We all know what "historicity" means to Mormons and the issues that term points to, but what does it mean to conservative Christians? The June 2011 Christianity Today editorial "No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel" is a good discussion of what the issues are for conservative Christians.
First, I'm not sure if the editorial position of Christianity Today would generally be considered conservative Christian or Evangelical. Consider the first few sentences of the article.
The story of creation, told in Genesis and elaborated in the New Testament, pictures a rational intelligence creating an orderly and predictable cosmos.A "rational intelligence" that established a cosmos that runs according to natural law, discoverable through science, to which Christians should adjust their thinking ... that sounds like mainline liberal Christianity to me, not conservative or Evangelical Christianity.
Without that predictability in the natural world, neither Newton nor Einstein would have been possible. There are times, however, when a careful reading of the natural world seems to conflict with our reading of Scripture.
Sometimes, Christian ways of thinking must adjust.
The historicity issue raised in the editorial is whether the traditional Christian understanding of Adam and Eve as historical individuals is a non-negotiable belief. The problem posed by the article is that genetic evidence strongly suggests that "the human race did not emerge from pre-human animals as a single pair, as an 'Adam' and an 'Eve,'" but requires "an original population of around 10,000." Is this something "to which Christians should adjust their thinking" or not?
The article notes that, for believing Christians, this is not some Old Testament flourish that can be quietly ignored, but is central to the New Testament understanding of salvation through Christ:
[T]he entire story of salvation hinges on the obedience of the Second Adam. The apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer to interpret Jesus' work, called Adam "a type of the one who was to come" (Rom. 5:14, ESV), and wrote that "[j]ust as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]" (1 Cor. 15:49, ESV). He elaborated an "Adam Christology" that described a fallen humanity, headed by Adam, and a new, redeemed humanity with Christ as its head.
To simplify a bit, without an individual and historical Adam it becomes harder to describe a historical Fall of Adam that gave rise to the fallen human condition from which Jesus Christ, the second Adam, has rescued humanity. You can't easily salvage the narrative by simply replacing "Adam" with "10,000 Adamites" — one would have to reconceptualize the entire story. And reconceptualizing the Christian salvation narrative in the light of modern science is exactly what conservative Christianity will not do. To conservative Christians, compromising with science was the mortal sin of 19th- and 20th-century liberal Christianity.
Of course, issues that concern Christians by definition also concern Mormons. Traditional Mormonism shares the view that Adam was a historical individual, although Mormons don't get hung up on original sin. The terms used in LDS discourse to describe the effects of the Fall are mortality and spiritual death, not original sin. But even the once-standard term "the Fall of Adam" has been replaced with a more generic "the Fall," gently distancing the LDS doctrine of the Fall from a historical Adam.
And what does the editorial recommend for Christians troubled by the genetic data?
At this juncture, we counsel patience. We don't need another fundamentalist reaction against science. We need instead a positive interdisciplinary engagement that recognizes the good will of all involved and that creative thinking takes time.
Seems like good advice.
- This Biologos post shows the Adamic image that was on the cover of the June 2011 issue of Christianity Today.
- "Mormons and Evolution," an old T&S post, includes a collection of quotations from a wide spectrum of LDS leaders on the topic of human origins, including views on the historical Adam.
- "The Fulness of the Gospel: The Fall of Adam and Eve" is an article in the June 2006 Ensign showcasing Joseph Fielding Smith's views on the subject.