Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns

The issue of the relationship between science and faith has been an important topic for centuries, if not millennia, if not longer.  I do not think it is an overstatement to say that it is as great, if not greater, an issue today than any other time in history.  Advances in science and archaeology over the past 125 years have put everyone in a position of having to address this relationship.  There are many routes taken in this process. 

Some go with a simple dismissal.  Science is evil and a lie from the pits of hell.  Religion is a crutch for the simple minded and offers nothing to the scientifically literate of the world.  Or maybe the dismissal is not as extreme and prejudiced as that, but it still a simple dismissal of the competing claims.  This has been the approach for many of us for most of our lives.

I just do not think we have that luxury anymore, especially in regards to the issue of evolution.  We are now seeing a virtual universal acceptance of some form of evolutionary theory in our world today.  While many or most Evangelicals and virtually all Fundamentalists still reject any type of macro-evolutionary theory, the option to dismiss without engaging is no longer viable.  Our world is embracing evolutionary science and we must be willing and able to engage those who do.  According to Barna research, one of the reasons many youth leave the church is for its unwillingness to engage scientific issues with any semblance of credibility.  Many hold that the church's rejection of evolutionary theory is a misguided elevation of interpretation over revelation, much like the initial rejection of the heliocentric model of the universe presented by Copernicus and argued for by Galileo.

Many books have been written over the past decade about a Christian's response to evolutionary theory.  The Creation Institute and the Biologos Foundation have both been instrumental in furthering the discussion, if not at times resorting to caricature and polemics where better means would have been more appropriate and beneficial.  Nevertheless, the discussion is occurring and that is a good thing.  A good addition to the discussion is Peter Enns' recent book, The Evolution ofAdam.

Enns is explicit with what he is attempting to accomplish in his book. “My aim is to speak to those who feel that a synthesis between 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.”  I do hope Enns is genuine with this statement, and I have no reason to believe otherwise.  Enns' purpose is  based on some underlying truths to which he holds. “The truth value of any theological iteration cannot be judged simply by how well it conforms to past views...I take it as axiomatic that a healthy theology is one that shows a willingness—even an expectation—to revisit ways of thinking and changing them when need be.”  I would hope that this is something on which we all could agree and support with a hearty “Amen!”

Enns makes some great points throughout this book.  His most relevant and important point is looking at how many Christians are simply unwilling to engage a counterview because of fear.  
Enns statement about why many Christians are reticent to even explore the idea of evolutionary theory is quite insightful and may have applications beyond simply how we interact with scientific thought. 
Enns writes:
The Christian faith is invariably tied to its sacred book, where God speaks.  Any challenge to how that book has been understood—and evolution requires some significant adjustment for many—is bound to be threatening and so elicit strong reactions.  Saying that the Adam story in Genesis is not a historical account, even though it seems to be understood that way by Paul—no matter how gently one puts it—presents a real threat to some because it is believed to undermine the trustworthiness of the Bible. 
The reason why this tension is felt so acutely—particularly among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists—is because of the central role that the Bible plays in those traditions.  Although they express their commitments differently, both of these groups share a commitment to the supreme authority of the Bible in all theological matters, which typically (or at least historically) has included a commitment to the accuracy of the Bible. When challenges to the “boundary marker” arise, tensions naturally increase. 
The roots of the commitment to the Protestant Evangelical and Fundamentalist consciousness are varied, but certainly one significant historical factor is the Reformation concept of sola Scriptura: the Bible alone is the church's final authority on all matters pertaining to faith and life.... (sola Scriptura) does not leave much room for reinterpreting the Bible in view of extra biblical information, be it science or Mesopotamian creation texts.  These external forces introduce ambiguity into the otherwise clear meaning of the Bible and are seen to relativize its teachings as cultural expressions.  Evolution requires Christians to rethink theology, yet some believe accepting this challenge calls into question their core Protestant identity.  For some Christians, therefore, evidence from natural science and archaeology, no matter how compelling, is simply inadmissible.  Too much is at stake.

That being said, I have some serious concerns this book and with what seems to be guiding its author..  Enns holds some truths to be indisputable and seemingly self-evident, to the point that his premise fails because the foundation he attempts to lay depends on the reader agreeing with his presuppositions about Scripture and history.

The main base for Enns is his undaunted allegiance to Biblical Criticism, specifically the work of Julius Wellhausen. 

No Old Testament scholar has had more of a lasting impact on his field than Julius Wellhausen.  Not unlike Darwin in his field, Wellhausen synthesized a lot of data and developed a theory that caught on quickly with most specialists at the time yet was also hotly contested by others and even maligned and reviled by some.  Like Darwin, Wellhausen's  ideas have had to be refined, adjusted, and in some cases abandoned as further discoveries came to light.  Today many of the details of Wellhausen's arguments no longer dominate the academic conversation, but two general insights remain as a virtually unquestioned foundation for subsequent work :(1) that parts of the Pentateuch were composed over several centuries, and (2) that the Pentateuch as a whole was not completed until after the Israelites returned from exile.

This leads Enns to some points that are critical to his premise but, as far as I can see, not necessarily true. 
*A Post Exilic writing of Genesis,

*Genesis being dependent on ancient near eastern myth,

*Genesis being not historical but rather allegorical,

*Paul as simply an interpreter of a document, not the Holy Spirit inspired recorder of divine revelation so he is subject to error as any other man when interpreting Scripture.

While I struggled to find common ground or a convincing argument in much of Enns work, he hit on some points that I feel are critical to understanding this debate and the need for the conversation.

One point he makes is that the biggest problem for Christians in the situation of human evolution, the historical Adam and the historicity of Genesis 1-3 is Paul.  While it would require some rethinking and some interpretation of Scriptures that differs from what is accepted now, one could make a case for evolution without any genuine violation of Scripture if it were not for the writings of Paul and how he deals with Adam.
Christians have a bigger problem than dealing with Genesis if they want to reconcile Christianity and evolution: Paul.  Here we come to the heart of the matter, what I believe is the ultimate source of concern for Christians who are seeking a synthesis between the Bible and evolution...The conversation between Christianity and evolution would be far less stressful for some if it were not for the prominent role that Adam plays in two of Paul's letters, specifically in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-58.  In these passages, Paul seems to regard Adam as the first human being and the ancestor of everyone who ever lived.  This is a particularly vital point in Romans, where where Paul regards Adam's disobedience as the cause of universal sin and death from which humanity is redeemed through the obedience of Christ.  Many Christians, however creative they might be willing to be about interpreting Genesis, stop dead in their tracks when they see how Paul handles Adam.

And I cannot stress enough how I appreciate and applaud his desire to interact with the topic of Science and Evolutionary Theory rather than simply dismiss it outright.   While it may be true that evolution is a bunch of bunk and that's all there is to it, this argument is not likely to lead many modern, thinking minds into a dialogue with the Christian faith where they can see the goodness and truth of our claim that we serve a crucified and risen King.

Enns summarizes his position in his final chapter called “Adam Today: 9 Theses”.  Reading the text with these points in mind will help the reader see where Enns is going and how he gets there.

1.  Literalism is not an option.

2.  Scientific and biblical models of human origin are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different “language”.  They cannot be reconciled, and there is no “Adam” to be found in an evolutionary scheme.

3.  The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way.

4.  There are two creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile in order to tell Israel's story.

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.

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.

7.  A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors—whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis.  Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment.

8.   The root of conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identiy and fear of losing what it offers.

9.  A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations.

While I disagree with much of what Enns wrote, including the conclusions he comes to, I definitely appreciate his viewing this topic as pressing and worthy of a book-length interaction.  His admonition to deal with the topic in an authentic manner, whether he does so or not, is applicable to all believers.  His reminder that this is a topic that needs to be addressed cannot be stressed highly enough.  What is implicit in his text is a challenge to seek truth, no matter where it leads you.  If we truly hold to the fact that “all truth is God's truth” then a Christian should never fear where a search for truth will take them.

A grammatical-historical approach has always fed off of our growing knowledge of the biblical world, the results being a clearer understanding of what the text is trying to get across.  Placing the Bible in its historical contexts is the principle that lies behind every commentary on our shelves and the notes and maps that make up our study Bibles.  The fact that the scientific and archaeological evidence concerning Genesis can be somewhat challenging does not permit us to abandon the principle. 
To that I offer a hearty, “Amen!”  To the book as a whole, I would suggest reading it with a healthy dose of skepticism and being mindful of the presuppositions with which Enns approaches this topic.