Is a literal Adam necessary for Catholics?



I disagree with this. I don’t think that an encyclical is automatically de facto Catholic teaching that has to be explicitly refuted for it to be superseded. Of course this depends on how one defines “Catholic teaching”.

This teaching (Humani Generis) is not binding at all to Catholics. Although coming from the office of the pope, an encyclical is not infallible.

Absolutely not. The assumption and immaculate conception are dogmas that are defined to be infallible, unlike Humani Generis.

In general, encyclicals are not infallible. This might be confusing, as there is one instance in which a teaching that is explicitly in an encyclical is considered infallible: the immorality of murder, directly willed abortion, and euthanasia in Evangelium vitae. However, this one instance is actually not the pope exercising his papal infallibility (which, as I said, is not done in encyclicals), but the exercising of the infallibility of the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium. In other words, PJPII was just stating in an encyclical a doctrine that has been taught infallibly throughout Church history, and not exercising his papal infallibility to define an infallible statement.



Forgive me, I’ll have to retrieve my name to post on your blog.

Could you provide some support for your statement about McKnight? I see a lot “McKnight and Venema say this crazy thing about Adam,” from several people, but could you give a quote?

I’ve read some of McKnight’s chapters in AATG very closely and was honestly dissapointed because I felt he was SO careful, he ended up hardly saying anything about Adam. I am much more satisfied with Enns’ book because he says what he thinks and defends a position.

(Jon Garvey) #23


I don’t have the book to hand, but this quote from McKnight on BioLogos seems to summarise his view of the matter.

What I am convinced of is that the Adam of Genesis 1-4 is a theological, moral Adam, a literary Adam, a figure in a text who tells the truth of human beings… And I am also convinced that the Adam of Genesis became the First Person as Hebrews, Israelites and Jews read the Bible. The interpretive tradition grew and Paul was part of it.

(Ashwin S) #24

One example I know is that as per Indian mythology, the first man is called Manu…And the word for humanity is derived from Manu… such as Manushya, Maanav etc… meaning “of Manu”…
Israelites are another example… they are the off spring of Israel (as Jacob was renamed).

(Edward Robinson) #25

You’re confusing “infallible statement” with “Catholic doctrine.” Something can be Catholic doctrine without being an infallible statement. In fact, the overwhelming body of Catholic doctrine consists of statements which have not been declared to be infallible. I can think of only one or two Catholic doctrines that have been declared as infallible. If the standard of infallibility were applied to the question of what beliefs are “binding”, then 99.9% of Catholic doctrine would not be “binding” on Catholics.

Can a Catholic deny the Trinity, if Trinity has not been pronounced as an infallible doctrine? How about the doctrine that each individual soul is created by God? If that doesn’t have the infallible label slapped on it, are Catholics free to deny it, and say that their private opinion counts as Catholic teaching? How about the doctrine that all of the Bible is revealed divine truth, and not just parts of it? If that view of the Bible has never been labelled an infallible statement, can a Catholic decide that some parts of the Bible are false, and be within Catholic teaching?

The question of whether a doctrine is infallible, and whether it is the official teaching of the Church, are two different questions. To the best of my knowledge, the encyclical Humani Generis represented the teaching of the Church at the time it was issued. Of course, Church teaching can and has changed. Future Popes can reverse or modify the decisions of earlier Popes. But to the best of my knowledge, while plenty of Catholic theologians, clergy and lay folks have challenged this teaching about Adam, no statement representing the mind of the Church has come along to replace it. I am open to correction on this, of course, as I don’t know all the documents.


First of, a doctrine in Catholicism is a teaching on faith and morals that necessarily cannot change, so Humani Generis, as a teaching that can change (as you stated yourself), is not Catholic doctrine.

Second, infallibility of a teaching in Catholicism does not require the teaching to be explicitly stated to be defined infallible. This is called the infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, and covers cases like

Let me address this statement:

Many more than two teachings have been declared infallible. I randomly picked a random portion of a random ecumenical council: and in that page all of the statements ending with “…let him be anathema” are declared to be infallible through the infallibility of ecumenical councils.

This is correct, which is why I mentioned in my original comment that whether Humani Generis can be considered as the teaching of the Church depends on what one defines to be the “teaching of the Church”. To wit, the Church possesses a range of certainty in Her teachings. At the top are de fide statements, which are infallible and are essential to the Catholic faith. Lower in the totem pole are sententia certa and sententia communis which are not infallible and I believe applies more to the case of encyclicals.

I am open to consider Humani Generis to be “Church teaching” in the sense that it is (at the very least) sententia communis, but it contains nothing that is binding to Catholics.

(Edward Robinson) #27


I may not have expressed myself with accuracy, due to unfamiliarity with Catholic usage of certain terms. I don’t want to get into a wrangle about terms such as “binding” and “doctrine”, which you appear to give a much more technical sense to than I deem necessary for the original point I was trying to make. Let me restate:

First, I don’t fully understand the technical status of encyclicals. Inspired by your comments, I dug around and found this:

Apparently – according to the writer of the article – there is disagreement among Catholic theologians about what kind of authority encyclicals have. But he says that despite this disagreement, it is clear that in an encyclical the Pope is speaking as head of the faithful, and in a teaching capacity as the leading teacher of the Church – and therefore his words are to be treated with reverence, and accepted as true. (He doesn’t say they are “binding” but he does say they should be accepted as true, meaning not merely refraining from contradicting, but inwardly accepting.) Do you agree with this, that statements of the Popes in encyclicals should be accepted by Catholics as true?

Now, you don’t want to call the public teaching of Pope in an encyclical “doctrine”; you reserve that term for special use. I won’t quarrel over this. I mean merely that the Pope, head of the faithful, Vicar of Christ on earth, the man who has the power to grant or withdraw teaching authority to Catholic teachers, makes statements in encyclicals about what the teaching of the Church is, is not, permits, forbids, etc. If you won’t call that “doctrine”, then fine, call it “teaching”. What I’m saying is that when a Pope teaches something in an encyclical, he isn’t speaking merely as private person, or as a university professor of theology, or as a priest, or as the bishop of a particular diocese, etc. He is speaking as the Head of the Church. I therefore call his statements in the encyclical a teaching of the Church. If they are not a teaching of the Church, then whose teaching are they?

We seem to be using different meanings of infallibility. Again, I won’t quarrel if you say that a large number of teachings are technically “infallible”, because I’m not an expert on the history of the term, but not all Catholic writers agree with you. In one article I just read, the writer calls the doctrines you are speaking about “irreformable” rather than “infallible”, and restricts the “infallible” statements to the ex cathedra states about the Assumption and Immaculate Conception.

I had in mind the latter restricted meaning of “infallible statements” – which is why said there have been very few. But quarreling over terms is profitless. My main point was that the Church teaches things – infallible, irreformable, settled by Creeds, settled by Councils, declared ex cathedra by Pope, whatever – which it regards as true and which it expects Catholics to accept. They might be divided up by scholars among various “levels of authority” as you say, but I don’t think that makes much practical difference.

Popes have issued very strong statements regarding abortion, birth control, etc., which may never have been declared “infallible” statements, but which they clearly intend that the faithful should accept and follow in practice. To say that these statements are not “binding” (using some technical sense of “binding”) strikes me as merely an excuse for disobedience, and this distinction between teachings of the Church that are binding and teachings of the Church that are not binding strikes me as pernicious, being very obviously open to abuse. Human beings being what they are, they will always be trying to get out of obedience to doctrines they don’t like, and the legal loophole of “Catholic teaching, but not binding Catholic teaching” will be naturally eagerly seized upon.

But anyhow, back to the main point. My point was that Pius taught something about Adam as the ancestor of all true human beings. Don’t call it doctrine, don’t call it infallible, don’t call it binding – but he did teach it. Did he not believe that what he taught was true? Did he not intend his teaching to guide Catholics to right thinking about the subject? I would think that as long as that statement of Pius stands uncontradicted by any official Catholic document (bull, encyclical, catechism, whatever), it should be presumed to be current Catholic “teaching” – as I’m using the term.


There is disagreement on where exactly the authority of a papal encyclical is in the ladder of Catholic teaching, but no Catholic theologian will say that an encyclical is infallible automatically. A pope might choose to proclaim a statement ex cathedra in an encyclical, but this is not true in general. When they do so, the typical formula contains the words define or declare or punctuated by threats of being anathema.

No. As a Catholic, I have a strong prior in the Bayesian sense that a statement that a Pope made in an encyclical is true. However, there is nothing in Catholicism stating that encyclicals should be accepted as automatically true until proven/refuted otherwise.

As I conceded in my last post, they are teachings of the Church, but they are in general sententia communis teachings and not what Catholics would call doctrine.

I am using the standard term that is used in Catholic literature, c.f. “Infallibility of the Church”, “Infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils”, “Infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium”. Confusing this more general notion of infallibility with the specific case of papal infallibility is a personal pet peeve of mine.

On the contrary, I think this is very important. The Church’s teachings are not black and white, i.e. the Church is not always either absolutely certain that something is true or totally opposed to it. It is not enough to claim that a statement is Church’s teaching or not; more precision is necessary to elucidate what one actually means. I think this is the crux of our disagreement.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the immorality of abortion was made explicit in Evangelium Vitae. It is an example of the infallibility of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, and not papal infallibility, and JPJII intended it as such. Therefore, even if JPJII never declared it infallible, it is clear that he intends that “the faithful should accept and follow in practice”, as it is infallible nonetheless. This is not the same case as the teaching on Adam and Eve in Humani Generis.

I can see why you have this sentiment. However, the Church do have a “ladder of certainty”. There do exist statements that could be constituted as “teachings of the Church”, but are not required for Catholics to believe. I am merely stating facts. I agree with you that it would be much simpler and perhaps preferable to have all teachings of the Church be binding. However, this is not so. C’est la vie.

Pius himself, of course most probably thought that he taught true. However, this does not mean that the statements he made are actually true.

Again, here you have to be explicit with what you mean by Catholic teaching. What do you mean by the term? Sententia communis? Weaker?

(Edward Robinson) #29


Please remember that you were the one who introduced the term “infallible” into this discussion, not I. I made no claim that any encyclical in particular contained any “infallible” teaching, or that encyclicals generally were “infallible.” Your introduction of the term hasn’t clarified matters, and in fact has led us down a rabbit trail about the different ways “infallible” is used (and, according to you, sometimes misused) by Catholics.

Pius said in the document I cited [emphasis added]:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid … research and discussions … with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter … When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origins through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. [The follow-up explains that such views do not appear to be reconcilable with the Church’s understanding of original sin.]

Now I am not going to try to classify this in Latin technical terms that I don’t usually work with. But it’s plain to me that Pius takes it upon himself to say what beliefs regarding the origin and progeny of Adam the Church permits and what beliefs the Church forbids. He speaks for the Church, as if he has authority to do so. And he does not offer his judgments as conjectures, probable hypotheses, etc. He was perfectly free to say that the existence of extra-Adamites was “dubious” or “perhaps not reconcilable with the doctrine of original sin”; instead, he said something much stronger. If you don’t want to call that “Catholic doctrine”, but something else, that’s fine with me; but I would call a teaching that is stated in no uncertain terms by the Pope a “Catholic teaching” – in ordinary English parlance.

I’ll concede that I may have overstated what would be needed to overthrow Pius’s teaching here, because I don’t have enough detailed knowledge of the process of official doctrine formation, but at the very least we can say that from a public relations point of view, it would look very bad for the Catholic Church if the Church simply adopted another view on Adam, polygenism, etc. without explaining why it was modifying or dropping Pius’s teaching. It would look as if the Church had changed its teaching without honestly acknowledging that it had done so.


I introduce the term infallible to the discussion because it is necessary to answer @Mark’s question:

And I believe it had clarified matters in the question of whether the teaching on a literal Adam is “on the same level as Catholic dogmas” or not.

The question that seems important to you is a different one: whether the teaching is official “Catholic teaching” or not. This is also an interesting question.

Now, how Pius said the teaching in Humani Generis, or his particular state of mind when stating this teaching, is irrelevant to the actual “level of certainty” his statement is seen in the Church. Of course he himself believed his statements, but rigorously this does not make his statement more certain in the eyes of the Church. That said,

I am fine with this, but it has to be clarified then that this definition of “Catholic teaching” does not mean that all Catholics have to agree to it. Otherwise it becomes easy to misuse, especially in using the term in a conversation with people who are not familiar with Catholicism. The last thing I want to happen is someone calling Humani Generis “Catholic teaching” in a conversation with non-Catholics without the proper understanding that this does not mean that all Catholics have to agree to it. If all parties in the conversation understood that “Catholic teaching” defined this way does not imply necessary agreements from Catholics, I am fine with one calling Humani Generis “Catholic teaching”.

From the public relations point of view, perhaps. But incase it is not clear, in this conversation I am not talking about how things look for public relations purposes, but rather how things are in more rigorous settings.

(John Harshman) #31

Only if Hebrew is the ancestral language of humanity. But Hebrew is embedded in the Semitic language family, which is embedded in the Afroasiatic family. What we know of language phylogeny makes that notion highly unlikely.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #32

That is not an argument I can follow. This is seems like another non-sequitor. Can you spell that out for us?


It is possible that word ‘Adam’ started meaning humanity in Hebrew after Genesis was written.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #34

That would be @jongarvey and my thesis. In fact, we would emphasize that at first it did NOT mean humanity. It was only later that it came to mean “humankind.”

(John Harshman) #35

Oh, I thought you were talking about the term being derived from an actual human with the actual name “Adam”, rather than some person in a legend that was recorded long after the Hebrew language came to exist.

Now, if the language came before the name, it seems much more reasonable that the meaning of the term came before its attachment to a legendary person.

Then again, if there actually was a person with that name long before the existence of Hebrew as a language, doesn’t it seem odd that only Hebrew managed to preserve the name and incorporate it into the language as the term for “man”?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #36

Our thesis doesn’t specify this, but it could have been an actual human with an actual name “Adam”. There isn’t a clear reason I see that couldn’t be the case.

Not at all. That is how new languages form. We don’t reinvent words whole cloth, nor do we derive them from a single source. Usually there is a complex and contextual mixing of several factors that gives rise to new languages.

(John Harshman) #37

Consider this in phylogenetic terms. Wouldn’t Adam have spoken a language near the root of human languages? In order to have that name preserved in Hebrew you would need the name to be preserved solely on the lineage leading to Hebrew but lost on all the intervening lineages. If you had a tree in which “Adam” appeared only on one particular tip, would you parsimoniously assume that the word had appeared at the root of the tree?

(Edward Robinson) #38

Ah, I see. OK, that makes sense.

Yes, you understand me now.

Well, if you say that technically speaking, all Catholics don’t have to agree to what the Pope teaches in an encyclical, I will have to defer to your claim, as I’m not an expert in this area. But at the very least, I would think, a Catholic would need strong reasons for disagreeing with a pointed statement by a Pope; surely something as crude as “Naah, I don’t agree with that,” based on merely personal aversion to the Pope’s conclusions, would not be a responsible grounds for such disagreement. If Catholics can disagree with the Pope in a cavalier manner, there is little point in having a Pope at all. One might as well be Protestant as belong to a Catholic Church in which the Pope is treated as just another theologian offering an opinion, an opinion that lay or clerical Catholics are free to reject at will, based on personal hunches or tastes or a personal investment in whatever issue the Pope is talking about.


As I mentioned in my previous post, a Catholic would surely posses strong prior in the Bayesian sense that the Pope is correct. But it is not necessary for a Catholic to agree with everything the pope said.

This is not true. The Pope has many important roles in the Catholic Church that goes beyond giving theological opinions. One of them is that we need a pope to define ex cathedra statements.

(Edward Robinson) #40

The key phrase in my reply was “in a cavalier manner.” I’m interested in how you would strive to ensure that disagreements with a Pope are deep and principled, rather than based on mere picking and choosing of conclusions one happens to like – “cafeteria Catholicism,” it’s sometimes called.