Review of “The Quest for the Historical Adam”

October 07, 2015

by Jonathan Gibson

The following is a book review of William VanDoodewaard’s The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (Reformation Heritage Books, 2015).

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Playing on the title of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, William VanDoodewaard has presented the modern church with a similar quest, this time for the historical Adam. However, VanDoodewaard presents more than simply an overview of Adam’s existence throughout church history. As the subtitle reveals, the issue of Adam’s existence is situated within the wider framework of Genesis and hermeneutics.

Chapter 1 outlines the key biblical texts that refer to Adam in both Old and New Testaments. Chapters 2 through 6 then cover the patristic and medieval quest for Adam (2), Adam in the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras (3), Adam in the Enlightenment era (4), Adam in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (5), and the quest for Adam from the 1950s to the present (6).

The results of VanDoodewaard’s historical overview are enlightening.

Have the fathers been misused?

The results of VanDoodewaard’s historical overview are enlightening. The likes of Clement, Origen and Augustine cannot be appealed to for taking the days of creation as indefinite periods, since these men understood God’s (instantaneous) creative activity to have taken place in less than six ordinary days. Besides the exception of two allegorists, Eriugena and Grossteste, all appear to have held to a special, temporally immediate creation of humanity. The magisterial Reformers all promoted a primarily literal reading of Genesis 1, and thus, concomitantly, the special creation of Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib. The post-Reformation period solidified the literal tradition and the temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve. Apart from a few early soundings in the late sixteenth century, the concept of pre-Adamite human existence only became significantly influential in Europe and England through the writing of the “Enlightenment” thinker, Isaac La Peyrère (1597–1676). La Peyrère interpreted Genesis 1 as an account of the creation of the Gentiles, with Genesis 2, an account of the creation of the Jews.

No contemporary pastor or theologian can ignore discussions over Genesis hermeneutics or historical Adam—the very gospel is at stake.

Foolish good intentions

Concurrent with the shift that such Enlightenment thinkers produced were increasing scientific achievements, from Copernicus to Newton and Pascal. VanDoodewaard concludes that ‘Misapplication of the legitimacy of the Copernican shift in cosmology merged with the philosophical and religious critiques of the literal interpretation of early Genesis to greatly impact the long-accepted role of special revelation in defining and delineating origins’ (132). This impact prepared the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution which finally brought a rejection of the literal Genesis of creation and human origins in Britain and Europe. Some of these Enlightenment thinkers had good intentions. For example, La Peyrère was driven in part because he was convinced that ‘by making Genesis a more reasonable text, he would make it more convincing, and thus the heathen would be more receptive to it and would be more willing to convert to the true religion, Christianity’ (his quote; 143). VanDoodewaard traces the assimilation of these new natural philosophies in Protestant thinkers such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, in the Princeton tradition, and the resistance to these views in men such as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, in the Dutch tradition.

Since the 1950s

Chapter 6 surveys the North American Lutheran, Dutch, Presbyterian, Baptist hermeneutical traditions on Genesis and human origins from the 1950s to the present. It covers important figures, such as Nicholas Herman Ridderbos, John Murray, Geerhardus Vos, Meredith Kline, E. J. Young, Mark Futato, Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Jack Collins, John Sailhamer, John Walton—to name but a few. This period presents the greatest diversity in the alternative hermeneutical approaches to Genesis 1–2 (gap or restitution theory, day-age, literary-framework, analogical, ancient Near Eastern cosmological, or even the mythopoeic) and the question of an historical Adam. My only disappointment was that this chapter became exclusively focused to North America. CS Lewis, Derek Kidner, John Stott and Denis Alexander (English proponents for a Theistic Evolution position) are mentioned in chapter 7, but there is no extensive presentation of their views.

It covers important figures, such as Ridderbos, Murray, Vos, Kline, Young, Futato, Enns, Waltke, Collins, Sailhamer, Walton—to name but a few.

Extrinsic pressures

VanDoodewaard concludes his historical survey of all the main periods, by observing that deviation from the traditional interpretation of Genesis and human origins has, in each case, ‘come from sources external to Scripture’ (277). He rightly notes that none of the contemporary, alternative hermeneutical approaches to Genesis 1–2 ‘necessitate the rejection of the traditional literal interpretation of the creation of Adam and Eve’. But the opposite is equally true, ‘that most contemporary alternative approaches do not inherently require the Adam and Eve who originate and exist as described in the literal tradition’, which is ‘a profoundly significant shift’ (278). VanDoodewaard connects the historical Adam to the theory of evolutionary biology, commenting that whereas some older hermeneutical alternatives to the literal tradition required further internal adjustments to abandon a literal understanding of human origins, the more contemporary and popular alternative approaches ‘are fully open to an Adam and Eve created through a divine use of evolutionary biological process’ (278).

Slipping away

The most pointed aspect of VanDoodewaard’s analysis is captured in a single paragraph:

[T]he history of hermeneutics on Genesis and human origins, particularly in the last two centuries, reveals a repeated pattern toward an erosion of scriptural inerrancy, sufficiency, and historic Christian theology. Despite naysayers, the history of Genesis hermeneutics across the centuries does provide numerous examples of sequential changes: if these changes do not indicate a “slippery slope,” they certainly indicate consecutive slides. In the history of each of the “schools” of alternative approaches and the institutions and denominations that grant latitude to them, there is an unbroken pattern of progressive movement, initially away from the literal tradition on Genesis 1, then away from the Adam and Eve of the literal tradition toward an evolved Adam, and then to no recognizable or existing Adam and Eve at all. There have been exceptions to—and reversals of—this trend, but they are rare. (279)

And one would add that, since church history is still unfolding, the final outcome of the ‘exceptions’ is yet to be seen.

Why does it matter?

Returning to the book that his title plays off, VanDoodewaard concludes: ‘There are close parallels between the nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus and the present quest for the historical Adam. . . . To ignore this, or merely accept it out of hand, is a sign of blind naiveté rather than intellectual wisdom and is done at the church’s peril’ (279). This is seen in the final chapter, where VanDoodewaard answers the question, ‘What difference does it make?’ He presents a helpful taxonomy on different perspectives that employ evolutionary biological processes (EBP): EBP1: Origins by theistic evolution with divine impartation of the soul (C. S. Lewis, Derek Kidner, Tim Keller, possibly Jack Collins); EBP 2: Origins by theistic evolution with divine relationship (Denis Alexander, possibly Jack Collins); EBP 3: Origins by theistic evolution with divine revelation (Peter Enns, Dennis Lamoureaux). EBP models are shown to impinge upon areas such as Scripture and hermeneutics, ethics of human life, marriage and the unity of our race, human language, the doctrines of God, creation, sin, redemption, covenant theology and eschatology.

Necessary discussion

If these interconnections exist, then no contemporary pastor or theologian can ignore discussions over Genesis hermeneutics or historical Adam, thinking them to be unnecessary, irrelevant, or a matter of indifference—the very gospel is at stake. This book will hopefully become a necessary part of that discussion for years to come.


Originally published in Evangelicals Now.

Jonathan Gibson

Dr. Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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