Continuing my series on the various models for a historical Adam listed by David L Wilcox we come to:
Cultural Head – Adam was the appointed race representative in the garden. He sinned. Sin passed on from Adam to all other people then (and now) alive by communication between people – especially in families. Human society suffered a gradual transformation as sin spread like an infectious disease.
This model is more about an explanation for the transmission of sin than a historic time and place for Adam (though once again we mustn’t forget that sin is only one aspect of what the biblical account says about Adam’s importance).
Maybe, it says, we shouldn’t follow the Augustinian model of generic transmission of sin, or its pseudo-scientific equivalent, genetic transmission. Perhaps imitation is the way that wickedness came to the race. There is no taint from Adam in our nature, but merely the learning in each generation of the ways of sin.
It’s certainly possible to go this way, but we need to be aware that it was a path last seriously trodden by a British monk named Pelagius around the turn of the fifth century, and was roundly condemned by the Church as heretical. Pelagius’s nemesis was, of course, Augustine of Hippo, much of whose own theology developed in reaction to Pelagius – as can be read in the extensive collection of his Anti-Pelagian writings.
Pelagius believed, in the end, in salvation by works, which he supported by denying any kind of innate tendency to sin, so that people are equally free to do either right or wrong by their own effort. Grace he redefined by equating it with general provisions like free-will, the provision of the Law and so on, rather than a specific divine provision for believers. The linkage between sin and death through Adam he bypassed by limiting it to spiritual death. Consistent with that he denied the, by then, almost universal practice of infant baptism on the grounds that infants did not need salvation from original sin. Sin, then, was merely the imitation of bad example, and perfectly able to be resisted by the will assisted by ther non-specific concept of grace he held.
Augustine countered this with a wide range of specific biblical expositions, for example showing the universality of sin and its link to death. He also pointed out that if Paul had intended “imitation” when he said sin and death enetered the word through Adam, in Romans 5, he’d actually have said sin entered the world through Satan, for it is the Devil whose rebellion sin imitates. Not that imitation doesn’t occur:
No doubt all they imitate Adam who by disobedience transgress the commandment of God; but he is one thing as an example to those who sin because they choose; and another thing as the progenitor of all who are born with sin. All His saints, also, imitate Christ in the pursuit of righteousness; whence the same apostle, whom we have already quoted, says: “Be ye imitators of me, as I am also of Christ.” But besides this imitation, His grace works within us our illumination and justification, by that operation concerning which the same preacher of His [name] says: “Neither is he that planteth anything, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase.”
In other words, just as imitation of Jesus is insufficient to account for the way God makes believers righteous, so the problem divine grace solves is far more than merely that of copying Adam’s example. The Pelagian scheme only works by twisting the Bible out of shape. So Augustine continues:
Since, however, these are the words of him to whose authority and doctrine they submit, they charge us with slowness of understanding, while they endeavour to wrest to some unintelligible sense words which were written in a clear and obvious purport. “By one man,” says he, “sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” This indicates propagation, not imitation; for if imitation were meant, he would have said, “By the devil.” But as no one doubts, he refers to that first man who is called Adam: “And so,” says he, “it passed upon all men.”
And that’s why, a couple of centuries earlier, Irenaeus had pictured the human race as born in the captivity into which Adam fell, and why all the main streams of Christianity (cf The Council of Trent, the Longer Orthodox Catechism, The 39 Articles, The Westminster Confession) have affirmed that original sin is propagated from Adam, not merely imitated.
This model, then, is on rocky ground from the beginning to those familiar with, and respectful of, 2,000 years of theology. And of course, it fails to account for why sin should be so infectious compared to righteousness. Even on an imitation model, there is still an unaccountable disposition to preferring wrong to right. “There is none righteous – no, not one.”
But with all that said, I do want to open up for your consideration one version of this model which could be food for thought.
At the heart of Augustine’s understanding was that the human race has been budded off, through procreation, from the human nature found in its forefather Adam. Sin became a part of Adam’s nature, and inevitably must become part of ours too, if we are sprung from his root, or part of the same lump of dough. The particular way he suggested this might work is by lust (“consupiscence”) corrupting the very sexual act – maybe a variant of the ancient idea that who you were thinking of at the time of conception will affect the appearance or character of the baby (and see Genesis 30.37ff).
For our generation that translates in two ways – firstly, it strikes us as unfair, because we see ourselves only as individuals, not as born from a community. Secondly, if it has to be accepted, our own cultural bias pushes us to change sin into a material, genetic, question – the only category of event we accept as moulding us apart from our will.
But belief in individual autonomy is also a cultural bias – overwhelmingly strong in us since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but actually quite counter-factual. I’m very fond of a quote by Roger Scruton in his Modern Philosophy, where he critiques the predominantly individualistic nature of most contemporary philosophies:
Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals; it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.
Now this is not a claim about imitation – it’s an understanding of just how we are formed as human beings, and is undeniable in the light of modern developmental psychology. Under Pelagius’s scheme, a child raised by wolves ought to retain original innocence. But we can see now that, in most important respects, such a child would not even be human. We only develop as human beings as we are social extensions of the human race.
Our very thought depends on the language we learn from our parents. If their language had no concept of truth, or love, or goodness, then we would have no mental tools for understanding such things. Our behaviour, as Piaget showed, is more than mere imitation or social learning. We actually become what we are by interacting socially. We are, ironically, only individuals in relation to others.
In that sense, since we are surrounded only by sinners from conception, sin can truly be said to be a social disease, as per this model. When God created mankind, he did not only create a multitude of independent souls – he created an organic and spiritual community spreading across space and time. Wherever we place our Adam as its source, we simply cannot avoid the unity of our nature, genetics, epigenetics, social and linguistic structures – for those are what, inescapably, forms us.
I think that is a mind-broadening concept, though alone it accounts neither for the whole of humanness nor even the whole problem of sin. It also reminds us that Christ did not come only to rescue individuals, but to form a new race, a community with a new nature, new genetics, a new society and new language – the race of the redeemed, which is also the community of the Spirit.