Update: I realize that some may not have followed this series so there may be some confusion about the the aims of this book. I will be posting a short review in a couple of days but let me make this important point: Enns writes for evangelicals who (A) want to continue to affirm a high view of Scripture yet who (B) find no reason to reject the majority view of scientist studying human origins that there was no “first man and woman” as depicted in the Book of Genesis. One can reject these two ideals, but then one must realize that this book will likely disappoint because either (A) you’ll think Enns is trying to preserve the Bible when it should be cast aside or (B) you’ll think Enns gives too much credence to modern scientific views of human origins. For a good example of how some who affirm both (A) and (B) are trying to “move forward” in this discussion see David Williams’ post “Who Needs a Historical Adam?”

In Pt. 24 I shared some thoughts from Peter Enns on Paul as an interpreter of his Bible. Today’s post surveys Enns’ understanding of Paul’s understanding of Adam. 

In Chapter 7: Paul’s Adam Enns begins with this claim:

“If Adam had stayed within the confines of Genesis 2–5, there would be far less difficulty in synthesizing evolution and Christianity—a “historical Adam” would likely be no more crucial to Christian faith than a literal talking snake or a literal garden paradise. The symbolic nature of the garden story would be even clearer if we see Adam as a proto-Israel figure, not the first human…” (Kindle Locations 2774-2777)


“Paul…presents Adam as the first human and responsible for the problem of universal sin and death that Jesus came to eradicate. This is why the question of a historical Adam is understandably so important for many Christians and why digressing from a historical Adam can generate great concern.” (Kindle Locations 2777-2779)

I think Enns is correct. When I read Genesis 1-11 I read ancient Israelites explaining their place in this world through their own cosmology and mythology. It is a perfect precursor to Abraham–the real, important figure in the Book of Genesis. Yet Paul creates trouble!

Enns evaluates Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 44-49. Adam brings death and condemnation. He makes his descendants into sinners. He represents limited, physical, dying humans.

Enns does not side-step the reality that Paul thought of Adam as a real, historical person. He writes:

“At the outset we should admit that Adam is a vital theological and historical figure for Paul. Without question, Adam plays a significant theological role for Paul. But Adam’s theological significance cannot be distanced from Paul’s assumption that Adam was the first man created by God. To be sure, Adam is more than merely a historical figure for Paul, but one of penetrating theological significance.” (Kindle Locations 2788-2791)

So yes, Adam is theologically important, but that is because Paul affirms that he was a real person in history. In other words, his figurative representation doesn’t mean that Paul thought of him as merely a fictional character.

When interpreting Paul Enns cautions that we must remember that he (1) presumes a context that is shared with his readers but lost to us; (2) there are grammatical aspects of Paul’s letters that make it difficult to understand his point; and (3) he is a passionate, pastoral writer rather than a systematic thinker and he did not write with a focus on “…nonnative speakers two thousand years removed from his moment in time, hanging on his every syllable.” (Kindle Locations 2826-2827)

But what does appear clear is that Paul’s Adam was unique. This Adam shares a lot with the Adam of Genesis, and the Adam of other interpreters, but “…distinct portrayal of Adam reflects his Christ-centered handling of the Old Testament in general…In other words, Paul’s understanding of Adam is shaped by Jesus, not the other way around.” (Kindle Locations 2834-2837)

Paul interprets Adam Christocentrically.

Enns asks whether or not the denial of the historicity of Adam ruins Paul’s argument about Christ. Enns says, “no”. He states that, “The way forward, I believe, is to recognize the profound historical (not simply symbolic) truths in Paul’s words that remain despite his view of human origins.”  (Kindle Locations 2847-2848)

Can we discuss sin and death without a real Adam?

Death remains universal, even if the symbol of Adam never existed. So Paul’s concern about death remains grounded. Enns writes:

“Admitting the historical and scientific problems with Paul’s Adam does not mean in the least that the gospel message is therefore undermined. A literal Adam may not be the first man and cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, but what remains of Paul’s theology are three core elements of the gospel:

“The universal and self-evident problem of death

“The universal and self-evident problem of sin

“The historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ”

(Kindle Locations 2863-2869)

According to Enns all that we really lose is “Paul’s culturally assumed explanation for what a primordial man had to do with causing the reign of death and sin in the world.” (Kindle Locations 2870-2871) Death and sin remain whether or not Adam existed. Resurrection happened if Jesus rose from the dead whether or not Adam existed.

What does this do to the doctrine of “original sin”? Enns appeals to Lutheran theologian G.L. Murphy who explained that we may have different understandings of original sin, but we can observe the “sin of origin”–that every human is born into a world tainted by human evil: “Murphy and others counsel that we must remain open on the ultimate origins of why all humans are born in sin (original sin) while resting content in the observation that all humans are born in sin (sin of origin).” (Kindle Locations 2892-2893)

There is much more to this final chapter, but for my purposes (thinking about the historical or non-historical Adam) I think it is time to close this series. What I will do is provide a short book review on both Enns’ and Collins’ works. Then I recommend that if you were provoked by my (excessive) series of posts you go purchase and read these books.