Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns

The last few years has seen an uptick in debates between creationist and evolutionists. But the debate has been within the church, not outside. If you have followed the news at all you will be aware that people on both sides of the debate are becoming more vocal.

One of the “sticking points” for some is the figure of Adam in the Bible. Was he an historical person? Some creationists insist he must have been, while those who follow evolutionary theory say that he was not. The debate might not have become an active one if Adam had stayed in Genesis. But his appearance in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 has led many to suggest that if Paul thought Adam was a historical person then so should we.

Wading bravely into this debate is Pete Enns with his recent volume The Evolution of Adam: What theBible Does and Doesn’t say about Human Origins (Brazos Press, 2012). Enns’ goal is to help his readers come to a new way of thinking about Adam in a world informed by evolution. This is not a book about evolution and if you are looking for someone to evaluate and weigh-in on the evolution vs. creationist debate then this book is not for you. Enns is convinced of the truth of the evolutionary theory and is not a seven day creationist. What Enns does do in the book is help his readers understand Genesis better and develop a more informed method for reading the Bible, specifically Genesis 1-3 and Romans 15.

The book is broken into two parts. In part one Enns focuses on Genesis and the function of the book in the history of ancient Israel. In part two he focuses on Paul and his references to Adam. Enns has packed a lot into this little book and I will not be able to do it justice here.

In part one the reader is given a brief overview of the impact that nineteenth century scholarship and archaeology has had on the study of the Old Testament (p. 6). These advancements helped scholars to discover the ancient context of Genesis including other, similar creation and flood stories from Mesopotamia. Enn’s demonstrates that when Genesis is viewed in the context of these other creation stories it is clear that the stories in Genesis 1-3 are not unique, but ubiquitous. But he also argues that we can’t simply interpret Genesis as “borrowing” from these other creation and flood stories. On the contrary, he describes Genesis as “genre calibration” (p. 35). In other words, Genesis is making statements about who the God of Israel is and the writer(s) of Genesis are using the genre of the day to make those statements, albeit with some important nuance. Enns understands the purpose of Genesis to be a declaration of who Israel’s God is and how Israel defines themselves in light of their understanding of God (p. 32). Genesis 1-3, he argues, is not about the origins of humanity but the origins of Israel. The story of Adam mirrors the story of Israel (creation, command, disobedience, exile/death) and Adam is in many ways a proto-Israel (pp.65-66). When read this way, Genesis 1-3 is not a story about the origins and failure of all humanity, but only of Israel.

In part two Enns begins by pointing out that what Paul does with Adam is largely unique in antiquity. Furthermore, Paul goes beyond Genesis with what he has to say about Adam (p. 81). The Old Testament has little to say about Adam after Genesis 5:3 (only mentioned again in 1 Chron 1:1) and does not look back on Genesis as a time when sin entered the world (p. 85-86). While the Old Testament has much to say about sin and death, it doesn’t connect it to Adam. Thus Paul’s turn to Adam is actually very new. The key to understanding what Paul is doing is to understand the way that he interprets the scriptures. Enns points out that Paul interprets the scriptures like other Jews of his day, which means that he was not objective and that he took advantage of any gaps or ambiguities in the text (see the examples on pp. 103-17). And Paul brings this method to his reading of the New Testament with the Christ event in mind. Thus Paul’s understanding of Adam in Genesis is through a Christ centered reading (p. 122). Paul understands the solution to humanity’s plight (sin and death) and reads it back into the Genesis Adam story (p. 131). If the last Adam, Christ, is the answer to sin and death then the first man, Adam, must have been the one who introduced it. Paul’s analogy between Adam and Christ connects the two together.

But what is important for Enns is not whether or not Paul believed in a historical Adam. If one no longer accepts Adam as historical, it doesn’t undermine Paul’s theology. The problem of death and sin still remains and the solution through Christ’s death and resurrection is still Paul’s answer to that problem (p. 123). Enns sums it up this way.

“So even without attributing their cause to Adam, sin and death are with us, and we cannot free ourselves from them. They remain foes vanquished by Christ’s death and resurrection. The fact that Paul draws an analogy between Adam and Christ, however, does not mean that we are required to consider them characters of equal historical standing. Unlike Adam, Christ was not a primordial, prehistorical man known only through hundreds and hundreds of years of cultural transmission. The resurrection of Christ was a present reality for Paul, an event that had happened in Jerusalem about twenty-five years before he wrote Romans.” (p 125)

The book closes with nine theses on how we should consider Adam today. Among some of what Enns argues is that (1) literalism is not an option, (2) that the Bible and science speak different languages and ask different questions, (3) that inspiration should embrace God’s use of cultural idioms, and (4) that a rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not just adding evolution to theology.

As I said above, Enns packs a lot into this thin volume and the nature of a blog post limits what I can say. I have nothing to offer by way of criticism because I by and large agree with him. No matter which side of the debate you find yourself this is a worthwhile read. Overall I think you will find this to be helpful, informative book that will help you to think in new ways about the function of Genesis and the place of Adam in that story. I think Enns has made a clear argument and if you are wondering about human origins and in particular about how to understand Genesis and Adam then this book is for you.

As I read the book it struck me that one of the best ways that this book could be read is as part of a small group or Sunday school class. The chapters are small and accessible. With a good leader I could see some fruitful if not challenging conversation coming from reading it.  I highly recommend it. 


  1. Thank you, Dr Byron, for this review. I just finished reading this book. I am grateful to Dr Enns for this very helpful and informative book. Like you, I don't have major disagreements with the book, except for two little things. First, by necessity, Dr Enns has to deal with a lot of issues that his opponents would raise. In doing so, I wonder whether he has pushed his own views a little bit too far? Second, while I largely agree with him on his view on Paul, I am not sure whether I am totally with him when it comes to his understanding of Paul's use of the Old Testament. On the one hand, I agree with him that Paul's use of the OT is very creative and a modern reader will find it strange. On the other hand, I think there are more contextual correlations with the OT in Paul's texts than what Enns seems to propose. I think Dr Richard Hays' works are very informative here. By the way, Dr Byron, I really enjoy your works on slavery. They are really helpful to me.

  2. By the way, further to my last comment, I have a question. I come from a non-Western culture (although all my tertiary education is Western), and for many years I have been involved in overseas aid and development as well as cross-cultural mission. I keep thinking that Dr Enns' method of reading Genesis and Paul would be hard for anyone without Western education and a sharp intellectual capacity to use. In other words, it would be hard for my folks back in Asia to read the Bible that way. (Of course, this does not only apply to Dr Enns' way of reading the Bible, but much of what we learn in seminaries.)

    So, I guess my question is around whether we need to re-examine the direction our debate on creation, science, hermeneutics and biblical authority has taken us? Are we making the Bible less accessible for a lot of Christians in the world? Are we stretching the way God intends us to read the Scripture?

    Again, I very much agree with Dr Enns (since I am an intellectual). And I am not in the camp of Enns' opponents. So this is really just a genuine question for consideration.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    You are correct, it will be hard for many to read the Bible the why Enns does, indeed the way Paul does. I am not sure if we should or can change the direction of the debate. If anything the situation emphasizes to me the need for seminaries to train well educated leaders who then impart that knowledge to the people to whom they minister. In and ideal world, our leaders would be educating their people.

    1. In an ideal world leaders would actually seek education as part of the fulfillment of their call.
      I've not read Enns' book, yet. But, I did order it.
      What's refreshing about Enns and others, (including you), is that our faith is shown to not rely on the inerrancy and total accuracy of Scripture. It relies on the One who inspired them.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for your review. I agree with it in general.

    You made one statement: "On the contrary, he describes Genesis as “genre calibration” (p. 35)." I think you might have omitted some words. Pete does not say Gensis IS "genre calibration", rather, there is a need to assess the genre of Genesis (1-11 specifically) in light of the other ANE creation/origins stories. This is contra CSBI which famously/infamously claims Gen 1-11 MUST be read as "factual" by which they mean a historically-based narrative. So Pete opens up the discussion by directly countering that claim as to the genre of Gen 1-11.

    Don Johnson

  5. Pete's a very nice guy, and I commend him for trying to rescue some meaning out of texts that talk about things we know to be not literally true, but let's be serious. The commenter from Asia raises a good point.

    The authors of Genesis modeled their creation account after other national myths because they didn't know any better, not because they had some high-level symbolism in mind that would become apparent thousands of years later.

    Jesus and Paul were ancient people who probably thought those myths were true because they didn't know any better, not because they had some high-level symbolic meaning in mind that would become apparent to PhDs thousands of years later.

    JIm Mason

  6. Dear Dr Byron and Jim,

    I am the commenter from Asia. Thank you for your responses. Please allow me to make two observations.

    First, in my culture there are many ancient myths. It's actually very easy for me to read Genesis as ancient "myths". Let me explain. There are ancient stories in my culture that we hold dearly. We do realize that the characters in those stories might not be real people. But I continue to hold and love the values that are embedded in those stories, regardless of whether the characters in them are real people. Some of those stories have been made into modern movies, and the same ethos and love of those characters are widely upheld.

    Second,I have been working on Paul and his use of Israel's Scripture for many years in a Western seminarian setting. I actually think that many in the non-Western world can read Paul with relative ease. That is, I don't find Paul's use of Scripture particularly odd. His use of Scripture is strange if one reads it from a Western perspective. Yes, my Western training has helped me to understand Paul, and I enjoy the discussions I have with my friends and colleagues in the West. But much of my understanding of Paul does not depend on that training. Paul is not that hard to read.

    Perhaps from a Western perspective we feel a strong urge to "educate" others in the world about the "better" way of reading the Bible. I myself am really grateful for the many Bible teachers in the West, including Dr Byron. At the same time, I would humbly ask my friends in the West to allow Christians from the non-Western world to have a voice, even if that can potentially shift our debate on Genesis and Paul.

  7. Dr. Byron,
    I have, for a while, believed firmly that the writer of Genesis and Paul even at times, are writing and bringing answers to ancient questions that those around them are asking. An excerpt from the intro on Amazon seems to affirm this about the book... but my problem is... everytime I voice this belief... many accuse me of believing Scripture is not inspired, blah blah. Would this book give me more concrete information to explain my beliefs further and help me explain why I can believe perhaps that there is a chance Adam was not a historical figure? Or perhaps this book will challenge my current beliefs? I love the premise but am just curious... hopefully this made sense!


  8. Yes, Noah, I think Enns would be very helpful to you. I agree that Genesis and Paul did not try to address the modern questions raised by science. That's probably my personal non-Western view of reading the Bible, by the way :-)