Enns, Peter, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012). (Amazon.com)
The following is a short book review of Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. For more thoughts on the book see my “Series of posts on the historicity of Adam”.
Message of the Book:
This book is written by a biblical scholar who is convinced that the theory of evolution is the best explanation for human origins. Peter Enns is a Christian. He affirms the Bible to be authoritative to his life. For many these three sentences are contradictory: How can one affirm evolution, find the Bible to be authoritative to their life, and claim to be a Christian?
Enns’ book has a limited audience. He writes:
“Let me begin by explaining whom I see as my primary audience. I make two assumptions about my readers. The first is that they consider themselves Christian, of whatever tradition or stripe, and so respect Scripture and recognize that what it says must be accounted for somehow. A significant subset of this group is an evangelical readership, particularly in an American context.” (Kindle Locations 144-147)
This should help the reader gain some understanding of Enns’ goal in writing this book. He wants to talk about human origins with evangelicals who refuse to reject the conclusions of scientist, but who don’t want to toss aside the Bible.
Summary of Content:
This book is divided into two main parts. Part 1: Genesis: An Ancient Story of Israelite Self-Definition and Part Two: Understanding Paul’s Adam. This should make one thing obvious: it is not an exhaustive study of all aspects of the conversation related to the historicity of Adam. Rather, Enns focuses on two areas most troubling to evangelicals: How to interpret Genesis and how to interpret Paul’s Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.
In Chapter 1: Genesis and the Challenges of the Nineteenth Century Enns explores the “three forces” that reshaped how we understand our history: natural science, biblical criticism, and biblical archaeology. Of course, these areas of study have questioned the traditional understanding of things like human origins, the Great Flood, the formation of the “Books of Moses” and much more. Many readers may be familiar with these areas of study, but if not, Enns’ survey proves helpful.
In Chapter 2: When Was Genesis Written? Enns introduces readers to scholarly discussions regarding the formation of the Pentateuch and how that impacts the more conservative view that Moses wrote Genesis-Deuteronomy. He shows how these books were edited and evolved over time as a mean of Israel’s “self-definition” post-exile.
In Chapter 3: Stories of Origins from Israel’s Neighbors the reader is shown how Genesis fits into a particular ancient genre sharing ideas about primordial time with works like the Enuma Elish. The reader is shown that Genesis wasn’t written in a vacuum, but it provides a new monotheistic twist on old polytheistic ideas. The Great Flood as depicted in Genesis, Gilgamesh, and Atrahasis is discussed, so is the differences between the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
Chapter 4: Israel and Primordial Time explores how Israel understood origins in the context of the ancient world. The reader will see how these works of literature explain Israel’s view of God. The story of Adam is read as Israel’s story in primordial time and Enns compares and contrast Adam and Israel (creation, land, law, rebellion, exile, etc). The idea of creation as a temple (see also John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One) is given some attention too.
Chapter 5: Paul’s Adam and the Old Testament begins section two. Paul’s Adam matters to Christian theology, so Enns gives Paul much attention. This means understanding Paul’s world and thought matrix. Enns examines Adam in the Wisdom tradition as a way of preparing the reader to think afresh about Adam then he moves into Chapter 6: Paul as an Ancient Interpret of the Old Testament. He shows that usually Christians do not struggle with the idea that Paul speaks truthfully through the lens of his own culture and worldview (e.g., his cosmology), but that this changes when it comes to the subject of human origins. He writes:
“It is my experience that Christians by and large have little trouble with what I am saying here in principle, but all bets are off when this logic is applied to Paul’s understanding of human origins—which is where his take on Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 comes into the picture.” (Kindle Locations 2281-2283)
Enns sets the table by looking at hermeneutics post-exile and the formation of Scripture during that period. Then he shows how various Jewish interpreters approached Adam and how Adam plays different roles for different people depending on their message. This is what Paul does as well, though Paul’s message is that Christ has been risen from the dead. Paul understands the story of Adam through the story of Jesus. Enns gives much attention in this chapter to how Paul interprets and applies Scripture using a variety of case studies. The overall conclusion is this:
“Paul does not feel bound by the original meaning of the Old Testament passage he is citing, especially as he seeks to make a vital theological point about the gospel.” (Kindle Locations 2456-2457)
In Chapter 7: Paul’s Adam he provides his reason for arguing that though Paul did see Adam as the first man, and though Paul did interpret Adam through Jesus, Adam’s historicity does not negate the realities of sin, evil, and death that we see every day, that the resurrection of Jesus is said to have conquered.
Enns explores Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 to exegete Paul’s theological message. Whether one accepts Enns’ overall argument depends on this chapter more than any other. It all hinges on whether we can say Paul was theologically correct about Jesus conquering sin, evil, and death, and that Paul uses his understanding of Adam to tell that story, but Adam’s historicity doesn’t determine the truthfulness of Paul’s understanding of what Christ accomplished.
In the Conclusion Enns sets forth nine thesis statements for the reader to consider.
“Thesis 1: Literalism is not an option.”
“Thesis 2: Scientific and biblical models of human origins are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different “language.” They cannot be reconciled, and there is no ‘Adam’ to be found in an evolutionary scheme.”
“Thesis 3: The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way.”
“Thesis 4: There are two creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably the older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile in order to tell Israel’s story.”
“Thesis 5: The Israel-centered focus of the Adam story can also be seen in its similarity to Proverbs: the story of Adam is about failure to fear God and attain wise maturity.”
“Thesis 6: God’s solution through the resurrection of Christ reveals the deep, foundational plight of the human condition, and Paul expresses that fact in the biblical idiom available to him.”
“Thesis 7: A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors—whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis. Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment.”
“Thesis 8: The root of the conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, group identity and fear of losing what it offers.”
“Thesis 9: A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations.”
(Kindle Location 3125-3326)
These are bold statement that aim to move our conversation forward. There is no doubt that many will reject Enns’ overall argument. I think he expects this. Our real question is whether or not the conversation is worth having at all. Do we maintain our traditional view of Adam in the face of modern science? Do we abandon the Bible’s authority in our lives because it does not align with science? Do we aim to create a third way that aligns the Bible and science? Where do we go from here?
I finished this book with the conclusion that the Gospel does not depend on the historicity of Adam, but that doesn’t mean that this discussion is meaningless. A lot has to change for conservative Christians if they decide to abandon the historicity of Adam. Debates over everything from the nature of Scripture, to hermeneutics, to worldview, to gender roles, to eschatology can be impacted by one’s understanding of Adam (and Eve). If you are not satisfied with the “Bible v. Science” paradigm this book may be a useful tool in beginning to reassess how you think about a lot of things.