John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) was a theologian, writer, Anglican Priest, and preacher. His thoughtful commentary on the book of Romans, The Message of Romans (The Bible Speaks Today series; IVP Academic, 1994), has been an important resource for my understanding of the theology of the Apostle Paul. Today, I would like to focus on Stott’s brilliant words regarding Paul’s theological understanding of Adam: the first man of creation.
Stott peers back through the primordial mist to the time of Adam and seeks to understand the nature Stott observes, in the ancient fossils of the day, and the words of the Bible in Genesis, Romans, and other parts of sacred scripture. He is well-aware that aspects of Genesis 1-3 can only be interpreted symbolically (p. 163) and explains how Paul uses his knowledge of creation and The Fall to build a theological argument for the righteousness bestowed by Jesus.
Stott then states that he believes “Scripture clearly intends us to accept their [Adam and Eve’s] historicity as the original human pair” (p. 163), and that Adam and Eve were Neolithic farmers in the New Stone Age which ran from 10,000 to 6,000 BC (p. 163). He is aware of, and comfortable with, the human fossil and skeletal records which show that modern homo sapiens can be traced back to 100,000 years ago and homo sapiens (archaic) to about 500,000 years ago. He also knows that the record shows that there are other species of hominids who lived before homo sapiens. Homo erectus dates back to 1.8 million years ago and homo habilis from 2.3 to 1.65 million years ago. Some of these species and sub-species (Neanderthal man is an example of a subspecies which could interbreed with homo sapiens) showed signs of the beginnings of culture such as painting, carving, care for the sick, and burial of the dead (p.164). Even as Stott knows all of this, he also emphasises that this does not contradict with the scriptural understanding of Adam and Eve (p. 163).
Then Stott makes this interesting statement: “Adam, then, was a special creation of God, whether God formed him literally ‘from the dust of the ground’ and then ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’, or whether this is the biblical way of saying that he was created out of an already existing hominid. The vital truth we cannot surrender is that, though our bodies are related to the primates, we ourselves in our fundamental identity are related to God” (p. 164). The first half of this interesting statement has to do with how, in Stott’s opinion, God may have gone about forming Adam. Stott is suggesting that God has been creating galaxies, planets, plants, animals, and pre-Adamic hominids, but now God pauses to stoop down in a special creative process to create Adam (and Eve). He envisions a time when many creatures have been walking about on a newly created earth and then God starts fresh with some dust of the ground to create his most precious creation. This is Stott’s first vision of the creation of Adam. But then he says, it might have been that God created Adam “out of an already existing hominid.” John Stott is being gracious toward the varying opinions of “how” Adam came to be (since we cannot see back through time to know precisely what God was doing then we must, to some degree, speculate on the process) but is resolute in the “vital truth we cannot surrender.” That truth, says Stott, is that “though our bodies are related to the primates, we ourselves in our fundamental identity are related to God” (p. 164).
Stott goes so far as to invent his own name for Adam’s species and calls him homo divinus (p. 164) before going on to quote Derek Kidner who suggests “that once it became clear that there was ‘no natural bridge from animal to man, God may have now conferred his image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being. Adam’s “federal” headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike’”(p. 165). “Federal,” in this context refers to God’s act of entering into a covenant (or federation) with humanity through the first human, Adam. Kidner and Stott are saying that God entered into a covenant with humanity and then when the federal head of humanity disobeyed, the disobedience, consequences, and the curse of breaking the covenant, extended to Adam’s contemporaries and his offspring.
Having discussed Adam’s creation, “federal” headship, and disobedience, Stott next speaks of Adam’s death. Stott knows that death existed before Adam’s fall. He can see that there was death in both God’s plant and animal life-cycles. Stott sees plant death in the cycle of blossom, fruit, seed, and death as described in Genesis 1:11. He sees animal death in the fossil record of predators with prey in their stomach (p.165). It is interesting to note Stott’s logic and see that he comprehends that God speaks to him as a theologian through both scripture and nature (the two-book theory of God’s revelation).
When it comes to Adam, Stott wants to suggest that it is possible that when God created homo divinus, he created beings with the potential for eternal life without earthly death. In Genesis 3:19, Stott sees God’s word as pointing to a physical death as part of the curse of The Fall. Many see spiritual death as a curse of The Fall, but Stott holds on to the idea of Adam being made of dust and returning to dust as part of the curse as well. This leads him to propose that perhaps God’s original intention was to make the image-bearers of God immortal, a rather shocking statement for a theologian of his stature. We must consider his theory. Stott states that “Perhaps he would have ‘translated’ them [here he means Adam, Eve, and the rest of unfallen humanity] like Enoch and Elijah, without the necessity of death. Perhaps he would have ‘changed’ them ‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’, like those believers who will be alive when Jesus comes.”
It is an interesting proposal. Was God’s original plan one in which plants and animals lived and died but homo divinus lived on for a set time before being taken into the presence of God? The elves of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King who live for thousands of years and then sail West to the immortal land of Valinor, readily come to my mind. It is speculative, but who can say that this might not have been God’s original plan? After all, God has made angels as his immortal messengers? It is conceivable that God could have made humans immortal like the elves of Valinor. However, personally, I don’t think we need to create this myth-like possibility to understand the distinctiveness of humanity. Stott has already recognized a good deal of symbolism in Genesis. Could not the words, “Dust you are, and to the dust you will return” be inclusive of both a physical and a spiritual death where the spiritual death is the new consequence of The Fall?
John R.W. Stott passed away in 2011, so I will not have an opportunity to ask him if he would still hold to all of these views. I suspect that he would recognise the speculative nature of some of his ideas and tell us that he was working through various scenarios to seek to understand creation better. A commentary on Romans is not primarily about the methodologies used by the creator, even though they do have a bearing on the discussion. I have not found all of the places Stott may have written about such theories of creation, but I am relatively confident that he never put them down in a succinct book or paper regarding creation. In this context, let us simply honour a great preacher and theologian who spoke and wrote with grace, leaving room for speculation about methods, and giving us definitive statements on God’s purposes. Let us continue to meditate upon and seek to practise the implications of the important fact that “though our bodies are related to the primates, we ourselves in our fundamental identity are related to God.”