What Fall?

Recently, representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses called on me. In a rather hurried conversation they told me that the word ‘trinity’ was not to be found in Scripture and was therefore an ecclesiastical invention. I assured them that the Trinity was essential to an adequate understanding of the Bible and that the evidence for it in the NT was pervasive and compelling.

Evangelical Christians, especially in the Reformed camp, make much of the concept of “the Fall”, and constantly refer to a “fallen creation”. Here I do have a problem, since not only is the term missing from Scripture but the traditional idea too seems to be absent (though note falling into temptation, judgement, etc. in James 1:2, cf. 1 Tim. 3:6,7; 6:9; Heb. 10:31, etc.) (1*). Why then does it exercise such profound influence? The answer is to be found in the history of dogma.

In the course of its history, Western Christendom was powerfully affected by the teaching of Augustine of Hippo, not least at the Reformation. Not only was Luther an Augustinian monk before he became a Reformer, but Calvin, who had an impressive knowledge of Augustine, was also much under his sway. So what did Augustine teach?

He held that in the beginning God made a perfect creation and perfect human beings, Adam and Eve, to rule over it. Despite their original holiness and righteousness, the latter (mysteriously) “fell” into sin, the original sin. As a consequence, the whole of creation under their dominion was placed under a curse and it too was regarded as “fallen”. Thus, though Scripture fails to mention it, “the Fall” came to dominate theology, and Augustinians became obsessed with sin to the exclusion of other basic considerations (see espec. Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 6 and Art. 9 of the C of E).

What does the Bible actually teach? It tells us that the eternal God brought the material creation into existence. Though it was termed “good”, that is, it was created to serve a purpose (cf. Gen. 2:9; 3:6; Eccl. 3:11), it was necessarily temporal, for otherwise it would have been on a par with its Creator and without beginning or end (cf. Heb. 7:3). The temporal and hence “imperfect”, that is, inadequate, incomplete or defective, nature of creation, the footstool of God, is brought to our attention throughout Scripture (see e.g. Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; 103:14-18; Isa. 34:4; 51:6,8; 66:1; Mt. 24:35; Heb. 12:27; Rev. 21:1, etc.), not least by the fact that man, himself a creature, is under the sovereignty of God given dominion over it. In the mind of Paul, being naturally temporary and corruptible, creation was subjected like all that is physically visible (Rom. 8:24f.; 2 Cor. 4:18) to futility from the start (Rom. 8:19ff.) and is in strong contrast with the invisible eternal world or heaven (cf. Heb. 1:10-12, etc.).

How does this impact on our perception of the traditional “Fall”? We need to understand that as created, far from being perfect, righteous and holy, Adam, being totally ignorant of law, was as flesh (cf. Gen. 6:17), like the animal creation in general, without understanding (Ps. 32:9, etc.). Hence, knowing neither good nor evil he was morally neutral. Like a (spiritual) baby, in the course of his development, he was given knowledge of the law (or more specifically the commandment) which was at once a promise and a threat (Gen. 2:17). On the one hand, it promised (eternal) life (which necessarily implies escape from earthly and hence fleshly bondage to corruption) if it was kept and, on the other, death if it was not. As we all know, Adam failed to keep this commandment and as a consequence became prey to the futility and corruption of the creation he had been called on to master (Gen. 3:19). Since this commandment was transgenerational (2*) like the law of Moses which followed it (Dt. 4:9; Ps. 78:5f., etc.), all mankind with the single exception of Jesus, the second Adam, gave way to temptation and sin (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). They likewise succumbed inexorably to death (Rom. 5:12) and the law of the physical creation (Rom. 8:20).

If this is true, the idea of “Fall” in the traditional sense is alien to Scripture. Adam and Eve, in contrast with the devil who fell like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18), did not enjoy any Miltonic “high estate” of righteousness from which to fall (cf. Rev. 2:5, 3*). While it may be argued that as God’s creatures they enjoyed fellowship of a very immature kind with the God who brought them into being (cf. Gen. 30:2; Job 31:15, etc.) and from whom they became alienated on account of their sin, they were initially created innocent, that is ‘good’ like the rest of creation (cf. 1 Tim. 4:4), and simply failed to attain to the righteousness (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7) and hence to the life the commandment originally promised on condition of obedience. Consequently they returned (fell!) like the rest of the animal creation, which was also flesh, to the dust from which they were taken (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 3:19f.). And like our first parents, as Paul tells us in Romans 3:23, we, their posterity, all, with the notable exception of Jesus (Heb. 2:9), sin and come short of the glory of God to which we are called (Gen. 2:17; Ps. 8:5f.; Rom. 2:7,10, etc.). As a consequence, as sinners we all earn our wages in death (Rom. 5:12) and undergo complete physical corruption.

While we may doubt the traditional understanding of the fall of Adam, the idea of fall is, as we have seen, by no means entirely foreign to Scripture. For example, we read in Hebrews 3:12 of the warning to believers against falling away (departing) from the living God (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1, and note Galatians 1:6-9 which refers to the turning away of the Galatians who had been evangelized by Paul). Here the idea seems to be that through faith in Jesus Christians have been restored to the (embryonic or Edenic) fellowship (4*) with God they had at their creation in the womb (Job 31:15, etc.) but, like their OT predecessors, they may now be tempted to stray and become unfaithful yet again (3:13). According to the author of Hebrews in particular, perseverance or endurance, even in times of hardship and persecution, is essential for those who intend arriving safely at the heavenly city (Heb. 11:10,16; 12:22; 13:14). Descent or fall into apostasy (cf. Gal. 5:4; Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-30; 2 Pet. 3:17) is a real possibility for all professing Christians, and needs to be guarded against.

A similar kind of fall is posited by Paul of Israel in Romans 11:11 (cf. v.22) where he uses the word paraptoma (vb. parapipto) to signify transgression which leads to the loss of a God-given position (cf. Mt. 21:43; Acts 1:6) (5*). Here Paul’s concern would appear to be the total rejection of Israel, God’s own people, a notion regularly countered in the OT by the denial of the “full end” (as opposed to disciplinary punishment, cf. Ps. 89:30ff., etc.), reserved for the lawless and faithless (see e.g. Lev. 26:44; Jer. 30:11 and note Num. 14:35). Despite much evidence of sin, which will be overcome by Christ, Paul concludes that all believing Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26).

Having said this, Scripture does entertain the idea of our having fallen, or rather, come short of the image (likeness) of God. Dunn suggests there is ambiguity as to whether Paul’s reference in Romans 3:23 is to a glory lost (cf. Augustine) or to a glory fallen short of (pp.93f.). The recognition that Adam, who had no knowledge of (the) law by which human beings become either righteous by obedience or unrighteous by disobedience (Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7; Rom. 4:15; 7:8, etc.), was created innocent tips the scale in favour of coming short of the glory of God to which he was called (cf. Gen. 2:17; Ps. 8:5). Paul especially stresses that our initial call is to attain to the glory of God (Rom. 2:7,10, etc.) as Jesus did (Heb. 1:3; 2:9) by keeping the law and obeying the commandments of his Father (John 8:29; 14:31, etc.) despite trial and temptation. In other words, Augustine’s concepts of original (Adamic) righteousness, holiness and perfection are prime examples of putting the cart before the horse. They confuse the beginning with the end. If the second Adam was not perfect (complete, mature) by nature but had to fulfil his Father’s will in order to be perfected (Mt. 19:21; Heb. 2:9f.; 5:8f.; 7:28), how much more the first! The plain truth is that we all begin in innocence (Dt. 1:39, etc.) but fail to attain to the likeness of God because of our defective moral development (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). This is in sharp contrast to Jesus, as noted above, with whom the Father was well pleased (Mt. 3:17) and who obtained glory and honour in accordance with mankind’s original vocation (Gen. 1:26,28; Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:9). But this was basic to the purpose of God from the start. He never intended that ‘flesh’ should justify itself before him by the works of the law (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:11). Rather his plan was that all should come short of their own accord so that he could exercise his mercy on all in Christ (Rom. 11:32; Gal. 3:22; Phil. 2:9-11). Thus, not without reason did the prophet call on the ends of the earth to turn to God and be saved (Isa. 45:22f.).

So I conclude that the traditional “Fall”, not to mention the inherently contradictory notion of the imputed sin of Adam for which the wages of death are paid (Rom. 4:1-8; 5:12; 6:23), is false to Scripture. Adam and Eve may have been physically adult (perfect, mature, cf. 1 Cor. 15:46), but spiritually they were mere babes who had to grow up and be perfected (cf. Heb. 12:23). Their endlessly repeated paradigmatic sin (cf. Ps. 106:6; Isa. 65:6f.), which we might be inclined to dismiss as a mere peccadillo characteristic of children (cf. Gen. 8:21; Jer. 3:25, etc.), is nonetheless symptomatic of mankind’s perennial problem – his failure to exercise dominion in accordance with the will of God. Even if we, like Adam (Gen. 2:15,19f.), have some success in taming nature (cf. the Canaanites in the Promised Land), we abysmally fail to control ourselves and hence come short of perfection (James 3:2-5). In other words, we all sin (Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:23) in our youth (Gen. 8:21; Jer. 3:25, etc.) and earn the wages of death by our works (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). As Paul graphically intimated with regard to himself, despite his best intentions he lacked the ability to control his own earth-derived flesh (Rom. 7:14). Like Adam, as a child he failed to keep the parental commandment (Rom. 7:9f.). But while Adam took the devil’s way in an abortive attempt to become like God (cf. Phil. 2:6), Jesus, the second Adam, remained faithful to the divine intention (cf. Mt. 4:1-11). Thus, having finished his course and the work he had to do (Luke 13:32; John 6:38; 17:4), he was glorified at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3, etc.). And it is in him alone that men and women in general fulfil their calling and receive the crown of life promised to Adam at the start (Gen. 2:17; James 1:12, cf. 2:5; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10).

Food For Thought

Finally, it is worth observing that while Satan could fall from heaven (Lu. 10:18), it is more than a little difficult to understand how Adam could fall from the earth (Gen. 2:7).

1* Nonetheless popular Reformed writers make “the Fall” central to their theology. See, for example, R.C. Sproul’s “Chosen by God, 1986.

2* Apart from being implied in Romans 7:9f., this is nowhere explicitly taught, but it is a necessary inference from the transgenerational nature of the law of Moses which had to be taught to children (Dt. 4:9; Ps. 78:4-8, etc.) who, like Adam, are born knowing neither the law nor good and evil (Dt. 1:39, cf. Isa. 7:15f.; 8:4).

3* The Augustinian notion that “we lost our righteousness in Adam” must be rejected as patently unbiblical. In a sense, we may regard creation in the image of God as man’s “high estate”. But the traditional notion that Adam lost the image as opposed to the likeness of God (came short of his glory) is belied by Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9. Dunn draws attention to the fall of the king of Babylon depicted in Isaiah 14:12-15 and that of the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:16f. (p.81 n.7).

4* That babies who are created by God (cf. also Job 34:19; Ps. 139:13-16; Jer. 1:5, etc.) and know neither the law nor good nor evil (Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:3,29-33, etc.) follow (or recapitulate) the pattern established by Adam and Eve (and under their influence, Rom. 5:12-21), seems to me to be beyond reasonable dispute. The tendentious translation/interpretation of verses like Psalm 51:5 which occurs in NIV, REB, NRSV needs urgent overhaul (cf. KJV, RSV, NASB, ESV).

5* The word paraptoma, along with hamartia and parabasis, is used in Romans 5:12ff. If it has any significance as “fall”, it is certainly not from original righteousness. The only moral quality that can be attributed to Adam is his sin. Cf. 3* above.


J.D.G.Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London/NewYork, 1998.