“The Evolution of Adam”: In Which Science and Faith Are Allies, Not Enemies
(This post is much longer than is usual for me. Any conversation about science and faith is emotionally-charged and prone to misunderstanding. I felt it necessary to devote extended space to this book review, including a lengthy set-up and numerous quotations to avoid pulling things out of context. I pray that my efforts to address this in a peaceful, non-inflammatory manner are successful, and I ask for your grace where I still fall short. )
Once upon a time when I was on my college’s debate team, I had to defend the statement that the character of a politician was insignificant when assessing his qualification or performance in office. (This was right in the thick of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal.) A few months later, I had to defend gambling as a valid and not-harmful form of fund-raising for a state. When I first heard those statements, my kneejerk reaction was, “How on earth will I ever win a round when I disagree so strongly?”
I’m a competitive sort, so each time I dug into the research with my teammates. What surprised me each time was how every issue we debated really did have pros and cons. It was never as straightforward as I thought initially. A few months into the debate season, after hearing all sides of the matter debated by skilled teams, I’d settle on my own personal position. In the examples above, I changed my initial position on one but not the other. In both cases, I had much more well-thought-out reasons for those positions. I also understood how someone could make a case the other way and be neither insane nor ignorant, thus my respect for those with opposing views grew.
These experiences removed my fear of seeking to understand other positions on issues. They taught me that there is always more to learn, and that it’s ok to change my views on things in light of more information. In the years since that time, I’ve discovered how rare that is. Very few people seem to overcome their fear of the “other side.” Our society has grown increasingly polarized, in large part due to our refusal to acknowledge the weaknesses of our own position and the strengths of someone else’s. When we refuse even to try to understand other positions on issues, we cannot avoid oversimplifying their claims, exaggerating the flaws of their position and the merits of our own, and losing our ability to respect people who disagree. It creates unnecessary conflict and animosity.
One of the areas in which this tension is most pronounced is the subject of beginnings. Christians must labor to understand the stories given in the ancient book of Genesis, and it can be even more difficult to make sense of those stories in light of what we know about the world, life, and the cosmos today. Science is our human attempt to describe, explain, and predict what we see in the physical world. In a many ways, religious faith is a similar effort to describe, explain, and predict. It should be an act of worship, not an act of treachery, for a Christian to interact with the world that God made by working in and affirming the sciences.
Unfortunately, some Christians, because of the way they interpret either science or the Bible or both, do not believe that they can reconcile faith with science while maintaining intellectual or spiritual integrity. They seem to fear science as a threat to their faith, instead of embracing it as an expression of the creativity and complexity of God.
If God created the world, then God is the author of science. Science and faith harmonize and synthesize. They are not in competition. If we think we’re being forced to choose between them, we’ve got something wrong and we need to go back and study again.
This is what Dr. Peter Enns attempts to do in the book “The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.” He looks at one component of the Genesis account of creation, Adam, and examines the cultural, religious, linguistic, and academic context surrounding him, (the Bible mentions Adam surprisingly infrequently, which is worth noting), adjusts our expectations of sacred Scripture accordingly, and then proposes that more reasonable expectations allow us to better harmonize faith and science.
Dr. Enns is the author or editor of nine books and is professor of Christian studies at Eastern University. His credentials are impeccable: he studied at Messiah College and Westminster Theological Seminary and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. His academic interests include Old Testament Theology, Biblical Theology, Wisdom Literature (esp. Ecclesiastes), the NT’s use of the OT, Second Temple literature, and “the general issue of how the historical context of Scripture affects how we understand the nature of Scripture within Reformed and Evangelical commitments.”
Dr. Enns is a committed Christian. His books are not an attack on the Christian faith; rather, they are a defense. He wrote in the introduction, “My Christian faith is summed up in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which are expressions of broad Christian orthodoxy. More specifically to the points that will occupy us below, I believe in the universal and humanly unalterable grip of both death and sin, and the work of the Savior, by the deep love and mercy of the Father, in delivering humanity from them. …I wish to be crystal clear at this point—respecting at the outset differences of opinion on this matter—that the issues I raise in this book and the conclusions (exploratory and tentative at some points) that I reach are an outworking of my Christian convictions of what it means to be a responsible reader of Scripture in my time and place” (emphasis his).
In “The Evolution of Adam,” Dr. Enns begins his study of the biblical Adam with this presupposition: “that 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.” He proposes that God conveyed truth into the ancient human context, communicating via the ideas and perceptions they had about the world and using their idiom. For example, if common understanding at the time was that the sky was a dome holding back water and held up by pillars, God didn’t correct that when expressing truth about God or the cosmos.
Dr. Enns spends much time discussing the cultures surrounding ancient Israel and how that affects how we understand the Old Testament and what we should expect from it. This includes ancient understandings of human origins and suffering. He also spends much time delving into Second-Temple Judaism, Jewish thought and scholarship, and how the New Testament authors interacted and reinterpreted the Old Testament in light of Jesus Christ.
I’m still forming my own position on human origins (I expect that will always be in process), thus I’m not necessarily in full agreement with every one of Dr. Enns’s assumptions or conclusions (in some cases, I just don’t know – I have much to learn about both modern science and about sacred Scripture). Because I’m still learning and seeking to find the harmony between the study of God and the study of God’s creation, “The Evolution of Adam” has aided my efforts to better understand the original setting and thinking behind the Bible and its human authors.
Of particular interest to me was Dr. Enns’s description of a theory regarding the time of the writing of Genesis (and in fact the whole of the Pentateuch). I had always been told that our best guess is that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. I’d never heard of other theories regarding its authorship before reading Dr. Enns’s book. He explains that according to most Old Testament scholars, the best theory in light of current historical and literary evidence, is that the Pentateuch was edited after the Babylonian Exile. This was a time when the people of Israel were grappling with what had happened to them and questioning how they could be God’s chosen people in light of the captivity and destruction of the Temple. The theory says that someone acted as an editor and compiled all the writings and oral tradition into the books we now know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with a very specific purpose—to show how Israel has been God’s special nation from the very beginning. This theory, paired with what is now known about ancient cultures and literary conventions, answers many of the questions we find when reading these books.
I think it’s important to mention who Dr. Enns identifies as the audience for this book: he wrote in the introduction that his intended audience is Christians, “of whatever tradition or stripe, and so respect Scripture and recognize that what it says must be accounted for somehow. …Second, these same people are convinced, for whatever reason, that evolution must be taken seriously. …My aim, therefore, is not to convince people that the Bible is important, nor is it to make people see that evolution is true. My aim is to speak to those who feel that a synthesis between a biblically conversant Christian faith and evolution is a pressing concern. And my purpose here is certainly not to undermine the faith of those who see things differently.” (emphasis mine)
Finally, a note regarding the title, “The Evolution of Adam.” Dr. Enns does not argue that Adam himself evolved. Instead, he contends that our understanding of Adam must evolve “in light of scientific evidence supporting evolution and literary evidence from the world of the Bible that helps clarify the kind of literature the Bible is—that is what it means to read it as it was meant to be read. Furthermore, all this can be done in a way that respects and honors the authority of the Bible. Indeed, reflecting on the nature of Scripture like this is the very expression of honor and respect.” (emphasis mine)
You may or may not agree with Dr. Enns’s theories regarding Adam, Israel, the Pentateuch, and Paul’s letters. However, whether you identify yourself as a young-earth creationist, an old-earth creationist, or a theistic evolutionist, you will find this book has great value as you seek to better understand the people who wrote/received/heard the sacred Scripture – how they viewed the world and themselves and how they interacted with sacred Scripture, particularly as contrasted with how we do.
P.S. If you, like me, are concerned about how to teach your children the context of sacred Scripture, be sure to check out Olive Branch Books.
I am participating in a blog book tour hosted by Brazos Press. Be sure to stop by their site and enter to win their giveaway. The Grand Prize is a book package including:
- The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns
- Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns
- The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith
- Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible by John Polkinghorne
- The Mind and the Machine by Matthew Dickerson
Five runners up will receive copies of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns.
I received a complimentary copy of The Evolution of Adam. All opinions stated in the above review are my own. This post contains affiliate links.