Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Evolution of Adam (2)

Peter Enns' The Evolution of Adam provides a brilliant unpacking of the Old Testament origin narratives.  This is Enns' burden in the first half of his book, and the critique is pretty much unanswerable.  That he is addressing a predominantly evangelical audience as an insider is remarkable.  On the strength of this alone he needs to be taken seriously.

The second half of the book moves out into the New Testament, and here the star of the show, for good or ill, is Paul.  Enns maintains (rightly!) that Paul's approach to the Eden story is - let's choose the adjectives carefully - innovative, creative and unique.
The role that Paul assigns to Adam in [Romans 5] is largely unique to Paul in the ancient world, and it moves well beyond what Genesis and the Old Testament have to say.
Which is a polite way of saying that he doesn't have anything textually solid to hang his case on.

[A]fter Genesis 5, aside from 1 Chronicles 1:1 Adam makes no explicit appearance in the Old Testament.  Further, the Adam of Paul's theology - as the explicit cause of human sinfulness and death - does not seem to be found in the Old Testament either.
Which is a polite way of saying that Paul made it up.  Why?  Well, Paul is a complex thinker...
Paul's handling of his Scripture is notoriously creative and complex, not simple and straightforward.
Which is a polite way of saying that Paul is either confusing, confused, or both.  In one sense, however, Paul was not unique.
Ancient interpreters were not neutral observers of the text ... they read selectively, capitalized on ambiguities in the text, and brought it all to bear on some pressing concerns of their community.
Which is, dare one say it, a polite way of saying that Paul, but not Paul alone, happily manhandled and shoe-horned the Old Testament to suit himself, and, glory be, this was perfectly okay.

Enns goes on to provide five illustrations of Paul's fast and loose approach to the Old Testament.

1. Isaiah 49:8 as used in 2 Corinthians 6:2
2. The misreading of "Abraham's seed" in Galatians 3:16 and 29
3. Habakkuk 2:4 as used in Galatians 3:11 ("Paul calls upon Habakkuk 2:4 to make his point, a passage that, in its Old Testament context... seems to make the opposite point.")
4. Isaiah 59:20 as used in Romans 11:26-27
5. Genesis 15:6 as used in Romans 4.

This hardly inspires us with confidence in Paul's abilities, a man who is often held to be the finest, most profound theologian of all time, bar none.  Enns is blunt on Paul's singular but literal reading of the Adam character; after all this is the roadblock he wants to clear so likeminded Christians can embrace a scientific understanding of origins.

That's a worthy goal; may the force be with him.  But:
Admitting the historical and scientific problems with Paul's Adam does not mean in the least that the gospel message is therefore undermined.
Do you feel reassured?

Enns' wants us to see Paul as a child of his time, which is quite reasonable.  He was however a shoddy interpreter of scripture, and anchored his gospel in multiple misunderstandings, but, hey, no worries, relax, it's all good.  Paul may have been a third rate exegete, but...
Paul came to understand that the human plight was far deeper and more widespread than his own Jewish  worldview thought.
Oh, okay, so after all that Paul was indeed the deep, profound, insightful bloke we thought he was all along.  Those darn Jews were just too dull to understand that.  No wonder he had to play fix-it with the Old Testament. Sorry guys.
His reading of the Old Testament in general is creative, driven by both hermeneutical conventions of the time and - most importantly - by his experience of the risen Christ.
There is a problem here, apart from the arrogant supercessionism.

Enns' Paul is, in effect, the real 'revelator', not Jesus.  He pays no attention, for example, to the fact that Paul was regarded as a dubious character by non-Pauline Christians, as evidenced within the New Testament itself.  Paul's interesting but flawed expositions of scripture are driven by his own visions ("his experience of the risen Christ") and arguably his towering ego.  Why is this acceptable for Paul but not for Reverend Moon?  Enns appears to stand in the camp of those who would claim that Paul is the real founder of Christianity, making the historical Jesus - along with the original Jesus movement - largely irrelevant, or peripheral at best.

And while we're flushing down Paul's opposition within the early church, we can apparently also feel free to marginalize Judaism and treat Paul's 'creative' use of the Hebrew Bible as the new gold standard.

Convinced?  Not likely.  Christianity was far too diverse right from the outset to make this a credible reconstruction.

Another problem: if Paul could legitimately play fast and loose with the scriptures, why not Benny Hinn?  If anyone can explain that without indulging in circular reasoning, please let me know.

So, at the end of the day, I both admire The Evolution of Adam and am thoroughly discombobulated by it.  Enns succeeeds brilliantly in identifying some key issues then, in my opinion, charges off up the wrong path entirely in his haste to put out possible brush fires.

The Evolution of Adam is hopefully just an opening shot in an ongoing conversation that evangelicals desperately need to get involved in.


  1. Very nice recommendation. Appreciated the information or the recognition that The Apostle Paul is unique in his fast and loose use of scripture. Most have no clue. I have been studying this for a decade and there is much more on this.

    I might recommend "Anti-Semitism and the New Testament" by Lillian Freudman. Detailed and outstanding Jewish author revealing how Paul seems to think and his gross abuse of the Hebrew texts which Paul seems only to know in Greek.

    Perhaps there is a pure form of who and what Jesus meant or taught, but it is not to be found in Paul.

  2. Did Paul play fast and loose with Bible texts? Or did he interpret them in ways consistent with the rules for interpreting them that were common in his context?

    As I have not recently studied Paul this is a genuine question, not a debating trick. However, for Matthew the more I have looked at what he does the less I am convinced by the "inventive" sort of label...

  3. The fundamental question here is should Paul be considered a lawyer who is confined to arguing from precedent alone? He may apply the Old Testament but he may not extend the Old Testament. Considering that the Old Testament does not contain the New Testament, this places a burdensome and unsupportable restriction on Paul.

  4. This information is only for the leaders and scholars only. For the followers, it will be business as usual: Sunday School pictures, magazine illustrations of Adam & Eve, Noah, David, Goliath, Gideon..

  5. Is it possible that Lillian Freudman just might have a biased perspective? Perhaps the title of her book could be a clue as to her viewpoint.

    The model that seems to be advocated without explanation is that Paul must do nothing but parrot what Christ said. If he goes beyond this he has become "creative", "fast", "loose" and other similar adjectives suggesting that Paul is a wild man. Yet Christ speaks of the action of the Holy Spirit in bestowing progressive revelation. This would include insightful applications of OT scripture. Were there no progressive revelation present in Paul's writing, the critics would be arguing from the contrary point of view that Christ was false in his statement concerning progressive revelation.

    -- Neo

  6. Neo says...

    Yet Christ speaks of the action of the Holy Spirit in bestowing progressive revelation.

    Well, at least the writer of John 16:13 thought so. Of course, that's also how we ended up with Catholicism in the 4th century.

    I, on the other hand, have had a really progressive revelation since that time. Right off the bat you save 10% to 30% of income and remove 100% of worrying about other people's salvation.

    There is the added bonus of knowing you were born right the first time and not "condemned already" (John 3:18) because of Adam's original sin.

    Then too, you don't have to worry about what other people do in their bedrooms nor what decisions they make about breeding and birth control.

    Hey, and to top it all off, you are free to be happy and enjoy your life without judgmental people thumping you with a bible and condemning you just because you don't believe in their myths and silly nonsense.

    True, you have only this one life to live, but if you choose to live it, one is all you need.