The Next Doctrinal Battleground: The Historicity of Adam?

In recent online videos, prominent Old Testament scholars Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns commented on the whether the Adam of Gen. 1-4 was a historical figure. Below are Longman’s thoughts:

One thing that’s saddening is that Longman claims that a reading of the creation narratives of Genesis which concludes that Adam was a real historical figure are based on a “highly literalistic” reading of the text. While he doesn’t explicitly deny the historicity of Adam, it’s pretty fair to say that he doesn’t subscribe to a view based on a reading of the Bible that’s “highly literalistic.” This is unfortunate indeed because Longman is a conservative OT scholar who, as far as I am aware, affirms the inerrancy of the Bible. Of course, someone might ask why I believe that this is unfortunate. Well, first the belief that Adam was a historical figure is the majority view of Christians throughout the ages. This leads me to my second point: Both Christ and Paul affirmed that Adam was a real person and not merely a symbolic character. James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, argues this point very well on his blog. For most Christians, this is a slam dunk argument. If Christ and Paul believed something we should believe no less. But, according to Peter Enns, his is not necessarily the case. Here is Enns’s view on the matter of Paul and Adam:

A little background on Enns is helpful. Back in 2005 he wrote a book titled Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament which sparks a great deal of controversy. This controversy eventually led to his dismissal from his teaching post at Westminster Theological Seminary. Enns is a clear writer and more or less straightforward in his views. According to Dr. Enns, evangelicals have not critically engaged the world of the Old Testament because they have failed to accept many recent discoveries about the Ancient near East. When, according to Enns, we do come to grips with how ANE writers thought, communicated, and recorded history we should realize that we’ve imposed a fairly recent, modernist grid on the text, asking questions it was never intended to answer with criteria that the ancient writers didn’t accept. His goal was, and is, noble. When we come across what seem to be contradictions or “tensions ” in the Bible we shouldn’t lose all faith that it is divinely inspired. Rather we should acknowledge that we are 1) probably imposing a modern (and not ancient) standard of truth-telling, and 2) this is all part of the rich “diversity” that God intended for His Word in human words. So the problem is with us, not the Bible. This last point (“the problem is with us, not the Bible”) was taught by Augustine when he said, “It is not allowable to say, ‘The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.” But while Augustine makes clear that we ought not to say the Bible gives untrue information, Enns claims that is does (but it doesn’t effect the overall message of Scripture which is salvation in Christ).

In the clip above Enns states that he fully expects to have Paul believe that Adam was a real historical figure (which is clear that Enns does not). Paul was, after all, a first century Jewish man and held the common views on this issue as his contemporaries. This is another plank in Enns view of Scripture: the “fact” that biblical authors affirm things (such as ANE mythological history and cosmology) that we now know aren’t true doesn’t compromise the fact that they were inspired by God to record those very words. This causes a huge theological problem: we are being encouraged to deny something that Christ Himself and his appointed spokesperson, Paul, affirmed.

Enns’ approach here also has significant methodological problems. Let’s assume for a moment that Enns and Longman are mistaken on the issue of Adam (and I think Anderson has done a fine job of showing the problems with their view. He also wrote a follow-up.), how would we demonstrate the error? Well, we appeal to the to the intention of Paul. Paul intended to teach that there is a link between the act of disobedience of one man (Adam) and the one act of obedience from another (Jesus). But, according to Enns, Paul’s intention doesn’t settle the matter because he was thoroughly embedded in, and clearly reflected, the erroneous fees of his day. So, the genealogies of Genesis don’t settle the issue, and even authorial intent doesn’t solve it. Thus Enns view is unfalsifiable, making correction seemingly impossible. If I’m mistaken I want to know how, because for either lack of creativity or exegetical know-how I can’t see it.

The difficult bit about all of this is that Enns and Longman are self-identified evangelicals who confess the inspiration of the Bible. Anderson clarifies:

I’m certainly not arguing, “If you throw out Adam you might as well throw out everything else!” or anything along those lines. It’s not a slippery-slope argument at all. Rather, my argument is that denying the historicity of Adam seems to commit you to at least some of the following: (i) very unnatural readings of several biblical passages; (ii) the conclusion that some biblical authors (and perhaps Jesus too) make claims that aren’t true or arguments that aren’t cogent; (iii) a hermeneutic that would undermine the clarity and authority of Scripture; (iv) a hermeneutic that would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to defend many other important biblical doctrines or ethical norms to which evangelicals are committed.

Fellow Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke and Enns engaged in a congenial exchange last year in the Westminster  Theological Journal. The first round of exchanges were posted online.

Revisiting Inspiration & Incarnation by Bruce Waltke (PDF)

Response to Bruce Waltke by Peter Enns (PDF)

Theologian John Frame, and exegete G. K. Beale have also weigh in on Enns view of Scripture. Enns’s replies can be found here.

Here are some resources for further study: The first is Enns’s book, and the second is John Wenham’s book Christ and the Bible, which clearly lays out Christ’s own view of Scripture (which isn’t addressed by Enns, as far as I am aware).


Posted on March 29, 2010, in Adam, Biblical Reliability. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting. Thanks for all the links and the synopsis. I have Beale’s book here to read, late at night when I am too tired to do any real work 🙂

    I was the least bit surprised about Longman III’s position, back in the 90s I suspected he would end up there and wondered why WTS was tolerating him.

    Having lived through the “battle for the bible” in 1970s this round isn’t particularly threatening. Beale’s understanding of what he calls “post-modernism” is IMHO shallow, he doesn’t appear to relate it to changes in our understanding about how language works. The problem isn’t going to go away, what has quietly been going on in the background with biblical linguists, language and translation theory — the impact of all of this is very much related to post-modern readings of texts.

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