Saturday, 8 June 2013

Evolution and Original Sin - 2

Paul and Original Sin

Romans 5 is frequently cited as evidence that the entire human race exclusively traces its ancestry from Adam and Eve. In particular, Rom 5:12 is regarded as teaching beyond doubt that human death began with Adam, implying that the entire human race first began with Adam:
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. 
Of course, the scientific evidence will force any intellectually honest observer to admit that whatever the theological message of Romans 5 may be, it simply cannot stand as an anthropologically accurate statement, and at the very least, what we have here is yet another example of Divine accommodation. However, such a brute-force approach to solving this problem is always going to leave some Christians uneasy. A more satisfying approach would be to show that interpreted in its own context, Romans 5 does not teach that the consequences of Adam's sin was genetically inherited by his descendants.

What we need to keep in mind here is that Rom 5v12 is not easy to understand, and naively reading this passage on the basis of a tradition-biased reading of an English translation (as with any other part of the Bible, needless to say) is not going to help. The United Bible Society Handbook on Romans observes:
This verse begins with a transitional formula (RSV “therefore”), which both commentators and translators find difficult to handle. The question is whether it relates back to verse 11 alone, or to 5:1–11, or to the entire section of 1:17–5.11. Most probably it is to be taken in relation to the passage immediately preceding, 5:1–11. [1]
The crux of this problem is the belief Rom 5v12 teaches human beings die because of Adam's sin, which of course is the motivation for universal human descent from Adam, in order for some genetic cause of death to be propagated to humanity. Once again, the UBS Handbook notes the problems inherent in this reading:
Paul indicates that Adam sinned, and as a result of his sin death came into the human race. However, it is important to realize that Paul does not make men guilty of Adam’s sin or indicate that all men die because of the sin of Adam. Paul says rather that death spread to the whole human race, because all men sinned. The verb rendered sinned in this passage is an aorist, and some few have tried to interpret this as meaning that when Adam sinned all of his physical descendants sinned along with him. It must be admitted that a meaning similar to this could be arrived at on the basis of verse 19, but that is not the meaning of the present passage. In this verse Paul is saying that death became a universal experience because all men sinned. (emphasis mine)  [2]
The significance of this for the discussion cannot be overestimated. Far from Adam's sin being the cause of human death, it is the universality of human sin which causes death, and that negates the need for us to be physically descended from Adam in order to inherit any 'genetic' consequence of that sin. The universality of human sin needs no reminder, but as Paul notes, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

Paul did not work in a vacuum, but against a long tradition of Jewish exegesis (Second Temple Judaism), and by examining this background, it is possible to understand how Adam was seen in that period. James Dunn notes in his commentary on Romans:
Paul here shows himself familiar with and indeed to be a participant in what was evidently a very vigorous strand of contemporary Jewish thinking about Adam and the origin of evil and death in the world. [3]
One finds in Second Temple Judaism considerable debate about the connection between Adam and the origin of sin and death. The pseudepigraphical work 2 Baruch likely post-dates Paul, so cannot be argued as being directly influential, but is representative of such Jewish thought on the subject:
Adam is therefore not the cause, save only of his own soul, But each of us has been the Adam of his own soul. [4]
The argument that Adam's sin directly affected only himself, but acted as the paradigm for all human sin was hardly alien to Paul's intellectual world. This does not mean that Paul did not believe in a historical Adam, but rather that his theology was not contingent on universal Adamic descent.

Augustine and Original Sin

The early church father Augustine of Hippo played a pivotal role in formulating the doctrine of Original Sin, one in which both his early life experiences and his later controversy with Pelagius were pivotal.

Although raised a Christian, Augustine left the Church early in his life and flirted with the Manichaean sect, a gnostic religion in which dualistic struggle between God and Satan and their respective worlds of light and dark featured strongly. Later, he was influenced by Neo-Platonism, which unlike the gnostic cults was not dualistic; evil was regarded as the absence of good, with sin being the cause of this absence of sin. Also playing a formative role was the marked unease he felt at his earlier life of sexual licentiousness. Fahlbusch and Bromiley in The Encyclopedia of Christianity note:
Augustine designates the loss of our freedom and capacity to do the good as original sin. This bondage to selfishness becomes the new state of human life. In a fateful and debatable move, Augustine connects self-love with sexual desire and then argues that original sin was passed from generation to generation by the natural process of procreation. [4]
His conflict with the Celtic monk Pelagius, who argued (or has had those arguments attributed to him) that human beings had the capacity and the will to do good. The power of Adam's sin over humanity was in setting a malign example to copy, rather than something which was passed from generation. Needless to say, Augustine (and other early fathers such as Jerome) fought this idea bitterly.

The fact that verses such as Rom 5v12 do not provide the support for the transmission of any consequences of Adam's sin, coupled with the recognition that Original Sin owes more to Augustine's novel theological musings than Paul have led many theologians to reconsider the doctrine. The Catholic theologian Jack Mahoney notes:
The formal teaching of the Council of Trent, then, is that Adam’s original sin is inherited by everyone through procreation and that its guilt is forgiven by the conferring of baptism, yet something of its results remains even in the baptized, experienced as concupiscence or sinful desires, fomenting or fueling sin in each of us. On this several comments can be offered, the first crucially relating to where it all starts, namely, to what Paul meant in Romans 5:12 when he used the Greek phrase eph’ hō relating to Adam’s action. Augustine and others, including the council fathers at Trent, relying on the Old Latin translation, took this to mean in Latin in quo, or “in whom,” with the clear implication that everyone had sinned in Adam. Most exegetes today understand this phrase as using the common Greek preposition epi to imply succession rather than inclusion, thus giving the meaning “since when” all have sinned rather than “in whom” all have sinned. We must conclude that if this is the original Pauline meaning, it removes from divine revelation any reference to Adam’s descendants being incorporated in solidarity “in him” (in quo), and as a result it dispenses with the conclusion that the whole of succeeding humanity has been condemned en masse as a sort of “condemned mass in Adam,” as Augustine and others explained. J. N. D. Kelly delivers his considered verdict in explaininghow the Old Latin version of the New Testament (which had influence only in the West) gave “an exegesis of Rom 5, 12 which, though mistaken and based on a false reading, was to become the pivot of the doctrine of original sin.”
As a consequence of this reflection, it follows that there is now no need for theology to find a method by which to explain how all Adam’s offspring inherit his original sin. Trent’s insistence that Adam’s original sin was transmitted among all subsequent human beings by propagation, or by generation, rather than simply by imitation (which Pelagius was considered to have maintained) was clearly due more to the theological polemic of Saint Augustine against Pelagius and his supporters than to Paul’s writing centuries earlier. The Council of Trent’s teaching on original sin (DS 1512) appealed to the sixth-century Second Council of Orange, which itself drew explicitly on Augustine’s views on original sin, including his quotation and his understanding of what he considered Paul’s in quo and what he considered its implications. (Emphasis mine)  [5] 
Original Sin therefore can arguably be said to owe more to Augustine, particularly his guilt at his early life of moral laxity, than Paul. As Mahoney notes:
Augustine’s insistence on original sin was, in fact, influenced by his implacable opposition to Pelagian claims for moral self-sufficiency, as well as by Augustine’s own humiliating struggle for chastity and his pessimistic theology of human sexuality. As I have commented elsewhere, it is not surprising that the troubled Augustine saw in human disruptive sexual experience “not only the terrible effects of original sin, but also the very channel through which that sin was transmitted from generation to generation.” [6]
Removing Augistine's influence from the debate, which still bears the impact of his use of the flawed Latin version of Romans is critical if we are going to understand what Paul really meant.

The other proof text used by those who insist that monogenism - the belief that the entire human race descends from two people -  is 1 Cor 15:45-49
So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual.  The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.  As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly.  Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly. 
Here, opponents of evolution insist that the reference to the first man precludes the existence of any human being prior to Adam. One of course can refute this via the brute-force approach of referring to the rich fossil history detailing the existence of human fossils stretching back to at least 200,000 years ago which is well before the earliest possible date for a historical Adam, if we link the events of Genesis 4 with the domestication of animals and plants in the Ancient Near East, approximately 10,000 years ago. A far more satisfying approach is to tease out what Paul meant.

The key is the reference to the 'last Adam' which provides the context for the first Adam. Christ most certainly was not the last human being created, so something else is on Paul's mind. If we look back earlier in the chapter, we see in v20-22:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (NIV 2011)
Those who reject evolution and cite these verses as evidence are obliged to show how Paul's theology is contingent on Adam being the first human being who ever existed, rather than just the first human being to whom God revealed Himself, the first human being to sin, and the first human being to fall under the dominion of death as a punishment for sin, rather than the simple dissolution of the organic body when it reaches its use-by date. 

Framed this way, these verses are not the knock-down evidence anti-evolutionists think they are. Jesus is obviously not the last Adam in a chronological sense, as 2000 years have passed since he was born. Rather, Jesus was the last Adam in the sense that Adam was the first - each being the end and beginning, respectively, of the narrative historical stream which began when Adam first sinned, and ended at the Cross, when Jesus ended the unchallenged reign of sin and death by showing how one can finally overcome. The first Adam brought death as a punishment for sin into the world. The last Adam showed how one could escape eternal death. The existence of human beings prior to Adam, or the fact that human ancestry stretches back millions of years into the past is simply irrelevant from the point of view of Paul's theology as we are talking about the introduction of eternal death as a punishment for sin. Prior to Adam, those who lived did so as the 'beasts that perish'.


Original Sin, the doctrine that claims that the physical consequences of Adam's sin were inherited by his descendants can no longer be defended rationally in the light of the fact that human molecular genetics has comprehensively shown that there was no narrow bottleneck occurring a few thousand years ago, as one would expect if Adam was the sole ancestor of the entire human race.

What those who take a high view of the Bible should recognise is that such a theological construction owes more to later theological novelty than the Biblical authors. What Paul is arguing in Romans 5 is that because all human beings sin, they will all die, assuming they do not repent and seek God. Paul is not arguing that the guilt and physical consequence of Adam's sin were genetically inherited by his descendants. Evolutionary biology therefore holds no essential problems for our theology. In fact, it poses an insuperable problem for Reformed, and to a lesser degree, Catholic teaching. Far from being a threat to faith, evolution can be seen as the purger of theological dross.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here 


[1] Newman, B. M., & Nida, E. A. 1973. A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Romans. UBS Handbook Series (102). United Bible Societies: New York
[2] ibid, p 102 
[3] Dunn, J. D. G. 1998. Romans 1–8. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 38A (272). Word, Incorporated: Dallas
[3] 2 Baruch 54:19
[4]  Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. 2008. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Vol. 5 (20). Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill: Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands
[5] Mahoney, Jack,  2011. Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration (pp. 55-56). Georgetown University Press. Kindle Edition.
[6] ibid, p 56