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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > Interpretation of Adam's Act 


The question is the relationship of Adam’s act to the race. Various relationships have been suggested: no relationship; willful; representative (immediate and mediate); realistic or seminal; and identification. The relationship of Adam to the race can be summarized as follows:

No Relationship – Adam sinned; the race sins, but there is no relationship between the two; both are guilty of independently doing the same thing;

Willful – there is no causal relationship between Adam and the race; as he sinned so all men sin; since he sinned, it is so determined because man is weakened but not depraved; Adam freely sinned and each individual freely sins; guilt arises because of each person’s sins;

Representative/Federal/Covenant – the consequence of his act was visited on the race; we did not sin in or with Adam; rather, he was our representative; representative can be either immediate imputation (Adam’s act is the judicial basis for the race being under the penalty announced to Adam and the corruption associated with such a state), or mediate imputation (from Adam is received a corrupt nature, an inherent depravity, yet no penalty or guilt flows from his act to the race; the corrupt nature that we inherit is the basis for guilt, not Adam’s sin);

Natural/Seminal/Realistic – like produces like; sinful parents give birth to sinful children; Adam’s sin was our sin; we sinned in his sin; Adam’s sin was the actual sin of the race;

Identification – the precise mechanism is unknown and cannot be known, but, in some sense, each member of the race was identified with Adam in his act and the consequences resulting from the act.

No Relationship: Some deny that there is any connection between the sin of Adam and the state of every man; examples would be the Pelagians and Socinians; man is born with an innocent or good nature, capable of doing the good; this freedom is part of what it means for man to be man; men sin because they imitate the bad example they see in others; it is possible for man to live sinlessly and perfectly obey God; death is not the result of sin but of natural mortality.

Willful: Man is born with a weakened nature, but no inherent depravity with its accompanying guilt; man is deficient, inclined toward sin, but not spiritually dead; with his weakened nature man sins, thereby incurring guilt; guilt arises out of each person’s willful sin; view of Semi-Pelagians and Arminians; some believe that each person inherits depravity and guilt but that it is ameliorated by prevenient grace, thus enabling each person to exercise his will for or against Christ by repenting and exercising faith.

Representative/Federal/Covenant: To be the representative of the race is to be the head of the race; representation is for the purpose of imputation, which means to reckon to another, or to place to the account of another, with either sin or righteousness being imputed; imputation implies a relationship between two parties; it has to do with our standing before God, whether it is one of guilt or acceptance.

Since we could not directly sin in the sin of Adam, he must have been our representative, a representation that was determined by God. Two types of imputation arise out of this representation by Adam: immediate and mediate.

In immediate imputation Adam’s act is the judicial basis for the race being under the penalty announced to Adam and the corruption associated with such a state—guilt is from Adam as determined by God.

In mediate imputation Adam’s act is the means by which the race receives a corrupt nature, an inherent depravity, yet no penalty or guilt flows from his act to the race— we indirectly share with Adam; corruption is from Adam and then guilt is assigned because of this corruption, through the medium of the corruption; the corrupt nature that we inherit is the basis for guilt, not Adam’s sin (God is thus not charged with assigning guilt when there has been no personal sin); point is that it is wrong for one to be made guilty for the sin of another; a state was imputed to the race but the act of Adam was not imputed; but why should an effect (state) but not a cause (act) be imputed?

God imputed punishment but not guilt (Hodge);

God imputed both punishment and guilt (Murray).

Entire interpretation is related to the covenant of works, one of a series of three covenants that stretch from eternity to time and into eternity. Additionally, this position usually accepts the creationist position for the origin of the soul.

Natural/Seminal/Realistic: Shedd denies representation, for representation is for someone who is absent; it is not representation because we were actors in and with Adam seminally; all the race has a natural union with Adam; every person was in the seed of Adam.

The act of Adam was the act of everyman, not attributed to everyman as in representation and imputation, but the act of everyman; in Adam’s act each person acted; the punishment, therefore, is rightly belonging to everyman for his own act, because he acted in Adam, not the act of another; each individual was an active agent in Adam’s deed; in Adam’s sin we sinned because we were seminally present.

Kind produces kind, like produces like; sinful parents produce sinful children; it can be no different, for it is a law of God’s creation, established by God himself at the time of creation.

In opposition to this, it is pointed out that Adam’s act is not ours in the same sense that it was his, and to think that we acted before we existed seems to strain credulity; strongest objection is the fact that we cannot be said to be active agents in the death of Christ.

Some give emphasis to seminal association (Heb. 7:9-10), that is, natural headship; man is one in terms of human nature; the human nature of which everyone is a part experienced sin in the act of Adam; human nature which was in Adam is individualized in individuals (the leaf of the tree can be traced to the root); in the individualization of the human nature there is depravity and guilt; also known as realism; act was not forensic; man is guilty because he really sinned with Adam; guilt is inherited.

Realism is the oldest view of the Church; variations have been held by: Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Shedd, Thornwell, Strong, and Clark. Additionally, this view accepts Traducianism for the origin of the soul.

Identification: Some simply maintain that in Adam the race fell, but the how is unknown and it is not vital for us to know the mechanism; perhaps the most that can be said is that the race was so affected by Adam’s sin that the state he came to have and the consequences of the state accrued to each individual descended from Adam.

Some do not teach any sort of imputation (not mentioned in the text in Genesis nor in later texts), but do teach the relationship of Adam to the race; the imputation of Adam’s sin is an assumption drawn from the NT teaching regarding the imputation of Christ’s life and deed to the believer.

Man’s state is not the result of God’s legal action (a judicial decree because of an imposed covenant) but is the result of Adam’s moral action, an action in which we partook and participated; the principle of identification was operative.

The consequences visited upon Adam were visited on all future individuals; the depravity and guilt that became his became ours; when he died we died; when he became corrupted we became corrupted; we are by nature children of wrath; when he became guilty we became guilty; that which was ascribed to Adam was ascribed to me. More cannot be stated.

Footnote: For this website the relationship of Adam’s sin to the race is that of Identification (see: The Principle of Identification).

Footnote: a general statement of the Neo-orthodox position: for Barth, the Fall of Adam is saga and is the story of everyman; hereditary sin and guilt are improper; every man is Adam; man becomes totally perverted and guilty by his act of sin; the Fall for Brunner is myth or parable, with each man being Adam.

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