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The Historical Adam: Peter Enns


Once More, with Feeling

Editor's Note: Books & Culture is hosting a symposium on the historical Adam, which Karl Giberson and I organized. Karl's student assistant at Stonehill College, Olivia S. Peterson, played an indispensable part in rounding up the pieces and preparing them for posting. There will be eight participants, representing a range of views: Peter Enns, Karl Giberson, Denis Lamoureux, Hans Madueme, Harry "Hal" Lee Poe, John Schneider, William VanDoodewaard, and John Walton. After the first round, each participant will have an opportunity to respond. Posting will be in alphabetical order. Following the second round, I will post a wrap-up, and the symposium will conclude.

Was there a first human named Adam, created directly by God out of dust? Christians have been butting heads over this ever since Charles Darwin. For evangelicals in particular a lot is at stake.

If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn't. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what's in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God's version of human origins isn't what actually happened—well, "the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope" (as it were). The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one's personal faith.

That, more or less, is the evangelical log flume of fear, and I have seen it played out again and again.

In recent years, things have gotten worse. Popular figures like Richard Dawkins have done an in-your-face-break-the-backboard-slam-dunk over the heads of defenders of the biblical story. They've taken great delight in making sure Main Street knows evolution is true, and therefore the Bible is, as Bill Maher puts it, "God's big book of bad ideas." Christians are morons for taking it seriously. Evangelicals have been on high alert damage control mode.

Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It's a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best and perhaps only explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans and primates evolved from a common ancestor. Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology, I feel I have no right to contest — and I likely speak for many other evangelicals in that regard. And it doesn't help that America's most high-profile evangelical scientist, Francis Collins, was the one who pointed all this out, got the Presidential Medal of Honor for it, and talked about it twice on The Colbert Report. If that wasn't enough, evolution is now being used to explain all sorts of things about us—including why we even believe in God in the first place. If God is a product of evolution, like bipedalism and tool-making, well, the jig's up (and not just for evangelicals).

Evolution threatens, and many evangelicals are fighting desperately to keep Adam in the family photo album. But in their rush to save Christianity, many evangelicals have been guilty of all sorts of strained, idiosyncratic, and/or obscurantist tactics: massaging or distorting data, manipulating the legal system, scaring their constituencies, and strong-arming and even expelling those of their own camp who raise questions.

These tactics get lots of press, but behind them is a deeper problem—a problem that gets close to the heart of evangelicalism itself and hampers true dialogue. It has to do with what evangelicals expect from the Bible.

Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, "What does the Bible say about that?" And then informed by "what the Bible says," they are ready to make a "biblical" judgment.

This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: it assumes that the Adam and Eve story "teaches" us about human origins, a peeling back the curtain of clutter to relaying accurate, neutral information from the mind of God so we can know where, when, and how people originated. As long as evangelicals continue to make this assumption—implicitly or explicitly—the conflict between the biblical Adam and evolution is guaranteed.

Even setting aside the impact of science, however, the modern study of the ancient world of the Bible has made a "historical Adam" intellectually implausible. Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do. Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch—an understandable conclusion. They wrote stories about "the beginning," but not to lecture their people on the abstract question "Where do humans come from?" They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious—and often political—beliefs of the people of their own time.

Their creation stories were more like a warm-up for the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.

Likewise, Israel's story was written to say something about their place in the world and the God they worshipped. To think that the Israelites, alone among all other ancient peoples, were interested in (or capable of) giving some definitive quasi-scientific account of human origins is absurd. And to read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were set up to so such a thing is simply wrongheaded.

The necessity of reading the biblical story against its ancient backdrop is hardly a news flash, and most (but by no means all) evangelical biblical scholars easily concede the point. But for some reason this piece of information has not filtered down to where it is needed most—the mainstream evangelical consciousness. Once it does, evangelicals will see for themselves that dragging the Adam and Eve story into the evolution discussion is as misguided as using the stories of Israel's monarchy to rank the nominees for the 2016 presidential election.

Evangelicals tend to focus on protecting the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver. These kinds of conversations are already happening, though too often quietly and behind closed doors. Evangelicals owe it to their children and their children's children to bring the discussion out into the open.

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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