Original sin, part one: Romans 5:12-21

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.

Romans 5:12-21
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!

19 thoughts on “Original sin, part one: Romans 5:12-21

  1. I, too, do not adhere to the traditional idea of “original sin.” I think it would be more accurate to call it “original death.”

    Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

    In Romans 5:12 it says death entered the world when Adam sinned. This is in agreement with the historical account in Genesis. But notice it says “death spread to all men” … it doesn’t say “sin spread to all men.” If you look at the curse God pronounces in Genesis 3 where he judges Adam’s sin with death, he curses them with death (dust you are, and to dust you will return). That curse has never been lifted.

    Paul makes the point in Romans 5:13-14 that, even though the people after Adam didn’t have the opportunity to sin like Adam did (they coudln’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) they still experienced death. God said that their sin was not imputed because there was no law. So they inherited death regardless of whether their sin was counting against them.

    In Romans 7, Paul talks about his sin doing the things he doesn’t want to do. But he doesn’t say “set me free from the sin I inherited” :

    Rom 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?

    Jhn 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

    • It’s fine to interpret in that way, but I don’t think it’s out of bounds to interpret “Dust you are, etc” as a descriptive statement rather than the establishment of a new reality and to interpret the death that Paul speaks of as a spiritual form of death.

  2. Thanks, Morgan! This is actually the second time I read your post. I went to my church’s Bible study, and we’re going through Romans. It looked to me that the Romans 5 passage was saying that guilt was imputed to human beings because of the sin of Adam, and Jesus parallels Adam in that Jesus brought grace and justification to many. But I remembered that you had a different interpretation. You said (if I understand you correctly) that Adam brought death, which contributed to sin, whereas Jesus brought grace, which contributed to righteousness. I still need to wrestle with that! In any case, I appreciate your explanation for how there is death even when there is not a law imputing sin: because sin is still disastrous, even when there isn’t a law.

  3. Pingback: Original sin, part 3: What really happened in Eden? | Mercy not Sacrifice

  4. Hi Morgan. I’m curious as to how you would prefer to render τύπος τοῦ μέλλοντος? Also who is “the one who is coming” (v. 14) if not Jesus (v. 15)?

    • I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance of Greek but why is τοῦ μέλλοντος “the one who is coming”? Lexically it doesn’t seem all that self-evident. Anyway, that was mostly just me being silly.

  5. More a comment to “d” then you Morgan. I think the idea that the whole OT references Adam and Original Sin is a bit of a stretch. If you had gone to the non-canonical intertestamentary literature then I think you may have had a point, but in the Hebrew Scriptures Adam is absent after Gen 5 – except possibly for Hosea 6:7 – and even then (if it is an Adamic ref) it uses Adam’s sin as a simile “like Adam”, not as some proto-doctrine of incorporation or imputation, seminal or otherwise.

    I think Paul would have been shocked to see his neat illustration about law, sin and death, riffing off the comparison of Adam and Christ as being a justification for the Augustian heresy of OS.

    As for Psa 51:5 – that’s a big castle to build on a thin foundation – even if we do take it as a Davidic psalm. The poem uses hyperbole to illustrate and intensify his remorse at his sin – and reflects that it was no spur of the moment urge, but a pattern than we see throughout 1&2 Sam into 1 Kings, he acknowledges that sinfully using others for his own desires had become habitual – so in a way this Psalm lends itself to Morgan’s reading of Romans 5 et al.

    Morgan, love what your doing – Richard Beck’s “slavery of death” series last year got me thinking about the relationship between sin and death, in Eastern and Western Christianities, and he brought in some useful existenctial psychology to explore the mechanism and it looks very compatible with what you are doing exegetically. I’m sure you have seen the stuff, but if not I think it will encourage you.

    • You can look at Psa 51:5 as a window into the “big castle” .
      Are you familiar with the Augustine Pelagian Controversy or the The Canons of the Council of Orange
      (529 AD)?

      If in the arguement we fing baptism of infants an issue, it is safe to assume infant baptism was administered in the church before the council met. iF the early church did not believe in original sin…Why baptise infants and children?

      Here is a little piece from the Council of Orange.

      CANON 1. If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20); and, “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey?” (Rom. 6:16); and, “For whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).

      CANON 2. If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

      What Morgan is pondering is not new.
      It’s old….very old.

      History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.
      Ecclesiastes 1:9

      • I am very familiar with the Augustine Pelagian controversy and the Biblical literalism that caused Augustine to proclaim that unbaptized infants would burn in hell since “All who enter the kingdom must be born by water and spirit.” Those of us who poke fun at Catholics for thinking that baptism literally incurs salvation are being selective Biblical literalists. You’re right that the issue is as old as Christianity and that’s never a reason not to continue to wrestle with it. Since the challenges you’ve raised have not yet directly engaged the points I’ve made about Romans 5, does that mean that you consider those points to be valid?

      • Do you believe original sin exists?
        That all fall short of the glory of God?
        Do you believe Christ came to save a lost and fallen world?

        If not, why not? If so, why so?

        I think Paul answer the question concerning infants and all those the CC would consider unsaved.

        It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.
        1 Corinthians 5:12

        Wesleys Notes:
        5:12 I speak of Christians only. For what have I to do to judge heathens? But ye, as well as I, judge those of your own community.

        The God of the CC shows mercy as well as justice.
        By faith we know God’s judgement wii be superior to ours.

        • Do you believe original sin exists? Inherent corruption and need for redemption that we cannot provide for ourselves: yes; inherited guilt and God being mad at us about something our ancestors did: no.

          That all fall short of the glory of God? Absolutely.

          Do you believe Christ came to save a lost and fallen world? Absolutely.

          CC is abbreviation for Christian culture?

      • Seems to me Morgan is not endorsing Pelagianism here. Seems to me he’s simply saying that our sinfulness isn’t “imputed guilt,” nor part of our essence (or being, or nature, or whatever word you want to use to translate ousis), but is something, in fact, that is NOT “of” us – it is in us, but not of us – “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Ro. 7.17).

  6. critiques? You got it? 🙂

    You have completely ignored all Old Testament references and the historical traditional Jewish understanding of the fall of Adam and it’s effect on all of mankind.
    All of the above support the understanding “by Adam all of mankind and all of creation was tarnished.”

    Imputed Sin:
    “In sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5) David is not saying his mother committed adultry.

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
    18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

    Christ’s worthiness or righteousness is imputed to believers isn’t it. (Justification)
    So why would you think the “sin imputed” so far fetched?
    Paul got it right and the traditional understsnding of “sin imouted” is correct IMHO

    • It seems a little bit silly to me to use David’s hyperbole in the wake of his murder and adultery as a proof-text for original sin. Regardless why should it be imputed guilt rather than inherited corruption? I’m not arguing against original sin per se just an understanding of it as an unfair judgment for somebody else’s crime. We are born into sin, no question. That’s the enigma that the doctrine is trying to grapple with. We start out with a condition that we need to be redeemed from. It’s not God’s fault even though we didn’t choose it.

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