Randal Rauser writes:
Christian fundamentalists like to trumpet the authority of scripture over all things… The key problem is that fundamentalists widely subscribe to a hermeneutical (that is interpretive) principle that the text should be interpreted literally when possible. This is how George Marsden, perhaps the leading scholar on North American fundamentalism, puts it:
“fundamentalists do not hold that everything in the bible is to be interpreted literally (the mountains do not literally clap their hands). Rather, literal when possible is their interpretive rule. Whatever in the Bible can reasonably be given a literal reference should be interpreted as literal and accurate.”
John Walvoord, one of the most well known fundamentalist scholars of the twentieth century, put it like this:
“The most important point in interpretation of the bible is to recognize that the bible is normally a literal expression of what God wishes to communicate.” (Randal Rauser, How fundamentalism undermines the authority of scripture, 7/25/11 randalrauser.com)
I do not doubt that fundamentalists truly believe in this principle of bible interpretation. Nor do I doubt that they normally adhere to it. It seems to me, however, that there is one glaring exception. It is how fundamentalists interpret what scripture has to say regarding the nature of Adam before the Fall. It seems that in this instance the fundamentalists have steadfastly refused to interpret literally those passages that were clearly meant literally. Moreover, they have insisted on a literal interpretation of passages that were obviously figurative. This is a blatant violation not only of their literal-when-possible rule, but of an even more basic rule--one that almost all Christians agree on--namely, that we should interpret the unclear by the clear. Let’s take a closer look at the verses in view and how the fundamentalists violate their own rules of interpretation in the way they understand these verses.
First a look at the three main verses normally employed to argue that Adam was created perfect.
Eccl. 7:29. The passage reads:
“And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands...behold, this have I found...counting one by one, to find the account: which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found. Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.”
There are three things to consider here. First, the preacher precedes his statement about man being made upright by saying that all women are bad. That should give us at least some pause before we decide to take every word of this passage in their most literal sense. Secondly, the statement about men being upright is part of a larger diatribe about humanity in general. Thirdly, the emphasis of the diatribe is not man's uprightness, but man's rottenness. He's including the part about uprightness as a positive in order to stress the negative. In other words, he's saying, in effect: People suck. They really suck. I've seen them all and I'm here to tell you, they suck. Just plain suck. All of them. Men suck. Women suck—women really suck. But they all suck. God made us good, but we really suck.
It is astonishing to think that such a verse has been used as a cornerstone to build the doctrine of man's original perfection.
Another verse employed to support this doctrine is Ezekiel 28:12-17:
“Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him, Thus says the Lord God; Thou seal up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. You have been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of your tabrets and of your pipes was prepared in you in the day that you were created. You are the anointed cherub that covers; and I have set you so; you were upon the holy mountain of God; you have walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. You were perfect in your ways from the day that you were created, till iniquity was found in you...”
It should be noted that opinions differ as to who is actually in view in this verse; some say it's Satan, some say Adam. For the sake of argument, however, we will assume the passage is referring to Adam. Is this verse indicating that Adam was created a perfect spiritual being with little or no capacity for sin—a kind of co-equal with God who, of his own volition, decided to rebel? I doubt it. A perfectly natural interpretation is this: Adam was made in the image of God, glorious in every way, except one—he was flesh and blood.
“...The first Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” (1 Cor 15:45)
“Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.” (1 Cor. 15: 46)
Just as Christ was the second Adam, so Adam was the first Christ; he was the prototype of perfection. But no-one devises a prototype without a better model already in view. That model of course was “the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”
It's also noteworthy that this verse can also be used against the Perfect Adam theory. Note the language: “You were perfect...till iniquity was found in you.” How do you find something that wasn't already there? And what is the purpose of the law? To reveal sin (Rom. 3:20). Moreover, 1 Cor.15:42-47 clearly indicates that man was created an earthy being; there's no suggestion that it occurred as a result of sin. A person can start out “perfect” and still be subject to death and decay. Newborn babies are proof.
One last possibility. Whereas tradition sees the term perfect as an indictment and a grounds for assessing blame, one could, if one were so inclined, see the very opposite sentiment implied by the word. What parent hasn’t said of their child: “You were a perfect baby.” The term, in this instance, does not imply a love that has waned, or never existed at all, but rather one that is ongoing and committed to restoring its child no matter what “iniquity was found” in her.
Another verse employed in defense of the Perfect Adam theory is James 1:13: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man...” This verse, however, is in no way addressing the likelihood of Adam sinning; it's merely saying that God didn't tempt him to sin and does not tempt us to sin. Moreover, an imperfect being does not need to be tempted to sin; it comes naturally.
These are the verses traditional Christianity has relied on to inform them of man’s original condition--a cryptic verse laded with symbolism, a remark by Solomon whose theme was not even the subject in question, and a warning against blaming God for our sins. Over and against these verses, we have other verses that address the nature of man in clear terms. These verses do not rely on figures or symbols and the nature of man is their central theme. What do these verses have to say about how man was created?
“The creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him who subjected the same in hope; because the creature itself also shall be delivered from its bondage to corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Romans 8:20
You could hardly ask for a more unequivocal declaration of man’s inherently corrupt nature than this. And yet fundamentalists have done everything possible to evade the clear implications of this passage. Indeed they have done everything possible to avoid taking this passage, which is quite literal and to the point, in a literal sense. Instead they have taken it to mean something like this: “The animals were made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by him (man) who subjected them…” There are so many problems with this interpretation that it requires a separate article to treat them all; hence I will simply point out that the word corruption is the same word used in 1 Cor. 15:42, which clearly refers to the way man was created.
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption…”
This states the matter quite clearly: God sowed us in corruption. We do not sow ourselves. God sows us. The traditional theology would have us read the verse this way: “It is sown in honor; it falls into corruption, then it is restored to perfection.” But of course the verse says nothing of the sort, nor does it imply it in any way. Moreover, the following verses reinforce the meaning.
43 “It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.”
Once again, we have the very same meaning and intent. God sowed us in weakness. It did not come as the result of The Fall.
44 “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”
It is as if Paul is piling verse upon verse to ensure that nobody can possibly miss the point--which, of course, traditional Christianity has missed completely.
45 “And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.”
But wasn’t Adam a glorious, immortal, perfect man? A spiritual man? If this verse implies that he was not, the next verse insists on it.
46 “Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.”
There it is in black and white. Adam wasn’t spiritual!
47 “The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.”
There are two men: Adam and Christ. It was God’s intent in the original plan of creation that man’s destiny be found in Christ, not in Adam. Just as Christ was the second Adam, so Adam was the first Christ. With one difference: he wasn’t Christ! He was fleshly, subject to sin and corruption. He was the prototype, not the finished product. But no-one creates a proto-type without a better version already embraced in their original plan.
48 “As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.”
We act according to the nature God gives us (Matthew 12:33). That which is earthy will reflect that earthiness in his behavior. He will sin. Likewise that which is heavenly will behave accordingly. He cannot sin (1 John 3:9).
49 “As we have born the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”
50 “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.”
Here is a very simple formula for understanding the whole issue:
Adam = natural man = sin
Christ = spiritual man = no sin
“Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)
Adam had a nature. It was fleshly, earthy, corrupt. This nature cannot please God. “So they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8)
The spiritual man, however, cannot help but please God.
“Whomsoever is born of God...cannot sin” (1 John 3:9)
As anyone can see, the matter is laid out quite clearly and emphatically, in terms simple enough for a child to understand. If fundamentalists would stop interpreting these clear verses by unclear ones, they too would understand.
But don’t hold your breath.