The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, a review (part 2 of 2)

So what are we to make of The Evolution of Adam?

There’s no question Enns’ proposals concerning Adam (and Paul’s use of Adam) are controversial for many Christians. They’re not something we should embrace or reject quickly. Books like these often elicit knee-jerk reactions (from both sides) when something more thoughtful is called for.

Like James Dobson did 20 years ago, I’m going to pass on rendering a final verdict. It’s not for me to say what we should make of Adam. Instead, I want to share three takeaways — two positive and one (mildly) critical.

1. Inspiration as incarnation

Some have accused Enns of demonstrating a low view of Scripture and a near-total disregard for its divine inspiration. If Genesis is “wrong” about creation, (I would argue it’s not a matter of Genesis being right or wrong because Genesis doesn’t seek to address scientific reality), and if Paul was “wrong” in some of his assumptions concerning Adam (though not in the point he was using Adam to make, Enns would say), then we are left with an unreliable, uninspired Bible.

But Enns himself never goes there. He repeatedly talks about the Bible’s divine inspiration in ways that should give responsible critics pause before lobbing these rhetorical grenades.

Rather, what Enns does is connect scriptural inspiration to divine incarnation — which, I gather, is the point of his previous book, Inspiration and Incarnation (though I haven’t read it).

God revealing himself in the written word, the logos, is fundamentally an act of incarnation. And incarnation — whether it’s God finding a way to contain infinite divinity within finite humanity or finding a way to reveal infinite truth through finite language — is an act of divine self-limitation. Or divine condescension, if you like.

As Enns writes in the final section of The Evolution of Adam:

Even the expression of deep and ultimate truth does not escape the limitations of the cultures in which that truth is expressed. [God accommodates] himself to the views of the time.

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power…

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather… we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

According to Enns, the biblical writers’ knowledge of the universe was limited by the time and culture in which they lived. (No doubt our knowledge is similarly limited in ways we don’t fully realize.) Evidently, when God chose to speak into THAT time and culture, he didn’t feel the need to correct every false assumption about cosmology, origins, etc., because he had a much more important story to tell.

The fact that the Bible reflects the cosmological assumptions of its day isn’t a problem for inspiration — unless you attribute to God a compulsion to correct every false assumption people have, much like the overzealous parent who nitpicks a child’s pronunciation just as she’s learning to talk.

Disagree with Enns about Adam if you like, but to accuse him of holding a low view of scripture is, in my opinion, a red herring.

2. Creation as cosmic temple (and a few other things)

Using Genesis 1-2 to wage a scientific battle is like using Van Gogh’s Starry Night to make a point about astronomy. There is little to be gained — and a good deal that will be missed.

For example, when we lay Genesis 1 next to other ancient creation stories like the Enuma Elish, we see more clearly the polemical punch our story packs. Genesis 1 effectively neuters the gods of the ancient pantheon. Sun, moon, and stars are no longer gods themselves, but merely created objects, stripped of their supposed divinity. Genesis 1 rather ingeniously suggests that God doesn’t even need the sun to provide light — he’s more than capable of that himself! Genesis 1 is, at its core, a profoundly subversive text.

Genesis 1 also reveals the true purpose of the cosmos: to serve as God’s dwelling place. We’re so used to thinking of God existing outside of time and space that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around this one.

Enns observes that Genesis 1 follows the pattern of a seven-day liturgical week, which for its original Jewish audience would have brought to mind Sabbath and sanctuary. Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1 and the creation of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31. And he draws an important contrast between Genesis and the Baal creation myth:

There is no temple in Genesis 1 constructed after creation to celebrate God’s victory over chaos; the created world is his temple.

Which connects nicely to the resolution of the biblical drama in Revelation, where God returns to his cosmic temple once more, this time to dwell among his people forever.

Meanwhile, in Genesis 2, we see a striking parallel to Israel’s story. Both Adam and Israel are “hand-made” by God. Both are given a piece of land to tend on God’s behalf. Both are given a law to govern their relationship to God. Both fail to keep their end of the bargain, and consequently both are subjected to exile — exile and death being nearly synonymous in the Old Testament.

There is so much good stuff to be explored in Genesis 1-2 once we get over our scientific hang-ups. There is deep truth to be found here, if we’d stop trying to make scripture answer questions it has no interest in answering.

If nothing else, the fact that these stories were carefully arranged to make specific theological points should serve as a clue that their writers were not particularly interested in providing a literal, scientific, or purely historical description of events. They would give us so much more — if we would just let them.

3. Death as the last enemy

I do have one criticism of The Evolution of Adam that I’ll share here. On the next-to-last page, Enns writes, “Death is not the enemy to be defeated.” His point is that some of the things we think of as bad (such as death) need to be revisited in light of evolution.

I agree… up to a point. Death in some form seems to be a vital element of creation and not just a foreign entity. Call it “the circle of life.” Or as Rob Bell once said, “Death is the engine of life.” In the plant world, for example, death and decomposition are vital to creating and sustaining new life.

There’s nothing in Genesis to suggest that humans were immortal by nature prior to the fall. In fact, they needed to eat from the tree of life precisely because they weren’t immortal. Death was woven into our DNA from the beginning.

And it’s a good thing too, given the reality of sin. I mean, to live forever in a progressively decaying body, now cursed by sin and sickness — who in their right mind would want that? (Unless, of course, you’d like to end up as Lady Cassandra from Doctor Who.)

Still, in a more ultimate sense, death is an enemy to be defeated. Or as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We’re all made to die. The question is whether death will have the last word. And the whole point of the redemptive story — of Christ’s death and resurrection — is so this question can be answered with a definitive, resounding no.

I don’t think Enns would disagree, which is why I characterized this as a mild criticism. In any case, whatever you make of Adam, Enns’ book is one that deserves to be read and considered carefully.

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