Lamoureux on the Historical Adam

CTIn recent years, Denis Lamoureux, Associate Professor of Science and Religion at Saint Joseph’s College (University of Alberta), has emerged as one of the leading thinkers—if not the leading thinker—in the debate over the historical Adam. His view, in a nutshell, is this: “Adam never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity.” [1]

Now this comes as something of a surprise to the ordinary, Bible believing Christian. There are many individuals mentioned in the Bible whose absence wouldn’t alter the essential truths of Christianity a jot. In Romans 16:14, e.g., Paul asks his readers to “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” Whether Rufus and his mom existed, of course, has no bearing at all on the gospel. But the existence of Adam doesn’t seem to be like that. The Great Apostle references Rufus and Adam in his masterpiece letter, but only Adam figures in Paul’s carefully crafted, multi-stage case in Romans 5 for our redemption in Christ.

It will have to await a separate occasion, but it is perfectly easy to show that apart from a historical Adam, there is no explanation whatsoever (in Paul) for the source of sin and death, or its spread to the entire human race; in which case (as far as his letter goes) there is nothing for the cross of Christ to do—except, perhaps, to serve as a sad example of how to “turn the other cheek.” Indeed, the entire argumentative scaffolding of Romans collapses. If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s letter is one of the great theological disasters of all time. The doctrinally careful Christian can therefore be forgiven for setting out—at least initially—with John Locke’s view of the matter firmly in mind:

It is obvious to anyone who reads the New Testament that the Doctrine of Redemption, and consequently of the Gospel, is founded upon the supposition of Adam’s Fall. To understand therefore what we are restored to by Jesus Christ, we must consider what the Scripture shows we lost by Adam. [2]

Spiritual Truths from Scientific Falsehoods

Now Lamoureux thinks both Paul and Jesus (!) were wrong when they taught there was a literal Adam. However, it’s not really their fault; tragically, they had never read the Origin of Species (its not being available until 1859), so they can scarcely be blamed for knowing vastly less about the physical world and its workings than Mr. Darwin. They were scientifically ignorant men, and unfortunately this rears its ugly head from from time to time. Thus, we are told that

Adam’s existence is based ultimately on an ancient conceptualization of human origins. To use technical terminology, Adam is the retrojective conclusion of an ancient taxonomy. And since ancient science does not align with physical reality, it follows that Adam never existed. [3]

There is much to say about Lamoureux’s contention here—most of it not positive—but what interests me at present is his idea that the Bible might be inspired (“breathed out by God,” 2 Timothy 3:16), and yet contain many egregious scientific errors. “[I]n the future,” Lamoureux predicts, “I fully expect that we will be set free from the doctrine of inerrancy [and] from the ancient biology that has created the first man in the Bible—Adam.” [4] Perhaps Lamoureux thinks Jesus himself achieved this liberation upon his ascent to heaven, and at his Second Coming will apologize for previously misleading us in scientific matters (e.g., about that mustard seed thing).

The salient question, however, is how a scientifically errant Bible might square with the  doctrine of biblical inspiration. Here Lamoureux calls up (but doesn’t exactly defend) something he dubs the “Message-Incident Principle.” The message (spiritual truth) of the Bible is inerrant; some of the incidentals (e.g., 3-tier universe, Adam coming from dust) are not. The Bible is wholly true in one sense, but full of errors in another.

The (false) science in Scripture is vital for delivering spiritual truths. In the case of Philippians 2:10-11, the Message of Faith reveals the lordship of Jesus over the entire creation, and the incidental ancient science is the 3-tier universe. [5]

Accordingly, the Holy Spirit accommodated himself to the (false) science of the biblical author’s day. He could do none other. And yet “the Holy Spirit did not lie in the Bible,” says Lamoureux; rather, “God accommodated and allowed Paul to use his ancient (totally false) understanding of the structure of the world” [6] as sermon material.

The Magisterium Problem

I have two initial concerns. The first has to do with Lamoureux’s division of the message of Scripture from its incidentals. How is this divide effected? This is actually a matter of some importance because the apostle Peter says we “do well to pay attention” (2 Peter 1:19) to the prophetic word. To do that, one thinks, I have to do my best to avoid believing the falsehoods (ancient science). And that seems to presuppose that I am able to sift the true science from the false in Scripture. Well, how so?

The answer seems to be that I must consult an outside magisterium of experts (in short, the secular scientific establishment) to know which of the Bible’s scientific statements are false. Maybe Lamoureux thinks they’re all false; I don’t know. At any rate, this is quite obviously a precarious principle of Bible interpretation. For one thing, how do I know which of the many scientific experts to consult? As we all know, the experts not infrequently disagree with one another. But in that case, which do I believe and when? Lamoureux has little to say on this score apart from appealing to consensus, which, as we all know, lies behind many a falsified theory. Theories once considered unassailable scientific dogma (e.g., geocentrism) are now little more than amusing relics from the history of science.

Moreover, even if we say that we can do without the scientific experts (since the science in the Bible is so patently false), there will doubtless be other experts–all waiting in line for the privilege of joining in the derby of debunking various parts of the Bible. After all, why should scientists have all the fun? According to Karl Barth, for example,

[The bible] can be subjected to all kinds of immanent criticism, not only in respect of its philosophical, historical, and ethical content, but even of its religious and theological…God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition, and, above all, their Judaism” [7]

Secular historians will frown on the miraculous; philosophers and ethicists will “deconstruct” accounts of Old Testament atrocities (1 Samuel 15:3); religious experts will be aghast at Paul’s exclusivism (Acts 17); and mental health researchers will interpret demon possession as epileptic seizures. There seems no limit to how large this skeptical magisterium might grow. In short, Lamoureux’s “Message-Incident Principle” shackles our reading and interpretation of God’s Word to the outside approval of an ever-changing, ever-expanding panel of secular advisors.

The Mistake Problem

A more serious problem, perhaps, has to do with what an inspired but error-filled text implies about God’s nature. Atheists have said that if God is willing but unable to eliminate evil, then he isn’t all-powerful. If he’s able but unwilling, then he’s not good. Lamoureux’s position faces a similar tragic dilemma.

The dilemma arises when we ask just how this alleged false content of Scripture got there in the first place, if Scripture is “breathed out by God.” Surely, it would have to arise either from God’s original revelation to the human author, or somewhere in the process of the author’s being “carried along” along by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Peter 1: 20-21). The first of these alternatives is clearly out of the question. For if God reveals error to the human author, who promptly records it in Scripture, then in effect God has breathed out error. And if that were possible, it would also be possible for there to be a lying God. But that isn’t possible. “It is impossible for God to lie,” says the author of Hebrews (6:8). Lamoureux himself freely confesses, “the Holy Spirit did not lie in the Bible.”

Consequently, if Scripture is God breathed, any errors in the Bible must arise somewhere in the process of the human author being “carried along.” Again, however, it is hard to see how this is supposed to work. I suppose there are two options to consider: (i) where the human author is always “carried along,” and (ii) when he is only sometimes “carried along.” Take the first scenario first. Here, we may presume, the Holy Spirit either carries the human author into the scientific blunders (which isn’t possible), or he sets out carrying him towards truth but somehow can’t manage to finish the job–perhaps due to the stubborn and insuperable sinfulness (proneness to error) of the human agent. Thus Barth remarks,

The prophets and apostles as such, even in their office, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word. [8]

But this is doubly mistaken: first, it falsely assumes that if human beings (as a whole) are sinful and errant, then each and everything thing they do is sinful and errant. That’s the fallacy of division. Secondly, it depreciates God’s knowledge and providence. For if human beings don’t always have to sin, then God can know when they will and when they won’t be guilty of error if prompted and led in various ways. In fact, he can do this rather handily by way of his middle knowledge. [9]

Now what about that other alternative? That all those scientific errors in the Bible arise because the human author is only sometimes “carried along”? Certainly, this isn’t what springs to mind when we think of biblical inspiration: that the Holy Spirit carries along the author in his act of writing episodically—at some times but not others. Now it’s not hard to understand why the Holy Spirit would want to carry along (say) the Apostle Paul. It would be to preserve him from error as he freely records Scripture. The question is why the Third Person might periodically “pull back,” and allow Paul (or Moses) to introduce serious errors into the text.

Lamoureux’s answer, I suppose, is that the Spirit does this because there is a spiritual truth at stake—a message he wants to communicate. And the fact is: there is just no other way to do get it across except through false teaching. “The (false) science in Scripture is vital,” Lamoureux tells us, “for delivering spiritual truths.” With respect to the ancient Hebrews, Lamoureux remarks that the Holy Spirit “takes their view of human origins, which was the best science-of-the-day, and employs it as an incidental vessel to reveal that he is their Creator.” [10]

I believe there are two towering reasons why we should reject this picture of inspiration. First, it involves the Holy Spirit in a morally suspect transaction: indirectly bringing about error by way of–at critical and strategic junctures–knowingly and intentionally removing his causal influence and restraint from the human author, so that he will make false pronouncements, lead countless many to hold false beliefs, thereby enabling them to be blessed with spiritual truth. In effect, then, God carefully orchestrates the falsehoods for a good cause (just as on some versions of Calvinism he withholds his grace from the non-elect, which sadly leads to their damnation but with a view to demonstrating God’s justice). For my part, I think this sort of thing profoundly beneath the Holy Spirit, and in fact logically incompatible with his matchless nature. When the Holy Spirit acts for an end, the means he uses to accomplish that end must itself be good–that is, intrinsically good, not good simply because the ends justify the means. That’s John Stuart Mill’s doctrine–something altogether unworthy of the Spirit of Jesus.

And then, secondly, this whole scheme suggests some limitation on the Holy Spirit’s part. Was he incapable of bringing about these “vital” spiritual truths in any other way? That is what we must suppose. But if God is perfect in power and knowledge, why think that? Even Lamoureux himself admits: “Of course, it is well within the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal twenty-first-century scientific facts to biblical authors” (p. 45). No doubt he could also have done this in a way that didn’t entangle the readers of Moses or Paul in the vagaries of 21st century science, on the one hand, or the laughable falsehoods of ancient cosmology, on the other. I’m sorry to have to say it, but Lamoureux’s Holy Spirit is just too small—more like an imperfect and misguided angel.

I think we can do much better.

Works Cited

[1] Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution [2008].

[2] The Reasonableness of Christianity, as delivered in the Scriptures [1695].

[3] “No Historical Adam,” in Four Views of the Historical Adam (Zondervan, 2013), p. 58.

[4] Ibid., p. 63.

[5] Ibid., p. 50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1:2, 507, 531.

[8] Ibid., 1:2,529.

[9] The reader is here referred to William Lane Craig’s “‘Men Moved By The Holy Spirit Spoke From God’ (2 Peter 1.21): A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Biblical Inspiration.” Philosophia Christi 1 (1999): 45-82. URL:

[10] Denis Lamoureux, “Was Adam a Real Person?” Christian Higher Education, 10 (2011): 85.

[11] “No Historical Adam,” p. 45.

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