Paul’s Adam, Part 3
Here are three more issues that arise when trying to understand Paul’s use of the Adam story. The rest will follow in next week’s post. These issues are pretty involved, and so this post is longer than I would like. My apologies in advance.
As we continue, especially with this week’s topics, let me repeat: to raise these questions is not to answer them one way or another. But, they are valid questions that have been raised and engaged by thoughtful readers, some for a very, very long time. They are not trendy or conjured up.
Thinking through them takes some patience, a fair amount of knowledge, and even more wisdom. At the end of the day, wrestling through these issues will yield a greater understanding of Paul and how his Gospel is summed up in the risen Messiah.
4. The Fall in the Garden
What exactly were the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden? I realize this question sounds like Bible 101, but it isn’t. It is a complicated issue, and many great minds have wrestled with it.
Adam and Eve eat the fruit, even though they were warned not to (Genesis 2:17). God imposes penalties—curses—on them with clearly intended ongoing consequences. From Adam and Eve on, humanity would experience death (return to dust); from Adam and Eve on, the ground would be cursed, women would have pain in childbirth, etc., etc. The penalties are announced and the first pair is then expelled from the Garden—the final blow.
So far all of this sounds familiar. But, with all the curses listed in 3:14-19, the following is not among them: “From now on, your children and all of humanity, by the very nature of their birth, will be born in a state of sin and guilt against which they will be powerless to help themselves.”
This omission may be surprising to some. A sense of being “born in sin” is typically associated as a central element of the Garden episode, especially reading Genesis 3 side-by-side with Paul (namely Romans 5:12-21). This has puzzled interpreters. So, the question is: If “born in sin” is what the Garden story is really about, why doesn’t Genesis just come out and say so?
Take the Cain and Abel story. Did Cain kill his brother because he was born in a state of sin? This is sometimes assumed to be the case, but is this what we actually read in Genesis?
Does Genesis indicate that it was because of Adam’s trespass that Cain killed Abel? Was Cain’s act a by-product of Adam’s transgression passed on to his offspring somehow? Or could it be that Cain’s sin follows in Adam’s footsteps some other way? After all, transgression did not need a fall—Adam and Eve had already sinned by disobeying God. Is Cain’s transgression, like that of his parents’, part of his humanity rather than fallenness?
Other than what we read in the list of curses in Genesis 3, the Garden story does not tell us what if anything “transferred” between Adam and his offspring. This does not call sin or the Gospel into question. But it does mean that responsible Christian interpreters will need to ask (1) what does the fall narrative in Genesis actually say? (2) how does that connect with the Christian view of the fall, especially as we see it in Paul’s writings?
There are different ways of making the connection, but the point is simply that a connection has to be made. The connection is not obvious (as a scan of commentaries will show).
5. The Adam/Jesus Parallel in Romans 5 is both Clear and not so Clear
We move from Genesis to the other side of the equation: Paul. For many, the heart of the issue is the parallel Paul makes in Romans 5:12-21 between Jesus and Adam—the entire Gospel hangs on getting this parallel right, and what Paul says here settles the matter.
Yet, as with Genesis, there are numerous questions about what Paul is getting at here. Leafing through any some commentaries on Romans will illustrate what some of them are. The general point Paul is making is clear enough, but some of the details are tricky.
What is clear in Romans 5:21-21 is that Adam’s disobedience resulted in death for “all,” and this comes right out of Genesis. Likewise, Jesus’ obedience (i.e., his crucifixion leading to his resurrection) brought life to “all.” (A similar point is made in 1 Corinthians 15, namely, vv. 20-22.)
This is breath-taking theology. In a few short verses, Paul is doing nothing less than bringing together the grand narrative of Scripture. The crucified and risen Messiah brings closure to the entire biblical drama. The Christ is the second, obedient, Adam (Romans 5), the firstfruits of the new humanity (1 Corinthians 15). In Christ, all of creation starts over.
We can’t say enough about how important a point this is for Paul’s theology. But, there are interpretive difficulties nonetheless that affect how the Adam/Jesus parallel plays out.
For example, Paul says that Adam’s disobedience has universal implications: Adam brought death to “all.” So what does it mean for Jesus to bring life to “all”? Paul is no universalist. Wouldn’t it be better to say that Jesus brought life to “all who believe”?
Paul is not a sloppy thinker, but he is aware that the parallel clearly does not fit precisely. In fact, he is quick to say “many” in vv. 15 and 19 rather than “all.” He seems to employ the parallel but then back off a bit, almost to say, “Well, not literally all. It doesn’t quite work that way. I mean many.”
The limits of the parallel do not diminish Paul’s theology. The parallel serves his purpose, but is clearly not airtight. This signals that readers need to keep both eyes open when probing how exactly Paul understands the parallel.
Verse 12 also raises a question or two. What does Paul mean when he says that through Adam’s sin, “death came to all, because all sinned.” (Commentaries tend to camp out here for a bit, especially on the Greek phrase translated “because.”) One might have expected Paul to say, “because he [Adam] sinned” (death is Adam’s fault). Is Paul suggesting that some responsibility is on our shoulders rather than Adam’s? What exactly is Paul saying (or not saying) about Adam here?
Note, too, that Paul focuses on only one effect of Adam’s disobedience: death and how “death reigned” from Adam on (Romans 5:14). There is no mention of the other effects of Adam’s disobedience that are sometimes tied to this parallel, such as the corruption of our inner nature. That does not mean Paul does not believe that, only that he does not tie it to Adam. (Remember, folks, these posts are not about Paul’s theology in general but Paul’s Adam.)
Again, these questions about the Jesus/Adam parallel do not undermine Christianity. But there is a reason why this parallel has attracted so much attention throughout the history of the church, and why some of the very same questions continue to be raised.
To bring this all the way back to the beginning: Synthesizing evolution and Christianity is not a matter of starting with what Paul is “obviously” saying. Paul’s Adam is challenging, and was so long before evolution ever entered the mix.
6. What is Romans Really About?
The last generation or two of New Testament scholarship has shed some light on how to read Paul. This is another complicated issue—if also controversial. But it is also an important one for understanding Paul, especially Romans.
N. T. Wright in particular has been a strong proponent of rethinking the message of Romans in light of the Jewish thought world behind the person of Jesus and into which Paul was speaking. In other words, how would people back then have understood what Paul was saying?
As the argument goes, Romans is often understood as showing the personal path to salvation, “how I can get right with God.” But this is a peripheral (although legitimate) issue. According to Wright and others, there is a bigger issue that captures Romans from beginning to end: not personal salvation, but how Jews and Gentiles together can be one people, reconciled to God, united in the risen Messiah, not divided by longstanding ethnic issues.
This may seem a bit anti-climactic for contemporary Protestant readers of Romans. But the Jewish/Gentile issue was a huge problem in the early church. Many Jewish Christians felt that Gentiles had to become Jewish first (through law-keeping, especially circumcision) before bring granted Christian fellowship.
Paul says, “No. Gentiles can enter our fellowship as Gentiles. Both groups are on equal footing.” This created tensions (see Acts), especially since the Old Testament requires circumcision for non-Israelites who want to join to fold (e.g., Exodus 12:48). So, Paul spends some time arguing his case (see Galatians).
So what does all this have to do with Paul’s Adam? Paul’s Jesus/Adam parallel does not stem from a “plain reading” of Genesis. It is selective and theologically driven.
Paul is not simply “reading Genesis” or his Old Testament. He focuses on one aspect of the Adam story—disobedience leads to death. Death is the problem that grabs Paul’s attention. This is only one of several issues that arise out of Genesis. And it is a theme that the Old Testament itself does not develop.
But Paul does. That is because the resurrection of Jesus is the impetus for what aspect of the Adam story he picks up and how he uses it. It is the resurrection of Jesus that drives Paul’s reading of the Adam story. For Paul, as for any other Jew, the resurrection of the Messiah came out of the blue. Why did God do that?
This is why. “Jew and Gentile, the real problem is much deeper than you ever thought. It affects both of you equally. Jesus is the solution that both of you need. To the Jews especially I want to say that keeping the law is not the solution to the world’s problems. It will not fix what is deeply wrong. Only Jesus can. The problem is so deep and universal, the Son of God had to die and rise from the dead to give us all a new beginning.”
Jesus, in his death and resurrection, does not simply cleanse us from sin. He conquers the effect of sin. He conquers death, for all who believe—Jew and Gentile alike.
Not everyone agrees with this reading of Romans, but it places Paul’s writings more securely within our growing understanding of the religious climate of Paul’s day. The issues N. T. Wright and others raise are important and influential.
Again, the three issues covered this week are complicated and I’ve had to draw out these points a bit further than I normally like to (even though we have hardly grazed the surface). The bottom line is that understanding Paul’s Adam is a serious scholarly conversation where numerous complex issues have a rightful and necessary place at the table.
We’ll finish the list next week.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.