Without doubt nothing is more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has implicated in its guilt men so far from the original sin that they seem incapable of sharing it. This flow of guilt does not seem merely impossible to us, but indeed most unjust. . . . Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet, but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.” (Blasé Pascale, Pensées, 65).
In his 2012 paper at ETS in Milwaukee, Tom Schreiner did a helpful bit of work on Romans 5:12-19, which he believes has functioned, “as the basis either for denying or affirming original sin,” since the time of Augustine. Expertly, he argues that “the most plausible reading” of this text, “both exegetically and theologically, supports the doctrine of original sin and original death.” His paper is an essay for inclusion in a forthcoming book, about which I do not know the details.
Tom finds the first part of the verse clear: “through one man sin entered the world and death through sin.” Through Adam’s sin, both sin and death were introduced into the kosmos, which refers specifically to human beings, and this death had both physical and spiritual aspects, though they did not occur at the same moment. Although the narrator “doesn’t explicitly say that all human beings shared in Adam’s sin,” such a reading is supported by the narrative, “for paradise has certainly been left far behind beginning with chapter 4.” Since Adam all human beings “have entered the world as sinners and spiritually dead.”
Most scholars have argued that Paul breaks off his comparison in mid-sentence and does not pick it up again until 5:18, because he uses kai houtôs rather than houtôs kai, but Tom thinks we should not press the word order. Consequently, he sees the comparison completed in the latter part of 5:12. That leads to this paraphrase of the verse: “since sin and death entered the world through one man, so also death spread to all people since all sinned.” Thus, the evil powers of sin and death “rule over all people by virtue of Adam’s sin.”
Evidence of the difficulty of interpreting the last part of 5:12 is seen in the fact that Tom has changed his own mind about it since writing his Romans commentary. The change, however, “does not affect the truth that Adam is the covenant head of all human beings,” who enter the world condemned and dead because of Adam’s sin. In his commentary, Tom had argued that eph hô is a result clause, giving the translation: “and so death spread to all people, and on the basis of this death all sinned” (Romans, 273-77). In other words, all people sin individually because they enter the world spiritually dead, and they express that death by their sin.
Tom still considers this a possible reading, which fits theologically with what Rom 5:12-19 teaches. So his theological reading of the text has not changed, but he has now moved away from that rendering of eph hô for two reasons.
- though it is theologically true that spiritual death leads to sin (cf. Eph 2:1-3), Paul emphasizes that sin leads to death, in Rom 5 and 6 (cf. 5:13-14, 15, 17; 6:23). It is most plausible, therefore, “that 5:12cd teaches that death spread to all because all sinned.”
- although eph hô can designate result, in the three other occasions when Paul uses the phrase (2 Cor 5:4; Phil 3:12; 4:10), a causal sense seems preferable. Given that “Paul regularly argues in Romans 5 and 6 that sin begets death, context supports the interpretation, “and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (5:12).
A causal reading would fit well with a Pelagian understanding, since individuals are said to die because they sin, but Pelagianism ignores Paul’s repeated stress on Adam’s role as the originator of both sin and condemnation for all. Charles Cranfield also followed a causal reading, but he understood Paul to be saying that “human beings sin because they inherited a corrupt nature from Adam” (Romans 1-8, 278-79). Cranfield erred, however, because “sinned (hêmarton) does not mean ‘become corrupted’ in one’s nature. It refers to the act of sinning, and hence Cranfield strays from the wording of the text.
Of more interest to Schreiner are the proposals of Henri Blocher and John Murray, and his critique of these deserves careful consideration. Blocher contended that Adam’s headship makes “possible the imputation, the judicial treatment of human sins” (Original Sin, 77), but he denies that Adam’s guilt is imputed to the community of which he is the covenant head (75, 130). Consequently, humans are “deprived and depraved” because of their union with Adam, but they are not counted as guilty on the basis of his sin (128).
Schreiner gives Blocher “credit for creativity,” but considers his proposal unconvincing for 4 reasons.
- Blocher focuses on 5:12-14 but scarcely comments on 5:15-19 where judgment and death are attributed to Adam’s one sin, 5 times. On that account, it is clear to Tom that Paul “teaches that Adam’s guilt is imputed to all human beings.”
- “Blocher links the personal sin of individuals to the sin of Adam, but Paul severs that link” in 5:13-14. Blocher proposes that everyone sins by violating the Adamic prohibition, in some sense, but Paul says the opposite: Adam’s sin was unique and paradigmatic.
- Blocher understands Rom 2:12 along the same lines as 5:12, but Schreiner considers that unlikely, for 2:12 “emphasizes sinning without the law, and does not naturally point to the relationship of sinners to Adam.”
- Blocher’s proposal is confusing, because it sounds most like the mediate imputation view which Blocher rejects (66-67), whereas he wants to uphold the federal view. Schreiner posits that “federalism is called seriously into question by [Blocher’s] rejection of imputed guilt, for what he emphasizes is the depraved nature human beings inherited through Adam.” Blocher rejects the imputation of Adam’s sin, in order to preserve God’s justice.” But Schreiner doubts that Blocher’s proposal, in which the depraved nature humans inherit from Adam inevitably leads to sin and death, will be any more satisfying, to those who struggle in regard to God’s justice, than the theology of imputed guilt.
John Murray had also proposed a causal reading of the eph hô in 5:12, death spread to all because all sinned in Adam (The Imputation of Adam’s Sin). Crucial to Murray’s case is his parenthetical explanation of 5:13-14. People died in the period between Adam and Moses (5:14) even though sin was not reckoned to their account because there was no law (5:13). They died, therefore, because of Adam’s sin, which, according to 5:12 was their own act (“all sinned”).
Schreiner thinks that the genius of Murray’s reading is that “it matches remarkably well with the five-fold description of the impact of Adam’s sin in 5:15-19.” Murray is “right in seeing Adam as our covenant head, with the result that all human beings are condemned before God because of Adam’s one sin,” but Schreiner thinks that Murray reaches the right conclusion through a reading of 5:12-14 that is possible, but that is not the best one, because “it does not square as easily with what we find in the OT and what Paul teaches elsewhere.”
Murray’s reading rests on the premise that the sins of people who lived between Adam and Moses were not counted against them (5:13), but this does not fit the narrative in Gen 6-9, with its depiction of the flood and God’s judgment of people on account of their own sin. Likewise, in the case of those judged at Babel (Gen 11:1-9). Schreiner finds in Rom 2:12 the principle at work in those OT judgments – they sinned without the law and perished (i.e., were judged) without the written law, because the law was inscribed on their hearts (2:14-15). Given that principle, Paul could not mean, 3 chapters later, that people without the law are judged only on the basis of Adam’s sin.
Paul does not deny that the sin of individuals leads to their death, but (contra Pelagianism) he does teach that people “come into the world condemned and spiritually dead because of Adam’s sin.” The sin of Adam is thus fundamental and foundational, but “people sin and die both because of Adam’s sin and their own.” Paul’s point in Rom 5:13-14 then, is that the sins of people who died between Adam and Moses were different from Adam’s, because he had a typological role, as Christ did (5:14). Therefore, Paul is not saying that people’s sin was not counted against them in any sense, but that their “sins were not counted against them in the same way as sin was counted against Adam.” They died because of their personal sin, but that sin did not have the typological and foundational role that Adam’s sin had.
In 5:15-19, Paul contrasts Adam and Christ 5 times, spelling out the remarkable difference that derives from being in one or the other, as everyone is. All of humanity, apart from Jesus, died because Adam sinned (“many” in 5:15 certainly meaning “all,” as is clear in subsequent verses). Schreiner warns against differentiating too strongly between physical and spiritual death because the two are inextricable: physical death is “the emblem and concrete instantiation” of spiritual death. What Paul finds astonishing is not that human beings are held accountable for Adam’s sin, but that “God’s grace in Christ liberates those worthy of death.”
In 5:16, Paul identifies the difference as between condemnation and justification. Paul does not explain how or why human beings are condemned because of Adam’s one sin, he simply asserts it. What amazes Paul is the great generosity of the gift of undeserved forgiveness which God grants to those who could justly be condemned because of Adam’s sin.
“Death reigns as a power over those who are in Adam, for death is not merely an event that occurs but a state in which human beings live as a result of Adam’s sin” (5:17). Significantly, Paul limits the effect of Adam’s sin on the human race to the “one sin,” not to any of Adam’s subsequent sins. Thankfully, union with Christ is more powerful because it covers the many sins we do on our own initiative, not just our sin in Adam. To those in Christ, God gives the “gift of righteousness,” so that we reign in life. “Believers enjoy even now the life of the age to come; they have begun to reign, but their reign will come into full flower when Jesus Christ returns.”
Romans 5:18 draws an inference from 5:15-17, contrasting justification with condemnation. “All people without exception are condemned before God because of the one transgression of Adam,” which means that “they are guilty for Adam’s sin.” But those who are in Christ enjoy the righteousness of Christ and eschatological life, because of his one act of righteousness on the cross.
In 5:19, Paul provides the ground for his argument in 5:18. Interpreters differ regarding Paul’s meaning when he speaks of people as “made sinners” or “made righteous.” Some read it as a reference to people’s being counted as sinners or counted as righteous. Others argue that Paul is speaking of them being truly sinners or truly righteous. Schreiner opines that “evidence can be adduced for both views (see respectively Matt 24:45, 47; 25:21, 23; Lk 12:14; Acts 6:3; 7:10, 27, 35; Tit 1:5; Heb 5:1; 7:28; 8:3 and Jas 4:3; 2 Pet 1:8).” He deems the forensic meaning most likely here, given Paul’s emphasis on Adam and Christ, and the insistence that both death and life and condemnation and justification stem from them.” But he also proposes that “the forensic can’t be separated from what is actual. Those who are constituted as sinners in Adam become sinners in practice, and those who are counted righteous in Christ live righteously.” Nonetheless, the key thing is whether one belongs to Adam or Christ. All [naturally born] human beings enter the world as sinners, by virtue of Adam’s disobedience, they are counted as sinners and they inevitably sin personally.
In brief theological reflection on his exegesis, Schreiner recaps his demonstration that Pelagianism and the mediate imputation proposed by Blocher are both ruled out by Paul’s text. Covenant headship is the key, and this explains why every one enters the world as sinners and why those who belong to Christ (1 Cor 15:23) receive the gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17). Schreiner dubs this “alien guilt in Adam but alien righteousness in Christ.” That being said, Tom states that Adam’s headship is not treated abstractly, “Paul does not contemplate the sin of Adam apart from our sin.” This is why, Tom suggests, “there is no discussion of infants or those who lack the mental capacities to make choices.”
As I intimated at the outset of this post, I consider Tom’s paper very helpful, and I agree very substantially with his reading of Rom 5:12-19. My own understanding of this text was largely shaped decades ago by John Murray’s exegesis, so I was glad that Tom interacted with Murray’s work and that he agrees substantially with Murray’s reading of Rom 5:12, though he disagrees with Murray’s rendering of 5:13-14. Tom has persuaded me on the latter point, and he has confirmed my long held conviction in regard to Paul’s meaning in Rom 5:12. Although Augustine reached this conclusion through an incorrect reading of eph hô, which he translated as in quo, meaning in Adam, the causal rendering followed by Murray and Schreiner leads us to the same general understanding, but does so in a more exegetically supportable manner.
I would tweak Tom’s language a bit, however, because I think that incorporation is a much better conceptual rendering of Paul’s point than “imputation,” despite the popularity of the latter term among heirs of the Reformation. I don’t deny the validity of the concept of imputation, on account of the biblical language of “reckoning,” but I think that “in Adam” and “in Christ” are far more important categories in Paul’s writing. Unlike Tom (and Luther), therefore, I do not speak of “alien guilt” and “alien righteousness,” but of “incorporated guilt” and “incorporated righteousness.” The nuance may seem slight, but it may alleviate somewhat the aversion many people have (individualistic Westerners, in particular) to the notion that we are held accountable for what Adam did. This is not to say that incorporation is any easier for individualists to comprehend than is alien imputation, but it is the concept of incorporation that grounds Paul’s theology. Much of the world in Asia and Africa, particularly where Enlightenment modernism has not affected their world view, has no difficulty understanding corporate personhood. It is we who face the cultural gap between our world and Paul’s, but that is our problem not Paul’s, and we are the ones who need to learn to see things through the eyes of the biblical writers rather than through Enlightenment spectacles. Schreiner rightly emphasizes the importance to Paul of whether one is “in Adam” or “in Christ,” so I am not differing with him conceptually. I simply suggest that Paul’s own thought would be better represented if we spoke of incorporation in Adam and in Christ than of alien imputation.
The salvation of infants who die
Henri Blocher’s position, as nicely recapped by Tom, could leave room for the doctrine of the “age of accountability.” Tom represented Blocher’s perspective this way: “Human beings are guilty because Adam’s paradigmatic sin is repristinated or re-committed, so to speak, when individual’s sin.” Tom does not say, and I don’t recall from my own reading of Blocher, whether Blocher states clearly whether every naturally born human being does personally sin, or whether room is left for the possibility that some do not. In reading the discussion of Blocher’s position, I was reminded of Millard Erickson’s proposal that guilt and righteousness are both incurred through personal appropriation, so that people become guilty when they affirm Adam’s sin through their own disobedience, just as they are justified when they appropriate Christ’s righteousness by faith.
I appreciate the way in which Paul’s parallelism between Adam and Christ is preserved in Erickson’s construction, but it presents one major stumbling block for me. Given that much of the human race has never lived to the so-called “age of accountability,” on this construction most of the human race will inhabit the new earth, not because they were saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, but because they never became guilty and needed justification. Never having chosen to belong to Adam, they don’t need to belong to Christ in order to live with him eternally. That seems so wrong to me that I would prefer the proposal that all infants who die in infancy are elect, or even that the children of believers who die in infancy are elect, because this at least puts them in heaven by virtue of their being in Christ. Regrettably, perhaps, I have not been convinced that either of those propositions is biblically supportable, and so I think that we do better to affirm the possibility of infant sin and of infant faith, as I laid out in chapter 8 of Who Can Be Saved?
Tom himself has been rather non-committal in this paper. He states that “the framework of Adam and Moses indicates that any reference to infants, which are commonly brought up in the Reformed tradition, are not within Paul’s purview.” And he notes that “there is no discussion of infants or those who lack the mental capacities to make choices.” But that judgment follows, for Tom, from the statement that “Paul does not contemplate the sin of Adam apart from our sin.” Hmm, what does that mean?? Does it mean that there are some human beings who do not personally sin and therefore need no justification, having not become actually “in Adam”? That seems very unlikely to me, given the frequency with which Tom has stated the universal implication of the human race in both the guilt and moral disablement of Adam’s sin, and the strong connection that Tom hears in Paul between sin and death.
What makes me wonder about this matter is that Tom teaches at a Southern Baptist Seminary, but Article III of the “Baptist Faith and Message,” which is the official doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, has gone through an interesting evolution.
- In 1925, they said that man “was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.”
- In 1963, they revised that statement as follows: “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence; whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action become transgressors and are under condemnation.”
- In 2000, in another revision of the statement, they said: “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”
I observe an interesting change here. It is most notable in 1963, but its intention is made even more clear in 2000. The statement in 1925 is quite compatible with the affirmation of original guilt for which Tom Schreiner has expertly argued. One could hear, in the final words quoted above, no more than a distinction between original and actual guilt, between the sin in Adam and sins committed personally. But notice how the words “and are under condemnation” moved, in 1963, to a position after “as soon as they are capable of moral action.” The further change in 2000 is slight – different punctuation and the addition of “therefore” – but it now sounds very clearly like a credal affirmation of the doctrine of the “age of accountability,” which regards any who are incapable of moral action to be not under condemnation.
I discern very serious tension between an affirmation of the original guilt of the whole naturally born human race, in Adam, such as we find in Tom’s exposition of Rom 5:12-19, and the SBC’s clear statement that some human beings do not become transgressors and come under condemnation.
I am a baptist but not a Southern Baptist, and I have not studied the history of the Southern Baptist convention. So I’ll be grateful if some Southern Baptist theologians read this post and can help me to understand their situation better.