A Theology of Peccatum Originale (In Less Than 650 Words!)

Posted: September 26, 2010 by Paul D. Adams in Doctrines, Original Sin
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To be sure an accurate view of our human nature is important because the Gospel is important. As J. I. Packer wrote “it is only as we acknowledge the tragedy and feel the misery of our personal ruination through original sin that we shall properly value the Good News of the Savior.” And, G. K. Chesterton noted in his Orthodoxy that original sin is the only philosophy that can be empirically verified. Just pick up the daily newspapers, says Chesterton! I’m repeatedly amazed that from the earliest age children need no training in selfishness or pride or discontent or rebellion. Every human comes fully stocked with these “qualities;” they are not accessories. Every parent labors to reverse these traits in our children while working ourselves to learn what it means to be compassionate, humble, content, and obedient.

The doctrine of peccatum originale (original sin) rightly assumes that the entire human race is an organic unity. We find that our origin or source is from the same common stock, namely the first human, Adam. Just as C. S. Lewis once pointed out that “like begets like,” so too Paul says “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). It is not insignificant that “all” stands first in the clause of Paul’s declaration “death came to all men.” Moreover, although Adam’s sin was in the past, Paul insists that “all sinned.” The context is not so much referring to individual activity (though this is implicit), but to corporate responsibility as conferred on us by the first human who sinned.

Thus, we inherit far more than just the biological nature of our parentage; we inherit their spiritual nature as well. There is a solidarity to the human race such that the original humans stand as the moral, physical, social, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual representatives of all people everywhere and at all times (Acts 17:26a). Just as our genetic makeup or biological DNA is derived from our parentage, so too is our spiritual makeup or spiritual DNA. (The concept of “generational sin” unlikely applies to believers. See my essay “Not My Father’s Keeper or What’s All the Fuss about Generational Sin?”.)

But there’s more. Rom. 5:18-19 claims: “the result of one trespass was condemnation for all [because] through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.” As the representative for all humanity, God counted everyone born of and from Adam morally guilty. In some sense peccatum originale could be viewed as culpa originale (original guilt, not original sin). You see it is not only true all have sinned actually (Rom. 3:23), but it is equally true that all have sinned originally in Adam.

Consequently, God judges all on the basis of one man’s sin because all are conceived with a natural inclination to do only what is contrary to God (Rom. 8:5-9; 1 Cor. 15:21-22; Gal. 5:16-17). Indeed, we have no other choice but to live predominantly from our sinful bent. The Bible calls this slavery to sin (Rom. 6:6, 16-17, 19; 7:14). Though it may not appear fair that God would judge all on the basis of one man’s sin, it is the disposition of Adam’s guilt rather than his sin per se that is inherited – just as Christ assumed our guilty status instead of our particular sinful acts (Is. 53:6; 2 Cor. 5:14, 21; 1 Pt. 2:24; 3:18).

But some may say, “It’s not fair to be represented by someone else’s guilt! Why should I be blamed for what Adam did?” Of course, if we want to play the fairness game, then in the name of fairness it is also unfair that Christ would die in my place and do for me what I should have done for myself. “Fairness” cuts both ways and it’s doubtful that any born from above would appreciate the sword slicing in that direction!


The preceding post is the property of Christian Diversity (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

  1. J.W. Wartick says:

    Excellent thoughts here, Paul. Once again, I think that metaphysics applies directly to this kind of outlining of the doctrine of original sin. My one major modification would be to your last paragraph, for I contend that we are not being represented by someone else’s guilt, but our own, for, in some sense, we are Adam–we shared in that original sin.

    • Disciple says:

      Hi, Joseph and Paul. Some thoughts about the sense in which we are Adam… It’s much the same way that the Letter to the Hebrews talks about how Levi gave tithes to Melchizedek as he was in Abraham when Abraham gave his offering to Melchizedek. Levi had not been born, but he was in Abraham’s loins. (See Hebrews 7:9-10.) We were all in Adam’s loins when Adam sinned. We all inherit human nature from our parents and that human nature was changed as a result of Adam’s sin. So Adam doesn’t represent us as much as he is our father who hands down his nature to us.

      (The Bible does speak of Adam as a type, pointing forward to the Second Adam, Christ, Who would come to undo the damage Adam had done. See Romans 5:14.)

  2. sabepashubbo says:

    Agreed. Excellent post. I’m curious if anyone has any thoughts about what I said in my blog regarding original sin beginning with Adam. Why is it that the first record of human sin in the Bible is Eve’s, yet it is always called “the sin of Adam” in later references? I think we all make this assumption too hastily without meditating on the ramifications. Does anyone have a conjecture as to why this is? Thanks!

    • Disciple says:

      Hi, sabepashubbo. I think one reason we generally think of “the sin of Adam” is that it was Adam who was given the task “to shamar” the Garden: to till, tend, keep and protect the Garden, and also to protect and guard his wife, Eve. He failed utterly in this regard. He was apparently, according to the text, standing right behind her while the serpent was accosting her and beguiling her, threatening her, really. I mean, Eve only had to turn around to hand him the fruit. He was standing right there. And what did Adam do? Did he reprimand her, instruct her, guard and protect her from the serpent? No, he did none of those things. He didn’t put up any sort of fight at all, he folded at the first sign of danger. That’s why we talk of “the sin of Adam.” His responsibility was to listen to God and lead his wife in righteousness, but he listened to her and to the serpent instead, so his sin was the greater.

      Just my two cents. 🙂

    • Well….if you’re referring to the gender question, I would offer that it’s likely several reasons: 1) Culturally, Scripture was written from a patristic mindset and the male was the preferred gender to represent all of humanity; 2) Textually, Adam was present with the woman (Gen 3:6) and complicit with her in the sin; 3) Chronologically, God created the male first making him the head representative (if you will) for all of humanity. Interestingly, it could very well have been the woman who was created first, then the man, and the tables turned. Nothing precludes this theologically or philosophically, save the Man Christ Jesus Who is the anti-type of the first male.

    • J.W. Wartick says:

      Adam, I counter your question with my own: what thoughts do you have on this issue? I guess I’ve never thought about it much, myself.

      • sabepashubbo says:

        I think I’m probably in a similar boat to most of the others. Adam was responsible for protecting Eve, and failing to do so was the first act of sin. Eve’s act was only made possible by Adam’s failures, so that’s why it’s called the “sin of Adam.”

        It’s hard being named Adam when all of this talk is going around of your namesake’s weakness and stuff, you know! 🙂

      • Where in the text (Gen 3) do we explicitly see Adam being responsible for protecting Eve? Is this reading through a patristic/male lens?

      • sabepashubbo says:

        I don’t think it’s in the text. I think it’s an inference based on “sin entering the world through one man.” If sin is Adam’s fault, then there has to be a sin before Eve eats the fruit. This means that Adam’s sin is likely something that is not explicitly stated in the text, but we infer the most reasonable explanation, though there are other possibilities for the nature of this first sin.

  3. Disciple says:

    Hi, Paul. The word “shamar”, I think, is actually in the text, meaning, as I understand it, “to tend, keep, protect, guard”. Adam is the husband of Eve, responsible for her as her husband. The labels of patristic and male sound like political terms. Patristics, to me, is the study of the Fathers of the Church. Perhaps you meant patriarchal, which, again, seems like a political term. As for a male lens, I’m about as female as I can be, though the lenses I am using iare provided by faith, reason and church. If I were Eve, I would expect my husband to protect me. Especially since God charged Adam, not Eve, with keeping and guarding the Garden and all that was in it. Adam’s sin was wimping out and not risking his life to protect his bride. The Second Adam not only risked His life but actually gave His life for His bride, the church.

    These parallels are so wonderful. Notice the scene when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb. He is not there! Then she goes out into the Garden. And someone is there and she thinks it’s…the gardener. And it is! It’s the Gardener! The Second Adam, there in His Garden. God is so Good!

  4. Disciple says:

    Hi, Paul, again. I found more online about the word shamar for you at SalvationHistory.com. Scroll down to II. B. for that section, though the whole set of articles is really good too. Scott Hahn goes into in more depth in various talks and books. Below is a quote from the article.

    Adam is placed in the Garden “to cultivate and care for it” (see Genesis 2:15). Something important gets lost in the translation of those words.

    In the original Hebrew text, the words used are ‘abodah and shamar. And they are words associated with priestly service.

    In fact, the only other places in the Bible where you find those two words used together are in the Book of Numbers, where they are translated as “service,” and “charge,” and used to describe the duties of the Levites, the appointed priests of Israel (see Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6).

    The Levites were in charge of protecting the sanctuary and the altar. And Adam was given the duty of protecting, of caring for, the Garden. All this will become very important when we study Adam’s disobedience and fall from grace.

    • Well…thanks for all the highlights on the word shamar. However, I would argue that Eve is not a garden to manage, protect, care for, etc. To reduce her to a piece of property is, well, let’s just say less than biblically responsible.

      • Disciple says:

        I think you misunderstand me. I am not reducing Eve to property. Certainly not. She is a woman to be cherished and protected by her husband. The Garden was to be tended too. I didn’t mean to imply (and didn’t even think) that I was equating mere property (which is not exactly how I think of the Garden of Eden) with the beautiful human person who was the mother of all the living. No need to argue, I totally agree. 🙂

  5. Disciple says:

    Got me thinking about the Garden…I think of the Garden of Eden as belonging to God, as His Sanctuary, as we are temples of the Holy Spirit. I think we all belong to God, not as chattel or property, but He did create us and we were made for Him. Not as property but as spiritual beings, a union of body and soul. You caught me quite off guard thinking that I was reducing a human person to property. I’m rather stunned. I shall try to express myself more clearly in future. 🙂

    • @Disciple:
      I did not intend to stun; only to follow your argument where it led. As I understood, you made a great deal out of the word “shamar” as if to say that Adam was to tend to, protect, care for, et al. his mate Eve the way he was the garden. Thus, Adam’s responsibilities to the garden were the same as his responsibilities to Eve. I doubt that is a parallel you could establish from the text. Seems to me you may be importing some ideas. At any rate….Shalom!

      • Disciple says:

        Hi, Paul. I’m not saying that Adam’s responsibilities to Eve were the “same” as his responsiblities to the Garden. I am reasoning more by way of analogy than some one to one correspondence in a literal sense. (Not an accusation of literalism, btw.) But I think that the emphasis on protecting and tending as Adam’s task is there in the text ;and that as Eve’s husband, Adam’s task extends to guarding his wife, as well, not as property (which would be quite a reductionist view), but as his beloved. God gave Adam the task, He even made Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. The ribs themselves protect the heart and lungs, among other things. So the theme of protection and guarding is fairly emblazoned all over the text.

        Shalom, Paul!

  6. Disciple says:

    More word study: (If you’re not interested in more word study, just ignore me. I’ll understand.) I’d like to amend something I wrote above. Shamar does indeed have the meanings of to protect or guard or defend. But the word translated as till (and also work) is avod. This word will appear again the story of Exodus, where it will have two senses. I suppose that before the fall it had the sense of service to God; after the fall and while the Hebrews are in slavery to Pharaoh (and not tending to their worship!), the word will carry the added meaning of working as a slave. Adam was called to the higher kind of work, service to the glory of God. After the fall he doesn’t repent and his work becomes work of the drudge kind. Hard labor. The earth will no longer yield its fruits to him with ease.

    Moral of the story: Refuse higher service, refuse to give of yourself even to the point of self-sacrifice as a son or daughter of God, then accept the much lower way of living filled with pain and suffering. Refuse service, accept slavery. Refuse to suffer, accept that life will be filled with suffering from now on. All this could have been avoided had Adam had the courage and humility to repent and ask for forgiveness. Nowhere does Genesis mention that Adam or Eve ever asked God to forgive them, which He surely would have. He is rich in mercy. He is Mercy Itself.

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