In March 2015, after reading an overview of Adam, The Fall and Original Sin (1* Ed. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves, Grand Rapids, 2014) as a long-time critic of original sin I was prompted to buy the book and make my own assessment of it. Since it contains so much material and deals with so many subjects, all I can do here is to make some general observations which I hope will lead others to grapple with some of the issues at stake.
At the outset, it needs to be recognized that the book is basically an attempt to keep at bay the implications of modern science for traditional Reformed theology. My assessment is that it fails miserably. Why?
First, it makes assumptions which are not merely unproved but I believe are unprovable. A prime example is the idea that creation was originally perfect but was later marred by Adam’s sin which, given his putative original righteousness, is a mystery in itself. What Scripture teaches is that creation was ‘good’ and, according to Paul, remained good, not fallen (1 Tim. 4:3f., cf. 1 Cor. 10:26). Like Eve’s ‘apple’ it was serviceable or useful for its intended purpose (Gen. 2:9; 3:6) which was to nurture, test and reap a harvest of souls for eternity. The traditional idea that Adam was initially perfect, holy and righteous but then sinned having disastrous consequences on the creation he was called to rule over is simply unsustainable. Only God is perfect, and, in the nature of the case, like a builder he has more honour than the building (Heb. 3:3). The basic distinction between Creator and creation, between heaven and earth, between this age and the age to come is maintained throughout Scripture. Another seriously misleading presupposition that pervades the book is that Adam was the covenant or federal head and representative of mankind. The truth is that Adam was simply the first and hence representative man according to the flesh whose sin had an unexplained but fatal effect on all his posterity.
Second, the book is littered with questionable and even false inferences ultimately based on the assumptions just mentioned. The most blatant of these inferences is original sin itself. It is certainly not to be found in Romans 5:12-21, as I shall argue below.
A third observation is that it is given to overstatement and exaggeration. We read more than once that original sin is essential to biblical theology and that this has been proven over the centuries (e.g. pp.323f.). In fact, given more space I would contend at length that it is original sin precisely that has radically vitiated traditional dogmatic theology.
Fourth, it culpably fails to deal with material manifestly militating against some of its asseverations. Here we can cite the claim, supposedly based on Romans 5:12-21, that we are born sinful and spiritually dead (p.283). Was it so with Jesus? Paul himself states quite explicitly that he himself was born alive and did not die until he like Adam and Eve broke the commandment (Rom. 7:9-11, cf. Eccl. 7:29; Ezek. 28:15). In Ephesians 2:1-3, a passage which over the years has been mischievously made to support original sin, Paul puts will before nature and teaches that we gain our sinful nature by our disobedience just as we gain our righteous nature by our obedience (cf. Rom. 6:16). He endorses this in Ephesians 5:6 where he maintains that the sons of disobedience are those who have actually sinned. What is more, Jesus implies the same when he tells his audience that we do not become the slaves of sin until we sin (John 8:34) implying that he himself who did not sin (1 Pet. 2:22) remained free (cf. Mt. 17:26; John 8:35f.).
The role of law or commandment is critical in this area as even a superficial examination of story of Adam amply demonstrates. Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that even Jesus as man had to keep the law in order to gain righteousness (Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7, etc.).
Fifthly, it fails to deal with the implications of its stance. Here we can refer again to original sin itself (properly defined on pp.251f.). I ask: if it is true (1) on what grounds and (2) how did Jesus manage to avoid it? Was he docetic, only man in appearance? If Jesus was an exception (p.282), he was thereby excluded. And to argue that God started again with Jesus as the second Adam would be to cut him off from his sinful ancestors (cf. Mt. 1:1-16) including Adam himself (Luke 3:38). Moses recognized this when God tested him in Exodus 32:10 and Deuteronomy 9:14. The plain truth is that we all, not least Jesus (Isa. 7:15f.), begin at the beginning where Adam himself started knowing neither good nor evil (cf. Dt. 1:39, etc.). In Romans 9:11 where the subject is election both Jacob’s and Esau’s equal moral neutrality is essential to Paul’s argument. So, the idea that we sin because we are born sinners must be scouted absolutely (cf. Dt. 1:39. etc.) not least since, according to Paul, we are under a moral obligation to act in accordance with our birth nature (Rom. 1:26f.). Failure to do so implies that we are guilty of not sinning!
There can be little doubt that Romans in general but chapter 5:12-21 in particular continue to play a fundamental part in any attempt to maintain the church’s traditional stance. In light of this, it is important to make some points relating to this chapter.
First, Augustine, who epitomized and cemented the thinking of his time and has continued to condition the church’s thinking for some 1600 years, lacked an adequate knowledge of Greek. As a consequence, he translated the final clause of Romans 5:12 as ‘in whom’ (L. ‘in quo’) instead of ‘because’ or even ‘with the result that’ all sinned. Despite this, many modern writers, bent on defending the indefensible, continue to pretend that nothing has changed. A prime point to make is that the correct translation demolishes all ideas of imputation. This conclusion is further bolstered by Paul’s insistence that the effect of Adam’s sin was different from the known imputation of Christ’s righteousness (vv.15,16). In view of this we can rule out of court all ideas of an exact if contrasting parallelism beloved by some. But there is a problem: Paul nowhere explains exactly how Adam’s sin impacted on his descendants. The one thing we can be sure of is that it did not involve making them sinful at birth or Jesus himself, on the assumption that he was genuinely human, would have been implicated. Bluntly, we cannot at one and the same time have original sin and a sinless Saviour. They cancel each other out.
But all traditionalists known to me want to make Jesus an exception. In doing so, they inadvertently exclude and hence disqualify him. The simple solution to this of course is to ditch original sin. While it is true that we all, again including Jesus, receive a sinful legacy from our forebears like David (Ps. 51:5) (2* I am assuming that contrary to the tendentious NIV (2011 version), for example, Psalm 51:5 is correctly translated as “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (p.203). On this assumption, it could, properly and soberly interpreted, apply to Jesus every bit as much as to David.), we ourselves are not guilty till we break the law in some fashion (cf. Ezek. 18, etc.). For where there is no law, there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:8), and this makes birth sin impossible.
Contrary to Pelagius, however, what Paul has to say in Romans 5:12-21 shows indisputably that Adam’s sin had a universal impact on all including Jesus. Since it could not possibly have been imputation (Protestants), transmitted sin (Catholics) or our being forensically accounted as sinful in Adam (cf. p.286), all of which would inevitably have involved Jesus in sin, it must have been something else. But this must be so for yet another reason: it would also have contravened the biblical axiom of Exodus 23:7 (cf. Gen. 20:5-7,9; 1 Sam. 22:15; 1 K. 21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23, etc.). To cut the story short, it would implicitly have involved God in transgression of his own canons of righteousness and justice (cf. Job. 34:10-12). So, bluntly, the ecclesiastical dogma of original sin is blasphemous.
For all that, the question must inexorably be posed: How exactly did Adam’s sin operate with manifestly lethal effect? What was its modus operandi? Since Paul does not tell us, we can only speculate, but in light of other biblical teaching we can reach at least one compelling conclusion, that is, that since all individual sin (and even righteousness, cf. Luke 11:13) has an impact on others only Adam’s, being first, was universal. Thus, in light of the biblical stress on solidarity Alan Cole (Exodus, Leicester, 1973) comments on Exodus 20:5f. as follows: “Since this is God’s world, and since we are all involved with one another, breaches in God’s law by one generation do indeed affect those of future generations to come” (p.156). Again, referring to Exodus 34:6f., he says: “We who live in a world full of legacies of hate between colours and cultures can see only too clearly how sin in one generation affects those who follow after” (p.228). From this I conclude that Adam’s sin inevitably had a deleterious effect on all. But not on Jesus. Why? Because according to Scripture, only Jesus in the situation implied by David in Psalm 51:5 overcame the world (John 16:33), the flesh (Rom. 8:3) and the devil (Heb. 2:14f.). On the other hand, if original sin were true, even he would have failed. He would have been unavoidably caught in the net.
To express the issue otherwise, if original sin is true, its impact affects man intrinsically, that is, it changes his nature. He is not merely born into a sinful world with a sinful heritage like Jesus but he is himself sinful by birth. But yet again we are forced to emphasize that if this were true, even Jesus would have been born sinful. If, however, Adam’s sin functions extrinsically as a powerful external or ambient force that ordinary flesh and blood cannot deal with and overcome (cf. Rom. 3:9,23; 11:32; Gal. 3:22), then in contrast with the rest of us Jesus could and indeed did overcome. Not for nothing does Scripture repeatedly stress the fact that while we are all law-breakers, Jesus, though in the flesh himself, uniquely kept the law and successfully exercised dominion. As Revelation 5:5 (cf. Rom. 15:12; Rev. 22:16) indicates, he alone conquered, and for this reason he alone must be our Saviour (Acts 4:12).
Towards the end of the book in an interesting chapter the author rejects the idea of a flaw in creation (p.310). It depends on what he means by ‘flaw’, but in spite of what he says Jesus, the apostles and the author of Hebrews all maintain that there is what he calls ‘a fly in the ointment’. I myself have long contended that creation, like the law (Heb. 7:18f.; 8:7), is defective in the sense that it is imperfect and to that extent unlike its Creator. As has already been intimated, throughout the Bible the physical creation is depreciated as references such as Psalm 102:25-27, Isaiah 34:4; 40:6-8, 51:6, 54:10 and Hebrews 1:10-12 and many others make clear. The truth is that having had a beginning it will inevitably have an end, it is visible and therefore clearly temporary (2 Cor. 4:18), it has been intentionally subjected to futility and corruption by God himself though ‘in hope’ (Rom. 8:20; 2 Cor. 4:16; Heb. 1:11), and, ‘made by hand’ (Gk cheiropoietos, cf. Heb. 9:11,24) like the temple (Mark 14:58) and the body of dust (1 Cor. 15:47-49; 2 Cor. 5:1) it is destined not for redemption as many modern advocates of original sin would have us believe but for eventual destruction. Like the flesh which derives from it and is in fact creation in miniature, it is ultimately unprofitable (John 6:63) as are desolate land, houses, temples and even bodies without inhabitants (Isa. 1:7; 6:11, Mt. 23:38; James 2:26), etc.). In contrast with God himself who is both immortal and incorruptible (not subject to age and decay), it is inherently destructible and transient (cf. Mt. 24:35; Luke 17:28-30; Heb. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.). In these circumstances no wonder Paul tells us that our hope is an invisible one (Rom. 8:24f., cf. Heb. 7:19).
The Issue: Churchianity or Christianity
Ultimately, reduced to its bare simplicity the issue posed by the book is the choice between differing worldviews, between church dogma and Christianity, between Augustine and science, between devolution and evolution. In the Bible, where the process of perfection or maturation is fundamental, our progression from earth to heaven or from ground to glory, clearly supports the general idea of evolution if not the naturalistic variety. By contrast, the original devolution that is taught by church creeds and confessions is simply wrong. Sin is pandemic because all, apart from Jesus (Heb. 2:14-17; 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22), under the overwhelming influence of Adamic sin earn wages by breaking the law and die (Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:23, etc.). (3* I further contend that Romans 5:12-21 is really an a fortiori argument. If Adam, in whose image we are made (Gen. 5:1-5), sinned in ideal conditions without any parental legacy, how much more will his posterity sin given his.) The upshot of this is that there was never any original perfection, original righteousness, original sin, fall or cosmic curse, just an innocent beginning. Death, especially animal death which occurs apart from wages, is inherent in creation as any scientist, not to mention the Bible itself (Ps. 104:21, etc.), amply testifies. In this situation, only Jesus, who alone was fully perfected (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28, etc.), can save us.
1. Some of the writers of the book seem unduly gung-ho. But in fairness others appear to have real doubts. Writing significantly on Reformed theology Donald Macleod in particular rightly and darkly warns us that if the doctrine of original sin is as important as some of our forebears seemed to think, we ought to address contemporary challenges as a matter of urgency (p.146).
2. My own view has long been that we need a new reformation. It is not the Bible that needs to be demythologized but traditional theology.
3. I once heard Cardinal Ratzinger assert before he became Pope that original sin is central to Roman Catholicism. However, since it is clearly false, the unbiblical immaculate conception, not to mention Mariolatry in general, is redundant.
4. The perceptive reader of what I have written above will realize that the doctrine of recapitulation taught most notably by Irenaeus is fundamental to the Bible (see e.g. Gal. 4:1-7) and provides an indispensable key to its understanding. If Jesus was the second Adam, he must have recapitulated to perfection the life of the first.
5. In light of the resurgence and belligerence of the world religions, I believe that our best weapon is the truth (2 Cor. 10:4f.; Eph. 6:10-18). When this is made plain and duly propagated providing evidence that there is genuine repentance on the part of the churches (cf. 2 Chron. 7:14), then perhaps others including especially the Jews and the Muslims will be motivated to re-examine their own position.
See further various essays relevant to the issue including: