The second model for understanding Adam listed by David L Wilcox is this:
Federal Head – Sin originated with Adam. He was not the only man living, but God appointed him as representative and put him to the test. When he sinned, sin passed on to all men everywhere (and when) by divine fiat. I.E., there was a sudden transformation of human life.
Federal headship is a familiar concept to those who know Reformed covenant theology, though it’s perhaps not usually discussed much beyond that tradition. It arises from comparing the roles of Christ and of Adam in Romans 5. Just as Jesus, the king into union with whom we are reborn by faith, is our representative and sinbearer, so Adam, as the head of the race into which we were first born, brought sin and guilt to the whole race. If we are accounted innocent, and finally made righteous, apart from our own actions through Christ’s offering on the cross, so also we were accounted guilty and made sinners by the one act of Adam. Paul, of course, argues it the other way round, from Adam to Christ, but the comparison is still valid.
Familiar or not, there is no doubt that federal headship is part of what Paul has in mind. How do we know? Because Adam, rather than Eve, is the one said to bring sin to mankind, though it was she who first succumbed to temptation (1 Tim 2.14). Adam, whether because first-created (1 Tim 2.13), or because the husband (1 Cor 11.3, 1 Pet 3.5-6) or for some other reason, was the one with whom the buck stopped – and still stops, according to Paul, down the generations.
It sounds a bit legal and artificial, but in fact we accept such corporate concepts all the time. If father dies, it’s the family who pay his death duties. If Angela Merkel were to declare war on America over NSA phone-tapping, both populations would pay for the actions of their federal heads, just as both currently enjoy the benefits of their good decisions.
Or consider the Elgin marbles, claimed back by the Greek government (“federal head”) from the publically owned British Museum. The nineteenth century Greek owners were burning statues for lime when the Ottoman rulers allowed a private individual to rescue them. Now both governments claim them on behalf of their respective people, whose only claim is a dubious web of federal representation of the original owners.
So in this model, biological descent is sidelined altogether, and Adam’s appointment by God as mankind’s representative is everything. At some stage in history – perhaps in deep prehistory, or perhaps in chalcolithic Mesopotamia, God calls a man for the special privileges and responsibilities of Genesis 2. The intention was that all these should pass to the whole race, but when Adam fell there was what one might call a spiritual cataclysm – the world woke up to find itself sinful (but also, perhaps, aware of God in a new way).
One variation of this is championed by John H Walton – that by failing to procure eternal life and fellowship with God Adam simply failed to procure blessing and left mankind as it was. This dispenses with the need for a cataclysmic supernatural fall, but doesn’t really account for the origin of sin itself – which the New Testament plainly attributes to the one act of disobedience in the garden.
Critics of the federal headship position are dubious about the plausibility of a worldwide “instantaneous” lapse into sinfulness. How would it play out in aboriginal Australia, for example? But they also question the basis on which Adam could legitimately be declared, without the knowledge of the tribes scattered across the world, representative head of the human race. God can, of course, do what he pleases. But in Romans 5 there is a clear basis for the headship of both Christ and Adam. In the former, it is Christ’s inauguration, through death and resurrection, of a new spiritual humanity. And our incorporation into him is by rebirth, through faith.
In the case of Adam, primogeniture is also the basis of his headship in Romans, but in his case we are counted his offspring by being his descendants. Now as we saw in the last post, primogeniture does not absolutely demand that Adam be the very first human. In biblical thinking, honouring of parents seems to be “generationally progressive”, status increasing as one ascends the family tree. In Hebrews 7, for example, the writer conceives of Levi – from whom the tribe of priests inherit their authority – paying tithes to Melchizedek in the person of his even more honourable ancestor Abraham. But the honouring of parents and ancestors has a logic to it that, perhaps, the arbitrary appointment of some unknown individual does not.
We should also note, though, that genetic descent is not the only possible means by which we might be counted “Adam’s people”. After all, King David’s actions blessed or cursed his nation because God has anointed him and the people had accepted his rule – they weren’t descended from him. Even so, the federal headship model has, I think, to offer some clear basis for Adam’s being our representative before God.
If it can do that, though, it is worthy of serious consideration.