Pete Enns, The Evolution of Adam: Part 2

Pete Enns, The Evolution of Adam: Part 2 February 1, 2012

As part of the blog tour about Pete Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, I previously blogged about the introduction and part 1. Now I turn to part 2, which focuses on the figure of Adam in Paul’s writings and theology.

In part two, Enns turns his attention to Adam as Paul understood him, emphasizing that this is not simply Adam as depicted in Genesis or indeed anywhere else. The extent to which Paul resembles and in some instances shared the views of other Jewish interpreters in the ancient world is highlighted, as is the freedom with which Paul was willing not merely to reinterpret passages but even reword them in order to make his point. Paul was clearly not a Biblicist. As Enns strikingly and accurately puts it on p.113, “The text is not the master: it serves a goal” (p.113). The implication, of course, is that those who set themselves up to be the defenders of Paul’s view of Adam are in the process approaching Scripture in a radically different way than Paul himself did.

One reason why Paul’s view of Adam is distinctive is that he views Adam in relation to Jesus. Indeed, it is Paul’s view of Adam that is shaped by Jesus, rather than vice versa. Had his view of what God had done to save humankind involved two individuals, Paul could easily have read the Genesis story with a different emphasis: “Just as through two people sin entered the world…” Paul’s view of Adam is shaped by his understanding of Christ and salvation.

Enns acknowledges that Paul presumed Adam to be a historical individual. But he considers it important to separate the observable (indeed, self-evident) situation in which humankind finds itself (namely one of domination by sin, alienation from God, and death), and Paul’s presumed cause of that state of affairs (pp.123-125). One can view Jesus as God’s solution to humanity’s plight much as Paul did, even while taking a different view of the cause of that plight. That does require rethinking of Christian theology, but not the jettisoning of its core tenets, much less of the whole package in its entirety.

Enns makes many other important points in this part of the book. Among them is his emphasis on p.126 that “failure to provide at once an adequate counterproposal to a historical Adam for “why” does not mean that the scientific and archaeological data that raised the problem in the first place can be set aside.” The question of whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa was settled by the scientific data and the simplicity of the latter explanation in accounting for the relevant evidence, and fortunately did not have to await a point at which all Christians felt that they had adequately adapted to the new cosmological view. The question of whether evolution occurred is to be settled scientifically, and accepting the conclusion of science cannot and must not be made dependent on whether Christians have yet come up with a satisfactory way of adapting our theologies to this new understanding.

In the conclusion to the book, Enns offers nine theses. One is that literalism is not an option – and indeed, is dangerous. Another is that an incarnational view of Scripture is appropriate. For Christians to claim that one has to see beyond the humanity and cultural trappings of the Bible in order to encounter God is to deny the very nature of the incarnation, which claims that God is made known in and through a human life, not by getting away from it or seeing around, through, and past it. Enns also emphasizes the need for serious theological reflection on the subject of evolution. Evolution requires a very different view of a number of matters from aggression and sexuality to death. Nevertheless, Enns views it as a genuine and viable option to rethink Christian theology in a way that keeps core elements intact.

These, perhaps, are the key points that one takes away from this important book, which packs an amount of persuasive detail into a relatively small space. On the one hand, mainstream science including evolution is not going away, and so one can only ignore or deny evolution by isolating oneself and engaging in deception of oneself and others. On the other hand, there are viable and attractive options in between preserving faith by rejecting science or rejecting faith because of science. It is possible (and for those of us committed to both the Christian faith and honest engagement with other spheres of human knowledge, necessary) to rethink elements of Christian theology in relation to the current state of scientific knowledge. In doing so, Christians are not being unfaithful to God and the Gospel, but are doing precisely what has always been done, even within the pages of the Bible itself, namely allowing their faith to find expression in a way that is relevant to and incarnate within our particular historical context.

I highly recommend this book, and am hopeful that the significant number of books by Evangelical scientists and scholars addressing the relevant scientific and textual evidence related to the intersection of evolution and Christian faith will lead to a shift away from deceptive nonsense like young-earth creationism, and towards a serious whole-hearted engagement with the best Biblical scholarship and science.

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  • How exactly are we to understand the phrase, “expelled from paradise?” According to natural history death and suffering has been around for a lot longer than humanity. So have aggression and sociability. So how exactly are we to understand the “paradise” that we were supposedly “expelled from?” Living things suffer and die, species become extinct, sometimes they die off in mass extinction events. At other times they get along without much aggression, even sociably, especially if they are a social species such as elephants, dolphins, primates, et al. So where can one situate “the fall from paradise” if birth/extinction, as well as aggression/sociability already existed prior to humanity? 

    In fact without an enormous percentage of all organisms DYING rather than surviving to the age of reproduction there would be no gene shuffling (and subsequent whittling down of organisms leaving the most adept at producing more organisms), hence no evolution, and no human species.  

    And if natural history questions the idea of humans being “expelled from paradise” (since the world was never “paradise” to begin with, nor was it absolute hell, it was just life and death in equilibrium, same as it is now) then what about the story of serpents being “cursed?”  In what way was the serpent cursed?  The story owes more to the natural human revulsion for “dirt” and the idea of “crawling on one’s belly.” Primates that walk on two legs are revolted by the idea of crawling on their bellies and licking dirt. Lowness is also a metaphor for subservience. But to serpents/snakes it’s all an advantage, an evolutionary one. It allows them to sneak up on prey by lying low in the grass, out of sight, and approach silently, without footsteps. Nor were the ancient Hebrews aware that snakes poked out their tongues to gather air molecules, the same molecules we gather by breathing in through our noses. The snake sticks out its tongue then slides it back in and presses it against the roof of its mouth, against an organ of smell. That’s how it smells what’s in the air. They don’t smell like us. But there’s no wisdom involved in calling it “eating dirt” as the authors of Genesis do, especially since there are plenty of animals other than snakes that spend far more time in the earth and hence pass greater amounts of dirt into their mouths and even through their system than snakes do, especally compared to the snake species that live in the tops of trees in the rain forest canopy, or the ones that spend a lot of time swimming in water.

    So how exactly was the serpent “cursed” In Genesis? One might as well consider worms, moles and gophers even more cursed if dirt upsets you. So it seems like a totally human-centric story, “Going on my belly! My face near dirt!” Think of all the creatures including intestinal worms that the Hebrews might have considered even more cursed by God. But the ancients were writing fairy tales based on human-centric prejudices, and probably also based on appearances as well, since the animals all appeared to only give birth to “their own kind,” and the sky appeared to meet the earth at the horizon of a flat earth, and the breath and heart appeared to encompass a person’s life and direct him, respectively, rather than that silent organ, the brain where our “life” really is centralized in the central nervous system. 

    Which reminds me, did you ever notice how blind the Psalmists were to natural history and nature’s ways? 

    PSALM 104 The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from the Lord…Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all…both small and great beasts…These all wait upon thee; that thou may give them their meat in due season. The psalmist forgot to mention that “the Lord” either gives lions “their meat in due season;” Or has them be eaten by their own mother (because they are runts or deformed); Or has them be eaten by a rival male who has taken control of the pride; Or has them starve because their parents fail to bring enough food home or die trying; Or makes young lions the “meat” of some other predatory species that catches them off guard; Or (if they are male) has them grow up and be killed in combat by another male seeking territory or mates; Or makes them the “meat” for a parasite or disease organism. It’s all the same to “the Lord.” In 1994 one thousand lions, one-third of the population of East Africa’s Serengeti park, died from painful convulsions by a virus that attacked their blood cells, lungs and brain, i.e., the Canine Distemper Virus. The lions probably picked up the virus from hyenas who picked it up from domesticated dogs that lived just outside the park. (That same year, a tenth of the 500,000 western gray kangaroos in South Australia and the 2.8 million gray kangaroos in neighboring New South Wales, went blind due to a mystery virus.) Perhaps “the Lord” supplied those viruses their “meat” in due season?

    PSALMS  145:5,9,16,19 & 147:9  On Thy wonderful works I will meditate…The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works…Thou dost open Thy hand, and dost satisfy the desire of every living thing…[By giving them other living things to prey upon? But then how is the desire of every living thing satisfied? – E.T.B.]…He will also hear their cry and will save them. [But if He “hears their cry and saves” them from being eaten by some living thing, then He is starving that other living thing. – E.T.B.] He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry.  A recent study showed that one-third of adult birds and four-fifths of their offspring die of starvation every year (David Lack, “Of Birds and Men,” New Scientist, Jan., 1996). Not surprising, since birds have to eat from one-quarter to one-half their body weight daily, so starvation is a common killer of birds.  Neither does “the Lord” “save” the baby birds that get tossed out of their own nest by the young of a rival species, the cuckoo. The female cuckoo lays her egg in the nest of other birds, and when the cuckoo chick emerges from its egg it tosses the other eggs or other baby birds out of the nest, so only the cuckoo chick is fed by the other bird’s parents.  Nor does “the Lord” “save” the baby birds that I saw on the “Hunting and Escaping” video (in the Trials of Life series) which were dragged from their nests by sea birds of a rival predatory species in order to feed the predator’s own hungry chicks.   Nor does “the Lord” “save” baby birds tossed out of the nest by their own parents because their chicks were not developing properly or swiftly enough. BACK TO GENESIS–The story of the explusion from paradise appears to be a story about a deity unwilling to openly share his knowledge (Adam was created to “keep a garden,” and was forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge) and then was hustled out of the garden before he could eat of the tree of eternal life as well. The story is supposed to explain why mankind is smarter than all the other animals yet also suffers death just like them. But it explains nothing and illustrates nothing except the human longing to not die. And it doesn’t portray the deity in such a great light either, initially creating Adam just as a gardener, and forbidding him knowledge and eternal life, and cursing his first pair of kids, then expelling them for their first negative act without a moment’s hesitation. Is that a lesson for how parents ought to treat their own children? As for the expulsion story combined with the Noah story, they raise the question of why God expects us to treat our own children with so much love when he expelled his own at their first infraction of the rules, and then drowned all their descendants except eight, and much later we find in Revelation that drowning was too good for them, for there’s also a fiery lake prepared for a host of Adam’s children as well. Nice.