The Evolution of Adam (Pete Enns) 2

The Evolution of Adam (Pete Enns) 2 November 14, 2011

This post is by Pete Enns.

In my last post, we looked at some options for how to bring Adam and evolution into conversation. Today, we begin to look at the factors that have to be addressed when building a “model.”

A model is a way of “putting the pieces” together that accounts for as many pieces of the puzzle in as compelling a way as possible. So, when discussing Adam today, a pretty big “piece” is evolution. Talking about Adam in a way that ignores this “piece” will not be compelling.

The same holds for ancient Near Eastern literature. Any talk of Adam that does not account for the similarities and differences between Israel’s origins stories and those of Israel’s neighbors won’t be compelling.

We don’t have all the pieces, however. Think of it as 100o piece puzzle where only, say, 300 are in the box. Skilled puzzle solvers dump the pieces and begin separating out the edge pieces, and they find that most of the boarder can be put together.

Then they group together similar pieces–those that look like grass and trees, others of sky and clouds, etc. Many of those pieces fit together nicely and are placed inside the frame where the puzzlers’ skill and experience tell them they should go: grass and trees down here, sky and clouds up there.

What the puzzle as a whole looks like is a matter of working with the pieces you have, putting them where they most reasonably belong, and filling in the empty spaces based on your general knowledge of what puzzles look like, and that more sky is likely to be up there, more grass and trees down there, an animal of some sort over here (because one piece has a tell-tale paw on one edge).

OK., I’m killing this analogy. You get the idea.

That is what biblical scholars do. We put pieces together and fill in the gaps as best as we can. Any attempt to solve the puzzle that leaves pieces in the box or puts sky where grass should be will not be compelling.

A good model of Adam will account for the pieces and make a case for where those pieces belong and how they hang together. So, what are the pieces of the puzzle that have to be accounted for? That is what the next slide begins to address.

Adam is mentioned in Genesis and in Paul’s letters (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). For each of these authors–living in different times and places–we need to be mindful of three factors.

(1) Near literary context. One must account for the words the text before us, i.e., how it behaves, what it is “saying” on its own terms. This is often refered to as “grammatical-historical” interpretation. So, what do Genesis and Paul actually say about Adam?

(2) Canonical context. What Genesis says about Adam must be placed in the larger context of what the Old Testament says as a whole, and what Paul says about Adam must be placed in the larger context of what the New Testament says about Adam.

(3) Cultural context. Neither Genesis nor Paul’s letters is written in a vacuum, but in cultures where origins was widely discussed. What these biblical authors say about Adam must be placed against the backdrop of the cultural moment(s) in which they were doing their writing.

One caution is that these factors are not mutually exclusive–they interact with each other, which is sort of the point for why we have to look at all three (hence, the connecting blue lines).

Only after we do the work of thinking through Genesis and Paul in terms of these three interweaving contexts can we bring Genesis and Paul into a meaningful biblical theological conversation and begin answering the question: “What is Adam doing in the Bible?”

Then–and only then–can one turn to the issue of how evolution and Adam can be in conversation.

In my opinion, many of the problems with the Adam/evolution discussion stem from short-circuiting this process. For example, taking the near literary context of Genesis, comparing it to evolution, and saying, “Well, that doesn’t fit.”

Looking at Genesis and Paul in their larger canonical and cultural contexts helps us understand what the biblical authors were saying and why–which helps us understand what we might have the right to expect from the story of Adam.

But that is no quick fix; it is a process that takes some patience. Welcome to the world of biblical interpretation.

OK, I spent too much time talking about puzzle pieces and such. In my next post, I’ll outline some of the details a bit more (unless I think of another analogy and get wordy again).

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  • John W Frye

    This post helps stem the tide of comments on your first post thinking that you posit evolution *first* and then go on to work with the biblical text(s). Some assumed that you held science in a higher place than the sacred text(s). I now see that in your first post you were simply introducing the overall direction that the conversation must go. You were putting the edges in place. It seems a number of comments “jumped the gun” on your first essay.

  • Thanks for this post, Pete. I’m very much looking forward to part two.

    Hopefully what you write will mesh nicely with what I wrote here –

    It’s way past time to stop fighting over these issues and to begin understanding one another. It seems to me that you are helping with that.

  • Rick

    John #1-

    “It seems a number of comments “jumped the gun” on your first essay.”

    I don’t think people, including myself, jumped the gun. We were responding to the information provided in the first post. Had he added this additional info at the end of the first post, and we responded without reading the full post, then we would have jumped the gun.

    I understand, and appreciate, topics done in a series. However, there is a drawback in regards to having opinions are asking questions before the whole series is completed.

  • Whoopsie – when I say part two I mean, of course, part three… Looking forward to part three.

  • I enjoyed the puzzle analogy. I do wonder how many of the edge pieces are missing, or instead of it being a 2-dimensional puzzle, is it a 3-dimensional one? I enjoy thinking outside of the box.

  • Phil N

    I’m looking forward to these posts. Adam is by far the most difficult thing for me reconcile within the context of Science and Scripture. Not just Paul, but also Jesus use and talk of Adam/Noah and creation in general. I can truly appreciate the dilemma of contexts, etc, but find that in some of the circles I live in, they simply can’t weigh the comparative data. It seems like smoke and mirrors to them. Does anyone else find those responses?

  • Grizz

    Phil (6), You are not alone. And do you find that the confusion exists on all sides of the discussion of Adam? I certainly do.

    Some of my more formally educated friends are so stuck on literary genres that it seems as if they are blind to everything else. Or if you mention something else, to be considered also, they go into gyrations defending the emphasis on literary genres as the vital keys and mocking any other considerations until all have knelt before the throne of genres. Others are bemused by the whole issue because it seems so few are willing to see more than two facets to this gem of an issue.

    I am thankful for this series by Pete because it at least begins to frame new ways to open the discussion and think more creatively and examine things openly together.

  • Phil N


    Yes, being in the muddled middle is not an easy place. I agree that it can be mind boggling that genres (etc.) can change perceived meaning that much. Yet, nothing gets under my skin more than hearing “the plain meaning of Scripture” over and over. My Christeology brings me to consider how would Jesus have considered these Scriptures and stories. Yes, he would have been a product of his culture, but what kind of weight would he have put on Adam and Noah as our perception of history (knowing full well that he would not have had a modern insight into history, but he would still distinguish myth and fable). That’s where I’m hung up.

  • Pete Enns

    Thanks for your comments, folks. I hope things ar a bit clearer. In my first post, I was assuming the reality of evolution and asking, “given that reality, what are the options before us?” I still do not see that as forcing Scripture into a randomly foreign form, but acknowledging the reality of evolution as the nearly universal reigning paradigm of human origins. The grid by which I interpret Adam, which is independent of evolution, is seen in this post. One thing I make plain in my next post is that Adam is an interpretive challenge all on its own, without evolution.

  • Phil N

    Dr. Enns,

    I guess my question (in communicating to the average evangelical in the average pew), is Adam really that difficult an interpretive challenge, or have we made it so? I’m looking forward to future posts.

  • Fish

    Jesus referred to Adam because his audience would be unable to conceive of anything outside the bounds of the OT. He had to be firmly rooted in their view of God and creation to structure His message for their minds. It’s the same reason (to me) that all the apostles were male; traveling female apostles would probably have been stoned to death, sent by God or not. Jesus may have been God but to be effective he had to work with the fools that we men are and the mental maps we have created.

  • Pete Enns

    Hi Phil (#10),

    I do think Adam’s significance in Genesis, the OT, and in the NT is a tricky business. Of course, i could just be a biblical scholar trying to justify his existence 🙂 My third and final post in the series lists some of the challenges in each of the three contexts I list in this post.