Paul and the Fall: The Historical/Ideal View of Romans Chapter One

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

Christians have usually constructed a doctrine of the Fall with one eye on Genesis and the other eye on Romans, especially chapter five. However, in the opinion of Robin Collins, “it is primarily in Romans 1, not in Romans 5, that Paul gives his account of the ‘Fall’ of human beings.”

Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’sEvolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” Having seen in the first two columns what Robin Collins means by the “historical/ideal” view of original sin, it’s now time to see how he interprets the most important biblical texts, those in Romans and Genesis, in light of the H/I view. We begin today with Collins’ discussion of the overall situation facing the interpreter. In future columns, he’ll tackle texts in Romans chapters 1 & 5, followed by Genesis 1-4.

The Pauline Epistles: Romans 1:18-32

Romans has been commonly recognized as the major scriptural basis for the traditional formulation of the doctrine of original sin, with several passing references elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, such as 1 Cor. 15:22, 45. Further, it is commonly agreed that the idea of original sin is not in itself found in Genesis 2-3, which is one reason this doctrine is not part of Jewish theology [see the caption to the adjacent photograph for more about this]. This, of course, is not to deny that Genesis 2-3 both provides the backdrop for the doctrine and can be interpreted in such a way as to support the doctrine. 


Concerning the Jewish view of Adam’s disobedience, Collins cites Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, “the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past two decades”. According to Telushkin, “Jews have never regarded it with the same seriousness [as Christians]. It was an act of defiance, to be sure, and because it transgressed God’s command, it was a sin. But the idea that every child is born damned for that sin is alien to Jewish thought” (p. 27).


Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

Given this situation, I will begin by looking at the relevant Scriptures in Romans. In discussing original sin and evolution, commentators typically focus on the so-called locus classicus of original sin, Romans 5, often entirely neglecting Romans 1:18-32. It is my contention, however, that it is primarily in Romans 1, not in Romans 5, that Paul gives his account of the “Fall” of human beings—that is, his account of why we are in a state of bondage to sin. These passages in the first chapter of Romans lay the foundation assumed throughout the rest of Romans that all human beings are unrighteous, in bondage to sin and spiritual darkness, and under the judgment of God. According to Paul,

the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened....

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. ... And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice... (verses 18-32).

Commentators differ concerning who Paul is talking about in this passage. One view, and which seems to me the most likely, is that Paul is primarily talking about the human race in general, not each individual person. Understood in this way, this passage essentially says that because the human race as a whole has turned away from the knowledge of God and of right and wrong, our minds were darkened and we fell into idolatry. Another possible interpretation is to take this passage as saying that each individual person was once aware of God and God’s requirements, but at some point—perhaps as each of us came to self-consciousness—we decided to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Standing alone, however, this latter interpretation does not accord well with the empirical fact that some people grow up in situations or cultures in which the existence of God, let alone God’s requirements, are only dimly perceived, if at all.

Finally, one could claim that Paul is talking only about the Gentiles in these passages. Even if Paul’s immediate concern is the Gentiles, however, the basic claims that Paul makes here are certainly applicable to everyone, both collectively and individually. If one simply were to restrict the applicability of this passage to the Gentiles, then one would be in the implausible position of claiming that this is how the Gentiles came into bondage to sin, but the Jews came into bondage to sin by some other route.

It seems to me, therefore, that the most plausible understanding of the theological truth to which this passage points is that the suppression of truth has occurred both at the level of human beings in general—so that one is to a large extent born into a culture that suppressed the truth—and to varying degrees at the level of each individual person, so that we all participate in this suppression to some extent. That is why we are “without excuse,” both collectively and individually. Whichever way one interprets these passages, however, whether as referring to people individually or collectively, or some combination of the two, the important point for our purposes is to note that, according to this passage, the knowing suppression of the truth is the cause of our minds being spiritually darkened and we are in bondage to sin. Romans 1:18-32, therefore, could be understood as presenting Paul’s account of original sin.

Now, understood as referring to humanity collectively, this account of original sin is essentially the HI account for which I have been arguing: namely, that our bondage to sin and spiritual darkness is the result of successive acts of “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” of our ancestors, and that this bondage and darkness is strengthened and continues insofar as each of us freely contributes to this suppression of truth.

Looking Ahead

Romans chapter five—usually seen as the crucial text for understanding Paul’s doctrine of original sin—is next. Later on, we’ll also see how Collins fits Romans 5 together with Romans 1, in light of the HI view. After that, he’ll turn his attention to Genesis. Be sure to join us for those discussions.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Collins, Robin. "Paul and the Fall: The Historical/Ideal View of Romans Chapter One"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 8 Jan. 2015. Web. 16 August 2018.

APA

Collins, R. (2015, January 8). Paul and the Fall: The Historical/Ideal View of Romans Chapter One
Retrieved August 16, 2018, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/paul-and-the-fall-the-historical-ideal-view-of-romans-chapter-one

References & Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

About the Authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

Robin Collins

Professor Robin Collins, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. He is well-versed in issues relating to science and religion, with graduate-level training in theoretical physics. He has written almost forty substantial articles and book chapters in these areas with some of the leading academic presses, such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge. He has also spoken on issues relating to God and the cosmos at many colleges and universities (including Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Stanford University) and has appeared in the popular Christian and secular media – for example, in Christianity Today, Lee Strobel’s Case for the Creator, and Robert Kuhn’s PBS series Closer to the Truth.

More posts by Robin Collins

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