Review of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (post 1)

“Attempts to reconcile Genesis and evolution are understandable, but they invariably lead to making some adjustments in the biblical story, and these adjustments always move us away from a strictly literal/historical reading of Genesis toward something else – call it “symbolic” or “metaphorical” or some other term. Unless one simply rejects scientific evidence (as some continue to do), adjustments to the biblical story are always necessary. The only question is what sorts of adjustments best account for the data. Part of this book is aimed at thinking through the the parameters for answering that question.

Yet Christians have a bigger problem than dealing with Genesis if they want to reconcile Christianity and evolution: Paul. Here we come to the heart of the matter, what I believe is the ultimate source of concern for Christians who are seeking a synthesis between the Bible and evolution.”

This week is the blog tour (check it out… other bloggers and prizes!) to celebrate Peter Enns’ (bio here) recent and highly anticipated book, The Evolution of Adam. I am very happy to be a part of this tour as Adam is such a key, yet unfortunately divisive issue in Evangelicalism today.

I will be reviewing the book over three posts this week. Today I’ll provide an overview of the book and Enns’ reason for writing it. Then we’ll discuss the two main parts of the book in posts on Wednesday and Friday.

Perhaps the first place to start this review is the first place that Enns’ starts the book himself. Why this book? Enns says that there are two reason why he wrote it. First, although evolution has been around for more than 150 years (that’s forever in biology, by the way), it has become an even greater topic of interest lately. This is due to the now common popular level attacks on Christianity from the New Atheists who use evolution as their weapon, and the evidence obtained in the last decade from the Human Genome Project showing that humans and other primates share common ancestry. Second, as a direct result of this increasing public presence of evolution and especially, human evolution, there is ever more concern amongst Christians of how to deal with evolution, since many believe it (or think they should believe it) undermines their faith. Enns hopes to shed light on Christian faith and evolution, specifically from the perspective of his area of expertise, the Biblical studies.

In so doing, Enns assumes two characteristics in his readers, namely, that they would be Christian (primarily Evangelical) and that they feel evolution should be taken seriously. Enns offers no apologetics in this book. Reading it won’t convince you of the validity of Christianity, nor will it show you the evidence for evolution. It assumes that you come to the table in acceptance of both and if you need to, will consult the appropriate references elsewhere. This is extremely important to note. Because he leaves treatments of these topics out, the book is streamlined and makes for an easier read. And hopefully, it will stop some readers in their tracks. There is no reason to even attempt synthesis if you don’t believe in or understand the elements you hope to combine. That being said, Enns assumes the truth of evolution and believes that it should cause us to rethink how we view the Bible. There is no vice-versa. This could potentially alienate some readers, even those that fit the characteristics mentioned.

The lack of substance on evolution, while making for a more focused work, also makes the title of the book seem a bit misleading. What Enns means by the evolution of Adam is the evolution of the idea of Adam. This makes sense. But the main reason he puts forth for causing the change is perhaps not what you would anticipate. Yes, evolution is mentioned, but rather briefly. As we will see on Wednesday, it was a factor but only one of several that were necessary for us to reconsider our reading and understanding of Adam. In the field of science and religion, these other factors go relatively unmentioned when compared to their “cousin”, evolution. With my scientific background this made no difference to me and I am, in fact, grateful for his extended discussion of the other players. Even if evolution is, you know… in the title of the book!

I opened this post with two paragraphs from page xv of the Introduction. These two paragraphs highlight what most commonly causes issues for Christians when considering evolution and the Bible, Genesis and Paul.  At the end of the Introduction, Enns gives four options for his readers as to how he thinks we can proceed.

  1. Accept evolution and reject Christianity.
  2. Accept Paul’s view of Adam as binding and reject evolution.
  3. Reconcile evolution and Christianity by positing a first human pair (or group) at some point the in the evolutionary process.
  4. Rethink Genesis and Paul.

No reader that has made it thus far in his book and fits the characteristics about should choose option 1 or 2 (right?), so that leaves 3 and 4. Enns favors 4 and his reasons for so are the focus of Parts 1 (reading Genesis) and 2 (Paul and Adam) of the book.

I would add that the first 3 options seem a bit rigid, while the 4th one is very broad.  We could spend time and text on the 1st option and how the various streams of Christianity differ a great deal in their understanding and acceptance of evolution in their theology. In addition, there is not much discussion in the book as how to correctly parse the 4th option. Enns’ goal is to show his reader that the best understanding of the Bible is not options 1-3. But specifics of what the reconsideration should look like are not going to be forced on us. There is some freedom here.

If this leaves the reader wanting more, so be it. In spite of this, I believe the book to be a great contribution to the field of science and religion (as you’ll see in the upcoming posts as well). After my first reading of it I labeled it a great conversation-starter and thinking about it longer hasn’t changed my mind one bit. It’s a well-written, well-reasoned, and timely book that will illuminate yet leave you asking questions. It’s not the end all be all on this topic, but it wasn’t designed to be. It was written to show Christians what the Bible doesn’t say about Adam.

And once you know what it doesn’t say, perhaps you can then begin to realize what it actually does say.

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About justintopp

Biology professor/mentor who loves sports, laughter, science & religion/theology (especially mind, evolution, soul, and what it means to be human), and most of all, his bride and baby girl.
This entry was posted in Accommodation, Biblical interpretation, Evolution, Evolution of Adam, Pete Enns, science vs. religion, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Review of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (post 1)

  1. Pingback: Pete Enns, The Evolution of Adam: Introduction « Exploring Our Matrix

  2. dopderbeck says:

    Hey Justin — this is indeed and important and valuable book. I’m a bit disappointed, though, in the apparent rigidity of these four categories. Pete assumes that he can absolutely discern “Paul’s view” of Adam, and hence his category 2. But the truth is that we really don’t know “what Paul thought” about Adam in general. All we know for certain is what Paul wrote about Adam. And nowhere did Paul write something like “and now I’m going to explain the natural history of the human species.” Paul didn’t write anything like “science” because, among other things, there was no “science” in Paul’s day as we employ that term now. So, if we suggest that Paul shouldn’t be interpreted as making authoritative scriptural statements about biological human origins, is that a rejection of “Paul’s view” of Adam? I don’t think so — or at least, it isn’t a rejection of what Paul’s inspired text is communicating as scripture on its own terms. Therefore, I think Pete’s category 2 is overly narrow.

    Likewise, I think category 4’s use of the term “rethink” is unfortunate. I have been studying the Eastern Church Fathers in depth this semester in a course I’m auditing at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary with one of the world’s leading Patristics scholars. One thing is abundantly clear: the Fathers did not interpret either the Old or New Testaments according to a “literal-grammatical-historical” hermeneutic. They did not employ a hermeneutic in which “what was Paul’s original intention” would have been the primary question as it is for many post-Reformation interpreters today. In fact, they employed the kind of hermeneutic Pete (properly!) recommends in his Inspiration and Incarnation: a Christocentric / Christotelic one. And they recognized that any particular text could have multiple meanings that might only become apparent as the Spirit speaks to the Church through the text (sounds Barthian — not surprising since so much of Barth’s theology goes back to the Fathers).

    Now, without a doubt the Fathers would have thought of “Adam” as the real first human, and they would have had no notion at all of an evolving group of hominids or anything like that. But they were far more sophisticated than you might think. Read, for example, Ireneaus’ highly nuanced treatment of “Adam” as an immature, inexperienced being who needed to grow and develop.

    So, I suggest we ditch these four categories. Our job isn’t really to “rethink” anything so much as to “return” to the Patristic tradition of faith seeking understanding — a faith that is centered on Jesus Christ, which understands the primary purpose of scripture as a treasury of symbols about Christ. In this light, we can relax about Paul’s typology between “Adam” and Christ, because it never had anything to do with what we call biological science to begin with.

  3. Pingback: Evolution of Adam Blog Tour: Day One

  4. justintopp says:

    Dopderbeck,

    I appreciate and understand the concern about the 4 categories. But “rethinking” should be taken as “rethinking” by Evangelical Christians, his core audience. For those of us that are aware of the other traditions and how they view Adam, absolutely “rethink” seems harsh. There’s been a lot of good thinking already done for us who are we to say we need to rethink it now? But I highly doubt that Evangelicals (his intended audience) are going to accept the Eastern Fathers view of Adam, at least at this point. Sure, some of the academically minded ones might, but not the general public. Perhaps they need a book or ten to get them thinking about change and then they’ll be more receptive?

    I absolutely agree that his categories are pre-loaded to make you choose the option he wants however. He’s clearly familiar with behavioral economics! :-)

    In terms of not knowing what “Paul’s view of Adam is” versus knowing what Paul wrote about Paul… isn’t this an issue one would have with any writer who’s no longer living? I’m not sure how that helps the discussion?

    • dopderbeck says:

      Good points re: the book’s primary audience. All I can say is that as someone with a very conservative evangelical heritage, my (very difficult) path towards making peace with some of these questions came and comes through understanding the intellectual history of my heritage, and how that heritage diverged in some ways from the early Christian intellectual tradition. It was and is important for me to feel like I’m extending the historic core of the faith and bringing it into conversation with contemporary knowledge, rather than making up something entirely new. Maybe that would help others as well?

      Re: “what Paul thought” — yes, that is on my part a loaded hermeneutical posture. I think any question to obtain a perfectly objective reading of what any author thought (whether an author of scripture or any other text) is Quixotic. And I think that the “meaning” of any text includes but is always broader than “what the author thought” and extends into the reception and use of the text by a community of practice. I.e. I think reader-response approaches have merit. Now, maybe there are kinds of scientific and technical literature for which reader-response matters somewhat less — data is data — though even empirical data has to be interpreted within a communal context (cf. Polanyi, Lakatos, etc.). But I think reader-response is particularly important with respect to scripture, which is the “Church’s book” and is just another historically interesting text without the active work of the Holy Spirit. I have a little video on this here: http://tgdarkly.com/revelation/?p=18 (Don’t get me started on “originalist” readings of
      the U.S Constitution BTW…)

      I wish Pete had engaged more with some the great “theological hermeneutics” work that’s being done ecumenically right now, including in evangelical circles (e.g. Scot McKnight, Hans Boersma, Joel Green, Kevin VanHoozer), and maybe then the categories wouldn’t have seemed so stark.

  5. Pingback: Pete Enns, The Evolution of Adam: Part 2 « Exploring Our Matrix

  6. justintopp says:

    I agree that an historical perspective is very important, at least to me personally. But the Eastern Orthodox perspective is pretty far back when it comes to Evangelicals! Pete’s book is missing a number of things that would have made it better for folk like you and me. But, intended audience, intended audience. Perhaps he has something in the works that will satiate us?

  7. Pingback: Review of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (post 2) | A biologist's view of science & religion

  8. Pingback: Review of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (post 3) | A biologist's view of science & religion

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