Who is Guilty of Adam’s Sin? A Centrist Response to Adam Harwood, Part 1

by Ken Hamrick

Adam Harwood spoke at the 2013 John 3:16 Conference, and the paper he presented there is available on the conference e-book at SBC Today. Like Dr. Harwood, I deny that anyone is born condemned for Adam’s sin; but unlike Dr. Harwood, I find in Scripture such a real union of mankind in Adam as to justify the inheriting of all the temporal penalties for Adam’s sin, including the spiritual death and depravity that all are born into. Dr. Harwood identifies as a Traditionalist, and is mainly arguing against Calvinists. But as a Baptist centrist, I propose that there are certain propositions that can pull the two ends of the spectrum together—and this is especially so when it comes to this question of original sin.

There are some problems with how Dr. Harwood presents the “inherited guilt” view. He states:

Augustine taught this in the 5th Century. It’s sometimes called natural headship. In his later writings, Augustine said all people are guilty of Adam’s sin because they were present with him in the Garden physically, or seminally.

Augustinian realism is not about physical presence, but an immaterial, morally participative presence. This participative presence is grounded on a human propagation that is of the entire being and not merely of the body, making Adam’s progeny more than mere physical descendants. Dr. Harwood continues:

In the 16th Century, John Calvin called Adam our representative head who acted on our behalf in the Garden. This is called federal headship. Covenant Theologians call this view imputed guilt. They point to a covenant of works between Adam and God, which Adam transgressed for humanity when he sinned. Wayne Grudem explains: “As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam.” In addition to a sinful nature, all people inherit from Adam the guilt of his sin.

Federal headship did not arise until Cocceius, a century after Calvin; however, Augustine’s principle of realism was not abandoned until much later. Some explanation of the history will be helpful. George P. Fisher describes the three main theories (of the “inherited guilt” view):

There are three theories respecting original sin which we shall have occasion specially to consider in this Article. The first is the Augustinian; the second may be called the Augustino-federal or the semi-federal; and the third the federal theory.

The fundamental idea of the Augustinian theory is that of a participation on the part of the descendants of Adam in his first sin; in consequence of which they are born both guilty and morally depraved. The fundamental idea of the federal theory is that of a vicarious representation on the part of Adam, in virtue of a covenant between God and him, whereby the legal responsibility for his first sinful act is entailed upon all his descendants; participation being excluded, but the propriety of his appointment to this vicarious office being founded on our relation to him as the common father of men. The Augustino-federal or semi-federal theory is a combination of the two, the covenant relation of Adam being prominent, but participation being also, with more or less emphasis, asserted…

…The federal doctrine is the offspring of the seventeenth century. In fact it may also be said of it, in the form in which it is now held, that it is the offspring of the eighteenth century; since, in the preceding age, the great majority of the theologians who adopted the theory of a covenant coupled with it the Augustinian principle. That is to say, they maintained the Augustino-federal or semi-federal doctrine as above defined.

Fisher states, regarding the influence of realism:

It is a fact that realism, either in the extreme Platonic form or in the more moderate Aristotelian type, prevailed from Augustine down through the middle ages, being embraced by the orthodox schoolmen, and ruling both the great schools during the productive, golden era of scholastic theology. That the realistic mode of thought extensively influenced Protestant theology at the Reformation and afterwards, admits of no question. But since it is far from being true that all Augustinians have been avowed, much less, self-consistent, realists, it is better when we speak of them as a class, to say that they are swayed by a realistic mode of thought than that they are the advocates of explicit realism. It should be added that realism, as far as it affected Augustine, was rather a prop than a source of his doctrine. The fact of innate sin was so deeply lodged in his convictions that he was ready to welcome any plausible support or defence of it that lay within his reach….

Fisher continues:

…We may say here that a great mistake is made by those who imagine that creationists—that is, those who believe that each soul is separately created—cannot be realists. Whether they can be consistent and logical realists may, to be sure, be doubted. At the present day traducianism—the theory that souls result from procreation—is accepted by theologians who believe, with Augustine, that we sinned in Adam. But this is very far from being the uniform fact in the past. Even Anselm, like the schoolmen generally, was a creationist. He, with a host of theologians before and after him, held firmly to our real, responsible participation in Adam’s fall, and to the corruption of our nature in that act, and yet refused to count himself among the traducians. We must take history as it is and not seek to read into it our reasonings and inferences. If we do not find philosophers self-consistent, we must let them remain self-inconsistent, instead of altering their systems to suit our ideas of logical harmony.

The early Reformed Church was under the sway of “a realistic mode of thinking” (as Fisher calls it) when it came to Adamic unity and depravity. Total depravity itself comes from the idea that souls are propagated in such a way as to have shared responsible existence with and in their progenitors. To be spiritually propagated out of Adam is also to have acted in Adam—and this is exactly the original idea of being “in Adam.” The idea of soul propagation was first taught by Tertullian, and then came down through Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose of Milan to Augustine. Although Augustine was hesitant to commit himself to any philosophical explanation of traducianism, he gave many excellent arguments for it and none against it. His doctrine of original sin and his debate with Pelagius was as fully grounded on traducianism as Pelagius’ arguments were grounded on the denial of traducianism.

However, between Augustine and Luther came Rosceline’s nominalism, which philosophically undercut any possibility that the union with Adam had any real substance to it. Nominalism is the denial of any union of species within substantial reality, relegating all such unions to mere perceptionof union in the mind. In theology, this is the denial of any union of immaterial nature of mankind in Adam, and the relegation to a mere union in God’s chosen perception. In the broad picture, it is the diminishment of substantial reality—a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice have no standard other than His own sovereign will. Realists say that God does something because it is right, while nominalists say that what God does is right merely because He does it. Thus, the realists look for a substantial union of the immaterial nature of men in order to ground within reality the justice of passing the penal consequences of Adam’s sin onto His posterity. Nominalism, on the other hand, results in an empty representationism, “constituted” by decree or covenant alone, since God’s justice needs no grounds within substantial reality—all that His justice needs is His own will. Realism says that you cannot be guilty unless you commit a crime, while nominalism says you are guilty if God says you are guilty, and no commission of crime is needed.

The effect of nominalism on theology was so gradual that the name itself was left behind and all but forgotten. Yet, the changes it wrought in theology over the centuries were deep and broad. The first change was to reinforce the idea of creationism as opposed to traducianism. Racial union was not something substantial within Adam himself, according to nominalism, but was, rather, something only within the all-observing Mind of God. The moral union with Adam was entirely a matter of how God chose to view us in the situation. Therefore, there was no objectively existing entity of human nature that sinned in Adam and was immaterially propagated to mankind. Rather, all that exists are individuals, and the soul is created out of nothing in every case. Nominalism’s influence in the Church ensured that special creation of the soul would be the prevalent view (as it is to this day).

Although Calvin disliked traducianism, and was not an explicit realist, he and most who followed him were not ready to abandon that “realistic mode of thinking” that was the essence of Augustine’s doctrine. So they inconsistently held onto the idea that all men shared a responsible existence in Adam, by virtue of the [moral] “nature” of all men existing in and propagated from Adam. This they held even while maintaining that the soul is specially created out of nothing in every case. As Fisher explains it, “the great majority of the theologians [prior to the eighteenth century] who adopted the theory of a covenant coupled with it the Augustinian principle. That is to say, they maintained the Augustino-federal or semi-federal doctrine…”

Eventually, in Turretin for example, there is an attempted reconciliation in the idea that special creation of the soul is according to the natural laws which God set up at creation, such that God creates the child’s soul with the nature of the parents as part of what is considered natural propagation. By glossing over the supernatural nature of a creation out of nothing, and emphasizing terms that tend to imply propagation from the substance of the parents (such as communication of depravity, etc.), they effectively taught that depravity is propagated just as humanity is propagated. While this might explain (albeit poorly) inherited depravity, it does nothing to explain the kind of union in Adam that involves a sharing of the responsibility for his sin (the shared existence of the moral nature or soul). Therefore, the realistic mode of thinking (the Augustinian principle) was eventually dropped in favor of the nominalistic federal representation. What began with the idea of men being held justly responsible for a sin that we all owned by our shared action in Adam became the idea that men are sovereignly held responsible for a sin that is as alien to us as is the righteousness of Christ. While the early Reformed Church taught that Adam’s sin was imputed to us because it is ours, the later (current) federal view teaches that Adam’s sin is ours because it is imputed to us.

Dr. Harwood’s assessment of the “possible Christian views” is over simplified and neglects significant points:

The inherited sinful nature view says all people inherit from Adam sin and mortality; the inherited guilt view affirms those but includes Adam’s guilt. Both are Christian positions. Nevertheless, I’ll argue that the inherited sinful nature view finds stronger support biblically, theologically, and—for Southern Baptists—historically.

Some will nuance or qualify their position. Even so, I can’t imagine another category. When the question is: Who is guilty of Adam’s sin? The answers are either: only Adam or Everyone. So, there are two possible Christian views and both appeal to the Bible.

While pressing to answer the question, “Who is guilty of Adam’s sin?”, Dr. Harwood neglects to address the questions that are equally important in determining what the different Christian views actually are: “Why and how is anyone guilty of Adam’s sin?” In his rush to defend the idea that only Adam is guilty of Adam’s sin, Dr. Harwood’s neglect of these questions leaves his own view (as presented here) without explanation for the apparent injustice of God’s passing of the temporal penalties of Adam’s sin (mortality, sin nature, etc.) onto billions of descendants who—according to him—have no guilt whatsoever for that sin. His appeal to Biblical texts that affirm that God “will judge every man according to his deeds” seems to contradict that first judgment that falls on every man, that of the mortality and sin nature that Adam incurred.

In addressing why and how anyone is guilty of Adam’s sin, there is a major difference between the realistic (Augustinian) view that says that all men spiritually participated in Adam’s sin through the presence of the nature of all men in Adam, and the Federal view that says that men are accounted guilty even without any culpability due to God’s designation of Adam as their representative. By asserting that there are only two possible views, and characterizing the “inherited guilt view” as merely adding Adam’s guilt to that which is also held by the inherited sinful nature view (Adam’s sin and mortality), Dr. Harwood dismisses as insignificant the additional idea of the older Augustinian view that includes mankind’s spiritual participation in Adam’s sin. By avoiding the inclusion of this realistic principle, he frames the debate in a way that is ideal for defeating his opposition. It is not difficult to shoot holes in the inconsistencies and contradictions of the purely federal/covenant system. But it is difficult to establish that the souls of men are created out of nothing, and the moral, spiritual nature of all men was not present in and propagated out of Adam. It is one thing to show that individuals are not born under condemnation for Adam’s sin, but quite another to show that they are not corporately culpable for a participation in it (resulting in a just passing down of the temporal consequences).

This will be continued in Part 2

Ken Hamrick, 2013

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