The Evolution of Adam: Preliminary Issues

February 2, 2012 — 4 Comments

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Yesterday, we looked at C. John Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? and as promised today we’ll begin the discussion of Peter Enns newest book The Evolution of Adam as part of a Brazos Blog Tour.

Given that the book is mostly focused on biblical studies and hermeneutical issues, it is really more concerned with the discussing how the conversation about Adam has evolved, as Enns hopes it will continue to do (p. xiii). Enns more or less steers away from issues related to science and evolution, though it is clear he assumes that current scientific thought concerning human origins provides a true account of the matter.

From his vantage point, the evolutionary origin of humanity is true, therefore we need to re-think our traditional reading of some parts of Scripture, and in this case specifically, how we understand Adam. Now, it would be unfair to simply paint Enns as someone who revises how we read the Bible to fit science. But at the same time, he wants to remain faithful to Scripture, as well as current scientific thought. Because of that, his options on what Scripture can and cannot say are limited. This is not strictly speaking a bad thing as we all place limiters on what the text can and can’t say. But, it’s worth at least noting that his position rules out a priori the validity of any kind of traditional reading of Genesis 1-2. In other words, before even examining the available biblical and extra-biblical evidence, any path leading to a traditional reading can’t be taken.

Before I get into the review proper, I want to note just a few things. First, I personally don’t follow Enns’ in his assumptions about science and evolutionary thought. I would consider myself an open-system thinker and so am open, in principle, to revising my views on this subject, and am actually researching and re-studying evolution at the moment as part of my teaching duties. To see where I’m at currently, consider these 6 theses on evolution as outlined by Alvin Plantinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies:

  1. Ancient Earth Thesis (the earth/universe is old and so is the life on it)
  2. Progress Thesis (life has moved from simpler to more complex forms)
  3. Descent with Modification Thesis (variation achieved over time)
  4. Common Ancestry Thesis (all life forms share a common ancestor)
  5. Darwinism Thesis (the driver for #3 is natural selection)
  6. Naturalistic Origins Thesis (life developed from non-living matter w/no divine intervention)

Now, given these, I have no problem with #1. In principle, I don’t have a problem with #2 or #3, but I’m not quite sure my exact position on either. At this point, I would say certainly there is a sense is which both are absolutely true, but maybe not to the extent many evolutionists think they are. As far as #4, I don’t think it applies to humans, but regarding other life forms, I don’t in principle have an issue (i. e. clearly all dogs share a common dog ancestor even though there are many varieties now). Given the evidence of genetic relationships, it seems just as possible to posit a common source all life is dependent on rather than it necessarily being a common ancestor. As far as #5, I’m skeptical, but am looking forward to studying it in more detail this coming semester (I think there is an extent to which natural selection operates, but I want to define the boundaries more clearly). Lastly, on #6, considering its astronomical improbability and the current lack of scientific evidence, I would flatly reject it. I’m assuming Enns does as well, but I don’t know for sure.

Second, though I don’t consider myself an theistic evolutionist, I’m clearly not a young earth creationist either. I have talked at length about my views on Genesis 1 (note particularly my concluding thoughts post), and do not think Scripture presents data on either a) the age of the earth or b) exactly how (in a scientific or descriptive sense) God created the heavens and earth. So, when I object to some of Enns’ arguments, I’m not doing so from a position that claims Genesis 1 “must be taken literally,” (as Enns uses the term) but rather, from a methodological standpoint that doesn’t think Enns’ proposal makes the best use of the evidence. For the sake of argument then, let’s grant Enns’ opening premise that science has proven man and animals have a common ancestry (p. ix). Given that, does Enns’ proposal alleviate the tension or is there significant evidence that is not brought into consideration? That will be the focus tomorrow.

Third, though I’ll be fairly critical, I don’t want to come across as slamming Enns. Many people in Reformed circles seem eager to do so, especially following his dismissal from Westminster. I tend to fit the stereotype of someone who would have formerly raked Enns over the coals (like many of Machen’s Warrior Children might do) and I don’t want to do that here. I don’t think the particular situation regarding his dismissal was handled properly and I don’t want to further contribute to demonizing him in any way. He’s certainly not a heretic, but is a sincere brother in Christ who happens to hold a different position on the nature of the Old Testament, science, and aspects of Christian theology than I do. We agree on the gospel and its centrality, we just have different ideas about how that plays out. I am perfectly fine agreeing to disagree.

I know I promised interaction today, but setting the stage is sometimes just as important as the drama itself. Hopefully though, the actual review won’t be that dramatic. As short preview and further stage setter, consider Enns’  9 theses on how the Adam discussion should move forward today (adapted from the final chapter):

  1. Literalism is not an option
  2. Scientific and biblical models of origins are speaking different “languages
  3. The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way
  4. There are 2 creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably the older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile
  5. The story of Adam, like Proverbs is about failure to fear God and obtain wise maturity
  6. God’s solution through the resurrection of Christ reveals the deep, foundational plight of the human condition, and Paul expresses that fact in the biblical idiom available to him.
  7. A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors
  8. The root of conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identity and fear or losing what is offers
  9. A true rapprochement between  and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations

This gives an idea of where he’s going, and can also clarify where I stand. I agree with Enns on #1-#3, #5-#7. On #4, I agree with the first part, and am not sure as to the second. With #8 though, I think it is speculative on Enns part. Though it is a generalization, it impugns the motives of people who disagree and implies they are not doing so for intellectual reasons. I think in some cases, Enns is correct on this, but I wouldn’t say many, and I wouldn’t personally want to make that kind of generalization. As for #9, well, I do agree, but I also am not interested in pursuing that project, mainly because I don’t see any theological synthesis necessary given the current state of the scientific evidence. Were the project necessary, then I think Enns is right about how to pursue it.

But that of course, would be a post for a different time altogether, and I’ve already said more than enough here.

Come back tomorrow for a review proper!

Concluding unscientific postscript:

If you happen to be a young-earth-creationist (YEC), you will most likely hate this book, and I would recommend starting with other relevant literature so you’re not too traumatized. I say that somewhat in jest, but the fact is, the conclusion Enns comes to on what the Bible says about Adam is radically different than what a YEC would believe. I was prepared for much of it, but I really do think someone from a YEC background would have hard time giving Enns book a charitable reading. Along the way, he presents several lines of evidence that significantly weaken a “literal” reading of Genesis, and one of the effects is how that re-frames the material on Adam. For readers coming from that background and not prepared to perhaps radically rethink their understanding of Genesis, the activity could be rather traumatic. If you can’t read what Enns says charitably though and dialogue, it would be best to pass on this book.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to The Evolution of Adam: Preliminary Issues

  1. Love the tentativeness on the issue (Popper, science proceeds by conjectures and refutations). To keep a perspective, when we say the sun “is shining” today, we actually mean, as of about 8 1/2 minutes ago … ;). So creation is displaying to us the wonders of what was shined in the past, in some cases the past long ago, every night among stars and galaxies, if the speed of light, discovered in the 19th C., has always been the same, which is a current conjecture subject to re-measurement (by the Italians last year, wasn’t it?!)

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