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The Historical Adam, Round 2: Peter Enns


Ignoring the Problem Won't Make It Go Away

I am happy to see this discussion taking place, and the posts thus far have certainly shared diverse perspectives, each of which could be engaged in detail. We see a clear divide in the posts to this roundtable—and it is a routine divide to anyone familiar with the debate within evangelicalism over evolutionary theory: those who accept evolution and who then engage the resulting hermeneutical and theological issues, and those who do not accept evolution because of the perceived harm it does to existing theological categories.

I am among those on the former side of the divide. I accept evolution as the explanation for how life on earth came to be. The scientific community, which includes Christians in general and as well as evangelicals, is in harmony on this point: there is no "first human."

This scientific conclusion is not a trend, nor is it a "theory" teetering on the crumbling foundation of godless thinking. It is well established and utterly uncontroversial, and for that reason requires serious engagement by any who seek to take seriously both Scripture and the advance of human knowledge.

Negative voices come from a small minority, largely from those who feel that commitment to theological structures that require a first human, Adam, cannot be compromised without the entire Christian tradition crumbling right along with it. Adam, though a minor character in the Bible, is—we are told—nevertheless a key pillar upon which the gospel rests.

That small minority is represented with remarkable clarity by two of the contributors to this roundtable, Hans Madueme and William VanDoodewaard, both sharing a deep and nonnegotiable commitment to conservative Calvinist theology. Though neither is trained in the study of Scripture in its ancient setting or in the relevant sciences—both of which are central components of the discussion—they are nevertheless fully confident in rejecting the contributions of these disciplines and remaining steadfast in their unalterable commitment to a "historical Adam." By choosing to ignore or minimize the prevailing scientific consensus on human origins and generations of biblical scholarship in ancient origins stories, they have also chosen to leave the conversation rather than contribute to it.

On a personal level, I have no quarrel with Madueme and VanDoodewaard, or others who might be content with the view they espouse. But as presumably public voices of reason seeking to defend a point of view and persuade others to adopt it, they have pursued a rhetorical strategy of ignoring or minimizing factors elsewhere considered to be well established and utterly uncontroversial. This strategy should be labeled for what it is: obscurantist apologetics, which neither serves the followers of Christ nor truth. And the great irony is that such tactics wind up alienating people from the very faith tradition they are so concerned to perpetuate.

Theological needs, no matter how closely held, cannot and do not determine the matter before us—whether there was a first human—because the question of human origins leaves "footprints" amenable to scientific and historical investigation. In other words, "Where do humans come from?" is a public question that can be answered through scholarly/scientific means in a way that "Does God exist?" or "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" cannot.

The fact that the scientific investigation of human origins has caused theological problems does not mean evolution "must" be wrong, as Madueme and VanDoodewaard seem content to establish as a logical premise. It means, rather, that Christians have a theological problem. The question is how—or whether—this challenge will be addressed. The pressing nature of the theological challenges of evolution to Christian theology are not successfully handled through the adoption of apologetic tactics, the goal of which seems to be precisely disengagement from the hard theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical work before us.

The specific rhetorical tactic employed by Madueme and VanDoodewaard is to argue from theological consequences: "If evolution is true and there is no biological first man, then what we believe is false. Since what we believe is true, this consequence is unacceptable and we are therefore well within our right—indeed it is our sacred obligation—to do what is necessary to neutralize evolution by simply declaring it false." Arguing from theological consequences is at best bad logic and at worst a manipulative tactic rooted in deep fear. None of us, including Madueme and VanDoodewaard, would tolerate for one moment this line of reasoning if employed by defenders of other ideologies.

Madueme and VanDoodewaard will no doubt contend that their view rests on the solid foundation of Scripture, though putting it this way, admirable as it is, nevertheless ignores the hermeneutical and theological complexities of Genesis recognized by many others. In truth, their foundation is not really "Scripture"—as if its meaning were plain—but rather the "proper" reading of Scripture, which is determined by their theological tradition (better, their interpretation of their theological tradition—not all Calvinists would agree with them!). In other words, Madueme and VanDoodewaard give final adjudicatory authority not to the Bible but to their theological tradition whenever science or historical biblical scholarship raises questions about the historical nature of the Bible, including the historical reliability of the Adam story. Such unwillingness to reflect critically on that theological tradition in view of historical studies is the reason why the impasse between the two "divides" mentioned at the outset continues. No true dialogue will emerge until this underlying issue is addressed.

I do not mean to suggest that Madueme and VanDoodewaard are lone voices for the view they espouse here in this roundtable. In fact, their view is common among fundamentalist and conservative evangelical apologists. But we do not do justice to the very real impact of evolution on Christian theology by disengaging from the challenge in favor of maintaining those very theological categories that the scientific and scholarly consensus has called into question. Those committed to Christian faith amid the challenges of our contemporary world deserve better.

This article is part of our Symposium on the Historical Adam:

Peter Enns is Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written extensively on biblical studies and contemporary Christian faith and has taught at Princeton Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School. His book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins questions the belief that Adam was a historical figure.

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