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Easing the Tensions in Human Origins

By May 1, 2013 No Comments

In his latest offering, Peter Enns attempts to alleviate partially the tensions for evangelical Protestants and other contemporary Christians who uphold scripture as authoritative while at the same time, for whatever reasons, accepting the general contours of accounts of human origins offered by modern evolutionary biology and related sciences. Specifically, Enns addresses on the one hand how the figure of Adam is employed in the book of Genesis, in the Old Testament broadly, and in extra-biblical Jewish texts of the Second Temple era, and how, on the other hand, Adam is used by the Apostle Paul in relation to salvation in/through Jesus Christ. Cover Enns argues that the ancient writers of Genesis cannot have intended their presentation of Adam to address the kinds of questions modern science pursues regarding human origins, and he observes that Paul’s arguments center on the universal significance of Jesus Christ for human salvation, creatively referencing Adam in ways nonessential to the truth about humanity’s universal need for salvation through Jesus Christ. Enns claims it is no longer viable to read the biblical Adam as an actual individual living in time and space, and he proposes that contemporary attempts to do so will inevitably distort the biblical texts as we have them and dismiss or distort modern scientific explanations of human origins.

The focus and purpose, then, of Evolution of Adam is not concerned with how to bring the natural sciences into conversation with biblically rooted theology and doctrine. Rather, it involves a discussion of and arguments for how best to read portions of the Bible as authoritative scripture, given the context of modern scholarship in biblical studies as well as in archaeology. Questions raised by evolutionary biology, cosmology, and other modern sciences are relevant to Enns’s endeavor, but they are not in the foreground. What is at stake throughout the work is how the church understands the nature of scripture (or at least portions thereof) and how the church develops doctrines, such as original sin, rooted in such understandings.

One can read Evolution of Adam as a stand-alone treatment. However, it would be helpful to read alongside it Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament in order to engage a larger set of arguments regarding Enns’s view of scripture in terms of divine revelation and divine inspiration/authorship. Inspiration and Incarnation develops at length a model for understanding scripture as simultaneously completely divine and thoroughly human. Using as an analogy the doctrine of divine incarnation (in the orthodox sense of Jesus of Nazareth having a fully divine nature and a fully human nature), Enns holds that God’s inspiration of scripture is not something that occurs beyond or over and against the historical-cultural context of scripture’s human writers but precisely through it. In other words, in both Evolution of Adam and Inspiration and Incarnation, Enns is not questioning that scripture is divinely inspired but is exploring how that inspiration functions.

In order to make the case that ancient writers/compilers of Genesis were not addressing the sorts of questions modern physical and biological sciences do regarding human origins–and thus that we should not expect them to offer claims that we would recognize as such–Enns briefly rehearses the development of modern biblical scholarship in terms of historical-critical methodology and modern archaeological findings. By focusing on modern biblical studies and archaeology, Enns wisely attends to the nature of biblical texts themselves instead of appealing to the findings of modern biological sciences. Enns presents various problems, issues, and textual difficulties within scriptural books–for example, referring to God as Elohim in certain contexts of Genesis and Yahweh in others, even though the name Yahweh canonically is said not to have been known until the time of Moses. He then outlines some of the similarities between scripture and other ancient Near Eastern texts discovered by modern scholars (for example, Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, Atrahesis).

These intratextual matters and intertextual affinities have been pursued by biblical studies for over two centuries, a pursuit which has led to widely (though certainly not universally) held conclusions. For instance, the idea that Genesis 1–11 as it has come to us today was finalized sometime after the Babylonian captivity and not by Moses or any other individual writer is widely concluded by biblical scholars. Such conclusions are the result of various methods used to analyze the content and structure of the text itself and to analyze its themes in relation to other ancient Near Eastern accounts of cosmic and human origins. Enns argues that the writers and editors of Genesis 1–11 are primarily concerned with offering a theological account of cosmic and human origins generally and the origin of Israel in particular. As such, accounts of Adam and Eve as figures don’t give insight into the origin of all human beings from a single original pair in terms of modern historical and scientific concerns, understandings, or questions. How they do function is to answer ancient Israel’s questions regarding the nature of the world and humanity in relation to the God of Israel, and is to answer such in contradistinction to the claims of neighboring civilizations.

Regarding Paul’s use of Adam as the progenitor of all human beings and the one through whom sin and death entered humanity and the cosmos, Enns explains that Paul is operating as a first-century Jewish exegete. The hermeneutical moves with Old Testament texts that Paul is making in Galatians and Romans (and in his other uses of the Old Testament) need to be seen in the context of Second Temple Judaism and midrashic practices of scripture interpretation. Enns observes that what is primarily important for Paul in Romans 5 is God’s salvation of humanity enacted through Jesus Christ. Reference to Adam as the progenitor of universally sinful humanity functions as a supportive argument for Paul’s claim that the basis of and means for any human being’s salvation is the work of God in Jesus Christ. Paul’s use of the figure of Adam in this way reflects the thinking of an ancient individual and (more important) first-century Jewish exegete. Enns argues that nowhere is Adam understood as the universal cause of human sin in the canonical Old Testament and that Paul’s employment of him as such entails creative– and legitimate, given Paul’s context–exegesis. The historicity of Jesus and the salvation that comes through him is not dependent, however, on the historicity of Adam or on Paul’s belief in the historicity of Adam. According to Enns, to think that such must be the case is to judge Paul’s argumentation by the criteria of modern scholarship and exegesis, not by the criteria of first-century Second Temple Jewish exegesis.

As one who works in systematic and historical theology and who routinely pursues questions at the intersection of modern natural scientific descriptions and biblically rooted Christian theological descriptions of humanity and the rest of the created cosmos, I find Enns’s book to be a helpfully succinct summary and rehearsal of arguments from modern biblical studies and archaeology. I am generally convinced by such lines of argumentation because of their capacity to account for numerous aspects of the scriptural texts themselves. Such arguments raise one’s consciousness of the profoundly theological nature of scripture–that is, scripture’s profound concern and capacity for describing God and the world as it fundamentally and primarily exists in relation to God. Finally, the recognition of a true distinction in cultural worldviews between the human writers of scripture and contemporary modern/postmodern Western human communities addresses problems in such a way that they need not preclude living simultaneously with both a biblical mindset and one that accounts for modern understandings of human and cosmic origins. Additionally, Enns’s arguments regarding the nature of Paul’s exegetical strategies, methods, and context open up hermeneutical possibilities regarding not only Paul’s discussion of Adam but other Pauline arguments as well.

Evolution of Adam will probably best serve its target audience, particularly those who are at the stage of undergraduate education or further. Moreover, I would expect it to be useful for others by raising a variety of issues any contemporary doctrine of scripture (and derivatively, any doctrine of humanity or doctrine of sin) must engage.

Brian Madison teaches historical and systematic theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.