Thoughts on Kevin DeYoung’s Restless Comments on the Historical Adam
by Peter Enns
February 13, 2012
When I read Kevin DeYoung’s post last week on 10 reasons to believe in a historical Adam, I was initially inclined to shrug [it off] and let it go. It’s a big world filled with all sorts of opinions, and there’s no need to reach for my laptop whenever I read something disagreeable. (See cartoon below.)
I also don’t want to be misunderstood as piling on a Christian brother, since biblical scholar and blogger James had already offered a brief but devastating rebuttal only hours after the post went up.
After giving it some thought, however, I decided to post my thoughts anyway (and apologies in advance for the length), since DeYoung’s post, as problematic as it is, hardly represents an isolated pocket of Evangelicalism, and I presume it meets with the enthusiastic approval of DeYoung’s internet sponsor The Gospel Coalition.
But this sort of post is precisely what is not needed in the current climate: a “here I stand” defense that obscures, mischaracterizes, or simply misunderstand key issues, and so builds walls rather than bridges to the sort of dialogue that is needed to address the many pressing and well-known challenges involved in the Adam/evolution issue.
The problems begin with the opening paragraphs. DeYoung refers to those who view the matter of Adam differently than he does as “self-proclaimed” Evangelicals. DeYoung does not seem to accept that everyone’s Evangelical (as opposed to ecclesiastical) identity is self-proclaimed, including his own–unless there is some external accrediting body I am not aware of.
Further, his rhetoric here suggests, not too subtly, that he sees himself in a position of delineating who is in and who is out. I reject the premise and do not recognize such self-proclaimed gatekeeping authority.
More importantly, DeYoung’s rhetoric reveals his central concern. He has not come to listen, learn, and dialog, but to retrace the protective boundaries of Evangelicalism (as he sees it). He does not entertain the possibility that it may be time to rethink some of those boundaries, and that the impetus for such rethinking can come from within, and for compelling reasons. A failure to be self-critical is the death rattle of any movement.
DeYoung next reminds us that “the most important question is what does the Bible teach,” thus implying that the simple failure to do so is what lies behind the recent and regrettable spate of alternate views voiced by Christian scientists, theologians, and biblical scholars.
DeYoung does not seem to allow for the possibility that those with whom he disagrees may well be paying very close attention to the Bible and trying to discern just what the Bible does and does not “teach.”
DeYoung’s opening comments—protect Evangelical identity and read your Bible—suggests that what follows will be a quick dismissal of alternate views and a reiteration of the alleged inviolable and self-evident biblical (i.e., Evangelical) conclusions one must draw in the Adam/evolution discussion, which is precisely what we see in the “10 reasons” he offers.
1. DeYoung claims that “the Bible does not put an artificial wedge between history and theology,” meaning that the theology of Genesis rests on its historicity. But the entire issue turns on what is meant by “history and theology,” the relationship between them in Genesis, and just what an “artificial wedge” looks like as a result.
Those aware of that on-going discussion would want to ask DeYoung to defend his assertion that history and theology are closely aligned in Genesis, while also demanding that he give a credible account of the mountains of scientific and ANE evidence that brought the historical challenges to light in the first place–which is to ask whether DeYoung is tying history and theology together “artificially.”
To avoid further misunderstanding, let me say that no one I know in this discussion is saying that history doesn’t matter for theology. Rather, the historical and theological dimensions of the Adam story specifically are well-known to be problematic and cannot be sidestepped by making empty claims about artificial wedges.
Neither will this discussion be helped by appealing to the ultimate Evangelical conversation stopper, accusing one’s opponents of being influenced by the “Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment foundations of the type of fundamentalism DeYoung is advocating here are well known.
2. DeYoung’s understanding of the nature of ANE myth and the relationship of Old Testament to it seems to have some gaps.
To be sure, Old Testament origins stories (not limited to Genesis 1-3 but, e.g., psalms that pick up on the cosmic battle motif) were written to “supplant” for Israel the myths of the surrounding nations. That is crystal clear. But DeYoung takes this in a curious direction.
Israel’s stories do not supplant the other stories by being somehow “historical” by contrast–to show those Babylonians “what really happened.” Israel’s stories offer an alternate theological account of their God by employing mythic themes and imagery of other cultures–even if those themes and images are reframed and re-presented by the biblical writers, which they certainly were.
The polemic of Israel’s creation stories works because they share the same conceptual world of their neighbors. DeYoung seems to think the polemic works because it abandons that conceptual world.
If there is anything we have learned about the Old Testament over the last 150 years, it is the clear and pervasive influence of the ANE world on the biblical writers–which is to say, the Bible reflects the cultural contexts in which is was written.
DeYoung seems to have a problem with this, and so seeks to put an “artificial wedge” between Israel’s creation stories and those of the ANE world at large. That is a battle he simply cannot win.
3. McGrath corrected DeYoung by pointing out that Genesis 1 does have poetic elements, namely the poetic structure of the days, even if other poetic elements are missing. But I am not sure why DeYoung brings Genesis 1 into the picture in the first place, since the topic is Adam, who makes his appearance in Genesis 2.
Nevertheless, I agree with DeYoung that a poetic description does not necessarily mean something is non-historical. However, reading narrative (Genesis 2ff.) does not mean one is reading history, as DeYoung seems to imply. Narrative can certainly be used to describe historical events and highly stylized historical events (historical fiction), but it is also used to relay fictional accounts–in ancient and modern times.
Narrative does not guarantee historicity, in the Bible or any other literature. Historicity is determined by other factors.
4. Following upon #3, DeYoung’s assertion that there is a “seamless strand of history from Adam to Abraham” is a stock item of Evangelical apologetics, and one cannot blame him for calling upon it. As the reasoning goes, since the Abraham story is clearly straightforward history, and since the editor of the Pentateuch put the Abraham story immediately after the primeval history, that this pairing definitively settles the question of whether Genesis 1-11 is historical.
If one pauses to think about it, the logic of that argument is hardly self-evident. DeYoung also seems unaware or unconcerned that there are legitimate and widely discussed historical challenges surrounding the Patriarchal narratives themselves, the acknowledgment of which should at least should temper DeYoung’s assertion. Further, even if the Patriarchal narratives displayed the kind of history DeYoung sees there, the pressing historical issues of Genesis 1-11 would still remain.
If the matter were as simple as DeYoung puts it here, one would hardly need nine other reasons to believe in a historical Adam.
5. DeYoung’s brief comment on the reference to Adam in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 suggests an unfamiliarity with the nature and function of ancient genealogies.
DeYoung would also need to explain–not assume–why the presence of a name in an biblical genealogy, even if presumed to be historical by the writers, settles the historical question of human origins today. No doubt, he would respond that to say otherwise would violate the inerrancy of Scripture, but this simply begs the question: “what do you mean by inerrancy, and what makes you think you can apply it this way in this instance?”
It is rhetorically compelling to look at the genealogy in Luke, which has Jesus and Adam on either end of it, and conclude that both must be understood today as historical in every sense of the word. But does DeYoung really think that those who disagree are somehow missing this prooftext? Again, if things were as simple as DeYoung makes them out to be, we would not need another nine reasons.
6. The argument here is substantially the same as in #5. DeYoung claims that Paul believed in a historical Adam, and I agree with him (though not all Evangelicals do). He further implies that this observation should settle the matter, as we can see from his citation of Tim Keller at the end of the post: ” If you don’t believe what he [Paul] believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”
This is an unfortunate quandary, for to take this admonition seriously, one has really little choice but to turn a blind eye to the scientific investigations of human origins. Perhaps DeYoung is prepared to do this and counsel others to follow his example. I am not sure.
Paul’s view on Adam is perhaps the central issue in this debate among Evangelicals. But the entire question turns on whether Paul’s comments on Adam are prepared to settle what can and cannot be concluded about human origin on the basis of scientific investigation.
Citing a few verses as transparent prooftexts does not relieve us of the necessary hermeneutical work of what to do with Paul’s words. Paul’s view of Adam does not end the discussion, as DeYoung thinks; it begins it.
7. “The weight of the history of interpretation points to the historicity of Adam.” This is false. It points to what those earlier interpreters had every right to assume about human origins on the basis what they understood at the time.
In his recent book, John Collins makes an analogous argument, that ancient Jewish views of Adam as first man should be considered “evidence” for the contemporary discussion of human origins, but surely this is a strange use of ancient sources. The entire point here is that much of the history of interpretation did not have to deal with evolution, so their perspective by definition does not help us.
DeYoung would need to explain how an appeal to assumptions of human origins in “pre-evolutionary” Christianity help us today in adjudicating a modern scientific issue, and how this same sort of reasoning would not also move us toward a flat earth and geocentric cosmos.
The “weight of the history of interpretation” is part of the problem we must think through today, not its solution.
8. Many have addressed the philosophical and theological issues concerning what it means to be human in view of evolution. I wholly concur that this is a very big issue, and one that needs to be thought through, which is certainly happening today. The fact that DeYoung does not see how humans can be “all part of the same family” if evolution is true, however, does not mean that others can’t.
9-10. These final two points are variations on and implications of #6. DeYoung begs several questions–again, which have been pondered long and hard by others–about what the Bible actually says about original sin and guilt, and how Paul’s use of the Adam story is not necessary for the “doctrine of the second Adam to hold together.” DeYoung’s points here continue to betray a disregard to wide-ranging discussions among theologians, philosophers, and biblicists.
I am sorrowfully aware that this post could be taken (and no doubt will be taken by some) as clear evidence of the hubris of an academic, wholly detached from or even hostile to the life of the church. I am deeply sorry if anything I said has come across as demeaning or unnecessarily harsh. That is not my intention, and my concern about being misunderstood is the main reason why I hesitated posting at all.
But I think the issue before us is worth the risk of such misunderstanding. It is precisely a desire to contribute to the life of the church that has led so many in recent years to want to bring this issue out into the open.
Posts like DeYoung’s do not defend the faith as much as they calcify particular doctrinal formulations in the face of very clear data to the contrary–to the harm of all concerned. What is needed in this discussion is not the airing of views by the young and the restless, but more efforts to “come and reason together” by the seasoned and centered.