Al Mohler, Adam, and Evolution on NPR

In my last three posts (the first is here), we looked at Al Mohler’s understanding of the relationship between science and Christianity.

The heart of the matter is Mohler’s notion of “apparent age”—that the universe looks billions of years old but is in fact only about 6000 years old, as the Bible says.

Today, we begin to look at Mohler’s views as expressed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” interview that aired on September 22, 2011. The audio and entire manuscript can be found here.

For those interested, I have edited that NPR manuscript by including only those portions where Al Mohler and Dan Harlow (Professor of Biblical and Early Jewish Studies, Calvin College) speak.

As we continue here, I want to remind you that my purpose in these posts is not to refute Mohler, but to give his unsettled followers a sense that there is much more to be said on these matters than Mohler lets on, and that there is a vibrant, exciting, and above all necessary conversation happening in the Christian and evangelical worlds.

Here the first two of five summary statements of Mohler’s assertions in the interview, with some brief comments of my own in response. I address most of these points in greater detail in my upcoming book, The Evolution of Adam (due out in January).

1. Adam is central to the biblical storyline.

If Adam is central to the biblical storyline, why is Adam mentioned nowhere after Genesis 5:5 apart from 1 Chronicles 1:1 (the first name in the nine-chapter long genealogy that traces Israel’s heritage from Adam to the postexilic Israelites)?

Similarly, if Adam’s disobedience plunged humanity into moral helplessness, why is that central fact of the storyline not mentioned in the Old Testament? Why, by contrast, does God command and expect Israel to obey God’s law fully, even punishing them if they do not?

If Adam is central to the biblical storyline, why is Adam’s role in that storyline only mentioned–almost in passing–in two of Paul’s letters, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15? Why do Jesus and the New Testament writers not share Mohler’s conviction that Adam is central?

Would it not be better to say that Adam is an important figure in the biblical drama, though clearly not central, but that nevertheless careful attention must be paid to his role in God’s story?

2. Paul’s understanding of Adam determines how we should understand the Adam story in Genesis.

This assertion may sound attractive or even compelling at first blush: “Who would know better than Paul what Genesis means?” And since Paul sees Adam as the first human, evolution is therefore out of the question. This seems like an over-the-defense-break-the-glass-slam dunk.

The problem, however, is that Paul habitually transposes the meaning of Old Testament passages in light of the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul regularly engages in creative, Christ-centered interpretation, of the Old Testament that clearly moves in directions not intended by the Old Testament authors. (For some examples, see Romans 10:5-9; 11:26-27; 2 Corinthians 6:2; Galatians 4:21-26.)

For Paul, reading his Bible (our Old Testament) meant reading it with fresh eyes. Paul’s Christ-centered use of the Old Testament is driven by his conviction that the resurrected Christ is climax of Israel’s story. Israel’s story is placed under the authority of the risen Christ, and is therefore read with that conviction in mind.

Another issue that affected Paul’s creative use of the Old Testament was the Judaism in which Paul himself was schooled. Creative engagement of the ancient text to speak to current circumstances was the norm. As unconventional as Paul’s interpretations of the Old Testament may be for modern readers, they fit very comfortably in his world.

All Christians must take with utmost seriousness how Paul understands Adam in light of Christ, and entire books are written on the subject.

But we must not think that Paul ends the current discussion on human origins, which is where Mohler is leading. It is at best premature, if not off the mark, to suggest that Paul ends the discussion of human origins or prevents Christians from adopting scientific models.

We will continue this discussion in my next post.


  • Don Johnson

    I phrase the question like this: Given that the Bible is inspired by God, how can the references to Adam NOT be to an actual human? And therein lies the crux.

    For those that view the Bible as God infallibly stating things about reality (since God does not lie), there is no wiggle room and any suggestion of such is equivalent to saying the Bible is not what they see it as, which means an abandonment of their faith.

    For those that view the Bible as God accomodating to the original readers in giving revelation, there is wiggle room to see that Adam could be a literary figure, similar to the people in the parables of Jesus.

    • peteenns

      Don, I might tweak the last sentence a bit to say that accommodation is not about allowing wiggle room (which assumes the priority of literalism), but is an invitation to explore meaning in Genesis.

      Not a major point, I will grant you that.

      • Don Johnson

        Yes, I was using the flexibility in a slightly pejorative manner, as I think from what I have read that that is how Mohler, et al, sees it. If you allow some “wiggle room” in the Creation stories, where does it stop?

        That is, he is a YEC, and he is willing to concede that OEC might be in the (true) faith, but those EC types just go too far in thinking that God and evolution can co-exist. What I see him actually doing in this claim is explaining how HIS faith works, but not how other’s work.

        • peteenns

          I have said in other contexts that whenever Mohler speaks of the gospel–what it is, what it demands–people should replace “gospel” with “my understanding of the gospel.” Similarly, when someone says that my views are an attack on the gospel, I tell them, “No, it’s an attack on you. Don’t confuse the two.”

    • Mike H

      “I phrase the question like this: Given that the Bible is inspired by God, how can the references to Adam NOT be to an actual human?”

      Just because God inspired something that was written doesn’t mean that whatever is transmitted has to convey a physical reality. There is no logical inconsistency with Adam being a mythical figure, and being a character of spiritual reality.

      • peteenns

        I think you ar making a key point, Mike. Mohler and others suggest that it limits God to say he did not create with apparent age. One could just as easily say that we limit God if we say he cannot speak through myth. The fact that every–let me repeat, EVERY–ancient culture had origins myths. To suggest that Israel alone escaped this is a bizarre logic, in my opinion.

  • Silas

    don’t these people get tired of being laughed at….oh I forgot they are so into martyrism…

    • peteenns

      Silas, I know you are just joking, but all joking aside–ridicule is a badge of honor for some. This makes it all the more difficult to engage intellectually. That breeds a self-isolationism that typically leads to nowhere good.

  • richard williams

    when i see the argument that Adam is not mentioned again in any significant way, i am reminded of the debate about the Sabbath. Adam seems unaware of the seven day week, there is no mention of the Sabbath or a day of worship until Exodus 6. both the sabbath week and Adam as progenitor appear to be read back into history at the time of Moses in order to structure the narrative. there is an interesting parallel in the way the sabbath week and adam are used, the sabbath week back to creation to structure time and adam to scaffold genealogies, in both cases it both terminates and caps a linear progression backwards from moses’s time.

    • peteenns

      Richard, I think that retrojection is a key concept in all of this. You make a good point re: the Sabbath.

  • jacob z

    This and the more recent article have been very helpful to me, especially since I was once a rabid follower of all things Mohler. I appreciate your insight and the freedom I feel from the teaching.

    It’s kind of rocking my world right now that Adam is not so central to the Bible as we make him, but I think I agree. What do you make of Hosea 6:7?

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your comment, Jacob. On Hosea 6:7, I am among those who read this as a geographic location. I spend few pages on this in my upcoming book. Hosea 6:7 is not a brief allusion to the Adam of Genesis disobeying God in the garden. None other than John Calvin shows
      no patience for reading verse 7 as a reference to the Adam of Genesis. He considers that reading “frigid and diluted” and “vapid,” not worthy even of refutation.

      • http://drchris.me/higgaion/ Chris Heard

        For what it’s worth, I concur on reading “Adam” as a place name in Hosea 6:7.

        • peteenns

          It is worth much :-)

  • Ryan

    “If Adam is central to the biblical storyline, why is Adam’s role in that storyline only mentioned–almost in passing–in two of Paul’s letters, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15?” Adam is in fact central to the biblical storyline. For example: Romans 5. Just read the whole context, which includes the whole chapter and you will clearly see this. The chapter speaks of our salvation from God’s righteous wrath against sin. Surely you have read this chapter? vs 12: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin: and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” This verse is read in the context of the whole of the Bible. Adam by sinning in the Garden of Eden passed that original sin on to us, sinners who are in need of salvation This was the whole reason God had to send His only Son to make the one sacrifice on the cross and bring salvation to His people. All of Scripture points to this, all the types of Christ mentioned throughout Scripture, all the prophecies pointing to the coming of the Son of God. All this, because one man sinned. All throughout the Bible, it speaks to this.

    • peteenns

      Ryan,
      Yes I have read Romans 5, and some other things as well. I understand your train of thought but disagree with your assessment.

  • SteveK

    “Paul regularly engages in creative, Christ-centered interpretation, of the Old Testament that clearly moves in directions not intended by the Old Testament authors. ”

    I just want to thank you for re-iterating this kind of thing. I imagine Paul being so enamoured — perhaps, all his thoughts, and knowledge, are captivated in Christ. I appreciate this series Dr. Enns.

  • Ross

    Dr. Enns,
    I found this blog via John Armstrong’s and the Internet Monk. I recall, when I went to a small Methodist college in East Texas, that my religion professor told us that the name Adam comes from the word ‘adamah’, meaning dirt man and therefore Adam was not a real person. At the time I was incredulous. Now, I’m not so concerned about whether Adam was a real person or whether the earth is billions of years old and God used evolution as a means of creation. I think I follow the idea of Adam as representative of beginning of the human race, but I do wonder why the geneology of Jesus listed in Luke goes to the trouble of listing names (so-and-so, the son of such-and-such) from Joseph all the way to Adam. Could you speak to that? Thanks, Ross.


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