Peter Enns, Adam, and an Overcommitment to Science

Last week I had the opportunity to read a paper at the Northeast Region meeting of the Evangelical Theological/Philosophical Society. I got a lot of helpful comments on my paper and that alone would’ve made the trip worthwhile. However, the conference also featured two plenary sessions with very prominent scholars on a controversial topic and these sessions were very interesting. For now, I want to reflect a bit on the first session by Peter Enns in which he outlined why he no longer believes in a literal Adam.

According to Enns, discussions of whether there was a literal Adam must account for both the reality of evolution and the whole of biblical scholarship. Now in many respects one shouldn’t be surprised at Enns’s conclusion There was no literal Adam given his stated starting point for the discussion Evolution is true. Throughout his talk Enns regularly referred to the need for dialogue between biblical scholarship and various other disciplines. In this context, of course, that discipline is science, but one could pretty easily see how the point could be extended to psychology, sociology, history, etc. For what it’s worth, I think Enns is right about this. In formulating one’s worldview one ought to take into account all truths about this world, no matter the discipline from which they are acquired. However, what we’ll see is that Enns appears to be committed to a problematic way in which that dialogue is supposed to proceed. Before we get to that, it may be helpful to consider a major concern that was raised at the conference.

Jesus and False Beliefs

After his talk was over Enns fielded a few questions from the audience. I should say that during this portion of his talk Enns did a really good job of keeping the discussion free of overcharged rhetoric. This sort of discussion, especially given that if he is right then a long-held commitment to inerrancy must be discharged too, can easily get nasty. Thankfully neither Enns nor the audience allowed that to happen. However, being nice about one’s views doesn’t entail that those views are true (and vice versa—nastiness may not win people to your side but neither does it mean you’re wrong). That was made evident during the question and answer.

During the Q&A Enns himself pointed out that one major worry for his view is that Jesus seemed to act as if there was a literal Adam. For example, when discussing marriage and divorce with the Pharisees Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:2–9). Now, the ‘them’ here is an obvious reference to Adam and Eve (and this is something that even Enns admits). So, what do we do with a Jesus, God-incarnate, that propagates false beliefs.

To this worry, Enns seemed to suggest something along these lines. When talking about Jesus’ beliefs we often forget to take seriously the “fully human” part of the incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation is a mystery and so we may not be able to comprehend how Jesus could hold false beliefs (his implicit argument seemed to go like this: 1) we humans have all sorts of false beliefs, 2) Jesus was fully human, so 3) Jesus too must have had false beliefs. I’ll save discussion of this bad argument for an introductory course in philosophy). After all (and here I’m quoting Enns), “Did Jesus know French?”

This is entirely unsatisfactory. It’s one thing to say that Jesus’ beliefs regarding the speaking of French was non-occurrent but it’s something entirely different to say he actively held false beliefs. In other words, he could have held beliefs about speaking French even if he wasn’t attending to them during his Earthly ministry—similar to how we can say we never cease believing that 2 + 2 = 4 even though most of the time we’re not thinking about that belief (perhaps the holding of non-occurrent beliefs is part of that “emptying” we see mentioned in Phillipians 2:7). There is no conflict in taking Jesus to have held non-occurrent beliefs while still remaining fully divine (and thus essentially infallible), but there is a direct conflict between such divinity and his holding false beliefs. The Q&A period didn’t allow for this sort of discussion so I’m not sure what Enns would say in response. However, what he did say was less than convincing.

Getting to the Root Problem

This isn’t the place to go into an extended examination/critique of Enns because, in the space remaining, I’d like to just focus on his actual starting point. Surprisingly, this starting point is not his commitment to the reality of evolution (even though he says otherwise), but instead a commitment to a certain conviction regarding the relationship between scientific truths and other knowledge claims. It’s on this foundation from which he builds to the claim that discussions about Adam must begin with the acceptance of the reality of evolution.

In a private conversation with Enns after lunch I had the opportunity to press him a bit on his view of science. As I noted above, he thinks we must start with the reality of evolution. His reason for this is that the scientific community has reached a near consensus (at least) about the reality of evolution and he is not qualified to question that consensus. As a biblical scholar he must rely on the overwhelming majority of scientists that are committed to evolution. This, to me, grants far too much authority to the sciences. In our conversation I asked Enns what, if any, situation would allow for biblical scholars to expect the scientific community to change their positions on the basis of that biblical scholarship. I pointed out to him that if there are no such scenarios, then that dialogue he mentioned so many times in his talk really turns out to be nothing more than a monologue. I told him that it seems like, on his view, that the reaching of a consensus in the scientific community necessitates that biblical scholars must always capitulate in order for their views to come into agreement with that scientific consensus.

To illustrate this worry, I pointed out that among (non-philosophically informed) neuroscientists there is something approaching consensus about mind/body dualism being false. We humans are our bodies and nothing more. So, if that is the scientific consensus, then it seems his view would require that we reject long-held beliefs about the human mind/soul (and, so also views about the intermediate state). I asked him whether he was bothered by the fact that on his view it seems we must attach to all of our theological/biblical claims the phrase, “pending future scientific discoveries.” We know think the biblical picture of an intermediate state commits one to believing that we humans are not merely our bodies, but it turns out that such a claim is really a tentative conclusion pending scientific review.

I found it interesting that in response to this concern Enns did not say I misinterpreted his view of science. That is, he did not give any principles that would permit biblical scholars from rejecting beliefs held by nearly all of the scientific community. Instead, he simply pointed out that the widespread commitment to evolution is far more entrenched and established than anything regarding mind and body. This is, of course, true, but it misses the point entirely. It very well could be the case that in another 100 years materialism is as entrenched as evolution is now. In such a scenario, we would then be forced to change our beliefs about the existence of the human soul just as Enns is now advocating a change in view about the existence of a literal Adam.

Conclusion

I’ve not read all of Enns’s work on Adam, and some of the concerns he raises above may be addressed in one of his books. I also recognize that in a private conversation we may not be as careful and/or precise as we would be in writing. However, what he did say seems to suggest that he should do a bit more careful thinking about the relationship between science and biblical scholarship. Given his starting point (scientific consensus demands theological/biblical capitulation), it’s no wonder that he does not believe in a literal Adam. However, were he to have an appropriate view on this, it seems quite likely he may evaluate the evidence for a literal Adam in an entirely different light. If that were not the case then he wouldn’t need to talk about science at all, he could just make the biblical case for the non-existence of Adam. Since he obviously does rely on the science, the biblical case against a literal Adam must not be as strong as he’d like it to be. (If you’re interested in reading a Old Testament scholar’s defense of the existence of Adam, I recommend the book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? by the second plenary speaker, C. John Collins.)

UPDATE 4/10/13: If you’d like to see a quick overview of Enns’s paper, and some of his own reflections on his time at the conference, check out his recent post, “Framing the Evangelical Discussion of Adam and Eve” at his own blog.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @wpaul or the Tyndale Philosophy Department at @TyndaleUCPhilos.

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10 comments on “Peter Enns, Adam, and an Overcommitment to Science

  1. Let me just check what you are saying about Jesus not holding any beliefs about non-occurrent events. Many people used to believe that the earth was flat, and that sailing in one direction could not bring one back to them back to their starting point. Even in Jesus’ day there were those who thought of the earth as round (I think). Are you saying that Jesus could not have believed in a flat earth (in his humanity), but must have known the real truth (his divinity coming through)?

  2. […] though my last post was also a critique of Peter Enns, I promise that this blog will be more than just an avenue […]

  3. patricksenn says:

    Great post, thank you for writing. I have a question in regards to consensus’ different disciplines reach. How do you evaluate and trust the conclusions reached by the majority of people and when do you reject them? For example as you mentioned above the consensus of science accepts evolution, and if someone points that out to you to demonstrate its truthfulness you can reply consensus does not establish truth. But at other times you would use yourself the consensus of a disciple to demonstrate its probability of being true (for e.g. the majority of cosmologists holding to Big Bang cosmology in giving a cosmological argument or the majority of scholars believing in the empty tomb, burial of Jesus etc. when making a case for the resurrection). When do you accept the conclusions of a majority and when do you reject them?

    Thanks,

    Patrick

  4. Paul,

    Great post. You rightly point out that Enns grants too much authority to science/scientists. Hard to imagine God wanting the Bible and my theology text books all labeled – “pending scientific review”. It is certainly a fair question to ask why other fields should not also be expected to align their views with biblical scholarship.

    BTW: I am sure you are aware (but just in case) – Peter Enns has a series of articles on the BioLogos site that go into some detail about these topics.

    MikeB

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