Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Beyond Original Sin: Is a Theological Paradigm Shift Inevitable?

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Beyond Original Sin: Is a Theological Paradigm Shift Inevitable?

Article excerpt

The doctrine of original sin has been a foundational belief of the Christian faith throughout most of church history. It is a complex doctrine that is intimately connected to the fall of humans in Genesis 3 and later interpreted by the apostle Paul primarily in Romans 5:12-21. Original sin features at least ten different facets: fallenness, universal sin, first sinful act, original guilt, original sin as a disease, hereditary sinfulness, inclination toward sinning, propagation of sin through sexual desire, power of the flesh, and corporate sin. (1) This doctrine can be summarized in two basic concepts: (1) original sin is the very first sin committed by the very first man created, whom the Bible identifies as Adam; and (2) original sin includes the belief that all humans have descended from Adam, and that Adam's sin has been passed on to everyone as their own through natural reproduction. (2)

Recent scientific findings in genetics have called into question the historicity of Adam. Remarkably, this discussion is occurring even within evangelical Protestant circles. (3) For example, a landmark issue of Christianity Today in June 2011 featured a cover with a Neanderthal-looking male and the title "The Search for the Historical Adam: The State of the Debate." The cover commented, "Some scholars believe that genome science [i.e., genetics] casts doubt on the existence of the first man and first woman. Others say that the integrity of the faith requires it."

This article not only assumed that biological evolution was a fact, but contended that the debate today is over whether there really was a human being who corresponds to the biblical figure Adam. (4)

To be sure, rejecting the historicity of Adam will have significant consequences for the doctrine of original sin. If Adam did not exist, then he could never have committed the first sin. And if there was no Adam, then all of humanity did not descend from him, and his sin could never have been passed on to every human being. Or to cast this issue in the form of a question: If Adam never existed, is it inevitable that Christian theology will experience a theological paradigm shift similar to those scientific paradigm shifts that have been seen in the history of science?

Scripture and Original Sin

The term "original sin" does not appear in the Bible. However, the basic concepts undergirding this doctrine --Adam as the first sinner and his sin passed on to all humans--appear within the Word of God. The notion of original sin is found in the writings of the apostle Paul, especially in his letter to the Romans.

Romans 5:12 is often seen as the primary biblical verse supporting original sin. As Paul states, "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned" (NIV). (5) There has been much debate regarding the translation of the final clause. Older Bibles have "in whom all sinned," with the relative pronoun referring to Adam. Modern renditions prefer "because all sinned," directing sinfulness more toward individuals instead of Adam. Both translations are grammatically possible and biblical commentators throughout history have suggested over a dozen different ways of translating this verse. (6)

Despite this difficulty with the translation of Romans 5:12, the fifth chapter of Romans offers five other statements that are consistent with the doctrine of original sin.

(15a) the many [all humans] died by the trespass of the one man [Adam], ...

(16a) the result of one man's [Adam] sin: The [divine] judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation [to all humans], .

(17a) by the trespass of the one man [Adam], death reigned [from the time of Adam to the time of Moses; v. 14] through that one man [Adam], ...

(18a) one trespass [by Adam] resulted in [divine] condemnation for all people, ...

(19a) through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many [all humans] were made sinners, . …

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