When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of James Dobson broadcasts. Now, Dobson isn’t known for expressing his views with a great deal of ambiguity. He tends to see most issues in black and white, and he expresses himself clearly.
But I remember one broadcast 20 years ago, where he moderated a debate between a theistic evolutionist and a young-earth creationist. At the end, Dobson declined to render a verdict. He said we ought to leave room for both views.
At the time, I was convinced that creation had taken place over six literal days, roughly 6,000 years ago. For some reason, though, I was glad to hear someone say that how you interpret Genesis shouldn’t be a litmus test for orthodoxy. To this day, I’m still grateful to Dobson for that broadcast.
Since then, I’ve met a number of people whose scientific credentials are far more impressive than mine (which is to say they have some), who accept the theory of evolution, and who are every bit as devoted to Christ as I am.
Like Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam, I’m no scientist. I’ll let others debate the scientific particulars of the universe. I’m more interested the theological or biblical merits of young-earth, six-day creationism. And I’ve come to opinion that there aren’t that many.
Peter Enns approaches the issue of human origins — specifically, the question of Adam’s historicity — from a biblical/theological point of view, rather than a scientific one. Along the way, he questions many widely held assumptions.
Summing up Enns
The Evolution of Adam highlights some of the major problems with a literal reading of Genesis. For example, the fact that it contains two creation accounts which aren’t easily harmonized. Or the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of “days” well before the sun and moon are created on day 4 — which should be a strong hint that the writer is making a theological point rather than a scientific one. And the list goes on.
Again and again, Enns takes us back to the issue of context. Most Christians today accept the Bible has to be read in context, even if we’re not always very good at doing this. But Enns raises the stakes. He wants us to revisit the theological and cultural context of Genesis 1-2. He wants us to think about how these stories came into being — and why.
Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1-2 and other creation stories, like the Enuma Elish (Assyrian) and Atrahasis (Babylonian). He argues that these myths predate the Genesis narrative, though the relationship between them is complex — not a simple matter of drawing a causal line from one to the other. If he’s right, this has profound implications for how we understand the theologicalpurpose of Genesis 1-2. The biblical creation stories may be, in part, a polemical response to Israel’s conquerors (Assyria and Babylon). In their final form, they are Israel’s attempt to make sense of its own story, in light of the exile. Enns writes:
The Genesis creation narrative we have in our Bibles today, although surely rooted in much older material, was shaped as a theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile. These stories were not written to speak of ‘origins’ as we might think of them today (in a natural-science sense). They were written to say something of God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s chosen people.
But Enns has bigger primordial fish to fry. Namely, what do we do about Adam? This might not be much of an issue, if it weren’t for Paul. After Genesis 1-4, Adam disappears from the Old Testament record almost entirely. The idea of Adam as the originator of universal sin and death is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
So why does Paul say in Romans 5, “Just as sin entered through one man [Adam], and death through sin”? Enns devotes the entire second half of The Evolution of Adam to this question.
Enns’ argument rests, in part, on Paul’s use of the Old Testament — which is creative to say the least. If you have a reference Bible, try looking up some of the Old Testament passages mentioned in the New Testament. You’ll notice how time and again, Paul radically reinterprets the Old Testament to suit his purpose.
It’s often argued this was Paul’s prerogative, since he was writing inspired scripture. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that Paul wasn’t the only one to use the Old Testament this way. He is part of a much larger rabbinic tradition that did this sort of thing all the time.
According to Enns, Paul’s just doing what his people have always done: “reworking the past to speak to the present.” This is what the authors/editors/compilers of 1-2 Chronicles did, for example, retelling Israel’s story from a post-exilic vantage point. It’s what rabbinic scholars started doing with the rest of the Old Testament in the period leading up to Christ.
What makes Paul unique is that he reinterprets everything in light of Jesus’ resurrection — which (unlike Adam) was recent history for Paul, having occurred just 25 years before he wrote Romans.
For Enns, the loss of a historical Adam doesn’t in any way diminish the truth of Paul’s main point in Romans 5:
Even without a first man, death and sin are still the universal realities that mark the human condition… The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.
Enns also warns that by getting hung up on one detail of Paul’s argument (Adam), we risk losing sight of Paul’s larger purpose for writing his letter to the Romans:
Paul’s goal is to show that what binds these two utterly distinct groups [Jew and Gentile] together is their equal participation in a universal humanity marked by sin and death and their shared need of the same universally offered redemption.
For Enns, then, the fact that we are in this plight of universal sin and death is more important than how we got there. And Jesus as the answer to our plight is far more important than the idea of Adam as the literal, historical originator of our plight. Jesus and Adam, Enns writes, are not “characters of equal historical standing.” Christ is the one through whom all of history must be reinterpreted and reimagined.
Or as C.S. Lewis once wrote, Christ is the one through whom “this great myth became Fact.”