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Romans 5: Part 3 – Sin and its Solution (RJS)

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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)
) agrees:

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.



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phil_style

posted March 3, 2009 at 7:02 am


It is my (probably wrong) opinion that the thrust of Pauls argument is to explain how Jesus actions can save gentiles. This is why he has to go back to what he thinks was the start of it all – which was before the Jew/Gentile distiction (Abraham). If Paul can show that the Gentiles lost out too, then he can show that they deserve to be winners now, as with the Jews. This is, for me, why he goes back to Adam (cf Romans 3:22-23 “there is no discinction”).



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 3, 2009 at 8:02 am


I’ve written in response to earlier posts the mytho-historical nature of Genesis 1-11 was because ancient minds would not have been able to make sense of a pure factual description. But there is a part of me that suspects that even today we might not be able to comprehend what happened, even if it were explained to us.
C. S. Lewis tells the story of “Flatlanders,” where two dimensional beings are trying to comprehend the existence of a three dimensional being. We are Flatlanders as we approach many of these issues. While I think there can be a healthy desire to want to explore such things I also think there may be hubris involved to think we can get our heads around all such mysteries. In many ways it is sufficient to know that we are a race of sinners in need of a savior. The mytho-historical stories give us truth that can shape our lives without having to know the precise factual nature of things. Maybe we should simply be grateful for the narrative even as we probe the mysteries.



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Dave Dunbar

posted March 3, 2009 at 9:11 am


Yes, but I am not sure you can carry through a clean distinction between truthfulness and “factness” in this case. For example, you want to maintain federal headship but not the individuality of Adam. I have no idea what that means. If there is no individual Adam, how is “he” the head of anything? If everybody is “Adam” (humanity), then we should should probably give up the idea of headship and just say that Paul got it wrong–although I appreciate your not wanting to do that either.



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Craig

posted March 3, 2009 at 10:48 am


I think this is the “tuffest” issue. For the most part, I’m right there with you. But I think I come closer to Mr. Stott. I have his stand-alone Romans commentary, which sounds like it might be a more thorough handling (it also is a much thicker/larger book!). But maybe not. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around a federal head that doesn’t exist. Can you have federal headship without a truly federal head? Anyway, to answer your question, I think Paul’s atonement theology depends directly on federal headship.
as an aside:
http://bishopalan.blogspot.com/2009/03/reading-bible-101.html
- Craig



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RJS

posted March 3, 2009 at 10:56 am


Dave,
I don’t think that adam is “everybody” in the sense that we all sin, because I think that headship is an important idea.
We are on a time line from a beginning to an end. There is a purpose to creation.
In the beginning adam as the first man created in the image of God and imbued with a free will and creative cognitive ability rebelled from obedience to God. Jesus – in obedience and as God incarnate – was the solution, in a one time event in history.
So when was the first man? In terms of modern homo sapiens sapiens, roughly 190000 years ago. If federal headship is to descendants not contemporaries, then we look back to the development (creation) of modern humans for adam. You know though, we are all one species – there are not multiple versions of man, and we did all “originate” in the same place, there were not multiple convergent appearances. The time line is not really changed by any of our scientific discoveries or deduction.



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Bprjam

posted March 3, 2009 at 10:56 am


I would argue that Paul’s argument in Romans 5 does indeed rely at least on Adam as federal head, but I don’t know if Paul’s theology relies on this. It seems to me that Paul was struggling with the concepts here. Paul tries to show how the gift is not like the trespass, but his argument is strange almost to the point of nonsense. Wright tries to explain it like an explosion of grace that outpaces the spread of sin through Adam, but I think his explanation falls short.
From reading other Pauline material, it seems that Paul is concerned about the universality of sin (as comment #1 indicates), and how Christ is universal salvation. My interpretation of Romans is that he struggles to be faithful to both OT trajectories of sin (from Exodus 20:5, Numbers 14:18 to Deut 24:16, Jeremiah 31:30, Ezekiel 18:17, to Micah 7:18, etc – Shults lays out this trajectory well) while at the same time showing how gentiles are under sin without the law.
Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with a mythical Adam as a federal head, but I do have a problem with the Augustinian notion of original sin. That, of course, colors a lot of my interpretation of scripture.



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ChrisB

posted March 3, 2009 at 11:00 am


I know this isn’t a universal interpretation, but many think Paul’s suggesting that Jesus can save all humans only because He inserted himself into Adam’s line — and can therefore undo Adam’s rebellion. If there is no Adam, if there is no one pair whose line Jesus can join, then (if they’re right) Paul’s logic falls apart, and he goes from inspired apostle to raving premodern.



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RJS

posted March 3, 2009 at 11:10 am


ChrisB,
We are all one species, we all originated in the same place. Jesus is God incarnate entering into the human species as homo sapiens sapiens, born of woman, human but not merely human.
How do the key features of the story differ if adam is a unique individual as related in Gen 3, or if adam in the unique individual 200K years ago as modern human, or if adam is the rebellion of the first small community of humans from whom every single one of us descends?



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Rick

posted March 3, 2009 at 11:26 am


Koinonia recently discussed John Walton’s upcoming book (I believe, RJS, that you mentioned your plan to review this book after its release), and this issue was brought up (in regards to ANE):
“One of the distinctives of the biblical account of the creation of humankind is that only one human pair is created (= monogenesis). In the ancient Near East people are created as a group; that is, Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources are overwhelmingly polygenistic… far from the Israelite view of Adam (or Noah for that matter) as the progenitor of the race.”



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Your Name

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:34 pm


Reality shows us that our actions create effect(s). The basis for this being so is in Genesis that actions created effect – sin/the fall. I’m not quite sure what you mean as mytho-historical, would you explain that more please? But it seems to me if Adam is only repressional and not really an individual, then the basis for action creating effect can not apply. There had to be a person in the flow of history who sinned and it brought the fall through God. Not just someone who represents this. That’s where I think Adam had to be a real person in history.



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BeckyR

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:35 pm


That “Your Name” was me.



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Bprjam

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm


BeckR (#10):
What if the cause/effect Adam experienced is a natural consequence than one he invented? For instance, if I eat a poisonous mushroom and die, I didn’t just invent that consequence, I just discovered a natural consequence. Everyone who eats those poisonous mushrooms will also die, but not because I died first. They’ll die because they ate the mushroom that is poison.
Sometimes I feel like we want to say that Adam invented the consequence of sin, rather than just encountering a pre-existing consequence.
In my thinking about this, what Adam tells us is that we will all follow in his footsteps and sin. In this way, I find that Adam is a great archetype for “humanity”. Adam, as mythic humanity, sinned, therefore we all “conform” to sin, since we are all human. Death is the natural consequence of that sin. Christ, however, is the new Adam, and if we “conform” to him, our hope is that things will be different.



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Marc

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:01 pm


I don’t want to derail the discussion (feel free to ignore me if I am), but after reading this post I can’t help but think again of the notion of universal salvation (universalism).
If sin came through one “man” and the rest of us have little, if any, choice in the matter, does it not make sense that we also have no choice in *that* matter?
Perhaps that’s a rudimentary picture of things, but it’s what stands out as I read this. Just thinking out loud…
(Of course, we’re talking about Genesis, not salvation.)



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RJS

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:38 pm


Becky R,
I guess I look at it this way: we are all one big family. If we go back far enough in history everyone alive descended from the same small population – ultimately we all trace back to the same set of ancestors. So I think that we are talking about a cause and effect relationship. In essence this is why I don’t think that Paul is “wrong” in any substantive way. The universal need for atonement arises from a universal guilt. And the universal guilt arises from rebellion against God – from the beginning.
Could there have been a unique couple among a larger population, who were created in the image of God – who rebelled and whose progeny are among the ancestors of all? Yes – this is possible.
Where is the line between myth and history in Gen 3 – well rebellion is history, perhaps more is history – but the story as we have it is not “literal-historical.”



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RJS

posted March 3, 2009 at 5:11 pm


Marc (#13),
Without regard to where one stands on Genesis and Adam – this passage in Romans has often led people to consider universalism for just the reason you bring up. Or in some Calvinist thought, if not universal – at least for the elect. Stott would say for “the many.”



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dopderbeck

posted March 3, 2009 at 5:13 pm


My question is this: if Adam can be regarded as a representative, federal head, and if the natural sciences can’t speak to the existence of such a spiritually representative individual, why not also regard him as a historical individual?



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dopderbeck

posted March 3, 2009 at 5:18 pm


rick (#9) — do you have a link to that Walton review?



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RJS

posted March 3, 2009 at 5:33 pm


dopderbeck,
You mean along the lines of Stott’s discussion where Adam’s “federal” headship extended outwards to his contemporaries and onwards to his descendents – or Adam as a historical individual some 200,000 years ago?
I lean toward something of the latter – that is that God acted to create humans in his image some 200,000 years ago – using the “dust of the earth” in the form of an existing hominid amongst a population. And this gets to the question of what makes us human.



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dopderbeck

posted March 3, 2009 at 7:49 pm


Stott’s view



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RJS

posted March 3, 2009 at 9:35 pm


dopderbeck,
The view Stott outlines in his commentary had never occurred to me – but it has merit. The parallel between Adam and Christ is maintained, and even strengthened somewhat over the more traditional view. After all no one claims that the life introduced by Christ extends only to his biological descendants (despite Dan Brown and the DaVinci code that would mean no one).
Stott also sees no problem with death in the plant and animal kingdoms, it is a natural process. But following Calvin, Stott agrees that death extended to humans created in the image of God as a consequence of sin. Had Adam not sinned “God originally had something much better in mind, something less degrading and squalid than death, decay, and decomposition, something which acknowledged that human beings are not animals.” There are biblical precedents – the translation of Enoch and Elijah, the change described in 1 Cor. 15 for those alive at Christ’s return, even the transfiguration of Jesus provide interesting possibilities and Stott considers these.



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Doug Allen

posted March 3, 2009 at 10:31 pm


I ran this discussion by my dinner guest, AY, tonight. AY studied for his masters at Emory U. 15 years ago when he was about age 55 and is the son of a Methodist pastor. He sees Genesis as a creation story that also answers the conundrum of how God’s “good” creation resulted in so much bad behavior by our brothers and sisters and ourselves. The Adam and Eve story attempts to explain our selfish nature. The combination of our freedom and our selfish nature explain our frequent uncaring, unloving, and unforgiving behavior. Jesus taught and modeled compassion, love, forgiveness- qualities that are both God’s nature and our means of atonement when we follow Jesus. The redemptive life and death of Jesus brings reconciliation between God and man to His (God/Jesus’) followers.
And I’ll add my two bits without the benefit of any formal theology studies- God’s grace is universal for He loves all His children as Jesus makes so abundantly clear. He created everything including the tree and the snake which represent our freedom and our hubris in the story. The stories of the old testament and also the new testament are not all consistent with each other because they were written by different people at different times with different understandings and require love and discernment. The attempt to make them all consistent and meaningfully supportive of each other is part of our hubris, a headstrong belief that we can understand the mystery and that our understanding permits us to judge others. This is contrary to the teaching and modeling of Jesus.
DougI ran this discussion by my dinner guest, AY, tonight. AY studied for his masters at Emory U. 15 years ago when he was about age 55 and is the son of a Methodist pastor. He sees Genesis as a creation story that also answers the conundrum of how God’s “good” creation resulted in so much bad behavior by our brothers and sisters and ourselves. The Adam and Eve story attempts to explain our selfish nature. The combination of our freedom and our selfish nature explain our frequent uncaring, unloving, and unforgiving behavior. Jesus taught and modeled compassion, love, forgiveness- qualities that are both God’s nature and our means of atonement when we follow Jesus. The redemptive life and death of Jesus brings reconciliation between God and man to His (God/Jesus’) followers.
And I’ll add my two bits without the benefit of any formal theology studies- God’s grace is universal for He loves all His children as Jesus makes so abundantly clear. He created everything including the tree and the snake which represent our freedom and our hubris in the story. The stories of the old testament and also the new testament are not all consistent with each other because they were written by different people at different times with different understandings and require love and discernment. The attempt to make them all consistent and meaningfully supportive of each other is part of our hubris, a headstrong belief that we can understand the mystery and that our understanding permits us to judge others. This is contrary to the teaching and modeling of Jesus.
Doug



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Doug Allen

posted March 3, 2009 at 10:39 pm


ooops, I should have said that AY studied for his Master’s in theology at Emory. He had been a successful businessman, and is a lifelong student of religion and follower of Jesus Christ. AY and I hike frequently together, recently took a Shakespeare class together at Furman U. and will be going to hear Marcus Borg at Furman in a few weeks.
Doug



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AHH

posted March 3, 2009 at 11:24 pm


Dopderbeck #18, who is good at asking interesting questions, asks:
“if Adam can be regarded as a representative, federal head, and if the natural sciences can’t speak to the existence of such a spiritually representative individual, why not also regard him as a historical individual?”
I agree that this is a viable position. To the extent I would advocate a “why not”, it would be to whatever extent OT scholarship suggests that the inspired story in Genesis is entirely a figurative portrait of our human rebellion, and that making it about a pair of historic individuals would be misreading the story. If one reached that conclusion about genre (which I lean toward but I’m no OT scholar), that would be a good “why not”.
For many, such a “why not” is opposed by a “why” coming from a couple of passages in Paul, and also doctrines of how sin and redemption “work”. Those are legitimate issues, not persuasive for me because I think Paul was mainly trying to explain how our salvation works (not how we got to the state of needing it), but it isn’t clear cut and I respect those for whom this is a strong pull toward an interpretation like Stott’s with literal Adam and Eve.



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AHH

posted March 3, 2009 at 11:31 pm


Amendment to my last post.
I should not have said “I think Paul was mainly trying to explain how our salvation works”
That sounds like I think Paul is trying to give us a theory of atonement in this passage, which wasn’t what I meant.
Let me rephrase that as “I think Paul was mainly trying to point to Jesus as the source of salvation for all (Jews and Gentiles) who receive the gift of God’s grace”



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Rick

posted March 4, 2009 at 6:36 am

RJS

posted March 4, 2009 at 7:10 am


Rick,
Good link – and it looks like the upcoming book will be interesting. The discussion in the link is centered on Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. coming out in Fall – so Zondervan is building interest.
The book of Walton’s I’ve referred to is being published by IVP and is coming out sooner, focused on Gen 1.
AHH,
I agree that we need to look to the OT scholarship as well, even primarily in interpreting Gen 1-11 and “adam”, which is one reason why I think that Stott overemphasizes the importance of the genealogies in reaching his conclusion.



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Mark

posted March 4, 2009 at 8:21 am


RJS,
Thanks for a great post. I always love the way you honestly try to have Christians think outside the box. I also enjoy how you have merged your scientific beliefs with your Christian beliefs. You are a great role model for those in science. Thank you.



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Matt

posted March 5, 2009 at 11:33 pm


My concern is the parallelism between the effect of Adam’s sin (universally effectual) and Christ’s atonement (universally available, but not effectual). It is a non-sequitir (granting that universalism raises larger contradictions within Scripture).



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Craig

posted March 6, 2009 at 10:14 am


RJS,
Not directly related to this post, but thought you and others might be interested in some of the information within this post:
http://scienceandcreation.blogspot.com/2009/03/catching-up-carol-hill-on-genesis-flood.html
- Craig



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RJS

posted March 6, 2009 at 10:29 am


Craig,
Good link to an interesting article. Definitely on topic with the general thread of conversation. (Past posts and the next one as well)



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