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Paul’s Adam, Part 3

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March 23, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Paul’s Adam, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Karl A - #7404

March 23rd 2010

Great post.  Typo under point six - I’m pretty sure you wanted to say “Paul’s Jesus/Adam parallel does NOT stem from a “plain reading” of Genesis. ” (I added the negator.)

I think Wright’s reading of Romans is right on (no pun intended), although I’ve conceptualized it slightly differently - that it is Paul’s apology (defense) of mission to the Gentiles.  Either way, it seems Adam comes in because Paul wants to appeal to the universal nature of the gospel - this is for everybody.  This seems parallel to what Paul did in Galatians, where he brings in Abraham to show how grace preceded the law.  He appeals to a historical figure to make a present-day point.  You seem to allude to Adam’s role here as a universalizer (father of all), but wouldn’t that contradict what you said in your post that “Adam is Israel”?  Maybe not.  Even if Israel’s interpretation of Adam is one way, that doesn’t mean Paul has to follow that interpretation.

Karl A - #7405

March 23rd 2010


Help me out here.  You’re raising questions without suggesting answers, and I appreciate the respect you’re showing for us, and the cunning way you’re tricking us into thinking for ourselves rather than you getting blamed for certain answers.  As the commercial went, “Very sneaky, sis.”  But nonetheless, once we’ve read your posts and had our furious discussions, are you going to try to incorporate a few of our brilliant insights and draw it all together in some attempt at a consensus statement?  Or is that wildly optimistic?

Webmaster - #7407

March 23rd 2010

Thanks for catching the typo, Karl! It’s been fixed in the main text. Cheers!

Gregory Arago - #7410

March 23rd 2010

Dr. Enns wrote: “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 statement is framed as a quotation. What is the source?


p duggan - #7414

March 23rd 2010

I think Genesis 3:15 is a good candidate for the text “saying” that the children of A&E would have a sin nature. the adamah will produce thorns now. c.f. Judges 9:15, Isaiah 55, even Luke 9:44.

Adam and eve ate a fruit “whose seed wasin itself” into their dust-formed bodies. How could that not affect what their own ‘fruit”.

dopderbeck - #7424

March 23rd 2010

Pete, I thought from some of your earlier posts that you were going to bring the New Perspective in here.  Interesting.

A few thoughts. 

You say:  “Paul is no universalist.”

I respond:  define universalist.  Lots of people think Paul was a universalist, in the broad sense of apoakatastasis, or at least in the more narrow sense that salvation is universally available to all.  If you’re going to move beyond an Augustinian reading of original sin, then why not also move beyond an Augustinian reading of election?  Why not move decisively in the Eastern Orthodox perspective on original sin and election, for example, or into Barth’s view of election—both approaches that read Paul as a “universalist” of sorts.

I guess what I’m wondering is whether the NPP really helps as much here as you seem to think.  The NPP offers new ideas about the relation between “law” and “grace,” but does it really fundamentally change the categories of sin, atonement, and election?

dopderbeck - #7425

March 23rd 2010

At the very least, I personally don’t want to argue that Christians who want to come to peace with science must accept the NPP and/or move towards an Eastern or Barthian view of sin and election.  Those may or many not be valid and helpful perspectives on their own merits, but let’s not suggest that everyone in a non-Barthian Reformed tradition must radically alter all of his soteriology to accept evolution. 

I’d prefer simply to say that the nature of the transmission of original sin must be something of a mystery.  Yet even here, the language of “ordinary generation” isn’t necessarily unworkable—as I’ve said before, you could roughly analogize “sin” to a “genetic mutation” that spreads rapidly throughout a population until, within a few generations, all of the population carries that gene; and/or, you could refer to an ontological kinship among all humans that exceeds the merely biological and genetic.

O.Bower - #7440

March 23rd 2010

Regardless of our differences over this issue, I have to thank Dr. Enns for giving yet another well informed and well written post.  I think his thoughts and similar ones should cause us to pause and seriously consider some real issues (whatever they may be) among Christian denominations.  While I hold to some form of original/ancestral sin, I’m hesitant to commit fully to one detailed description.  Some interpretations, I feel, encounter great difficulty when facing scientific discovery/understanding.  Perhaps the Church made a mistake when determining how exactly the Adam/Eve narrative affected humanity.  I don’t mean the Church completely missed the point and somehow erred horribly.  However, I am willing to admit the Church should open itself to a multi-layered narrative.  Some elements of a biblical author’s worldview may be abandoned, but that doesn’t necessarily change the essence/core of a narrative.  I think I’ve rambled long enough.  Again, great post.

Martin Rizley - #7444

March 23rd 2010

Dr. Enns, 
You ask,  If “born in sin” is what the Garden story is really about, why doesn’t Genesis just come out and say so?”  I think the answer to that is, for the same reason God didn’t say explicitly to Adam and Eve “I will send my Son to die on a cross for the sins of mankind.”  That is, God’s self-revelation is of a progressive character.  Truths that are revealed in a shadowy way early in the history of redemption are revealed in greater fullness as redemptive history progresses.  It is like the sunlight coming up in the morning that gradually dispels the darkness of night.  A clue to the total depravity of human nature is found, however, in the statement of God to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman. . .”  Adam and Eve had sided with the serpent in eating of the forbidden fruit; but it is God, not they, who must take the initiative to restore them to a right relationship with God by “putting enmity” between them and the serpent.  Why so?  Because, having fallen into sin, they cannot restore themselves spiritually.  Only God can change their hearts so that they will love Him and hate the devil.

Chris Massey - #7457

March 23rd 2010

Pete, once again I really appreciate your thoughtful approach.

Yesterday, Darrell Falk wrote, “We are convinced that Christianity is going to have to embrace a biblical hermeneutic which is not based upon the notion of one man and one woman being the genetic ancestors of all living humans. The data are absolutely overwhelming as we will continue to show in coming days.”

If that is the case - and I agree that it is - then is there any reason to maintain a belief in a “fall” at all? An evolutionary history leaves little room for a paradisical state from which man could fall. It would seem that the fleshly appetites and inclination for self-preservation that characterizes so much of our sinful nature were with us from the beginning.

Asking what Paul perceived to be the consequences of Adam’s fall is an interesting question, but what do I do with Paul’s view if I come to the conclusion that there was no Adam and no fall. Is it purely an academic exercise?

Bob R. - #7462

March 23rd 2010

Dr Enns,
Paul is not a universalist? He is with respect to sin. How can you argue that the parallel he establishes is valid only on one side of the equation? Death came to everyone through sin, but life will only come to SOME through grace? Why would he deliberately construct the parallel if he didn’t mean that the parallel exists?

If Paul’s parallel is a fudged parallel, as you suggest, then why did he attempt to construct an embellished parallel at all? (ie. Using polys & pas v.15,18,19) Why does he make a point of detailing that ONE transgression brought death to THE MANY and ONE act of OBEDIENCE brings life to THE MANY. I don’t notice, as you seem to, Paul’s footnote saying, “Hey guys, it really ain’t exactly like this.”

Now, I am not arguing for universalism, but simply trying to point out that the strength of Paul’s parallelism with respect to Adam and Christ should not be diminished. If anything, we should side with his own conclusion to the matter: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (vs.20) If his equation is fudged at all, it is imbalanced in the direction of grace.

Gregory Arago - #7465

March 23rd 2010

Cudos to David O. for raising the issue of apokatastasis!!

Universal humanity and universal salvation are *huge* topics imo in this discussion.

E.g. Bob asks: “Death came to everyone through sin, but life will only come to SOME through grace?”

Though it may distract a bit from the main thrust of the thread, here is a video clip from a big-screen recent film that deals with the issue of ‘evolution’ and ‘neo-human.’

When the ‘scientific’ perspective of biology seemingly *cannot* draw reasonable limits upon itself, there becomes a speculative tendency to posit a post-human or neo-human situation. How this fits or may fit with an Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christianity is, at least to me, still unclear.

Offered with respect to various religious views that might find offence herein - this is contemporary American culture to reflect on these things…and hopefully to discover truths:


Josh M - #7467

March 23rd 2010

The clearest hint I find in Genesis that something akin to a “sin nature” was passed on from the first couple to their descendants is Genesis 5:1-3.  The first couple was created in the likeness of God.  Adam then had a son “in his own likeness”.  Sounds very much like an intended contrast in this passage to me!

Patrick M - #7469

March 23rd 2010

Exactly, Martin!  The concept of progressive revelation is one of those things that really helps make sense of so much of the Bible.  After all, people lived for thousands of years with literally no scripture at all.  It is only by grace that we have what we have at all.  (And if you think about it, even our own understanding today is still very, very small).

I’m not sure I see how Dr. Enn’s use of N.P.P. in any way helps the science and scripture debate.  I’m actually disappointed to see he seems to be influenced by that view, which (like denying any historicity of Adam) introduces a whole host of new problems (at least from limited my research into it).

Mere_Christian - #7478

March 23rd 2010

I go away for awhile and I come back to an excellent piece like this????

Nod to you Dr. Enns.

Karl A - #7496

March 24th 2010

I didn’t know what the heck some of you were talking about re. NPP.  Thank God for Wikipedia!  In case others are lost too, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Perspective for a description of “The New Perspective on Paul”.  The article notes that the NPP is most controversial among Reformed scholars, and least among Catholic scholars. 

I’m not smart enough to discern whether NPP helps, hinders or is disposable in our quest to understand 1) how Paul understood Adam, the Fall and Salvation or 2) how we in our era with a radically revised understanding of Adam grapple with the same issues.

Russell Roberts - #7500

March 24th 2010

Another excellent article Dr. Enns. I’m sure you know this but for the sake of those not familiar with the New Perspective, Paul’s concern was not one of ‘law keeping’ as 21st century Christianity would presume (a matter of performing works that earns one favor before God). This reading projects an anachronistic reading onto the text reflecting Luther’s polemic against Catholicism. The author you noted, N.T. Wright, considers the phrase ‘works of the law’ to be ethnic identity markers such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws. These rites prescribed by Torah set the Jews apart as a distinct ethnic group. Otherwise, Paul’s introduction of ethnicity into his argument at the end of Romans 3 becomes a non sequitur.

aberg - #7522

March 24th 2010

Two points:

***Is Cain’s transgression, like that of his parents’, part of his humanity rather than fallenness?***

If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then how do we avoid the situation where God, who created humanity, is responsible for the transgression?  If that were the case, one could argue that God is evil.  Ultimately the choice between good and evil, right and wrong, has to come down to humanity’s will.

***So what does it mean for Jesus to bring life to “all”? Paul is no universalist.***

By ‘universalist’ I assumed you meant that through Christ’s sacrifice that all humans receive salvation.

In response to the question though, a possibility you don’t mention is that Jesus brought life to all as a potential gift, freely offered but not universally received.  Is this a valid interpretation when all else is considered?

BK - #7531

March 24th 2010

Perspective may help.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” gives us a big clue about the really important subject in Genesis 1-2. Given the ancient stories of the earth being created from the body of some other god’s dead great grandmother, and the like, this must have been shocking news. It’s still shocking to many today for we have gone from innumerable squabbling gods to none, and, the opening line is still the main point! Adam is a supporting actor. Likewise, in the two major places that Paul mentions Adam, Jesus Christ is the main point - to paraphrase, “look at how completely sufficient for our spiritual development Christ’s work is, why His resurrection even means we can be resurrected with Him” (Romans 5:16; 1 Corinthians 15:22). While it is very interesting and important to refine our understanding of Paul’s Adam, it is essential that we understand Paul’s Jesus. On the road to Damascus Paul did not encounter Adam, Christ encountered Adam in Paul. At that time Paul’s Adam was probably very different from when he penned his letters to the churches, yet, this revelation of Christ was all that was needed to completely change his life.

Norm - #7545

March 24th 2010

Dr. Enns this was a very good and anticipated article from you that helps us focus on some of the key elements of Paul’s NT theology.

Let me start with the “many”. 

The Many
The point was made that the “all” was explained in the next verse as the “many” concerning those who received salvation through Christ. Thus emphasizing that Paul was no Universalist. What is also important to keep under consideration is that the “many” is also applied to the “all men” under condemnation.

Rom 5:18-19 Therefore, as one trespass led to CONDEMNATION for ALL MEN, so one act of righteousness leads to JUSTIFICATION and life for ALL MEN.  (19)  For 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.

Israel as Adam

It is my opinion that the “all” under consideration that Paul is speaking of is consistent with his concept of Israel as derived from Adam including the patriarchal lineage mentioned from Adam to Moses (Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Jacob). I do not believe Paul is speaking to Gentiles at large in 5:14 when sin reigned over those who did not sin under the law as it doesn’t fit Paul’s idea of covenant inclusion which he addresses.

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