Original sin. There are few Christian doctrines that cause more scandal for people living today. How could God be angry at humanity for something a guy named Adam did a long time ago? Is that what original sin is about? Does Adam have to be a historical figure for original sin to “work”? A certain kind of Christian seems to take pleasure in this scandal because it provides an opportunity to demonstrate a certain kind of piety that says, “Well, He’s God and therefore He’s just, so maybe you’re not really a Christian if you find this disagreeable.” Well I decided I wanted to take a look at original sin’s scriptural proof-texts and then consider the concerns motivating three major Christian theologians who developed and tweaked original sin’s doctrine — Augustine, Aquinas, and John Cassian — to see if something has been lost in translation over the centuries. I’m dividing this up into several parts. Originally, I was going to deal with all of the proof-texts in part one, but I’ve found a whole lot to talk about in Romans 5:12-21 by itself, so here goes.
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Verse 12 is the primary proof-text that Augustine used to make his case for original sin. The end of verse 12 in Greek says ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον. Jerome mistranslated this phrase into Latin as “in whom all sinned,” which he assumed to modify Adam. This is the reason that Augustine made the claim that all humanity sinned “in Adam,” which is the basis for centuries of claiming that all humanity should be blamed for Adam’s sin which they committed either by existing primordially in his semen or, as later theologians contended, because Adam was the “federal head” of humanity. All of this is based on a translation error.
Not only is it absurd that Jerome made ἐφ’ into “in,” but he connected the ᾧ pronoun in the ἐφ’ ᾧ clause back to Adam instead of “death,” which is what makes the most sense syntactically. If the ἐφ’ ᾧ is connected to death instead, then “death spread to all by which all have sinned,” which would make death the spiritual reality that is the source of sin instead of the punishment for sin (which is how the Eastern Orthodox interpret this passage). I suspect the reason that even the NRSV says “death spread to all because all have sinned” is because of the theological presumption that “death” refers to a physical mortality which Western tradition has held to be sin’s punishment rather than an innate broken ontology that is sin’s catalyst per the East (I realize I’m just taking a preliminary look and some real Greek scholar will probably come out and school me at this point!).
The other issue with verse 12 is that it’s only the supporting clause in a logical sequence that has a different main point. Paul is explicating the relationship between sin, law, and death. He observes that sin “is not reckoned when there is no law.” This echoes Romans 2:12, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law,” as well as Romans 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law.” All three of these verses should make Romans Roaders very nervous, because it’s hard to dodge their suggestion that God doesn’t hold people accountable who aren’t under the law. I’m aware of what Romans 1:18-32 says, but these verses are at least a counter-testimony against that, and I’m growing more and more convinced that 1:18-32 has a very particular polemical function (a bomb which I’ll drop in a later post). Regardless, I don’t think it’s disputed to observe that Paul is in a polemical context in which he’s strategically dismantling the argument of rival missionaries who have promoted the Jewish law as the means of salvation from sin. Paul says here that even if sin is not “reckoned” juridically to people outside the law, it still causes harm. Even without the law, “death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses.” Note that this sentence works whether death is a punishment for sin or a catalyst for it. And it applies even to people who didn’t break a specific command for which they could be held accountable like Adam, which is how I interpret the rest of the sentence.
Paul uses a phrase in verse 14 that gets translated “a type of the one who was to come.” In Greek, it’s τύπος τοῦ μέλλοντος. I’m puzzled at how τοῦ μέλλοντος is presumed to be Jesus. That pronoun is a very strange, irregular one. What if Paul is simply naming Adam as a typological figure rather than a historical one? That would be beautiful (though I doubt he would play into my hand that much). Paul says in verse 15 that “many died by the trespass of the one man.” I’m not sure how somebody could establish on the basis of this that Adam’s trespass imputes guilt on other people as opposed to creating an ontology of spiritual death that continues to breed sin. Interestingly, as we will see when I get to them, both Augustine and Aquinas talk about the “guilt” Adam bequeaths to humanity as the default corruption in which humanity finds itself, which makes me wonder if our juridical connotation has been retrojected onto whatever Latin word gets translated as “guilt” in English.
I realize that verse 16 says “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation,” but why is the “condemnation” a pronouncement of blameworthiness on every human being that lives after Adam which must be subsequently allotted further punishment? Why can’t the “condemnation” of Adam’s trespass be the ontology of death where every single one of us starts out from which all of us need deliverance that we can’t blame on God even though we didn’t choose it for ourselves? Now, look at verse 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 made righteous.” If Paul wanted to say that guilt was imputed on humanity through Adam, he could have used the word ἐλλογεῖται (“reckoned”) that he used in verse 13. I realize that I’m an amateur Greek nerd, but based on what I read in the lexicon, kathistemi, the Greek word used in both “made sinners” and “made righteous,” connotes being transformed into something, not being pronounced something. If I’m right, then verse 19 describes an entirely therapeutic account of redemption.
Verse 21 is also very interesting in that it says: “Just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” which pairs sin analogously with grace and righteousness with death instead of sin and righteousness as might be expected. In other words, this suggests that the death instituted by Adam is the foundation of sin and the righteousness of Christ is the foundation of grace. This makes me think that grace is a lot more than just a forensic acquittal, just as sin is a lot more than a discrete individual action that breaks a rule. Grace is something that reigns and brings about eternal life. Based on Paul’s other references to life throughout his epistles (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:4), it seems ludicrous to me to reduce eternal life to a post-mortem “heavenly reward” that comes as the result of a verdict. It seems more reasonable to recognize grace as the catalyst by which we leave the ontology of death where the powers and principalities enslave us and enter into a kairotic, eternal reality that we enjoy even as our flesh persists: e.g. “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11).
Well, this will do for now. It’s only a first draft. Bring out the critiques!