Romans 5:12-21 is a great passage – and at the center of the passage is the achievement of Jesus through his death and resurrection. In his commentary on Romans NT Wright notes:
Though the word “cross” is not mentioned, and though Jesus’ own death is not spoken of explicitly, we should not miss the fact that in this passage we have one of Paul’s fullest statements of what in shorthand we call atonement theology. … This is the high mountain ridge from which we look back to the earlier statements, and on to the subsequent ones. (p 531, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10).
This is not a passage to be toyed with or dismissed. If death was, in some sense, part of creation before the Fall, if Adam was not a unique individual living 4000 years earlier, we must ask: Did Paul get it wrong? Wow – no wonder the discussions become tense on occasion. Sometimes we need to stop for calm reflection.
Paul certainly thought of Adam and Eve as a unique pair of individuals who were tempted and sinned – through Adam bringing death to all. He based his telling of the story of the redeeming work of Christ on this understanding. But does his exegesis rely on the literal-historical factuality of Gen 2-3 or does it rely on the truthfulness of Gen 2-3? I am certain that some here will disagree with me and that it will be worth discussion – I am convinced that Paul’s development of the theology of atonement depends upon the truthfulness but not on the “factness” of Gen 2-3.
What is the purpose of the discussion of the sin of Adam?
First, the sin of Adam establishes the guilt of all – Adam’s sin was both individual and corporate, he sinned as the federal head of all mankind. The guilt is corporate, for all, before the law (Torah) and without the law (Torah). Death reigned from Adam to Moses, for Israel and for the nations. Guilt is universal.
F.F. Bruce says (Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
To Paul, Adam was more than a historical individual, the first man; he was also what his name means in Hebrew – ‘humanity’. The whole of humanity is viewed as having existed at first in Adam. Because of his sin however, Adam is humanity in alienation from God: the whole human race is viewed as having originally sinned in Adam. In the fall narrative of Genesis 3 ‘all subsequent human history lies incapsulated'; its incidents are re-enacted in the life of the race and of each member of the race. (p. 119 )
While some argue that Romans 5:12 “… and so death spread to all men, because all sinned–” relates the reality that all persons sin in their personal lives, this interpretation does not seem to hold up. The truth is more universal:
It is not simply because Adam is the ancestor of all mankind that all are said to have sinned in his sin (otherwise it might be argued that because Abraham believed God all his descendant were necessarily involved in his belief); it is because Adam is mankind. (p. 123)
John Stott in his commentary (The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today)
There can be only one explanation. All died because all sinned in and through Adam, the representative or federal head of the human race. (p. 152) (more on Stott’s views below)
And NT Wright also takes a federal view along with the undeniable individual sin:
Paul’s meaning must in any case be both that an entail of sinfulness has spread throughout the human race from its first beginnings and that each individual has contributed their own share to it. Paul offers no further clue as to how the first of these actually works or how the two interrelate. (p. 527)
The intent of the discussion of Adam and his sin is to establish the status of all, Jew and Gentile as “sinner.”
Second, having established our status as sinners, Paul establishes our status as justified through the obedience of Christ … so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
With audible overtones of Isa 53:11, he (Paul) declares that, as Adam’s disobedience gave “the many” the status of being “sinners” … so Christ’s obedience has given “the many” the status of being “righteous.” Jesus, whisper the Isaianic echoes, is the servant of YHWH, whose obedient death has accomplished YHWH’s saving purpose. He has “established” or “set up” his people with a new status. (Wright, p.529)
So did Paul get it wrong? No, of course not. The importance of this passage is not Adam as individual, but adam as federal head, as humanity. Gen 3 is true – mankind dies because of death that entered the world through deliberate rebellion, “our” rebellion. Our “status” prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was “sinner;” the verdict was “guilty”. Our status now is “justified.” All of us sinned – and we still commit actual sins – but we rest in the assurance that our status before God has changed “rooted in the cross and anticipating the verdict of the last day” and we follow Jesus.
OK, I’ve had my say – what do you think? Does the atonement theology of Paul depend on Adam as individual or adam as federal head (mythic perhaps) of humanity?
An aside – John Stott has an section in his commentary on The historicity and death of Adam (p. 162-166). Stott finds that “the narrative itself warrants no dogmatism about the six days of creation, since its form and style suggest that it is meant as literary art, not scientific description.” He also finds it likely that the snake and trees are meant to be understood symbolically in Gen 2-3. He holds to the historicity of the original human pair 6000-10,000 years ago largely because of the genealogies (esp. Luke 3) — but not in the sense you might think. He does not deny any of our scientific findings – and will even accede to the possibility (probability) that creation from dust is a Biblical way of saying that God breathed his divine image into an already existing hominoid. But…
The vital truth we cannot surrender is that, though our bodies are related to the primates, we ourselves in our fundamental identity are related to God.(p. 164)
Adam’s “federal” headship extended outwards to his contemporaries and onwards to his descendents.
I think that Stott relies too much on the historicity of the biblical genealogies including Luke 3. I don’t hold to a the historicity of a unique pair living 6000-10000 years ago. I think that Genesis is mytho-historical in a more substantive way. The genealogies are biblical – and connect to biblical history. Perhaps there was a unique pair in the distant past, perhaps adam is a reference to the federal headship in the community where modern homo sapiens first appeared, where God breathed into a pre-existent hominoid his very image. But without Christ our status is “sinner” because of the rebellion of adam our “federal” head and our innate sinful nature only serves as constant confirmation. Through Christ and Christ alone we are now justified.