Federal Headship vs. Corporate Solidarity in Romans 5:12

A while ago, I shared some rambling thoughts on Romans 5:12 trying to decide how Paul envisions our relationship to Adam: is it akin to that of a Federal Head (whereby he acts as a representative for the whole within a covenantal situation and the whole’s decision is subsumed in his action) or to that of Corporate Solidarity (whereby people identify and unite in the way an individual, head of the family, leader—whatever—acts ).  In this post I want to see how people have assumed one view and point out where I think the text leans.

Historically, Protestants have supported the Federal Headship model whereby Adam’s actions becomes pivotal to all of humanity (whom he represents or who all reside within him). His actions wind up being the decisive factor that results in the culpability of all those under him.  Roman Catholic Theologians also agree though they have a different idea when it comes to the culpability.

On the other hand, one major proponent of a subset (this is important—only a subset which doesn’t speak to the validity of the model in general) of Corporate Solidarity was Pelagius. He saw Adam’s free action as wrong (sinful) but he saw the actions of those who came after as just as free but skewed by Adam’s example. They joined Adam’s lot by personally participating in sin. Augustine (and Augustinians down the road) rightly disagreed. Surely there was more than mere bad example setting going on in the garden and in the generations that came afterwards.

What’s interesting is to see the theology being propagated by the translation. For example the Latin Vulgate, really pushing the idea of original sin handed down to all of humanity via Adam’s sin, translates Romans 5:12 as:

Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.

Calvin’s Geneva Bible seems to echo the Vulgate’s translation choice:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death went over all men, in whom all men have sinned.

These two versions seem to be pretty convinced about people’s relationship to Adam’s sin—even going further than a standard Federal Headship but approaching more my Mystical Union model.  But the Reformers are helpful in explaining their position even when the verse seems to imply something else as they translate it.

For example Luther explains: Therefore, because these things are so, it is therefore also true that as through one man, who committed an actual sin, namely, Adam, sin, the original sin, came into this world, that is, among the men who are in the world, without their works, and through sin, that of our origin, death, both, and so death spread to all men, this is an explanation of the meaning of the term “world,” namely, all men on earth, from the first to the last, in which, in the original sin, all men sinned, they have become sinners, even though they have done no evil deed.

And Calvin (in his Romans commentary) explains that:  For as Adam at his creation had received for us as well as for himself the gifts of God’s favor, so by falling away from the Lord, he in himself corrupted, vitiated, depraved, and ruined our nature; for having been divested of God’s likeness, he could not have generated seed but what was like himself. Hence we have all sinned; for we are all imbued with natural corruption, and so are become sinful and wicked

But both of these translations (and commentary notes) seem to falter when we see the difficulty of the translation issue. For example the KJV scholars decided to change the language despite the wide regard that the Geneva Bible had already achieved when they translate Romans 5:12 as:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (KJV)

Modern translators take a further step showing the difficulty of the language here:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned (NASB)

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— (NIV)

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (ESV)

So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned – (NET)

It was interesting enough to see what the Message says in regard to this verse:

You know the story of how Adam landed us in the dilemma we’re in— first sin, then death, and no one exempt from either sin or death. (MSG)

A quick look at the translations above tells us that the main problem areas (from back to front) are (1)”all sinned” versus “all have sinned” and  (2) “in whom” (that is Adam)  versus “because” people sinned . A closer look unveils a pattern: the one’s sin brings death; death to the many because the many sin. A contextual examination reveals that the point of the passage is to show how much greater the benefits are in life within Adam—but it is not a totally subsumed personality within the personality of Christ in this section.  The distinction is still between the actions of the one and the effect on the many. Indeed, the distinction is so important that in Romans 5:16 we find that the free gift (by the one) arose from the midst of many transgressions resulting in justification.

What’s important here, I think, is not that Christ is a head in contrast to the other  head (which is Adam) functioning during a covenantal structure and held culpable (and all within him subsumed in the headship); but rather both do an action (Christ’s altogether greater than Adam’s, of course) affecting the many individually but not to the exclusion of their willful actions.

So righteousness will reign in life (5:17) but not only by fact of being within the righteousness of God—rather by no longer having sin rule in the life of the believer (Romans 6) and being empowered by the Spirit of God (Romans 8) and by actually living righteously (Romans 12).

Conversely, Adam’s sin results in death which surely affects everyone (and indeed sets up the system of sin which the many are living under, made all the more sinful with the appearance of Law—Romans 7) and they die; but they also die because they also individually sin, not according to the likeness of Adam’s sin (Romans 5:14) but according to their own selfish actions. The Many willfully and voluntary participate within the corporate structure that they are part of: those In Adam live like Adam, not only by example, but because they are identified with him. Those in Christ live like Christ, not only by example, but because they are identified with Him—a point that Paul goes through some pains to explain in Romans 6-8.

So textually, I think the context supports Corporate Solidarity over Federal Headship.

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6 thoughts on “Federal Headship vs. Corporate Solidarity in Romans 5:12

  1. Thank you for the opportunity to leave a comment. I believe that it is important to realize that we must not conclude that, when Adam sinned, all his descendants sinned in him; this would make the Lord Jesus a sinner. Rather, I believe that Adam’s sin was imputed to the human race. It is important to realize that Paul speaks of two types of sin in Romans, one is sin against a command of God; the other type of sin is a sin that is a violation of moral standards. When Paul is speaking of a sin against a law of God or command of God, he uses the Greek article before the noun “sin”; if he is speaking of sin apart from reference to a law, he does not use the article. I noticed this in my study of the Scripture in regard to a dual origin thesis that I defend at my blog http://www.garytmayer.blogspot.com.This is discussed in the article at this website “Was Adam the First Man to Sin?” I am so glad the Lord Jesus made it possible for us to recieve the justification and regeneration that is available by believing in Him.

  2. The key to sorting all of this is out is to realize that Adam and Eve were at the time “all men.” And “all sinned.” What passed onto all of the descendents was not guilt but death. Because the entire human race of the time was ostracized from the garden and excluded from the tree of life, death passed on to all of the human race.

    It has nothing to do with a “Federal Head.” No one bear’s Adam’s guilt but Adam, but all are excluded from the tree of life, the garden walks with God, etc.

  3. I am pleasantly surprised to find that you noticed “theology” is obviously driven by translation. In the following translation you will see that I chose to translate ἁμαρτία, κόσμον and θάνατος in ways that I believe more accurately reflect what Paul wrote to the Romans. Remembering that Rome was equivalent to our own hyper-political and corrupt Washington, D. C., those three words would have been understood as “legal technicalities.”
    • ἁμαρτία—failure
    • κόσμον—world-order [either legalities and/or customs]
    • θάνατος—death penalty pronounced by a judge

    Romans 5:12 because of this, as it were, because of one human, the failure, in regards to the world order, came before the court, and because of the failure, the death-penalty also in this manner to all humanity, the death penalty, went abroad, upon this thing, everyone has failed. JWET

    This verse as can be seen does not speak of a “federal head” or even a “corporate head.” But as a result of Adam and Eve the world-order that had been established by God was disrupted. The miscreants were judged and pronounced guilty. Following the judgment came the penalty phase where “death” was pronounced. Therefore it can be seen that anyone who “fails” are under the death penalty. This is validated by Scripture itself—each person will judged for what they do—Romans 2:6.

  4. Deu 24:16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

    Eze 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

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