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.

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  • Bev Mitchell

    To Pete Enns,

    What is the opposite of this greatly feared naturalism – spiritualism, unnaturalusm, supernaturalism? God makes everything possible, and sustains it – spiritual reality and natural reality. Surely we are not called to reject the one and exclusively cling to the other. Even God became human (natural). Is everything to be supernatural? Is what God called good actually bad because it fails some supernatural test? Is God so limited he cannot use the natural as well as the supernatural? Are we not children of nature as well as children of God?

    Of the many fundamentals underlying these different world views, two seem to stand out. (1) Static, created world vs. dynamic, unfolding world (2) reductionistic approach vs. integrationist (systems) approach. We also tend to shy away from consideration of the deep psychological bases of these very differing approaches – personalities are intricately involved. Studies of how psychologists approach the study of behaviour clearly reveal these different personality-based starting points. It would be odd if theologians were somehow able to avoid this basic reality. c.f. Johnson, J. A., Germer, C. K., Efran, J. S., & Overton, W. F. (1988). Personality as a basis for theoretical predilections. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 824-835. Also see “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt (2012).

    For 50 years, as measured by progress in modern biology, we have been approaching a watershed moment in popular evangelical theology. Whether the tide turns in this academic generation or the next (or the next) will depend on coming scientific advances and other world events as much as on reasoned discussion. However, reasoned discussion is now forming the essential resources that will nourish the eventual renewal. A paradigm shift, in the Popperian sense, is not too strong a descriptor for what is needed, and indeed is coming. Don’t despair. Keep building those essential resources. We will be blind without them.

  • Don Johnson

    I think the “source criticism becomes documentary hypothesis” mistake means one way to improve the book in a 2nd printing would be to clarify that this is not true explicitly. Everyone comes to any text with their understandings.

    On your second point, one way to see what you are doing is “moving the implicit pointer” on how we are to read Scripture away from the collection of atomic truth statements idea implied by some inerrancy adherents. This is a very scary idea to some people and the response is to reject any such movement of the pointer because it undermines their entire framework if it could be shown to be correct. So dialog is simply not to be expected, what they want to do is pidgeon-hole your arguments and tuck them safely away, so they can continue using their familiar interpretation framework. Perhaps I am being too harsh, but you are on a quest to change paradigms and that is a HUGE challenge, as all of another’s defense mechnisms can be expected to be deployed so as not to even see the POSSIBILITY of change, let alone the need.

    That is, I am a modern, I see the evidence for the heliocentric view and the evolution view as essentially the same (that is, as demonstrated); what am I to DO with these views when reading a Bible that did not have either of these (scientific) viewpoints. I think that the only way forward that does not lead to intellectual skizophrenia is to realize that the Bible is a pre-scientific text and needs to be read as a pre-scientific text, so the question is how to do that in a faithful way and do it well. But others do not even feel the impetus yet, so to them these kinds of arguments look very similar to an atheist’s arguments that need to be rejected.

  • Brian P.

    I didn’t even realize I was supposed to care about what Dr. Bolger thinks. This is such old stuff that I’m embarrassed to be typing anything in response.

    • peteenns

      The issus is that JETS thought it worthy of publication.

  • Tim

    Excellent highlighting of the issues Pete. I empathize with many of your frustrations as to how Evangelical Fundamentalist culture seems to favor the use of negative association and presuppositional apologetics in carte blanche dismissal of scholarly claims they find disagreeable without due consideration.

    BTW, in reference to your link to your initial response to Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, is a fuller examination of this book still in the works for your site? I think I recall you wanted to have various scholars comment on your site regarding this work.

    • peteenns

      I am thinking about a longer review still, Tim, but the problem is this: the more I read it and interact with biblical scholars (including non-Christian) about its contents, I think that book has so many problems that a review won’t be able to cover them all–it would take an extended refutation of many of the articles. I just don’t have the time for it. My basic conclusion, which I sort of stated earlier, is “here is what it looks like when the front line of evangelical biblical scholarship gives an academic defense of inerrancy. I don’t think it works.

      • Tim

        Thanks Pete. I think though that this would be received as just a dismissal by the fundamentalist side. And I’m sure if someone were to say much the same thing to one of your works you might take it the same way. If their are numerous, egregious problems with this work, then I am sure one such as yourself could just select some of the best examples of these and exposit as to what and how the argumentation fails.

        • peteenns

          I still may. It’s just time consuming at the beginning of the semester. Maybe I’ll rope Sparks into doing it.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Along these same lines, I think we do need to move on, at least most of the time. Christians who accept a heliocentric solar system and the well established facts of the unfolding of life on earth, not to mention the findings of modern archaeology, need to spend time describing what a Scripture honoring theology will look like given our new understanding of the material world, including anthropology. An alternative story that still honors God, the gospel and Scripture is the most urgent item on the agenda. 

  • Stephen

    I am truly sick of the “assured results of historical criticism/scholarship/etc.” trope in inerrantist literature. It most certainly serves to deflect discussion further away from discussions of the data and actual landscape of contemporary biblical scholarship and to the standard inerrantist apologetics territory of noting that hypotheses about biblical writings change among historical critics…thus (supposedly) illustrating the futility of critical approaches to the Bible that don’t presume its inerrancy and traditional views of authorship, and so on. The trope also often introduces inerrantists comments about solidified (and ossified) “critical orthodoxies” that only trade in rhetoric or absolute certainty — thus further (supposedly) illustrating the futility and self-defeating nature of critics’ theoretical approaches and “presuppositions.”

    This trope and associated discourse trades in numerous confusions and misrepresentations of broader scholarship and its relevance to theologizing with the Bible.

    (1a) Of course hypotheses change: that’s the nature of scholarship in the university. Everyone continues to make new arguments about old and new data in critical interaction with previous arguments. This is how a field advances and, over time, hopefully attains more accurate understandings of matters.

    (1b) FWIW, evangelical biblical-scholar/theologians do this too with each other in their in-house settings. Why do you think we keep seeing evangelical books about the same theological and biblical topics over and over and over again? Each author is trying to critically interact with, improve upon, correct, build upon, etc., the work of his/her colleagues and predecessors as part of the journey towards more accurate understandings of theology and the Bible.

    (2) Sure, while some critical scholars of previous generations made over-confident objectivist claims about their finds, you’ll be hard pressed to find that rhetoric with the same significance now, especially because [A] the older theoretical underpinnings of such over-confident definitive-truth rhetoric have been replaced and [B] because most critical scholars are quite aware of the history of scholarship in their fields and thus all the changes over time.

    (3) Claims by contemporary scholars about relatively secure hypotheses aren’t the same thing as what evangelical apologists represent under the trope of “assured results of modern criticism,” with its associated implications of (notional) old-school triumphalist objectivism and claims to definitive truth. Such contemporary scholars are, instead, working within the kinds of conventions Enns outlines here: arguments based upon the data that, more or less, have stood the test of time. These aren’t claims to definitive certainty that make the relatively “secure” hypotheses in question beyond scrutiny.

    (4) Far from being claims about “the assured [unquestionable/unchanging] results of modern criticism,” claims about relatively secure results of scholarship are just the opposite. Again, they constitute claims about the state of arguments about the data, which implies precisely that other people are expected to make further arguments about the data that test and potentially overturn the current hypotheses. Yet again, this is how scholarship works. If anyone doubts, start reading academic journals, where you’ll find almost nothing but attempts to modify, criticize, build upon, work with, etc., existing hypotheses. The surest way for a scholar to make a splash isn’t by defending established hypotheses just for the sake of defending them, but precisely by overturning them and showing how a new formulation makes better sense of all the data, new methodological approaches, etc. etc. etc.

    (5) The empirical ideals of historical criticism are thus exactly not what inerrantist tropes about “the assured [definitive/unchanging] results of modern criticism” suggest. Empirical ideals mean that all conclusions and hypotheses remain up for debate, criticism, refining, overturning, and so on, in the light of new arguments about old and new evidence.

    (6) Beyond everything set out above, the persuading dynamic of this inerrantist apologetics trope remains problematic. The idea seems to be that, having “shown” that critical scholars constantly overturn their own positions about the Bible, the best option is just to return to the traditional inerrantist views that presume inerrancy and the historical correctness/hegemony of traditional positions about biblical writings’ authors, dates, and so on. In what way to does criticizing someone else amount to a positive argument in favor of your own position? Inerrantists want to establish the legitimacy of assuming at the outset [A] that the Bible is inerrant and [B] that traditional views of its authorship, date, etc. are the best starting points for historical study of the Bible. Fine…but you have to argue that, not simply assert that it’s the only thing left standing (as though there’s no burden of proof on it) once you delegitimize all approaches that don’t start out with the assumptions of inerrancy and traditional positions about authorship and so on. This furthermore illustrates that inerrantists’ problem isn’t so much with the specific positions of critical scholars, as any variation of standard historical methodology, which never starts with the assumption that the claims of some source that the investigator agrees with (for whatever reason: political, theological, etc.) should be presumed entirely accurate in all historical study of that source. Of course, inerrantists need such a modified (distorted) kind of historical methodology because the only way they can uphold inerrancy is by building into their interpretive methodology a preference for interpretive options that keep the Bible from error. This is the essence of begging-the-question, stacking the deck, and so on.

    The great irony with inerrantist rhetoric about “the assured results of modern criticism” is that it’s part of an attempt to neutralize kinds of approaches to the Bible that could potentially lead to criticism of cherished inerrantist doctrines (e.g, inerrancy). It would be more accurate to talk (pejoratively) of “the assured results of inerrantist theologizing.”

  • Justin F

    “Many readers will take issue with his assumptions regarding the assured results of modern science and of biblical scholarship”

    Always so quick to dismiss science when it comes to the topic of biological origins. Yet did he ever question the “assured results of modern science” when he went to turn on his computer the day he decided to write this review?

    Granted these are different disciplines within the “science” umbrella, but it seems to me that people are less likely to question the science behind a pill they ingest than a scientific explanation of biological history.

    • Stephen

      Probably didn’t question the assured results of science when he last got on an airplane. Doesn’t he know the gravity is only a theory? ;)

  • MattW

    Can I just say I appreciate your considered and intelligent writing – both in the book and in your blog.
    In particular, people that want to reject arguements do need to offer credible alternatives. It’s not enough to just dismiss what you’ve written.
    Thanks again.

  • Jedidiah Slaboda

    There is a deep irony in this debate in that traditional Evangelicals are in bed with Enlightenment ‘science’ when it comes to a hermeneutical method (GH) but when that method consistently produces exegetical approaches, theories or interpretations that are unorthodox, or perceived as unorthodox they decry the encroachment of ‘science.’ Sometimes this happens in the same breath.

    The fundamentalist/modernist controversy that is revived every-so often when a book like yours comes out is an in-house debate between Western Enlightenment Protestants about where rational religion lies. Time, I think, for a richer tradition.

  • Bryan

    Pete, you mention the most recent scholarship regarding the development of the Pentateuch. Can you mention a few of these books for future reading? Thanks.

    • peteenns


      I think one very good book is Mark Smith’s The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. It’s not a textbook but it takes you right into the critical issues and how they help explain the larger picture.

    • Nathan

      Mark Smith’s book may be a good illustration of the method applied, but if you really want to get a sense of the current field, take a look at “The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research” edited by Thomas B. Dozeman, Konrad Schmid, and Baruch Schwartz (2011). This volume provides, in English, the best of current European, Israeli, and American scholarship on the Pentateuch. You’ll note in reading it that while there is a sharp divide between American and German scholarship on some crucial issues, there is also a consensus on others, one important one being the identification of the P source and a near consensus on the recognition of it as a complete narrative rather than supplementary source. You’ll also note that EVERYONE in this volume agrees on the composite nature of the pentateuch.

      • peteenns

        Great source, Nathan. Unfortunately, some–including evangelical scholars–take this “sharp divide” as evidence that Pentateuchal scholarship is at an impasse re: source criticism. That is not accurate.

      • peteenns

        Although, the bargin price of $250+ is a bit inhibiting. Is that what good scholarship costs? :-)

        • Nathan

          Yes, this is not the kind of book you can purchase and put on your shelf. It may be the kind of book that grad students scan in its entirety for their own use, but I wouldn’t know anything about that ;).

          The funny thing is that as far as the concerns of evangelical scholars, what the scholars in this book agree on is far more significant than what they disagree on. If the only way of explaining the phenomena is by composite authorship including an easily identifiable and complete P source, on which they agree, it makes little difference whether the Patriarchal and Exodus traditions were joined prior to the P source or not.

  • Matt

    Peter have you ever read Michael Heisers approach to Adam? http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/category/genesis/adam/

    In a nutshell, he takes the text apart carefully, believing that there were (created) humans(or more accurately “adams” ) prior to Adam, not living in the garden but around the earth(which helps account for who Cain was afraid of killing him) and God chose to take Adam as His special “adam” and placed Him in the garden, giving him dominion over the earth, etc. etc.

    I find it interesting, since that would actually fit well with the constant theme of the chosen people of God through history, and the text does not dissapoint either. Thought you may find it interesting.

  • 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!