I received an email from a friend yesterday. He wanted my thoughts on Romans 5.12-21. That might have been a mistake because I wrote him a long, rambling response. I have thought about this passage a lot and I cannot divorce my thinking on 5.12-21 from 1.18-32, so I had a lot to say about both passages. Since I spent time writing these notes I thought I may as well post them here too. Of course, what follows is the body of the email (free from the personal greetings):
I have done quite a lot of thinking on this passage. That is not to say that I have resolved all the tensions present, but I’l share my thoughts and you can let me know what you think.
First, I think it is important to realize that 5.12-21 is not the first time Paul has dealt with this subject. It is the first time it is explicit. I am convinced by the exegesis of Morna Hooker and James D.G. Dunn that 1.18-32 is framed by the narrative of Genesis 1-3. Quickly: Adam (and Eve) had direct access to the Creator and the Creator has made himself known to Adam (v. 19). “Since the creation” is another way of saying “at the beginning,” which includes Adam, the first man in Paul’s worldview (v. 20a). Since the Creator made known all of his “attributes” even then Adam was without excuse (v. 20b). Adam knew God, but he did not honor God nor show thankfulness to God in Eden when he refused to heed to the commands given to him (v. 21a). When he joined Eve in entertaining the serpent’s lie they “became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (v. 21b). Rather than allowing the Creator to teach them the difference between good and evil they partook of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil seeking to be like God; thereby, “Professing to be wise, they became fools” (v. 22). The language regarding the exchange of the glory of the incorruptible God to images of man, birds, four-footed animals, and crawling creatures (v. 23) finds it source in the LXX of Genesis 1.20-27 where humans are made in the image of God being given command over all the classes of animals mentioned here. Therefore, Paul is framing Adam and Eve’s disobedience as honoring creation (embodied in the serpent) over the Creator. This lead to their punishment (v. 24 speaks of dishonored bodies, which is interesting considering the “nakedness” scene of Genesis 3) and the reason for their punishment (vv. 24-25). I think this is why Paul begins his list of offenses against God with mention of same-sex eroticism, because he has been thinking of a narrative wherein we find the “image of God” given to humans from God for creation as “man and woman made he them” being exchanged for people choosing to ignore the opposite gender which creates a fullness of human existence in favor of a self-image as depicted in people who share your gender. Then he moves to other actions that deface the image of God.
Now this is not to say that 1.18-32 is merely a retelling of Genesis 1-3. It is about humanity as a whole, but I think it “framed” by Genesis 1-3. In other words, Paul is talking about the erosion of the image of God in humans in general across time and place using the outline of the story of the “fall” of humanity’s “first parents” as he would have understood them. This frames 5.12-21.
When Paul arrives at 5.12-21 he has spoken of how God has forgiven and reconciled with people through Jesus. He mentions the Spirit has been given to “us.” This will matter in Romans 8.1-23 where he explains how this Spirit will result in resurrection life as it did for Jesus himself. In the present though he unfolds his thoughts from 1.18-32 using the “figure” Adam explicitly.
I read v. 12 differently from our Reformed friends. I do not see this as a passage on “original sin,” but rather Paul sees Adam as the first man who opens the door through which all humans inevitably follow. Adam sins, death is the result of sin (ala Genesis 2), death spreads to everyone (this may have two parts in Paul’s thinking: (1) because everyone will sin like Adam and (2) because Adam’s exile barred humans from the so-called Tree of Life meaning that the proverbial “Fountain of Youth” was no longer available to his descendants), and death spread “because” (ἐφʼ) everyone sins. In other words, like 1.18-32, Adam is the prototype, but all humans reenact the Adam story. There is not a human born (other than Jesus) who avoids this and therefore they must die because that is the penalty (something Paul states explicitly in 1.32).
I understand v. 13 to mean that the penalty for sin–death–was enforced even if they did not have the Law (of Moses) to guide them. This doesn’t mean that sin disappeared when the Law was given (or when someone comes to know the Law), but that the penalty is present whether or not they know the Law. When Paul says sin was not “recorded,” or “accounted for,” (ἐλλογεῖται) I am not quite sure what he means. It is clear form v. 14 that the penalty of sin is death and that this penalty was enforced whether people knew the Law. What was not being enforced is unknown to me. It could be that the sermon to the Athenians in Acts 17 where Luke presents Paul as preaching an eschatological message where God has overlooked sin but calls everyone to repent now is an accurate reflection of Pauline thinking on God’s mercy toward the nations that must come to submit and obey the God of Israel now that God has chosen his messiah (Romans 1.1-17 comes to mind).
In v. 14 Paul seems to unpack v. 13 as I imagined. He does emphasize that it doesn’t matter if one has sinned “in the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (ἐπὶ τῷ ὁμοιώματι τῆς παραβάσεως Ἀδάμ). At face value I assume that this goes back to 1.18-32 and provides a reason for the long list of sins–even if one’s sin against God isn’t like Adam’s (denying Creator for creation) there are dozens of opportunities to sin.
In semi-Lutheran fashion I take vv. 15-16 to mean that everyone has entered the gateway opened by Adam and that everyone can enter the gateway opened by Jesus, yet the difference seems to be participation in the same action of sinning like Adam or “participation” in the obedience of Jesus, but not by one’s actions, per se. I am not a universalist, but this line comes about as close as one can get: the many (οἱ πολλοὶ) are effected by Adam and the many are effected by Jesus (τοὺς πολλοὺς).
The wording of v. 16 is a tad difficult for me to interpret. The gist is that the gift of grace is different that the penalty of transgression. One brings judgment and the other brings justification. I don’t know what to do with the line “from many transgressions” (ἐκ πολλῶν παραπτωμάτων).
In vv. 17-18 Adam and Jesus as juxtaposed as the immediate sources of death and new life. Again, it sounds almost universalist: condemnation to all people (εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς κατάκριμα) and life to all people (εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς·) in v. 18. I assume that Paul is presenting this as an opportunity though based on what he said earlier in the passage and how he frames things in 1.18-32. I think he wants to compare the universal opportunity to sin and therefore die for the descendants of Adam to the universal opportunity to receive grace, righteousness, and life to those same people. The theological implications of these statements are complex!
In v. 19 the many were made sinner because of Adam (aorist tense) and the many will be made righteous because of Jesus’ obedience (future tense). Again, if all humans are included here, this sounds universalistic. If one is automatically included in the first group without having to participate through personal disobedience then it is hard to see how one can avoid reading the second group as being automatically included without expressing faith.
Finally, I take vv. 20-21 to be saying that the role and function of the Law is to make known transgression, to name it, and to provide a place to grace. When the Law confronts sin grace becomes available. I know I have seen a blog post by Tim Gombis where he suggest that this has a particular context for the church in Rome rather than a universal message, i.e., I think he means that when Jews brought their Law to non-Jews there was something good about this in that it names transgressions making room for the gospel, but I can’t locate that post now.