We have been blogging through John Walton’s book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Here are the previous posts in the series:
Today, I’d like to focus on an excursus Walton has included in one of the sections about how the New Testament, and Paul in particular, views the Adam and Eve story. Because John Walton specializes in the Old Testament, he asked N.T. Wright to write this excursus. I find it to be a brilliant summary of what has been called a “new perspective” on Paul, which in my view is a fuller perspective that pays closer attention to the First Testament story, the story of Israel, and how Jesus is the fulfillment of that story. The result is a grander understanding of God’s “plan of salvation” and of human participation in that plan in Christ.
Walton introduces Wright’s section by telling us he will deal with two important Pauline themes:
- Paul’s treatment of Adam has more to do with the kingdom of God in general, the whole creation project, than with salvation from sins.
- For Paul the parallels between the vocations of Adam and Israel are more important than questions of human origins or the origin and transmission of sin.
Both Walton and Wright think Western theology has taken a couple of turns that have led to unfortunate results. The paths taken have not necessarily been false, but too narrow, causing us to miss the broader vistas of the New Testament perspective by focusing on a few details.
- Since Augustine, the focus when discussing Adam has been on “original sin” and how that sin got passed on to his descendants. In concentrating on this, we have often missed “the role played by Adam in the larger narrative of God and the world, and, within that, of God and Israel” (so Wright, p. 170).
- Since the rise of modern science and the theory of evolution, attention has turned to the question of how Adam and Eve fit in with our understanding of human origins, and whether the biblical narratives recall actual “historical” events that explain where humans came from.
As important as these questions might be, they do not represent the dominant emphases of the biblical story. Wright says in his excursus that there are three such emphases:
♕ ADAM’S VOCATION
Wright first notes that Adam is hardly mentioned in the Old Testament after the early chapters of Genesis. Nor is he a major player in Second Temple Jewish texts. “When Adam is mentioned in these later works, it is frequently in connection not with his sin and its effects but with the glorious dominion he was originally given over the world, and with the way in which that might be reclaimed” (p. 171).
When Adam is mentioned in terms of his sin (4 Ezra and 2 Baruch), it is in passages that reflect upon the Fall of Jerusalem. “The writers are driven back to the beginning since the only way they can make sense of the appalling national tragedy is to say that the whole human race, Israel included, has somehow been corrupted by a fatal disease from the very start” (p. 171).
Paul, however, came at this from a different angle. He was led to reflect on Adam by way of what happened to Jesus. “If a crucified Messiah was the divine answer to the problem, the problem must have been far worse than he had thought” (p. 171).
To that end, Wright sees “Adam theology” throughout Romans 1-8, climaxing with the restored glory of both humans and all creation in chapter 8, which reflects Psalm 8, itself a meditation on the glory and dominion God intended for human beings within a God-ruled cosmos. Romans 1-8 (and other passages such as 1 Cor 15) are not just a “Romans Road” to personal salvation, but a panoramic overview of God’s plan to restore humanity to the place God gave it in Genesis: as priestly representatives of God (bearing the divine image), humans exercise their King’s loving dominion over all the earth.
It’s important to see that the divine “answer” to the problem of Adam did not begin (historically) with Jesus but with Abraham and the call of Israel to be God’s “priestly nation” (Exodus 19:6), bringing “blessing” to all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). This was Adam’s vocation, it would be Israel’s vocation, and ultimately it would be Jesus the Messiah who would fulfill that vocation.
“Paul’s exposition of Adam in these passages is explicitly in the service not of a traditional soteriology but of the kingdom of God” (p. 173).
♕ ADAM AND GOD’S KINGDOM
The point of Paul’s teaching in Romans is not solely (or even primarily) about individual salvation (though it includes that). The trajectory of Romans 1-8 runs from humanity’s failure to exercise their God-given dominion over the world, through Israel, to Christ, to the renewal of all creation, as Christ rules through a glorified humanity. The whole world has once more become God’s holy land and his original project — a cosmic temple in which God dwells with his people and they exercise his rule over the earth — is being fulfilled in Christ. In Jesus, God has become King once more.
Here is the problem to which Romans is the answer: not simply that we are sinful and need saving but that our sinfulness has meant that God’s project for the whole creation (and that it should be run by obedient humans) was aborted, put on hold. And when we are saved, as Paul spells out, that is in order that the whole-creation project can at last get back on track. When humans are redeemed, creation gives a sigh of relief and says, “Thank goodness! About time you humans got sorted out! Now we can be put to rights at last.”
• p. 174
Wright cites Romans 5:17 as a key text:
If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (NRSV, emphasis mine)
Humans were created to “exercise dominion.” When they failed, they surrendered dominion to death. Now that Jesus has saved us by his own death and resurrection, we shall be renewed to exercise dominion once more.
Genesis, the Gospels, Romans and Revelation all insist that the problem goes like this: human sin has blocked God’s purposes for the whole creation; but God hasn’t gone back on his original creational purpose, which was and is to work in his creation through human beings, his image-bearers. In his true image-bearer, Jesus the Messiah, he has rescued humans from their sin and death in order to reinscribe his original purposes, which include the extension of sacred space into all creation, until the earth is indeed full of God’s knowledge and glory as the waters cover the sea. God will be present in and with his whole creation; the whole creation will be like a glorious extension of the tabernacle in the wilderness or the temple in Jerusalem.
• p. 176
♕ ADAM AND ISRAEL
Here Wright fills in some Old Testament perspective that I have thus far found lacking in Walton, but have seen discussed well by scholars like Peter Enns. In Genesis, Adam is Israel.
- Chosen by God as his priestly representative.
- Placed in a good land.
- Granted the way to life.
- Warned that if he pursues his own wisdom he will be exiled.
- Exiled from the good land when he disobeyed God.
Wright suggests that, as God chose Israel from the rest of the nations, so he chose two people out of all the other people on earth at that time and gave them a vocation. They were representatives for the whole human race. “They were supposed to be the life-bringers, and if they failed in their task, the death that was already endemic in the world as it was would engulf them as well” (p. 178).
Adam and Eve’s failure was not simply an act of personal sin, it was a failure of vocation that mirrored the failure of Israel to come. Chosen to be the light of the world, they only brought a deeper darkness. When Paul reflected on the story of the First Testament, he came to see that Israel failed because they were part of the fundamental Adamic problem humans have had from the beginning. They, like all humans since the beginning, failed to trust the Lord with all their heart. They leaned on their own understanding. And the result was exile.
Thus, the person of Jesus Messiah comes to do what both Adam and Israel failed to accomplish. “He is Israel’s Messiah, who fulfills Israel’s obedience on the cross and thereby rescues both Israel and the whole human race. He does for Israel what Israel couldn’t do for itself, and thereby does for humans what Israel was supposed to do for them, and thereby launches God’s project of new creation, the new world over which he already reigns as king” (p. 179).
• • •
This is a hearty and nourishing gospel. A gospel worthy of a King who is much more than a “personal Savior.” A gospel that not only gives people life, but restores their vocation and dignity as people bearing the Imago Dei.
In the end of his excursus, N.T. Wright warns that one should never study the early chapters of Genesis and the subject of human origins without “hearing the call to be an image-bearing human being renewed in Jesus” (p. 179). So many have strayed from this truly “biblical” perspective (one that is true to the biblical story) to focus on secondary theological or apologetic issues that are, in the end, of little value or importance.
Thank God for a gospel that not only gives us life, but also restores our vocation and a vision for the future. Which is exactly why Paul and countless others have laid down their lives in its service.