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Following up on my last post, 5 Old Testament Reasons Why Original Sin Doesn’t Work, let’s reflect on a 2015 article that caught my eye (thank you, Facebook feed) by Orthodox theologian (and walking thesaurus) David Bentley Hart.

The article is called “Traditio Deformis,” and in it Hart explains in no uncertain terms, and with his usual wit and punch, that St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) really screwed up our understanding of the story of the “fall” of Adam (Genesis 3) because he absolutely screwed up what Paul was saying about Adam in Romans 5:12-21.

And let there be no mistake: the doctrine of the Fall, as it is understood by many (but not all) Christians, is absolutely dependent on this one passage filtered to us through Augustine’s understanding of Paul, and remains a view usually championed in the Reformed tradition (especially neo-Calvinism; and hence Hart’s title, “Deformed Tradition”) and middle-of-the-road American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.

It’s clear Hart really doesn’t like Calvinism—not one bit. I don’t have the same amount of bile in my throat for Calvinism as does Hart—it is a broad tradition, after all, and the “hyper-Calvinists” (aka, Fundamentalist wolves in Calvinist-sheep’s clothing) are just one flavor.

But speaking as a biblical scholar with no small interest in Paul and Adam [click here or blog categories here and here],  I do most definitely share Hart’s assessment of how Augustine’s handling of Paul’s reading of the Adam story and other portions of Romans have left us with an unhelpful—an unPauline—theological legacy.

You should read the article, of course, and Hart goes in some interesting directions that I won’t engage here. But as for me, the three issues Hart raises that resonate most with me about mistaken readings of Paul rooted in Augustine and perpetuated in western Christianity are the following:

1. Romans 5:12

Romans 5:12, translated properly (as in the NRSV and other translations), says: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—“

The “one man” is, of course, Adam. And Paul seems to be saying, quite clearly in fact, that death spread because all have sinned. Now what that means exactly needs some clarification, but that isn’t the issue here. The issue is that Augustine, working from a poor Latin translation of Romans 5:12, has “in him” where the Greek has “because.”

You can see the problem. Augustine’s reading is that death spread to all because all sinned in him [in Adam]. In other words, death spread to humanity because all humanity was somehow “present” in Adam’s act of disobedience.

This bad reading of Romans 5:12, rooted in a bad Latin translation of the Greek, has led to the notion that all humans are culpable (guilty) with Adam for what Adam did—all humanity sinned in him.

Augustine’s reading is what many Christians believe Paul actually said, and which is why Augustine’s notion of “original sin” is defended with such uncompromising vehemence as the “biblical” teaching. But neither Romans nor Genesis or the Old Testament supports the idea.

2. Augustine—and those who have followed him—do not seem to understand that when Paul refers to “works” he is referring to the Law of Moses and not to a general “human effort to please God” or some such thing.

When Paul contrasts “works” and “faith” he is not saying, “You are such vile creatures that there is nothing you can do to please God—so works are worthless. Stop trying to earn your way into heaven. Have faith instead.”

As odd as it may seem to some readers, Romans doesn’t address this either/or and very individualistic (see below) topic. Rather Paul’s focus is the Law of Moses and its function of setting apart the people of God (Jews) from Gentiles (Greeks and Romans).

Actually, in Romans, Paul seems to have two specific Mosaic laws in mind: circumcision and dietary laws (see Genesis 17 and Leviticus11). These laws served at the time as “boundary markers” for Jews to identify them as a people faithful to the covenant amid a pagan culture (not unlike how the Amish mark themselves off from modern culture).

Paul is arguing in Romans that what marks off the people of God amid the pagan culture isn’t these particular segments of the Mosaic Law, however cherished and biblical they were, but “faith” in Jesus (which is rooted in the “faithfulness” of God for sending Jesus and Jesus’s “faithfulness” for going through with the crucifixion.)

Why am I getting all into this? Because Paul’s central concern in Romans isn’t “Here’s how you go to heaven.” And thus the entire “works vs. faith” model many Christians work with and assume is as clear as the sun at noon is right off the table.

But Paul’s central concern is really a question: “Who constitutes the people of God?” Paul’s answer (if I may paraphrase):

“Jews and Gentiles together, on equal footing, united in and marked off by not by observing circumcision and dietary restrictions, but by their common faith that Jesus is God’s final answer to how all the world will be reconciled—and that is why you have to get along and love each other. All of you, Jew and Gentile together, are the new ‘people of God’” (see Romans 13-15).

If you get “works” wrong in Romans, you get the whole book wrong. It feeds into the notion that Romans is a “salvation” tract, which is a reading where “original sin” plays a central role. But these are questions Romans was not written to answer.

3. The third issue I have with an Augustinian inspired reading of Romans is the notion that election is personal rather than corporate.

Try reading Romans 8:28-29, so often quoted on the personal level, not as referring to individuals but as referring to Gentiles as a group—i.e., as supporting the larger point Paul is making in Romans (in #2 above).

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 

Who are the “those” Paul is referring to? Individuals who happen to have a conversion experience, invite Jesus into their heart, convert to Christianity?

Or does it refer to the shocking truth, now revealed, as Paul claims, by God through him, that Gentiles now are in Christ and therefore every bit as “elect” in God’s mind as Israel?

In fact, as Paul goes to great lengths to argue in chapter 9, maybe this full and equal inclusion of Gentiles was God’s plan all along—not a last minute change of plans, but what he had decided and known (foreknew, predestined) long ago, even as Israel’s story was unfolding from the days of Abraham?

That is the point of those supposed “election of individuals” prooftexts in chapter 9: they are about Gentile inclusion into the family of Abraham is God’s plan from of old. Of course, Gentiles are made up of individuals, but again, that is not the argument Paul is making. He signals as much in 9:6-7 (where he says that “children of Abraham” does not equal “Jews” but Gentiles, too).

OK, well. . .whenever I open my mouth about Romans it’s hard to shut it again. This post is more involved than I’d like it to be, but Romans does that to you.

Let me bring this to a close.

Reading Romans through Augustine’s eyes obscures more than illuminates the letter. The consequences are huge, including,

  • how we discuss evolution
  • the role of “good works” in the Christian life
  • the relationship between Christianity and Judaism
  • the nature of the human condition
  • what exactly “salvation” means
  • and much more.

Hart’s article is a good one. Hope you have a chance to read it.

[An earlier version of this post appeared December 2016. For other posts on Paul and Romans, see here and here. You can also read more about this sort of thing in The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012) and The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014).]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

No Comments

  • Great article, Pete. Thanks!

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Knocked it out of the park. If this article were a baseball player, it could beat the Royals by itself.

    I’ll give you a moment to work through the dozen jokes that just went through your head.

  • Mick Pope says:

    Helpful for a unit I’ll be doing next year, and my thesis that follows. Cheers

  • Tim says:

    Excellent! As bright as Augustine was in some areas, he really got some things spectacularly badly wrong. This being one of them.

  • John Shakespeare says:

    “This bad reading of Romans 5:12, rooted in a bad Latin translation of the Greek, has led to the notion that all humans are culpable (guilty) with Adam for what Adam did—all humanity sinned in him.”

    This is the nub of this issue, and of others. It comes down to the lunatic notion of imputation – an idea to which I subscribed for decades before I actually thought about it. The entire Reformed and Evangelical system rests on the idea of imputation: the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity; the imputation of sin to Jesus on the cross; the imputation of Christ’s “righteousness” to the elect.

    There’s a whole lotta imputation going on.

    And if you think about, imputation actually means *pretence*. God is believed to pretend that we all sinned when and because Adam did, even though we didn’t. He pretends that Jesus sinned when he was crucified, even though in fact he did not. He pretends that we are “righteous” when we are not. And all this pretence (politely called imputation) is, we are told, to establish and maintain Justice. Take away imputation and the entire Evangelical scheme goes down like a heap of dominoes. There is a lot more to this than Adam’s original sin.

    • Skeptical Christian says:

      What is striking about this is that the Reformed insist Romans 5:19 and 2 Cor 5:21 are Justification passages. Yet those passages affirm that we are “made” righteous and “become” righteous, not that we exchange a status. They venom-spittingly deny that anyone is made or becomes righteous in Justification but insist it is a legal declaration outside of the person. The Reformers denied infused righteousness vigorously against Rome.
      Butchya can’t have it both ways, boys.

  • Michael Simons says:

    Thanks, Pete, very interesting. My question to you: what about Luther and Romans? Does your post imply that Luther had it wrong when he contrasted works and grace?

  • Bryant Lucas says:

    This just blew my mind. Seriously.

  • Carter The Yancey says:

    “when Paul refers to “works” he is referring to the Law of Moses and not to a general “human effort to please God” or some such thing.” Pete, I think this is one of your best articles. It seems that the majority of Protestants make this same error, along with misunderstanding that Paul’s entire (if not sole) point in Romans is about bringing the faith to everyone including the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 16:25-26), and that results in one very long list of unbiblical doctrines whose only basis is in this misreading of Romans. I’m surprised you haven’t been excommunicated yet. Great piece.

  • Robert F says:

    I give: What exactly does “salvation” mean? Do we have any idea? Is there someone out there with the answers? Do I have to become Eastern Orthodox to enter the path of “salvation” (ain’t gonna happen)? Or become something else? Is there some level of performance I have to meet? If so, what is it? It seems important for me to know.
    And no, I refuse to return to the Roman Catholic Church; it’s as invested in Original Sin as any Reformed or evangelical theology is, although it’s clearer than the others about the extreme level of performance I have to meet to be “saved”. Been there, done that, can’t make the grade.

  • Stephen Gonzalez says:

    Very helpful piece.

  • myklc says:

    Could there be a worthwhile book on identifying the individual and corporate in scripture?
    Love the article, off to read Traditio Deformis now.

  • Dr DJ Cheek says:

    Augustine could have saved the church a lot of angst on this issue (and others) if he had bothered learning Greek…which his pride wouldn’t let him do. Thanks, Pete, for cutting thru the weeds and simplifying this issue so well!

  • Josh says:

    Pete,

    I havent visited your site in a while. It looks really good.

    I really like your ‘perspective on Paul’. Likewise good stuff.

    I was wondering how you got to ‘works’ when speaking about Rom 5.12-21?

    Otherwise, I wonder if you should be more nuanced when talking about Augustines understanding of works… See this post of mine
    http://thescripturesays.org/2016/02/21/justification-in-the-early-church-15-augustine-of-hippo/

  • Guarionex says:

    I am afraid that the topic of the “FALL’ has become a “too big to fail” issue for so many in the evangelical world. This particular idea is so ingrained in the psych of evangelicalism to the point that it does not matter whether Augustine was right or wrong. People no longer know how to read those passages in any other way. And even if we denounce the obvious hermetical fissure in the traditional interpretation of these passages, we still need to provide more cogent alternative systems of interpretation. Among competing hypotheses, people gravitate towards the one with the fewest assumptions, even if it is not the most accurate one…

  • Hill Roberts says:

    It’s funny to me in the ironic sense how my CoC heritage could be so rabidly committed to the traditional Adam fall narrative that in nearly all the rest of Christondom is tied directly to DoOS/Rom5:12ff, and yet we basically completely reject the DoOS and the faulty trans of Rom5:12 along with anything that smacks of Calvinism at the same time. Even the point you make about the overall theme of Rom is not that any works of any kind don’t count for anything, but rather that in particular it is the Jew v Gentile contrast of some of the particular aspects of Law of Moses v all one now as equals in Christ as planned from the get-go — we basically had that right too. So why why why are we so deeply wed to the traditional Adam/fall narrative without any real doctrinal need for such? To put it another way, my heritage basically considers you/me/anyone as one of Legion when you talk about The Evol of Adam and such, while at the same LOVING what you said in this and the prior post. You raise a serious situation of cognitive dissonance for any of those among us who might follow your blog. (Not for me – you have helped RESOLVE much of my CD.)

  • Craig Anderson says:

    Thanks for the link. It is indeed an excellent article. But thank goodness for right clicking; I had to look up “misprison,” “limns,” “chiaroscuro,” and “divagation.” Who the hell does he think he is?

    Now on your article: Don’t you think the supposedly huge difference between “in him” and “because” in Romans 5 is much less significant for those of us who start by thinking of Adam, not as an individual in history but as representing all of humanity (or at least the male half 🙂 ? If Adam is the archetypal human isn’t his sin in essence my sin even with the correct “because” translation? What’s the big deal?

  • infowolf1 says:

    we being fallen in Adam is not we are guilty with him but contaminated by him just as one could be blessed by someone in the pedigree. in Hebrews I think chapter 7 traducianism is taken for greanted in explaining that ?Levi was in Abraham’s loins when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedec, so Levi paid tithes to Melchizedec, and the inferior pays tithes to the superior so Levi paid tithes to Melchizedec. Paul is not limited to that one point in talking of the Fall, and Genesis is clear that once Adam was cast out of Eden so was everyone else, and that evil tended to proliferate even though some were godly. but the start of the pattern was Adam and Eve and the fruit they ate, which could be argued changed them at some level more than merely genetic. Paul talks about the old nature and the new nature in Christ.

    • paul says:

      when she’s not jamming elsewhere with stuff she’s doing so here. she’ll be promoting chakras and whatnot here just as she has elsewhere. don’t believe me ask her.

  • Guarionex says:

    One last point, and I’m done:

    In regards to the argument “because” vs. “in him”, the problem that still needs to be addressed is that if we all incur in our own sinful behaviors as part of our human nature, (and not because of Adam’s actions in Eden), where does the universal predisposition to do so (Romans 3:23) comes from? I would say it comes from the same place where Adam’s nature succumbed to sin. So in a way, Adam mimicked what is evident in all of us. So, we might not need to call it “the Fall”, but we still are stuck in the same predicament. Wouldn’t we say?

    We are corrupt by nature, or at least we all have an inherent predisposition to sin with a 100% probability, whether it happened before or after Genesis 3, or whether we are able to do some good stuff, (as I seen some of the people that upholds you view argued in the past); the point is that we all seem to be infected with the same bug…The Fall then can be interpret as the point where the human curtain was opened….

    • Stuart Blessman says:

      What is sin? Is it violating the 10 Commandments or some Mosaic Law? Well, how does that apply pre-Law? Or to Gentiles who were never under that Law?

    • Sheri says:

      And what’s key about this idea is that humans were created as “corrupt” or, as I prefer to say, “imperfect,” with the propensity to make mistakes or to choose to not be in relationship and so of course a loving God could not and would not expect us to be perfect or sinless.

      • Pete E. says:

        Or as Jews say, with an “evil inclination.”

      • Guarionex says:

        I think I agree with your comment Sheri. I also think that “a loving God could not and would not expect us to be perfect or sinless” unless he becomes incarnated and reconstitute the essence of what is to be human and empowers us through his Holy Spirit to live through him, for him and in him….There goes my bias in favor of Bently Hart and the spooky subject of Theosis, but hey,, I am only human 🙂

  • RyanC says:

    Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—“

    I’d like to point to two other verses to clarify that there was no ‘original sin’ that occurred, but that Adam and Eve (man) was created already in sin.

    Gen. 3:6 (YLT) “And the woman seeth that the tree [is] good for food, and that it [is] pleasant to the eyes, and the tree is desirable to make [one] wise, and she taketh of its fruit and eateth, and giveth also to her husband with her, and he doth eat;”

    and James 1: 14-15 “and each one is tempted, by his own desires being led away and enticed, afterward the desire having conceived, doth give birth to sin, and the sin having been perfected, doth bring forth death.”

    We can see here that the desire to sin was already present in Eve before she ate the fruit. She ‘saw’ that the fruit was good, it was pleasant looking, and it could make her wise. She had the lust in her heart before the act was even committed. Where did the lust in her heart come from then? She was created with it.

    Jeremiah 18:4 “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make”

    Isaiah 64:8 “But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.”

    God (the potter) has made us (the vessels) marred (in sin) so that he can make us into new vessels (righteous, the new man).

    I hope this helps see that there was no “fall” and that we were created in sin from the beginning. This also goes with the truth that Christ was “the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world”. It was not a plan B, but the original plan of God our Father.

    Thanks Pete for this post. I hope I have added some more truth to this false doctrine of the Fall.

    • Guarionex says:

      When you say: “We can see here that the desire to sin was already present in Eve, you are discounting the role of the serpent in your equation…. Eve did not wake up that day and said: “hmm, today I feel like sinning against God”. And if she indeed had a desire to sin from the moment of her creation, then God might not have call his creation “good” Gen 1:31. Would he? At least from the story, we get the sense that there had to be a deceiver or deceiving agent in order for Eve to fall for the bait…

      That could mean that Eve had an inherent vulnerability/susceptibility to deception, which ultimately made her prone to do what she thought would make her be all knowing, like God…that if we go by the script. Being vulnerable/susceptible is neither good or bad, is just a matter of being a created agent…

      • RyanC says:

        The role of the serpent is exactly what God created him for. He is the adversary. A prompter. Satan doesn’t make us sin, he prompts us by deceiving us that sin is ok. See what he says to Eve. “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” He takes the truth and manipulates it, but it was still Eve that saw that the tree was good, the fruit was pleasing, and that it was able to make her wise. The tendency to sin was already in her heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9)

        • Andrew Frazier (afrazie3) says:

          RyanC, thanks for the thoughts. Another way to look at the serpent in the Genesis story is from the Ancient Near Eastern perspective. In the ANE perspective a serpent is the symbol of wisdom. Remember that the serpent is more “crafty” that the other animals for God in the garden, according to Genesis. So really the story of Adam and Eve can be seen can as the “fall of humanity to sin” but as the raising up of humanity to wisdom and God preparing his children to leave the garden through wisdom. Check out how the ANE use of serpent in the Epic of Gilgamesh and other stories. What do you think of this view?

  • Hill Roberts says:

    Instead of a fall, i see the situation as more of a failure to rise up. A lot of that going in the story of humanity as particularized in Israel’s story. Jesus’ first “rising” was a rise above what he was born into: defunct Israel, a groaning creation, and hardened humanity — then comes the ultimate rising for the last Adam.

  • Occam Razor says:

    So Paul is pointing out how Jews were wrong about their scriptures, and you are pointing out how wrong Christians are about their own Scriptures … kind of an ironic feedback loop. Can’t anybody ever play this game right?

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with your views about what Paul is trying to say, it’s just that there is a lot of irony in all the confusion.

  • PhysicsProf says:

    Well this is pretty great. Actually reading Romans 5 for myself one day instead of just nodding along with standard evangelical/fundamentalist readings began to shatter my young earth view. I haven’t gotten around to the Evolution of Adam just yet but appreciate the work you’re doing. Unfortunately if I ‘came out of the closet’ on my views similar to yours posted here, I think my job with Christian Higher Ed would be in jeopardy. So sad really…

  • Pat C says:

    The Catholic church although historically Augustinian in this regard does seem to have moderated it’s view somewhat according to the catechism and seems to have moved eastward a little.

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