Review of Peter Enns’ Book, The Evolution of Adam

Posted By on May 4, 2012

This review of Peter Enns’ short but important book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, is getting some discussion on the web. I just finished Enns’ book, so I want to share some impressions of this review and what Enns is saying. I’ll eventually post something of greater substance on this. I’ve been following the discussion between Christian geneticists, biblical scholars, and certain science apologetics sites relating to the problem of a historical Adam. I say “problem” because the recent work mapping the human and Neanderthal genome (and comparing both to other primate genomes) has brought the issue of whether there was a historical Adam to the forefront. And this concerns more than Genesis 1-3; Romans 5 and the whole idea of the sinfulness of humankind is tied to Adam.

In a nutshell, when it comes to the Old Testament, Enns’ position is that evolution is a given, and that Adam in Genesis was designed by the biblical writers to typify Israel (see here for a brief overview of his view). He does a good job of briefly demonstrating that (incidentally, a longer academic monograph on this subject just appeared in print: Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh). When Enns gets to the New Testament and Paul (if I read him correctly) his position is that Paul was wrong about Adam, but right about Jesus (who is the “second Adam”). To explain, Enns is saying Paul’s view of Adam assumed a single historical individual, which is untenable in the wake of evolutionary science. Paul’s use of that pre-scientific point of ignorance, however, does not mar the correctness of his conclusions about Jesus as being the necessary and exclusive Savior of all.

Readers know that I would agree that the Bible is a pre-scientific document. I would also agree that theological conclusions based (in part) on pre-scientific misunderstandings are not undone (presuming the idea and argument is demonstrable from the text in other ways — ways also used by the biblical authors). So, in principle, I’m not offended by Enns’ take; but I actually don’t agree with the way he expresses things. I would talk about Adam and Paul differently.  But that is for another post.

Getting to the review linked above, I’m wasn’t impressed with it, though others have been. It’s foundational criticism of Enns is not coherent, and that fact mars the efficacy of it as a critique. The brief excerpt below illustrates why. The author writes of Enns’ approach:

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. . . . 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?

His implication is that God is missing, but that reflects flawed thinking. The reviewer’s God is too small. When scholars like Enns (or myself, or John Walton, whom the review also mentions) insist that Genesis was produced by people, we affirm the (biblically and practically) obvious: God used people to produce the inspired text. When we insist that the product of their hands (and other hands, with respecting to any editing) resulted in what God wanted, God is still very obviously in charge.  He doesn’t take days off. We presume God was pleased with the result (and of course knew of the result). When we insist that the biblical material must — to be correctly understood — be interpreted in light of its ancient Near Eastern environment, as opposed to an interpretive context like the Reformation, the early Church, the Enlightenment, or modern fundamentalism and evangelicalism, we affirm God’s own decisions in the matter and process of inspiration. In other words, GOD chose the time, the place, the people, the cultural-religious context, the pre-scientific context, etc., for intervening in human affairs and lives to produce this thing we call the Bible.

To say Enns is divorcing God from the biblical content is to demonstrate ignorance of where Enns and other scholars are really at, intellectually and theologically. Think of it this way: Enns (and myself, along with other scholars) think of inspiration as a process akin to the way virtually all orthodox Christians (and so, surely, the reviewer) think of canonicity. Human fingerprints are all over the canonical process, but God was providentially present and active through the entirety of the process. Inspiration worked the same way. Inspiration of the biblical material came via a process, not a paranormal event. Why is the reviewer unwilling to take as a view of inspiration the precise view he (if he is in the orthodox mainstream) takes of the canon?

At any rate, I recommend Enns’ book since the issue is of great importance, and his work is readable. I’ll return to the topic at some point in the near future.

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22 Responses to “Review of Peter Enns’ Book, The Evolution of Adam”

  1. John says:

    I feel that the reason modern day scientists are on a large part atheist is because they along with us believers cannot comprehend where God came from, his origin. Dr, do you really think it’s possible God used evolution to create modern man. This to me is absurd, but also absurd that God created the Earth to look millions of years old. Something is missing!! I think both us Christians and scientists are missing something huge.

    • MSH says:

      I think God is capable of creating in any way he desires, in a nano-second or by evolutionary process. To deny either is to impinge on his own attributes.

  2. Patrick says:


    The explanation Professor Enns gives there for his view is interesting. However, 2 things bother me about his position as I understand it.

    1) He needs for Paul to be wrong on a fairly important theological issue.

    I can see us misunderstanding what Paul meant. That would be easy to believe. Paul wrong on theology would be difficult for me to understand.

    2 ) The “land of Nod” and the “people Cain feared” who may not have been in Nod may explain the genome findings w/o the need to question Paul’s theology.

    I’ve long felt those were other people God providentially “created”( I share Professor Walton’s view of creation so a rapid evolution of several homo genus into us is easy for me to imagine).

    Then we run into Paul’s “Adam’s sin and we all sinned” thinking again. Maybe it’s more simple than Enns’ resolution, maybe Paul only meant Adam in that way as a “federal figurehead” and not really the “father of us all and all sin”.

    Somewhat like a Bible type represents the antetype, but, is not the antetype???

    • MSH says:

      Your note on Cain is one of the reasons Enns feels the Bible may support an evolutionary idea (implicitly). Your note on Walton affirms non-Adamic humanity (in the sense of pre-Adamic humanity). So, Enns would be with you. The issue is Paul. Since I believe the Eden event / the Fall (and Romans 5:12) is a story that tells us why humans are mortal and not immortal, rather than the traditional notion that Adam’s sin resulted in the transmission of *guilt* to all humanity (see my Romans 5:12 archive on this blog), I don’t feel the (apparent) need that Enns feels to say Paul was wrong. That will no doubt NOT be clear, which is why I am reserving my own take for a later post.

  3. John Rosen says:

    I would like to know if you have gotten a chance to look at
    I have watched his video, only 1 hour long, and it’s quite compelling. What do you think?

    • MSH says:

      I’ve seen it. He steals the information from Ernest Martin’s wonderful book, The Star that Astonished the World (available online for free at The creator of this video does not credit Martin, which irks me. He also messes up the resurrection date / correlation. Martin’s material on the star is, for me, pretty compelling.

  4. Kenny R. says:

    Seems like something is going on, everyone’s writing books about the christian God’s creation story. It’s as if none of the other religions in the world even matter and Christianity is a huge threat that needs to be debunked or proven scientifically. Maybe there needs to be a forward in the book of Genesis apologizing for the lack of live footage of the creation of earth by a team of cameramen from NOVA.

  5. Patrick says:


    Even if you were wrong on the Romans 5:12 take , Professor Enns still wouldn’t need to find Paul in error to demonstrate the Bible does no violence to the genome findings( I assume they are accurate, I honestly have no idea).

    1 possibility:

    1) Adam may be seen as the first to sin and that original sin may have led those who were not his direct genetic children to eventually sin. Sin passed “indirectly/sans sex” to that sector of mankind . His sin made the other’s sin inevitable.

    Sin still “entered the world/ mankind” through Adam.

    Seems to me Paul could still see all unbelievers, “in Adam/sin”, he could still see sin as passed to all humanity via Adam w/o Adam being literally the genetic father of all humanity.

    That would leave me with the question about the meaning of “Eve” & Gen. 3:20. Does that need to be taken literally based on their culture?

    • MSH says:

      I’ve chatted with Peter a couple times by email since this post. I’ll try to get something done on it in a week or so. I’ll lose this weekend to a conference, so it may have to wait until afterward. I expect to chat with Peter in person at the Pastorum conference in June, so any questions you or others have can be posted here or in email and I will try to get a response from Peter.

    • MSH says:

      On Eve, the name could (I suppose) be taken abstractly.

      • Gary says:

        So Adam a generic man was wowed by a generic abstract Eve, that certainly adds weight to wanting to commit yourself to a particular woman :)

  6. Shaun says:

    After following this debate for over a year I’m convinced the reviewer is right about at least one thing. Everyone in this debate talks past one another. I look forward to your take on this Dr Heiser.

  7. Marc Wilson says:

    Here’s a link that I, as a pastor who believes in the biblical witness of an historical Adam while also appreciating the importance of genuine scientific inquiry, have found insightful, non-polarizing and cordial regarding these issues. Thanks to Tim Keller (along with the insightful proposal from Derek Kidner and the openness David Atkinson).

    • MSH says:

      Thanks, Marc. When I post my thoughts I will make sure to include a link to this to be sure people see it.

  8. Matthew says:


    Do you know whether or not Peter Enns (and company) has (have) ever taken this approach to his (their) beliefs:

    Someone shared this link during a discussion within uncommondescent.



  9. Richard says:

    If you get the opportunity I would be interested in your interaction with Ardel Caneday’s article “The Language of God and Adam’s Genesis & Historicity in Paul’s Gospel”

    His article came out before Enns’ book but he does interact with Enns’ presentations on the Biologos website.

    Looking forward to your review!

  10. Patrick says:

    This is a late comment here, but in Acts 17 there is the comment by Paul that says we all came from one. “God made the nations from one”.

    That militates against my expressed views as does Eve.

  11. Richard Brown says:

    Where to start on this? The entire discussion seems accept at the outset a flawed assertion, then gets worse.

    First: I am just astonished anyone leaves unchallenged Enns PRESUMPTION, his built-in but glossed-over assertion that “Evolution” [did he even define that term?] is something that should be declared “valid” and taken seriously as a premise from which to makeover scholarship on Old Testament and New! Are you kidding me? “Evolution”… just that word, is variable in meaning at this stage of the Neo-Darwinist ever-evolving “Science” compendium. As that body of argumentation stands at the present time, what once [say, three decades ago] passed as “Evolutionary Theory of the development of species” hardly survives, or is so buried by the avalanche of polemic from Academia as to be non-discussable. Neo-Darwinism is a Faith, a religion that relies ultimately on the faithfulness of its many defenders, because scientific evidence of Darwin’s “gradual evolution” of new species simply does not exist. What does exist is a record of sudden appearances of fully-developed life forms without any record of graduation. And the question one must ask of a Neo-Darwinista is “how did that body type appear suddenly?”.

    This reminds me, painfully, of the current Political Discourse in this country in which ALMOST every side of Politik ratifies by repetition of the assertion that “government creates, or fails to create, Jobs” – which is an idiotic concept. But by accepting the built-in assertion, even the detractor dignifies the lie.

    I would argue that perhaps Enns subsequent work “Genesis for Normal People” is more in alignment with his skills and credentials – it is certainly much more aligned with his understanding of science. Looking back on the prior book which this column comments upon, he could have asserted all of his major theological challenges without the concept of what he terms “Evolution” ever being mentioned! And his esteem would have been greatly aided by doing so. Its not novel to argue that Genesis begins with a convenient myth: many have done so.

    I was not surprised at all to find from a couple of years back Peter Enns demonizing the work of Gerald Schroeder, PhD nuclear physics and earth sciences who actually does have a thorough understanding of the science. Neo-Darwinism does not deal with The Origin [as in, of the U], and has produced no scientific evidence for one species gradually through random attempts “evolving” to a wholly different species, nor any evidence at all for how non-living substance “evolved” into biological life, much less how non-sentient life “evolved” into self-aware sentient life forms. Nonetheless Enns and his foundation require us to bow to his a priori assertion that Theology MUST accept “Evolution” as an equal partner at the table of ….. what? … Philosophy? So,, non-evidentiary Pseudo-Science must demean biblical theology to a lower denomination in order for there to be “civil discourse”.

    Secondly, a “First Adam” is not dependent upon nor necessarily descended from inferior “pre-Adams”. Why is that hard to understand, conceptually? If there is a peculiar Being whom we would know [or at least I would regard as] the biblical YHWH, we assert that that Being selected substance from which to create a Biped Hominid into whom that Being “breathed” a unique life-form that resulted in that “Man” becoming a speaking spirit. The biblical concept of what constitutes “Man” does not need to be reconciled with Cro-Magnon.

    Thirdly: The faithful Neo-Darwinistas, observant Jews, and faithful Christians need to separate the arguments of “Unguided Origins”vs “Planned/ Guided Origins” from “If Deity, WHICH Deity/Deities”. This is a discussion I have had with thoughtful debaters from the Neo-D camp and gained their agreement. The whole Christian Jihad against Neo-D’s seems so tainted with the desire to enforce “OUR Brand of God” upon the unbelieving that it makes real debate rare. There are good reasons to continue to vigorously decipher and debate what the scientific Breadcrumbs are saying without burdening the discussion with a really unrelated discussion of the identity/ies of Deity/ies.

    Hath Scientific Discoveries proven Darwin’s Theory of the Gradual Evolution of Life?
    : “”The exact opposite is the case. – – Darwin insisted that “natura non facit saltum,” that nature does not make jumps. In fact, the flow of life as recorded in the fossil record has many jumps in complexity. The great trade secret of paleontology is that the fossil record does not confirm Darwin. Never did I expect to read in the esteemed, peer reviewed journal, Science, the following: “Did Darwin get it all right?” And the sub-title was no, species appear with a most un-Darwinian rapidity. The problems of evolution begin with the origin of life (Richard Dawkins attributes the origin of life to “luck.”) and continue through the fossil record. Most precisely, the oldest rocks that can bear fossils already have fossils of microbes, some undergoing cell division. Nature “invented” DNA, RNA, cell structure, cell function with startling rapidity.””

    Finally, what is the source of funding for BioLogos?

    • MSH says:

      I don’t know who funds Biologos. I personally feel less-than-assured about the rightness of evolution (I have read too much of Cornelius Hunter’s “Darwin’s God” blog for that). Peter and I have corresponded via email a few times, so he knows how I feel there. I’ll be posting more comments on his book, hopefully this weekend.

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