Romans 5 is a theological watershed: Adam Christology; the nature of the New Humanity; Original Sin; the Progression of Original Sin; and more. In this post I just wanted to examine the relationship of humanity to Adam and what his role is as decider.
Adam, some say, is our Federal Head (1)—which is usually explained with an analogy. As American’s vote for a president who then decides acts on their behalf and implicates them accordingly, Adam acts on everyone’s behalf and his progeny is implicated after him. Adam, though not a president, acts as a representative for his people on account of being the Patriarch.
Some, using Hebrews 7 to prove this position, err by going beyond what a Federal Headship should allow. Federal Headship just has to stop at the notion of a representative (and this is why some Federal Headship proponents state that if any of us were in Adam’s position, we would have done the same thing). But, I would call this advanced Federal Headship something like Federal Union (2) or Ancestral-Progenetical Union (if I’m allowed to make up a word). The progeny of the ancestor mystically reaches through time and performs the action with their ancestor. Abraham pays tithes; so does Levi. Adam sinned; all have sinned.
Some have disagreed and noted the overemphasis on the individual—be it of Adam or of his progeny. Aa work based on the a study of the way individualism dissolves within the corporate Aborigines clan1, noted that Ancient Israel was no different: the corporate was always above and consumed, the individual. It’s not who these people (Adam or his progeny) are or what they did (or didn’t) do; it’s the fact that they belong to the Corporate Man (3) wherein Adam acts as part of that Corporate “I”.
The construct, though later heavily criticized, was helpful in informing Hebrews 7. The Author of Hebrews isn’t making a theological case for Levi actually performing any mystical action at all (that would be absurd especially with the pithy introduction “so to speak”). Levi, say the proponents of the Corporate Personality, are part of the Tribe with Abraham who paid tithes to one greater: therefore that one is greater than Levi. Likewise in Romans 5, it it’s not that Adam’s progeny merely have a representative or worse, were somehow magically united to Adam and personally sinned through him; rather since they are Adam’s People, Adam acts without personal identity but Corporate Identity leaving the Corporate “I” guilty.
Others have rejected all three notions and said that the Corporate does not subsume the Individual, it modifies them as they identify in the Corporate. So it is not that Levi is a non-entity-part-of-the-whole, it’s actually that Levi identifies as Abraham being their Great Father—and he paid tithes to one greater while they were just seed. So in Romans 5, it is not that there are two representatives being pitted against each other; nor is it two Deciders by which people are mystically united; nor is it two people which function as Corporate Persons; it is rather that the many unite and identify in the one. The action of the Adam-Christ is not so much something disconnected from those who follow, nor is it an action that those who follow personally participate in; rather it is an action that those who follow are affected by and agree with. Allow this final iteration to be called Corporate Solidarity2 (4).
But which view does the exegetical evidence in Romans 5 support?
Firstly, the argument in Romans 5 is more concerned with the action of the One resulting in Something for the Many. For example, the sin of one spread to the many (Rom 5:12), Jesus’ gift abounds for the many (Rom 4:15), one transgression resulting in condemnation to the many (Rom 5:18). Paul is making an obvious difference between the Many and the One; the Corporate Man breaks down. Thus, the Corporate Person (3) must be removed from the pool of possibility
In that same vein, any construct that makes the many performing the action also wind up suffering. For example: the many sinned but not in the likeness of Adam’s sin (Rom 5:14); the transgression of the one (not the many) resulted in death reigning (Rom 5:17); only one man disobeyed and one later obeyed (Rom 5:19). This evidence removes any strange construct of mystical union (contra 2) with the actions of the Patriarch. Thankfully this position is gone since, taken to its logical conclusion, this Mystical Union would have people atoning for their own sins on Christ’s cross!
The first and the fourth construct are still potentially viable options. With (1) you can have the people implicated in the Head’s sin without being personal performers of the sin; likewise in (4) you can have people agreeing, in some sense, with the action without being personal performers of the sin. In both models you have people affected by the actions of the One. The first, on the other hand, makes people guilty or blessed apart from their own personal agreement; while the later requires agreement in both cases.
Now, these contingencies might just be casually possible. For example, the concept of death spreading to the Many, we can readily admit that you don’t have to agree with Death to Receive It; you just have to be human. This might prove damaging to (4) if not for the fact that Paul’s entire argument thus far as been that people are justified by agreeing with God (faith) rendering a receipt of the benefits of Christ a priori incoherent.
And of course, we have the added problem of the pivotal translation of Romans 5:12: yes one man sinned, yes death spread to all men—but did all men sin as Adam sinned as a representative or did they sin in agreement by evidence of their current existence? All have sinned once for all in Adam as Representative or Because Adam sinned, therefore all, subsequently, sinned?
1Robinson, H. W., & Robinson, H. W. (1980). Corporate personality in ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Robinson’s work, though helpful in realigning certain ideas, has been heavily criticized, not the least for reading back studies on the Aborigines to Ancient Israel.
2 Grogan, G.W. (1998).The Old Testament Concept of Solidarity In Hebrews. Tyndale Bulletin. 49.1, 159-173. The term “Corporate Solidarity” is borrowed from Grogan but he often depends on the concept of Corporate Personality with some modifications. His piece is well worth the read to see how he explains the relationship between Abraham, Levi and Melchizedek.