Romans 5:12ff is considered the key passage for the doctrine of original sin. How much of that doctrine does it actually teach?
Some exegetical comments:
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.
In other words, this passage is not trying to answer the questions we’re asking. That should put us on our guard. For the Reformed view, Romans 5 is the go-to text. When the key passage for establishing a doctrine is actually about something different, that’s not a good sign. In my view it knocks a sizeable discount off the certainty we can have in any conclusions we draw on the question of Adam and original sin. In short, any doctrine that doesn’t get stated somewhere in Scripture, is going to have to justify its existence pretty convincingly. This has always been a weakness in the Reformed position: lack of exegetical backing.
2. There is a forensic theme in this passage. The language of the court is prominent: condemnation, judgement, vindication. Sin is being considered as transgression, as crime with legal implications. Everyone, not just Adam, is implicated in this forensic discussion.
3. Paul also portrays sin as a living subject, and active agent or force. Sin entered the world. It spread through the world. Sin multiplied under the law, so that it reigned. It reigned in or through death.
The Reformed reading of this passage takes sin here as an abstract or absolute idea: as ‘imputed original guilt’. But it is hard to see how Adam’s guilt, imputed to us, could be said to spread, or could be increased by the law, or have degrees. Rather, the sin Paul speaks of here is something very concrete and present – it is ‘in the world’, it is alive and growing. This sounds like an existential description of sin’s power increasing over mankind through disobedience, so that eventually it can be said to reign.
4. We need a way to do justice to points 2 and 3 at the same time. The sin Paul is describing has a legal and an existential dimension. It is worth noticing that Paul does the same thing in Romans 1:18ff, describing God’s judgement and mankind’s corruption at the same time. I would suggest that he is thinking along the same lines here in Romans 5:12ff. This may offer a solution to our problem.
In Romans 1, God’s judgement is revealed against the wickedness of mankind. That judgement consists in giving them over to the power and reign of sin. God withdraws his protection and leaves mankind at the mercy of evil. This is how God enacts his verdict against mankind and holds us guilty.
Now in Romans 5:12ff we have these same two elements in play: God’s judicial verdict on sin, and sin’s power among mankind. It would seem natural to relate the two in the way already indicated by Paul in chapter 1. One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all – because sin was allowed to infect the whole race and so all sinned. God gave us over to sin’s reign as the penalty for Adam’s sin. We are all held guilty in this manner, that sin is allowed to dominate us.
In other words, the judicial is expressed through the existential. They are not two separate aspects of original sin, as Westminster has it: ‘both the guilt and the corruption of Adam’s sin.’ Westminster is right to identify the two aspects of original sin, but it fails to relate them together. It makes the imputing of Adam’s guilt an abstract thing quite apart from any sins his offspring commit. And this is a significant failure, for it neglects the importance of human history as the platform on which God’s negative verdict is revealed and enacted. Which is for Paul a key aspect of the story he is trying to tell.
Other Christian traditions are right to identify the historical process involved in the transmission of sin, but they often fail to bring out the forensic significance of that story.
5. Paul can assume this ‘original sin’ story without having to state it here in ch.5, because he’s already told it back in ch.1. So we’re not relying on this passage alone for our doctrine – this deals with the concerns from point 1 above. A real weakness in traditional readings has been their reliance on ch.5 alone. But we are suggesting that the key text for this doctrine is Romans 1, not Romans 5.
Our study has led us to suggest a new way of understanding Paul’s view of original sin: one that rescues the doctrine from abstraction, bringing the judicial and the existential together into an organic, historically grounded whole.