The Historical Adam: It’s Time to Stop Hiding Under a Theological Security Blanket

The Historical Adam: It’s Time to Stop Hiding Under a Theological Security Blanket June 30, 2015

STOSOver at Books and Culture, I have been participating in a roundtable discussion concerning the historical Adam. The occasion is the launch of Karl Giberson’s latest book Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World

Taking part in the discussion are 7 others who span the spectrum from “no historical Adam” to “without an Adam the gospel falls apart.” In round 1, we each wrote one post expressing our own position (here is mine). Now in round 2 we are responding as we choose (given limited space).

I chose to respond to the two “without an Adam the gospel falls apart” contributors, Hans Madueme and William VanDoodewaard. Both are staunchly conservative Calvinists, Madueme a theologian at Covenant College and VanDoodewaard a church historian at Puritan Theological Seminary.

Both are also quite confident that the Bible demands a literal, historical Adam, the church needs one, and whatever evolutionary science or biblical studies say to the contrary can safely be set to the side.

Some of my readers may remember Madueme’s review of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human OriginsAs a rule I do not respond to reviews of my books on my blog, but Madueme’s was so transparently ideologically driven, I felt it would be worth while to expose the obscurantist rhetoric so common in this discussion. Unfortunately, he repeats the substance of his earlier view here in this roundtable.

And you wonder why people get frustrated at this discussion.

My post at Books and Culture is titled “Ignoring the Problem Won’t Make It GoAway.” I am reposting this post below (lightly edited), largely because it is not open to comments at Books and Culture. For those interested in this discussion, please be sure visit the roundtable!


I am happy to see this discussion taking place, and the posts thus far have certainly shared diverse perspectives, each of which could be engaged in detail.

We see a clear divide in the posts to this roundtable—and it is a routine divide to anyone familiar with the debate within evangelicalism over evolutionary theory: those who accept evolution and who then engage the resulting hermeneutical and theological issues, and those who do not accept evolution because of the perceived harm it does to existing theological categories.

I am among those on the former side of the divide. I accept evolution as the explanation for how life on earth came to be. The scientific community, which includes Christians in general and as well as evangelicals, is in harmony on this point: there is no “first human.”

This scientific conclusion is not a trend, nor is it a “theory” teetering on the crumbling foundation of godless thinking. It is well established and utterly uncontroversial, and for that reason requires serious engagement by any who seek to take seriously both Scripture and the advance of human knowledge.

Negative voices come from a small minority, largely from those who feel that commitment to theological structures that require a first human, Adam, cannot be compromised without the entire Christian tradition crumbling right along with it. Adam, though a minor character in the Bible, is—we are told—nevertheless a key pillar upon which the gospel rests.

That small minority position is represented with remarkable–even bracing–clarity by two of the contributors to this roundtable, Hans Madueme and William VanDoodewaard, both sharing a deep and nonnegotiable commitment to conservative Calvinist theology.

Though neither is trained in the study of Scripture in its ancient setting nor in the relevant sciences—both of which are central components of the discussion—they are nevertheless fully confident in rejecting the contributions of these disciplines and remaining steadfast in their unalterable commitment to a “historical Adam.”

By choosing to ignore or minimize the prevailing scientific consensus on human origins and generations of biblical scholarship in ancient origins stories, they have also chosen to leave the conversation rather than contribute to it.

On a personal level, I have no quarrel with Madueme and VanDoodewaard, or others who might be content with the view they espouse. But as presumably public voices of reason seeking to defend a point of view and persuade others to adopt it, they have pursued a rhetorical strategy of ignoring or minimizing factors elsewhere considered to be well established and utterly uncontroversial.

This strategy should be labeled for what it is: obscurantist apologetics, which neither serves followers of Christ nor truth. And the great irony is that such tactics wind up alienating people from the very faith tradition they are so concerned to perpetuate.

Theological needs, no matter how closely held, cannot and do not determine the matter before us—whether there was a first human—because the question of human origins leaves “footprints” amenable to scientific and historical investigation. In other words, “Where do humans come from?” is a public question that can be answered through scholarly/scientific means in a way that “Does God exist?” or “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” cannot.

The fact that the scientific investigation of human origins has caused a theological problem does not mean evolution “must” be wrong, as Madueme and VanDoodewaard seem content to establish as a logical premise. It means, rather, that Christians have a theological problem. The question is how—or whether—this challenge will be addressed.

The pressing nature of the theological challenges of evolution to Christian theology are not successfully handled through the adoption of apologetic tactics, the goal of which seems to be precisely disengagement from the hard theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical work before us.

The specific rhetorical tactic employed by Madueme and VanDoodewaard is to argue from theological consequences and goes something like this:

“If evolution is true and there is noTEA biological first man, then what we believe is false. Since what we believe is true, this consequence is unacceptable and we are therefore well within our right—indeed it is our sacred obligation—to do what is necessary to neutralize evolution by simply declaring it false.”

Arguing from theological consequences is at best bad logic and at worst a manipulative tactic rooted in deep fear. None of us, including Madueme and VanDoodewaard, would tolerate for one moment this line of reasoning if employed by defenders of other ideologies.

Madueme and VanDoodewaard will no doubt contend that their view rests on the solid foundation of Scripture, though putting it this way, admirable as it is, nevertheless ignores the hermeneutical and theological complexities of Genesis recognized by many others.

In truth, their foundation is not really “Scripture”—as if its meaning were plain—but rather the “proper” reading of Scripture, which is determined by their theological tradition (better, their interpretation of their theological tradition—not all Calvinists would agree with them!).

In other words, Madueme and VanDoodewaard give final adjudicatory authority not to the Bible (despite their rhetoric) but to their theological tradition whenever science or historical biblical scholarship raises questions about the historical nature of the Bible, including the historical reliability of the Adam story.

Such unwillingness to reflect critically on that theological tradition in view of historical studies is the reason why the impasse between the two “divides” mentioned at the outset continues. No true dialogue will emerge until this underlying issue is addressed.

I do not mean to suggest that Madueme and VanDoodewaard are lone voices for the view they espouse here in this roundtable. In fact, their view is common among fundamentalist and conservative evangelical apologists. But we do not do justice to the very real impact of evolution on Christian theology by disengaging from the challenge in favor of maintaining those very theological categories that the scientific and scholarly consensus has called into question.

Those committed to Christian faith amid the challenges of our contemporary world deserve better than hiding under a theological security blanket, wishing all the problems away.

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  • Bev Mitchell

    What do you mean “we can’t do it this way”. The committee worked day and night to bring these proposals to the table.

    Good to see a clear statement of the roots of the problem: a clear and valid challenge that cannot be avoided forever, and holding an approach to Scripture to be more important than Scripture per se and clear non-scriptural evidence.

    As you say, fear is a key part of the foundation of this tired apologetic. Has anyone written a thorough analysis of the nature/content/cause of this particular fear? Or would unmasking it do any good?

    • Derek

      Bev, you’re a scientist, right? What’s your area of expertise?

      • Bev Mitchell

        My research area was insect physiology and behaviour. Specifically, investigations into the neurobiology of the chemical senses of insects with an emphasis on the function of the sense of taste. The general field is covered by designations like comparative physiology or, more broadly, experimental biology. The emphasis is on the functioning of systems or whole organisms rather than more reductionistic areas such as molecular biology or genetics. I taught from first year to grad level over thirty years or more.

  • Dr. Enns,

    Can you give any examples of early church fathers who held the position that you do?


    • peteenns

      Nathan, your question is a common one in this discussion but utterly off the mark. Of course I can’t, the reason being they did not have to deal with things like cosmic, geological, and human evolution.

      Lying behind your “innocent” question is the assertion that the early church fathers are an authority for us today. I don’t think they are. And in any case, they certainly are in no position to adjudicate this issue for us.

      • Klasie Kraalogies

        However, I think that we have a basis to assert that some of the church fathers were open to the scientific understanding of their time and did not view Scripture in a literal sense. Augustine and Origen, to be diverse, comes to mind.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Modern conservatives would actually be appalled at how much credence many of the early Fathers gave to their pagan philosophical predecessors . . .

      • Dr. Enns,

        Can you give any examples of early church fathers who opposed human cloning?

        • AlanCK

          Thank you! A good laugh goes a long way in reading through some of the maddening commentary.

        • Gary

          I understand the Apostle Thomas may have been for it.

        • Phil,

          They all would have. : )


      • Bill Barman

        Nathan, your question is a common one in this discussion but utterly off the mark. Of course I can’t, the reason being they did not have to deal with things like cosmic, geological, and human evolution.

        “they did not have to deal with things like cosmic, geological, and human evolution” — why, exactly? Because they believed the words of scripture were true, which gives no hint of it? Because it wasn’t obvious to the casual observer? Because it was not yet fabricated? What you cannot say is: Because it was not yet proved by scientific method, because it still isn’t. It’s still just a philosophy based on the non-negotiable axiom of deep time; which has plenty of contrary scientific evidence showing the earth is very young by comparison.

        Lying behind your “innocent” question is the assertion that the early church fathers are an authority for us today. I don’t think they are. And in any case, they certainly are in no position to adjudicate this issue for us.

        What makes a question “innocent” or not? Your zeal in defending your beliefs based on the thoughts of fallen man puts creationists to shame, especially when you keep saying a historical Adam doesn’t really matter. Open your own mind to a different view point for a change. Have you read this book yet in your pursuit of the truth?

        The referenced book was written by a few of that minority number of scientists you refer to, who also happen to believe God told us the truth through His word as recorded in the Bible. In a open debate, I sure would like to see you flick them away with your nonchalant wave of the hand.

        • peteenns


        • Good lord.

          • Gary

            Oh Phil, this is why we come here. Did you forget your popcorn money?

    • Andrew Dowling

      I know none of the early fathers shared the views of Madueme and VanDoodewaard.

      • Andrew,

        They did not believe in a literal Adam?


        • Andrew Dowling

          A historical Adam was not necessary for their Christian theology, so it doesn’t really matter if they assumed his historicity or not.

    • David Pitchford


      Respectfully disagreeing with Dr. Enns’ take on the importance of the church fathers, I would say that although early Christian theologians held to a more or less “literal” understanding of the historicity of Adam and the creation of humans (having no reason not to), their theology was not dependent on these things being literally, historically true, as is that of many conservative theologians today. Though they believed Adam was a historical person, the way they did theology with Genesis was, by and large, independent of Adam’s historical status; even for the more straightforward interpreters saw Adam more as what we might call today an archetype, to say nothing of allegorizers like Origen. I don’t have it handy at the moment, but the book “Beginnings” by Peter Bouteneff is dedicated to studying the ways the early church fathers handled Adam and Genesis. Overall, the literal existence of Adam was simply not a major part of their theology, certainly not a keystone as it has become for many in the last hundred years or so.

      At any rate, I’m pretty sure St. Augustine would agree with Dr. Enns’ sentiments:

      Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

      Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

      If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

      • David,

        I’ve read a bunch of books defending evolutionary theory and have just never found it very convincing. If secular Jews like David Berlinski – obviously brilliant – can not only doubt the theory but mock it, I think its reasonable to suggest we ought not give in so easily.

        I’m sure you disagree though, and you might think talking with the likes of me is hopeless. Rest assured though, I would like to see more of the best evidence that is available. If you can suggest your examples of books presenting the strongest case for the theory, I’d appreciate it.



        • Andrew Dowling

          Come on Nathan, your dilemma is not a lack of evidence; at least be honest.

          • Andrew,

            I am not saying that there is evidence for the theory of evolution. I just don’t find it convincing – as do some non-believers as well. Just like in a court case: both sides have evidence for their case.


          • peteenns

            Nathan, unless trained in the sciences, isn;t it a bit arrogant to say you don’t find the evidence convincing? If you were to sit down with some evolutionary biologists you might find your ignorance revealed rather quickly. (And I am not using “ignorance” as a pejorative. I and all of us are ignorant about a good many things.)

          • Shoot – lost a long comment. I have “sat down” with lots of folks over the years in the form of reading books and textbooks covering the topic…. no doubt I could do more and will do so as I have time. I am trained in the sciences to some degree (first degree), so its not really hard for me to understand a lot of what is written, especially at a more popular level. Would you advise such “sitting down” also with scientists, particularly PhDs, who dissent from the majority view (e.g. Todd Wood, Leonard Brand, Paul Garner, etc)? That would seem to make sense for us especially not highly trained in the sciences.

            Rest assured, my ignorance is revealed often.


          • Andrew Dowling

            And the “court” has ruled, unanimously

          • Andrew,

            No, it has not. Unless the YEC PhDs I speak of are not scientists, which they clearly are.


        • Books explaining the theory of evolution are easy to find, just google it. I like Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body”, but if you find “secular Jews” more convincing try Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”. Stephen Gould’s “The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History” is a great collection of essays on the topic.

          Of course, there’s no real need to “make a case” for the theory of evolution. The case has been made a thousand times over. It is one of the best supported scientific theories in use today, completely undergirding the biological sciences with supporting evidence from branches as diverse as genetics and paleontology.

          The same science that is used to confirm paternity testing in courtrooms today, confirms our genetic relationship to chimpanzees and, really, all other life on earth.

          • Gary

            For me, Dawkins’ back-to-front presentation in The Ancestor’s Tale was the work that really helped me “get it.” That wasn’t though so much about the evidence but the packaging of it in a way that my mind coming from its background could effectively grok. I’ve read most of Dawkins’ popular works and this one was by far and away my favorite. From there, I’ve more so found the genetic center of interest in reading about evolution.

          • Yeah, I like Dawkins too.

    • “No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will manifestly cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it. But not to extend the task which we have before us beyond its due limits, it is very easy for anyone who pleases to gather out of holy Scripture what is recorded indeed as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having rea­sonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account.”

      – Origen, First Principles, IV, 16

      He goes on like this.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Sorry for a second post so soon, but it was irresistible.

    This series at Books and Culture is highly recommended, by me. In it you will find gems like this one from Pete: “Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology..” How can you go wrong?

    Pete, don’t lose hope on the science front. In parasitology class, lo these many years ago, I witnessed an honours biology student trying to make a rectal smear of a frog (looking for flat worms) by rubbing its little bum back and forth across a microscope slide. The TA caught the procedural faux pas, but not before some damage was done. The student went on to win a major national scholarship for her graduate studies.

    This also illustrates how literal approaches to words don’t always fully capture the author’s message.

  • gingoro

    Pete I fail to understand why you consider Evangelicalism important? I see Evangelicalism being defined by people like Mohler and Piper as being irrelevant to my life and thought. DaveW

    • If I may interject, gingoro. I fully get Evangelicalism being irrelevant to personal and daily life for those not “in the fold” (I was “in” from birth to age 45, now am 65). HOWEVER, culturally and politically (they vote at higher rates and MUCH more partisan/conservative than the general population) they are anything but irrelevant. And not just by voting do they influence things like science education, sex education, attitudes to mental illness, US foreign policy, etc.

    • Gary

      I kinda wondered that too. I mean, you wouldn’t believe what people believe about ghosts and UFOs and all sorts of stuff. Why not just let them be, let them have their conventions, and let them live in their reality that inspires them. This whole historical Adam lot will incrementally shift its way into subculture that says stuff that bad-stuff crazy about the Nephilim and who knows what. At this point, is roundtable dialogue granting of acceptance of possible sanity beyond which is necessary?

    • The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor 12:21)

    • I believe evangelicalism is very important; I, myself, am an evangelical. The fact is, evangelicals are not all of the same mind on many issues, though conservative evangelicals sometimes claim that such people are not really evangelical.

      But one group of aggressive, vocal, and exclusive evangelicals cannot define what evangelicalism is because evangelicalism is broader and more complex than they allow. To understand what evangelicalism is, one must consider the full range of evangelical thought.

  • That John Schneider sure knows how to use subtlety in titles, doesn’t he? Tell us how you really feel, John!

    The equation of “what the Bible teaches” with “my dogmatics” has spilled more blood than “Mr. Bean Goes to the Phlebotomist.” So much of evangelicalism would be way more tolerable if they could see their way clear to append, “This is based on my understanding of biblical teaching, today. I could very well be wrong; I’ve been wrong before. But this is how it seems to me right now.”

  • Kyle Essary

    Dr. Enns,
    Thanks for your consistent input into this discussion.

    A lot of these discussions seem to say, “The Bible says that all people descended from one man,” and science says that “homo sapiens evolved out in a group without any one pair at their head.”

    My problem is with the assumption that ‘adam = homo sapiens, which underlies much of this discussion. One is a literary term, one is a biological category. It seems to me that ‘adam is a literary term describing something much larger than a biological category. On the one hand, it’s describing a literary character, which may or may not have existed in history (but is an object of faith, who most certainly would have left virtually no discernible, archaeological remains that would survive to now). On the other hand, it’s not a term intended to describe a biological category that didn’t exist at the time of its usage in Genesis. If anything, it’s describing personhood from the perspective of its authors at the time.

    Thus, I’m not sure why we would confidently say that modern science has removed the possibility of a historical Adam, as many say…they seem to me two separate things altogether.

    What am I missing here? Thanks for your help and continued ministry.

    • peteenns

      Adam is a literary term? Do you not think that ancient peoples thought that the first “people” (no need to cloud this with modern notions of homo-sapiens) were created directly by god/gods?

      • Kyle Essary

        Yes, I think that the priestly editors had more in mind in Gen 1 than a biological category. I’m pretty sure you would agree. I also think that the author(s) of Gen 2 clearly believed the creation of man to be de novo, and the author(s) of Gen 1 probably did as well. I’m not sure that they have all of the universe in mind as much as the land of Promise, but that’s a whole other discussion. I’m not sure that ends the discussion though, because I’m not sure that inspiration ends with original authorial intent (but that’s a whole other discussion as you know).

        You and I both believe that God revealed himself to homo sapiens at some point in history. It seems to me that evangelicals can look to that person(s) as the original, “historical ‘adam,” and stop worrying about whether or not such an individual(s) matches up with the original homo sapiens. The “federal head” comes at this point, and this man (i.e. a homo sapiens in relation to God, and endowed with spiritual responsibility) is what the Bible means by the term. Whether or not homo sapiens came from one pair, or a group doesn’t affect the question from this perspective.

        Am I way off here (as a potential for evangelicals)? Any assistance for thinking deeper about the question would be greatly appreciated.

        • peteenns

          I guess the problem I have with the “federal head” idea is that it is completely ad hoc and would never come to mind unless defending some sort of “historical” Adam were driving the ship.

          • Gary

            And how is shoe horning inspiring?

  • DJohnson

    I affirm your perspective, Dr. Enns. Having said that, I found this response unsatisfactory, as in seeing a pastry at a major grocery store outlet, buying it, consuming it, and saying, I knew better, that sure had an industrial flavor to it, nothing like a real quality bakery.

    I guess it was not your intention to deal in or deconstruct with specifics in a short response piece but rather in to use broad categorical sweeps. If that is the case, which is a reasonable choice, then I had a wrong expectation, which is my own creation:)

    Having said that, you speak of Madueme and VanDoodewaard using a “rhetorical tactic”. I must say your piece is truly full of rhetorical tactics, the subtle or not so subtle attempt to try to take the higher ground by claiming certain vocabulary or labeling the other. For example, theirs is labeled a “small minority position” (x2), which you do later modify in a more even-handed penultimate paragraph which acknowledges their position is common among certain groups.

    Utterly uncontroversial- you make the scientific community out to be monolithic; their is a consensus but not to the point of unanimous..

    Adam, though a minor,we are told.. Peter, I grew much by reading The Evolution of Adam (thank you), but it does only have two parts, the second devoted to a most minor character..why would an author devote so much time, thought, and energy to such a minor character…

    by simply declaring it false a bit reductionist, don’t you think?

    Maybe I have not had enough breakfast yet and am more grumpy than i should be. I am right with you in terms of the thrust of your argument, I just thought, given how aware you are (and have made us aware) of the use of rhetorical strategies over against substantive case-making, that you would have been more rigorous in your expectations for yourself as a model for how to engage.

    I better go eat some more breakfast. Grace and peace.

    • peteenns

      I agree. Get some sleep and have a Pop-Tart. 🙂

      The substance of the argument against M and V are science and biblical scholarship. That’s not rhetoric.

  • Clarke Morledge

    Pete: Apparently, Jerry Coyne thinks that you and Karl Giberson are enablers.

    How does one respond to that? Or, should one even respond?

    • peteenns


      • I was reminded of one of Coyne’s points, though, when I read this post. It is unclear why you think the question “Where do humans come from?” is open to scientific investigation, but that somehow the question “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” is not.

        Both questions involve the application of scientific biological principles to events in the past.

        • peteenns

          Because I do not think this is about the assumed applicability of scientific biological principles to any and all phenomena. That is a philosophical claim that I am not making. I am making the observational claim that human origins can be investigated scientifically whereas other religious topics cannot–like God’s existence, etc.

          • Yes, I completely agree with you on the matter of God’s existence. How could one disprove a notion as ill-defined as “God”?

            But the ability of a human corpse to reanimate dead tissue after three days of death and deterioration is certainly within the purview of scientific investigation. Of course, you could simply say that scientific investigation doesn’t leave open the possibility of a miracle, but that argument would apply just as well to the origin of humans.

            Don’t get me wrong. I live in Texas, where our idiot governor has just appointed a creationist homeschooling mom to chair the state board of education. So I appreciate that you and Karl embrace the scientific consensus on the theory of evolution. I just don’t see where you draw the line with your observational claim about what topics cannot be investigated by science.

            And if you include the study of history (I know it’s not purely a science, but there are certainly areas of overlap) then all sorts of biblical claims come under investigation:

            Did Quirinius carry out a census during the reign of Herod requiring citizens to return to their ancestral homes?

            Was there a great darkness over the land on the day that Jesus died?

            Do the gospels provide historically consistent records?

            What separates biblical topics that can or cannot be investigated scientifically?

          • peteenns

            We’re probably not going to solve this one here, Beau, but I do not believe that reason, evidence, etc. are adequate for discussing religious faith. Part of that involves actions by God that cannot be explained in ways that we explain material/physical reality.

            Given that “statement of faith,” I contend that not all past events can be investigated scientifically/historically. Resurrection is, of course, an absurd notion by scientific “rules” but that fact does not a priori determine whether one particular resurrection happened. In other words, Jesus’s resurrection can only be discounted a priori and not through scientific investigation. I certainly understand the logic of it being discounted, but that would not be from the result of investigation, but from a philosophical claim that all of reality can only be adjudicated by rational/evidentiary means.

            As I’ve put it elsewhere, some things in the past leave footprints that are accessible through the process of scientific/historical investigation–like was there ever a first human couple, was Quirinius the one ho carried out a census, etc. Some things do not leave footprints. Some things are between those extremes.

          • Gary

            Pete, I think you’re looking at the burden backwards. The Resurrection can only be affirmed a priori and not through scientific investigation.

          • peteenns

            I’m not denying that but it wasn’t the answer to Beau’s query.

          • Gary

            Indeed. “Where human comes from” is a question of multiple fields with opportunity for countless exhibits of evidence. The Resurrection is a question that simply has much less opportunity for evidence. Yet, for both question and types, a good starting point response is, “I don’t know.” Beau asks about a line, I personally think it’s a matter of a continuum and that the types of questions with more opportunity for evidence give more opportunity to say something more definitive than “I don’t know.” If you ask me, humility is a good a priori.

          • Chris Falter

            I prefer the stance of critical realism to David Hume’s. Hume demonstrated that you can never logically prove causality. Watching my cue ball strike the eight ball and send it to the wrong corner, a resurrected Hume might say there were magnets under the table, guiding an eight ball with a metallic core; or maybe angels sent it in the wrong direction; or maybe a massive fluctuation in a quantum field (which would be pretty cool, because how would Hume know about quantum mechanics?)….

            The point is, when you start the discussion by saying “We all need to be humble and admit that we just don’t know,” you end up throwing out any notion of doing science, or even theology.

          • Very few people conclude “I don’t know” about the miracles of Jesus, not to mention the miracles of Vespasian, Theudas, Asclepius, Apollonius, Peregrinus, and all other ancient religious figures. Just because one didn’t meet these miracle workers personally, doesn’t mean that one can’t assess the likelihood of their claims.

          • Gary

            Indeed. I prefer to reserve “I know” only for the extreme cases. For me, likelihood and “I don’t know” maybe crosses the very wide area between 0.1% and 99.9%.

          • Given that ancient miracle claims are common, and miracles today are commonly found to be frauds, I find Jesus’s miracles about as likely as any other ancient miracle claims; and my likelihood assessment falls far below 0.001%.

          • I know we won’t solve it here, but the question of how you determine what biblical questions can be approached through reason and evidence, and what biblical questions cannot, does seem germane to the topic of the post.

          • Actually, Beau, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is completely and totally on the table and open to scientific investigation. Paul sort of said this when he commented that if Jesus is not raised from the dead, Christians are to be pitied. I would sincerely hope that science concluded that resurrection from the dead is highly improbable – since that is kind of the point. But the investigation sort of ends there, because we do not have Jesus body to examine as evidence (well, except for communion wafers, but they have yet to sway any scientific position). Topics like biology, however, do have plenty of extant evidence to examine. So there is some difference there.

          • I’m not sure I understand that point you’re trying to make.

  • Mark K

    OK, so I went back and read your reply to Madueme’s review of the Evolution of Adam (which I have not read–if I get many more of this guy Enns’ books I’ll need to start charging rent).

    Anyway, this is what stuck out to me about your summary of Madaume’s argument: “If you’re right, then I am wrong so you must be wrong.” My wife says it must be one of those logistic or syllogism thingies. Yeah, like, If A, then C, so yeah, A. It’s taken me years to figure this out, and here you just write it out plain as day. Are you sure you went to Harvard, cuz they don’t talk like this.

    • peteenns

      I don’t remember. It was too long ago.

  • Darrell C.

    Peter, your view on evolution surprises me. Are you not aware of the conversation
    going on between those who hold to Darwinism/Neo-Darwinism and those who are putting forth compelling evidence for intelligent design? Evolution, if you mean macroevolution, especially chemical evolution of non-life to life is certainly not “utterly uncontroversial”as a theory. As Stephen Meyer points out so clearly even some hard line evolutionary biologist privately admit that macroevolution can not explain the origin of life. So Peter, take another look at what ID proponents are saying.
    I have just completed a year of teaching IB Biology at an international school. During this time I became more aware of the many astonishing biological mechanisms and systems that occur in our bodies every second. Consider the infrastructural complexity of a single cell, the elegance of the proton pump of ATPase, the motor protein that “walks”, the flagellar rotary motor, the obvious design of the loop of Henle in the nephron, etc. All of these demonstrate specified complexity in terms of their design. Darwinism depends on mutations, natural selection, time and cold matter. These four are inadequate to explain life from non life nor the development of the phyla which have distinct body plans without demonstrable phylogenic connections (transition forms) between them. Perhaps most importantly, ID scientists point out that the most fundamental entity of life is not matter but information. Information that is incredibly dense and stored in DNA.

    By the way, you should be aware that ID is not a new idea. Historically, scientists before Darwin going all the way back to Plato perceived order, purpose and design in the natural world. Please be more careful in your references to the scientific experts.

    Those dissenters of macro evolution who affirm ID are generally more scientific and empirical than those scientists holding on to the materialist naturalism ideology of macroevolution.

    • peteenns

      So ID argues there was a first de novo created human like the Bible says?

      As for ID, I feel I’ve been around that block a f ew times and had many conversations about it. I don’t have a high opinion about it.

      • Gary

        ID, in my opinion, is mis-anchored. What it’s really about is agency detection. Did something have intelligence in its cause? In this way, it ought to be shifted more into the cognitive sciences and put alongside Turing tests and CAPCHA and Searle’s Chinese Room and things like this. It’s much more about theory of mind than it is about metaphysics. Honestly, in this way, it’s quite naturalistic (or at least monistic) in its presuppositions. Dembski’s explanatory filters offer an ability to set the width of the mesh of the filters of how much smartiness passes the test as being “intelligent.” But to your point Pete, it’s a completely different area from anything having anything to say about veracity of any revelation or about historicity of a de novo created human. Personally, I’d have a higher opinion of ID if it were properly brought into conversation with the cognitive sciences. But then again, sometimes I wonder if “God” is nothing more than taking what Dan Dennett calls an “intentional stance” toward nothingness. Personally, I find it no less mysterious that nothingness could have a mind and even act in the world than that matter can. I don’t necessarily think God has to exist for Him to have agency. In fact, it’s actually quite Orthodox to consider Him beyond existence. Forgive my side bar. It’s a bit nutty but not as nutty as thinking an Adam was actually likely to exist in history.

        • Dembski is a crank who has trouble getting jobs at legitimate universities. He claims that the No Free Lunch Theorem is central to his “explanatory filter”, but the mathematician who actually derived the No Free Lunch Theorem has trashed Dembski’s “explanatory filter”, calling it “written in jello”. And biologists easily point out that Dembski’s “calculation” uses arbitrary limits and makes false assumptions about the process of natural selection.

          • Gary

            Read both, but quite a while ago. ID was a bit like Paris Hilton was. Just famous for being famous.

          • In the case of ID, fame in Christian bookstores. But the fame has waned immensely.

      • newenglandsun

        I do recall Michael Behe specifically arguing that ID does NOT argue for a literally interpreted Bible. Kind of odd to see YEC’s pulling from ID sources.

    • Bev Mitchell


      Have a look at Nick Lane’s award winning book “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution”. You will find it very helpful for your biology teaching. Especially good, and pertinent to your point, are Chapters 3 and 4 on photosynthesis and the complex cell respectively. And don’t miss the more speculative but well reasoned Chapter 1 entitled “The Origin of Life”. Many Christian biologists have found ways to integrate all of this into their world view without losing their faith in Christ.

    • Gary

      I’ve yet to figure out the difference between the macro and the micro and I’ve yet to find anyone (except creationists) who thinks evolutionary theory says anything about abiogenesis.

    • Pete’s view of the theory of evolution as utterly uncontroversial is not surprising at all. It is a view he shares with virtually the entire scientific community. The discovery institute offers no alternative hypothesis to evolution theory, and is made up of an odd amalgamation of supporters that include few biologists of any note. Stephen Meyer is not a biologist. He’s not even a scientist.

      • newenglandsun

        Actually, Meyer does have a B.S. in physics.

        • Yes. Not a scientist. Much less an evolutionary biologist. Or even a biologist.

          • newenglandsun

            So physics is not science?

          • Sure, it’s a science. But a bachelors degree doesn’t make one a scientist.

          • You think having a BS in physics makes Meyer a physicist? I doubt even Meyer would make that claim.

            Wait … I stand corrected, Meyer actually claims to be a “former geophysicist” … which I suppose is why he can claim expertise in microbiology and paleontology; and why we should ignore the experts in those fields who have completely shredded his books.

          • newenglandsun

            I’m not saying I agree with Meyer or that there aren’t more people with better qualifications. I am saying that he would have better competency in science than me with my own two degrees in history and religious studies. Then again, science is a bit less liberal than my own two fields of study (by liberal I mean having a variety of ideas about it).

          • My point is that among the thousands of experts one could garner in fields relevant to evolutionary science, Meyer doesn’t even qualify. His books have been popularized by religious communities, but scientists in the relevant fields have consistently pointed out numerous errors and agenda-driven faulty logic in his books.

          • newenglandsun

            You weren’t entirely clear at first. My point was that he does have training in some sort of science field.

          • He doesn’t have the training to pretend to any expertise in the science of evolutionary biology, which he bungles in his books.

          • newenglandsun

            That I would agree.

    • Steve McKinzie

      This is a superb entry and does an excellent job of countering the notion of ultimate scientific consensus and complete unanimity on questions relating to origins. Perhaps Dr. Enns (with all due respect, I hasten to add) may have his own security blanket of sorts.

      • peteenns

        Mine’s in the laundry. Not sure when it’s going to be done.

      • If questioning traditional theologies of Adam was Dr. Enns’ plan to make life more peaceful and secure for himself, it sure hasn’t been a great one.

        You may disagree with his position, and that’s fine, but it takes a lot of courage to be in the evangelical(ish) camp and explore these questions critically instead of trying to shore up traditional dogmatism. Whatever’s going on here, it isn’t a man trying to cling to security.

  • simpleton

    Peter evolution is in itself a very controversial topic.You do not put across a strong case as to why you hold the view you hold .

    • peteenns

      Controversial for whom?

      • Gary

        For anyone willing to talk about peter evolution and Adam’s rib.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      Evolution itself is not controversial within the realms of science. Intra-evolutionary debates, which another post refers to, are simply some of those debates within fields which are necessary to the advancement of the field. One might as well say that because there are debates between on how to unify quantum physics and gravity, we should hold out for a flat earth.

    • Ross

      For those of us not in the US, we look at the US and “fundamentalist Islam”, where evolution is a “controversial topic”, then scratch our heads, look at each other and roll our eyes.

      Okay, maybe a flippant remark, but really most Christians and most of the rest of the World just don’t worry about this issue. It is only controversial in a certain “isolationist mindset area”. Move south past Texas, West past Alaska or East of Maine and you’ll find very few people who worry about this issue. Really, you do need to look at why the US has such peculiar views and question what appears to be the deep grained “exceptionalist millennial” interpretation which effects everything from religion thru(sic) politics.

      America has many great attributes, but they are totally enmeshed with some very seriously wrong ones too.

      • Mark K

        I’m just reading Turner’s Our Great Big American God, and he lays out the roots of all this pretty compellingly. It’s a fast, fun read, and very profitable for how American religion/religious politics got so twisted up in its thinking.

        Combine Turner’s book with The Bible Tells Me So, and it becomes clear how badly the Old Testament was mangled in service to American personal and national independence and our self-image of “exceptionalism.”

    • Mark

      Evolution is not a controversial topic at all for me. I don’t see a scientific conspiracy, and find the evidence for evolution much more compelling than “the first man and woman were just plopped down out of nowhere.”

  • peteenns

    You are certainly an immoveable object, Nathan. I will leave you to it. But know that you are at odds with most of the educated world concerning science and biblical studies. I hope that gives you reason to pause rather than wearing it as a badge of honor.

    • Dr. Enns,

      First of all, thanks for engaging me. No badge of honor here. Fear and trembling.

      I’m well aware of the fact that I’m at odds with most of the educated world Dr. Enns (as are pretty much ever PhD young earth scientists out there, by the way – I love Todd Wood) – and I don’t want to run from anything empirical. It just seems to me that we Christians often suffer from a) a real lack of faith in God’s word (like the early church had – believing the Scriptures were not just man’s word or interpretation of their experience with God, but God’s very word) and b) a real failure of imagination when it comes to dealing with the evidence that we do have (I have noted in my readings of physicists, for example, that it is not only someone like Ken Ham who makes a distinction between repeatable scientific experimentation and “historical science” which depends on much more abstraction, extrapolation, and imagination). Think of court cases – how things can clearly seem to point in one direction (except for that one piece of evidence…oh well) UNTIL someone comes in with an alternative view where all the pieces of the puzzle come together perfectly! But of course those devoted to methodological naturalism (AND, I note, devoted to explaining what humanity is – to some degree at least – based on quantitative, that is genetic, data) do not have room to seriously consider – or to continue to look for and consider – evidence through any sort of frame that attempts to be in line with a traditional biblical understanding of history.

      So, you see, for me, this comes down to epistemology and what we consider to be knowledge as well.


      • peteenns

        Everyone deals with epistemology, but some epistemologies are idiosyncratic and need to be critically assessed.

      • ugluk2

        If you’ve read Todd Wood, you know he is honest and admits the scientific case for evolution and an old earth is very strong. He has been quite critical of creationist arguments, even though he is one himself.

    • Dr. Enns,

      For more on what I am talking about as regards knowledge and epistemology, see my argument here about the problems with liberal evangelical theology:

      …hope you’ll take a look.


      • Dr. Enns,

        Did you miss my other, lengthier comment preceeding this one? (it was more important to).


  • Jeff Kisner

    Keep up the good work, Pete.

  • James

    Our understanding of human origins has been greatly enhanced by evolutionary thought that combines natural selection, common ancestry and long periods of time. We ordinary folk can take that to the bank! So, what do we make of the famous Adam character who figures so prominently in the first three chapters of Genesis and briefly in the writing of Paul? Hopefully, bible scholars and theologians can enlighten us from their point of view. Eventually, interdisciplinary experts (philosophers) in both science and religion can help us close the loop of knowledge. Discussions on topics such as the historicity of Adam can run amuck, it seems to me, when experts step out of their chosen field and pose as someone else. As amateur philosophers or psychologists, for example, they may question the logic or motives of their opponents and poison a good conversation. Who am I to talk? I should mind my own business like my mother said.

  • Ross

    “Oh No Not Again” Bang, Bang, Bang (sound of head against table).

    I appreciate that for you Peter, this is probably a very frequent, pertinent and frustrating cycle of discussion which appears to get nowhere.

    I just wonder about people’s bizarre approach to scepticism. It just seems that there are camps of people who pour heaps of scepticism on the “opposing” theory and then have a complete blind spot about their own.

    Me I’m sceptical about everything, particularly myself and think everyone should dish it out a lot more consistently across the board. This then leads to the issue about where to start drawing lines, admittedly fuzzyish and probably in pencil.

    For the life of me I really can’t see why everyone can’t realise they’re making a lot of wind and smoke over several large red-herrings and decide to get on with something useful instead.

  • Brandon

    Dr. Enns,

    I appreciate your point. We can’t let theological paradigms run roughshod over the facts and evidence. Yet, it is the nature of facts and evidence that they are not self-interpreting, and therefore, demand a paradigm if they are to be assembled into meaningful statements about the universe.

    So, let’s say someone looks at all other available paradigms for understanding the origins of life, and determines that all of these have insuperable problems of one kind or another, and that belief in a historical Adam appears to have problems too, but its problems are more tolerable than those of other paradigms.

    That would be a different epistemic situation than a my-head-is-buried-in-the-sand version of belief in a historical Adam (which you seem to be describing at Books and Culture) wouldn’t it?

    • peteenns

      “So, let’s say someone looks at all other available paradigms for understanding the origins of life, and determines that all of these have insuperable problems of one kind or another, …”

      I would ask this person whether they have the training and expertise to adjudicate the matter, or if not whether they have taken the time to taken the time to explore the matter with experts. But for someone to say “I have looked at all the scientific evidence and am unconvinced” of what is an overwhelming scientific consensus, I’d be highly skeptical.

      • Brandon

        I do see how the “insuperable problems” language could easily be high-jacked by people who are looking for shortcuts that enable them to decide their views are, and always have been right. So I appreciate the point about whether a person is adequately trained to make such a judgment.

        FWIW, when I was thinking of “insuperable problems” I wasn’t thinking so much of the scientific issues per se, but I was thinking of other issues indirectly related–namely the issue of evil. I agree we can’t let paradigms run roughshod over facts, but evil is a fact of human experience that has to be accounted for somehow in a paradigm. One could make an argument (that would certainly not persuade everyone) that as winsome and thoughtful as evolutionary paradigms of the origins of life have been, they have still struggled to give a compelling account for the origin and nature of evil.

        Some might say that’s a big enough problem to hold out a little longer for a historical Adam scenario that would still fit with science somehow.

        • peteenns

          Thank you, Brandon. I see your point now and that is different.

          Re: evil, (1) Is it in fact a fact of human experience? Do we need to define the term? (2) Does the Bible give an account of the origin and nature of evil? I don’t think so–Gen 2-3 certainly doesn’t.

          But I see what you are saying. For me, suffering poses more of an immediate problem.

          • Brandon

            Ah, yes. Point taken. Thank you for the interaction, Dr. Enns.

            Good luck with the home repairs.

  • Derek

    Thanks Peter, it’s always helpful, for all, when both sides are given exposure and the participants are able to engage in a charitable debate.

  • Negative voices come from a small minority, largely from those who feel that commitment to theological structures that require a first human, Adam, cannot be compromised without the entire Christian tradition crumbling right along with it. Adam, though a minor character in the Bible, is—we are told—nevertheless a key pillar upon which the gospel rests.

    The slippery slope conundrum indeed. Having been raised in the Catholic faith, Adam never meant much to us. Actually, many of us doubted the entire Garden story much like the Noah story.

    Rather, our eyes and ears were focused on the Gospel stories. All throughout my 16 years of Catholic education, the Old Testament was regarded as ‘old stuff’ about irrelevant people living long ago and far away.

    Jesus, on the other hand, seemed fresh and much more uncomplicated and straight-forward, easy to emulate.

    As a result, we saw no need to envision Jesus as the ‘new Adam.’ Further, as he had no wife or children, any comparison to the ‘first family’ seems to be quite the theological stretch.