The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, a review (part 1 of 2)

6 February 2012 — 18 Comments

When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of James Dobson broadcasts. Now, Dobson isn’t known for expressing his views with a great deal of ambiguity. He tends to see most issues in black and white, and he expresses himself clearly.

But I remember one broadcast 20 years ago, where he moderated a debate between a theistic evolutionist and a young-earth creationist. At the end, Dobson declined to render a verdict. He said we ought to leave room for both views.

At the time, I was convinced that creation had taken place over six literal days, roughly 6,000 years ago. For some reason, though, I was glad to hear someone say that how you interpret Genesis shouldn’t be a litmus test for orthodoxy. To this day, I’m still grateful to Dobson for that broadcast.

Since then, I’ve met a number of people whose scientific credentials are far more impressive than mine (which is to say they have some), who accept the theory of evolution, and who are every bit as devoted to Christ as I am.

Like Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam, I’m no scientist. I’ll let others debate the scientific particulars of the universe. I’m more interested the theological or biblical merits of young-earth, six-day creationism. And I’ve come to opinion that there aren’t that many.

Peter Enns approaches the issue of human origins — specifically, the question of Adam’s historicity — from a biblical/theological point of view, rather than a scientific one. Along the way, he questions many widely held assumptions.

Summing up Enns

The Evolution of Adam highlights some of the major problems with a literal reading of Genesis. For example, the fact that it contains two creation accounts which aren’t easily harmonized. Or the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of “days” well before the sun and moon are created on day 4 — which should be a strong hint that the writer is making a theological point rather than a scientific one. And the list goes on.

Again and again, Enns takes us back to the issue of context. Most Christians today accept the Bible has to be read in context, even if we’re not always very good at doing this. But Enns raises the stakes. He wants us to revisit the theological and cultural context of Genesis 1-2. He wants us to think about how these stories came into being — and why.

Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1-2 and other creation stories, like the Enuma Elish (Assyrian) and Atrahasis (Babylonian). He argues that these myths predate the Genesis narrative, though the relationship between them is complex — not a simple matter of drawing a causal line from one to the other.  If he’s right, this has profound implications for how we understand the theologicalpurpose of Genesis 1-2. The biblical creation stories may be, in part, a polemical response to Israel’s conquerors (Assyria and Babylon). In their final form, they are Israel’s attempt to make sense of its own story, in light of the exile. Enns writes:

The Genesis creation narrative we have in our Bibles today, although surely rooted in much older material, was shaped as a theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile. These stories were not written to speak of ‘origins’ as we might think of them today (in a natural-science sense). They were written to say something of God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s chosen people.

But Enns has bigger primordial fish to fry. Namely, what do we do about Adam? This might not be much of an issue, if it weren’t for Paul. After Genesis 1-4, Adam disappears from the Old Testament record almost entirely. The idea of Adam as the originator of universal sin and death is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

So why does Paul say in Romans 5, “Just as sin entered through one man [Adam], and death through sin”? Enns devotes the entire second half of The Evolution of Adam to this question.

Enns’ argument rests, in part, on Paul’s use of the Old Testament — which is creative to say the least. If you have a reference Bible, try looking up some of the Old Testament passages mentioned in the New Testament. You’ll notice how time and again, Paul radically reinterprets the Old Testament to suit his purpose.

It’s often argued this was Paul’s prerogative, since he was writing inspired scripture. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that Paul wasn’t the only one to use the Old Testament this way. He is part of a much larger rabbinic tradition that did this sort of thing all the time.

According to Enns, Paul’s just doing what his people have always done: “reworking the past to speak to the present.” This is what the authors/editors/compilers of 1-2 Chronicles did, for example, retelling Israel’s story from a post-exilic vantage point. It’s what rabbinic scholars started doing with the rest of the Old Testament in the period leading up to Christ.

What makes Paul unique is that he reinterprets everything in light of Jesus’ resurrection — which (unlike Adam) was recent history for Paul, having occurred just 25 years before he wrote Romans.

For Enns, the loss of a historical Adam doesn’t in any way diminish the truth of Paul’s main point in Romans 5:

Even without a first man, death and sin are still the universal realities that mark the human condition… The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.

Enns also warns that by getting hung up on one detail of Paul’s argument (Adam), we risk losing sight of Paul’s larger purpose for writing his letter to the Romans:

Paul’s goal is to show that what binds these two utterly distinct groups [Jew and Gentile] together is their equal participation in a universal humanity marked by sin and death and their shared need of the same universally offered redemption.

For Enns, then, the fact that we are in this plight of universal sin and death is more important than how we got there. And Jesus as the answer to our plight is far more important than the idea of Adam as the literal, historical originator of our plight. Jesus and Adam, Enns writes, are not “characters of equal historical standing.” Christ is the one through whom all of history must be reinterpreted and reimagined.

Or as C.S. Lewis once wrote, Christ is the one through whom “this great myth became Fact.”

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18 responses to The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, a review (part 1 of 2)

  1. 
    Jonathan Princely 6 February 2012 at 19:59

    Not characters of equal historical standing?

    Jesus and Adam, Enns writes, are not “characters of equal historical standing.” Christ is the one through whom all of history must be reinterpreted and reimagined.

    According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus and Adam are characters of “equal historical standing.”

    Luk 3:23-38
    (23) And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,

    (38) Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

    The genealogy of Jesus is traced back to Adam and God. If God is not real, then it would follow that neither was Adam, but if Adam was not real, then the gospels, the law, and the writings were supplying faked credentials for Jesus, and his claim to divinity (or honesty) has become suspect.

  2. 
    Jonathan Princely 6 February 2012 at 20:25

    How is Genesis supposed to be a polemic against Assyria and Babylon?

    The biblical creation stories beomce a polemical response to Israel’s conquerors (Assyria and Babylon). They are Israel’s attempt to make sense of its own story, in light of the exile.

    Jesus, at least, seemed to think that those books were written by Moses.

    Mar 12:26
    (26) And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?

    Was Jesus mistaken? See also Matthew 8:4, 19:8, Mark 1:44, 7:10, Luke 5:14, 16:31, 24:37, 24:44, John 5:45-46, 7:19, and 7:23. If Jesus attributed the authorship of the law (also called the books of Moses) to Moses, then how could it have been written in reaction to their exile, which happened much, much later?

    Mat 19:4
    (4) And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,

    Mar 10:5-6
    (5) And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
    (6) But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.

    He goes on to quote from the book of Genesis, “for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife…” Jesus seemed to interpret the account as a literal account of creation. For that matter, if anyone ought to know, it would be Jesus, because he was there.

    Joh 1:3
    (3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

    When Jesus said that in the beginning God made them male, he was speaking from personal experience. Where was Peter Enns when Jesus laid the foundations of the earth? (see Job 38…)

    But the million denarius question still remains, how could Genesis 1 & 2 be a polemic against Assyria and Babylon, considering that Genesis was written far before Israel encountered either? Is he implying that Moses foresaw Israeli captivity (granting that he was a prophet) and wrote against these nations? And if so, how come there is nothing in the text to connect to Assyria or Babylon?

    • 

      Jonathan,
      Enns addresses your million-denarius question (and the underlying assumption that Genesis predates the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis) in his book. I won’t unpack his argument in detail here, because I’m of the belief that you shouldn’t criticize a book without at least reading it first. After that, you’re welcome to tear it apart, but you should at least engage his ideas first.

      • 

        But did you stop and read what the geocentric people had to say before you started tearing them apart?

        http://benirwin.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/rethinking-adam-part-2/

        Re. Joshua 10, I’m not prepared to take seriously any explanation put forward by a website devoted to advancing a long discredited view of the solar system.

        I thought I saw a comment about Koolaid appear briefly after that, so that doesn’t seem very consistent with what you just said above.

        The point is, I am not tearing apart Peter Enns without reading his book. I am only reacting to the portions that you chose to present. If you have accepted his ideas, then I would hope that you are able to explain why you accepted them and to explain why you are passing them on.

      • 

        I’m sorry Jonathan/Andrew (or should I split the difference and call you Jonadrew?), but I don’t put reading long-discredited theories in the same category.

      • 

        Dear Ben,

        I am well aware that wordpress blogs can block potential posts against targeted people, and I recognzie the behavior. I was willing to grant the benefit of the doubt that you did this accidentially, rather than you being upset because I had contradicted you in past posts. The different looking name was perhaps useful in case you were screening the posts.

        If you unblock me, I will use my normal name with my avatar. There is no poing in being cheeky with me when your web site administering has caused the problem.

        The point above is that you are inconsistent. You did not know what was being referenced but you preemptively refused to look. In that case it was historical proofs concerning Joshua’s long day. Inconsistency, taken to its logical extreme, is a form of hypocrisy. If you could rise above that type of behavior, you might learn something, even if it was from a source from which you did anticipate agreeing with their conclusions (that would be the objective scientific approach.)

        I was going to say, “Thank you for fixing your website to stop the automatic blocking” but apparently you are still blocking me. That type of behavior seems really small.

      • 

        Andrew, your latest comment showed up in my moderation queue, so I approved it. (Checking my spam queue, I see that a number of your comments were showing up there.) I didn’t “block” you.

        I don’t think I’m being inconsistent. We all have a finite amount of time, so we all have to make choices about what information to process, what sources to rely on, etc. Just because someone has a website doesn’t mean their ideas deserve to be taken seriously. I’m sorry if it sounds insensitive (it’s not meant to be), but I’m going to spend my limited time listening to what I feel are credible authorities. It’s my opinion there are some debates that are settled and not worth revisiting.

  3. 

    Normally this is the type of claim heard from an atheist or a Muslim:

    The Evolution of Adam highlights some of the major problems with a literal reading of Genesis. For example, the fact that it contains two creation accounts which aren’t easily harmonized. Or the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of “days” well before the sun and moon are created on day 4 — which should be a strong hint that the writer is making a theological point rather than a scientific one. And the list goes on.

    1. Genesis 1 and 2 harmonize extremely easily. They are written using the technique that our modern film and literature calls a “flashback.” That is, the overall macro perspective is described, and then it zooms in with more detail. There is no contradiction in these chapters. If Peter Enns was unable to explain this, I think I understand why may he lost his position.

    2. Days do not require the sun and moon. If you read the text, light was created before the sun and moon, and neither is this hard to imagine. God is described as light (John 1:7) and he is described as being so bright that one would have “no need of the sun.”

    Rev 21:23
    (23) And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.

    Rev 22:5
    (5) And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.

    If one is willing to read the text, light was created first, and there was an evening and morning to form the first day. Days do not depend on the sun. You can have “night” and “day” underground or on a space station because our day cycle depends on light and darkness, not the planets.

    . 1. God creates light, perhaps even with his own presence
    . 2. God spins the globe like a lump of clay on a potter’s vessel
    . 3. The evening and the morning are the first day (no sun necessary)
    . 4. Several days later he creates a sun to provide perpetual light
    . 5. …and while he is at it he creates additional heavenly bodies (beyond number) into the world places them in heavens.

    …and as the measurable red-shift shows, all of these star systems are moving away from the earth, indicating that this spot here (our solar system) was the center of something. If you draw a picture with all of the arrows pointing away from an area, what does that suggest? This obvious implication is not lost on modern astronomy.

    The theological point in Genesis is that God made the heavens and the earth in six days. The sun cannot be God because the sun itself was created. God is the ultimate source of light and life, not the sun, moon, or stars. He even calls himself the Sun of Righteousness and the morning star (Malachi 4:2, Revelation 22:16).

    If those were examples from his “list” then his objections seem very weak. Where are his supposed biblical and theological reasons for arguing against a literal interpretation of the majority of scripture? Let’s set aside the theological (since that is often another term for philosophical and can be suited to fit one’s own desires) … but where are the biblical reasons?

    The most ironic part is that the original posts on this subject were objecting to censorship by those who held opposite opinions, as to prevent them from presenting facts, evidence, or arguments, but I see that same censorship coming from the Enns camp as well.

  4. 

    The most fascinating part of this whole book—no make that the second most fascinating part of this book—is how Enns commits the common modern fallacy that postmodernism has skillfully undressed: 1) it’s interpretation all the way down (Derrida); and 2) an incredulity toward metanarratives (Lyotard). Do Enns really not realize that that evolutionary science sits within it’s own Story? I’ll call it the Science Story, a complete worldview that colors and impacts the results of said Story. And according to Enns, we Christians (especially the hapless, ignorant buffoons of ancient Israel and Paul, whom he consistently, pejoratively refers to as an “ancient man” who simply didn’t know better) must submit our Story, the Scripture Story to the Science Story. Has postmodernism not taught us anything? Not taught Enns anything? An actually physical, bodily resurrection defies the Science Story, as well. So does God becoming flesh. Why wouldn’t we have to shift these elements of our Story in light of the Science Story, too?

    The second most fascinating part—and really the primary fascinating part—is the completely lack of appreciation for the revelation of God through Scripture. I don’t want to go so far as to say Enns doesn’t believe there is actually meaning in the text or that he doesn’t believe God Himself is saying something through Scripture, but it is not clear at all that He believers either things—that there is meaning in the text and God Himself is speaking to us through it. Instead, modern science has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by overwhelming evidence that we evolved from primates, rather than being crafted after the Creator by the Creator Himself.

    I’m fine with a non-literal reading of the creation narrative and fine that elements of ANE cultures made their way into the polemical creation account. What I am not fine with is Enns insisting that we must submit our Story to the Science Story and a incredibly weak view of God’s direct revelation through Scripture. What’s more, it is simply illogical to hold Enns’ view of Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15, in which Adam is fake and symbolic, yet Christ and His resurrection is real. So in the same passage Adam symbolizes something but Christ actualizes something? Makes no hermeneutical sense.

    • 

      I didn’t come away w/the impression that Enns was being patronizing or disrespectful toward Paul. Rather, I got the sense Enns was arguing that all of us (Paul included) are limited in our ability to comprehend reality (esp. as it pertains to God), though perhaps in different ways. Paul and other ancient writers of Scripture likely held all kinds of assumptions, some of which found their way into inspired text – such as the belief that the world is a flat, circular disc (in the case of OT writers influenced by ANE cosmology) or that the heavens were made up of three or more levels (in the case of Paul). I don’t see where Enns concludes on this basis that either (a) Paul is stupid or (b) God hasn’t adequately revealed himself through sacred Scripture. Rather, Enns’ argument seems to be that God, in revealing himself, accommodates himself to (rather than obliterates) the human and cultural limitations of the time. (See in particular Enns’ concluding thesis #7 on p. 143-145.)

      I also don’t think Enns would agree your characterization of his argument as “insisting we must submit our Story to the Science story.” Of course, you can argue this is the inevitable outcome of his thinking; I just don’t think he’d see it that way.

      For me, it’s not so much a matter of submitting one story to another as accepting that they are two different stories about two different (though not unrelated) aspects of reality. I don’t think the Bible sets out to address matters of science, and I don’t think science can answer the main questions that are addressed by Scripture. Even if science can make a convincing case that we descended from primates, evolved over billions of years, etc… it can’t answer the question of ultimate origin (i.e. God). In which case it can never rule out the supernatural, even if some scientists (who perhaps need to get out of the laboratory more often) think otherwise.

  5. 

    Paul was not writing with strange assumptions about the heavens:

    Paul and other ancient writers of Scripture likely held all kinds of assumptions, some of which found their way into inspired text – such as the belief that the world is a flat, circular disc (in the case of OT writers influenced by ANE cosmology) or that the heavens were made up of three or more levels (in the case of Paul). I don’t see where Enns concludes on this basis that either (a) Paul is stupid

    1) The first heaven is “blue” where the clouds float and the birds fly.
    2) The second heaven is “black” where the moon and the stars are stored
    3) The third heaven is “white” and is the domain of God and angels

    I made up the color coding myself as an explanation aid, but the actual Jewish meaning of “first heaven”, “second heaven”, and “third heaven” can be verified through any number of sources, like the John Gill bible commentary, for example:

    John Gill notes:

    such an one was caught up to the third heaven, the seat of the divine Majesty, and the residence of the holy angels; where the souls of departed saints go immediately upon their dissolution; and the bodies and souls of those who have been translated, caught up, and raised already, are; and where the glorified body of Christ is and will be, until his second coming. This is called the “third” heaven, in respect to the airy and starry heavens. The apostle refers to a distinction among the Jews

    On a different note, are you purposely blocking me from posting with my traditional avatar as Andrew Patrick, or is your WordPress account misbehaving?

    • 

      Jonathan and/or Andrew,
      Your comments still seem to be showing up. Of course, now I’m compelled to ask why you feel the need to use multiple aliases…

  6. 

    This is the first time Jonathan has written in a blog. He normally handles “spam” to keep it away from my primary email account, but since my account was being blocked, “Jonathan” tried posting as a test case to see if it was email-specific, and it seems that it was.

    Would you please check your settings? Andrew Patrick is still being blocked by your site.

  7. 

    Your site just blocked my normal email / sign-in combination again. As an experiment, I tried my regular email with a space between my names, and it still was blocked. I tried it again with some additional visible characters. Your site is blocking anything from my normal email address (evidenced by the lack of avatar). If you are not doing this on purpose, would you please try to fix it by specifically allowing me to post normally?

    Re:

    I’m going to spend my limited time listening to what I feel are credible authorities. It’s my opinion there are some debates that are settled and not worth revisiting.

    1) If that is your stance, then you have no right to tell others that they need to read the Peter Enns book before tearing him apart, because the authority of scripture is already a settled matter and evolution theory has already been debunked in numerous fashions. Adam is a historical figure, and it is an absurd proposition that Genesis was written during the Babylonian captivity.

    Job 31:33 KJV
    (33) If I covered my transgressions as Adam, by hiding mine iniquity in my bosom:

    1Ch 1:1-4 KJV
    (1) Adam, Sheth, Enosh,
    (2) Kenan, Mahalaleel, Jered,
    (3) Henoch, Methuselah, Lamech,
    (4) Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

    Does Peter Enns proposed that the Jewish historians in Babylonian and Assyrian captivity hacked Job and 1 Chronicles as well? If you cannot explain why his idea should be given any credit I am not going to waste my time reading his book that is obviously full of nonsense.

    2) Besides the problem that your approach is somewhat hypocritical (you want people to consider your ideas but will not allow evidence from others) the only “theory” that you were rejecting at that time was the historical aspect of Joshua’s long day. That was the context of the supporting link.

    In other words, you just said that it is a “settled” matter that there was no such thing as Joshua’s long day. Considering that I have asked you to confirm whether you believe that this miracle actually happened, and you have declined to answer. Refusing to confirm something like that (and calling it a “settled debate not worth revisiting”) speaks plainly enough.

    Jesus said that “the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and in Paul says that God “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2), but it seems that you and Peter Enn have declared the majority of scripture in the realm of “Jewish fables” rather than inspired scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-16).

    I suppose you can believe whatever you want, and limit yourself to sources that say what you want them to say, but don’t confuse that with “biblical” or “scientific” because it will be neither. If one views the Bible as a collection of fairy tales, it will change your approach to scripture.

    And I would have to ask, why would you even believe in the person and deity of Christ?

    • 

      The difference being that Enns is a trained, competent scholar. That doesn’t make him infallible; nor does it mean I’m going to agree with him on everything. But for me, he’s earned the right to be heard.

      Enns addresses both passages that you cited. Not saying you’ll agree w/his interpretation… but it’s not good enough to simply quote a Bible verse (from an archaic translation, no less) and think you’ve won the debate.

      You’re beginning to play the role of interrogator; and I’m sorry, but I’m not that interested in playing along. I will answer one question, though: yes I absolutely believe in the person and deity of Christ. As for the rest, I think your energies would be best directed elsewhere.

      • 

        There is no debate, Ben, because when you refuse to answer questions or acknowledge points that have been made, there is no fairness and thus no debate. I answer all of your questions but you answer none of mine. Even as an example, you didn’t answer my last question either. I did not ask if you believed in the person or deity of Christ.

        If one views the Bible as a collection of fairy tales, it will change your approach to scripture. And I would have to ask, why would you even believe in the person and deity of Christ?

        The question was, assuming your previously stated stance as to the integrity of our bible, the denial of miracles, and biblical history being falsified, why would you even believe in the person and deity of Christ? If you are going to answer one question, then it should at least be a question that I actually asked.

      • 

        Apparently I misread your last sentence (though I think I answered a question that was nonetheless implied). In any case, seeing as I don’t view the Bible as a collection of fairy tales, I don’t deny miracles, and I don’t believe the Bible “falsifies” history…well, I don’t quite see the point of your question.

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