This the final post in David Opderbeck’s series on Origen and Adam.

Adam and the Rule of Faith

In my first post in this series, I suggested that Origen could help us work through some of the philosophical, theological, and scientific problems associated with traditional Christian theological anthropology’s emphasis on “Adam.”  In a prior post I discussed the philosophical claim.  My second claim about how to read the Biblical creation stories relates closely to the Christological emphasis in my discussion of the first claim.

Origen read all of scripture through the lens of a Rule of Faith centered on Christ.  This is particularly evident in Origen’s treatment of the texts from the creation narratives that we examined above.  In applying this method, Origen correctly relativized the “historical” dimension of the text’s literal sense without denying “historicity” altogether.  Origen suggested that interpreters should examine the text carefully to determine if it contains “impossible” elements that we can conclude are not literally historical.  With the knowledge the modern natural sciences has provided us concerning the natural history of the cosmos and human evolution, together with what we have learned from Biblical scholarship about the construction of these texts, we can continue to make such judgments, which can help us better understand what God intends to communicate to us in and through the text.

Matter Still Matters, But So Does the Ideal

My third claim about the natural sciences also relates to the first two claims.  On the one hand, Origen acknowledges the necessity and reality of “matter.”  If we wish to engage fruitfully with the natural sciences, we must do the same.  That is, we must adopt some form of metaphysical “realism.”[1]  The material world we inhabit is real and it possesses an inherent rationality, stability and order that allows us to investigate its operations and causes and to draw conclusions with reasonable degrees of confidence about subjects such as the evolution of the cosmos and of the creatures of the Earth, including humans.  Yet, contrary to the actual or at least methodological posture of the modern natural sciences, Origen understood that “matter” is a created thing and therefore is not all there is.

In many respects, ironically (and contrary to the claims of some naïve modern Christian apologetics about the Big Bang and creation ex nihilo) the modern natural sciences are agnostic about the eternity of matter.  While mainstream “big bang” cosmology does assert that our universe has a beginning, it also posits a singularity beyond which the concept of “time” is meaningless.[2]  In some respects this is similar to Christian ideas about God’s relationship to time and creation, but the singularity “before” the Big Bang is not a personal being, or any kind of being at all.  The result is that “matter” is all there is, and all there ever “was.” Although there is no Aristotelian unmoved mover causing its eternal motions, there is simply nothing “before” matter, or at least nothing that can be known. Other increasingly popular modern cosmologies entail multiverses and repeat “big bangs” that echo Greek opponents of Aristotle who thought matter and the universe were destroyed and recreated in endlessly recurring cycles. [3]  In contrast, the Christian doctrine of creation, as understood by Origen, insists that matter has a transcendent source in God.  Thus, while this ontology is metaphysically realist, it also draws on idealism, to insist that what is in a sense most real is the transcendent, that is, God.

Indeed, the relationship between the ideal and the actual, or the one and the many, concerning human nature, helps us understand why there could have been an “Adam” of history that was neither a perfect superman nor the literal biological progenitor of all anatomically modern humans.  The ideal of Adam preexisted the historical first Adam in the Logos, the person of the Son.  In the incarnate Son, Christ, we see the actualization of the ideal Adam.  Looking back from Christ, we see how the first Adam – whoever that representative person may have been in the flow of human biological evolution and early human history – was broken and flawed and therefore how humanity apart from Christ is broken and flawed.  Looking forward from Christ, we see how humanity can be, is becoming, and will one day be healed.


This is a repost from David’s blog Through a Glass Darkly


[1] For a good discussion of the issues here, see Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, Vol. 2:  Reality (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark 2007).

[2] See “Foundations of Big Bang Cosmology,” NASA, Universe 101, available at  This excellent summary provided by NASA notes that “[i]It is beyond the realm of the Big Bang Model to say what gave rise to the Big Bang. There are a number of speculative theories about this topic, but none of them make realistically testable predictions as of yet.”

[3] See Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Worlds Without End:  The Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia Univ. Press 2014).


Series Bibliography

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Aristotle, On the Heavens, trans. J.L. Stocks (Oxford:  Clarendon Press 1927), Books I and II.

Balaguer, Mark, “Platonism in Metaphysics“, in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition).

Bammel, Caroline P. Hammond, “Adam in Origen,’ in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy:  Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick, 62-93 (Cambridge:  CUP 1989).

Behr, John, The Mystery of Christ:  Life in Death (Crestwood:  St. Valdimir’s Seminary Press 2006), 90.

Bouteneff, Peter Beginnings:  Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic 2008).

— “Christ and Salvation,” in Mary B. Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokrotoff, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology(Cambridge:  CUP 2008), 94; Timothy

Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene:  40th Anniversary Edition (Oxford:  OUP 2016)

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Graziano, Michael S., God, Soul, Mind, Brain:  A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World (Freedonia:  Leapfrog Press 2010).

Greek text file of Origen from Migne

Jones, Steve, Martin, Robert and Pilbeam, David, eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (Cambridge:  CUP 1996)

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Kelsey, David, Eccentric Existence:  A Theological Anthropology, Vol. 1(Louisville:  Westminster John Knox 2009)

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Migne, Jaques-Paul, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca (Parise:  Imprimerie Catholique  1857), Vol. 11.

NASA, “Foundations of Big Bang Cosmology,” Universe 101.

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— with O’Donovan, Joan Lockwood, eds., From Irenaeus to Grotius:  A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 1999).

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—  On First Principles, trans. G.W. Butterworth (Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press 2013).

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