Adam vs Jesus – some exegetical concerns

Posted: November 19, 2011 by J in Bible, Theology

Romans 5:12f has long been used to base the Reformed doctrine of original sin, i.e. that Adam’s sin is imputed to us all – we all sinned in Adam – so that we are all guilty because of that one sin. John Murray’s Romans commentary (otherwise helpful) is an exponent of this view.

This doctrine is of course the ‘mirror’ image or converse of the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness, which has been in our sights at The Grit lately. From Adam we inherit guilt, from Jesus righteousness.

Since Romans 5 is the key text for this doctrine of imputed original sin – in fact, pretty much the only text – we want to re-examine the exegesis of that passage fairly carefully. It’s more important than usual to get it right when the whole doctrine stands or falls on this text.

We started by raising the concern that the genre of the passage has been largely ignored: it is poetry (see previous post). Now we’d better make good that claim.

In this passage (especially v.15-21) Paul chooses his words deliberately for their aural qualities: the passage is full of rhymes. He even occasionally chucks in a term that isn’t perhaps strictly the right one, because it rhymes.

For example, v.18 Adam’s side is: “one sin (paraptoma) leads to judgement for all humans.” Jesus’ side is: “and one dikaioma leads to the justification of life for all.” Now there is no way dikaioma is a natural opposite to paraptoma (sin). It’s not the word you would normally choose for the job here. It’s not the word Paul reaches for any other time to express this contrast. Dikaioma means righteous statute or judgement. It never normally means righteous deed, which is what we’re expecting here. The translators are expecting ‘righteous deed’ so strongly, they put it in even though it’s not a good translation for dikaioma.

So what is Paul meaning by dikaioma here? How should we translate? We have two options. Either:

1. Paul stretches the meaning of dikaioma, to mean ‘righteous deed.’ It would then stand for the converse of Adam’s sinful deed (paraptoma). The parallelism of Jesus vs Adam is preserved. But it’s a semantic stretch!


2. By dikaioma Paul means ‘God’s righteous judgement in justifying Jesus.’ In which case the strict parallelism of the verse is sacrificed – Adam’s sin compared to God’s judgement, where it should strictly be compared to Jesus’ obedience. This however gives a more natural sense to dikaioma. 

Either way (and I lean towards option 2) Paul sacrifices precision and clarity at this point. Why does he choose this word, dikaioma? Clearly Paul has chosen the word because it rhymes with paraptoma in the parallel clause. The alternatives he might normally have used, such as dikaiosune or hupakoe, don’t. Paul is writing a song here, he’s giving himself poetic licence. His priorities are poetic: whatever else it does, this sentence must flow and feel good to speak. It must be lyrical.

This is one of the most obvious instances of Paul adopting a poetic style is this passage. There are many others. If you read out the greek, you can hear them. That’s what I was trying to capture in my translation (see prev. post).

So what does this mean for exegesis? It means there are genre issues to be considered. The passage is not in Paul’s typical epistolary (letter-writing) style. And as they taught us at college, in exegesis genre must rule.

Genre clues us in to Paul’s aim. He’s not in didactic mode here. He’s in celebration mode. This tells us that this long string of statements is not to be taken as so many propositions to be analysed for doctrinal purposes. It might be better to see Paul as piling up boast upon boast, thinking of as many different ways as he can to celebrate Jesus’ superiority over Adam. The thing Paul most wants to communicate here is the overwhelming glory of Jesus’ achievement.

Genre considerations, then, suggest that we need to allow for poetic strategies, and poetic licence. We shouldn’t subject this passage to the same kind of precise and technical exegesis that we use elsewhere in Paul.

But that’s exactly the kind of exegesis that has been used to establish the Reformed doctrine of original sin from this passage.

And that’s a worry.

  1. Nick says:

    I think it’s important to not project preconceived notions upon the Scripture. Paul uses the term “reckon, impute, credit” (the same Greek word Logizomai) about 30 times, yet never does Paul use the term “impute” in refrence to Adam’s sins. Yes, Adam’s sin did negatively impact us all, but it is wrong to say this is an “imputation,” much less a “mirror” of Christ’s Righteousness imputed since the word is never used yet Paul had plenty of opportunity to do so.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for your comment Nick. It is difficult, isn’t it to avoid ‘preconceived notions’! We read Scripture in a tradition stretching back to the early church, a tradition which immensely enriches our reading. But it is difficult to avoid just finding in Scripture what we’ve been taught to find! Hence, while here at The Grit we have heaps of respect for tradition, we are committed to what we say in our tagline: question everything!

  3. Jonathan, I’m loving the posts and I share your concerns regarding imputation language. I would, however, like to push back a little on this particular post regarding genre issues. Your claim is that because Paul is engaging in a poetic celebration in Romans 5 (haven’t looked carefully at it myself, so I’m taking your word for it) his theological language becomes more “elastic” and appropriate exegesis should reflect this. I’m not so sure that this logically follows. Even if Paul is being poetic here it does not mean that he is sacrificing clarity in his own mind. He may, to his way of thinking, be making himself abundantly clear and it is our exegesis which is at fault. Perhaps we are not as skilled as we may be in extracting doctrinal truth from poetic text. Can you cite any other Pauline poetic text where a case can be made that doctrinal truth has been sacrificed for genre concerns? If not, why do we then assume that it has happened in this single case?

    • Jonathan says:

      Luke, great comment! Thanks for your interest and encouragement.

      I’m always so pleased when someone is unconvinced! We all end up learning something.

      So in this case the issue is poetic licence. This is a question of language, esp. word choice. The genre being poetic, it needs to be interpreted according to the ‘rules’ or conventions of poetry. I tried to show that Paul was making use of those conventions, as part of my case that Romans 5:15ff is poetic.

      I’m not intending to talk about doctrinal inaccuracy. I’m not suggesting we give Paul a ‘margin of error’ in this or any other passage. It’s a question of language. Paul makes a (for us) unexpected word choice, which I’m suggesting either stretches the semantic range of the word, or more likely, breaks the pattern of Adam vs Jesus he is working in. Being less structurally ordered and regular, the writing is therefore in a real sense less clear. It takes more processing to sort out what he’s saying. It’s not misleading, or inaccurate theological. It’s just a bit trickier.

      So I don’t mean to say ‘doctrinal truth has been sacrificed for genre concerns.’ Not at all. I agree that Paul doesn’t do that. It’s just that poetry is often less clear than prose. Often more effective though!

      But I could give you plenty of examples of where Paul’s language is not very clear. Romans 5:12-14, for example. Peter thought so too!

      So I am saying: exegesis should be governed by genre. We should read according to the conventions of poetry at this point. If we do, I believe Paul will come clear for us, and if we don’t, then when he seems confusing it will be ‘our exegesis which is at fault’, as you say.

      I hope that helps clarify a little what I’m meaning?

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