Enns’s Invalid Inference

CaptureWe philosophers at Tyndale University College try to regularly point out to students that taking basic courses in critical reasoning and logic can be immensely valuable—even for non-philosophers. In particular, students that plan to enter some type of vocational ministry or plan to pursue an academic career in biblical studies or theology really should become well versed in basic elements of reasoning. We stress this point because, unfortunately, we too often come across eminent scholars that have committed rudimentary errors in reasoning. Take, for example, Paul Enns. 

In his book The Moody Handbook of Theology, Paul Enns writes the following about covenant theology.

The promise of the covenant of works was that if Adam obeyed the command of God he would not die; this is suggested from the negative statement of Genesis 2:17, ‘in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’ In other words, if Adam did not eat of the fruit, he would live.[1]

Let’s take a careful look at what is going on here. First, we have the Promise of the Covenant of Works (PCW),

  • PCW: If Adam obeyed the command of God, he would not die.

PCW is said to be supported by Genesis 2:17, which Enns understands to be saying,

  • GEN: If Adam did not eat of the fruit, then he would live.

Now as far this goes we shouldn’t expect any problems. Why? Well, GEN says the exact same thing as PCW, so it is no surprise that the two agree with one another! One way of saying “Adam obeyed” is by simply saying, “Adam did not eat of the fruit.” (In this case, ‘obeying’ simply is ‘not eating of the fruit’.) Likewise, “he would not die” is just another way of saying, “he would live.”

So, then, what’s the problem supposed to be? The problem is this, while both PCW and GEN express the same thing, that which they express is not what is stated in Genesis 2:17, nor can it be derived from it. Given that Enns was one of the translators for the New American Standard Bible this is a surprising gaffe. But, even respected thinkers make gaffes on occasion and and this one serves to highlight the importance of studying critical reasoning and logic.

Enns is correct in stating that Genesis 2:17 (“In the day that you eat from it you shall surely die”) can be expressed as a conditional. However, what the passage actually states is that eating the fruit is a sufficient condition for death (i.e., eating the fruit guarantees death), it doesn’t state that eating the fruit is a necessary condition for death. It simply doesn’t state anything at all about whether or not there could be other causes of death. This means the proper way to express Genesis 2:17 as a conditional is like this:

  • GEN*: If Adam eats the fruit, then he will die.

This, of course, says nothing at all about what happens if Adam does not eat the fruit. If you try to derive Adam’s continued life from his not eating the fruit (which, given that Enns refers to it as the “negative statement” of Genesis 2:17, seems to be what Enns has done), then you’ve committed the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent. To see why this is problematic consider a similar conditional claim,

  • RAIN: If it’s raining, then the streets are wet.

What we see here is that rain is a sufficient condition for the streets being wet—according to RAIN, as soon as we know it’s raining we also know the streets are wet. But it’s not a necessary condition. If it’s not raining, we simply know nothing at all about whether the streets are wet. You might have, as I once did, a neighbor that is more adept at using his sprinkler to water the streets than to water his lawn. Or maybe the neighborhood kids are having a water balloon fight. In such cases, there may not be any rain but the streets would still be wet.

None of this means that there are not other reasons to think Adam’s obedience would result in continued life. I’m not making that claim at all. The only claim I’m making is that Enns has committed a logical blunder in his interpretation of Genesis 2:17. In confusing a sufficient condition for a necessary one he’s made the text say more than it can logically support. So, when Enns writes, “In other words, if Adam did not eat of the fruit, he would live” that claim may be true, but those “other words” must come from some place other than Genesis 2:17.

Follow me on Twitter @WPaul.
Follow Tyndale Philosophy on Twitter @TyndaleUCPhilos.

If you would like to ask a question or make a comment about this post, please consult our Comment Policy here.


Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Revised and Expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008), 535 (pg 507 in 1st edition 1989). ↩

2 comments on “Enns’s Invalid Inference

  1. dlubbe says:

    What do you think Adam understood by the word, die? Is the word not loaded in the above example?

    • Paul Franks says:

      Hi there. I’m not exactly sure what you mean here, but the point I’m making doesn’t actually depend on a particular definition of “die.” No matter what definition one supplies, the logical inference suggested by Enns won’t go through because there is a structural defect in trying to get GEN (or PCW) from GEN*.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s