This is part 8 in a series of reviews of John H. Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, pt. 4, pt. 5, pt. 6, pt. 7). I purchased the book of my own accord with my own money, so there’s that.
Among the strange features of The Lost World of Adam and Eve is that the best chapter in the whole book wasn’t written by Walton. Before you turn your nose up at him, however, consider his rationale. Walton is a first class Old Testament scholar, so when it came to writing on the New Testament’s usage of Adam, he shows tremendous wisdom in deferring to his friend and colleague N.T. Wright.
Wright’s chapter sets out to discuss Paul’s concerns when it comes to Adam and sin. What he ends up doing, in typical Wright fashion, is to sketch a chapter that is truly monumental in scope. When I finished reading it, I outlined it for my wife, who said, “That sounds like it could be a whole book.” “Or a dissertation,” I agreed. The chapter is just ten pages.
Wright starts, much like Walton did in earlier chapters, by highlighting some common misconceptions. As we hinted in the last post about the first couple and original sin, Adam and Eve have become a crucial component to Evangelicals’ beliefs about soteriology. Wright characterizes the common understanding like this:
(a) God demanded perfect obedience from Adam and Eve; (b) they broke his command; (c) Jesus has given God perfect obedience; (d) he therefore possesses a “righteousness” that is available to believers (172).
It’s a caricature, certainly, but Wright’s point is simply that most Christians don’t know the robust way in which the first couple fit into the story, and so are left with this over-simplified version (which incidentally leaves out the entire Old Testament following Genesis 3).
Well, then, how do Adam and Eve fit into the biblical narrative, from the New Testament’s perspective?
Wright’s sketch goes like this. The story begins, of course, with God’s creation of the earth and, critically, with humanity set in place to help the Lord govern it all. We saw this several posts ago as the central element embedded in Genesis 1:26-28. Humanity is created to aid the Creator in bringing order to the creation.
For Wright, that commission on all humanity is crystalized in Adam and Eve, who, of course, fail.
This is the first point which Wright would say most Christians miss. The problem is not simply that humans have sinned and fallen out of relationship with God. That is true, but it is not the whole problem. The wider scope of the problem is that the creation itself will continue out of whack and chaotic without humanity in its rightful place as vice-regents with God.
God’s mind quickly turns toward dealing with humanity’s sin so that he can set them back in the place they belong, exercising their full purpose in creation. His solution? Abraham and his descendants. The Lord’s covenant with Israel was established principally so that through this particular nation, God could redeem all of humanity, so that through humanity, creation could be brought to peace. This is the core purpose behind God’s initial call of Abraham. If all goes well, the whole world will be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3).
But Israel Israels. And they end up in exile.
God’s game plan looks pretty rough. Creation is a mess. The governors of creation are corrupt. The rescuers of those governors are themselves crooked. What’s a God to do?
This, finally, is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is the true Israelite, called to redeem humanity. Jesus is the true human (the last Adam), called to bring the creation into its rest. And so finally, through the death and resurrection of the Christ is there at last the birth of the new creation.
That, says Wright, is Paul’s perspective on Adam and his importance, and it is principally found in Romans 8, the key portion of which is verses 19-25:
Yes: creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed. Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified. Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time. Not only so: we too, we who have the first fruits of the spirit’s life within us, are groaning within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our body. We were saved, you see, in hope. But hope isn’t hope if you can see it! Who hopes for what they can see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it eagerly—but also patiently (The Kingdom New Testament, Wright’s own translation).
The point of it all is that the New Testament places Adam in a particular place—a critical place!—in the larger biblical story. It has everything to do with sin and falling away from God, as Evangelicals have long rightly pronounced. But Adam’s failing, we’ve consistently missed, has its dire consequences because of the purpose that Genesis 1-2 proclaim over humanity.
With this in place, we can begin to make sense of not only Adam’s significance to us, but also Israel’s. With this in proper perspective, we can finally begin to recognize why it is so essential that Jesus come as a human being and as an Israelite. With this all in view, we can begin to unravel our own calling in God’s new creation.