In the upcoming book The Lost World of Adam and Eve, NT Wright has a chapter called “Paul’s Use of Adam [in Romans 5; 1 Cor 15] is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins: Excursus on Paul’s Use of Adam.”
I’ve seen Wright make that claim in other places as well.
Let’s set aside for the time being the claim that Paul’s use of Adam has nothing to say about a historical Adam and Eve. I want to focus on his statement that Romans 5 is more interested in the effects of sin on the cosmos than people, because you see that a lot in people who are rightly trumpeting that redemption has a cosmic element.
So, first, what’s good about what Wright is trying to say here: redemption has a cosmic element and that is super important. I am glad he affirms that so clearly in his work (though I think he mis-states the condition of the evangelical church as mostly thinking of heaven in ethereal terms).
But many who trumpet this cosmic element of redemption get something very important wrong in how they do it: they sometimes state things a way that makes it sound like the cosmic element of redemption is more important than the human element. And that’s just not true.
That’s what Wright does here. He says Paul in his use of Adam is “more interested in the effect of sin on the cosmos than…on humanity.”
First, I’d say that’s a misreading of the passage. But that is not my point here. My point here is much more basic. My point is that NT Wright is forgetting to integrate into his statement here and perhaps thought more generally on this subject a very basic human and, more important, biblical, value scale.
The value scale is this: humans are more important than things.
That means that human beings are more important than the entire cosmos.
In fact, of course, the cosmos exists for the sake of human beings (Colossians 1:16 — if it exists for Christ, it exists for Christians, who are his body).
So we can never say that the Scriptures are more interested in the effect of sin on the cosmos than on people. It is an overstatement that ends up distorting the truth.
When Paul, or any biblical author, is focused on the effects of sin on the cosmos, the reason always ultimately has to do with people and how the fall (or redemption) of the cosmos affects them, simply because of the basic fact that humans are more important than things (and, therefore, the cosmos).
I even saw someone once observe about Genesis that “you almost get the impression that Adam and Eve exist for the sake of the Garden.” No, you don’t. This person had the good motive of trying to affirm the importance of work. But in doing so, they didn’t keep that in mind with other core truths (and thus ended up distorting the doctrine of work as well). Work exists for the upbuilding of people, not the environment we are in or the tasks themselves.
And so also with the redemption of the cosmos. It is emphatically not a greater thing than the redemption of people. Rather, it happens because of the redemption of people and for our sake.
The cosmos exists for the sake of people, and therefore is redeemed for the sake of people. The redemption of the cosmos is not a greater thing than the redemption of God’s people.
Of course Wright might say that he is making a statement here of the subject Paul is addressing in Romans 5. One can focus on the effects of sin on the cosmos without necessarily saying that the cosmos is more important than people. That is true, and hopefully this is what Wright would say.
But my response would be that he should word his claims differently, in order to keep from obscuring that truth. (And then I’d point to the flow of thought in the text itself to show that I also think he is wrong — Paul is ultimately seeking to show the effects of sin on the human race in his use of Adam, not just or ultimately the cosmos.)
This, in turn, brings us back to the issue of origins — the main focus of NT Wright’s statement and title for his chapter.
If Paul is, as I have argued, ultimately concerned about the effects of sin on humanity in his use of Adam, not ultimately the effects of sin on the cosmos, then his use of Adam does indeed have much to say about origins.