Colossian Blog
April 24, 2012 | Andy Saur

Book Review – The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins by Peter Enns

Whose Bible? Which Adam?


The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins by Peter Enns. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012.  Pp. 192





April 24th, 2012
Book Reviewed by James K.A. Smith, 
Senior Fellow for The Colossian Forum

In a June 2011 cover story, Christianity Today documented what has been dubbed “The Search for the Historical Adam” (a coy play on the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus”).  The phenomenon described is the unique challenge posed by our contemporary situation—what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “cross-pressure” experienced by believers in the modern world.  Specifically, the new discussion about Adam, Eve, and human origins is propelled by accumulating evidence for evolutionary origins of the human race.  As evangelical Christians have pursued science as a vocation, they also have experienced increased “cross-pressure” between the biblical account of human origins and the picture that has emerged from the sciences—including archaeology, biology, and genetics.[callout title=Callout Title]“Evangelical readers…generally tend to live more in the tensions between their deep, instinctual commitment to Scripture and the challenges to that commitment that arise in life in the modern world.”[/callout]Even those evangelicals who reject evolutionary accounts have nonetheless felt the cross-pressure of this situation.  (See Tim Morris’ review of Should Christians Embrace Evolution? for a relevant discussion here.)

It is into this “cross-pressured” situation that Peter Enns wades with this new book, The Evolution of Adam.  In fact, Enns believes that evangelicals feel this pressure more than either fundamentalists or mainline Christians: “Evangelical readers,” he notes, “generally tend to live more in the tensions between their deep, instinctual commitment to Scripture and the challenges to that commitment that arise in life in the modern world. … This type of burden does not seem to be as pressing in either mainline forms of Christianity or in fundamentalism” (x).  This is why evangelicals are also Enns’ primary audience.

But as the title of the book already suggests, Enns’ aim is clear.  Because evolution is, as he puts it, “a game changer,” the “general science-and-faith rapprochement is not adequate because evolution uniquely strikes at issues of the Christian faith.”  Specifically, Enns asserts, “[e]volution tells us that human beings are not the product of a special creative act by God as the Bible says but are the end product of a process of trial-and-error adaptation and natural selection” (xiv).  And “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” (xiv).  So rather than trying to “reconcile” the Bible and evolution, Enns is forthright: he argues we need to rethink Genesis and Paul—by which he means reconnoitering our expectations of what the book of Genesis and the epistles of Paul have to offer (xviii-xix).  In this respect, Enns’ project is very similar to John Walton’s proposal in The Lost World of Genesis One, situating Genesis as a book that reflects an ancient Near Eastern cosmology.  Thus we shouldn’t expect the Bible to be trying to “teach” any “scientific” claims about human origins.  As Enns constantly emphasizes, “the biblical authors…were only expressing their assumptions about the nature of the cosmos” (xvii).  So we should adjust our expectations accordingly.  If we do that, Enns concludes, then we’ll find that what Genesis and Paul teach about human origins doesn’t tread on the territory of what we know from evolutionary science.  The result, he believes, will be peaceful coexistence.

I wonder.

In this review, I’m not particularly interested in debating the specific position that Enns holds.  While it might seem odd, I will forego assessing whether or not Christians can or should affirm an evolutionary account of human origins—not because I think that is unimportant or because I don’t have a position but because I think we have a lot of work to do before we get to that question and debate.[callout title=Callout Title]…if evangelicals are going to debate these matters well, we need to consider more foundational issues and not rush ahead to nailing down a “position.”[/callout]Indeed, in many ways, the very mission of The Colossian Forum is predicated on the conviction that Christians too quickly rush ahead to settled “positions” before reflecting theologically on just how we should proceed.  If one wants to disagree with Enns’ conclusions, it is crucial to first attend to the whole framework within which he pursues his project.  In fact, even if one were inclined to agree with his conclusions, it is important to consider whether one also wants to accept the way he gets there.  More importantly, if evangelicals are going to debate these matters well, we need to consider more foundational issues and not rush ahead to nailing down a “position.”

Thus I will focus on what we might call Enns’ “methodology”—and more specifically, the assumptions that undergird his approach, many of which simply reflect standard operating procedure in the biblical studies guild (and so are not unique to Enns).  Indeed, in many ways, Enns might be sort of caught between the practices of the biblical studies guild and his own sincere desire to aid and equip the church to be faithful in the modern world. So any criticisms that follow are not criticisms of Enns’ intent, but more an attempt to open up a conversation about the limits of the paradigm in which he renders this service to the church.

Which author?

There is a feature of Enns’ argument that could easily go unnoticed only because it is so ubiquitous: his account is entirely “from below.”  That is, Enns’ argument is predicated on the working assumption that the meaning of the Scriptures is tethered to—and determined by—the intent of the human authors.  Indeed, in this approach human authors seem to be the only relevant authors when it comes to understanding the Bible.  There is literally no mention (that I could find) in which the meaning of the Scriptures is linked to what the divine Author might have intended.[1]  So when Enns speaks of what Genesis means, he always and only refers to “the biblical authors” (xvii) or “the Israelites” (42)—these are the only operative “authors” in the entire analysis.  The meaning of Genesis is determined by what the Israelites “placed” there (70) and is read as an “expression” of Israel’s faith (75).

Similarly, we are regularly told what “Paul’s gospel” is (93), with just a hint that Paul’s gospel should perhaps not be identified with “the” Gospel.  If any meaning is ascribed to Adam in the New Testament, it is Paul who is doing it: “Paul lays much at Adam’s feet, more than a straightforward reading of Genesis dictates” (133).   One can get a feel for how “flattened” biblical meaning is for Enns in this passage later in the book (in contrast, say, to the “ecclesiocentric” hermeneutic of Richard Hays, where meaning overflows human authorial intent[2]).  Consider Enns’ summary:

Simply put, we cannot and should not assume that what Paul says about Adam is necessarily what Genesis was written to convey—any more than we should assume that what Paul says about Isaiah or Habakkuk is exactly what those authors had in mind…  If we fail to grasp that point and assume that Paul is an objective interpreter of Genesis [because we are?!], we will paint ourselves into a corner where we will expect to find something in Genesis that Genesis is not prepared to deliver (117).

Note who populates the terrain of biblical interpretation here: Genesis (or the “authors of Genesis”), Paul, and us.  Does it feel like anything is missing?  Or Anyone?

While Enns affirms the inspiration and authority of Scripture, this sort of hermeneutical approach functionally naturalizes biblical interpretation.[3]  Because this sort of account of biblical meaning is tethered to the intent of human authors, there is no functional role for divine authorship in determining meaning—which is precisely why Enns treats these books and letters as discrete entities rather than parts of a whole canon (more on this below).[callout title=Callout Title]…in the end what we get is a kind of biblical primitivism that locates the “original” meaning of the human author and settles for that as what God meant.[/callout]While such sophistication with respect to genre analysis, archaeological background, and comparative literary analysis is offered as an antidote to “literalist” readings, in the end what we get is a kind of biblical primitivism that locates the “original” meaning of the human author and settles for that as what God meant.  It at this juncture that the working assumptions of “biblical studies” will constantly bump up against the hermeneutical stance of “ecclesial” interpretation since they approach the Scriptures with both different assumptions and different ends in mind.[4]  In the vein of Alasdair MacIntyre, one could say they are different practices working with very different “standards of excellence.”[5]

This unstated but working assumption generates two further problems: First, as already mentioned, and as will be discussed further below, the contextualization of Genesis and Romans in the canon of Scripture does not impinge in any way on what Enns thinks these texts mean.  Second, Enns’ exclusive focus on human authorship is a way to divide and conquer.  By sequestering the meaning of Genesis to what the ancient Near Eastern authors meant, Enns thereby sequesters the meaning of Genesis from overlapping with scientific claims about human origins.  Indeed, on his reading, the book of Genesis is actually irrelevant to historical, scientific questions about human origins (69).

This sequestering of Genesis from human origins gives us “NOMA” by other means.  NOMA is a famous acronym coined by evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, who claimed that science and faith were “non-overlapping magisteria”—two different authorities with different jurisdictions or domains.  Science, for Gould, dealt with facts; while religion dealt with values.  As long as we kept that straight, then the two would never conflict because there would be no “overlapping” jurisdiction.  The problem, of course, is that Christian faith does make factual, historical claims and is not just a nice collection of “moral teachings” (and science is also loaded with values).  So Gould’s NOMA model has been roundly rejected.

And yet Enns seems to revive a version of it in order to “solve” the (“perceived”) tension between evolutionary accounts of human origins and the biblical understanding of human origins.  But note the price for eliminating this tension: rejecting the notion that the Bible has something to say about human origins.  Thus Enns questions “whether the Adam story is even relevant to the modern question of human origins;” if we appreciated this irrelevance, “much of the tension between Genesis and evolution is relieved” (69).

Whose “Genesis?”

As I noted above, reflective of the practices of interpretation we inherit from the guild of biblical studies, Enns’ unit of analysis is the book (Genesis) or the human author (Paul).  So the meaning of Genesis is, one might say, “internal” to the book of Genesis.  Or, more accurately, using a metaphor from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur: the meaning of the text is located primarily “behind” the text—in the human author’s intention.  And behind that is the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East.  So if we are going to know what Genesis 1-3 means, we need to probe through and behind the text to its genesis in the authors and editors of this discrete book—which requires recognizing that behind them is a cultural context that not only conditions but determines “what Genesis means.”  Similarly if one wants to understand Paul.

This is so common and seems so commonsensical that it might be ill-advised to call it into question—except for the fact that the Bible itself challenges such a hermeneutic method.[6]  First of all, the Christian church is not a recipient of the book of Genesis as a discrete unit; we receive the book of Genesis within the Bible and that Bible is received as a whole—as a “canon” of Scripture.  Second, internal to the canon is the conviction that meanings God intends are not constrained by what human authors intended.[callout title=Callout Title]The meaning of Scripture is not limited to what human authors intended.[/callout]To use Ricoeur’s metaphor again, the meaning of Scripture is also generated in front of the text—in the people of God’s continued interaction with revelation, illumined by the same Spirit who inspired the authors of Scripture.[7]  The meaning of Scripture is not limited to what human authors intended—which is precisely why the meaning of prophetic texts outstrips what human authors might have had in mind.  As Richard Hays puts it, in some ways Christians read the Bible back to front.  But the dominant methodology that Enns reflects has no functional room for appreciating this point, which is why he seems to think that defining what the “authors of Genesis” had in mind settles the matter.  It doesn’t.

This sort of a-canonical approach also explains why Enns sees such a strange relationship between Genesis and the apostle Paul as a reader of Genesis.  “Paul’s reading of Genesis,” he comments, “is driven by factors external to Genesis.  Paul’s use of the Old Testament, here or elsewhere, does not determine how that passage functions in its original setting” (87, emphasis added).  Well, that might be true; and Enns is exactly right to offer a corrective to irresponsibile habits of Bible reading that are little more than baptized eisegesis, reading into the Scriptures what we want to find there.  But is the “original meaning” the determinative factor for the meaning of Genesis for us?  We receive a canon of Scripture that recontextualizes each book—situating every book in relation to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which is why the “location” from which we read the Bible needs to be the practices of Christian worship.  Worship is the primary “home” of the Bible and it is in worship that we cultivate those habits and virtues we need to read Scripture holistically.[8] That will certainly generate meanings of Old Testament books that could never have been intended by their human authors; but that doesn’t mean they were not intended as meanings to be unfolded “in front of the text” by the divine Author.[callout title=Callout Title]The church has always staked its reading of the Bible on the conviction that Scripture’s meaning exceeds what the original human authors could have intended.[/callout]

Enns’ approach leaves little room to recognize such recontextualization within the canon—nor does he accord any positive, constructive role to tradition (cf. 114).  In fact, if it becomes a contest between “the authors of Genesis” and Paul, Enns sides with “the original meaning” of Genesis as the determinative meaning: “what Genesis says about Adam and the consequences of his actions does not seem to line up with the universal picture that Paul paints in Romans and 1 Corinthians […]. I do not think the gospel stands on whether we can read Paul’s Adam in the pages of Genesis” (92).  To use Enns’ language, Paul attributes something to Genesis that the “authors of Genesis” are not trying to give us. Again, this account is entirely “from below,” as if it is Paul alone who “invests Adam with capital he does not have either in the Genesis story, the Old Testament as a whole, or the interpretations of his contemporary Jews” (135).

But now the problem above comes home to roost: what if there is an Author who is the author of both Genesis and 1 Corinthians?  What did he intend?  And could he intend meanings in Genesis that outstrip what the “authors of Genesis” intended?  The church has always staked its reading of the Bible on the conviction that Scripture’s meaning exceeds what the original human authors could have intended.  So we can’t neatly and tidily settle the cross-pressures we feel at the intersection of Genesis and contemporary science by simply limiting the meaning of Genesis to what was intended by its Ancient Near Eastern authors.

What’s “history?”

A third undercurrent to consider in the book, which is not unique to Enns: a tendency to implicitly dichotomize the “historical” and the “theological.” So he tends to belabor that Genesis offers a “theological” take on human origins (e.g., p. 33) and castigates readings of Genesis that treat it as “journalistic” (50) or offer a “blow-by-blow” account (62).  “Genesis cries out to be read as something other than a historical description of events” (58).

Enns is exactly right to push back on “conservative” or “literal” readings of the Bible that anachronistically impose a “journalistic” sense of “history” on ancient texts.  Indeed, ancient Christian interpreters would be puzzled by this (and Augustine was downright embarrassed by such readings of Genesis).  So it is helpful to appreciate the original intent and setting of these texts in order to counter our very modern habits of reading the Bible as if it were the same genre as Robert Caro’s history of LBJ’s presidency.  Enns helps us to see how modern our “traditional” (i.e., literal) readings of Genesis are.  But in response, he verges on making the “theological” seem a-historical.

Surely we need more nuance here since the core theological claims of the Gospel have historical hooks.  I don’t want to fault Enns for not offering a more nuanced account of “history”—or what “counts” as “historical”—but only want to note that this book is further evidence that this is a theme that deserves much more attention from Christian scholars.[9]

Our options are not either a-historical “theological” claims or literalist “historical” claims.  We shouldn’t confuse or reduce “historical” to journalistic paradigms or blow-by-blow chronology.  We need to develop more nuanced accounts of history in order to do justice to the theological.  There is much work to be done on this front.

What’s at stake?

Finally, when Enns synthesizes Genesis and Paul to articulate a doctrine of original sin, I think he misjudges and underestimates just what’s at stake in the “search for the historical Adam.”

He already misframes this in the Introduction to the book.  He attributes the following syllogism to “traditionalists”—to those who are going to disagree with him and defend the “traditional” understanding of Genesis.  According to Enns, they reason as follows: “[A]s the argument often goes, if there was no first Adam, then there was no fall.  If there was no fall, there is no truly inescapably sinful condition and so no need for a savior.  If evolution is true, then Christianity is false” (xvi).  Let’s break this down into syllogistic form; remember, this is what Enns describes as the “traditionalist’s” logic:

Premise 1: If there was no first Adam, there was no fall.

Premise 2: If there was no fall, there is no truly inescapably sinful condition and so no need for a savior.

[Unstated premise 3: Jesus as the Savior of sinful humanity is at the heart of Christianity.]

Conclusion: Therefore, if evolution is true [i.e., if there was no first Adam], Christianity is false.

Enns clearly wants to disprove the conclusion; and very much wants to affirm premise 3.  So if he’s going to disprove the conclusion, he is going to have to disprove either premise 1 or premise 2 or both.  And his prime target is actually premise 2; it is this premise that he will reject.

Enns obviously does not want to deny the Gospel.  He understands the heart of the Gospel to be the good news that sinners are graciously saved by the death and resurrection of the sinless Christ.  The key components of this Gospel, then, are our sin and Christ’s death and resurrection.  So as long as we affirm both of these—universal human sinfulness and the death and resurrection of the sinless Christ—then we will have preserved the Gospel.  And Enns very much wants to affirm both of these.[callout title=Callout Title]Enns thinks he can save the Gospel by simply affirming universal human sinfulness without taking a stand on the origin of sin; but that is to fail to recognize that what’s at stake is the goodness of God.[/callout]

But it is in this context that I think Enns either misrepresents or misunderstands the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Fall and original sin.  He speaks as if the doctrine of original sin was just an account of the cause of our universal human sinfulness (124)—and it is just this sort of causal claim that he thinks is untenable in light of evolutionary evidence for human origins.  But Enns thinks we are free to abandon this causal claim associated with original sin and instead simply affirm universal sinful humanness—and hence the need for a Savior, thereby preserving the Gospel.  We “must remain open on the ultimate origins of why all humans are born in sin (original sin) while resting content in the observation that all humans are born in sin (sin of origin)” (125).

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.  Because if we don’t have an account of the origin of sin we will end up making God the author of evil—a thesis that has been persistently and strenuously rejected by the orthodox Christian tradition.  Enns thinks he can save the Gospel by simply affirming universal human sinfulness without taking a stand on the origin of sin; but that is to fail to recognize that what’s at stake is the goodness of God.  If God uses evolutionary processes to create the world and sin is inherent in those processes, then creation is synonymous with fall and God is made the author of sin—which compromises the very goodness of God.  And if the goodness of God isn’t central to the Gospel, I don’t know what is.  I don’t deny that this is an incredibly thorny issue; and this is not necessarily an apologetic for a “blow-by-blow” understanding of the Fall. I only point out that Enns’ account doesn’t recognize it as an issue.  And that is a problem.  Indeed, I think it explains why so much of the recent debate about the historical Adam has been an adventure in talking past one another—and why we need a new conversation to delve further into these issues, working with what Hays calls an “ecclesiocentric” hermeneutic rooted in the worship practices of the church.

The Evolution of Adam is an important book.  But I think it should be an occasion to recognize that the current state of the conversation about theology and human origins has some homework to do, revisiting foundational themes and questions that, in this book, are unasked.


[1] Appeals to God’s “authorship” of Scripture do not entail simplistic “dictation” theories of inspiration.  For a nuanced account of divine authorship, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 35-44 and 147-155.

[2] In contrast, consider Richard Hays’ account of Paul’s “ecclesiocentric” hermeneutic in Hays, The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[3] For his account of inspiration, see Peter Enns, Evangelicals and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

[4] There is a growing chorus that is noting this tension.  See, for example, Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Stephen Moore and Yvonne Sherwood, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011); and J. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

[5] For a relevant discussion, see James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), esp. ch. 7.

[6] In The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), I argue that a hermeneutic like Enns’ which focuses on “authorial intent” narrowly conceived is actually a distinctly modern interpretive strategy—one which many evangelicals have also adopted.

[7] For a classic statement, see David Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37 (1980): 27-38.  More recently, see Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 137-153.

[8] See Jim Fodor, “Reading the Scriptures: Rehearsing Identity, Practicing Character,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 2nd ed., eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011), 155-169.

[9] For hints in this direction, see Richard B. Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth,” in Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 41-61.


James K.A. Smith is a Senior Fellow of The Colossian Forum and professor of philosophy at Calvin College.


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