The idea of a single couple as the progenitors of the whole human race, especially on the time-frame suggested by Genesis 3, is difficult to support from history, archaeology, genetics or palaeontology. It is not actually mandated by the Bible’s testimony either, being more an obvious assumption in the absence of perfectly accurate knowledge of the genre of the garden account. It is, however, quite possible to postulate an historical Adam who is not the sole and specially-created progenitor of mankind. That I’ve covered elsewhere, but one of the biggest remaining problems is how it can still be true that “sin came into the world through one man.”
The difficulty is one reason why theistic evolutionists, in particular, have often denied the reality of Adam, and even put Paul’s doctrine of Adam as the originator of sin into the burgeoning “cultural error” category. That is a problem for those of us with a higher doctrine of Scripture. After all, Jesus used Genesis 2 to justify his doctrine of marriage – much is at at stake if the teachings of Scripture, Paul and even Jesus are moveable feasts. (Incidentally it would be interesting to make a list of all theose teachings of Scripture that have been ascribed to “cultural conditioning”. I’ll wager not much would escape. I’ll write on that soon.)
Can we nevertheless make headway on understanding how sin might spread universally from an historical individual among others, “in accordance with the Scriptures”? I believe we can, tentatively.
It helps guide our thinking if we don’t start from the surprisingly common assumption that “everyone knows what sin is” apart from the Bible’s teaching. We must instead define sin as Genesis defines it, and as Paul refines it. In Genesis 3, sin was rebellion against a command of God (not selfishness, disobedience to moral law, etc).
If Adam was the first man to be called into covenant relationship with God, then the breaking of that covenant-trust by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (probably an idiom for “the tree of wisdom”) accounts for sin coming into the world. Adam, then, became corrupted from his true (but incomplete) knowledge of God, by his own illicit version of wisdom seized through that knowledge. He could not go back either to ignorance of God, or to his previous naivety, and he could no longer go forward into learning God’s wisdom, as no doubt God had planned in the first place.
That such a thing becomes a canker in his soul leading to all the other perversions of sin is easily comprehended. Adam’s case then is closely parallel (and perhaps intentionally so, within the structure of torah) to the chosen nation of Israel whose breaking of their covenant loyalty led them to become, according to the prophets, worse than the pagan nations around them and therefore exiled. Rebels who have known God can be worse than those who never knew him, like the parable of Jesus about the cast-out devil who comes back with his friends, so that “the last state of that man is worse than the first”.
But that doesn’t account for Adam’s sin becoming the universal problem of mankind. Paul in Romans 1 comments on the Genesis progression: from disregard of the known God, through idolatry, to sin in ever more perverse forms. But he makes no comment on just how it spread from Adam and Eve themselves, except to say in ch5 that consequently “sin came to all men, because all sinned” – which could be interpreted in many ways.
Original sin did not originate with Augustine. Contrary to many modern claims, Irenaeus had already pictured sin as a racial bondage brought by Adam’s sin upon all his offspring. His emphasis was on the “immaturity” that produced it, whereas Augustine stressed its character as the privation of good, and tried to develop a plausible model of its spread via the “concupiscence” (lust) now associated with sexual intercourse. Later theology tended to collapse that into the general idea of the inheritence of a corrupted nature, and nowadays that in turn tends to be interpreted according to Neodarwinian scientific ideas as necessarily “genetic” – and it is therefore rejected as impossible on the grounds of population genetics.
There are longstanding differences in the historical branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) about the distinction between inherited guilt for Adam’s sin and the transmission of actual sin, though all three accept the Council of Carthage (417) that formalised the doctrine of original sin. My own reading of Romans 5 inclines me to accept both aspects (Rom 5.13-14 links the penalty of death to those before the law who had broken no command, unless it were “in Adam”). But in any case the former is a forensic or representational matter, and quite capable of being understood under the heading of “Adam’s federal headship” – those whom Adam represented were accountable for his sin, just as later in the Bible Israel was held accountable for King David’s when he took a census against God’s will. It is more problematic to account for the actual universal corruption of human nature by this means.
I’ve formerly suggested that if sin is not regarded as genetic, yet is spread by ancestor-offspring relationships, then it is scientifically by no means impossible to regard Adam as a possible common ancestor of the whole present race, even if he appeared as a man amongst many in 3rd or 4th millennium Mesopotamia, as Genesis implies when interpreted in an historical manner. But leave aside the inheritance aspect of such MRCA studies for now – consider only what it tells us about the cultural connections of the human race.
Culture is, and always has been, worldwide. Take the example of the bow and arrow, quoting Wikipedia:
The bow and arrow appears around the transition from the Upper Paleolithic to the Mesolithic. After the end of the last glacial period, use of the bow seems to have spread to every continent, including the New World, except for Australia.
It appears, from other anthroplogical research, that bows were not adopted in Australia for purely local reasons concerning size of prey animals and the like, not because of lack of contact. Aborigines preferred the spear and spear-thrower. The earliest extant bow is from Denmark, and dated to c9000BC, just a millennium after the Mesolithic began there. Obviously other examples could be given of the wordwide spread of good ideas, but the bow demonstrates that even before the putative time of Adam (3rd or 4th millennium BC) culture could and did encompass the world.
Amongst the early Christian writers, only the heretical Pelagius (to whose teaching the Council of Carthage was a response) denied original sin and saw people as blank slates, born as innocent as Adam, and therefore entirely individually responsible for being sinful or righteous. Evolution has made Pelagianism seem a viable option again to many, against the mainstream of historical theology, though it’s often been turned on its head to make sin truly the original state. Adam’s disobedience is, in this scenario, unsatisfactorily explained as the inevitable symptom of an evolved “selfish” nature to which God adds some kind of extraneous, generic “free-will plus conscience” to make us guilty of sin for being what we were created to be. But as our first definition showed, sin is expressly related in the Bible to the rejection of the knowledge and command of God, not to supposed animal inheritance.
Pelagius believed that sin spread merely through imitation, and since his clear implication was that it could be overcome (in theory) simply by a refusal to imitate, his views were decisively rejected as inadequate to account for the universally entrenched and intractable nature of sin. When the Council of Trent used the phrase “by propagation, not by imitation” it was only quoting from Augustine’s detailed rebuttals of Pelagius:
Since, however, these are actually the words of the apostle, to whose authority and doctrine they submit, they charge us with slowness of understanding, while they endeavor 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 mention the devil as the object of the imitation. But, as no one doubts, [the apostle] refers to that first man who is called Adam: “And so,” says he, “death passed upon all men.”
But both Pelagius’s trivialisation of sin as mere imitation (and of grace as, for example, God’s provision of the Law to give a better model to imitate), and its rejection by the orthodox, depend on a rather individual concept of humanity. To Pelagius the individual is born, matures to the age of being able to choose, and then makes his choice for good or evil. To Augustine and most well-taught Christians before and since, man is born corrupt by inherited nature, and so is bound to choose the way of sin unless grace prevails.
But a greater understanding of man’s fundamentally social nature (perhaps reverting somewhat accidentally to the biblical worldview) now enables us to see that it is only possible to become human at all through the absorbtion of our parents’, and community’s, culture. Our nature is not exclusively “from our genes” – in fact genetics has a minor role in inheritence. We inherit speech by absorbing in infancy the language of our society, to express the worldview of our society. And so there is a level at which our first enculturation, though a social rather than a genetic affair, is in a real sense the propagation of our very humanity from, first, our parents and then our society. I can’t resist using again my favourite quote from philosopher Roger Scruton:
Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals; it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.
But I might also quote leading British philosopher (the late) E J Lowe:
Selves as persons are not created through biological processes but rather through socio-cultural forces, that is, through the co-operative efforts of other selves or persons. Persons create persons, quite literally.
If we were isolated from our culture – and especially from speech – as babies, we’d not become real people at all. (And regarding “man” in the sense of “Adam”, might we not only have become the image of God in the first place by that dwelling of the Person of Christ with the person of Adam in the garden?).
Even in evolutionary terms the importance of this has been increasingly realised: Eva Jablonka, for example, regards culture as a driver of evolution of equal importance to genetic change, in animals as well as mankind. The philosopher of biology Elliott Sober goes further, particularly in the case of humans with speech and literature:
Cultural selection can be more powerful than biological selection… [T]houghts spread faster than human beings reproduce.
Discussing this Conor Cunningham adds, citing Henri de Lubac:
There is no pure nature… just as there is no pure culture.
In that context, “imitation” in the sense of cultural spread is far more than Pelagius’s morally neutral human being making a free choice between alternatives – it is the restriction of his alternatives to those of his milieu that make him a human being in the first place. It’s impossible to choose the philosopher’s life in a culture lacking philosophy. You will never become an accomplished safe-cracker in tribal Amazonia. In other words, cultural inheritance can be as hard and pervasive as genetic inheritance (perhaps more so, given what we’re discovering about the disconnect between genotye and phenotype). And it is quicker, and doesn’t depend on any genes becoming fixed in the whole population: just the spread of a strong idea or a habit. We may paraphrase Scruton:
It is culpable sinners who are formed through sinful communities.
Sin is as broad as culture, and culture as broad as the human race. So perhaps one could compare the spread of sin from Adam with the analogy of something like Christian mission. However strong the message of the love of Jesus is, experience shows that it can’t be communicated at all apart from the culture of the missionary. That’s why the best practice toils endlessly to enculturate both missionaries and message to the host culture, to avoid the gratuitous imposition of the missionary’s own cultural worldview. But in practice, it’s impossible to quarantine culture absolutely. There is some kind of dialectical fusion between the missionary’s culture, and the host’s culture, with the gospel as the medium between them. The same is true of any cultural contact whatsoever, and cultural contact can never be artificially prevented for long.
If Adam was indeed the first person to have a true relationship with God, it would have affected every subsequent relationship. There can be no more powerful idea than the possibility of personal knowledge of God, even had his commission not been to spread the knowledge of such a possibility to the whole creation. Willy Nilly such communication happened, down the line of Seth, by intermarriage and no doubt in other ways… but though it need not be exclusively by genetic descent, yet it was truly propagation from Adam.
At the same time, if Adam was also the first to become corrupted by rebellion against God, then all his communication, and especially that about God, would also be tainted by sin. Adam’s cultural contribution to the world would be the knowledge that there is a God who seeks communion with people and in whom is eternal life, but also the knowledge that one can assert ones own wisdom against such a God and maintain Promethean independence. And thereby was born mankind as we know it – Homo divinus peccatum – “religious (but sinful) man”.
It’s a far more potent and universal influence than that achieved by the inventor of the bow and arrow. And like the latter, though rather more like the opening of Pandora’s box, it could not be undone once it has been done. It would become as much an integral part of “human nature” as the power of speech, or fire, or the human genome.
And if it would take a miracle to replace the human genome without losing humanity in the process, then the restoration of a person to the full image and likeness of God requires a similar miracle. A new creation, even, into a new society.