I’m excited to welcome a new writer to the blog. David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology. He recently completed his Ph.D. in theology at Nottingham under Conor Cunningham with a dissertation on theology, law and neuroscience – I’m jealous, but he must never sleep ;-). David maintains a person blog at Through a Glass Darkly and has also written on God and Creation for the Biologos blog


This will begin a series of posts on how the 3rd Century theologian Origen might help us think about “Adam.”  The question “who was Adam” presents difficult issues for Christian theology.  Following the lead of St. Augustine, “Western” Christian theology historically has emphasized the implication of each human being in the primordial sin of Adam – that is, Western theological traditions tend toward robust versions of the doctrine of “original sin.”[1]  There are significant philosophical, critical, and scientific problems with this approach.[2]  Philosophically, it is unclear why it is just for God to hold the rest of humanity accountable for Adam’s actions. [3]  Critically, it is unclear that the Hebrew scriptures ever meant to suggest any doctrine of “original sin” or whether the locus classicus for the doctrine in the Pauline New Testament literature was properly translated and understood by Augustine.[4]  Scientifically, it is now clear from various lines of evidence that the population of anatomically modern humans evolved gradually over millions of years from a common ancestor shared with the great apes, and that the present human population could not have genetically derived from a single common ancestral pair.[5]  In other words, a flatly literal “Adam and Eve,” which seems to be required by the Augustinian view, is scientifically impossible.

In response to these concerns, many contemporary theologians suggest that “Eastern” traditions, which are less connected to the “Western” / Augustinian view of original sin, can more easily manage these tensions.[6]  Some of these writers seek to bring Eastern views into conversation with modern liberal or neo-orthodox theology, which tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of the Biblical creation accounts, and with the trend in recent theology towards social Trinitarianism, which can map onto a social (rather than Western “individualistic”) ontology of what it means to be “human.”[7]

These gestures towards “Eastern” thought are helpful in the sense that they do highlight the “mythic” dimensions of the Biblical creation narratives and the irreducibly social construction of human identity.  They tend, however, towards broad generalizations that often do not account for the more nuanced and complex philosophical matrix that informed many of the Eastern Church Fathers as they thought about creation, humanity, and the Fall.  In this regard, Origen is an interesting figure to study because of the historic anathemas against his supposedly aberrant neo-Platonic views about the pre-existence of souls.[8]  As we shall see, Origen did indeed draw heavily on Platonism, but his views about Adam and the Fall were far more subtle than is often supposed.  Indeed, I will argue that elements of Origen’s views could be useful to a contemporary Christian theology of Adam and original sin.

In my next post, I’ll examine some threshold problems in locating “Origen’s views” about Adam.

This post and others in the series are being reposted from David’s blog.


[1] For a good summary of the doctrine and its Augustinian roots, see Ian McFarland, “The Fall and Sin,” in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford:  OUP 2007), 140-157.

[2] For a general discussion of contemporary objections to the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, see Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin:  Abuse, Holocaust and the Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge:  CUP 2000), at pp. 40-41.

[3] Concerning objections to the Augustinian doctrine, see McFarland, “The Fall and Sin.”  For a more in-depth discussion, see David Kelsey,Eccentric Existence:  A Theological Anthropology, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox 2009); Veli Matti Karkainnen, Creation and Humanity:  A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 2015), Chapter 15.

[4] See, e.g., Peter Bouteneff, Beginnings:  Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic 2008).

[5] For a general overview of the evidences for human evolution, see Steve Jones, Robert Martin, and David Pilbeam, eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (Cambridge:  CUP 1996).  For a series of articles on why population genetics precludes a single genetic ancestor of all modern humanity, See Dennis Venema, BioLogos Forum,” Letters to the Duchess,” available at http://biologos.org/blogs/dennis-venema-letters-to-the-duchess/series/adam-eve-and-human-population-genetics.

[6] For a general discussion of the “Eastern” view, see Peter Bouteneff, “Christ and Salvation,” in Mary B. Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokrotoff, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology(Cambridge:  CUP 2008), 94; Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York:  Penguin Books 1997), 222-225.

[7] See, e.g., Kelsey, Eccentric Existence; Karkainnen, Creation and Humanity, Chapter 15.

[8] For a discussion of the historical disputes over Origenism, see Joseph Trigg Wilson, Origen (London:  Routledge 2002).