A Review of “The Quest for the Historical Adam” by William VanDoodewaard

quest for adamI confess: I have often struggled with the first three chapters of Genesis. In my own arrogance I have often questioned their intelligence and legitimacy, and have looked for more intellectually satisfying ways to resolve the tensions between literal interpretation and modern science. The problem remains; I have not been satisfied that these resolutions do sufficient justice to the text of Scripture. Every time I read an alternative approach to the opening chapters of Genesis I find some good, even compelling ideas, but which don’t ultimately coalesce with the Scriptures. My commitment remains to the text of Scripture and therefore I am a somewhat reluctant literal six-day creationist.

I know how that sounds to some. It sounds to some like I am intellectually repressed. William VanDoodewaard has done an amazing job of demonstrating that this view, however, has been the dominant view of the church throughout the ages. In The Quest for the Historical Adam, VanDoodewaard gives a comprehensive history of the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. This historical survey is more than just informative, however; rather it offers a compelling argument for a literal interpretation of these early chapters of Genesis.

The book’s title plays off of the so-called “Quest for the historical Jesus,” an eighteenth and nineteenth century pursuit to find the “Jesus” behind the theology and “myth” of the New Testament. “This Jesus,” writes VanDoodewaard, “would be free from the limitations of the inherently contextualized writings of the early Christian community (i.e., the New Testament), and also freed from millennia of ‘literalists,’ ‘unthinking’ attachment of traditional Christianity to these texts” (1). Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, was an attempt to catalog and survey the various views on the historical Jesus with an appraisal and evaluation of each view. Schweitzer’s view, as it turned, out was no more Biblical than the other views. In one sense, then, VanDoodewaard’s book is an attempt to do similar work on the person of Adam in the history of the church. His intent is to survey the entire history of the church and seek to understand the strands and threads of belief about Adam and Eve that run through it. Unlike Schweitzer, however, VanDoodewaard is committed to a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 and the Adam presented therein.

This is surely a comprehensive survey of the history of interpretation throughout the church. VanDoodewaard offers readers a work that is incomparable in scope. He begins with the apostolic fathers and works his way all the way up to the present academic culture. Five of the book’s seven chapters cover this time span, cataloging the various views, hermeneutics, and emerging trends. He covers a wide array of scholars, both from Europe and America, both conservative and liberal. Furthermore, he is at pains to give readers as much primary source material to read as is possible. Readers will not be left wondering whether the content in these chapters represents a historian’s interpretations or first-hand statements. If it can be a bit tedious to read, VanDoodewaard lets the various authors speak for themselves as he quotes them, often at length. In this regard, The Quest for the Historical Adam is indeed the most comprehensive survey of the subject to date.

Yet, again, the goal is not merely to provide information. Rather, VanDoodewaard seeks to provide a historical setting that calls into question the revisionist hermeneutics of the contemporary scene. He writes:

The present quest for the historical Adam is often pursued with little attention to history – or at least little attention to historical theology. While it is in vogue to try to understand Genesis and human origins through the lenses of contemporary interpretation of pagan writings from the ancient Near East, scant attention is paid to the historical understanding of Genesis and human origins within Christianity. It is as if all that exists are discussions from the past twenty years or, at most, the last century or so. This historical amnesia obscures the fact that teaching on the early chapters of Genesis and human origins is hardly new. It has been engaged for millennia, from the Old Testament era onward. It would seem that this alone provides good reason to consider what has been said before us by those who sought to honor the true God and His Word. (7)

VanDoodewaard presents readers with the ebb and flow of interpretive trends and helps us to see how most “novel” interpretations are simply reiterations of earlier ideas, most of which have been interacted with and responded to by conservative theologians over the centuries. The church today would do well to listen to their forebears and interact with them as they think about the contemporary scene.

In his final chapter the author offers up three challenges to theistic evolutionary models of explanation and ten areas of significant theological impact. He introduces readers to a basic outline of the three common models of theistic evolution and notes some internal challenges they face. He then concludes with ten significant doctrines “that are connected to the historic, literal view of the special, temporally immediate creation of Adam and Eve” (286). “In each case,” he says, “ problematic areas of doctrinal implication arise due to the various nonliteral views associated with” the evolutionary biological process models. Through most of the book VanDoodewaard has let the history of interpretation speak for itself, in this final chapter he presents his own strong case for a literal interpretation.

Two final things commend this book to both pastors and laymen. I’ve noted its comprehensiveness already, but I loved the conviction and charity evident in this work. VanDoodewaard is highly concerned about the shift away from a literal hermeneutic, he makes a good historic case for the dangers associated with this shift. He leaves no stone unturned in his assessment of the alternative views and he is bold in his conviction that a literal hermeneutic does the most justice to the text of Scripture. He is not afraid to call out individuals who caved to cultural pressure, nor is he afraid to defend what has been hailed as a naïve view of human origins. Yet, he is not interested in throwing around the term “heretic.” He is careful to acknowledge that disagreement on this point does not condemn one to hell. Speaking of nonliteral approaches to the text of Genesis 1 and 2, he writes:

The consequences of this position is that proponents of alternative hermeneutics, while having some poignant insights into the text of Genesis 1 and 2 that cohere with the literal tradition, in other aspects, they interpret the Word poorly. To the degree they do, they err in their exposition – and in their understanding of creation history and origins. Like Simon Patrick, B.B. Warfield, and Meredith Kline, many remain capable exegetes and expositors of much of the riches of God’s Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ. As fellow believers, they are to be loved, and the positive substance of their work appreciated. (316)

VanDoodewaard is not on a heresy hunt in this volume, despite his genuine concern for the literal view. Some will still question his charity, as VanDoodewaard names modern scholars and critiques their work, but he does so without accusation or ad hominem arguments. His final thoughts reflect charitable disagreement with genuine conviction.

The Quest for the Historical Adam is a tremendous work. It is comprehensive and fair, and will surely be a tremendous resource for pastors and scholars for years to come. William VanDoodewaard has offered to the church a great conversation partner for considering and evaluating the contemporary dialogue on human origins and the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. I commend it to all interested readers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: