Scattered Ramblings on Original Sin

My church’s Bible study group is going through Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  We’re using the booklet, Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, With Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung.  Last night, we talked about Romans 5:12-19.  This is the passage that a number of Christians cite to defend the doctrine of original sin, which states that, as a result of Adam’s sin, human beings have inherited guilt and a morally-corrupt nature.  The pastor asked us if we believed this, and I responded that I didn’t think it was fair that I should be held accountable for what some guy did a long time ago.  I also said that I did not ask for my corrupt nature, so why should God blame me for having it?

The pastor replied that Christians benefit from something that Jesus did years ago.  I think I may understand what the pastor was getting at.  I’m all for grace, and Christians receive that (along with a new nature) on the basis of something that Jesus did a couple of millennia ago.  So why would it be unfair for us to be guilty and to receive a corrupt nature on account of what Adam did a long time ago?  Paul himself, according to prominent Christian interpretations of Romans 5:12-19, is drawing that sort of parallel between Adam and Christ.  Can I accept what God did through Christ, without accepting what God decreed in response to Adam’s sin?

I responded that I thought that the two were different.  In the case of Adam and original sin, I had no choice in the matter: I was born, and that makes me guilty and corrupt.  In the case of Jesus and grace, by contrast, there is a more voluntary element on our part, for we can choose to receive that grace.  Looking back, I both like and also dislike my answer.  Let’s start with what I don’t like.  First of all, is there really a voluntary element in Christians receiving God’s grace?  In my comment, I did not really deal with the teaching of a number of Christians that, by ourselves, we are so corrupt that we cannot choose to receive God’s grace.  Many Calvinists think that God needs to regenerate the elect in order for them to receive God’s grace, and many Arminians believe (if I’m not mistaken) that the Holy Spirit makes it possible for all human beings to choose to accept it.  I indicated that I was aware of those concepts (at least the Calvinist one), but (in my opinion) I did not adequately and cohesively integrate that into what I was saying; I’m still not in this blog post, I don’t think!

Second, one could ask (though nobody in the group did): Why should I worry about whether or not it is fair for me to inherit guilt and a corrupt nature from Adam?  Fair or not, God has offered me a way out: I can believe in Jesus Christ and be saved!  Maybe I should take God up on his offer rather than quibbling about whether he’s fair or not!  Perhaps.  But let me now get into what I liked about my comments last night at my church’s Bible study.  First of all, we’re dealing with the character of God here.  Can I accept an image of a God who is unfair?  And can Christianity truly work on me, if I don’t feel deeply that guilt from which Christ saved me?  I mean, I know that I’m a sinner and that I need forgiveness.  But I have a hard time feeling guilty about what Adam did, or me having a corrupt nature, and I have difficulty accepting the notion that I—-or anyone else—-deserves hell on account of things we did not ask for.  Second, we talked about Romans 6:23, which states (in the KJV): “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  What that tells me is that death is something that we earn when we sin; eternal life, by contrast, is not something that we earn because it is a gift.  If I am held accountable for Adam’s sin, is that truly me earning death?  It doesn’t sound like it to me, for it sounds like a bad gift!  But I’m sure critics could tell me that I’m treating the text in far too individualistic of a fashion!  They could say that Adam earned death, for himself and all of his descendants!

Someone in the group said that he thought that Adam was a metaphor rather than a literal, historical person: that Adam represents how low we as human beings can sink without morally checking ourselves.  He also said that, even if one does not accept the historicity of the stories in the Bible, the Bible is still a good textbook for how to live life.  After all, he said, we have to live life somehow!  I could see some of his points.

When I got home, I reread a post that I read a while back: Morgan Guyton’s post on original sin and Romans 5:12-21.  Guyton essentially argues that the death in Romans 5:12-21 was a spiritual death that bred sin.  According to Guyton, it’s not that we inherited Adam’s guilt, per se, in that we sinned in Adam.  Rather, Adam’s act led to his spiritual alienation from God, his spiritual death, and that has been the cause of our sins.  This was the case, according to Guyton, even when there was not a law that declared people guilty, and that’s why Romans 5:13-14 states: “For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.  Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.”  But, in the same way that Adam brought spiritual alienation, which contributed to sin, so likewise has Christ brought grace and righteousness.  Adam got us into a problem, and Christ came to get us out of it.

In my Bible study group last night, we discussed the concept of death in Romans.  The pastor and someone else in the group did not think that the death was physical, but that it entailed alienation from God.  Another person in the group brought up hell.  Personally, I’ve long interpreted the death in Romans 5-6 to be physical rather than spiritual.  We physically die on account of what Adam did.  Those who are in Christ, however, have the hope of living again, and forever. 

But back to Morgan Guyton’s post.  Guyton emphasizes Romans 5:12, specifically the Greek phrase eph ho.  Allow me to post a couple of versions, with the translation of eph ho in boldface.  The KJV translates Romans 5:12 as: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”.  The New Revised Standard Version has: “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”.  According to Guyton, Jerome thought that the phrase eph ho in Romans 5:12 meant “in whom”, indicating that we all sinned in Adam.  Guyton, however, understands eph ho in Romans 5:12 differently: “death spread to all by which all have sinned”, meaning that death is the source of sin.

I did a BibleWorks search on eph ho.  I can see why the NRSV translates it as “because”.  But, in my opinion, Guyton’s interpretation may work, because epi plus a dative can mean “on the basis of which”—-which could mean that Romans 5:12 is saying that, on the basis of death, all have sinned.  One question I have about the NRSV’s understanding of the verse is whether it’s saying that we die on account of our own sins—-we die because we sinned, not because Adam sinned.  The thing is, the point in Romans 5:12-19 is that Adam by sinning passed down death to his descendants, the same way that Christ passes down his grace to many.  Romans 5:12-19 appears to be looking at the issue in a corporate, not so much an individual, context.

Is Guyton’s understanding better than the Christian doctrine of original sin?  Well, perhaps, in the sense that we don’t inherit Adam’s guilt (Guyton interprets the condemnation of Romans 5:16, not as punishment, but as our predicament as spiritually dead people, producing the fruit of sin).  But we still are subject to a spiritual death that we did not ask for.

Guyton’s interpretation reminds me of that of one of my relatives, who thinks that Adam’s sin produced negative consequences in the sense that Adam was exiled from God’s presence and the tree of life in the Garden, not in the sense that God unilaterally decided to bequeath to Adam’s descendants the guilt of Adam’s sin.  (At least that’s my understanding of what my relative believes, and there is probably more than what I’m saying.)  I wonder, though: Was Adam truly alienated from God after the Fall?  I mean, people even after the Fall communicated with God.  And what has Jesus brought us that people did not have prior to Jesus?

Incidentally, in my e-mail this morning, I saw an article by Clay Jones in the Christian Research Institute’s journal entitled “Original Sin: Its Importance and Fairness”No, I don’t think this was God trying to communicate with me—-it’s just a coincidence that I got this article the morning after my church had a Bible study that touched on original sin.  I mean, if I move around enough in Christian circles, it’s going to happen that I’ll come across the same topics within short periods of time!  In any case, I’ll mention what I like and what I dislike about this article.  I actually liked this passage: “Adam’s children might object that they didn’t have the opportunity to choose their representative, but God knows who is best able to represent the human race.”  I don’t know why I like this.  Perhaps it’s because this passage may be implying that, if I were Adam, I would have made the same wrong decision that he did, and God knows that.  But I have issues with being judged on the basis of a hypothetical.  In terms of where I disagree, Jones says: “Many struggle to understand this because of a strong sense of Western individualism, but we are not like angels, which apparently were created individually.”  Jones is right that the West can be individualistic, but even the Bible itself contains a stream of thought that says that God punishes people for their own sins, not the sins of their fathers.  Ezekiel 18 comes to mind.  

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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