More Recurring Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion (2)

More Recurring Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion (2) November 13, 2011

We continue today with three more recurring mistakes in the Adam/evolution discussion.

Both Paul and the writer of Genesis thought Adam was a real person, the first man. Denying the historicity of Adam means you think you know better than the biblical writers.

As with the issues we looked at in my last post, phasing things this way has some rhetorical punch, but it simply sidesteps a fundamental interpretive challenge all of us need to address on one level or another.

All biblical writers were limited by their culture and time in how they viewed the physical world around them. This is hardly a novel notion of inspiration, and guiding lights of the church from Augustine to Calvin were quite adamant about the point.

A responsible, orthodox, doctrine of inspiration understands that the biblical authors were thoroughly encultured, ancient people, whom God used as ancient people to speak. Inspiration does not cancel out their “historical particularity.” God, by his Spirit, works within ancient categories to speak deep truth.

We do indeed “know more” than the biblical writers about some things. That in principle is not a theological problem. The problem is that this principle is now touching upon an issue that some feel is of paramount theological importance. The stakes have been raised in ways no one expected, for know we understand that the ancient biblical authors’ understanding of human origins is also part of their ancient way of thinking.

Should the principle be abandoned when it becomes theologically uncomfortable?

As I see it, the whole discussion is over how our “knowing more” about human origins can be in conversation with the biblical theological metanarrative. This the pressing theological challenge before us, and we really need to put our heads together—not insulate ourselves from the discussion.

Acknowledging that we know more than biblical writers about certain things is not to disrespect Scripture. We are merely recognizing that the good and wise God had far less difficulty condescending to ancient categories of thinking than some of us seem to be comfortable with.

Genesis as whole, including the Adam story, is a historical narrative and therefore demands to be taken as an historical account.

It is a common, but nevertheless erroneous, assumption that Genesis is a historical narrative.

Typically the argument is mounted on two fronts: (1) Genesis mentions people by name and says they are doing things and going places. That sounds like a sequence of events, and therefore is a “historical narrative.” (2) Genesis uses a particular Hebrew verbal form (waw consecutive plus imperfect, for you Hebrew geeks out there). That is the verbal form used throughout Old Testament narrative to present a string of events—so-and-so did this, then this, then went there and said this, then went there and did that.

Apparently, one is to conclude that a story that presents people doing things in a sequence is an indication that we are dealing with history. That may be the case, but the sequencing of events in a story alone does not in and of itself imply historicity. Every story, whether real or imagined, has people doing things in sequences of events.

To be clear, this does not mean that Genesis can’t be a historical narrative. It only means that the fact that Genesis presents people doing things in sequence is not the reason for drawing that conclusion.

The connection between Genesis and history is an complicated matter that many have pondered in great depth and that involves a number of factors. The issue certainly cannot be settled simply by reading the text of Genesis and observing that things happen in time.

Evolution is a different “religion” (i.e., “naturalism” or “Darwinism”) and therefore hostile to Christianity.

There is no question that for some, evolution functions as a different “religion,” hostile not only to Christianity but to any believe in a world beyond the material and random chance.

But that does not mean that all those who hold to evolution as the true explanation of human origins are bowing to evolution as a religion. Nor does it mean that evolutionary theory requires one to adopt an atheistic “naturalistic” or “Darwinistic” worldview.

Christian evolutionists—at least the ones I know—do not see their work in evolutionary science as spiritual adultery. Christian evolutionists take it as a matter of deep faith that evolution is God’s way of creating, the intricacies of which we cannot (ever) fully comprehend.

In other words, “evolution=naturalistic atheism,” although rhetorically appealing, is not an equation those Christians in the field make, and I think their convictions should be taken at face value, rather than suggesting that have been duped or are inconsistent Christians.

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  • Carl Litchfield

    I do not identify myself as Christian. However, my background is Christian and rather conservative. The question of evolution was one I always struggled with back then. I’m glad that you’re pointing out the logical flaws that are occurring in this discussion. I am interested to see if you are only addressing the logic of the “pro-creationist” side or if you will also offer “pro-evolution” flawed logic as well.

    • peteenns

      Carl, I am only pointing out the problems of those who are seeking to defend a traditional view of Adam. I am focusing only on how the BIble is read.

  • Kenny Violet

    I just want to say that most of the people who are Christians are like me. We haven’t got a college education or been to Seminary. We got saved and have put all our trust in The Lord and the Word He gave us. No where in Scripture or the Greek and Hebrew concordances is there any indication of God advancing the creation by evolution. Why can’t people take the Scriptures at face value and quit trying to take away from it or add to it? 2TIM 4:3-4. If we start by claiming the Creation account in Genesis is wrong then what’s next? Maybe the Gospel! My point is if we can change what the Scriptures say about Genesis then it would only be natural to find fault with other Scriptures. No! God’s Word is Truth and it says that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman. Jesus Christ said that heaven and earth will pass away but His Word will be forever. I study only the Scriptures, and care less about what worldly advances in knowledge have to tell me about this world. This is not my home! I focus on the Lord and the world to come.

    • peteenns

      Kenny, I hear what you are saying. I do understand. But, I am not saying that Genesis is “wrong.” I am saying that Genesis does not speak the language of science. It speaks an ancient language. The more you seek to understand what God was saying back then the more you will appreciate the truth of Genesis.

      • Ric P

        I teach English and German. As a scholar of languages, I’ve observed that, if you want to get a message across to someone, it helps to use a language that that person understands. The biblical texts were written in a language that the readers could understand when they were first written. Does that mean they’re not true? Absolutely not! But truth =/= historical or scientific fact. At least, not in the spiritual sense. The biblical texts are not history; they are what is known as theological narrative. The point is not the events that are related; the point is what the events say that God is like. Limiting faith and epistemology to what is found in the Bible depends on the assumption that the Bible defines God. And an infinite God cannot be defined. That’s kinda what makes God infinite. To suggest that even the Bible defines God is heresy. Using the Bible as a science/history book misses the forest for the trees, to use a tired expression. Thank you, peteenns, for a well-thought-out and thought-provoking article!

        • peteenns

          Thanks for your comments, Ric. I’ve tried to say much of what you are saying here: the Bible is a historically contextual document.

    • richard williams

      Why can’t people take the Scriptures at face value and quit trying to take away from it or add to it?

      this is EXACTLY the same argument that says:

      the Scriptures teach that slavery is required in a good society(read robert dabney’s defense of VA), that disease is always caused by evil spirits, that the earth is flat, hell below our feet and heaven above our heads, that the sun revolves around the world and that God stopped that movement in historical times.

      i propose that only a slave owning, disease ridden, flat earther geocentric really takes the Scriptures at face value, everyone else re-interpretes them somehow to overcome these big issues. the question is not if but how this new understanding is achieved.

      so if you do not own slaves, ever used medicine or believe in germ theory, think that the earth is roundish, that a year is the amount of time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun, that heaven and hell are to physical places located rather close by, that you have already compromised the clear literal teaching of Scripture.

      • peteenns

        Yes, Richard, this is one of the points I’ve been trying to make–the Bible’s view of certain things is clearly ancient, and this includes human origins.

    • Ben S

      The problem is that “face value” is culturally-encoded; shift the culture (to say nothing of translation and language), and what something means at “face value” will change. You have to encounter Genesis as an Israelite, not as a modern, Western post-enlightenment Protestant.
      Or, as John Walton put it (p.170, Lost World),
      “Q: Why don’t you just want to read the text literally?

      A:I believe that this is a literal reading. A literal reading requires understanding of the Hebrew language and the Israelite culture.”

      • peteenns

        I agree with Walton here, too, Ben.

  • Dan

    I might also add that many non-conservative (but faithful) Christian scholars have used similar principles in arguing that NT characters did not lie in quoting Isaiah even if they were two Isaiahs, because it just wasn’t necessary to get that bogged into the details in the context of that time. The same principle applies here; it’s difficult at first, but those who are willing to be open to the data can get used to it.

    • peteenns

      Yes, Dan, it all seems to be about being comfortable with the Bible as it is not as we would like it to be.

  • Rob

    Hi Peter, I’m really liking this series of posts you are doing. This is something that has always been challenging for me as a Christian. I have a couple things…based on your post above are you challenging the belief that Paul believed in an historic Adam? If you are not, and you see Paul believing in an historical Adam, why would he not be more aware of the mythic nature of the Genesis account? It seems to me that his knowledge of the Jewish scriptures would entail an understanding of the various genres they were written in. Thanks.

    • peteenns

      Possibly, Rob. Actually, if you are right, much of this controversy might be less heated. To be clear, I do think that Paul thought Adam was the first man, created de novo, without predecessor. I am happy tobe shown wrong on that, by the way, but II think it can be shown that Paul’s view of Adam as first man lines up with most of jewish thinking at the time.

  • eric kunkel

    And BTW previously when I mentioned the parable. What is a parable? Some scholars claim that some “parables” are to be distinguished from allegories, I do not have a citation, but I believe this goes back to the Church Fathers. And, that some of the parables, were not really that, but said to be real accounts (usually the ones with the most detail), like Dives and Lazarus. So there are sub-genres to parables, perhaps. Are we less conservative if we acknowledge kinds of metaphor?

    And are there sub-genre in antediluvian Genesis, take Chap. 1 and 2? Everyone knows they are different, even before the critical authorship hypotheses.

    What I am meaning to say is that each of these subspecies of literature needs to be taken for what it is. It can still be true, inerrant in the original autographs without adopting wooden literalism. When Jesus says “I am the door”, we don’t waste our time looking for locks or sermonize on screens to avoid being labeled heterodox these busy autumn days.

    Sometimes I think reading the Bible is like reading the Sunday New York Times, which never can be read in a Sunday afternoon. Again, no flippancy in the comparison, but if you do read the Times, you find so many kinds of writing (and this all composed ostensible on or about the same day!) But there is the magazine, and very erudite material on museums, expositions, Broadway reviews, opinion, the famous front page. What would someone from another time make of it (or what is on a iPad?)

    Just with the news, you really have to understand so much background and be able to see nuances as the genre morphs: it presupposes you know so much. And even if it takes till Tuesday there is a great joy in it, perhaps from knowing the city. In the case of the Bible the joy would be in knowing God.

    I only bring up a paper, not to say that the Bible has veracity only like the Times does, complete with retractions. Just talking about how we read literature and integrate it with what we know.


    • peteenns

      I agree, Eric. The issue is what is he genre of Gen 1-3, esp. in view of Paul’s apparent assumption that Adam was not parabolic.

      • eric kunkel

        You are the OT guy. You tell us. There are two or more genres there, certainly Genesis 1 is more cosmological and 2 is more anthropological, at least, right?

        By way of counter point, I was thinking today about how John (the Jew) in both in John 1:1ff and in the prologue of I John adopts that cosmological tenor of Genesis 1.

        “In the beginning was the Word ….

        BTW, besides the beauty of John’s words there might be a key to some of what you have been talking about. John actively adapted the prolegomenon of Genesis 1. He used it theologically, ethereally; he reworked it.

        Paul is almost always writing to correct problems, theological misunderstanding, like in Romans or moral problems like in Corinth. I John is a general epistle by classification, right? Let’s call him John the Generalist.

        This may be be why he is more free to riff and improvise off Genesis 1:1. So maybe he had a different take on the text. (He also may have been less constrained by rabbinic divisions, theories, proto-halakhah, as you seem to describe Paul and his contemporaries.)


        • peteenns

          Eric, cosmology and anthropology aren’t really genres of literature. I am talking more about categories such as myth, parable, history, etc.–any of which could treat cosmological or anthropological topics. Re: John, the issue there is when and who wrote it. Don’t assume the book of John in its final form is a Jewish product, esp. given its strong words against Jews. But that’s a big issue.

          • Andrew Bossardet

            Dr. Enns- Thank you so much for your work on Genesis. Between you and John Walton, my appreciation for the Genesis material and the OT as a whole has grown and deepened. One quick question I have is your definition of myth as it relates to literary genre. I would imagine that you break free from the oversimplification of myth as falsifiable or unfalsifiable story, but would still be interested in your definition. My personal favorite definition comes from Carlos Fuentes: “A past with a future, exercising itself in the present.”

  • To quote one of the writers here: “No where (sic) in Scripture or the Greek and Hebrew concordances is there any indication of God advancing the creation by evolution.” The simple laws of logic do not hold up in that statement. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But let’s take a different tack and consider a different challenge. Why have so many Christians apparently abandoned the naturalistic methods used by Jesus in his parables and teachings to illuminate scriptural principles? And why have so many Christians seemingly turned against the earth and the knowledge used by Christ in his teachings? The reason is that people are unnaturally drawn to legalistic and literal philosophy that turns scripture into an abstract yet absolute theology. This draws us away from the organic roots of scripture (I call it organic fundamentalism) to a separatist theology that function in opposition to naturalistic theories like evolution because in that mode the abstract cannot be reconciled to the organic truth behind scripture. Read the Bible and you’ll see how many times (almost every time!) God is linked to organic images. This is called metonymy. And it works whether you’ve had a college education or not. The Bible is organic. It can be reconciled to evolution if you depart from the literalistic and yet abstract thing you’re forcing it to be.

    • peteenns

      Christopher, some would say, in basic agreement with you, that Christians today in the west tend to have a modernistic set of glasses on when reading the Bible, which actually obscures its message.

  • I mistyped my website address, in case anyone wants that information. Corrected in this post.

  • Jeremy

    I do believe that evolution was God’s means for creating life. As far as the Adam issue, there are basically two points I get hung up on; both alluded to in the post.

    1) Paul’s Adam -> Christ analogy. It would seem to me that using an analogy to communicate theology (as opposed to a parable, metaphor, etc.) would require that you treat it like algebra. What you do to one side, you do to the other.

    So if the analogy is something like Adam : 1st man : sin :: Christ : 2nd man : life, and you make one side of the equation into a metaphor or symbolism, doesn’t the analogy break down? What is the significance of what Paul is saying if not that what was broken by one man is being fixed by one man? If it was simply that Christ is fixing what was broken, he could have easily done so without the “one man” language.

    2) The genealogies. I get that reading about people doing things and going places doesn’t require that we read it as history. But how does it work when we have figurative Person A who is going places and doing figurative things, which include giving actual birth to actual Person B, who then goes on to do actual things in actual places? Nevermind that we can never really know *who* Person A is and *who* Person B is (i.e. where do the genealogies transition from figurative people into historical people?); what does that do to the significance of the chain as a whole? It would almost make more sense to me if the Adam -> Christ genealogy had an entirely figurative significance!

    • peteenns

      Jeremy, on #1, I deal with that in my book a fait amount. The point you raise needs to be raised and discussed. On the second point, genealogies are notoriously theologically driven and records of ancient births are not to be assumed to be historical.

      • Jeremy

        I’m actually reading your book right now. I haven’t gotten to that part of the discussion yet, but I’m really looking forward to it.


  • Jeremy

    To better summarize point 2 above, *why* mix figurative people with actual people? I understand the importance of the different genres, but blending them in this way seems exceedingly odd.

  • eric kunkel

    Cudworth says organic, I want to know more about what he means. I think this is coherent and I like it, so far.

    As for naturalism, (N) that is a Janus with extra faces. It has come to often mean antisupernaturalism, which I will take a pass on. But N has been defined variously by others.


  • “Both Paul and the writer of Genesis thought Adam was a real person, the first man. Denying the historicity of Adam means you think you know better than the biblical writers.”

    That seems like a strawman kind of complaint.

    More accurate would be “denying the historicity of Adam means you have falsified Paul’s argument in Romans 5.” Just for starters, we do not all die because of a sin committed by one person. We’ve been dying all along.

    If you could deal with that it might be more enlightening to me.

    Another issue is the issue of race. Acts 17:26 is a powerful Christian argument against racism. If its not true, who is not to say that some men and women today are not descended from stock made in the image of God? Or how do we take theological and ethical account of the lack of neanderthal genes withing African populations?

    • peteenns

      Paul, remember that what you quote above is not my view but a view I am arguing against.

      • Dan

        It’s also not as if that is the only biblical verse one can appeal to to oppose racism. Bringing this up seems to strongly distract from the issues at hand.

      • I understand that. I just think its a very easy-to-defeat view, almost trivial, and you defeat it handily. I’m sure you encounter it in real settings, so I’m not totally fair in calling it a straw-man argument that you defeat.

        But there are far more serious issues, like the falsification of Paul’s arguments, which would be where the real matter lies, and I’d like to hear you address how denying Adam existed doesn’t falsify the argument Paul presents to us in holy scripture.

      • eric kunkel

        But again, I say, did John think so, given his adaptations of Gen. 1?

        He at least used the Genesis material much differently, transcendently, subtly, perhaps.

        I am thinking it shows a more pensive posture. Paul lived his life hard and fast. John had time to think and perhaps, dare I say – look behind the text. Maybe I am starting to sound like a psychologist.


        • peteenns

          You’re last sentence took the words out of my mouth 🙂

  • Tom R

    Rob, I don’t think pete is ”challenging the belief that Paul believed in an historic Adam”. Pete can speak for himself but to me it seems he is saying that as Paul was a first-century Jew he would have accepted Gen.1-3 as a narrative of events that really actually happened. We on the other hand do not have the same limitations.

  • David LaDow

    “I do believe that evolution was God’s means for creating life.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that evolution does not explain the *creation* of life but rather the *diversity* of life. I’m not a biologist, so I do not presume to speak with any real authority here.

    • peteenns

      I just meant to say that evolution is how God set up the process of how things came to be.

      • eric kunkel

        There you go again with your Process Theology.

      • eric kunkel

        Frankly, when it comes to the texts and looking at them afresh, you have few equals. All the way back to your paper on the Movable Well, I think you have reminded us about context.

        But, perhaps while I was thinking about process theology for a minute, a discursis perhaps, I started thinking about acognosticism. You know, when you don’t know what you don’t know.

        I am with you about the historicity of Adam, because there was no history until Herodotus (plus or minus some error bar.) But there really was no science either. Instead of history you have stella or sagas, not footnoted history with a historiography. No one thought that way.

        So when you say that Paul thought Adam was the real progenitor, it is not at all like us thinking about Neanderthal cave paintings or Lucy. Paul never read all those brillant, but snarky essays by Stephen J. Gould.

        Also, we are products of our times. We marvel at smartphones and modern medicine, which were the product of the scientific method. Hypothesis, trial and error, peer review, repeatablity: we retroject that back on the latest theories of cosmology and evolutionary biology.

        That is a category mistake. A logical fallacy.

        Real science always has error bars, built in. Statins save many, but may probably kill some. Even more so with retro-science.

        I do not believe in Evolution just like I believe in God. [There is a whole corpus of work on epistemology and the philosophy of science bracketed here] –

        “Evolution” can tell us things like the world looks to be very old and humankind has relatives. And we do have to deal with it. I am not shirking. But,

        We don’t know too much.

        • peteenns

          Yes, we all have our intellectual contexts. One reason–perhaps the main reason–why I say that Paul thought of Adam as the first man (whatever Paul might have thought that meant) is because of how he uses Adam in his argument in Romans. He is after the pre-Abrahamic progenitor of humanity so as to establish universal culpability.

    • David – you are right on. The complete title of Darwin’s primary work is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Without any knowledge of genetics or DNA, both Darwin and Wallace provided great insights regarding the diversity of life, about common anscestry, etc., but did not address the origin of life.

  • Don Johnson

    Rom 5:19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

    I think it is fair to say that this verse has had a lot of ink used on it. But I think the point is to try to answer the question, “How can one man save all of us, after all Jesus was (just) one person.”

  • eric kunkel

    Enns writes regarding Paul’s view of Adam, above – something like:

    … whatever Paul might have thought that meant ….

    Rav Soloveitchik thought two creation iterations, two Adams, I believe.


  • Phil Lewis

    The difficulty with this post is that it concedes too much ground to Evolutionary Theory, it does not engage in the clearly mythological and religious components of Evolution itself. Evolution remains the world’s oldest religion. To engage in a discussion of Evolution in “scientific” terms is a major mistake.

    • peteenns

      Phil, my point in this post is to question whether those who make these sorts of claims have the background and training to make them.

  • tgeffeney

    Much of what is written here is very helpful for framing the discussion properly.
    Thank you for that Peter.

    I was hoping to get your opinion on a particular set of challenges for TE. I have studied the subject of TE for quite some time and while I have come to regard it as not directly undermining the explicit teachings of the bible, there does
    seem certain corollaries to TE that when logically taken to their ultimate
    conclusions are incompatible with certain explicit theological teachings of the bible. But perhaps you have a perspective that maintains a confluence between TE and biblical propositions.

    To begin with, TE seems to require that the earliest chapters of Genesis beginine with Chapter 2 not be taken as a reliable historical narrative. Bundled
    with that, the direct divine intervention for the creation of Adam and Eve would seem a priori at odds with TE. At least this is my understanding.

    And yet there are two places in the New Testament in which the theological argument being made depends on the special creation of Eve being historical. And If I am right, then without special creation the NT arguments fail and with them the theological conclusions drawn from them. This then draws out a strong warrant for dismissing any of the bible’s theological conclusions, especially too because one of them is made by Jesus himself.

    Concerning divorce in Matt 19:4-6 Jesus makes an appeal to the argument made in Genesis 2:19-25 and it is in the Genesis version of the account in which the argument would not hold in a neo-darwinian presumption of a mythical account in Genesis 2. Understanding population genetics, without divine intervention the origin of the first human man (if caused by a fortuitous genetic mutation) would not coincide with the first woman as she would lack the same mutaiont and the herd of pre-human hominids in which man hypothetically emerges would be a mix of human and developmentally pre-human for many generations. Even Adams progeny would therefore be mostly pre-human hominids until many generations allow for Natural Selection to eradicate the pre-human genes by favoring the fully human.

    The second argument is made by Paul in the first half of 1 Cor. 11. In particular vs. 8 makes a distinction between man an woman on the basis that “man does not originate from woman, but woman from man. The distinction only makes sense when understood in terms other than traditional biological reproduction.

    Therefore, in the interest in understanding better how we might uphold evolution’s narrative as not contrary to the bible, do you have any thought
    on how to overcome the above?