I Could Have Used This Book Twelve Years Ago: A Review of “The Evolution of Adam” by Peter Enns

Within the first week of my freshman year of college, my Introduction to World Literature class included a reading of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian myth about a hero who is described as 1/3 man and 2/3 god.

As we read the text together in class, I couldn't help but notice some striking similarities between this text and the familiar texts of Genesis and Ecclesiastes, but when we got to the part where Gilgamesh speaks with Utnapishtim, a survivor of the Great Flood, I disintegrated into a full-fledged faith crisis.  So much of the Gilgamesh flood story sounded just like “my” flood story from Genesis: Both accounts included a boat in which just a few people, along with animals, are saved from a universal flood.  In both stories, the boat comes to rest on a mountain and birds are sent out to find land. And both stories end with a sacrifice to a deity. And my literature book dated the writing of Gilgamesh before the writing of Genesis! 

I was at a conservative Christian college, and so my professor insisted that the texts had been misdated and that the story of Gilgamesh represented some sort of distortion of the historical/scientific account of Adam and Eve, Noah, and the flood. But my literary instincts had kicked in and I just wasn’t buying it. 

“The similarities between these texts must mean that they are of the same genre and share a similar context,” my English-major mind was screaming.  “Why would we regard one as history and the other as story when they use such similar images, styles, symbols, and plotlines? That just doesn’t make sense.” 

Twelve years later, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns has confirmed my suspicions, but in a way that has somehow managed to strengthen my faith rather than weaken it, through a fantastic book entitled The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins.

“The early chapters of Genesis are not a literal or scientific description of historical events but a theological statement in an ancient idiom, a statement about Israel’s God and Israel’s place in the world of God’s people,” Enns explains. “The core issue raised by ancient Near Eastern data has helped calibrate the genre of the biblical creation accounts. The failure to appreciate that genre calibration is responsible for much of the tension in the evolution discussion....To observe the similarities between the creation and flood stories and the literature of the ancient Near East, and to insist that all of those other writings are clearly a-historical while Genesis is somehow presenting history—this is not a strong position of faith, but rather a weak one, where Scripture must conform to one’s expectations.” 

Enns goes on to remind readers that “a text’s meaning is rooted in its historical and literary context,” and to argue that the historical and literary context of much of the Old Testament can be found in the questions and concerns of post-exilic Israel. 

I first heard Enns present these ideas at a conference hosted by the BioLogos Foundation in 2010, and it was as if a light clicked on in my head.  As a lover of literature, it made perfect sense to me that the best way to understand an author’s meaning is to study the time and culture in which the author wrote, to get a sense of the sort of questions people were asking at the time. Taking this approach to the Bible does not weaken it, but rather respects it for what it is, not what we want it to be

The Evolution of Adam not only answers just about every question I had after Enns’ Biologos lecture, but also includes a lengthy and thoughtful treatment of the apostle Paul’s Adam, again seeking to understand Paul’s intent within his unique context and culture. Enns is quick to note that it is Paul’s view of Adam rather than the Genesis account itself that causes most Christians to wrestle with the implications of evolution, and so it is Paul’s view of Adam that must be investigated. 

“Paul’s use of the Adam story,” Enns concludes, “serves a vital theological purpose in explaining to his ancient readers the significance for all humanity of Christ’s death and resurrection. His use of the Adam story, however, cannot and should not be the determining factor in whether biblically faithful Christians can accept evolution as the scientific account of human origins—and the gospel does not hang in the balance.” 

This may seem like an impossibly complicated topic to cover in a mere 147 pages, but Enns manages to do so with astounding clarity and insight. He is of the best scholarly writers I’ve ever encountered because he somehow manages to be thorough, personable, and readable all at the same time.

In The Evolution of Adam, you’ll find accessible introductions to everything from source criticism to the New Perspective on Paul, which will make you feel oh-so-caught-up on all the important trends in biblical scholarship.  (Try not to show off at parties.) 

For me, this book served as both a reality check and an inspiration—a rare combination that you just won’t find in most books that take historical and literary criticism seriously. I wish I could get into all the details of what made this book so helpful, but this would require a series of posts that will have to wait for a later time. 

For now, just know that The Evolution of Adam comes with my heartfelt, enthusiastic recommendation. Learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, means taking its context and history seriously. Enns has managed to do that in a way that both enlightens and encourages. 

I’ll conclude with a quote from The Evolution of Adam that ties together perfectly yesterday’s post and today’s: 

For many, it is important for the future viability of faith, let alone the evolution-Christianity discussion, that we recognize and embrace the fact that the Bible is a thoroughly enculturated product. But it is not enough to merely say so and press on, with a quaint nod or an embarrassed shuffle of the feet. It is important for future generations of Christians to have a view of the Bible where its rootedness in ancient ways of thinking is embraced as a theological positive, not a problem to be overcome. At present there is  a lot of fear about the implications of bringing evolution and Christianity together, and this fear needs to be addressed head-on. Many fear that we are on a slippery slope, to use the hackneyed expression. Perhaps the way forward is not to resist the slide so much as to stop struggling, look around, and realize that we may have been on the wrong hill altogether.

Be sure to check out the Brazos Press Web site this week. You can enter win a giveaway in which the grand prize is a book package that includes:

  • 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) 

If some of these titles sound familiar, it’s because most of them are on my list of books to read and discuss on the blog. So go enter!

 

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Ask an Evolutionary Creationist ...(Response)

Transient

Today I’m thrilled to share biologist Dennis Venema’s responses to your questions for “Ask an Evolutionary Creationist.”

Dennis has a PhD in genetics/developmental biology from the University of British Columbia. He teaches at Trinity Western University, and his research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling. Dennis is part of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization committed to promoting a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound. He blogs at Biologos.org.

I’ve always found Dennis’ perspective to be challenging, accessible, and full of grace. I hope you learn as much from him as I have!

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1. From Scot: Could you explain the difference between creationism, intelligent design, and "evolutionary creationism"? 

“Creationism” is one of those words that almost always needs clarification. For many, “creationism” is synonymous with Young-Earth Creationism, the view that the Genesis narratives are to be taken literally. This view holds that the entire cosmos is around 6,000 years old, that the fossil record was laid down almost in its entirety during a literal, global worldwide flood, that God created humans directly out of dust, and that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of the entire human race. The organization Answers in Genesis is probably the best-known proponent of this view. 

Old-Earth Creationism typically holds to a local flood, and accepts Big Bang cosmology. Despite agreeing with mainstream science on these issues, they deny evolution: they believe that the vast majority of species (and especially humans) were independently created by God during earth’s long history. Old-earthers also hold to a literal Adam and Eve as the progenitors of our entire species. Reasons to Believe is the best-known organization that promotes this view. You can read one of my (somewhat technical) critiques of their anti-evolutionary genetics arguments here.

Intelligent Design (ID) is a view that many feel is a form of creationism, though the ID Movement itself often rejects the label, claiming that it is strictly an alternative scientific view. The ID Movement is a “Big Tent” approach for all and sundry who reject at least some part of evolutionary biology. As such, there are Young-Earth Creationists, Old-Earth Creationists, and others within the movement. The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were “designed” – a word that functions as the equivalent of “created” within this group. The Discovery Institute is the best-known organization for promoting ID. I’ve spent a lot of time critiquing the ID movement, and you can find  much of that material on the BioLogos web site (do an author search there using my name). 

Despite their (large) differences, all of the above positions deny some aspect of modern science. The only Christian perspective on origins that fully accepts mainstream science is the Evolutionary Creation / Theistic Evolution view. This view holds that science is not an enemy to be fought, but rather a means of understanding some of the mechanisms God has used to bring about biodiversity on earth. This view accepts that humans share ancestry with all other forms of life, and that our species arose as a population, not through a single primal pair. There are different views within the EC community on whether there was a historical couple named Adam and Eve – some hold that there was, and that they were selected by God from a larger population as representatives. Other folks in the EC community feel that Adam and Eve are typological figures,  such as a representation of the failure of Israel to keep the covenant. The science (human population genetics) is clear that our species arose as a population, and that is what I have focused on (since that is my area of expertise). I try to leave the theology to others, but often folks want to talk theology on these points, not science. 

2.  From Paige: What has been the most compelling evidence for you personally that has solidified your position as an evolutionary creationist?

'Green Plant' photo (c) 2009, Corey Harmon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Well, the evidence is everywhere. It’s not just that a piece here and there fits evolution: it’s the fact that virtually none of the evidence we have suggests anything else. What you see presented as “problems for evolution” by Christian anti-evolutionary groups are typically issues that are taken out of context or (intentionally or not) misrepresented to their non-specialist audiences. For me personally (as a geneticist) comparative genomics (comparing DNA sequences between different species) has really sealed the deal on evolution. Even if Darwin had never lived and no one else had come up with the idea of common ancestry, modern genomics would have forced us to that conclusion even if there was no other evidence available (which of course manifestly isn’t the case).

For example, we see the genes for air-based olfaction (smelling) in whales that no longer even have olfactory organs. Humans have the remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk production in our DNA in exactly the place that evolution would predict. Our genome is nearly identical to the chimpanzee genome, a little less identical to the gorilla genome, a little less identical to the orangutan genome, and so on – and this correspondence is present in ways that are not needed for function (such as the location of shared genetic defects, the order of genes on chromosomes, and on and on). If you’re interested in this research, you might find this (again, somewhat technical) lecture I gave a few years ago helpful. You can also see a less technical, but longer version here where I do my best to explain these lines of evidence to members of my church. For those wanting even more info, a few years ago I recorded a series of lectures given to my non-majors, intro biology class that explored evolution and Christian responses to it in depth. 

3.  From Rob:  I have trouble with randomness in natural selection.  Why is it essential in scientific terms that evolutionary development is random?  How does that fit with the notion of a God who is involved in the world? …Random evolution would not be theism (or it wouldn't Biblical Christianity).  It would be deism; the Great Clockmaker who set everything in motion and then kept hands off.  Why is randomness essential scientifically, and how does a Christian accept it theologically?

'DNA' photo (c) 2010, Keith Ramsey - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I think you mean randomness in mutation: natural selection is anything but random (it’s a process whereby certain variants in a population reproduce more successfully than others). Evolution has a random component (mutations arise that may be detrimental, neutral or beneficial) and an emphatically non-random component (the different variants within a population do not all reproduce at the same frequency, meaning that the next generation will not be exactly like the previous one). So, as a whole, evolution is not random since it has a strongly non-random component. Evolution is actually remarkably good at producing similar results over and over again: consider how similar ichthyosaurs (descended from terrestrial reptiles) and dolphins (descended from terrestrial mammals) are. That’s the non-randomness of evolution at work. Some evolutionary creationists have argued that this non-randomness of evolution is a way that God uses evolution to shape His creation (the best work on this topic is Life’s Solution by noted Cambrian paleontologist Simon Conway Morris). 

4.  From HMV: I agree with you that the evidence seems to point to evolution being true. I've read Biologos and the old Evolution and Evangelicals blog.  I've read books where people try to rework theology in light of this scientific knowledge.  And yet, I'm left feeling confused and unsatisfied about doctrines like sin, the Fall, salvation, etc.  What about you--have you found a satisfying way to maintain your evangelical theology in light of evolution?

This is a tricky question, because it hinges on the inherently subjective term “satisfying.” What I might find satisfying you might not – and in order to answer the question I have to guess at what you mean by it. 

Personally, the concept of Divine accommodation has been helpful to me. This is a theology that has a long heritage in Protestant circles (e.g. Calvin).  In a nutshell, it’s the idea that God, in his grace, brings himself down to the level of the audience he is communicating with. For Genesis, that audience is an ancient near-eastern culture, not our modern scientific one. For Genesis, my view is that God wants to communicate that he is the Creator of all that there is, that he has given humanity a special image-bearing role within it, but our sinfulness has broken that relationship, et cetera – but that he doesn’t see a need to give them a science lesson first. I would recommend Denis Lamoureux’s book I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolutionand, though not directly related to science, Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration may also be helpful to you (it certainly was to me). 

5.  From Chris: From the perspective of an evolutionary creationist, what meaning and value do you extract from the creation accounts in Genesis and why would they be important for the Christian faith if they can't be taken literally?

See the answer above – I see the Genesis narratives as God graciously reaching down to an ancient culture in order to communicate to them that he is their creator, that they are alienated from him, and that he desires that they be restored to fellowship through his offer of covenant with him (ultimately pointing to the need for God to step into history himself as the One who can keep the covenant on our behalf). 

6.  From Paige:  I'll never forget sitting in one of Dr. Charlie Liebert’s classes several years ago and hearing him ask the question: "What came first, death or sin?" If we believe that there was no death before sin, it causes a wrinkle in our ability to hold to the theory of evolution. As a scientist, this question caused him to reexamine the evidence. How have you personally dealt with this "wrinkle?"

Yes, if you believe that no death of any kind (plant, animal, bacterial) occurred before human sinfulness, then this precludes an evolutionary view, since the fossil record is (obviously) a record of things, well, dying. If you hold that no human death came before sinfulness, then it depends on what you call human (there is a gradation of forms leading up to the modern human skeleton in the fossil record, as well as the overwhelming genetic evidence that we arose through an evolutionary process) and what you consider sin (i.e. when did we become accountable to God for our actions?). There is also the long-standing observation that God decrees that Adam and Eve will surely die the day they eat of the fruit – and then they live for several hundred years after the fact. I’d also recommend reading through Romans 5:12 – 8:17 (which, as you know, is all about Adam, sin and Christ as the second Adam) and making a mental checklist of how Paul uses the term death in this passage. References to physical human death are in the minority – suggesting that Paul’s understanding of what is going on in Genesis has a lot more nuance than a simple literal reading would imply. 

7.  From Jane (from her husband, an atheist): All of the questions posted so far approach the topic from the viewpoint of assuming belief in a god.  As an atheist, I don’t share that assumption.  (For those who might not appreciate it, evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god.)  If you transitioned from an anti-evolutionary/pro-intelligent design view to an evolutionary creationist view a few years ago,” why didn’t you keep going and just embrace evolution and drop the theistic aspect?

'Stained glass' photo (c) 2007, Börkur Sigurbjörnsson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Your question implies that there is a natural trajectory from accepting evolution to rejecting God. As a theist, specifically an evangelical Christian, I don’t agree with this point, though I understand where you are coming from. Let me explain.

Your assumption, that “evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god” holds weight only if one has the view that “natural explanations” and “theistic explanations” are a zero-sum game. This is a God-of-the-gaps approach, where God has less and less to do as we understand more and more how nature works (and a view I reject). Logically, if I held this view I would view science as an inherently evil activity, since any natural explanation diminishes the activity of God from this viewpoint. Your view is also one that science cannot establish as correct, since science cannot speak to the absence of divine action in an observed phenomenon. 

If, on the other hand, one believes that “natural explanations” reveal the means by which God ordains and sustains his creation, then “natural explanations” are not a threat to theism at all, but rather a window into the ways God acts in the world. This is the view I hold, and it too is a view that science cannot establish. Both theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are philosophical / theological interpretations of what science can establish: evolution. 

As for “drop(ping) the theistic aspect” – this would imply that my faith was based on a particular understanding of creation such that I would question my faith when I questioned the mechanism of creation and/or my interpretation of Genesis. This wasn’t really an issue for me, since my faith was, and is, based on believing that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the resurrected Lord of the entire world (to roughly paraphrase how N.T. Wright puts it) and that the resurrection is God the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ messiahship (as a sinless, suffering servant that, mystery of mysteries, turns out to be God Himself, incarnate). None of that belief was ever predicated on a specific interpretation of Genesis with respect to scientific details, and as such, accepting evolution as a mechanism by which God creates did not alter those beliefs. (If you’d like to see a rational, historically-rooted investigation of the credibility of the resurrection, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God is the standard by which others are judged.)

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Interview Series:

Ask an Atheist 
Ask a Catholic 
Ask an Orthodox Jew 
Ask a Humanitarian 
Ask a Mormon 
Ask a Mennonite  

And look for Justin Taylor’s responses to “Ask a Calvinist” on Thursday.

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What happened when I tried to love God with my mind

girl with bookphoto © 2006 Tom Martin | more info (via: Wylio)

Last week Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an excellent blog post about intellectual discipleship and the importance of loving God with our minds. I actually agreed with quite a few of his conclusions, including this one:

A robust and rich model of Christian thinking—the quality of thinking that culminates in a God-centered worldview—requires that we see all truth as interconnected. Ultimately, the systematic wholeness of truth can be traced to the fact that God is himself the author of all truth… The recovery of the Christian mind and the development of a comprehensive Christian worldview will require the deepest theological reflection, the most consecrated application of scholarship, the most sensitive commitment to compassion, and the courage to face all questions without fear.

Face all questions without fear. 

That’s exactly what I tried to do about two years ago when, despite some serious trepidation, I decided to learn all I could about the science behind evolutionary theory and the biblical scholarship surrounding interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. I’d been raised with the young earth creationist view and was familiar with the arguments from that camp, but what little evidence I’d studied from “the other side” struck me as compelling and sound. I figured that if “all truth is God’s truth,” then there would be no harm in honestly examining the evidence for myself. 

Within a few months, it became clear to me that to deny the scientific veracity of an old earth required an interpretation of the data that I could not in good conscience accept. And by the end of the year, I’d uncovered so much rich biblical scholarship regarding creation narratives in ancient Near Eastern culture that to demand that Genesis 1 and 2 address modern scientific questions seemed wholly unnecessary to preserving the inherent truth of the text.  

(Note: Some of the most helpful books I encountered during this period of study included The Language of God by Francis Collins, The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton,  Saving Darwin by Karl Giberson, and Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne.) 

I spoke one-on-one with scientists. I read through commentaries as old as Augustine. I got connected with the BioLogos Forum and even attended a conference on science and faith where I pretended to understand jokes at the lunch table about protein biosynthesis.

I did my due diligence to love God with my mind, even when it required a dramatic shift in my perspective. 

And Al Mohler didn’t like it. 

Responding to a piece I wrote for the Washington Post about my journey from young earth creationism to evolutionary creationism, Mohler told readers that my “glib and superficial endorsement of evolution and its reconciliation with Christianity is all too common and all to irresponsible.”

My quest for truth—with all of its searching, its tears, its research, and its late-night prayers—had been deemed “glib and superficial” by someone who didn’t even know me. It seems that Al Mohler is fine with Christians loving God with their minds so long as they reach the same conclusions that he has. 

As I’ve said many times before, I’m not particularly interested in converting young earth creationists into evolutionary creationists.I believe that Christians should be able to fellowship together in love and unity regardless of their various positions on the interpretation of Genesis Being neither an Old Testament scholar nor a scientist, I’ll leave that debate up to the experts. 

But I will tirelessly and unequivocally advocate on behalf of those Christians struggling to reconcile their faith with their intellectual integrity because someone like Al Mohler told them that they have to choose between Christianity and scientific consensus.  I cannot overstate the fact that the evangelical community…indeed the Christian community… is losing young people every day to a false dichotomy.  

Take it from me: When you grow up being taught to love God with your mind and then get punished for trying to do so, the temptation to leave the faith in anger and disillusionment is overwhelming.  

My request for Al Mohler is not that he abandon his convictions regarding the age of the earth but that he accept the fact  that if the Christian community indeed devotes itself to intellectual discipleship it will inevitably result in some diversity of opinion. 

And that’s okay. 

What does loving God with your mind mean to you? Have you ever been punished by the Church for asking tough questions or pursuing a new idea?

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Al Mohler responds

Al Mohler has responded to my piece on the Washington Post’s religion blog about evolution and Christianity. 

Read my piece: When Atheists and Baptists Agree

Read Mohler’s response: Evolution – When Atheists and Baptists Agree? 

Mohler seems to agree with my premise (that both atheists and young earth creationists present faith and evolutionary theory as incompatible), but not my conclusions (that perpetuating this dichotomy is harmful to the future of the church). 

I am honored that someone as influential as Mohler would take the time to engage me on the issue. My attitude toward Mohler is the same as my attitude toward Ken Ham: We can disagree on the age of the earth and still have peace with one another, for at the end of the day we can affirm together that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. I would gladly break the bread of communion with both of these men, and I can only hope that they feel the same way about me. 

I thought Mohler’s piece was fair, except perhaps for this statement: 

“Her glib and superficial endorsement of evolution and its reconciliation with Christianity is all too common and all too irresponsible.”

If only Mohler knew how much time I have spent in doubt, prayer, tears, sleepless nights, research, questioning, listening, and worship as I’ve wrestled with this tough issue! Of course there are serious theological implications to embracing evolutionary theory; it’s just hard to cram them all into a 700-word blog post! 

I’ll touch on some of these theological issues in a post on Wednesday, but I don’t feel the need to respond to Mohler any further. Like I said, I’m honored that someone important enough to grace the cover of this month’s Christianity Today would take the time to interact with my ideas. 

So, what do you think of Mohler’s response?

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When Atheists and Baptists Agree

I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. This position routinely puts me at odds with two groups of people—atheists and Baptists...

[Read the rest on my article on the Washington Post’s religion blog!]

Do you ever find yourself drawing fire from both sides of an argument after staking some middle ground?

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