William Lane Craig (“The Historical Adam,” October 2021) believes that a being corresponding to the biblical Adam actually existed. Paul’s typology of Adam and Christ, he argues, requires an historical, as opposed to a merely literary, Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). But this isn’t your Fundamentalist grandma’s Adam. According to Craig, Adam didn’t exist at the beginning of time, but was preceded by billions of years and many varieties of semi-humans. Adam wasn’t formed from the dust of the ground nor was Eve built from Adam’s rib; our first parents were selected from the ancestors of Homo sapiens known as Homo heidelbergensis. They didn’t live in an idyllic paradise called Eden, nor were they tempted by a talking snake, though they did disobey God, were alienated from him, and unleashed sin and death into the world.
On the surface, Craig’s argument turns on his non-literal interpretation of Genesis 2-3. He sets up a hermeneutical frame in three steps. First, Genesis shares features with myth. Yet, second, Genesis also has features of history. Therefore, third, Genesis is “mytho-history,” and we determine what Genesis teaches about Adam by mining the nuggets of history hidden under layers of metaphor. Craig warns us to avoid a simplistic antithesis between myth and history, but he ends up with his own antithesis, sorting bits of the creation narrative into baskets marked “metaphorical” and “literal.”
Craig is confident. He knows the anthropomorphic deity of Genesis 2-3 shouldn’t be taken literally, nor the garden, nor the trees, nor the serpent. The ages of early men are, Craig thinks, absurdly long, though not long enough to accommodate modern beliefs about the age of the earth. Yet he also knows these men existed: We shouldn’t “imagine that they comprise purely fictitious characters.” He’s capable of seeing through the eyes of ancient Babylonians, who didn’t see “the desiccated flesh and bones of Tiamat” when they looked at the sky, and he sneaks into the head of the author of Genesis to discover that the biblical account of Eden and the fall was “fantastic, even to the Pentateuchal author himself.”
How does Craig know all this? Why preserve the historical reality of Methuselah and Noah while dispensing with their ages? Real persons and events are, he says, “clothed in the metaphorical and figurative language of myth.” But clothes make the man: By what criterion does Craig distinguish one from the other? He offers no argument, relying on readers to share his prejudices concerning plausibility. To which we may ask: Whose plausibility? Craig thinks the ages of early men are too long to be literal; but Augustine might disagree, as might Ussher or the millions of Christians between the two and since who have constructed chronologies from the numbers of Genesis. The account of Eden and the fall is “clearly metaphorical or figurative,” but clear to whom? Not to Irenaeus or Ephrem the Syrian, John of Damascus or Thomas Aquinas, Luther or Calvin or millions of Jews and Christians who have believed Eden was a real place and that Satan tempted through an actual reptile. What makes a talking snake stranger than a talking monkey? Cherubim are creatures of fantasy, Craig says. I wager the prophet Ezekiel would beg to differ. Craig dismisses the idea that God walked in the garden, but if the Creator can walk by the sea of Galilee, why not in Eden? Craig asserts, but assertion isn’t argument, much less proof.
Craig observes in passing that Genesis 2-3 depicts “an anthropomorphic deity incompatible with the transcendent God of the creation account.” Millions of believers don’t find any incompatibility at all, and why should we? Recall, once again, that the biblical Creator assumed the morphe of an anthropos, and walked, ate, slept, died, and rose. Besides, anti-anthropomorphism cuts deeper than Craig might wish. God, he claims, is “personal,” but how does he know that this, too, is not an anthropomorphism? God “designed” the physical world, which sounds a lot like attributing human activities to God. The creation account, Craig says, teaches us to “set apart one day per week as sacred”; but while Genesis 2 tells us God rested, it actually says nothing about human rest. Craig’s inference that we should rest one day a week depends on an analogy between God and man that he otherwise discounts. Perhaps Craig can filter legitimate from illegitimate anthropomorphism, but if so, he has not told us how to perform the trick.
The point isn’t that Craig is slipping down a slope (though I fear for his traction). The point is that he provides no rules for sorting, leaving the strong impression that what Craig isolates as the “non-metaphorical” parts of Genesis are the details that are (at present) impervious to scientific critique. His argument assumes a bias against metaphor and implies an equation of “literal” with “scientifically plausible.” Which means that, beneath the surface, his argument spins in a circle. After an overview of the human achievements of the ancestors of Neanderthals and humans, Craig concludes, “The mythic history of Genesis is fully consistent with current scientific evidence concerning human origins.” What his piece actually proves is that “mythic history” is consistent with current scientific evidence once it’s been purged of anything that might be inconsistent with current scientific evidence. Well, yes. But tautology isn’t argument either.
Craig’s hermeneutical mill, like that of ancient allegorists and post-Kantian liberals, strips off the husk of symbol and figure in order to uncover the nutritious core of doctrine, moral instruction, or “central truths.” The result is a drab set of propositions, abstracted from the majestic historical poem that inspired Michelangelo and Milton. What appears to be husk isn’t. On the contrary, one can construct theological cathedrals from the fragments Craig doesn’t consider “central”: God created heaven, an invisible dimension of creation filled with invisible hosts; God first made earth a dark and empty void, and then lit, formed, and filled, setting a pattern for human creativity; light is the first creature, a hint that Robert Grosseteste teased out into a metaphysics of light; God spoke creatures into being, which implies the world has the intelligibility of speech and the interconnectedness of metaphor; God first made light and then delegated the time-keeping task to creatures—the sun, moon, and stars—just as he delegates authority to human beings, who shine like stars; God created the temporal rhythm of days and nights and then labored within the constraints of his own creation; plants, land animals, and man are kin, fruit of a common “mother,” earth; the garden was man’s first sanctuary, Adam the first priest, and Eve the first church. Even anthropomorphism has profound import: Shouldn’t we expect the God who created man as a theomorph to be the original anthropomorph?
Some Evangelical theologians deny the existence of a historical Adam entirely, which means that Craig’s position is a moderate one. But even his comparatively moderate position has potentially radical consequences. It’s not clear what part of the Bible isn’t “mytho-history.” Maybe “divine speech” and “incarnation,” “miracle” and “resurrection” belong in the metaphor basket along with Eden and the serpent. It’s doubtful that Craig’s minimalist creation account can nourish the Evangelical imagination or sustain Christian orthodoxy.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.