A Brief (I tried) Response to a Brief Review of “The Evolution of Adam.”

In the most recent issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2012, volume 55/2, pp. 408-10), Dr. Eric Bolger (Dean of the College of the Ozarks and professor of Philosophy-Religion) published a brief review of my book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Brazos, 2012).

Bolger’s review gives a reasonably accurate summary of my book, but his assessment of the book’s argument is limited to a brief concluding paragraph that in my view repeats the kind of default thinking that should no longer be allowed to define the discussion. I responded to another review recently that uttered similar themes, but I want to address some issues here peculiar to Bolger’s review in the hope that future critical reviews will go in different, and more constructive, directions.

As I said, the summary is reasonably helpful, though even there we see two points where Bolger misconstrues my meaning in such a way that, in my opinion, signals what we see more clearly in his conclusion.

Enns accepts the results of modern biblical scholarship, briefly rehearsing the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. He argues that even if it has been modified in some ways over the past 150 years, it still provides the most convincing and well-accepted approach to explaining Genesis.

Bolger seems to attribute to me a view I tried assiduously to avoid, that “the Documentary Hypothesis” explains Genesis. Let me be clear. Source criticism is a vital component of any high-level work on the Pentateuch, but source criticism and “the” Documentary Hypothesis are not the same thing. The field has moved on and there are various models for construing the origins of the Pentateuch.

The point I make in the book is really not that controversial or ambitious, what I call the two “pillars” of Pentateuchal scholarship: (1) the developmental nature of the Pentateuch (it grew over time through oral and written tradition) and (2) the postexilic compilation of its final form. These two pillars are not “the Documentary Hypothesis” and it would be difficult to find trained biblical scholars who take issue with either of these points. Knowing something of how Genesis came to be will help us understand why it was written at all.

I tried to be quite clear on that point because I anticipated responses like this one, where my “developmental” explanation for Genesis would be rhetorically lumped together with that perennial bad boy “the Documentary Hypothesis.”

The second problem with Bolger’s summary concerns my reading of Paul, the topic in the second half of the book.

Paul, who is inspired by God, creatively reads and utilizes Adam to explain how Jews and Gentiles can now be one people of God in Christ. Enns supports his argument with examples of Paul’s use of the OT, which Enns says demonstrate that Paul routinely ignores the grammatical-historical meaning of the OT text.

I do not think that saying that I say Paul “ignores the grammatical-historical meaning” starts us off on the right foot. Paul is not “ignoring” grammatical-historical meaning, as if he is making some hermeneutical decision. Paul demonstrates again and again that he is not driven by grammatical-historical exegesis as some sort of default hermeneutic that one must choose to accept or ignore.

Rather, he was a product of his time, a Jew clearly influenced in his interpretation of Scripture by three interconnected factors: Second Temple Judaism, Greco-Romanism, and his faith that Israel’s messiah was crucified and rose from the dead. Grammatical-historical hermeneutics was not a pressing concern for Paul. The entire second half of the book is designed to help readers put the entire matter differently than Bolger does here.

Finally, in his concluding paragraph, Bolger says the following:

The Evolution of Adam  is a bold attempt to change evangelical thinking on the subject of human origins and the problem of sin. The author is to be commended for making his case in a manner that is accessible to a broad range of readers. Many readers will take issue with his assumptions regarding the assured results of modern science and of biblical scholarship, and Enns at times writes dismissively of those who take other views on these topics. In addition, the evidence he amasses for his arguments is at times cursory and therefore unconvincing, such as in the section of Paul’s use of the OT (pp. 103–13). For those who already embrace the naturalistic, scientific explanation of human origins and the historical-critical approach to Scripture, Enns’s arguments should resonate well. For those less confident of these things, Enns’s arguments are not as likely to prove convincing.

In the span of one short paragraph, Bolger repeats a common stock of objections when traditional views are being challenged. First, he asserts that I have made assumptions regarding the assured results of modern science and of biblical scholarship.” But I am not making “assumptions”; I have drawn conclusions–as have other biblical scholars. The reasons for drawing those conclusions have to be addressed.

Steering the discussion away from the implications of biblical, extrabiblical, and scientific evidence and toward one’s “assumption” is, in my opinion, simply an avoidance tactic. “You are wrong about how you interpret the Bible because you have bad assumptions” is a wearisome retort, not to mention impossible to respond to (since doing so would only verify one’s philosophical deficiencies). The question remains how to handle the data.

Bolger also takes a familiar swipe at the those who accept the “assured results” of science and biblical scholarship. Similarly, this assertion seems intended to deflect the argument from evidence, this time by drawing attention either to one’s (implied) incompetence or hubris for having such assurance (though I am not accusing Bolger of impugning me intentionally). (Parenthetically, this same line of criticism, albeit with more substance, is present throughout much of the recent volume Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. See my earlier response here.)

The fact is that there actually are many things that reasonable and educated people in these fields consider “assured results.” And, as above, these results are conclusions drawn from a preponderance of evidence. In a true dialogue, Bolger would need to address credibly the evidence that has led scientists and biblical scholars to draw the conclusions they do, showing how his own assumptions give a more compelling and persuasive account of the evidence.

Bolger also comments that my rehearsal of Paul’s use of the OT is too brief to convince him that Paul’s hermeneutic is not grammatical-historical. I suspect, however, that had I given 1000 pages it still would have left Bolger unconvinced. The deeper problem for Bolger is not the “cursory” nature of my treatment, but the conclusions I have drawn that run afoul of his theological convictions. Had I come to a conclusion more acceptable to Bolger, there would be no mention of brevity.

More importantly, the examples I give over this span of 10 pages or so was not to make some heretofore unheard of observation that in truth needed chapters of documentation. I was simply illustrating what is widely considered to be beyond serious dispute by scholars in the field: Paul’s use of the OT is driven by something other than the context of the original utterance. Understanding this may help adjust people’s expectations of how to understand Paul’s use of the Adam story.

Bolger’s final comment is an unfortunate, though commonly deployed, conversation stopper: Views such as mine are beholden to the naturalism that besets science and historical-criticism. The issue before us is complex and demands our focused energy and attention; it cannot be boiled down to naturalism vs. supernaturalism, regardless of how rhetorically and apologetically useful it may be to do so. I hope we can find a way to phrase things more constructively, for we do not all share the “assured results” of Bolger’s either/or thinking.

I realize that my response may already be longer than Bolger’s review, but I do not mean to appear reactionary or needlessly harsh. The type of thinking evidenced here is unsettlingly common among those looked up to as intellectual leaders of Christian thought. The dialogue has to be taken to a different level.

  • Matthew Coleman

    Whether or not you see scriptural truth as inerrant or incarnational, any believer must agree that God is the primary force behind scripture.

    As Christians, we must also agree that God is the primary force behind nature – whether over $14 Billion years or 7,000.

    While God and his ways are, “higher than our ways…” nevertheless, there should be a potent and thorough connection between God’s word and his creation.

    For these reasons, I believe that however mysterious Genesis 1 & 2 may be, there must be something really meaningful there. Something must be there that cannot be discounted by human error, scientific advances, documentary hypotheses or any other explanation..

    Paul underscores this point in Romans 1:20, “God’s invisible qualities … can be understood in creation.”

    Moreover, given my original two contentions, the best science and biblical scholarship should be moving us ever closer to a more comprehensive and concordant view of reality.

    And what a glorious view that will be!