Behind the Book: Peter Enns’s The Evolution of Adam

Today begins the week-long blog tour for Peter Enns’s new Brazos book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. Check back all week as we will be updating as various bloggers review and engage with this important book.

To kick-off the tour, we asked Peter Enns to write a brief post for us on how the book came about.  Here is his reply:

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“Why I Wrote The Evolution of Adam” by Peter Enns

Many Christians are looking for ways to think clearly, deliberately, and differently about evolution and the Bible. There are several angles one can take to talk about this (e.g., theological, philosophical), and they all come into play. But I feel the most pressing issue Christians face is the hermeneutical one: if evolution is true, what do I do about what the Bible says about Adam and Eve?

I know many Christians who understand the scientific issues and are convinced that evolution explains human origins. They are looking for ways to read the Adam story differently. Many more—at least this is my experience—are open to the discussion, but are not ready simply to pull the trigger on evolution. They first need to see for themselves that the Adam story can be read with respect and reverence but without needing to read it as a literal account of human origins. Both groups are thinking hermeneutically, though they approach the issue from different sides.

So, as a biblical scholar who has always been keenly interested in the interface of ancient faith and contemporary life, I thought I would paint a bull’s-eye on my back and write a book trying to do just that.

I never really gave the topic of evolution any serious thought until 2009. I had just read Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin and I was struck by how helpful it was, but also how much more convincing his arguments could be if they were in conversation of biblical scholarship and hermeneutical issues. He and I began corresponding, which eventually lead to my working at The BioLogos Foundation—first under Giberson and then under the current president Darrel Falk.

As I got deeper into the issue and began reading widely, I could see that, despite the many tremendous books out there on science and faith, few, if any, books were taking on the hermeneutical issues surrounding evolution—they weren’t dealing head on with the question, “How specifically do I read Genesis and Paul now that you’ve convinced me that evolution is true and that science and faith can live in harmony?”  In other words, the uneasy, awkward, piecemeal approach sometimes seen when Christians (especially evangelicals) talk about evolution stems from a failure to have an overt hermeneutical strategy for handling the Bible.

From the vantage point of academic biblical scholarship, I felt that such a strategy was sitting there all along, waiting patiently for someone to name it: read the Bible in historical context and see for yourself that the Bible is not remotely set up to contribute to any modern scientific discussions, including evolution.

This conclusion is, I feel, obvious: the pink elephant, 500-pound gorilla, and emperor with no clothes all rolled into one. And one needs no secret academic decoder ring to see it. A simple Google search will quickly yield a lot of information. We know enough today about the religious traditions of the ancient Mesopotamian world, of which Genesis was a part, to know that Genesis was produced by storytellers, not historians, anthropologists, or biologists. Ancient Israelites produced the story of Adam and Eve, and however you think of God’s role in inspiring these storytellers, the ancient Near Eastern-ness of it all must be kept front and center.

Likewise, astute readers of Paul in his historical context see clearly that he, like others of his time, felt quite free to appropriate and adapt creatively his scriptural tradition (our Old Testament) to serve his rhetorical and theological purposes. This is precisely what Paul does with Adam. Here too—however we might explain Paul’s being moved by God’s spirit—we must remember that the Paul that was so moved was a first century Jew who thought like a first century Jew, not a western evangelical.

As I see it, these observations about Genesis and Paul cannot be sidelined but must be brought front and center into the hermeneutical discussion over evolution. I say this for two reasons. First, these observations are hardly idiosyncratic or resting on thin ice, but are well-documented staples of biblical studies. Any discussion of the Bible and evolution that ignores or minimizes these factors in favor of defending familiar theological categories should be given no quarter. Second, these observations are well positioned to help provide the “theological vocabulary” for many Christians to begin their own hermeneutical journey of reading Genesis and Paul responsibly.

Of course, there is a downside to this type of discussion. Many readers seeking alternate ways forward experience tremendous cognitive dissonance and social pressure, for they are part of ecclesiastical communions that historically have not looked kindly at the kind of hermeneutical synthesis the evolution/Bible discussion requires. In fact, not to overstate, but there are theological and ecclesiastical bodies that have a vested interest in seeing to it that these conversations don’t happen.

I do not take the fact lightly, but I do think that a self-preservationist mindset is wrong, and, ironically, self-defeating in the long run.

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Peter Enns (PhD, Harvard University) teaches biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.  He has taught at several schools, including Princeton Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Temple University, and Westminster Theological Seminary. Enns has authored or edited numerous books, including Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

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  4. [...] As we posted earlier, Peter Enns kicked off the blog tour for The Evolution of Adam with a blog post titled “Why I Wrote The Evolution of Adam“. [...]

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  7. [...] other details.Tomorrow I’ll blog about part 2, which focuses on Adam in Paul’s writings.Just a reminder, this post is part of the blog tour about Pete Enns’ book, The Evolution of Ad…. Tags: Adam, authorship, creation, evolution, Genesis, Moses, Pentateuch, Peter Enns, scholarship, [...]

  8. [...] Peter Enns  has released a new book called The Evolution of Adam. Peter Enns kicked off the Evolution of Adam Blog tour this week, where he states the problem and reason for writing the book: But I feel the most pressing issue [...]