Models for a historic Adam – 3

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Models for a historic Adam – 3

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    An improved and attractive site Jon, and I hope we all will have stimulating and interesting discussions. One point that I think you may need to clarify: If Adam is the originator of sin, then all humanity is truly damned. I think you may mean that Satan is the originator of rebellion, or setting his will against God. Adam and Eve were tempted to follow Satan and participate in his sin. This is important as it relates to the nature of Adam, and as a result, of all humanity. We may be tempted and make mistakes, we may be indulge in error, but our nature is such that we are also capable of repentance, change, and many other actions (this is where Gregory has an important point, in that human extension can take our minds away from this obsession with physical changes, and we can see agency and cause related to human action).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks, GD.
      Good that you should point that out – though of course one danger in a series like this is trying to cover the whole of theology – I was taking basics for granted.

      That said, the point you make about Satan as the author of sin, and Adam being its recipient (the Scripture says it came into the world through him, not that he invented it) is not a focus in most Western Theology, and (probably in another discussion) is an insight worth thinking about if indeed it is the basis for why mankind is able to be saved and fallen angels not.

      Gregory’s old mantra, “Not everything evolves” is very worthwhile to keep in mind throughout this series, even though he is no longer with us here.

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