Enns on Experts, Evolution, and Evangelicals (Part 2)

Peter Enns  has released a new book called The Evolution of Adam. Peter Enns kicked off the Evolution of Adam Blog tour this week, where he states the problem and reason for writing the book:

But I feel the most pressing issue Christians face is the hermeneutical one: if evolution is true, what do I do about what the Bible says about Adam and Eve?

In this series of posts we are examining three themes from an article  written by Enns for the Huffington Post entitled Once More, with Feeling: Adam, Evolution, and Evangelicals along with recent posts on his blog related to the topic of evolution, Christianity, and Adam/Eve. These are:

  • If evolution is correct, than the Biblical narrative regarding creation and Adam/Eve is not.
  • Evangelicals wrongly assume that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins”
  • People who are not trained as scientists are not able to evaluate scientific arguments.

In Part 1 the first two were addressed. Here we address the third theme. Part 3 is also available.

People who are not trained as scientists are not able to evaluate scientific arguments.

In the HuffPo article, Enns tells us that we must accept the explanations given to us by the experts:

Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It’s a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans evolved from primates. Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology, I feel I have no right to contest — and I likely speak for many other evangelicals in that regard (emphasis added)

This is fully developed in Part 4 of a series by Enns on recurring mistakes made in the Adam/Evolution discussion.

Since evolutionary theory is the product of scientific investigation, it follows that those best suited to evaluate the scientific data and arguments are those at the very least trained in the relevant sciences—or better those who are practicing scientists and therefore are keeping up with developments.

…  As much as biblical studies requires some training and expertise, it is much more the case in the sciences. The years of training and experience required of those who work in fields that touch on evolution rules out of bounds the views of those who lack such training. (emphasis added)

In case we missed this point, Enns reiterates it:

My point is that serious scientific questions require serious scientific training—which only a fraction of the earth’s population can claim to have.

My point is that most of us do not have a place at the table where the assessment of evidence is the topic of discussion.

However we do this all the time. Making decisions requires us to make assessments of information even when we lack some training or expertise. Consider this event in the life of our family recently. My daughter was complaining about headaches for some time. After a series of tests including eye exams, allergy tests, monitoring water intake, x-rays, and sleep studies, the doctors concluded that her tonsils and adenoids were swollen. Of the two, the adenoids were the worse and judged to be causing the most problems. In addition, tonsils are debated as to whether they are part of the immune system so our family had to weigh the medical advice we received and do some research in order to evaluate whether to have both removed or only the adenoids. And we had to do this despite the fact that none of us have any medical training.

While the answers involved in answering scientific questions may be complex and most of us may lack the training required to understand all the details, I don’t think Enns intends to say that understanding the sciences is closed to the majority of the earth’s population. While I may not be able to design and build a rocket that can get into orbit or solve the tension between general relativity and quantum mechanics nor will I likely ever be asked to splice genes in a lab, I think I can grapple with and assess a logical argument even if I cannot fully understand all of the scientific evidence presented as part that logical argument to support a hypothesis.

We can do this because some logical arguments are definitively provable through deductive reasoning and experimentation. Concepts like geometric proofs, genetic mapping, and Galileo’s theory that objects fall at the same rate regardless of their mass in a vaccum.

However some conclusions cannot be proven they can only be shown as probable and are based on inductive logic rather than deductive logic. Generally speaking in inductive logic, we are starting with data listed out as premises. Then we draw a conclusion or devise a theory that may explain the data. However that theory or conclusion can only be claimed as valid with a degree of probability. Readers of Holmes adventures will recognize this method.

It is an old maxim of mine that whenever you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Sherlock Holmes

The inductive method comes into play when science is not experimenting or predicting things based on observation and mathematical calculations that are happening now but rather is trying to draw conclusions about what happened in the past. In this realm science is more about being a good historian trying to piece together an event from extant artifacts or a detective trying to solve a crime.  Because we can’t go back in time we have to base our  conclusions on assumptions and the information we have or are able to gather now. And that makes us equivalent to a jury trying to evaluate the cases presented to them during a trial.

If you think about we also do this whenever we read a theological text or commentary where various interpretations are given. In the post Recurring Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion Part 1, Enns explains how readers come to different conclusions about the genre of the Genesis accounts based on different pieces of evidence that are given:

So, when someone says, “I don’t read Genesis 1-3 as historical events, and here are the reasons why,” that person is not “denying biblical authority.” That person may be wrong, but that would have to be judged on some basis other than the ultimate literalist conversation-stopper, “You’re denying biblical authority.”

The Bible is not just “there.” It has to be interpreted. The issue is which interpretations are more defensible than others.

Here he concludes that some interpretations of Genesis are more defensible – that is more probable – than others. The argument for a particular interpretation is evaluated using inductive reasoning and we all do it regardless of whether we are Biblical scholars or not. Now, if people can do that with Biblical interpretations, despite varying degrees of training and education, without denying the authority of the Bible then it should be assumed that people can interpret the conclusions that science provides without denying science or being scholars. The one thing to keep in mind is that as evaluators of logical arguments we have to be willing to read and learn about the premises used as evidence to support various ideas, critically think and evaluate them, and then determine which conclusions are more defensible than others.

Enns mentions in the HuffPo article the theory that man and apes have a common ancestor from which they have evolved. A simplified form of the argument in logical form goes something like this:

premise 1:man and chimps have between 95 and 99% (depending on how the comparison is done) similarity in their gene sequences.

premise 2: man and chimps have pseudogenes in the same location and sequence.

premise 3: man has 23 chromosomes and a chimp has 24 chromosomes but the gene sequence and location of chromosome #2 in man matches 2 chromosomes in the chimp.

conclusion: therefore man and chimps have a common ancestor and chromosome #2 in man is the result of 2 chromosomes in their common ancestor being fusing together .

The first three premises are written as statements that can be either true or false. They can also be experimentally proven as either true or false by geneticists who can compare the genome mappings from a man and a chimp and do comparisons with the data as it exists today. Here Enns does have a point. Most of us are not geneticists and would not likely have a great understanding of how to map genomes nor would we understand the complexity involved with comparing genomes between different species. We would have a tough time assessing this information.

However we are all able to understand the argument as laid out above and reason through it.  As presented this is a logical argument that presents a possible outcome. But does the conclusion necessarily follow from the premises? Can it be proven that this is the only conclusion possible? This theory may explain the data (premises) in this logical argument but is based on inductive logic. The theory or conclusion can only be claimed as valid only with a degree of probability. It can’t be proven. And it is this conclusion that we all are able to evaluate.

[check out part 3]

Enns on Experts, Evolution, and Evangelicals


While this blog entry mentions Peter Enns new book, I want to be upfront. I have not read this book and this post is not a review of that book.

Peter Enns, author, blogger, and Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos has released a new book called The Evolution of Adam. No stranger to controversy over his previous writings, this book is aimed at trying to harmonize the Biblical record of Adam and human origins with the theory of evolution. To promote the book Enns has recently written a piece for the Huffington Post entitled Once More, with Feeling: Adam, Evolution, and Evangelicals.

In this article he tackles three themes:

  • If evolution is correct, than the Biblical narrative regarding creation and Adam/Eve is not.
  • Evangelicals wrongly assume that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins”
  • People who are not trained as scientists are not able to evaluate scientific arguments.

These themes are dealt with in more detail through numerous posts on his blog so we will examine them in that context.

If evolution is correct, than the Biblical narrative regarding creation and Adam/Eve is not.

The first theme is dealt with in the blog entry Evangelicalism and Evolution ARE in Serious Conflict. In this post Enns compares evangelicals who claim there is a conflict between these ideas and those who do not find “anything to lose sleep over”:

One advantage that the first group has over the second is the frank admission that evolution poses a serious challenge to how Christians have traditionally understood at least three central issues of the faith: the origin of humanity, of sin, and of death. That is true.

I argue in my book that sin and death are undeniable universal realities whether or not we are able to attribute them to a primordial man  who ate from the wrong tree. The Christian tradition, however, has generally attributed the cause to sin and death to the first human, Adam. Evolution claims that the cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, is not viable. That leaves open the questions of where sin and death come from.

On this point, I am in agreement with Enns – “evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith”.  We will examine that a bit more when we examine the next section.

Evangelicals wrongly assume that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins”

In the HuffPo article, Enns contends that:

[Ancient peoples’] creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.

Likewise, Israel’s story was written to say something about their place in the world and the God they worshiped. To think that the Israelites, alone among all other ancient peoples, were interested in (or capable of) giving some definitive, quasi-scientific, account of human origins is an absurd logic. And to read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were set up to do such a thing is simply wrongheaded.

Enns explains in the post Evangelicals, Evolution and their Bible that that this “wrongheadedness” stems from how we interpret the Bible:

Those false assumptions begin when we forget that the Bible is ancient literature that speaks from an ancient point of view.  An awareness of the Bible’s ancient cultural influences–even a minimal awareness–helps alert us to the kinds of questions the Bible is prepared to answer. Science is not among them.

He goes on to say that the problem with evangelicals is that they consider it “unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific.”

Before diving into whether Adam/Eve is about “human origins”, I think we can find some areas of general agreement. The Bible does use non-historical stories to make theological points. Some clear-cut examples of this might be Nathan confronting David with his sins through a story or Jesus’ use of parables. The Bible also uses poetic imagery to make theological points. An example would be the psalms or Isaiah 55 where mountains break into song and trees are described as clapping their hands. And no, the Bible is not a science text book. We should not expect to find the theory of special relativity or quantum mechanics explained in its pages. Nor should we expect descriptions of how cells work or how DNA is structured.

However, Christianity is a faith based on historical events and the Bible records historical events and scientific information. Dealing with the topic at hand, Genesis 1-3, whether a historical account or a mythical story, is about human origins. Enns, himself, states that the ancient creation stories were told to answer questions including where the people came from and what their place in the world is. The real issue is not whether the account answers these types of questions. The issue is does this account give us a narrative that provides answers to these questions that are historically accurate or just provide a story to make a theological point.

If one accepts that God spoke to prophets and inspired the writing of the Scriptures I would argue  that it is “absurd logic” to think that the Bible was not capable (as Enns does above) of providing a basic account of human origins in a manner that could speak truth to both ancient and modern cultures with vastly different scientific capabilities.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …  God created humankind  in his own image … – Genesis 1:1; 1:27 (NET)

The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,and the man became a living being. – Genesis 2:7 (NET)

From these passages it should be clear that this narrative is all about origins. While the Bible does not explain how this happened in a way that would be satisfying to a modern scientist these are clear and understandable statements that convey the ideas God created the universe and that man is unique among the rest of creation. It does answer the questions where did we came from and what is our place in the world. It also explain the why as in why are we special and why do we need a Redeemer.

The general story is man was created good but disobeyed God. The result was sin and death entered the world. However Israel as a nation was set apart by God to receive the Law, the prophets, and the Messiah through whom salvation would come. God is the Creator of the universe and would send His Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. If Genesis 1-3 are a story without any historical basis then Israel’s place in the world (as well are our own) certainly does start to unravel.

If this story is a myth intended to answer these questions without providing a historic and scientifically supportable basis then we are left with more questions about where we came from and what our place is in the world is than it answers. Some questions that come to mind are:

  • why did God use this story to communicate that humankind was created uniquely from of the rest of creation if there is no historical basis to it?
  • what theological truths was it intended to communicate if it is a myth and evolution is true?
  • if humankind evolved from other species than what makes us different from any other life form?
  • what did God mean to communicate through the curses in Genesis 3?
  • why did Jesus come to save humankind (and from what) if we are just another evolved life form?
  • if Jesus came to save us from death then why did He create us through death from the start and call it good?
  • if Jesus came to reconcile us to God then why did He create us as enemies of God from the start and call it good?

Why would God open the Bible with this mythical story when He could have provided a more accurate account to answer these questions? I know that this particular line of questioning – why didn’t God say ____ more clearly – is not always helpful. In this case my point is not that God should have explained our origins more clearly but that He could have. It was possible for God to have provided a story that describes His guiding the creation process through something that we might recognize as evolution rather than describing man as being crafted out of dust by His own hands. For example wouldn’t the statement below be understandable to an ancient reader even without advances in genetics or other sciences and be closer to the truth if evolution is right.

God formed the man from the beasts of the field. He created humankind by taking them out of these beasts.

And perhaps just as important, why does the OT and NT deal with this story as if it had a historical basis? This is not just a matter of Paul’s explanations of sin and death entering through Adam in Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15 either. A short list:

  • Why do the genealogies of 1 Chronicles start with Adam (1:1) as does the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (3:38)?
  • Why is Abel (along with Enoch and Noah) in the Hall of Faith (Heb 11)?
  • Why does Jesus refer to the creation event and Adam/Eve when discussing God’s intention for marriage and divorce (Matt 19)?
  • Why does Paul refer to the creation event and Adam/Eve when discussing God’s intention for marriage and the church (Eph 5)?

While the book may explore and attempt to provide answers to these theological questions in the light of evolution, the starting point that it is “absurd logic” for anyone to conclude that the account of Adam/Eve is intended to tell us about our origins or that it may have a historical basis seems wrongheaded.

[We will cover the third point in part 2]