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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 118–122 

Book Review

The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins

Peter Enns. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012. 172 pages.

Reviewed by John Brubacher

A few months ago, the weekday morning show host from a Christian radio station contacted me, wondering if I would be willing to be interviewed about the upcoming debate over evolution between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. 1 The host did not intend to ask me to take sides, or even to lay out my position on the matter; the interview was simply meant to focus on my thoughts as a Christian biologist on why engaging tough questions about the Bible and science is important for Christians. I agreed to participate, but the following day he emailed back to say that, “due to the nature of the topic,” he had been instructed by the management of his station not to conduct the interview. I begin with this vignette not to question the programming decisions of a radio station, but simply to illustrate that the subject of evolution and Christian faith remains (or has become) controversial enough that, in some quarters at least, it is considered unwise even to discuss in a public forum why the topic matters.

Fortunately, Peter Enns (Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, Pennsylvania) is less reticent to reflect on such questions. In his recent book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Enns deals with one particularly significant aspect of this topic: how Christians ought to approach the book of Genesis and letters of Paul with respect to the historicity of Adam (and Eve). His main concern is to help interested Christians think carefully and constructively about what we ought to expect from Scripture on this subject. 2

Enns argues that the main stumbling point (consciously or not) for Christians in dealing with evolutionary theory is Paul’s depiction of Adam, most explicitly in Romans 5:12–21, where the significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is presented as God’s life-giving response and resolution for Adam’s sin. According to Paul’s analogy in Romans, as Adam’s disobedience and sin brought death into the world, so Christ’s obedience and sacrifice was necessary to restore humanity to life. Says Enns, “For Paul’s analogy to have any force, it seems that both Adam and Jesus must be actual historical figures. Not all Christian traditions will necessarily see it that way, but this is clearly a commonly held assumption today and the root reason why Christianity and evolution are in such tension for many, in my opinion” (xvi). 3

On this matter, I think Enns is quite correct. While discussions of evolution and Christian faith often focus on the nuts and bolts of how creation came into being (how long it took, in what order, and so on), the historicity {119} and cosmic significance of Adam and Eve are far more important in that they have direct implications for the distinctively Christian understandings of Jesus Christ, sin, atonement, and salvation.

Despite the evolutionary theme of the book, it contains relatively little discussion or defense of evolutionary theory itself. Enns simply (and I would argue, correctly) takes evolution as a given from the outset, stating that “the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, has shown beyond any reasonable scientific doubt that humans and primates share a common ancestry” (ix). 4 He notes that evolutionary theory was merely one of three forces that emerged in the nineteenth century 5 to challenge a literalistic interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis. The other two are modern biblical criticism and biblical archaeology, and these are the main focus of the book.

Enns’s focus on biblical scholarship highlights a fact that seems to be under-appreciated by those who view evolution and Christianity as antagonistic worldviews: careful reading of biblical texts themselves raises many questions about their historicity, and such questions have caught the attention of theologians and biblical scholars from the earliest days of the church, long before the advent of evolutionary biology. 6 As such, the issue of Adam’s historicity in light of recent scholarship is not only, or even primarily, a matter of “science versus Christianity.” Rather, it is a call for conversation among Christians about what we can expect of Scripture. How might we continue to uphold a high view of Scripture as the authoritative and inspired Word of God, when several strands of scholarship suggest that the stories we find there are not necessarily straightforward historical accounts? The Evolution of Adam is meant as a starting point for Christians who want to take both evolution and Scripture seriously, to help us develop a productive understanding of Genesis and Paul that can support the integration of evolutionary theory into Christian theology.

The book is divided into two sections, the first on the portrayal of Adam in the early chapters of Genesis, and the second on Adam as understood and used by Paul in his letters. The theme that unites these sections is Enns’s “incarnational” understanding of Scripture: the interpretive framework he uses to balance the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture against the reality of its authorship by culturally, linguistically, and historically constrained humans. He sees these divine and human aspects of Scripture as analogous (though not precisely equivalent) to the Chalcedonian definition of the divine and human natures present in Jesus Christ. 7 In a sense, The Evolution of Adam represents its application to one particular case. For Enns, acknowledging the human dimension of Scripture in this way is critical in order to take seriously what he describes as a “foundational principle of theology that informs not only our understanding of the Bible {120} but of all of God’s dealing with humanity recorded there, particularly in Jesus himself: God condescends to where people are, speaks their language, and employs their way of thinking. Without God’s condescension—seen most clearly in the incarnation—any true knowledge of God would cease to exist” (58). In other words, while Enns views Scripture as the inspired and authoritative word of God, he is adamant that we should not therefore expect it to be interpretable as a simple and direct historical account of events. While this is not a new idea 8 or even likely to be a particularly controversial one in many circles, it has gotten him into trouble in the past. The controversy arising from his earlier book, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press, 2005), ultimately led to his dismissal from the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008. Such experiences perhaps help to explain the exceptional care Enns takes to lay out his objectives and intentions in the introduction of the book, which is important reading, but repetitive at points.

The section on Genesis provides, among other things, a very helpful and accessible introduction to the development of scholarly thought about Genesis. Here, Enns is keen to counteract readers’ suspicions that modern biblical criticism aims only to undermine the authority of Scripture, tracing connections from early questions raised by patristic theologians’ faithful, attentive reading of Scripture to the blooming of historical criticism in the nineteenth century. Enns then moves on to outline the current scholarly consensus on the authorship of Genesis, the historical setting in which the book was compiled, and the purpose it was intended to serve. In a nutshell, Genesis as we know it was compiled soon after the return of the Israelites from their exile in Babylon in the sixth century bce, by editors drawing on multiple sources, and originally served as a theological document that would define Israel’s national identity and distinguish it from surrounding cultures. As such, we ought not to expect the accounts of Adam given in Genesis 1–3 to be simple descriptions of historical events. None of this will be new or surprising to readers who are even marginally familiar with Old Testament studies, and Enns acknowledges as much. What makes this section so valuable is the accessibility and conciseness of Enns’s writing, the unobtrusive notes that point the reader to sources for further reading, and his way of anticipating and (for the most part gently) responding to objections.

In the section on Paul, Enns begins with a discussion of the Apostle’s general approach to the Old Testament. He insists that we cannot understand Paul (or other New Testament authors) without taking into account his tendency to re-interpret the Old Testament in the service of his overriding objective: to proclaim the transformational gospel message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Enns provides several examples of Paul’s {121} exegetical method in chapter 6, concluding that “Rather than a modern academic giving a neutral interpretation of the Old Testament, when we read Paul we must learn to expect from him an interpretive challenge.” Adam is no exception to this pattern. Paul’s presentation of Adam as the historical first human, through whom sin and death entered the universe, can reasonably be understood as an attempt to project the significance of the recent death and resurrection of Christ back onto “primordial time.” In brief, Enns suggests that for Paul—a first century Jew who was not alone in assuming Adam to be the literal father of all humanity—Adam was a reasonable causal explanation of universal problems of sin and death, to which Christ was the universal solution. While, in light of evolutionary theory, we may no longer be able to accept Paul’s understanding of Adam as a historically causal figure, that does not mean he is wrong about the pervasiveness of sin, about humanity’s inability to overcome it by ourselves, or about Jesus as the solution. As Enns says, “the uncompromising reality of who Jesus is and what he did to conquer the objectively true realities of sin and death do not depend on Paul’s understanding of Adam as a historical person” (122).

As a biologist who wishes to take Scripture seriously, I found this slim little book to be accessible, supportive, and thought-provoking. It is not without flaws. For example, Enns is largely uncritical of theological descriptions of death as a “problem” or “enemy” to be overcome, although it is in fact a necessary component of an evolving creation. As such, any attempt to develop a synthetic evolutionary theology cannot view death as an unintended part of God’s creation or consequence of human disobedience that was not present from the beginning of life. While he acknowledges this fact in the first endnote to the introduction, and again at the very end of the book (147), the absence of any serious attempt to address this issue in the main body of the book is an unfortunate omission, but not a fatal one. If I can allow for human limitations in Scripture, I can extend the same courtesy to Peter Enns in his writing.

In the introduction, Enns states that his main objective is “to put interested readers on a constructive path and thus hopefully encourage further substantial discussion.” For me, at least, he has accomplished that goal, and I look forward to continuing down that path, someday perhaps even on the radio.


  1. This debate took place on February 4, 2014. Video of the event can be found on YouTube under “Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham – HD (Official).” {122}
  2. Statements about what we “have a right to expect” from Scripture, or the need to “adjust our expectations” of it, occur in this book over thirty times!
  3. See also a longer exposition on pp. 78–79, 94–95, and 119.
  4. Whether human evolution was in doubt prior to the Human Genome Project is surely debatable, but Enns’s tip of the hat to genetics is refreshing, and demonstrates his appreciation of the fact that the support for evolutionary biology involves a consilience of evidence that goes far beyond paleontology and comparative anatomy.
  5. Of course, all three have roots that reach back well before the 1800s.
  6. See, e.g., pp. 10–11.
  7. Peter Enns, “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture: Its Viability and Usefulness,” Calvin Theological Journal 42 (2007): 219–36.
  8. See, e.g., Enns’s more detailed description of the incarnational analogy on pp. 143–145 and his obligatory citation on p. 12 of St. Augustine’s famous passage from On the Literal Meaning of Genesis regarding the dangers of simplistic literalism.
John Brubacher
Assistant Professor of Biology
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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