Wright Wrong on Adam

In March Intervarsity Press plans to release a book by John Walton with a contribution from N. T. Wright titled, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Wright’s excursus follows Walton’s chapter titled, “Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins.” Wright’s piece is called, “Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam.” However, from the Intervarsity website it’s difficult to tell if Wright wrote only the Excursus or chapter nineteen as well. Nevertheless, as a foretaste of what is to come next month I want to briefly review chapter two in Wright’s book of collected essays, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York, NY: Harper One, 2014).

Wright begins chapter two, “Do We Need a Historical Adam?,” by observing two common theological drivers in today’s discussion. The first is the presupposition that if people let go of an historical Adam, “they are letting go of the authority of Scripture” (26–27). Wright contends that this is a sociocultural bugaboo which works in tandem with an inaccurate view of how biblical authority actually functions. In other words, if you read Wright as critiquing what is described as “the American Inerrancy Tradition” (or the AIC, cf. Five Views of Inerrancy, Zondervan, 2013) coupled with Dispensationalism,” Wright’s favorite American target, then you have identified the people to whom he is referring.

The second theological driver is a favorite of Wright. It is his unceasing refrain that the Bible is not about how we get saved (27). For Wright, this is a particularly important issue for Reformed theologians who view Adam as a federal head. However, according to Wright, by reading Paul as saying that we are either in Adam condemned or in Christ and saved is to misread the Biblical text or, at the very least, to read too narrowly.

Having dismissed these theological hang-ups Wright’s own construction concerning the historical Adam goes something like this. Adam’s sin meant not only that he died but that he no longer reigned over the world (34). To put it tersely, Adam’s death meant that he had lost God’s image, which when translated is to say that he had lost his vocation or calling in the world. Thus, God’s plan for kingdom expansion had been derailed. God no longer had a priestly vice-regent. However, in Jesus God’s plan was set right again. Jesus fulfilled his vocation and is enthroned as the reigning king. He is now where the last Adam was supposed to be (35).

So, what does this have to do with an historical Adam? Well, according to Wright, Israel too is in Adam and Israel bears the solution to the problem of God’s derailed kingdom. To be specific, the link between Israel and the historical Adam is found in God’s choosing of Israel. [Now, pay attention, because here is the move.] In the same way that God chose Israel from among the nations to engage in a demanding vocation, which they failed to fulfill, perhaps, speculates Wright, in like manner God chose Adam and Eve from among the early hominids to represent the whole human race in order to take God’s kingdom forward into the world. Here is Wright’s quote:

And it leads to my proposal: that just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purpose to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, was to be taken forward. God the creator put into their hands the fragile task of being image bearers. If they fail, they will bring the whole purpose for the wider creation, including all the nonchosen hominids, down with them. They are supposed to be the life bringers, and if they fail in their task the death that is already endemic in the world as it is will engulf them as well. (emphasis his, 37–38)

Well, what can we say to Professor Wright? Perhaps we might suggest what he already knows; his construction is unique and wholly speculative. And perhaps we might even send Professor Wright to our brother in the Lord, Benjamin B. Warfield. Now, this brother of ours, like Wright, surely had a concern for science. Who would deny it? But listen to what he says about the unity of the human race. He wrote,

The assertion of the unity of the human race is imbedded in the very structure of the Biblical narrative. The Biblical account of the origin of man (Genesis 1:26–28) is an account of his origination in a single pair, who constituted humanity in its germ, and from whose fruitfulness and multiplication all the earth has been replenished. Therefore the first man was called Adam, Man, and the first woman, Eve, “because she was the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20). (emphasis mine, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” quoted from Biblical and Theological Studies [P&R, 1968, p. 259])

And again,

[It] would be truer to say that the whole doctrinal structure of the Bible account of redemption is founded on its assumption that the race of man is one organic whole, and may be dealt with as such. It is because all are one in Adam that in the matter of sin there is no difference…. The unity of the old man in Adam is the postulate of the unity of the new man in Christ. (261)

Yes, we need an historical Adam. But we need more than an Adam who was historical. We, like Warfield before us, need to affirm the authority of Scripture by taking our stand on what it says about the unity of the human race in Adam that we might also take seriously what it says about the One Man, Jesus Christ.

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5 years ago


Thank you for your review. The last paragraph should be read by every christian.

Bruce Sanders

5 years ago

Perhaps we should show more reserve in proclaiming other theologians to be wrong, especially when of the caliber of N.T. Wright, considered to be one of the great theologians of modern times.

Perhaps, too, we should quote Reformed theologians more in touch with today’s reality, rather than Benjamin B. Warfield who died in 1921 and knew nothing of DNA, sequencing, extinct hominids who bred with Homo sapiens, and unique genes shared with chimpanzees but not with other primates.

Lest we forget, John Calvin and other Reformed theologians used “inspired, inerrant, infallible Scripture” to preach a geocentric universe, with an immobile earth, about which the firmament of heaven with sun, moon and stars attached revolves, and above which waters are reserved for judgment.

Permit me to quote:

John Calvin: “Those who assert that ‘the earth moves and turns’…[are] motivated by ‘a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;’ possessed by the devil, they aimed ‘to pervert the order of nature.'” (Sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians);

Martin Luther: “People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool [or ‘man’] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” (Table Talk);

Philipp Melanchton: “The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves; and they maintain that neither the [stars] nor the sun revolves…Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.”

Perhaps we should take note that ‘natural revelation’ as discerned by scientists in a ‘fallen state’ has in the past and even continues to force theologians of ‘special revelation’ to recant.

Almost on a daily basis geneticists are discovering evidence that the genome of modern Homo sapiens is a mixture of hominids now extinct, a mixture that varies by nationality. In short, there was no one Adam of modern humans in the biblical sense. Reformed theologians are desperately trying to deny this, but the handwriting is already on the wall. N.T. Wright in response to the emerging scientific evidence is simply attempting to re-postulate a biblical view, much the same as had to be done for the errors of John Calvin, etal.

Our first instinct always seems to be to criticize any point of view contrary to our tradition. Rather than jump to open criticism, perhaps we need to pause, so that when we too must re-postulate, we have left ourselves with some options not previously attacked.

Greg Burgreen

5 years ago

Perhaps, we should check whether scientists and geneticists are reporting information that is inconsistent with the holy Scriptures. The Lord is the only eye witness to these early events and has faithfully recorded and preserved His history of them in the book of Genesis.


You are correct, Jeff. It is basically an authority of Scripture issue.

Bruce Sanders

5 years ago

Thank you for your comments, to which I reply:

As indicated by the quotations I provided above, Calvin, Luther and Melanchton believed in the authority of Holy Scripture and used it to dogmatically defend their preaching about a geocentric earth; yet scientists proved them wrong.

Furthermore, the error was widespread, as indicated by the 1615 trial of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church, who like the Reformers, also held a high view of Holy Scripture.

Greg Burgreen

5 years ago

First, the article addresses the historicity of Adam that is established in the creation account. Geocentricity was introduced as a red herring fallacy. The Biblical support and implications for the two arguments are radically different (unless one is using them both to question the authority of Scripture).

Second, so… are you contending scientists should drive our theology? What if some well-qualified scientists disagree with other well-qualified scientists as in the creation.com link? Do we just choose which group we prefer to believe or the ones that support our presuppositions? Who then is the final arbiter? Science or the holy Scripture? The god of reason or the God of the Bible?

Believe what you will, sir. We all are free to make our own choices. I personally will side with the eye-witness and historical narrative of the historicity of Adam and Eve and creation account of Scripture, which science does in fact support.

Nate T.

5 years ago

Agreed!! I’m sure many a scientist could “disprove” the Resurrection, and what then?! Science is far more limited a discipline in determining things the scientist did not witness than most are willing to admit.



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