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Paul’s Adam (Part 3)

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By Starlight - Posted on 23 March 2010

Here are three more issues that arise when trying to understand Paul’s use of the Adam story. The rest will follow in next week’s post. These issues are pretty involved, and so this post is longer than I would like. My apologies in advance.

As we continue, especially with this week’s topics, let me repeat: to raise these questions is not to answer them one way or another. But, they are valid questions that have been raised and engaged by thoughtful readers, some for a very, very long time. They are not trendy or conjured up.

Thinking through them takes some patience, a fair amount of knowledge, and even more wisdom. At the end of the day, wrestling through these issues will yield a greater understanding of Paul and how his Gospel is summed up in the risen Messiah.

4. The Fall in the Garden
What exactly were the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden? I realize this question sounds like Bible 101, but it isn’t. It is a complicated issue, and many great minds have wrestled with it.

Adam and Eve eat the fruit, even though they were warned not to (Genesis 2:17). God imposes penalties—curses—on them with clearly intended ongoing consequences. From Adam and Eve on, humanity would experience death (return to dust); from Adam and Eve on, the ground would be cursed, women would have pain in childbirth, etc., etc. The penalties are announced and the first pair is then expelled from the Garden—the final blow.

So far all of this sounds familiar. But, with all the curses listed in 3:14-19, the following is not among them: “From now on, your children and all of humanity, by the very nature of their birth, will be born in a state of sin and guilt against which they will be powerless to help themselves.”

This omission may be surprising to some. A sense of being “born in sin” is typically associated as a central element of the Garden episode, especially reading Genesis 3 side-by-side with Paul (namely Romans 5:12-21). This has puzzled interpreters. So, the question is: If “born in sin” is what the Garden story is really about, why doesn’t Genesis just come out and say so?

Take the Cain and Abel story. Did Cain kill his brother because he was born in a state of sin? This is sometimes assumed to be the case, but is this what we actually read in Genesis?

Does Genesis indicate that it was because of Adam’s trespass that Cain killed Abel? Was Cain’s act a by-product of Adam’s transgression passed on to his offspring somehow? Or could it be that Cain’s sin follows in Adam’s footsteps some other way? After all, transgression did not need a fall—Adam and Eve had already sinned by disobeying God. Is Cain’s transgression, like that of his parents’, part of his humanity rather than fallenness?

Other than what we read in the list of curses in Genesis 3, the Garden story does not tell us what if anything “transferred” between Adam and his offspring. This does not call sin or the Gospel into question. But it does mean that responsible Christian interpreters will need to ask (1) what does the fall narrative in Genesis actually say? (2) how does that connect with the Christian view of the fall, especially as we see it in Paul’s writings?

There are different ways of making the connection, but the point is simply that a connection has to be made. The connection is not obvious (as a scan of commentaries will show).

5. The Adam/Jesus Parallel in Romans 5 is both Clear and not so Clear

We move from Genesis to the other side of the equation: Paul. For many, the heart of the issue is the parallel Paul makes in Romans 5:12-21 between Jesus and Adam—the entire Gospel hangs on getting this parallel right, and what Paul says here settles the matter.

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