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

Peter Enns
Published by Brazos Press in 2012

Reviewed by Matthew Emile Vaughan, (Ph.D. Student) Religion and Education, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York

After nearly two centuries of critical inquiry, the tensions between varying readings of Genesis 1-3 still engender highly charged debate. The camps tend to be obvious. Many interpreters insist on a literal reading, arguing for the historicity and scientific clarity of Genesis while others insist on a more theological reading. It is primarily to address this tension that Peter Enns, working with the Biologos Foundation, writes his new book, The Evolution of Adam (EA). Enns’ thesis is a simple, two-part argument, each suggesting a theological reading of Genesis for the modern church: (1) comparisons between the genre and context of ancient Near East creation myths and the biblical creation narratives call into question the assumption that a literal reading of Genesis 1-3 is true to the text, and (2) Paul’s reading of Genesis 1-3 in Romans 5 is also contextually defined and, while Paul probably presumed its historicity, a literal reading of Genesis is not the only interpretation that is faithful to Paul’s theology.

In an interview introducing the book, Enns said that he was interested in giving “language” and “categories” to people who believe in evolution but are looking to take the Bible seriously.1 This book is therefore intended to have a broad audience (hence those of us who read citations must forgive the inconvenience of endnotes). EA is Enns’ second book aimed at this audience (his Inspiration and Incarnation – in which he describes a theology of Scripture – is similar in style, and it is helpful to see it as a precursor to EA). Enns is interested in helping orient his readers to an understanding of the Bible that will allow them to keep their faith and think critically about Genesis, Paul, and the nature of the Bible.

In order to get a feel for the style and content of the work, the reader should start by reading the conclusion. Here Enns enumerates a set of nine principles regarding the inter-pretation of “Adam” today. By “Adam,” Enns means Genesis 2-3 (more on language below). Numbers one through seven appear in various forms throughout the book, and mostly sum-marize Enns’ key arguments; numbers eight and nine do not. Here is a sampling of those nine hermeneutical principles, which appear in italics between pages 137-147:

(1.) Literalism is not an option.
(3.) The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way.
(5.) The Israel-centered focus of the Adam story can also be seen in its similarity to Proverbs: the story of Adam is about failure to fear God and attain wise maturity.
(6.) God’s solution through the resurrection of Christ reveals the deep, foundational plight of the human condition, and Paul expresses that fact in the biblical idiom available to him.
(8.) The root of the conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identity and fear of losing what it offers.
(9.) A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations.

Enns divides the book into two parts. In the first part, Enns gives a general introduction to the genre and context of the early chapters of Genesis. In chapter 1, Enns reflects on the critical, scientific, and archaeological discoveries that arose during the nineteenth century. Enns argues that these discoveries render a literalistic reading of Genesis problematic, though he does nod to the fact that these points of critical inquiry were not the first to have called literalism into question. Chapter 2 addresses the redaction of Genesis – the context of which Enns sees as the Babylonian exile. Here Enns presents a brief history of scholarship regarding Genesis, but devotes the bulk of his attention to Julius Wellhausen; Enns’ point here is to demonstrate the redacted nature of Genesis (over and against the idea of Mosaic authorship). In chapter 3, Enns introduces his idea of “genre calibration,” which is Enns’ term for the fundamental process of establishing the literary nature of a text via comparisons with contemporary works. To this end, Enns does a good deal of comparison between the creation narratives and various elements of the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Atrahasismyths. In chapter 4, Enns elaborates on the theology of the creation narratives, arguing that their original contexts would have rendered these narratives polemic in nature – particularly regarding Israel’s theological notion of God’s activity in what Enns calls “primordial time.”

In the second part of the book, Enns turns his attention specifically to Paul. He does so because Paul’s use of the second creation narrative is often used to defend a literal reading of Genesis. Chapters 5 and 6 are an extended reflection on how to read Paul in Romans 5. Enns argues that Paul is certainly not a neutral voice, but rather is speaking as a Jewish interpreter who was influenced by the specific theological agendas of his Second Temple context. Chapter 7 is Enns’ interpretation of Romans 5; he argues that Paul is using Adam as a type for all people, linking Jew and Gentile in their humanity. Enns argues that Paul’s point is primarily theological, not historical: by pitting the singular figure of Adam in contrast with Christ, Paul is allowing Christ to stand as humanity’s redeemer.

As is evident from the brief summary above, there is little new in Enns’ argumentation or methods. Like a good introductory text, much of his book is simply an attempt to crystallize scholarly consensus around Genesis in a non-threatening way. With that goal in mind, EA is one of countless new resources on the meaning of Genesis in relationship to science. In lieu of enumerating the book’s strengths, then, I pose a simple question: What does EAoffer to this unusually congested field of books, commentaries, essays, articles, blog posts, scholarly introductions, and so forth? Let me offer some of the qualities of this book that set it apart from other resources like it: it is written by a critically thinking Evangelical for like-minded readers; despite its scholarly basis, the book’s short length makes it accessible to undergraduates, church leaders, and lay Christians; it lacks academic jargon; its writing is clear and humble; when making arguments, its tone is balanced and courteous; vying for the attention of an Evangelical sola scriptura constituency, it deals almost exclusively with the biblical text; it takes Paul seriously; and the book’s aims are succinct in that they center around establishing the context and genre of the creation narratives and their canonical interpretations. Based on these qualities, it is clear that Enns has spent a good deal of time with Evangelicals and other people of faith, listening to their questions and reorienting their thoughts about the Bible. He has provided his target audience with a valuable resource.

This book is not without its weaknesses, though. Enns is not a NT theologian, and his arguments about Paul are less nuanced than those he employs regarding Genesis; Enns generalizes more in part two, and there he is a bit more speculative in his reasoning. Limiting himself to Romans 5, Enns largely neglects some of the other contexts in which Paul (or someone in the Pauline school) treats the second creation narrative, especially 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Timothy 2. Also, Enns does his readers a disservice by not elaborating throughout the book on all aspects of his nine condensed theses, particularly numbers 8 and 9. Though one cannot accomplish everything in one concise volume, it would have been helpful to have a reflection on what “synthesis” (from number 9) might mean for Evangelicals. For example, Enns’ readers now need a robust creation theology – one that follows Enns’ exegetical sensitivities, but still affirms the larger Christian tradition.

The most pointed weakness of EA, however, has to do with Enns’ gendered language throughout the book. God is always a he, and the second creation narrative is “the Adam story.” Eve does not even make it into the subject index. Despite the fact that “explicit” sexism is absent from Enns’ thesis, his comprehensive neglect of feminist concerns in the treatment of the second creation narrative is insensitive to female perspectives and greatly diminishes EA’s influence.

There is more at stake for Christians who take both Genesis and Paul seriously than the question of human origins. In fairness to Enns, his aim was not to reflect on every theological ramification of his interpretations, and a treatment of patriarchy would have been outside his scope. To be clear, I do not wish to critique Enns’ scope; I only wish to critique his language. Implying, albeit subtly, that the story is only about Adam (or that only Adam represents all people) will perpetuate dangerous readings – even after the literalism Enns bemoans is off the table.

Cite this article
Matthew Emile Vaughan, “The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 97-99


  1. Peter Enns, “The Evolution of Adam” 1 – Introducing the Book, (accessed July 3, 2012).

Matthew Emile Vaughan

Columbia University
Matthew Vaughan is an Instructional Designer with the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University.