I’ve been thinking about Romans again, in the context of Christian attempts to map questions about Adam and original sin to evolutionary theory. I made some preliminary points here, but I want to consider one particular aspect today – the nature of sin in the Bible generally, and in Romans particularly.
I’m assuming from the start that I’m addressing those who take the inspiration of Scripture seriously and want to interpret it correctly: if Paul and the other Bible writers are simply wrong then it’s the end of the discussion. Indeed, there’s no need to discuss a fall at all, nor to hope for a remedy to it. Assuming this attitude, then those who wish to treat the fall in an allegorical sense (but see here) or as in some way an emergent feature of natural processes nearly always see the issue in the context of moral consciousness: the awareness of the good of loving ones neighbour, and the failure to do this consistently.
But the treatment in Romans 5 (which is, obviously, a commentary on Genesis 3) has quite a different emphasis. Paul states that sin came into the world through one man, and explains that this was a transgression (parabasis or going beyond) against a command. He goes on to discuss this trespass (paroptoma, or deviation). In other words, the whole context is that of obedience to a law, rather than consideration of another’s good.
Indeed, the Genesis account reinforces this: the actual command of God was morally neutral, except in its somewhat mysterious consequence of “knowing good and evil”. It was purely a question of obedience to God’s command, or not. And the immediate consequence for Adam and Eve was shame – feeling bad for offence caused – rather than simply a realisation of error, sadness at the result and so on.
In the essay cited in my first sentence I argue the case that “knowledge of good and evil” is no different from Paul’s conception of “conscience” as introduced in Romans 2, about Gentiles without the law (of Moses) who will be judged by their sin against their conscience. It is presumably this conscience that resulted in the death of those “who did not sin by breaking a command” between Adam’s transgression and the giving of the law. There was a law, written in their conscience, and so their sin was taken into account.
What is significant to my purpose here is this conscience is both “law-like” and inborn. In Romans 2 Paul says that “the requirements of the law are written in their hearts.” When conscience is resisted, their thoughts “accuse” them: when accepted their thoughts “defend” them. This is legal talk – the talk of offending the God who implanted his law (in a relatively general form, of course) in their hearts. And this is consistent with the first-hand results of offending conscience: shame. We don’t do a calculation about altruism; we don’t regret an error – instead, we hide our act in shame from … well, that’s sometimes confused, for as Paul has already said in ch1.18ff the whole race has perverted its conception of God. Nevertheless our shame can outlive the person against whom we’ve offended. The murderer who commits suicide is, as it were, carrying out the sentence imposed by the God who decrees that the murderer’s life is forfeit. In other words, the individual aspects of morality – altruism, selfishness, harm to others, and so on – acquire their significance to conscience primarily because they are related to obedience to God, and only secondarily because they are “good” or “evil”. The law, whether of conscience or that given through Moses, reflects the character of God – and it is disobedience to our calling to obedience to his will that makes for natural morality.
I use the word “natural” as Paul does, because he says that the Gentiles who obey conscience are “doing by nature (phusis – that which is brought forth, ie by birth) things required by the law.” In other words, contra much modern thought conscience arises neither by education nor by reason, but is inborn. That might give force to the claim that there are evolutionary advantages in altruistic behaviour, as also maybe evolutionary reasons for selfish behaviour. But as I have shown, the characteristic of conscience is that it is lawlike – and according to Genesis, it first arose in Adam by the damage to a personal covenant relationship with God through disobedience. Nature has no power to produce as sense of guilt – that takes a broken relationship with our Maker and Lord.
Indeed, as Paul says, “sin is not taken into account where there is no law”. So if Gentiles are judged by conscience, it is not merely a biological function, but an inbuilt law based on a relationship with the lawgiver, God, in the same way that Adam’s guilt was in disobedience to God’s command, or the Israelite’s guilt disobedience to Yahweh’s revealed law.
So we have to take from the Biblical account (a) that the first sin was a conscious act of disobedience to the God who had revealed himself, (b) that the result was a general awareness of God’s moral will and shame after disobeying it and (c) that this awareness, and that shame, became part of general inborn human nature thereafter, whereas it had been absent before.
So spiritual revelation came first, at some historical point, and echoes of that revelation – echoes having the character of law – became integral to our nature. One might argue as to how the tendency to sin carries on in the race, but it seems quite clear that the recognition of that sin as an offence against God is inherited, if not by specific genetic or epigenetic processes, along with whatever else belongs to our “phusis“. Moral sense, in other words, is an inherited sense of God and his pleasure, or displeasure, in certain behaviours, rather than something directly attributable to altruism, selfishness or even love of our neighbour.
What remains at issue, theologically, is how the change to the nature of Adam and Eve – whoever they were – also became the nature of every living human today. But allegory certainly won’t cut the mustard. Neither will change of allelic frequency.