James Henley Thornwell the Biblical Theologian: On Christ Tempted as the Second Adam

We in the 21st century can sometimes get short-sighted, thinking that sound Biblical theology as we understand it today did not arise in the church until Geerhardus Vos, O. Palmer Robertson, and Ed Clowney in the 20th century. Yet the 19th century, based upon a solid Westminsterian foundation, had a robust understanding of the covenants of promise, the unity of the Testaments, and the one story of redemption running through the entire Bible (see, for example, Stuart Robinson’s Discourses of Redemption).

James Henley Thornwell, the most influential Southern Presbyterian theologian, demonstrates his Biblical theological sensitivities in a sermon preached in 1854 entitled, “Christ Tempted as the Second Adam.” It’s a short piece worthy of 15-30 minutes of your time, but here’s the richest section:

The bitterness and intensity of [Christ’s temptation] may be seen from comparing it with the trial of Adam:

  1. The place. Adam’s was in the garden of Eden – this in the wilderness. Adam’s, with a companion to relieve his solitude – Christ alone. Adam’s, with the beasts tamed and in harmonious subjection to his authority – Christ among the beasts, wild and savage. Adam’s, in the midst of plenty and abundance – Christ struggle with hunger. How differently were the two placed! How favourable the circumstances in one case! How unfavourable in the other!
  2. The extent of the trial – that is, the points at which both might be assailed. The test to Adam was condensed into a simple precept involving comparatively no self-denial. He could not fall as long as he abstained from the one tree of the garden. Christ was open to assaults upon all points. Every appetite, every impulse, every active principle of human nature might be plied with arguments, and success at any point would have been ruinous. There was but one sin against which Adam in the first instance was not absolutely guarded. Christ must rely upon His integrity to preserve Him from all. Behold, therefore, the severity of the conflict by which men have been redeemed and angels confirmed!
  3. The thing to be tested in both trials was allegiance to God [Thornwell earlier had written, “It did turn upon the same principles with the Adamic trial, which was essentially the test of obedience through impulses intrinsically lawful…”], and the mode of attack is adapted to the different circumstances of the parties. Adam was only a man, and the insinuation to him was that he was a god in capacity, and had only to put the thing to the proof. Christ was the Son of God, and the insinuation to Him was that He was only a man, and He was challenged to put to the proof His claims to being considered as anything more.

This, then, is the light in which the whole case is to be regarded – as the second probation of the world. Christ is the second Adam – the head of a family consisting alike of angels and of men.

Thornwell reminds us why it’s so vital for us to contend today for the historicity of Adam and the historicity of the fall of Adam: because if he did not exist, if he did not fall as the representative of the human race, then the significance of Christ as the second Adam is nullified. But most importantly, Thornwell’s exposition of the temptation should cause your love for Christ to abound in worship – Christ sustained the devil’s temptations for us and for our salvation!

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