Did Adam and Eve really exist? A great question if you’re considering different approaches to the Bible‘s creation account. C. John Collins has taught at Covenant Seminary for nearly twenty years, so he writes from a conservative/traditional perspective that supports the Westminster Confession and, of course, inerrancy. I found his tone pastoral and kind as he honestly and practically addressed a hot topic in biblical studies today.
In the preface, Collins states that the book would propose an argument that defends a form of the traditional argument for Adam and Eve’s existence, recognizing the tension between more literalist views and those that recognize evolutionary models. He rejects “concordism”–the view that the Bible’s report of an event can be reconciled with modern scientific conclusions. Instead, he recognizes that Genesis 1-3 is an ancient retelling of something historical. It is a form of “pre-history,” that uses ancient symbols and terms to describe an actual event. The story is theologically instructive, but is not as precise as we moderners would expect. Since a more standard method of recording/reporting history did not arrive until about the fifth century BCE with the arrival of Herodotus, we should expect no less than a proto-history model from Genesis 1-3.
I really enjoyed Collins’s overview of the positions on Genesis 1-3. I also appreciate the fact that he considers the scientific positions of some scientists and their studies, but he makes it clear that some of the data is inaccessible to him (118), which I take to mean that he’s recognizing that his understanding of it is limited. He takes on the possibility that, according to biological and archeological studies, there may not have been a single couple that were the first humans, but groups of hominoids that were developing in different places around the world gradually developed into human beings. Of course, this is difficult to reconcile with the biblical creation account, and Collins steers clear of it. His criteria for “sound thinking” (which I think means traditional biblical thinking) states that there must have been some point in history where God moved on a particular hominoid, bestowing upon him the ‘image of God’. There must also have been a singular event that we call the Fall, when sin and spiritual death cursed the world. Genesis does not have to be precise in its description (it is ancient literature, after all), but the broad strokes of the picture must have been historically true. To his credit, Collins gives a great deal of wiggle room for interpreting Genesis 1-3. As I said before, his tone is kind, but some of his terms are loaded. When he calls his own points the criteria to stay within “sound thinking” (120), I raise an eyebrow.
Collins gives a great overview of several views on the creation account favoring, among others, Greg Beale’s comparison of it to the Hebrew temple–that God made the universe to be a sanctuary and cosmic worship center. He cites John Walton more than once, giving some praise and some criticism. He agrees with Walton that Genesis 1-3 taught a unique Hebrew world view, but seems to indicate that Walton dismisses a distinction between natural and supernatural events in the Bible (Collins, 108n5; Walton, The Lost World of Geneis One, 16-22). Collins suggests that Walton betrays his position when he affirms evolution overall, but suggests that God acted directly when forming Adam and Eve (Walton, Lost World, 139). I think Collins misses the point here. Walton’s proposal was that the ancient writer would not be able to make a distinction between natural and supernatural events like the modern person does almost every day. But such distinctions are fair game for modern readers who make these distinctions all the time. So, there’s no need to call foul on Walton when he makes a scientific distinction as a modern reader of an ancient text.
Collins also takes a poke at one of Peter Enns‘s comments in his earlier book Inspiration and Incarnation, where Enns writes that myth, “is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and maning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” Collins accuses Enns of triumphalism: “it seems to imply that we in the modern scientific world are more sophisticated than the ancients. This overlooks the astounding achievements of ancient peoples in the areas that we would call mathematics and engineering” (29).
No, it doesn’t. Enns is not saying that ancient people are incompetent. Instead, he’s actually affirming that they were using literary methods which were common to that era. The writer of Genesis was using the highest level of cutting-edge literary techniques. They were as Enns says: “premodern” and “prescientific”. Enns was not criticizing, he was defining myth (which is not an easy task!). I fear that Collins used a classic straw-man argument here. What’s more, Collins’s book ultimately argues something similar to what Enns’s quote affirms, that the creation account is “prehistory” and “protohistory” (57). Collins states that the facts of Adam and Eve were shrouded in the “mists of antiquity” (57). Later, he affirms C. S. Lewis‘s view, which Collins admits is mythic (128-29) but does not condemn Lewis with triumphalism.
Collins’s book is very helpful and an easy read for the most part. As my title here suggests, he gives a green light to many interpretive approaches to Genesis 1-3 as long as they affirm the basic points it makes. There was a literal Adam at some point in history and there was a literal Fall. I like his approach to the biblical text, but I think his handling of the scientific evidence is lacking.