Pete Enns on "the deep problem Evangelicalism has with evolution"

Looks like it’s just a short excerpt from The Evolution of Adam, his 2012 book. The post already has almost 200 shares on Facebook, in one morning. #goals

1 Like

I think that that article is right on the money. But it is also extremely condescending. But yes, The evangelicals built a fortress, And they built it on the sand.

There’s a lot of fuss over how to read the Bible. I choose to read the Bible as being true. Whether a given part is taken as figurative and literal, is unimportant so long as is taken as Truth.

I think the evangelicals made the mistake of confusing truth with literal truth. Writing does not need to be literal to be true. Parables for example.

They are correct in saying that if the Bible is not true, then there is no basis for the Christian faith. But they are incorrect to say that a passage must be literally true in order to be true. That said I think there’s a lot more literal truth in Genesis then a lot of people think.


Enns might have a case, except that I got most of my early Evangelical teaching (1971-73 - nearly half a century ago) at the Cambridge University Christian Union - very conservative, very Evangelical: we “Jesus People” rebels used to joke that its signature chorus was “I am S-O-U-N-D”.

My neighbour in Selwyn Gardens was Derek Kidner, who wrote the 1967 Tyndale Commentary on Genesis which told me that evolution, even that of of humanity, was quite compatible with the text.

Much of the CU teaching was done by John Stott, the “father” of postwar British Evangelicalism, who had no problems with evolution.

My best friend was staying at Trinity College in Bristol, which was presided over by Jim Packer, a devotee of the English Puritans, who had (and has) no problem accepting evolution in that theological context.

Meanwhile, the rising intellectual star was Os Guiness, whose “Dust of Death” was the first serious “Christian” book I bought. He is still a champion of Evangelical orthodoxy - and another who sees no issues in accepting evolution.

One of the leading conservative NT scholars now, Richard Bauckham, was a mere PhD student when I borrowed his typewriter (he edited the Evangelical student magazine) - he has no problem with evolution (though it’s outside his professional field) being a fan of Jurgen Moltmann.

N T Wright wasn’t on my scene then - he was studying for the ministry at Oxford. But he, like the others, is happy to accept evolution - only, like many (at least) of them, he is averse on both theological and philosophical grounds to an open-ended view of evolution, which he dubs “Epicurean”.

Now, not only do these leading Evangelical lights from the last century hold these views, but they have made them public, and they are all well-known in the USA - and presumably, to Peter Enns. So, I would hope, is Billy Graham, who has also said:

I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

But I believe you have Evangelical scholars there in America who similarly accept evolution, and haven’t been afraid to say so. Isn’t Bruce Waltke Evangelical? (Hasn’t Enns heard of him?). I don’t know Greg Beale’s personal view, but in a dispute with Enns himself (on the latter’s approach to the Bible) insists that an “essential historical” understanding of Genesis by no means precludes theistic evolution. Tremper Longman - evolutionary creationist. Michael Horton - regards the origins polarisation as a passé 20th century debate between militant atheists and Fundamentalists. John H Walton… At this point I begin to run out of the US authors on my shelves.

It is hardly earth shattering to say “Some Evangelical scholars find it hard to reconcile Scripture with current Science and opt for Scripture.” People disagree about most things - what’s so special about that?

The point is that it is should be clear to any honest commentator that a conservative Evangelical understanding of the Bible (as opposed to a Fundamentalist literalist one - not the same thing at all, as Jim Packer pointed out long ago) is orthogonal to belief in evolution. For an Evangelical scholar like Enns to create a strawman version of Evangelicalism to attack is troubling, because it suggests to me an attempt to polarise the origins discussion along false lines: “mainstream Evangelicalism is anti-science, pro-Creationist: only radical new approaches to Scripture and theology (like mine, for example…) can truly embrace science.”

However, it should be pointed out that there is a more direct linkage between non-Evangelical readings of Scripture and non-Evangelical theology, which to my mind is far more important than the relatively trivial question of relating current origins science to faith - even though I’ve spent most of my last seven years on the latter.

1 Like

I have stated on a few occasions that the difficulties articulated by Evangelicals is more of science-faith, and biological evolution is one of a number of the sciences that are used for ideological purposes by anti-theists. I sometimes wonder if Christians who seek a compromise between materialistic notions and the Faith, are aware of the lengths atheist scientists are willing to go so as to deny God as Creator. I want to avoid the angst some display when evolution is placed under a microscope, and instead refer to a popular news site that published a lengthy column on the size of the universe, and I have taken a couple of points from this to illustrate my point:

(1) The fundamental constants of the laws of physics seem bizarrely fine-tuned to the values needed for life. Things have to be the way they are: if they are not, we would not be here and the question would never arise. We can also add that we would not be able to practice the science that we do. The trouble is, someone will assert that God must have set things in this way. The astrophysicist B Carr has said, “If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

(2) To avoid God, some atheists also propose a natural selection in the cosmic realm, where all sorts of universes have popped in and out, and the ones that presumably survive are real. Others cannot swallow a universe that is pure chance and propose other ideas, even it seems, universes within universes.

We need to understand that atheists will inevitably mix their ideology/materialism, with any version of science they propose. It is naïve for people to think these chaps are disinterested scientist eager for the truth of nature. Some seem to deny the central aspects of the physical sciences to maintain their worldviews – truth becomes an annoyance to them, and anything they imagine becomes a new theory.

Evangelicals who seem eager to modify sound Christian doctrine appear blind to the way science has been used by anti-theists.


I think, as Jamie pointed out above, the fuss is really over how to read the Bible, not the Bible’s compatibility with evolution. Which is why Evangelicals get more upset with Enns than Walton or Stott or the other authors you mention who still basically play by the established inerrancy rules.

Christy - in that case, the Evangelicals don’t have a problem with evolution, as implied. And evolution, I believe, is the area of concern for BioLogos.

BTW, my point was not about Evangelicals getting upset with Walton, Stott and so on - but that those people are absolutely representative of Evangelicals. They are Evangelicals not upset by evolution - though, in the present context, it’s interesting how many of them are very happy to live with uncertainty about it and happily accept diverse approaches.

Right, I was agreeing with you. :relaxed:

1 Like

Thankyou :slight_smile:

That’s always worth a “like”!

> "The idea that the Creator of heaven and Earth, with all their beauty, wonder, and mystery, was at the same time a supersized Bible thumping preacher, obsessed with whether our thoughts were all in place and ready to condemn us to eternity to hell if they weren’t, made no sense—even though that was my operating (though unexamined) assumption as long as I could remember.” A quote from Peter Enns in his book “The sin of certainty”.

It seems that Peter Enns has always had a misunderstanding about who God is. All through his seminary education, profession of faith, his teaching time, his life, he thought of God as a bible thumping preacher? Really? He read the Bible presumably many times, and that is all he got? Does this demonstrate the shallowness of his ability to perceive, to understand, to relate? Why would anyone treat his statements with any degree of seriousness, especially when it comes to understanding scripture?

A bible thumping preacher. Supersized. Wow. What bible was he reading? He has much bigger problems than evolution.

The bible certainly does not indicate that God is obsessed with every minutia of our thoughts, although none of our thoughts escape him either. God is very forgiving, very relational, very loving. And has demanded love from his people from the beginning. God examines the heart. And so he forgave those like Gideon and Thomas who doubted, those like Job who questioned, those like David and Jonah who disobeyed, those like Rahab and Jacob who repented and obeyed. But he punished the people of Israel for being rebellious and trying to serve two masters, offering sacrifices to Baal in the high places, while they were on their way to offer sacrifices at the temple in the same day.

A bible thumping preacher might point all this out. But, to equate God, or to limit God to a bible thumping preacher is certainly to worship a caricature, rather than the true God. Nevertheless, this has very little, nothing in fact, to do with either how to read scripture, or how to understand creation. It is scripture itself that reveals God, and trying to use an excuse such as this from Enns, to distort the reliability of scripture does not serve Enns or anyone else, well.

Jamie, I am glad you read the bible as truth. And it is true that not everything in the Bible is to be taken in the same way. However, whether something is figurative or literal, is not unimportant, since obviously it has an impact on truth. For example, did Jesus literally rise from the dead, or was it a figurative symbolic thing only. Did Jesus literally heal people, or did he fool them into healthy thinking, and thus this was merely a figurative thing? So it is very important whether certain things are figurative or literal, and this cannot be diminished.

Parables are certainly literary techniques, using a made up story to convey a truth. But parables are not deemed to be literary devices because of some outside contradictory source, but by the very nature of the telling itself.

While everyone would agree that there are literary devices of all types, particularly metaphors, similies, parables, hyperboles, and many other devices, this does not automatically put all passages in these categories, nor does it remove the close analysis required to distinguish between literal and figurative words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, passages.

I do agree with you that there is a lot more historical and literal truth in Genesis than a lot of people think.

I should point out that Calvin Smith of creation com has written an interesting book review of Peter Enns book, “The Sin of Certainty”. I also find it ironic that something so obvious, such as the sin of certainty… since often the certainty has been shown to be wrong or at least inadequate, can at the same time be misused as if certainty was somehow more wrong than doubt and uncertainty. The sin of the Pharisees was to be certain about all the man-made rules they had concocted, while omitting or sidestepping the fundamental requirements of the law that God had himself provided. But how do we know this? Because we read of it in scripture, which we rely upon to be accurate, and to portray God’s truth to us. If we were not certain of the ability of scripture to do this for us, then we could also not be certain about the “sin of certainty”.

John, I agree that Enns did a poor job of representing the best of theology (and I am something of a fan of Enns, albeit a critical one). Enns, in this book, seems to me to be addressing the person-on-the-street much more than trying to present any well-developed theology. Indeed it is more a pastoral work than a scholarly one – with its central exhortation being that we should learn to trust God, as opposed to (and Enns presents it very much as an “as opposed to”) believing all the right things. Some (I can imagine you among these) would reply to him by asking “isn’t believing the Bible a pretty good way to be trusting in God?” And that is a good question – to which the reply could come, “Yes, but you are believing more than just that thing you rightly consider infallible. You are also believing it through your own unavoidable interpretive filter which is decidedly not infallible!” And the inability to even recognize the difference in that means you have also elevated your own understandings into the realms of infallibility. Suddenly it is all about your correct beliefs, now dangerously cloaked as God’s infallible word, and I think Enns is spot-on to call us to task for that.

That he uses so much straw-man caricature along the way is unfortunate, and is his way of echoing what he perceives is the popular reaction of culture today against Christianity (even from within its own ranks), and rightly or wrongly, it’s his way of trying to answer that culture.

1 Like

So if I feel terrible with some physical malady, but then I’m “fooled” into feeling better --no more irritation from said malady (for the rest of my life, even!), would that be a healing?

Ah, but this is the confusion. Believing the bible leads one to trust in God, but it is not the same thing. The devils believe, but they tremble… it says in scripture itself. Of course we believe scripture through the filter that God gave us, which is our mind, our understanding, our intelligence. But Jesus said in scripture, “Beware of the yeast of the pharisees and the yeast of Herod or the Sadducees”. In other words, it is not the scripture that is the problem, but people that put their man-made rules above scripture, whether it was in works righteousness (which ended up being hypocrisy) or in worldly sensuality and compromise, which allowed Herod to kill John the Bapist while building the temple supposedly for God, but really for himself. These are the type of filters that Jesus warned us about, the type of yeast infections that cause us to blindly miss Jesus calling us to obedience.

And so the pharisees gave money to the temple (their own rule), while ignoring the scriptural command (God’s command) to look after their parents. (honor their parents). It is good for us to put on the interpretive filter that Jesus gave us and demonstrated for us, rather than to imagine that we can put on a better filter.

It may seem that Enns has adopted a pastoral approach, but as suggests, how do we know that he is a pastor that knows his sheep? How do we know that he is not a false prophet, providing means and excuses for misapplying or denying various parts of scripture beyond just the first chapter of Genesis, only based on a school girl’s suggestion that God does not have time for judging individual people, when scripture clearly indicates otherwise? So Enns has his authority on the basis of a school girl’s wish, rather than on the basis of the general teachings of God in scripture? Why should we take him seriously?

Good points.

Good. So if we haven’t upgraded to the “Jesus filter” yet, then that will always be a good move. I think most here would agree on that. The trouble is there are almost certainly counterfeit ones of those floating around too.

So we’re still back to the same problem. We say we are heeding Jesus’ warnings, and our antibodies have well marked and targeted the defective filters the pharisees & co. were working with. But if we’re not careful, we just end up the next step up (even if a pretty significant step!) It’s always those people back then or over there that have the defective filters. I (and also others who think exactly like me of course!) amazingly seem to be the only ones getting God’s Word direct and unfiltered! Do you see the problem here?

1 Like

Well the problem is insurmountable in an absolute sense. In fact you are displaying a bias, or a filter, towards an assumption that every filter distorts the truth. That there are no clear filters, or that there is no possibility that filters have been removed. As a sometimes welder, having no filter at all can be blinding, and so the question might be what kind of filter God wants us to have. Perhaps a good filter would be to simply accept scripture as written, rather than attempting to superimpose an external paradigm, which subjects scripture to correction.

This good filter would include interpreting scripture with scripture, and recognizing Jesus himself as authoritative, and accounts of Jesus life as accurate. When that starting point is not used then we can recognize a poor or false filter.

We can debate interpretations and interpolations but it really does come back to the bible, doesn’t it? We get the same scripture, so the question is how do we treat scripture, and how does it affect us?

1 Like

Or could we say rather that it is possible for a filter to better help us recognize truth? Perhaps I ought to say ‘establish’ the truth in our minds. That would be the role of a good filter, just like the role of a good filter lens for a photographer is to enhance the desired details they want noticed in a photograph. Is such a use a distortion of truth? Given the inevitability of our understanding being filtered, it behooves us to attend as much as we can to the quality of the filters we are using, and to recognize that if we are to claim that our particular filter is better than somebody else’s (a necessary activity in debate and discourse), then we are obligated to provide reasons beyond our own bare assertion why that should be so.

I think your example of scripture interpreting scripture is a good example of filtering in action. Jesus helps us see how the scriptures are really about him (one of Enns’ major points in his ‘Bible Tells Me So’ book). That was a radical new filter for the Jews of his day.

Then that leaves us still with the question: can we emulate Jesus’ appropriation of the present Scriptures of his time to apply to himself? You might (rightly, I think) question the use of that word “appropriation” and suggest it rather to be instead a revelation of hard and fast pre-existing truth – i.e. Jesus is only helping us to see what has always already been there. Not a bad move, given who is doing it. I chose the word I did, though, because that is what Enns is suggesting and it highlights another interesting question that I don’t think precludes the first response. And that is, can we appropriate Scriptures in new ways now to apply them in creative ways for our own times? Is the Holy Spirit still operative in guiding such any such process today so that we can use Scriptures as Jesus did and as the early church did in their radical transition away from emphasis on law?

This is the essential tussle today between those who just want that new and upgraded (but still quite static) “Jesus Filter” in place, and those who are also willing to model Jesus’ and the early apostles’ actions in treating Scriptures as a living document to be tussled with and creatively used in each new generation to apply it to new challenges. The creed enthusiasts have no truck with this, though, and want all details nailed down for all time. I think that captures a basic struggle that Enns puts forth as he promotes the latter option in addition (not exclusion) to the former option.

I would say scriptures are always to be appropriated, used, in ways appropriate to our circumstances, which means within scripture there are applications relevant for our own situation and our own lives. But the applications for us work because the lessons in scripture are timeless, and apply to many or all circumstances, as they will in the future. Sometimes they are missapplied also… think of all the predictions of the end of the world, that never came to be. Or think of emulating some old testament practices without considering what the New Testament reveals about them.

Scripture is historical… historical in its story, its events, even in God’s commands being relevant for particular people and particular times. It reveals a historical change, a time-changing event of the coming of the Messiah, and the impact that had/has on how people relate to God. But we cannot appropriate scripture in the same way that Jesus did, since Jesus was a one-time event, someone who is man and God that becomes the ultimate unmistakable prophet and King whose appropriation is a revelation for us. We cannot be equated to God, to Jesus, in terms of applying specific prophecies to ourselves as individuals.

Scripture is living, God-breathed, but it is not a changing document… we do not keep adding pieces or deleting pieces… in fact scripture itself says we should not add or subtract from it. Interestingly, so many of the things revealed by Jesus in the New Testament were already evident in the old testament once you start looking, such as needing to love God with your heart, not just with external ceremonies. And such as the potential to have non-Israelites become the people of God (think of Ruth and Rahab for example) and even become part of the ancestry of Jesus himself.

I agree that there are sometimes too many creeds; we tend to over-doctrinalize too many things. But we do not have to let that fact distort how we read scripture itself. When scripture is ambiguous, we ought to understand that certain things are more complex than a simple three word sentence. On the other hand, when scripture is reasonably clear, we should not twist and squirm to find convoluted ways of understanding it in order to meet our human wants and desires.

Enns problem is he simply does not want to accord scripture with the authority that it deserves. This influences his opinions about whatever cultural conclusions might be drawn from scripture.

1 Like

No, that’s more likely what he was taught by evangelical teachers.

Well I agree that If you try to take the whole bible as being non-literal, you will find it very hard to believe it is FULLY true. (Not just partly true in some abstract sense). I am trying to point out that whether or not you believe in the truth of the thing is where your faith comes from. Not whether you believe a certian passage is literal history or not.