Al Mohler, Adam, Evolution, and NPR (final)

Al Mohler, Adam, Evolution, and NPR (final) October 20, 2011

Today, in my final post in this series, we will look at three more problematic assertions in Al Mohler’s NPR interview.

As I mentioned in my last post, my responses are sketches, not complete–although I do get in much more detail in The Evolution of Adam. My last post also supplies links to the audio and transcript of the NPR interview, along with a slightly edited version of the manuscript.

3. Since evolution undermines the gospel, it should be rejected.

As I see it, this view lies behind much of Mohler’s diatribe against evolution. The threat to the gospel story, as Mohler understands it, renders evolution out of bounds for Christian theology.

We must also be ready to say plainly that evolution raises theological problems for the Christian faith—and many competent and gifted people have been and continue to think through them.

But the fact that evolution causes theological problems does not mean that evolution must be rejected. It means we have theological problems–and we best get to work thinking through them rather than retreat to the false comfort Mohler’s literalism provides.

Also, the assertion that evolution undermines the gospel is hardly ground many Christians are willing to concede. Mohler would need to avail himself of the reasoned positions (plural) that are out there. Until he does, his views will continue to remain isolated from broader discussions.

In other words, the question of the compatibility of evolution and the gospel is a matter of deep thought and ongoing deliberation. It is hardly a done deal, as Mohler asserts.

4. As goes Adam, so goes the resurrection.

Mohler made a persistent point in the NPR interview: if we allow science to tell us that Adam cannot be a real person, we are only a stone’s thrown away from letting science tell us that the resurrection of Christ isn’t real.

Although Mohler explicitly denies in the interview appealing to the “slippery slope” argument, here it is as plain as day.

Mohler is wrong for two reasons.

First, science cannot tell us one way or the other about the resurrection or any other miracle: miracles leave no scientifically verifiable evidence. Miracles can only be accepted by faith, not determined by the kinds of evidence relevant to the sciences.

The question of how humans came to be is entirely open to scientific investigation. The resurrection is not. Science cannot verify or discount the resurrection or any other miracle. There is no slippery slope because the questions are not on the same plane.

Second, Mohler does not seem to see that Scripture is made up of different types of literature (genres) written at widely diverging times and for widely diverging reasons.

Genesis and the Gospels are widely different genres of literature—differing in time, place, language, historical context, and purpose.

That is why making a judgment on the historicity of Adam in book of Genesis has no bearing whatsoever on the historicity of what happens in any other portion of the Bible, least of all in the gospels.

Failing to make that distinction will result in fundamental errors in understanding.

5. Genesis tells us not simply who created, but how.

I agree with Mohler here (and disagree with Harlow). I think Genesis tells us not simply that God created the cosmos, but how God created.

What Mohler misses, however, is that Genesis answers the “how” question  from an ancient point of view–and that makes all the difference. That is why we should not expect Genesis–as Mohler does–to answer the question of origins in modern scientific categories.

Curiously, Mohler does not seem to accept the historically orthodox notion that God accommodates to creaturely categories when he speaks: he speaks the way people at the time understand.

Accommodation is a very old idea in Christian discussions about how God speaks in the Bible. We see it, for example, in John Calvin in the 16th century. Calvin said that God speaks to humans as a father would speak to his children–in ways they can understand.

Calvin, as Augustine before him (4th century), had little patience with those who asked the Bible to do things it was never designed to do.

The issue of God accommodating is so commonly discussed and widely accepted, I do not see how Mohler (with a Ph.D. in historical theology, no less) can credibly ignore it.

The how of creation in the ancient view expressed in Genesis does not determine the answers to origins Christians can accept today on the basis of scientific investigation.

To say this is not to place science “over” the Bible. That is Mohler’s rhetoric, and it should be ignored, for it assumes that the ancient text of Genesis is prepared to answer questions Mohler asks of it.

Christians who accept evolution are not “placing science over the Bible.” They are allowing the distinct voices of both to speak to us, confessing by faith that God is behind them both.

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  • Thank you for this series, Dr. Enns. I’m currently reading Inspiration and Incarnation and finding it just as helpful and informative.

    • peteenns

      Thank you, Nate. I appreciate it encouragement.

  • Aaron

    Not exactly sure how to state the question so I’m going to ask it three ways and you can pick one: In 1 Cor. 15, how do we know (detect, discern, etc) that “the first man Adam became a living being” (v.45) is mythic theology for Paul (retold Christo-telic-ly) while “the last Adam (became) life-giving Spirit” is historical/miraculous event in his mind? Why couldn’t they both be mythic tales Paul is employing to shape a Christ-centered concept of God and life? In other words, if Paul’s mention of creation shouldn’t be read literally, what indicators are there that his mention of recreation (in the same verse) IS to be read literally? Or…suppose Joe Science says the observable universe gives the impression God created man via evolution AND the observable universe gives the impression God does not intervene in the natural laws he has established (no miracles), thus we need to read 1 Cor. 15 figuratively (albeit Christo-telic-ly) all the way through. How do we respond?

    • peteenns

      Aaron, I see your point. The quick answer is that, for Paul, Jesus was a present-day experience while Adam is a primordial figure delivered to Paul by means of his Jewish tradition. As for the two “impressions” you mention, I would probably say that those two impressions are formed on the basis of two very different epistemologies.

  • This series has given me so many answers and so much clarity. Thank you!

    • peteenns

      Thank you, Sarah.

  • Joshua S.

    Thank you, Dr. Enns. I appreciate that you care enough about the Christian faith to take Dr. Mohler’s rhetoric to task. I hope that many Christians begin to understand that positions beyond Mohler’s “literalism” are viable options for our faith paradigm.
    I would not hold the same position as yourself or Mohler concerning the “creation account.” But I do believe your understanding takes into account methodologies better suited to biblical studies whereas Mohler’s arguments are more rooted in a systematic house of cards. A collapse is eminent if any card is removed. I remember the Mohler who made a call for a theological triage
    It seems to me that the Mohler of the theological triage has moved creation to the first order and would assume that someone not holding to his view of creation gets the entire Bible wrong.
    At the end of the day I see your responses as a concern for the individual Christian who is honestly struggling with the real question of science and faith. I hope your direction and the direction of others (e.g. John Walton, Bruce Waltke, etc.) better equip those strugglers in their journey. I do not deny that Mohler also has concern for those who are struggling but he too often comes across in a “here are all the answers” kind of way. I also hope that maybe he will open his eyes and see that he may be doing more harm than good despite his intention of doing good and helping the struggler.
    Thank you for your last statement and reflecting the importance of “confessing by faith that God is behind them both.” I think that is the proper response for a Christian—God is behind the cosmos.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your comments, Joshua.

    • Don Johnson

      I think Mohler’s article on theological triage was his form of justification for not fellowshipping with some others, he gave the example of baptism in the second category, but I think his real concern was over women, which was his second example.

      I think it says a lot that the list in NET Heb 6:1 Therefore we must progress beyond1 the elementary2 instructions about Christ3 and move on4 to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God,
      Heb 6:2 teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

      includes baptisms, which is one of the things Mohler conveniently puts into his second category as something that divides Baptists from Presbyterians, for example. In other words, while the Pauline author of Hebrews says baptisms is elementary doctrine, Mohler categorizes it differently, as something to divide into different denominations over. I see this as justifying (in his own mind at least) doing the same thing on the women in ministry question. So it is fine for a denomination to put out an unwelcome mat for those that think having a woman pastor is fine.

      • peteenns

        Very helpful, Don. I’ve heard it said fundamentalists put many more things in the non-negotiable doctrine side of the equation than the Bible does.

  • Don Johnson

    Thanks Peter for listing all of these concerns with Mohler’s position.

    My take is he is demonstrating a classic fear response. Since HE cannot figure out how to integrate some aspects of science into his faith, he warns others off, as he is concerned lest they lose their faith, as he thinks he would lose his faith if he accepted those aspects of science that he now rejects. So he really has painted himself into a corner. For himself, it really is HIS way or the highway, by which is meant HIS interpretation. And he is showing a tremendous amount of graciousness from his corner to admit that OEC believers, while misguided, are still in the faith.

    • peteenns

      Fear is the absolute key, in my opinion–even a fear that is not surfaced or conscious. Fear of losing one’s meta-narrative is responsible for every theological skirmish I have ever been apart of or observed–most certainly including my last years at WTS. I wrote about the role of fear at BioLogos a year or so ago. It got some interesting feeback, as I recall.

  • Christian Smith’s newest book, The Bible Made Impossible, quotes the Anglican Richard Hooker regarding the Bible, “We must… take great heed, lest, in attributing unto scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed.” In other words, the more we try to make the Bible say allegedly important things that are in fact subsidiary, nonbinding, or perhaps not even clearly taught, the more we risk detracting form the crucial, central message of the Bible about God reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. (p 148)”

    Daniel Kirk blogs at that “Biblicism, by insisting on the equality of every chapter and verse, creates a world in which everything we believe takes on equal significance. Deny the necessity of homeschooling and you’ve rejected the gospel. The importance of the Christological hermeneutic is that it allows back seat issues to stay in the back seat.”

    Pete, thanks for your work to help point out how this issue is biblicism deconstructing a crucial aspect of our faith, not the reverse as is charged against you.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Sam. I think Smith’s book is dead on target, and judging by the strong negative reactions on the part of some, I’d say his thesis is vindicated. Daniel did a great job blogging about him, too.

  • Jon

    Good series. Is the doctrine of original sin or the bi-covenantal structure of Reformed theology necessarily cast off if one abandons the literalistic interpretation of Genesis1?

    • peteenns

      Those are some of the big questions, which involves going back to the biblical texts and seeing what they say about both of those issues.

  • Norman

    I was surprised to see Harlow make what I consider something of a gaffe of sorts with his following statement.

    Harlow … “Secondly, they learn very quickly that Adam and Eve are not central to biblical theology, despite claims to the contrary. If Adam and Eve were central to biblical teaching, it would be a surprise to learn that they are not mentioned in the entire Old Testament after Genesis Chapter 3 and 4. If Adam and Eve are at the heart of the Christian faith, then Jesus and the apostles missed that memo.”

    If Adam is not central to Paul’s theology in Rom 5-8 and 1 Cor 15 dealing with ressurection then I must be missing something. Paul’s whole examination of the beginning of the Law with Adam and its implication for Judaism and it’s ending with Christ are tied explicitly together in both sections. How could Harlow gloss over something as important as that?

    The problem is I agree a lot with Harlow but I was dumbfounded with that statement. Has Harlow clarified this statement later on?


    • peteenns

      Hi Norm. No, Dan hasn’t said anything further that I know of. But, from my point of view, I think his point stands. Adam is not central to Paul for establishing the gospel. I would rather put it that Jesus is central to Paul and many elements of Israel’s narrative are drawn into that tractor beam. The fact that Adam’s role, as Paul sees it, is not found in the OT or elsewhere in the NT is significant, I think.

  • Trey

    Great post and I hope I am not going off on a tangent. But what of the doctrine of the second coming? How should modern Christians interpret that in light of the fact that 2000 years have past since the time of Christ and the early Christians appeared to be living in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return. What if another 2ooo years or more comes and goes and the Second Coming does not occur?

    • peteenns

      Trey, well, yes you are going off on a tangent 🙂 I’d rather stay with the topics lest each thread become very long—which is not to dismiss the questions at all, especially since a relatively near return seems to be presumed in the NT. You’re raising here one of those perennial problems in Christian theology that is sometimes answered by “God’s time is not our time,” but that rings a bit hollow, at least to me.

      And there. After saying I wouldn’t answer you suck me in and I gave sort of an answer.

  • Jon

    Yes, I think that’s right. Are we willing to do that? My own feeling is that without some fall-like event we have a hard time supporting those doctrines. Mohler did raise a good question about how we can be morally responsible for sin if we never fell from a sinless state. At least I think that’s what he was arguing. Thoughts?

    • peteenns

      Jon, The first question would be how does one propose a fall with no first man. Another question would be whether there is a fall in Genesis in the Augustinian sense Mohler means.

  • Craig Wright

    I read Inspiration and Incarnation a year ago and it helped me in teaching a men’s Bible study on Genesis 1-11. Thank you. Along with quotes from John Stott, C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham, I showed that evolution can be a viable Christian option in understanding the those first chapters. As Christians, we shouldn’t fear science. We also need to be honest about our interpretive methods because we are losing young people in our churches. Thank you for your help in understanding accommodation, along with Augustine and and Calvin.

    • peteenns

      Thank you, Craig. There are a lot of people like us out there.

  • Jon

    I can imagine scenarios where we have something akin to a fall while being basically consistent with evolution although I think God is directly involved, not indirectly.

    One of the doctrines that seems to be fairly clearly communicated in the early chapters of Genesis is man’s sin and its pervasive nature. Certainly Paul picks this them up in his writings. It seems to me we can back into what may have actually happened vis-a-vis the fall.

    • peteenns

      Jon, you are in very good company re: your first sentence, but in my opinion, the “Adam” one is left with in such scenarios is not the Adam Paul was thinking of–as soon as one accepts evolution in any form, we have left Paul’s Adam as federal head BECAUSE he is first human (who disobeyed). From where I sit, the only way out of that is to make a case for why Paul saw Adam as a head of some sort but not the literal first man. I am more than open to that scenario, for it would deflect a lot of the problem.

      Also, not to appear like I am trying to be a contrarian, but there are those who would agree that the pervasive nature of sin is self-evident in Genesis, just not the cause of that pervasiveness.

  • Joshua S.

    How do “we” get others who affirm the necessity of understanding literary genre for other parts of the Bible (Gen 12–Rev 22) to likewise apply the same principles to Gen 1–11? I find this my biggest frustration with many “scholarly” approaches to the primeval history.

    • peteenns

      Joshua, I’m clear what you are asking. Could you restate?

      • peteenns

        Sorry, Joshua. I meant “NOT clear.”

        • Joshua S.

          I assumed you meant you were not clear. After all why would you ask for clarification of something you are clear for. 🙂
          I meant simply that all too often, especially with Mohler, the genre of Gen 1–11 is forgotten when working toward interpretation. But, the same ones who dismiss or disregard the genre of those chapters highlight the importance of genre when interpreting the rest of the Bible. So my question is how can, or can we, force interpreters of Gen 1–11 to recognize the literary genre when they deal with these chapters?
          If the concept of genre is the wrong language, then how about working toward helping interpreters (such as Mohler) understand the “ancient cognitive environment” behind Gen 1–11 and interpret these chapters in light of this environment (J. H. Walton, Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology, 2).
          I hope this clears up what I was attempting to ask. I ask this in light of Mohler’s comment on NPR that the type of literature is “entirely arbitrary.”
          I am under the impression that the acknowledgement of literary genre is Hermeneutics 101.

    • Don Johnson

      My take is that ALL of Genesis is Mosaic Sinai covenant preamble, but who reads and studies covenant preambles these days? Not many people. And I can believe that info in Gen 12+ with Abraham, etc. was a part of oral narrative history, as a genre. But Gen 1-11 is a different genre.

  • Norman


    Paul says that the Good News (gospel) included a new perspective from Christ other than the old method of works of the Law. I’m sure also no one is disputing that Jesus is central and the core of our belief system but Paul spends a lot of time explaining the details of Christ gospel news as a relief from the Law that begun with Adam. He compares Christ as the last Adam or man which indicates a covenant or corporate affiliation with both men as both appear tied to Israel specifically.

    Now I happen to agree with you that Adam does not have to be identified as a specific person capable of being identified historically. However the manner in which Jewish literature and Paul uses him does indicate something of a historical figure although a shadowy one. They name him “man” in effect which is quite generic to begin with but very likely entails more to a Jew than just any man; as one in a relationship to God. The manner in which Paul uses Adam as a corporate body and Christ as corporate body calling them the old man and the new man also seems to indicate more of a collective application by Paul to a large extent. This does not infer that Adam is even being spoken of primarily as an individual but more so for what he stands for corporately as “fallen man” under the Law. Christ is just the opposite signifying risen man from above or as Paul likes to say “spiritual man”.

    Concerning the OT not using Adam significantly can be offset somewhat by other Jewish literature that influenced Paul and the first century extensively. You are quite aware of Jubilees, Enoch and other literature found in the Dead Sea Scrolls that illustrate the environment of the first century was not limited to just what we may perceive as canon. No one can state that Adam is not fleshed out somewhat in those writings and I’m sure Paul did not conceive of his theology regarding Adam completely out of a vacuum. Paul cannot be held to our ideas of canonicity that has evolved over the centuries and he had no part in.

    This also does not preclude other literature that has been lost to us having had much effect upon Paul especially since he was a well-studied Jew.

    My point concerning Harlow’s quote is that I felt it undermined the depth of Paul’s writings about Adam and leaves him vulnerable in serious discussion of Pauline theology. I hate to see Mohler given an opening like that which he can exploit even if he does so poorly. Other competent scholars would probably pounce on that statement in a heartbeat if they have an inclination to.

    Blessings to you; and it’s good to see you opening up this blog although I do worry about the amount of time it may require upon you to answer so many of our questions and queries. You are a rare scholar in your willingness to make yourself available to the curious public.


    • peteenns

      Thanks for your thoughts Norm, and your encouragement. I like to engage, but if it gets to be too much, I’ll cut back from answering. For now, it is a nice break from writing, grading, watching baseball games, etc.

      I guess re: Mohler, if he were to drive a truck through a hole Dan gave him, I would simply respond, “You may (or may not) have a good point, Al, but the fact that evolution causes theological problems does not mean evolution is wrong.”

  • Thanks for this series, Pete. It was a good read and I appreciated the way you were able to pull out the blatant inconsistencies of his position. Can’t wait to see what you write next.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Brandon. I’m working on something.

  • Thank you for this series of posts. I have really appreciated the thoughtfulness, patience and gentleness of reply (and the time taken to comment on many of the posted comments). I teach many trainee teachers who struggle with the issues you raised (especially as for an assignment earlier this semester I set the task of evaluating the emerging trend of ‘Big History’ here in Australia [ ] as a pedagogical teaching tool. If it’s alright by you I’ll be directing these questioners to your blogging.

  • Ben

    Peter, thank you for the series! I think a literalist is as hazardous as a liberalist, as both of them ignored the real historicity rooted in a progressively unfolding revelation. Chinese churches have been suffered by fundamentalism and pietism for a long time, as a Christian from China, I really appreciate any effort to tell the Scripture as it does.

    • peteenns

      Thanks you for your insights, Ben. I have found that western Christians often assume that Christians in other cultures can’t bothered with these sorts of issues, but in my experience I know that is not the case.

  • Thanks for sharing! Interesting response to Mohler.

  • Stephen

    Though coming in late to this discussion, I will offer some thoughts that I have not seen addressed.

    I am confident that Dr. Mohler understands the purposes of different genres in Scripture and that God makes accommodations in style when communicating truth to each generation. But your position overstrains genre differences and creates (or should I say evolves) problems that unnecessarily complicate Scripture.

    One example is the Genesis 5 genealogy where Adam’s children (some named), his exact lifespan and his death are recorded, as are those of several generations of his descendents. Why, even from an ancient viewpoint, would anyone record or care about this sort of data about a mythical individual? Why would the same individuals in Genesis 5 also appear in the genealogy of I Chronicles, a book clearly intended to be factual history? At what point in Genesis do symbolic characters cease and real ones appear, and how do you know? If the historicity of Genesis has no bearing on the historicity of the Gospels, then why do the same names from Adam to Noah appear in the genealogy in Luke 3, directly connected to Jesus Christ?

    Other texts such as I Timothy 2:13 (“Adam was formed first, then Eve”) pose similar problems. I remain skeptical of your position because it must introduce complicating assumptions to show why the plain meaning of the text is not the correct one, while adding little or no explanatory power.

    • peteenns


      I am not as confident as you are in Mohler’s appreciation of genre distinctions–his reading of Genesis 1 is a case in point. I understand the point you are making, but “intending” something to be “factual history” does not make it so. Biblical writers wrote about primordial time in the way understood it as ancient people, and saying so is hardly a “complicating assumption.” Your explanation also raises the questions of how do you handle evolution and the well-known common features that Genesis shares with the non-historical origins stories of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors. These are factors that have to be brought into any explanation of what we have the right to expect of Genesis.

  • Jonathan

    “The question of how humans came to be is entirely open to scientific investigation. The resurrection is not. Science cannot verify or discount the resurrection or any other miracle.” How can you possibly say that? Assuming we both agree God is real and omnipotent by definition, then how is the life giving/creating power that He has, open at one point to scientific investigation and not in the other. The bible says creation is a small bit of God’s power but the resurrection is the fullness. If you’re willing to scrutinize one with human wisdom and science I think the biblical link between the two makes them both fair game. Non-evolutionary creation would be a much easier position to defend. Email me if you want references.

    • peteenns

      Jonathan, it is clear–virtually self-evident–that a rising from the dead does not leave material evidence as does things like the age of the universe and how life evolved.

  • Jacob Arminius

    You say

    “science cannot tell us one way or the other about the resurrection or any other miracle: miracles leave no scientifically verifiable evidence. Miracles can only be accepted by faith, not determined by the kinds of evidence relevant to the sciences.”

    So Creation is not a miracle I guess according to your reasoning? since you are embracing theories and assumptions about origins? This is what I am hearing. You are making ” kinds of evidence relevant to the sciences” dictate what you believe as the truth of origins and writing off the Creation narrative as myth produced by pre-scientific ignoramuses but refuse to do so when it comes to Jesus walking on the water and raising the dead. And we wonder why naturalism rules the day. Lord have mercy.

    • peteenns

      Jacob, I do not think you are following the argument that I and others have laid out. I see pieces of what I have said in your comment, but not what I am actually argiung.