Original sin and the genealogical (MRCA) view of Adam

Despite modern denials, original sin (known in the East as “ancestral sin”) has been assumed by all major branches of Christianity down the ages. I wrote on its affirmation by Irenaeus in the 2nd century here (against many modern writers who pin it all on Augustine two centuries later).

The doctrine was so basic as to be assumed by early church councils when dealing with tangential matters like baptism:

The Local Council of Carthage in 252, composed of 66 bishops under the presidency of St. Cyprian, decreed the following against heretics: “Not to forbid (the baptism) of an infant who, scarcely born, has sinned in nothing apart from that which proceeds from the flesh of Adam. He has received the contagion of the ancient death through his very birth, and he comes, therefore, the more easily to the reception of the remission of sins in that it is not his own but the sins of another that are remitted.”

Now this is a somewhat surprising text, because it leans towards what is regarded now as a specifically Calvinistic doctrine, the imputation of Adam’s guilt for his first sin to the human race. Infants, the council assumes, die because mortality comes to them because of Adam’s sin – but release from that penalty through baptism is still held to result from the remission of sin, only not of the infant’s actual sin, but that of Adam. Today most Christians are happy to accept, from observation, the universal corruption of human nature, but tend to object to the idea of the imputed guilt of Adam’s first sin, despite the fact that even infants die, and that death is linked to sin throughout the Bible. It’s certainly true that Reformed theology is clear in affirming a twofold character to inherited sin. For example, in the Westminster Confession:

SECTION III. – They [Adam and Eve] being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin is imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation.

But it may surprise many to find that Thomas Aquinas held a similar view to be orthodoxy, as “the angelic doctor” of the Roman Catholic Church, four centuries earlier:

I answer that, According to the Catholic Faith we are bound to hold that the first sin of the first man is transmitted to his descendants, by way of origin. For this reason children are taken to be baptized soon after their birth, to show that they have to be washed from some uncleanness. The contrary is part of the Pelagian heresy, as is clear from Augustine in many of his books [For instance, Retract. i, 9; De Pecc. Merit. et Remiss. ix; Contra Julian. iii, 1; De Dono Persev. xi, xii.] (Summae 2.1.81.)

Notice that Aquinas doesn’t speak of the result of the first sin, but the first sin itself, being transmitted. Further on he clarifies what he means:

…[A]ll men born of Adam may be considered as one man, inasmuch as they have one common nature, which they receive from their first parents; even as in civil matters, all who are members of one community are reputed as one body, and the whole community as one man. Indeed Porphyry says (Praedic., De Specie) that “by sharing the same species, many men are one man.” Accordingly the multitude of men born of Adam, are as so many members of one body. Now the action of one member of the body, of the hand for instance, is voluntary not by the will of that hand, but by the will of the soul, the first mover of the members. Wherefore a murder which the hand commits would not be imputed as a sin to the hand, considered by itself as apart from the body, but is imputed to it as something belonging to man and moved by man’s first moving principle. In this way, then, the disorder which is in this man born of Adam, is voluntary, not by his will, but by the will of his first parent, who, by the movement of generation, moves all who originate from him, even as the soul’s will moves all the members to their actions. (ibid.)

Aquinas is here interpreting Paul’s statement in Romans 5 that we are “in Adam” in terms of participation in his nature – using an argument certainly familiar to Paul, who employs its converse six chapters later to say that Abraham’s desendants are counted holy because he was: “For if the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too”. But lest we think this a purely western idea (and many do), here’s the teaching of an Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople:

St. Gennadius Scholarius writes: “Everyone in the following of Adam has died, because they have all inherited their nature from him. But some have died because they themselves have sinned, while others have died only because of Adam’s condemnation, for example, children”.

And so the idea of imputed guilt, as well as of corrupted nature, has a strong tradition throughout the historical Church. But here’s the thing: in both cases the assumption is, on all sides, that Scripture teaches sin to be inherited from Adam because he was the fountainhead of the race. Reformed writers express this as “federal headship”: Aquinas treats it more as a matter of corporate human nature. None are dogmatic about the exact means of transmission, except in the sense of the solidarity implied by genealogy: Augustine’s suggestions of the concupiscence of sexual intercourse, Irenaeus’ stress on the shared captivity to Satan of first father and offspring, the suggestion by others of the corruption of semen or more general recourse to “human nature” are all merely hints and speculations: the core of them all is genealogy.

This poses multiple problems for modern people used to evolutionary thought. Neodarwinian evolution admits no discrete or uniform human nature at all: it is all a continuum with the rest of the tree of life. Modern genetics seems to most scientists hard to square with a single human progenitor. And the time-scales appear impossible for Adam as sole human progenitor, given the convergent results of palaeontology, archaeology and genetics, together with other lesser disciplines like linguistics. Adam in Genesis is placed in a specific time, place and culture (involving agriculture and pastoralism and, pretty soon, metalworking and city-life under kings), all supported by genealogies. Contradictorily, recent work suggests Australian aborigines, for example, may have already had a sophisticated culture up to 80,000 years ago, and there are modern-type human remains and their artifacts from around the wider world long before that.

For this reason, theistic evolutionists have always been tempted to deny original sin and an historical Adam (making Adam merely an allegorical “everyman” in a purely Pelagian system in which all created individuals just happen to be rebels), or to tie original sin to a Malthusian concept of evolution in which “selfishness” (see how sin is magically redefined away from the biblical “lawlessness” [1 Jn 3.4] there?) is bred into us by the struggle for survival – which inevitably makes sin a facet of God’s creation rather than a fall away from it.

One unfortunate tendency of TEs is to compartmentalise “nature” from “faith”, and in the matter of original sin this often means bypassing the whole theological process and simply saying that since universal sin is undeniable, we should just get on with preaching the gospel (and affirming evolution in a separate box). But the fact is that sin is deniable, from the concept of the noble savage to the modern progressive doctrine that all evils are the imposition of a “society” somehow cast adrift from free-will, or else they stem from being oppressed by some minority of truly guilty villains (white American males being most the popular scapegoat).

Just as we cannot usefully preach the gospel apart from God as Creator, so we cannot call for repentance apart from the Bible’s explanation of our need for it. And that explanation, especially as seen in Paul’s commentary on Genesis throughout the history of the Church, depends on genealogy.

Now, I’m writing here particularly for those who already hold an orthodox doctrine of original sin, whether or not they are aware of the long history of the doctrine of imputed guilt it includes. In recent decades, perhaps partly as a response to the heterodoxy that so often seems to accompany belief in evolution, many conservative believers (quite apart from the fundamentalist YECs) have done some compartmentalisation of their own, by simply ignoring all the scientific “problems” with belief in a historical Adam and doing without science.

This might be legitimate if those objections depended on a single, contested theory such as Neodarwinism. But if you place Adam as a specially created sole progenitor in the Near East well after 10,000BC, then world history, anthropology, genetics, linguistics, geology, archaeology and even ancient history all have to be jettisoned. If, alternatively, you place Adam tens of millennia before that, you have to deny all the cultural references in the Genesis account, especially the genealogies, and suggest the godly line of Seth to have been maintained through the ice age without any visible evidence.

Recently, Joshua Swamidass has been championing what he calls a “genealogical” view of Adam. His current overview may be seen here. I was attracted to the same idea back in 2010 (before The Hump of the Camel was even a gleam in Potiphar’s eye), though I first encountered it in Steve Olson’s book Mapping Human History in 2003. I would particularly draw your attention to the original papers by Douglas Rohde, Steve Olson and Joseph Chang on which the model is based:
1 Rohde DLT, Olson S, Chang JT (2004) “Modelling the recent common ancestry of all living humans”.
Nature 431: 562-566
2 Rohde, DLT, On the common ancestors of all living humans. Submitted to American Journal of Physical Anthropology. (2005)

Joshua has some good insights on how this model brings together contemporary scientific understandings of human history and a broadly historical understanding of the origins accounts in the Bible, whilst doing justice to both. In particular, he’s good on showing how it deals with the problems raised by the difficulty of defining just what it means to be “human” in scientific terms, and in theological terms – for they are certainly not the same thing.

If Adam was chosen, or even specially created, as the federal head of mankind-in-relationship with Yahweh, and yet there were other biologically human beings around at the same time, then he would become the father of the entire human race as his descendants intermarried around the world. We would then be able to affirm an historically orthodox biological solidarity with him as our true theological fountainhead. No biological finding could overturn or even threaten this, whether evidence of human hybridisation with other hominids in the distant past, nor the supposed genetic unrelatedness of existing populations, nor signs of genetic bottlenecks suggesting there were never less than several thousand Homo sapiens. What matters (and what the historic doctrines affirm) is that Adam is the ancestor of us all – and though we all have other ancestors too, his importance as federal head remains.

This is by no means a concept alien to Scripture – I have already mentioned how Paul sees Israel as holy through their holy root, Abraham: but he also regards Abraham as the father of the faithful in the New Testament even in the case of Gentiles who are not biologically descended (“God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones”, as John the Baptist said), so how much more would the first man to know God personally, and from whom we are all biologically descended, be the true, spiritual progenitor of the race?

It’s important to me that new insights into Scripture should be inherent in the text, not merely ad hoc attempts to squeeze it to fit modern ideas. The MRCA (genealogical) hypothesis succeeds in this, in my view. Although historical Christian theology made the assumption that Adam and Eve were the first humans, as created in Genesis 1, there are a number of indications in the biblical text (and in some early extra-biblical traditions) that the author saw Adam and Eve as special people, not as the first humans. Their encounter with God actually defines true humanity (as Hebrew adam) as a spiritual, not an evolutionary, entity. I’ll have more to say on this in another post.

Unfortunately (returning to our initial subject) that definition, in the event, included Adam’s rapid fall from special grace by the first sin, as clearly affirmed in Romans 5: “Sin entered the world through one man”. Adam passed his sin to all his descendants, and by the time the remedy for that was made available in Christ, the whole world shared the nature inherited from Adam genealogically. Jesus could preach a gospel for “all men” since all men were, in Adam, spiritual people, and also because “all men sinned” in him.

All the important doctrinal conclusions reached by two millennia of orthodox theology may therefore be affirmed positively under this model, and at the same time all legitimate scientific findings can be accepted without reservation. At the same time, the model enables illegitimate inferences from science (such as the impossibility of an historical Adam or a literal Fall) to be recognised as spurious and rejected. What’s not to like?

The question of how original sin is transmitted remains mysterious – but then it always did in the tradition, too. There is no “sin gene” – but no ancient theologian ever thought in terms of genetic heredity anyway. They were more likely to think in terms of the immaterial soul being the medium by which sin was transmitted – and who are we to deny that as a continuing possibility? Reformed (and as we have seen Thomistic!) ideas of corporate solidarity with our federal head remain as legitimate as before, and as mysterious to our modern culture-bound limitations. One concept on which I’ve speculated is that, just as the genetic origin of human traits was unknown to previous generations, so the crucial role of socialisation in the development of human nature was not fully appreciated. Genealogy is about parenting even more than it is about parentage.

All this, though, is somewhat peripheral. The genealogical view shows that the biblical account of sin’s origin cannot be properly contradicted by science, with its strict methodological limitations. Those limitations, as Joshua Swamidass points out, do not even preclude the special creation of Adam or of Eve (that of Eve being a sticking point with one of the earliest theistic evolutionists, B B Warfield, for some reason). Whatever genetic particularities such a newly-created couple might possess would inevitably, by the “founder effect” of the existing population of Homo sapiens, be quite invisible in their distant descendants through dilution.

I know of no other line of enquiry that ticks so many boxes with both the Bible as an historical source and science.

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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.
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