Is a literal Adam necessary for Catholics?


What do you make of this statement by Benedict? I feel like it leaves open the possibility of Adam as symbol. Benedict also was part of a group of German bishops who made a statement saying Genesis 1-11 is the genre of ancient mythology and shouldn’t be pressed for historical detail.

Here is Benedict:

“as people of today we must ask ourselves: what is this original sin? What does St Paul teach, what does the Church teach? Is this doctrine still sustainable today? Many think that in light of the history of evolution, there is no longer room for the doctrine of a first sin that then would have permeated the whole of human history. And, as a result, the matter of Redemption and of the Redeemer would also lose its foundation. Therefore, does original sin exist or not? In order to respond, we must distinguish between two aspects of the doctrine on original sin. There exists an empirical aspect, that is, a reality that is concrete, visible, I would say tangible to all. And an aspect of mystery concerning the ontological foundation of this event. The empirical fact is that a contradiction exists in our being. On the one hand every person knows that he must do good and intimately wants to do it. Yet at the same time he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of selfishness and violence, to do only what pleases him, while also knowing that in this way he is acting against the good, against God and against his neighbour. In his Letter to the Romans St Paul expressed this contradiction in our being in this way: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (7: 18-19). This inner contradiction of our being is not a theory. Each one of us experiences it every day. And above all we always see around us the prevalence of this second will. It is enough to think of the daily news of injustice, violence, falsehood and lust. We see it every day. It is a fact.

As a consequence of this evil power in our souls, a murky river developed in history which poisons the geography of human history. Blaise Pascal, the great French thinker, spoke of a “second nature”, which superimposes our original, good nature. This “second nature” makes evil appear normal to man. Hence even the common expression “he’s human” has a double meaning. “He’s human”, can mean: this man is good, he really acts as one should act. But “he’s human”, can also imply falsity: evil is normal, it is human. Evil seems to have become our second nature. This contradiction of the human being, of our history, must evoke, and still evokes today, the desire for redemption. And, in reality, the desire for the world to be changed and the promise that a world of justice, peace and good will be created exists everywhere. In politics, for example, everyone speaks of this need to change the world, to create a more just world. And this is precisely an expression of the longing for liberation from the contradiction we experience within us.

Thus, the existence of the power of evil in the human heart and in human history is an undeniable fact. The question is: how can this evil be explained? In the history of thought, Christian faith aside, there exists a key explanation of this duality, with different variations. This model says: being in itself is contradictory, it bears within it both good and evil. In antiquity, this idea implied the opinion that two equally primal principles existed: a good principle and a bad principle. This duality would be insuperable; the two principles are at the same level, so this contradiction from the being’s origin would always exist. The contradiction of our being would therefore only reflect the contrary nature of the two divine principles, so to speak. In the evolutionist, atheist version of the world the same vision returns in a new form. Although in this conception the vision of being is monist, it supposes that being as such bears within itself both evil and good from the outset. Being itself is not simply good, but open to good and to evil. Evil is equally primal with the good. And human history would develop only the model already present in all of the previous evolution. What Christians call original sin would in reality be merely the mixed nature of being, a mixture of good and evil which, according to atheist thought, belong to the same fabric of being. This is a fundamentally desperate view: if this is the case, evil is invincible. In the end all that counts is one’s own interest. All progress would necessarily be paid for with a torrent of evil and those who wanted to serve progress would have to agree to pay this price. Politics is fundamentally structured on these premises and we see the effects of this. In the end, this modern way of thinking can create only sadness and cynicism.

And let us therefore ask again: what does faith witnessed to by St Paul tell us? As the first point, it confirms the reality of the competition between the two natures, the reality of this evil whose shadow weighs on the whole of Creation. We heard chapter seven of the Letter to the Romans, we shall add chapter eight. Quite simply, evil exists. As an explanation, in contrast with the dualism and monism that we have briefly considered and found distressing, faith tells us: there exist two mysteries, one of light and one of night, that is, however, enveloped by the mysteries of light. The first mystery of light is this: faith tells us that there are not two principles, one good and one evil, but there is only one single principle, God the Creator, and this principle is good, only good, without a shadow of evil. And therefore, being too is not a mixture of good and evil; being as such is good and therefore it is good to be, it is good to live. This is the good news of the faith: only one good source exists, the Creator. Therefore living is a good, it is a good thing to be a man or a woman life is good. Then follows a mystery of darkness, or night. Evil does not come from the source of being itself, it is not equally primal. Evil comes from a freedom created, from a freedom abused.

How was it possible, how did it happen? This remains obscure. Evil is not logical. Only God and good are logical, are light. Evil remains mysterious. It is presented as such in great images, as it is in chapter 3 of Genesis, with that scene of the two trees, of the serpent, of sinful man: a great image that makes us guess but cannot explain what is itself illogical. We may guess, not explain; nor may we recount it as one fact beside another, because it is a deeper reality. It remains a mystery of darkness, of night. But a mystery of light is immediately added. Evil comes from a subordinate source. God with his light is stronger. And therefore evil can be overcome. Thus the creature, man, can be healed. The dualist visions, including the monism of evolutionism, cannot say that man is curable; but if evil comes only from a subordinate source, it remains true that man is healable. And the Book of Wisdom says: “he made the nations of the world curable” (1: 14 Vulgate). And finally, the last point: man is not only healable, but is healed de facto. God introduced healing. He entered into history in person. He set a source of pure good against the permanent source of evil. The Crucified and Risen Christ, the new Adam, counters the murky river of evil with a river of light. And this river is present in history: we see the Saints, the great Saints but also the humble saints, the simple faithful. We see that the stream of light which flows from Christ is present, is strong.”



Paul VI Audience Hall
Wednesday, 3 December 2008

By the way, are you Catholic? I’m not. Haha.

And I find it very sad that you don’t think seminaries and bishops represent TRUE Catholic doctrine. How then, will the Church survive? Is someone just going to have to stand up some day and put a stop to this?

I don’t think your comparison with mainline churches is fair. For example, the PCA and PCUSA are now two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT Churches. Same with Misouri Synod and the ELCA, etc. Unlike the Catholic Church which is one church.

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Hi, Mark.

I’m a near-Catholic, one might say. I haven’t jumped in to swim across the Tiber yet, but of late my academic associations have been with Catholic scholars and priests who have made a great impression on me. But I must add that they are Catholics of a conservative bent, who do not like a good deal of what they see taught in Catholic colleges and seminaries, in Catholic high schools, and preached from Catholic pulpits. I resonate with that, because I have seen a similar pattern of liberalism among the leadership in Anglican and other churches. (I have family and friendship connections all across the Christian map.)

Regarding Benedict, he was a great scholar, and was one of the leading defenders of Catholic orthodoxy as a Cardinal. It does not surprise me that he allows for a figurative reading of parts of Genesis 2-3, since that is allowed in the Catechism, a document for which he was one of the guiding lights. But I don’t think his statement above represents any backtracking on the idea of an original human couple, as opposed to regarding the story of that couple as couched in figurative language. (And maybe you weren’t offering the statement for that purpose, in which case we wouldn’t disagree.)

No, I was. Mostly because he seems to suggest that things would NOT break down if there is no literal first couple. I have a feeling Francis would probably agree. But I’m not Francis’s biggest fan. Mostly because I think his understanding of economics is horrendous. Haha

I agree with you about Catholic universities. But not necessarily about seminaries. I’ll have to ask my Catholic priest friend what he was taught in seminary about this. I doubt it was much different from what I was taught though since our Old Testament professor taught Old Testament to them as well. Fr Eugen Pentiuc.

He never commented on this though. I doubt he would see a literal couple as a necessity though.

Anyways, I’ll try to find Jimmy Akin’s statements regarding a literal couple. He allows for several individuals and is a very conservative Catholic.

I’m not sure why this teaching would be binding on a Catholic anyway. Is it on the same level as Catholic dogmas like the assumption and immaculate conception? I’ve seen someone say the Pope’s statement (I forget which pope) constitutesa statement that fits the bill of infallibility, but I’m not sure why.

The document you need is the Papal encyclical of Pius XII, Humani Generis (1950). The third part of the encyclical contains a paragraph about polygenism, which excludes the idea of “true men” who did not take their origin from Adam as the first parent of all. This teaching has never been revoked by the successors of Pius. It doesn’t require a literal serpent or a literal tree of life or knowledge, but it does insist on a single original human couple. Benedict would have had to consciously and explicitly overrule that teaching of the encyclical for it to cease to be Catholic teaching, and he didn’t do that in the passage you quote, or anywhere else. No time to go into more detail now, but this should be enough to enable you to find it.

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Sorry to gatecrash the discussion with an entirely non-Catholic comment… but after all, neither of you is Catholic either. But I’ve just posted a piece on the historical Adam that seems relevant to the theme, if not particularly to Benedict etc.

The basic theme is, “How pervasive does Adam have to be in Scripture before his non-existence becomes a problem?”


Nice article @jongarvey

But who came first? Adam or Jesus? Did Paul base his interpretation of the Adam story off of his experience with Christ or off his interpretation of Adam which he had as a former Christ persecutor? Was he looking for someone to save him because Adam put us in a mess or did he meet his Savior and realize he needed to be saved? Who came first for Paul? Christ, or Adam? Our theology of sin is only made because we have met the healer of sin, not because we read and understood Genesis 3 before the advent of Christ.

And can you show us a statement from McKnight where he says that Paul considered Adam’s existence an important part of the gospel, but that this doesn’t matter?

As far as Benedict,

“At the centre of the scene it is not so much Adam, with the consequences of his sin for humanity, who is found as much as it is Jesus Christ and the grace which was poured out on humanity in abundance through him.”

Doesn’t prove anything, but an interesting statement.

And @Eddie,

I’ll look at Pius’s statement soon.

Well, of course, the solution is always greater than the problem, especially when the solution is God the Son, the lamb slain from the creation of the world. That’s an entirely different matter from questioning the historicity of the problem.

But Paul’s issue, before the Damascus road, was living committedly within Israel’s narrative, and sharing its hopes, without fully appreciating where he stood with God and, more importantly, that Jesus was the centre of those hopes. He was within the right story, but in the wrong character and with lack of clarity on the plotline. He returned from Arabia without any diminution of his commitment to the story, as his letters demonstrate.

To separate Paul from Israel (or Jesus from Israel, for that matter) is to create a false dichotomy. Remember that Jesus taught the women from Samaria that “salvation is from the Jews”, clearly referencing not only himself happening to be Jewish, but himself in relation to the revelation in history. Likewise, Paul before the court reminded his accusers that it was for the hope of Israel he stood before them. I could multiply instances affirming the centrality of Israel’s hope, or consolation, or restoration, in the New Testament teaching even after the gentile inclusion - after which it’s simply applied to an enlarged Israel. It’s no coincidence that the Book of Revelation ends in Edenic and temple imagery.

The issue I address in the Hump post is that Adam - both his intended role and his failure - is a more defining part of that narrative than is usually realised. Certainly many of the Fathers - Irenaeus springs to mind as the first - had such an idea clearly in mind.

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This is what I was referring to from Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin:

“Hypothetically (and I am not advocating this), an interpreter might conclude that Adam and Eve represent the early human community as a whole. Pius XII strongly discouraged this interpretation in his enecyclical Humani Generis, but did not altogether preclude the possibility that the Magisterium might be open to it in the future, and some members of the Magisterium (such as the German bishops’ conference) have been explicitly open to it in recent years.”

I think his point is that Pius said “Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin…”

This implies that it is left open for a Catholic to SHOW how one could hold such teachings. But I guess if I were Catholic, it would give me great pause before embracing such a doctrine. Eastern Orthodox don’t have the same problem because although we have an understanding of original sin, it is (ironically) not as genetically based as was Augustine’s. As, or IF Catholics moves closer to the Orthodox view, seeing Adam and Eve represent the first sinful human acts will probably be much more plausible.

But yeah…if I were Catholic, I would probably feel pretty weird advocating for polygenism. I think you win. :wink:

This is not polygenesis. What is Polygenesis?

Thanks! Good to know.

OK, I kinda have to say it now, either Adam and Eve are just a story to represent humanity as a whole, and the fall from grace, or, their names weren’t Adam and Eve.

You gotta admit, it’s suspicious how first humans’ names were Humanity and Mother in Hebrew.


@Djordje this is an entertaininly one-way argument. Have you ever thought of understanding it in the other direction? If you can’t even identify the other reading, how could you know which one is correct?

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What do you mean?

Maybe Adam was named Adam, but our biological kind became Adams as it fell into the lineage of Adam. His name becomes synonymous with mankind as his lineage becomes all of us.

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You mean, word ‘Adam’ became a word for ‘humanity’ because of Adam?

If so, it’s possible.

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That’s right. Another way of reading it that also makes perfect sense. Which one is right? Can’t say from this alone, but it certainly doesn’t make a coherent case against a historical Adam.

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Yeah, I sometimes fail to consider other possibilities.


Or a variant on that: “adam” is a particularly semitic word for “man”, with apparent etymological links to “red”, or “red soil”. So Adam, the man associated with (or even made from, taking that verse literally) the red soil, becomes the people of Adam, the people of the red soil, and the word is later generalised by that people as a word for mankind. And so the word adam either becomes Hebrew as the language develops, or is translated into Hebrew from whatever the original tongue.

Linguistically, the same process could be true for Eve - but our narrative implies that this couple were very well aware of their special calling and status, and so a husband might very well have given his wife a prophetically significant name.

There are many precedents - many tribes refer to themselves (alone) as “people” - in Britain, “Folk” was the self-designation of the Angles, but has now become a common noun for … folk.


Can you enumerate some examples please?

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A few in here.

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