy of Scripture, since Scripture presents an historical and literal Adam.
Consider as well the various genealogies of Sacred Scripture, many of which trace family lines back to Adam. Those who suggest Adam is symbolic of all of humanity face the problem of proving that any genealogy would include a vague grouping of unknown people as if they were a distinct and literal person. Furthermore, if there is no historical Adam then the very genealogy of Christ as given by the apostle Luke (through Joseph) is fallacious as it includes Adam as a literal person, tracing Christ back to Adam through Joseph. (see Luke 3:23) Also, the exact designation of Adam's age at death (930 years in Genesis 5:5) does not fit the symbolic or allegorical hypothesis. Thus to deny Adam is an historical person is also to deny the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture and to ignore all contextual evidence to the contrary. This does not end with the genealogical. The denial of Adam as an historical person also undermines soteriological history. If Adam is not a real historical person then the Law is unnecessary, as there is no substantive foundation for sin offerings.A symbolic literary figure cannot be used to substantiate the very concept of sin with any degree of veracity, as it would merely be one myth among many in the ancient world. And connected to this is the fact that, if there is no need for sacrifice, no foundation for the inherited proclivity to sin (and indeed the concept of sin itself), then Christ, as Dawkins pointed out, allowed himself to be beaten and murdered for absolutely nothing more than a mythical symbol and fallacious theological extrapolations based on that mythical figure. Simply put, one cannot be an orthodox Christian and at the same time deny the historical and literal Adam. Nothing that follows the story of Adam and the Fall means anything whatsoever if he is simply a literary device.
What must be said is that Darwinism exemplifies a sort of scientific gnosticism that reiterates the ancient Gnostic rejection of the historicity of Adam. The fact is that a denial of the historical Adam by Theistic Evolutionists (and others) is a denial of all the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith and the establishment of an entirely different religion masquerading under Christian theological terminology. Such a denial, in pursuit of a synthesis between Evolutionary myth and Sacred Scripture is really just a cheap reiteration of paganism and panentheism more akin to the Valentianians or Cathars than Orthodox Christianity.