Since the first fiery clash between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tenn., the discussion between evolutionists and biblical literalists has not moved much.
It’s been more than 200 years since geologists first argued for an extremely old earth – older than any literal reading of the Bible could allow. It’s been 153 years since The Origin of Species, and it’s been 87 years since the Scopes monkey trial.
Yet a 2006 Michigan State University survey found that just 40 percent of Americans who were asked to respond to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” said it was true, equaling the number who said it was false. Twenty percent weren’t sure.
Christians clearly drive these data; only 24 percent of weekly churchgoers and 30 percent of regular nonweekly churchgoers accept the theory as true. I would argue these opinions stem not from an antipathy to scientific evidence, though they have, ahem, evolved a strain of anti-intellectualism, but rather a desire to maintain the integrity of scripture. Acknowledging the Bible’s creation story as untrue in a modern historical sense is seen as a step down a slope of relativism that leads to denial of Christ’s resurrection itself. Rhetoric of the so-called New Atheists, who are all too eager to wield science as a cudgel against faith, doesn’t help matters.
So the sides gridlock, the drawbridges raised, the encampments bristling with rhetorical ammunition, the arrows ready to fly: “Elitist!” “Anti-intellectual!” “Pagan!” “Fundamentalist!” “Extremist!”
Into this stalemate steps Dr. Peter Enns, who knows a thing or two about how the increasingly sealed culture of conservative evangelicalism can turn vicious against those accused of dalliances with the other side. Enns, a senior fellow of biblical studies at the BioLogos Foundation and much admired by this blogger, has joined the war of words with a respectful call for ceasefire.
His latest book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, pulls no punches theologically, but its tone seems intent on mollification, addressing those interested in a serious discussion about serious issues and focusing entirely on the biggest problem evangelicals have with evolution – its consequences for biblical authority.
In his introduction, Enns says he hopes to place readers on a “constructive path” toward “substantive discussion.” He more than fulfills those modest expectations; in fact, Enns has done something far more valuable: provided a reasonable, bibliocentric, non-inflammatory exegesis that evolution-believing Christians can share with their biblical-literalist friends or family members. Any and all discussion about Genesis and evolution should begin with The Evolution of Adam.
Enns focuses especially on three biblical passages: Genesis 1-3, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 – which contain the only verses to mention Adam in any significant way. He argues Christians struggle to accept a mythical reading of Adam’s creation because the Apostle Paul relies so heavily on it to develop his theology of Christ’s sacrifice, so Enns spends almost as much time in the New Testament as he does the Hebrew Bible.
Adam and Genesis
Enns, an Old Testament scholar, is at his best early in the book, when he’s delving into the thorny issues of authorship and context for Genesis in particular and the Pentateuch as a whole. He lays aside his considerable intellect to let the text’s own oddities and contradictions do the talking, then noting that scholars have been trying to answer them since at least 200 years before Christ’s birth.
Modern biblical scholars … did not create a problem where there had been none. They were heirs to a long-standing history of probing the meaning of Genesis because Genesis itself demands close inspection. Genesis generates its own questions.
(All emphasis my own, unless otherwise noted.)
By arguing for a rather late date of Pentateuchal authorship (or at least compilation), Enns asks his readers to recalibrate Genesis’ genre. He views the Pentateuch, indeed much of the Old Testament, as a forceful statement of Israel’s national identity in the turbulent years after the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E. (Readers of this blog will be familiar with that theme.)
Enns treads much of the ground he did in his 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation when he turns to the parallels between Genesis and the ancient Mesopotamian creation and flood myths. His point is not that Genesis was based on these pagan myths, but that it turns them on their head – portraying a single powerful, loving God creating humanity with a word from his mouth, not as the consequence of a violent clash with other deities.
The story of Adam can in fact be seen in multiple ways – all of which Enns imbues with rich theological (but not historical or scientific) meaning. Indeed, as he details more theories or interpretations, the story becomes that much more meaningful. “Reading Genesis 1 as a simple description of cosmic events (mislabeled as ‘literal’) truly devalues the rich theology that the biblical writers put there,” he writes.
Adam and Paul
In Part 2, Enns focuses on Paul’s treatment of Adam, something to which I confess I have not given much thought. If preachers can make great theological arguments citing Obi-Wan Kenobe, I’ve figured Paul’s argument of Christ reversing the curse of Adam can withstand a rethinking of the latter’s historicity.
Enns sees it differently, however, and I suspect it may be from his own experience with skeptics he’s debated.
“Adam plays a role in Paul’s explication of the Gospel,” he writes, “and this has posed the most formidable obstacle to Christians for accepting evolution.” The reason, he argues, is that Paul says Adam separated us from God, and Christ has reunited us. No Adam, no separation, no need for Christ’s reunifying act on the cross.
Much as Enns places Genesis in its proper context, he goes to great lengths to place Paul in his. Readers of Inspiration and Incarnation will be familiar with much of this work, as Enns brings over examples of New Testament writers playing fast and loose with the accuracy and meanings of Old Testament texts, as well as examples of New Testament authors making offhand statements about Old Testament events that don’t have any actual basis in the Old Testament (an example: the naming of Pharaoh’s magicians in 2 Timothy 3:8).
In short, Enns argues that Paul interpreted his scripture the way any first-century Jew would have, then he further filtered it through the lens of his knowledge of the risen Christ. Whether Adam actually was historical is no more important to Paul’s theology than whether Genesis actually uses “seed” as a plural or singular word.
Rather, according to Enns, Paul made his argument in reverse. The death and resurrection of Christ was such a shocking, amazing, dramatic solution to the problem of sin and death in the world that the problem must be deep, pervasive and intractable. “The solution reveals the plight,” as Enns puts it.
If God’s solution was Christ’s dying and rising from the dead, the root problem must be death – and for Paul the cause of death can be traced to the trespass of Adam, understood as the first man. The resurrection caused Paul to see the full depth of the problem. … Paul pressed Adam into new service in view of the reality of the empty tomb.
Enns concludes with nine theses; I won’t list them (go buy the book), but I’ll touch briefly on one – it forms the basis for Inspiration and Incarnation, and I view it as the most important for those of us raised with a literalist view of scriptural inerrancy:
There is no situation in the history of the world in which God has not used the imperfection of humanity to reveal himself. Even in the person of the sinless Christ, God entered the frail, mortal human body.
When we read Genesis and see the clear and undeniable overlap with Mesopotamian myths, that is not a reason for offense – as if God would not do such a thing. This actually is the only thing he does do: take on humanity when he speaks.
The usefulness of this book does not come necessarily from the groundbreaking nature of Enns’ arguments – I’m not yet conversant enough about the state of biblical scholarship on this topic to say one way or the other, though I can say several of his key points were eye-opening for me – but from the careful and respectful way he states them.
“I want to be crystal clear at this point,” he says in one particularly caveat-filled portion of his introduction, “respecting at the outset the differences of opinions on this matter, that the issues I raise in this book and the conclusions (exploratory and tentative at some points) that I reach are an outworking of my Christian convictions of what it means to be a responsible reader of Scripture in my time and place.” (Emphasis in original)
Regardless of whether such caution is needed, this sensitivity serves Enns well in the presentation of his arguments. Not only has he clearly thought through his theses, he is acutely aware of how revolutionary they are for those engaging this discussion for the first time.
The Evolution of Adam displays a rare degree of scholarly empathy, and all the more striking for how impressive is the scholarship itself. Enns is concerned not just for those seeking a middle ground in the centuries-old war of words between atheists and literalists, but for their children, who get caught in the crossfire and often abandon their faith altogether when they determine they cannot maintain literal interpretations in the face of scientific evidence.
As much attention as we might give to preserving the past, it is equally important to give adequate thought to preparing the church for the future. I feel that if we do not engage Scripture with future believers in mind, we will unwittingly erect unnecessary and tragic obstacles to belief. Part of what drives this book is my concern to prevent that scenario.
In a conservative culture obsessed with the slippery slope for more than a century, Enns worries we are losing our future generations because they are not being given the resources to synthesize the text they read with the evidence they see.
“Perhaps the way forward,” he writes, “is not to resist the slide so much as to stop struggling, look around, and realize we may have been on the wrong hill altogether.”