The Evolution of Adam: A Review

February 3, 2012 — 8 Comments

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Yesterday, I offered you some important preliminaries, so today we’ll dive into an actual review of The Evolution of Adam.

Peter Enns considers his primary audience to be first Christians, and second people who think evolution needs to be taken seriously. Because of that, his aim “is to speak to those who feel that a synthesis between a biblically conversant Christian faith and evolution is a pressing concern” (p. x). He briefly sketches his own Christian background before explaining his approach to Scripture (which was outlined more fully in Inspiration and Incarnation):

The most faithful, Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one that recognizes Scripture as a product of the times in which it was written and/or the events took place – not merely so, but unalterably so (p. xi).

In other words, much of what Enns argued in Inspiration and Incarnation, and reiterates briefly here, is a reconsideration of the human-ness of the Bible. In the same way Jesus was both God and man, Scripture is both the Word of God and the words of man. This in short, is the incarnational analogy Enns proposes for reading Scripture. Enns draws this out (in Insp/Incar) by examining:

  1. The ancient Near East cultural context
  2. The theological diversity of the Old Testament
  3. The use of the Old Testament by authors of the New.

In The Evolution of Adam, Enns uses Part One to further apply his understanding of (1) to the question of Adam in Genesis, and then uses Part Two to apply (3) to the question of Adam in Paul’s writings.


He first finishes out the introduction with a discussion of the relationship between science/faith and evolution/Christianity. He wisely notes that “if evolution is correct, one can no longer accept, in any true sense of the word “historical,” the instantaneous and special creation of humanity described in Genesis” (p. xiv). Because of this, any attempt to reconcile Genesis and evolution involve difficulties, but adjustments are necessary. As Enns concludes, “The only question is what sorts of adjustments best account for the data,” and then he points out that this is an even more pressing concern when it comes to what Paul says about Adam (p. xv).

There are then four options for moving forward (parentheticals mine):

  1. Accept evolution and reject Christianity (the path of Dawkins/Dennett et al)
  2. Accept Paul’s view of Adam as binding and reject evolution (many evangelicals)
  3. Reconcile evolution and Christianity by positing a first human pair (or group) at some point in the evolutionary process (some theistic evolutionists)
  4. Rethink Genesis and Paul (Enns, and he hopes you the reader by the end of the book)

Interestingly, for what follows, I would place myself in the fourth position as well, but I’m doing so independent of scientific concerns.  Enns and I both want to rethink Genesis and Paul and make adjustments that best account for the data. But, as I noted yesterday, Enns has already closed off a path that the data can’t lead down because of his scientific commitments. Since I lack some of those, I may have a different perspective on how to best account for the data.

On that note…

Chapter 1 surveys the landscape of 19th century thought and the ramifications it had on our understanding of the Old Testament in general and Genesis in particular. Three factors rose to prominence in that time period that forever altered the landscape of biblical studies:

  1. Darwinian science
  2. Higher level biblical criticism
  3. Archaeological discoveries related to ancient Near East documents and context
These are fairly uncontroversial, at least in terms of observing they did have quite an impact. Whether or not they should influence how we read Scripture is one question, and exactly how we should let these discoveries influence how we read Scripture is yet another.

Chapter 2 then asks when Genesis was written and seeks to apply insights from 2 of the previous 3 factors into the discussion. Enns presents an account of the Documentary Hypothesis or the JEDP theory regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch (which essentially posits various sources, and late date of non-Mosaic composition). He does a great job explaining it to a lay audience, which is a both a positive and a negative aspect of his book. Positive because many readers who have never heard of it will be able to understand it clearly, but negative because he fails to mention much of the counter-evidence to the theory, nor does he direct the reader to the many sources on the Pentateuch that offer a quite different take on its compositional history (e. g. John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch or C. John Collins Genesis 1-4), showing that a better fit for the available data is that Moses wrote the bulk of the Pentateuch and it was scribally updated in the post-exilic period.

Personally I do not think the Documentary Hypothesis is the best way to account for the available data regarding the composition of the Old Testament. Given that data always under-determines theories, the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP) would be hard to ever prove conclusively. I realize this also applies to proving Mosaic authorship, but I just wanted to make clear that both Enns and I are on similar ground and have to present an interpretation that is the best probable explanation of the data. He presents his case though as fact of the matter, when in reality, it is just one way to interpret the available data. Even arguing that it is scholarly consensus (which, depending on your selection of scholars, is generally true) is not evidence in favor of the validity of the interpretation so much as an appeal to authority at best (e.g. most informed intellectuals thinks this is true), or an appeal to emotion at worst (e. g. you’re not backwards unintelligent moron are you?)

Chapter 3 surveys the origin stories of Israel’s neighbors. While I agree with Enns’ conclusion that Genesis 1 has a highly important polemical function (p. 41), I think he has the context wrong for who the polemic is against. Most of his comparative work is between Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish, the Babylonian origin story. But, for reasons I explain here, the Egyptian creation accounts/origin stories provide a better parallel and more likely polemical sparring partner. Though it wasn’t available to Enns at the time of his writing, John Walton’s Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology provides a much richer survey of the backdrop to Genesis 1.

In the rest of chapter 3, Enns surveys comparative literature regarding the flood story as well as Genesis 2 before ending on a plea to rethink our general approach to Genesis. In some ways, Enns and I are on the same team here, but for different reasons. Enns is convinced that a literal reading will just not do and provides his reasons for that. Interestingly, I would consider myself someone who reads Genesis 1 literally, but as became apparent in the course of reading this book, Enns and I mean different things by the term literal. I think Enns is arguing against a “literalistic” reading, or what we might consider “over-literalizing” Scripture. If that’s what he means, then I completely agree, and much of what I’ve said about Genesis is pushing for people to stop reading it that way as well.

Chapter 4 then finishes out Part One by drawing connections between the Adam story and Israel’s story, which I found particularly interesting and helpful. His work on creation and sanctuary is a snapshot of more extensive work in Walton (see above). In spite of our disagreements over the exact context of the writing of the Pentateuch, I think there is much to be gleaned from this section. To some extent, I was already on board with this theological connection, but for different reasons than Enns provides (e. g. I don’t see Israel using the connection to shape Genesis, but rather see the causation going the other way).

It is at this point that book is neatly divided, and in Part Two the conversation shifts to how to understand Paul. Much like he was doing with Genesis, Enns wants to set Paul in context. Chapter 5 focuses on exploring Paul’s theology, particularly as it pertains to Adam. It is also here that he presents connections between Adam and the wisdom literature, particularly Proverbs. This is another feature of Enns’ book that I found both particularly interesting and helpful.

The bulk of chapter 6 then is devoted to sketching out how Paul not only fit into his context, but how that shaped his thinking and interpretive practices. Enns provides a few case studies of how Paul interpreted Old Testament passages (remember (3) above from Insp/Incar?) as a setup for determining how to best understand Paul’s use of Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. I wouldn’t agree with all the details as Enns presents them, but I found this chapter a succinct primer on Second Temple Jewish interpretive approaches, and a good background context for Paul (I could tell from reading we’re both fond of N. T. Wright).

All that brings us to chapter 7, which culminates in analyzing Paul’s theological understanding of Adam. Here, I think the general mis-step involves his use of the incarnational analogy. If we are to use the criteria of the incarnation to better understand Scripture, then it seems we should be careful we don’t use a heretical version of the incarnation in our applications. In this case, Enns seems to almost be applying a Docetic model of the incarnation to his reading of Paul. In Docetism, a heretical understanding of the Incarnation, there is too sharp of a separation between the human and the divine, such that you could observe one acting independent of the other. To me, the way Enns interacts with Paul is almost like this. While I have no doubt Enns’ personal Christology is orthodox and his understanding of the incarnational analogy is not necessarily Docetic, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that when interpreting Paul we have to separate cultural assumptions from inspired truths, which verges on a Docetic application.


In the end, I really just didn’t find his conclusion satisfactory. I found many things to commend in his discussion of Paul and am eager to go back to Scripture myself and integrate some of what he has said. But I was left feeling like we were simply re-reading Paul because science tells us Paul can’t have gotten it right when he says a single man is responsible for the entrance of sin and death into the world. Certainly we should re-read Scripture in light of new information, and Enns does start a discussion about how to better understand Paul. While he does help us nuance more carefully what Paul is specifically saying, I saw very little room for the conclusion that maybe the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to interpret Genesis that way because it is the correct interpretation of that story. For me, it seemed like that wasn’t an option because Enns believes science says its not an option.

While I hope that The Evolution of Adam is not merely dismissed by more conservative scholars who will disagree like I have, I imagine many of them will similarly find his conclusions unsatisfactory. I probably will revisit this with a future post unpacking more of why I didn’t think he gives the best explanation of reading Paul, but to do so, I need to do a bit more research on Paul, and thankfully, that’s on the docket for this summer.

I’ve only really scratched the surface here, but hopefully, if you’re interested, you’ll dig more into this topic yourself. If you do, you ought to make Enns at least one of your conversation partners in the process!

Book Details

  • Author: Peter Enns
  • Title: The Evolution of Adam
  • PublisherBrazos (January 1, 2012)
  • Paperback: 192pgs
  • Reading Level: General Reader/Bible School
  • Audience Appeal: Christians interested in reading a theistic evolutionist’s defense of an ahistorical Adam
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Brazos)

Purchase Info

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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!

8 responses to The Evolution of Adam: A Review

  1. I really enjoyed this review, Nate. It’s been fun to see others’ takes on the book as part of the tour.

    • Thanks Justin! And thanks for linking to my review on yours!

      Your coverage was very thorough as well, I enjoyed seeing your perspective, as well as the other people on the tour.


  2. Great review, Nate. I’m enjoying being a part of the tour and seeing others’ takes on the book.

  3. In regards to the best ANE context in which the polemical nature of Gen. 1-3 is against, the writers of the recently published book, In the Beginning….We Misunderstood, agree that the Egyptian background is the best and primary fit. They really have me thinking because they did not ignore the use of the word “day” or the phrase “evening and morning” like I feel others have.

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