Here’s a brief interruption in the Empire series… Awhile back I mentioned that I was launching a series of posts at Open Source Theology exploring what would happen to the rest of the Bible if the creation narratives from Genesis 1-3 were simply deleted. I’m getting close to the end of this project, which will be sort of a relief: other than my friend Sam, hardly anyone has engaged in discussion other than to tell me that my whole project is ill-conceived. Today I wrote a piece about original sin, which might be of interest both to the Christians and to the Lacanians who happen to show up here.
Nothing in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve suggests that Adam’s sin somehow infected all of his descendants. They were banned from the Garden and its Tree of Life, which would have granted them immortality, but in the Genesis creation narratives mortality is the natural human condition. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul goes so far as to say that the natural, mortal human body has a kind of “glory” to it.
Nothing in God’s curses on Adam and Eve suggest that he’ll cause them or their progeny to be more prone to sin than would naturally be the case. In the very next chapter Yahweh poses this question to Cain: “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” or perhaps “will you not be accepted?” (Gen 4:7) By this question isn’t Yahweh saying that it’s possible for Cain, son of Adam, to do well? To the best of my knowledge, nowhere else in the Old Testament is there any suggestion that Adam’s sin was passed on to his descendants. Jewish theology has no concept of original sin. I’m not sure to what extent the early Christians believed in original sin. Augustine formulated the doctrine of original sin that came to dominate Christian thought from the Middle Ages on. The Protestant reformers also subscribed to Augustine’s formulation. What about in the New Testament? Again as far as I can tell, Romans 5 is the only NT text to suggest the idea that Adam’s original sin caused the sinfulness of his descendants. Here’s the one verse that’s hard to account for:
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many were made righteous (Romans 5:19).
That sure sounds like original sin to me. Is there a straight reading of this verse that doesn’t turn into the historic Christian doctrine of original sin, whereby everyone inherits a sinful nature from Adam? Here’s a stab at it…
In Romans as elsewhere Paul addresses what is arguably his main theme: justification by faith. It is in this context that Paul talks about the law. Not only are people incapable of following the law — the law itself has no power to bring justification. Even worse and paradoxically so, the law makes one aware of one’s sinfulness rather than removing that awareness.
Paul summarizes his justification-by-faith argument in the first eleven verses of Romans 5, at which point he moves into an extended comparison between Adam and Christ. Therefore, Paul begins verse 12, signaling that the analogy is going to be relevant to his larger justification-by-faith argument — Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin… This “one man” isn’t named here, but he is two verses later: it’s Adam. But how can Paul say that Adam sinned if it’s through law that we become aware of our sinfulness? Paul highlights this dilemma in verse 13: for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
Clearly, though, sin was imputed to “the one man,” to Adam. For his sin Adam was condemned to death, and death reigned from Adam to Moses (v. 14) — in other words, death reigned during the entire pre-Law era. It would seem, then, that Adam must have acted in the context of some sort of law, even if it wasn’t THE Mosaic Law.
Later in Romans Paul outlines the intrinsic link between law and sin. The law doesn’t just create an awareness of having already broken the law; it actually stimulates the desire to break the law:
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. (Romans 7:7-8)
So, Adam is in the Garden and God tells him not to eat from one particular tree. This is God’s only rule as far as we’re told, but it’s enough to produce the very desire it prohibits. The fruit looks tasty, it will make me wise — I’m having a bite! Man was created good and the law was good; it was the interaction of human nature with the law that went badly. Paul says that it always goes badly.
Let’s say that Adam and Eve really did acquire the knowledge they sought in the Garden. In fact, Yahweh says they did in Genesis 2:22: Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. It’s possible that the desire to be like the lawgiver is the motivation behind lots of sins, maybe even all sin. When God says “Don’t eat from that tree” He also means “Only I am allowed to eat from that tree.” The person who’s told not to eat admires the lawgiver, wants to become like the lawgiver, wants therefore to do precisely what the lawgiver told him or her NOT to do. It’s a sad story really.
This knowledge of good and evil can be expressed in the form of laws: you should do this, you shouldn’t do that. No other animal besides man is possessed of such knowledge. Babies aren’t born with this knowledge, but they begin learning it in infancy, and once they learn it they can never unlearn it. This knowledge, says Paul, is a mixed blessing: knowing the good produces both an awareness of having already done wrong and a desire to continue doing wrong. Human nature is good, and the law is good, but human knowledge of law establishes the preconditions from which sin invariably emerges.
Adam and Eve learned good and evil, and they could never forget it, never again escape both the self-awareness of sin and the desire to sin that’s stimulated by knowing the law. The first parents almost surely conveyed this knowledge to their children. Do this; don’t do that — it’s hard to imagine being a parent without laying down the law. Still, there must have been a particular time when humans moved beyond the instinctive stimulus-response, action-reaction style of non-sentient animals. In so doing, in teaching law to their children, parents transmit the preconditions that, says Paul, invariably generate sin in their children.
Okay, back to the problem verse: For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners… This interpretation could work, couldn’t it? Adam and Eve learned good and evil, which can be expressed as law. Knowing law creates awareness of having broken law and stimulates desire to break law some more. Once this knowledge enters human awareness it never goes away. And it’s exactly the kind of knowledge that parents almost immediately impart to their children. Paradoxically, by laying down the law to their children, parents become the conduits of sinfulness to their children. There’s no biological inheritance of a sinful nature; it’s just the way things invariably go when humans acquire the knowledge of good and evil.
Here’s how Romans 5 wraps up:
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:19-21)
Paul finishes the parallel between Adam and Jesus by giving his readers a foretaste of the Law-sin connection he elaborates in chapter 7. Adam and his descendants experienced this fateful connection on a small scale; the Jews under THE Law got a full dose. Christ breaks the Law-sin connection that began with Adam and intensified via Moses.