The Significance of Original Sin for People Today, Part 1

This is part-one of a four-part series based on a research paper I drafted while in seminary in 2014. The title of the paper is, The Theological Significance of Adam: A Literary Analysis of Romans 5:12-19 and the Imputation of Adam’s Sin. This paper has been cited by a number of students and other bloggers on their websites, but until now I have not posted on my own website. 

What has prompted me to post excerpts from this paper to my website now is my own increasing awareness of the lack of understanding of Paul’s theology in evangelical churches today. Over the past year there have been several occasions where I have heard various pastors errantly misinterpret the New Testament, doing violence to Pauline theology, and even more, to the redemptive work of Christ. I have witnessed this a number of times over the past year with the most recent occurrence this past Sunday. 

Last Sunday, while commenting on Romans 6:4-11 the pastor stated, “When Adam sinned, his spirit died.”  When I heard him say this my ears perked up? “His spirit died,” I questioned?  This sounded strangely odd to me.  I’ve heard many explain that Adam’s sin caused separation between him and God, and therefore, that separation is considered at type of spiritual death, but I’ve never heard anyone actually say, Adam’s spirit died. 

The pastor’s statement raised a number of theological questions for me. In what way did Adam’s spirit die?  If this is true, what happened to his spirit upon physical death?  Where do you suppose his spirit went at that point? Being a student and spending a considerable amount of time studying theological anthropology I immediately went to study to research this idea. As I searched my library, I came across this paper that now serves as the starting point for this series of articles. 

There has been a considerable amount of study dedicated to this topic throughout the years, St. Augustine, Franz Delitzsch and Wolfhart Pannenberg; all completed excellent studies on this topic.  Other notable studies completed in more recent years have been performed by John Murray, David Parker and Henri Blocher. All of which are excellent.  What I have attempted to do with my research is distill the finer points of these studies into a coherent presentation of the elements necessary to help readers understand the essential theological elements of Adam’s sin; what the Bible says about it and its significance and the theological implications of this topic for humanity. 

Introduction

The Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12-14 writes:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.1

Romans 5:12-14

The issue of which the apostle writes is the empirical reality of the sin nature of man that has been traced all the way back to Adam in its origination. The sin nature inextricably linked to Adam, is somehow responsible for having given man a corrupted and sinful nature and has become the basis from which the doctrine of original sin has developed. In the Reformed view, “It is this common human nature now tainted by corruption which the Bible means when it speaks of ‘the flesh’ and the ‘carnal mind,’” writes David Parker.2 To provide further clarification, it must be understood that the concept of original sin is not merely in reference to the single instance of sin when Adam partook of the fruit of the tree with his counterpart Eve, but rather that innate sin nature that has been passed down to all generations after Adam. David Parker quoting from the Encyclopedia Britannica affirms this definition by stating, “…it does not refer primarily to the original sin of Adam, or to the first sin of an individual, but only to the state in which we find ourselves at birth as member of the race.”3 As such, the definition of original sin is clarified as it is not a singular action or event, but rather the concept is wrapped up in what Adam has transmitted or “imputed” to his progenitors. The result being that every human being has been declared to be unrighteous and stands condemned in the eyes of God as a sinner from birth. However, the question of exactly how Adam’s descendants after him have been held responsible for his sin has been the matter of a long standing debate among theologians. Is Paul in Romans 5:12-19 referring to the actual sins of men, so that each individual stand condemned because of their own sins? Or is the apostle saying that the sin of Adam has been imputed upon the entire human race corporately, and therefore, all humanity collectively stands before God condemned without regard to his or her own sin? In other words, is man condemned because they imitate Adam’s sin, or is it Adam’s sin in the garden that has condemned man? In this paper we will seek to answer this question as we explore the history and literature concerning the transmission of Adam’s sin to his descendants. 

The Need for this Study

The rise of Pelagianism in the church today has led to the need for a renewed interest in the fundamental teaching of Christian doctrine, and specifically, the teaching of the imputation of Adam’s sin as it correlates with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to every believer as presented by the Apostle Paul (cf. Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:45). Pelagius taught that human beings were born morally neutral and with the same constitution as Adam before the fall without inborn sin and corruption.4 Pelagius maintained that man could exercise free will and choose to sin or not sin, but that man chooses to sin in imitation of Adam’s sin. We find that this denies the force of Paul’s analogy and comparison between the Adamic event and the Christ event in that it denies the correlating imputation of the sin of Adam as it is contrasted with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. As such, the significance of the fall of man in Adam and the full force and effect of the glorious soteriological Christ event are misrepresented. 

Another reason for the need of this study is that challenges to the historicity of Adam have led to the misinterpretation of Romans 5:12-19, which supports a historical Adam. Moreover, the doctrines of Original Sin and Salvation through Christ are inseparable. Interpreting Genesis 3:1-24 as myth dilutes the significance of the redemptive work of Christ. Further, the historicity of Adam is of significance from the viewpoint of biblical inerrancy and the reliability of the Scriptures, for if Adam is regarded as myth, then which other portions of the Bible must also be regarded as myth? Furthermore, how does one know which parts of the bible are true, and which are not, and by what criteria is this judgment made? For the Apostle Paul, human disobedience is a key element in his theology of redemption (Rom 5:12-14). As such, the significance of Adam and original sin is foundational to the apostle’s arguments in Romans chapter 5 and its proper interpretation and understanding. As such, for the purposes of this study we will accept the biblical understanding of a historical Adam. 

Lastly, the rise of individualism has obscured the concept of corporate solidarity, which is widely taught throughout the Bible. An outright rejection of the teaching of corporate solidarity as it is taught in Scripture is to declare null large portions of Scripture from the Bible. This would represent a significant rewrite of the canon of Scripture with significant impact to fundamental Christian doctrine and theology. Moreover, to not uphold the concept of corporate solidarity, which is significant to Adam’s role in Pauline theology, would be to arrest further development in the study of Pauline theology. As such, we will examine the concept of corporate solidarity in our study to discover how the implications of this concept may relate to the subject of our study.

The Relationship Between Adam and Us

Numerous attempts have been made by theologians to further pinpoint and define the connection between Adam’s sin and the sinfulness of humanity. Out of such debate, two predominate views have been proposed to explain the connection between Adam’s sin and his descendants. According to Millard Erickson, “The two major approaches see the relationship in terms of federal headship and natural headship.”5 Regarding the federal headship, or representative view, Erickson writes, “God ordained that Adam should act not only on his own behalf, but also on our behalf, so that the consequences of his actions have been passed on to his descendants as well.”6 In the federal headship view, when Adam as the representative of mankind sinned, all of mankind was declared guilty with him in his sin. This view is consistent with the creationist’s “view of the origin of the soul,”7 and is also recognized as a judicial means by which Adam serves humanity in the legal sense as the representative of mankind. As Parker states, “[Adam] acts on behalf of mankind in a covenantal (federal) relationship with God and [mankind] suffer[s] the consequences of his fall, which includes death, depravity and guilt.”8 The immediate parallel should not be missed between the federal headship view of Adam as the corporate representative of man and the analogy of Paul in Romans 5:12-19.9 Just as Adam was the representative of mankind in the fall and all mankind fell with him into sin, Christ was representative of mankind on the cross paying the price for sin so that the death that sin brought may be overcome through the victory of man’s representative on the cross, Jesus Christ.

The other predominant view which seeks to make the connection between Adam’s sin and us is the “natural (or realistic) headship” view.10 This view is closely “related to the traducianist view of the origin of the soul,”11 and was propounded by Tertullian and tacitly held by St. Augustine who, according to Gerard O’Daly, “vacillated between creationism and traducianism without ever reaching a final decision.”12 Traducianism teaches that the soul of man is transmitted from the parent to the child. In this view, according to Erickson, “We were present in germinal or seminal form in our ancestors; in a very real sense, we were there in Adam.”13If this is true, the whole human race was present when Adam sinned, and as such, became guilty with Adam in his sin (cf. Heb 7:5-10). 

Another proposal, that has only recently been given much attention, is the concept of “hereditary corruption,” which proposes that “like produces like”14and mankind sins in imitation of Adam’s sin. In such case, imputation is not part of the “equation,” and there is no causal means of connection between Adam and his progenitors that is addressed in the proposal.15 As stated, this concept has not been given much attention until more recently with the return of Pelagianism and postmodernity, which we will discuss more later in our study. It is only deemed worthy of mention because of its connection with Pelagius and how it relates to our thesis. Most importantly, though, is to recognize that not any of the aforementioned proposals are concerned with Adam’s sin nature being transmitted to his descendants simply by virtue of Adam being the progenitor of the human race. With regards to the realist and representative views John Murray states, “Both are concerned with the specific ground of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and, in respect of the parallel drawn in Romans 5:12-19, the question is whether the specific ground posited by the realist for this imputation is compatible with the analogy which is instituted by the apostle between the one sin….”16 Murray’s statement is significant, and as we move forward in our study it will be necessary to pay close attention as we explore whether either proposal is compatible with the apostle’s analogy as it is given in Romans 5:12-19. 

In part-two of this series we will look at the literary traditions which are believed to have served as a foundation for the Apostle’s writing in Romans chapter 5 regarding Adam and the transmission of sin to the human race.

Read Part 2 of the series here

Endnotes

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  1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
  2. David Parker, “Original Sin: A Study in Evangelical Theology,” Evangelical Quarterly 61:1 (1989): 59. 
  3. E. L. Mascall, “Sin,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (1968), 20, 556. in David Parker, “Original Sin: A Study in Evangelical Theology,” Evangelical Quarterly 61:1 (1989): 53.
  4. Justin Holcomb states, “Pelagius argued that there is no such thing as original sin. In no way were humans after Adam guilty of or implicated in his first sin. Adam’s sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Instead, “over the years [our own sin] gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself” (Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias VIII).  Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Heretics, Know Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 112.See also, Roger E. Olson, God in Dispute: “Conversations” Among Great Christian Thinkers(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 90.
  5. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 578.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. David Parker, Original Sin, 56.
  9. Erickson, Christian Theology, 578.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Traducianism is the theory or doctrine that the soul is transmitted down the generations from parents to children. It is most famously connected with Tertullian. Among the Church Fathers, it stands in contrast to the dominant view that is usually called creationism, and to Origen’s belief in the preexistence of the soul. Tertullian expounds it in On the Soul 23–41, esp. 37 (ANF 3:218). Augustine considered it an explanation for original sin (Epistle to Jerome 166; chaps. 1–17). But some suggest that it perhaps rests on an unbiblical dualism of body and soul, rather than on their unity. Some Lutherans have held it, and it had a brief revival in the nineteenth century. A. H. Strong commended it (Systematic Theology [London: Pickering and Inglis, 1907], 493–97), and C. Hodge discusses it (Systematic Theology, vol. 2 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; New York: Scribner, 1871], 68–70). It was condemned by Pope Anastasius II in 498, and is rejected by the majority of Protestants. ANFAnte-Nicene Fathers. Edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. Anthony C. Thiselton, “Traducianism,” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 818.
  12. Gerard O’Daly, “Augustine’s Theology,” in Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003), 162.
  13. Erickson, Christian Theology, 579. Concerning Hebrews 7:9-10, F.F. Bruce states, “Levi was Abraham’s great-grandson, and was yet unborn when Abraham met Melchizedek; but an ancestor is regarded in biblical thought as containing within himself all his descendants.  Cf. Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:23; Mal. 1:2f.; Rom. 9:11ff.), and preeminently Adam (Rom. 5:12, where “all sinned” is a way of indicating what happened when Adam sinned). (Adam, however, incorporates his posterity as no other biblical figure does.) F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 164. Gareth Lee Cockerill, in reference to the passage from Hebrews states, “Levi, representing his descendants, paid tithes to Melchizedek, through Abraham his father and representative. The pastor uses “in the loins of his father” to emphatically assert this representative role for “the patriarch” (v. 4). However, Abraham’s authority to represent his descendants is based on more than physical descent. By divine choice his descendants were the heirs of the promises God had given him.”  Cockerill, affirming the representative role of Abraham cites quotes Westcott when he writes, “The descendants of Abraham were included in him, not only as he was their forefather physically, but also because he was the recipient of the divine promises in which the fullness of the race in its manifold developments was included. And Levi includes his descendants in his own person just as he was himself included in Abraham.” Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 312.  Lastly, Arnold Fruchtenbaum states, “It is true that Levi was not living at the time that Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, but he was in the loins of Abraham. Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek by means of imputation, for he was still in the loins of his father, Abraham, when Melchizedek met him. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, First Peter, Second Peter, Jude, 1st ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 101.
  14. D. A. Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation,” in Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), n 47. 
  15. Ibid.
  16. John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1959), 34-35.