Archive for September, 2014

Original sin 4 – Proposing a new view

Posted: September 19, 2014 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 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.

Original sin 3 – Romans 5 as boasting

Posted: September 18, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Last post we suggested a translation of Romans 5:15ff that tried to capture its poetry. Now its time to look at it more closely.

CONTEXT: The previous passage (Rom. 5:1-11) was emphasising how Christians boast in Christ. More on that later.


v.12 ‘Therefore just as through one man…’ This opening sets up expectations that the passage will present a formal parallel between the two men. However, the sentence is left unfinished, and the thought is interrupted by an opposing thought:

1. Jesus’ work was not like Adam’s

That’s the theme of v.15-16: ways in which the two men were different.

v.15 Adam’s trespass brought us harm –  Jesus comes to us as a gracious gift, i.e. a blessing.

v.16 Adam’s act was in a court setting of judgement, where because of one sin condemnation came on the many. Jesus’ act was in a setting of generous giving, where in spite of  many sins, justification came on the many, even more than condemnation had previously.

Paul is emphasising differences here. Commentators who see these verses as teaching a formal parallel between Adam and Jesus, are not listening.

However, by verse 18 Paul’s original thought seems to reappear, and we learn that after all:

2. Jesus’ work was like Adam’s: but as a kind of mirror image or opposite  

v.17 One man was involved in each case. Something reigned in each case. Similar.

The first brought sin and the reign of death. The second brought the gift of righteousness and the reign of life. Opposites.

v.18 One act in each case: similar.

First brought judgement and death, second brought acquittal and life. opposites.

v.19 disobedience makes sinners  – obedience makes righteous people: opposites.

v.21 sin reigned in death  – grace reigns into life. Opposites.

Inserted near the end is an explanation of the law’s role:

3. The law’s role

v.20 The law inflated sin’s power. But then grace grew even bigger than sin. A comparative.


SUMMARY: Paul’s boasting.

Paul says the same thing many times over. Each time he finds a slightly different way to say it. Sometimes the form of his phrase is ‘differences’ sometimes the form is ‘opposites’ – a much stricter category, and once it is a comparative: ‘bigger’. The form is a bit fluid: formal considerations are apparently not the heart of the matter here. However the content is very similar throughout, with roughly equivalent ideas occuring in phrase after phrase.

What does this extensive repetition achieve? To educate us about the fine shades of the doctrine through careful formal comparisons? I don’t think so. To read it that way is to miss the growing note of triumph, and the poetry and lyricism of the passage. 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 phrase upon phrase, thinking of as many different ways as he can to express and celebrate Jesus’ superiority over Adam. And all building in excitement up to the climax of the glorious final verses.

The traditional Reformed reading has tended to ask, “What does the passage teach?” and to neglect to ask, “What does it do?”

What this passage achieves is celebration. Paul is taking time to glory in the achievement of the cross of Christ, by showing its superiority to Adam’s deed. Why do we care about being superior to Adam? Because Adam here stands for ‘sin’. I.e., we’re talking Christ’s victory over sin. This is a song of triumph. What it does is boast.

This boasting has been Paul’s theme in Romans so far: in chapters 2-4 he exposes how the Jews boast in man and in the law of Moses (2:17, 2:23, 4:2). But the gospel completely rules out this kind of boasting (3:27).

Then in chapter 5 Paul has introduced gospel boasting: we boast in our hope of glory, and even in our sufferings, and above all we boast in what God has done for us in Christ Jesus (5:2,3,11). Having warmed us up for this, he switches from talking about boasting, to doing boasting. Boasting shifts from being the topic or content, to become the speech-act he is performing. Paul launches straight into his actual boast in 5:12ff: the passage we have been considering.

The thing he most wants to communicate here is the overwhelming glory of Jesus’ achievement. By the end, we the readers feel overwhelmed by the completeness of Christ’s victory over the sin which has for so long destroyed us, and by the richness of the grace which brings us ‘eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (5:21).

Original sin 2 – Rereading Romans 5

Posted: September 17, 2014 by J in Bible

Does Romans 5 do the business? Does it establish clearly the Reformed view of original sin?

Let’s take a look. Before we get into details, we should establish which genre Paul is writing in. One concern I have with traditional readings of this passage, is they generally fail to do this. It matters because Paul is writing poetry here, from v.15 on.  To read Romans 5 ignoring that, is to misread it.

To help the non-greekers out there, I’ve tried to restore the poetry to the passage. Challenge: try reading this out loud. That is the way to read poetry. Here goes!

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 4.36.08 PM

This poem is a great celebration of Jesus achievement over against Adam’s. Why do we call it a poem? Because of the poetic devices used throughout. For example, the constant use of balanced, paired phrases – a typical Hebrew poetic technique (though here transferred to Greek!). There is a rhythm to this writing.

Perhaps you never thought of the apostle Paul as a poet. But here we can see him Paul choosing 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.

You can see this in v.18, for example. 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.

Why does Paul choose this word, dikaioma? Dikaiosune would have been much clearer. He does it because dikaioma rhymes with paraptoma in the parallel clause. The alternatives such as dikaiosune or hupakoe, don’t rhyme. 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 have tried to capture in my translation (above).

What does this mean for exegesis? As they taught us at college, in exegesis genre must rule. Genre clues us in to Paul’s aim. We are not dealing with Paul’s typical epistolary (letter-writing) style. He’s not in didactic mode here. He’s in celebration mode.

Genre considerations, then, suggest that we need to allow for poetic strategies, and poetic licence – for a certain looseness of word-choice, for example. 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. Genre has traditionally been ignored in the exegesis.

And that’s a worry.

Can we believe in original sin?

Posted: September 16, 2014 by J in Church, Church history, Theology

Original sin is a doctrine you don’t hear much any more. ‘For all have sinned and fallen short…’ – yup we teach that. But ‘Adam sinned and so you fall short’ – that’s a harder one to sell. We tend to kind of keep it up our sleeve.

People who look into the doctrine of original sin tend to struggle a bit. Part of the problem is clarifying what the heck it means.

There are of course different versions of the doctrine, and not everyone means the same thing by the words. The Reformed doctrine, in the words of the Westminster Confession, is this:

Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness,  and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

Full on, huh? What we all get from Adam is this package: not just lack of righteousness and corruption of nature, but the actual guilt of his sin.

In other words, we are held to be guilty of Adam’s sin.

I wonder if your church teaches this? It’s a more formidable doctrine than other Christian traditions hold: the more universally held position is that Adam’s sin affected our whole race, and the whole creation, so that sinfulness was transmitted to us all through him. In other words pretty much everyone accepts the ‘corruption of his whole nature’ part of the Westminster statement, but not the ‘guilt of Adam’s first sin’ part.

The Roman Catholic catechism, for example, describes original sin like this:

…but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.  It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.

This is a kind of organic view of original sin, as a disease propagated. Rather than the judicial view of Westminster: a guilt imputed. Westminster also teaches this, it teaches both. So I would say, the Catholic doctrine makes a lesser claim.

We are going to examine this issue over a few posts. What should we believe about original sin?

We can start by noticing that the Westminster view has traditionally only held out one proof text: Romans 5:12ff. Hmm. That’s not so good. One text is hard to build a doctrine from. We’re going to need to take a close look at Romans 5.