Well, now we get to the heart of the matter, and the passage that so many of my blogopponents have been waiting for: Romans 5. It’s in this chapter that Paul writes most specifically about the inherited nature of sin, and it is from this passage that the two most articulate proponents of inherited guilt (Augustine) and the total depravity of humankind (Calvin) get their material.
Whether we like it or not, Romans is Paul’s magnum opus. While it’s not the systematic theology text that some make it out to be, it is his most theological and most systematic epistle. As he states in chapter 15, Paul is concerned about the conflict between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus the Christ in the Roman church, and he writes this letter in order to clear up some of the issues that have provoked the conflict. And, it seems, the understanding of sin, justification, guilt, and salvation seem to the source of the conflict.
In other words, yes, this is a letter about how the human being is justified before God. But it is, first and foremost, a letter about the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers.
Although Paul was, famously, a Roman citizen, he was first and foremost a Jew — what we today would call and “observant Jew.” That is, prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul (Saul) knew and followed the Law (Torah) and considered himself to be in good standing before Yahweh.
Paul’s Jewishness is important to remember when approaching Romans 5. Jews in his day, as today, consider Jewishness to be a matter of matrilinial descent: If you’re mom is Jewish, you are Jewish; if your dad is Jewish but your mom is not, then you are not Jewish. In Jesus and Paul’s day, there was much debate among rabbis about how, exactly, this happened, and even about how semen was involved. As one New Testament scholar recently emailed me, “In the air at the time of Jesus and Paul was a Jewish belief in the physical transmission of one’s status through reproduction.”
So, with that in mind, let’s see what Paul wrote.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death
through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is
not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14
Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses,
even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who
is a pattern of the one to come.
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the
trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift
that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the
many! 16 Nor
can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The
judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift
followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one
man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of
grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one
man, Jesus Christ!
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all
people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life
for all. 19
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made
sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be
20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21
so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign
through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our
Immediately we can see why Augustine, Calvin, and so many others propose that Paul is authoritatively writing about inherited guilt. Paul states clearly that Adam’s sin resulted in every one of his descendants being sinful, too. So it seems that part of our interpretation of this passage in Romans hinges on exactly how we interpret and understand Genesis 2-3. Were Adam and Eve real, historic persons? Are they, indeed, the father and mother of the entire human race? (Did they really live into their 900s? Who was Cain’s wife? Etc.)
If one believes that there is some kind of spiritual nature that is passed from mother (or father) to child by a biological process, as Paul likely believed, then this passage will be taken one way. If, however, one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypal account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way.
As I’ve stated before, I do not deny the reality of sin. What I want to do is make the best sense of the biblical account of the human condition, and to ask whether the authors of the doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity rightly understand this biblical account.
So, my question to you is this: Does your understanding of Romans 5 indeed hinge on your interpretation of Genesis 2-3? Do you think that something changed in Adam’s genetic code when he ate the fruit, and this genetic mutation was subsequently passed on to every human being (except Jesus and, possibly, Mary)?