Adam and original sin – how far can we go?

Posted: November 24, 2011 by J in Bible, Theology

Romans 5:12ff is considered the key passage for the doctrine of original sin. How much of that doctrine does it actually establish?

Some exegetical observations:

1. The passage is not really about original sin as such. In fact it’s not even about Adam – it’s about Jesus. Adam functions as the comparison that helps Paul explain Jesus’ achievement. If you look at the Adam clauses, they’re nearly all dependant, the main clauses are the ones about Jesus. The passage is bookended with ‘we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ,’ and ‘resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

The things we learn about Adam, we learn incidentally.

That’s not good news for our doctrine. When the key passage  is not trying to answer the questions we’re asking, that should put us on our guard. In my view it knocks a bit of a discount off the certainty we can have in our conclusions on the question of Adam.

2. Paul portrays sin as a subject, and active agent or force. Sin entered the world. It was in the world. Sin multiplied under the law, so that it reigned. It reigned in or through death.

Paul is clearly not treating sin here as primarily an abstract or absolute idea, such as ‘guilt’. It is something very concrete and present – it is ‘in the world.’

Yet our traditional doctrine treats original sin as an abstract absolute: the guilt of Adam imputed to us all. Hard to see how that would come from this passage.

3. What caused sin to not just exist in the world but to reign, was the introduction of the law, which enabled sin to multiply. This is an existential description of sin’s power increasing over mankind through disobedience, so that eventually it can be said to reign.

Our Reformed doctrine treats sin’s reign as first and foremost something absolute and judicial: all mankind falls under the verdict passed on Adam, and so sin affects the fate of all. In this sense it reigns. Hard to see how this reign could increase or have degrees, or how the law could affect it. The Reformed doctrine is about people’s status, not their experience.

So it seems the universal imputation of Adam’s sin is not to be equated with the ‘reign of sin’ in Romans 5.

4. Paul describes how death spread to all because all sinned. He is discussing sin in the context of the Genesis story, from Adam to Moses (v.14). The word spread here, literally ‘passed through’ (dierchomai), is a process word, used to describe journeys. Death journeyed or spread through the world on the back of sin, which (presumably) was doing the same. Given the historical, narrative focus in these verses (v.12-14) we take this statement, ‘all sinned’, to be a summary of the spread of sin in world history before Moses, as presented in Genesis. An example would be the flood narrative:

And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.  13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh”.  Gen. 6:12-13

The ‘all sinned’ here is a historical truth. Sin corrupted the whole of mankind. Death followed.

The Reformed take on this is that ‘all sinned’ here is a judicial truth: all mankind were considered to have sinned in Adam’s one sin. ‘All sinned’ is, so to speak, an event in God. But we have seen that for Paul, it is a process in human history.

So far not many of the distinctive points in the Reformed doctrine have found confirmation in Romans 5. This is not to say that the doctrine is wrong, just that it’s not easy to find it in Romans 5.

The more widely accepted Christian doctrine of sin – that Adam’s first sin opened the door to sin in the world, and so all were ‘infected’ and destroyed by sin – this is pretty clearly Paul’s view here. The Reformed view accepts all that, of course: but it also pushes further towards inherited guilt. It’s these extras about imputation that we’ve been particularly trying to establish.

So far, from my study of Romans 5, I don’t feel I can go all the way with the doctrine of original sin.

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