So How Then Should We Think About Adam?

This is the last post in our series on the new book by Peter Enns The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. The conclusion to the book outlines nine theses that Enns suggests shape key parameters for the discussion of Adam. In this post I would like to outline these nine theses, make a few comments about some of them, and open it up for discussion.

Thesis 1. Literalism is not an option. (p. 137)

This arises from both a consideration of the sciences of physics, geology, and biology and from a consideration of the Ancient Near Eastern context of the text. On this thesis I agree with Enns completely.

Thesis 2. Scientific and biblical models of human origins are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different language.(p. 138)

One of the major points made by Enns is that it is unreasonable to rethink the biblical and theological Adam to try to find a level of agreement between the biblical story of Adam and the evolutionary evidence for human origins. I don’t take quite as strong a position as Enns on this one. I agree that there is no “Adam” to be found in the evolutionary scheme apart from an act of God. But Enns’s argument goes beyond this.

Now I will say it is possible that, tens of thousands of years ago, God took two hominid representatives (or a group of hominids) and with them began the human story where creatures have a consciousness of God, learn to be moral, and so forth. But that is an alternate and wholly ad hoc account of the first humans, not the biblical one. One cannot pose such a scenario and say,” Here is your Adam and Eve; the Bible and science are thus reconciled.” Whatever those creatures were, they were not what the biblical authors presumed to be true. They may have been the first beings somehow conscious of God, but we overstep our bounds if we claim that these creatures satisfy the requirements of being “Adam and Eve.” (p. 139)

Part of the reluctance Enns has for this scenario arises from his unease with any form of concordism.

[S]earching for ways to align the modern-scientific and ancient-biblical models of creation – no matter how minimal – runs the risk of obscuring the theology of the texts in question. The creation stories are ancient and should be understood on that level. (p. 139)

I understand, I think, where Enns is coming from on this issue. I agree that an approach to scripture that requires concord between modern science and the ancient text is not satisfactory. It obscures the text and loses sight of the intended meaning. On the other hand I think there are issues here that go beyond the desire to reconcile modern science and an ancient text. There are theological questions – Who are we? What is our purpose? What did Christ accomplish in his death and resurrection?  – that are addressed in the question of human origins.  It seems reasonable to think that the Bible does address these questions. As a result I tend to be uncomfortable with an approach that makes “Adam” a neolithic farmer (a unique individual who lived some 10000 years ago, although perhaps not the only human alive). There is too much concordism in this approach. But I am comfortable with the approach of CS Lewis who sees truth about the human condition behind the story (The Problem of Pain Ch. 5).

This leads to one of the first questions we can discuss in the wrap-up of the book.

To what extent is the search for a historical Adam, say as a neolithic farmer, driven by a need to find agreement between the biblical text and human history?

To what extent is this search driven by theological questions?

Several of Enns’s theses reflect on the nature of the Old Testament text of Genesis. We have much to learn from the approach Enns takes here. If we are to be faithful to the text as inspired by God we have to take the text on its own terms. This is a matter of developing an appropriate hermeneutic and an appropriate attitude toward the text. Thesis 7, which I have taken out of the order used in the book really summarizes this view of inspiration.

Thesis 3:  The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way.(p. 140)

Thesis 4:  There are two creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably the older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile in order to tell Israel’s story.(p. 140)

Thesis 5: The Israel-centered focus of the Adam story can also be seen in its similarity to Proverbs: the story of Adam is about failure to fear God and attain wise maturity. (p. 142)

Thesis 7: A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors – whether it is the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis. Both reflect the setting and limitation of the cultural moment. (p. 143)

The next thesis returns in a way to the discussion above about thesis 2.

Thesis 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. (p. 142)

The deep foundational plight of the human condition plays a role not only in Paul’s use of Adam, but also, I think, in the text of Genesis 2-3 as well. This is true whether the intent of the original authors was to portray Adam as the first Israelite as Enns suggests, or Adam as the universal forefather of all mankind. Having been created for innocent union with God we have broken the relationship.

In the truth behind the eighth  thesis we see clear evidence of the foundational plight of the human condition.

Thesis 8:  The root of the conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identity and fear of losing what it offers.(p. 145)

I think Enns is right. For many Christians the issue is group identity; belonging to and being comfortable in a group with clear boundaries, consensus, and traditions. But this also strikes me as just plain wrong – a result of human fallenness rather than human faithfulness.

There is much we could say about this particular topic – far too much for this short summary. Among other things this root of the conflict causes loss of faith for many as it provides comfort and security for others. We have to be willing and able to step back and ask if this position or view is essential for mere Christianity or merely essential for my Christian camp. If the former, it is written in blood and we must defend it at all costs. If the latter, it is written in ink or pencil, and we have to be willing to rethink, erase, and if necessary rewrite. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential for mere Christianity – the historicity of Adam is not.

The final thesis moves beyond the question of Adam to consider the entire impact of evolutionary biology on the Christian faith. This steps beyond the topic of the book itself – but opens up a door through which we must pass.

Thesis 9: A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations. (p. 147)

Pete lays it out here.

Evolution is a serious challenge to how Christians have traditionally understood at least three central issues of the faith: the origin of humanity, of sin, and of death.(p. 147)

Death is a natural part of the evolutionary process. Some traits that we have traditionally thought of as sinful may be simply natural – at least in the context of nonhuman populations.

Evolution, therefore, cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith. … Evolution is not an add-on to Christianity: it demands synthesis because it forces serious intellectual engagement with some important issues. Such a synthesis requires a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do (thesis 8). (p. 147)

This is certainly true. But it is also true, I think, that we must be patient. Willing to lead in small steps, taking people as far as they are able to go at any time. Deep change will come with new generations, rather than within a generation. Thomas Kuhn’s study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions may have some insight for us here. We also need some humility in approach to realize that whatever problems or solutions we see today – the ultimate resolution may look somewhat different. We will not formulate a finalized synthesis in a generation. This is an ongoing, multi-person, multi-institution, multi-perspective project.

The last two paragraphs of the concluding chapter are in many ways the best part of the book, a confession of faith and a vision of hope for the future.  Buy the book to read them (and the rest). The Evolution of Adam is not the last word on any of the questions of Adam, evolution, sin, or death. But it is an important contribution to the discussion.

Do you have any thoughts on these theses?

How much of the conflict is theological? How much is biblical (i.e. to protect the inerrancy of scripture)? How much is driven by the desire to protect group identity?

Is there anything you would add to the list?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit So How Then Should We Think About Adam? at Jesus Creed.

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