First published: Douglas J. W. Milne, ‘Genesis 3 in the Letter to the Romans’, The Reformed Theological Review 39, no. 1 (Apr 1980), 10–18.

The Fall narrative in Genesis 3 plays a more important part in Paul’s teaching than might at first sight appear. In addition to a few allusions of an obvious kind such as Romans 5:12ff, II Corinthians 11:3, and I Timothy 2:14, there are a number of other references in which the Genesis passage is at work in the background. This would probably be true in Philippians 2:8, Ephesians 4:22, and I Corinthians 14:34. In spite of the relative paucity of evidence we ought to weigh rather than count it and then we will discover that the Fall narrative exercises an influence with Paul out of proportion to its length in the Old Testament. As a proof of this contention we will examine the Letter to the Romans as being by general consent the classic statement of Paul’s message. From an inductive study of Romans we discover at least four passages that owe something to the Fall narrative of Genesis.

1. Romans 1:18–32

An immediate impression from this passage is the organisation and consistency of Paul’s argument. Did Paul have some pre-conceived paradigm of instruction in mind when he wrote here? A number of possibilities have been suggested. Chapters 13 and 14 of the Wisdom of Solomon have been adduced as a likely source. In both writings the world of mankind as a whole is under discussion and idolatry is held to be the origin of every other kind of wrong-doing. The list of evils enumerated in Wisdom 14:22ff also suggests a parallel with Romans l:29ff. At the same time there are a number of not insignificant differences which cannot be overlooked. The writer of Wisdom tends to exonerate men for their failure to find God through his creation and as a result the whole notion of divine punishment is very weakly presented.

It may be that both the chapters in the Wisdom of Solomon and this chapter in Romans owe something to the historical narratives of Israel in the Old Testament. There we find the same pattern of idolatry, immorality and divine judgement. Paul may have discerned the same principles of divine government at work in the world of all mankind as were demonstrated in the covenant history of Israel. Certainly some Old Testament passages such as Psalm 106:20 (cf. Romans 1:23) can be detected at particular points in Paul’s argument. Yet no single passage from the Old Testament has appeared to provide for all the features of form and content in Romans 1. However more recently it has been suggested that the discussion of human wrong-doing in the first chapter of Romans “has been deliberately stated in terms of the Biblical narrative of Adam’s fall”.1M. D. Hooker, “Adam in Romans I”, NTS, VI (1960), 300.

Hooker has collated the two passages under the following three topics. (i) Idolatry. This is described by Paul with some clarity in Romans l:21ff. There is no mention, of course, of idolatry in explicit terms in the Genesis account but Paul defines idolatry as the substitution of the creature in place of the Creator in Romans 1:25 as the supreme object of affection and fidelity. This would include the sin of Adam which consisted essentially in a rejection of the rightful lordship of his Creator for a form of existence which sas to be centred upon himself. Cf. Genesis 3:5.

(ii) Sexual immorality. This finds some prominence with Paul (1:24, 26f). Hooker believes that Paul was influenced at this point in the argument by the rabbinical view that the temptation and fall of Adam was due to the sexual nature of man.2See e.g. Aboth R. Nathan I, 3a. However there is no evidence for this view in the original narrative nor does Paul present matters in this light. It seems more likely that Paul was responding as a Jewish Christian and cites the case of sexual perversion as an outstanding example of the kind of behaviour to which idolatry leads men and women.

(iii) General wickedness. In Romans 1:29ff Paul enumerates the evils that characterise idolatrous mankind. We find a general parallel to these in Genesis 6:5 while the fourth chapter of Genesis would provide a more vivid representation of the same lesson. There murder, polygamy, and human vengeance follow immediately upon the narration of Adam’s fall. The case that Hooker makes out for the connection of the two biblical passages could be extended from further points of contact.

(iv) A framework of divine revelation encloses both accounts of human idolatry. For Adam this was doubly strong since he was not only surrounded by the natural creation of God unspoiled but was a recipient also of a special pre-redemptive revelation (Genesis 1:28). For mankind at large the glory of the Creator is evident from the heaven and earth (Romans l:19f). This fact renders the idolatry of mankind inexcusable and man himself a thankless creature (l:20f).

(v) Romans 1:32 echoes Genesis 2:17 and its fulfilment in Genesis 3:19. Man departs from his Creator in the full knowledge that nothing less than death will be deserved and meted out to him. Both in the Genesis account and in that of Paul the notion of death ought to be understood in terms of inward corruption and alienation as well as of physical dissolution.

(vi) Idolatrous man comes under the rigours of divine judgement. Paul repeats the verb paredoken (vv. 24, 26, 28) which here expresses a judicial process (cf. Romans 4:25, 8:32) while the section under discussion is part of a longer disquisition about the revelation of God’s righteous anger which will finally be disclosed on the eschatological day of judgement (Romans 1:18 – 2:16). The Genesis account reads like a court sitting in which God acts as judge and man is arraigned, tried and penalised (so Calvin q. v. ad loc.).

One serious difficulty for the above explanation of the biblical sources of Paul’s argument is the discrepancy that Genesis 3 deals with one man while Paul in Romans 1 discusses the life of mankind as a whole. But a vital connection exists between the two parties as Paul argues plainly in Romans chapter 5 where he reveals the true starting-point of his hamartiology. It may be that Paul’s argument in chapter 1 based upon the history of Adam in Genesis is an intentional prelude to the more scientific account in the fifth chapter. Otherwise, as Nygren has pointed out3Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, (London: SCM, 1955), p.209ff. how are we to explain the abrupt introduction there of the figure and history of Adam. Paul does not what the relationship is between Adam and all mankind in the first chapter of Romans for he may only have wanted to alert his readers to the simple fact of such a connection and that the history and condition of mankind in idolatry and immorality is Adamic history.4Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1974), 508: “It is Adamic history, the history of Adam. It began in and with his history, and…it continually corresponds to his history. It is continually like it. With innumerable variations it constantly repeats it. It constantly re-enacts the little scene in the garden of Eden.”

2. Romans 5:12–19

The presence of the Fall narrative of Genesis lies on the very surface of this section of Romans and needs no further demonstration. Some of the leading elements in the Genesis account of Adam that came to light in our discussion of the first chapter of Romans appear again here. But Paul elicits new information from the Genesis passage here and handles the material in a novel way. This constitutes the real point of interest. Much discussion has gone into the question of the exact connection of this section of Romans, introduced by the “therefore” in v. 12, with what precedes. It seems best to take this passage as part of Paul’s Christology which he began to introduce into the body of the letter at 3:21ff. In order to enrich and elucidate his Christological presentation Paul makes use of Adam as a biblical type of Christ. But to make the point of this chosen analogy crystal clear Paul engages in a preliminary explanation of the relation of Adam to all mankind. This is the sequence of thought in these verses.

(i) Adam a Representative Man

In that all sinned…the single sin of the one man Adam who acted on behalf of all men.

The crux of Paul’s theological formulation comes with the words of v. 12, “in that all sinned” (eph ho pantes hemarton). A veritable of exegesis surrounds these words alone and we can only touch on the main lines of interpretation here.5C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 274ff reviews historically the various exegetical possibilities. See also John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 9–21.[

We can begin by distinguishing the two main contending positions, traditionally known as the Pelagian and the Classic Protestant. The former finds in these words of Paul a reference to the sins of all men in their own lives whereas the latter finds in them a reference to the single sin of the one man Adam who acted on behalf of all men. Without going outside the passage itself at least three lines of proof converge in well-nigh irrefutable support of the second position.

(a) The tense of the verb in V . 12 (hemarton).  The tense is an aorist active and technically and customarily denotes a punctiliar action or event. In the present context this would mean that death has come upon mankind “…not because all men sin, as it were habitually, but because all men sinned…because all men were guilty of one act of sin.6William Barclay, “Great themes of the New Testament”, ET, (March, 1959), 172.

(b) The argument of vv. 13 and 14. Having averred that death has spread to all mankind in V. 12 Paul defends the assertion in the following two verses as is indicated by the gar (‘for’, v. 13). The validity of Paul’s defence depends on the facts that death is the punishment of human sin, and that sin of this kind presupposes the revelation of a law from God. Both of these facts were true for the administration under Adam and under Moses. However it was the period in between that was paradoxical for during that time men were not under a special legislation from God and yet death reigned over mankind. Paul believes that only when we understand the disobedience of Adam in a representative capacity can we explain this anomaly of the time between Adam and Moses. Whatever the modem mind think of the value of Paul’s argument the fact remains that for Paul himself the biblical facts were satisfying. They also show us the way in which Paul thought of the position of Adam in redemptive history.

(c) The analogy between Christ and Adam. The fact that this analogy dominates the passage is itself significant. Begun in V. 12 the analogy is explained in v. 13, delimited in v. 15ff, and finally completed in V. 18f. The analogy in other words is the key to the whole passage. The precise point under consideration is the method of divine government for the life of mankind. In this connection Christ and Adam are a perfect pair. Under the new administration of grace Christ acts in the interests of other men. In the same way previously Adam acted representatively for other men. Either we must agree with Paul’s contention about Adam or we are left with the conclusion on the Christian side that every man is the Christ of his own soul.

In the first five chapters Paul is almost exclusively concerned with the judicial effects of sin and grace.

Modern commentators have tended to evade the alternatives of the historical positions by selecting something from each of them. On this third alternative “…hemarton refers to man’s actual sinning…but their sinning is related to Adam’s transgression not merely externally…but also internally, being its natural consequence, the fruit of the desperate moral debility and corruption resulting from man’s primal transgression and which all succeeding generations of mankind have inherited.”7C. E. B. Cranfield, “On Some of the Problems in the Interpretation of Romans 5.12”, SJT 22 (September, 1969), 337.

Whatever truth may belong to this viewpoint by itself it does seem difficult to find it naturally from the passage. Paul’s very vocabulary reveals his interest here in the external relations of men. He speaks throughout of law, obedience, disobedience, condemnation, righteousness, justification, death and life. The architectonic plan of the Letter also tends to mitigate against this interpretation. In the first five chapters Paul is almost exclusively concerned with the judicial effects of sin and grace (cf. 1:17, he who is righteous by faith). It is only with chapter 6 and those that follow that Paul introduces the ontological categories of sin and grace. Every attempt to find in Romans 5 some warrant for the belief in original or inherited sin from Adam is misplaced and can only be accomplished with some plausibility when the statement of v. 12 is isolated from its immediate context in the section or from the wider division of the whole Letter.

(ii) Adam a Type of Jesus Christ

Having reviewed in 5:1–11 the function of Christ as Mediator by his death and resurrection both for the past and for the future Paul proceeds to develop his Christological presentation along the lines of a typology. He declares that Adam is a type (tupos) of the one who was to come (v. 14). In keeping with most biblical types Paul elaborates this in three characteristic directions.

(a) The historical continuity between the type and anti-type. Quite apart from his Jewish and rabbinical background Paul makes it plain that he is thinking along historical (historisch) lines when he traces the period from Adam to Moses and argues soberly from the biblical record of Genesis. His basic chronological unit however extends from Adam to Christ the assumption being that the redemptive history of the scriptures is one. The inherent unity is due to the single purpose of divine grace which has supervened the history of redemption from the beginning. Biblical typology is concerned with the theological interpretation of this historical revelation in accordance with its own inherent patterns. In effect “…typology lets history be history”.8J. P. Versteeg, Is Adam a “Teaching Model” in the New Testament?, trans. by Richard B. Gaflin, Jr., (Nutley: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978), p. 10.

(b) The correspondence between the type and the anti-type. The typological bond between Adam and Christ is confined to their identical positions in the religious history of mankind. This has already been explained from what Paul says in vs. 13f and vs. 18f. Both men function in a representative way in the life of mankind so that all other men are directly affected by their respective action either for death or life.

(c) The antithesis between the type and the anti-type. A biblical type inevitably points beyond itself to some future event or figure that will not only re-enact it but excell it as well. Christ is described by Paul here as “the one who was to come” (v. 14) and as such could never be an Adam redivivus in the eventual fulfilment of the promise of grace. So great is the discrepancy in this case that Paul devotes the three verses 15 to 17 to an analysis of it. In general result (v. 15), circumstantial considerations (v. 16), and final effectiveness (v. 17) Christ clearly surpasses Adam.

The present passage in Romans is a Christological study in the form of a typology. Unless the distinctive norms of the typology are honoured in exegesis a false or weakened Christology and soteriology will be the result. In the present case it would seem to be particularly crucial to preserve with special clarity both the historical integrity and the representative headship of Adam. This the scaffolding that holds up Paul’s Christology. When the Fall narrative is treated merely as symbolism illustrating the sin of every man, or when the biblical order of Adam and Christ is reversed to become Christ and Adam then Paul’s own construction of the matter is seriously affected with far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the Person and work of Christ for our salvation. Paul’s Christology and soteriology stand or fall with his typology and its various component parts as enumerated above.

Paul’s Christology and soteriology stand or fall with his typology.

The Fall narrative has obviously provided Paul with the form of a distinctive Christology. Various attempts have been made to find the main outlines of Paul’s thought here in Hellenistic mythology or in the writings of Judaism. But both these theories of origins suffer from insuperable difficulties.9In particular see William Manson, Jesus the Messiah, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1956), pp.174–190, Versteeg, op. cit., pp. 44–51.

It seems more probable that Paul read the history of Adam in the light of messianic prophecy and the event of the Incarnation. The Old Testament prophets depict the messianic age in paradaisal terms (e.g. Isaiah 11:6ff) which might suggest an Adamic role for the Messiah. Other passages particularly those connected with the house of David emphasise the human nature of the Messiah (Isaiah 7–14, 9:6f). Paul also shows that he was familiar with the messianic application of the eighth Psalm which is a kind of commentary on the first Adam (cf. I Corinthians 15:27). Together with the Incarnation event (Romans 1:3, 8:3, Philippians 2:5ff) these biblical passages uniformly pointed to the common humanity of the Christ and his decisive position as a man in religious history. Paul was also pressed by the need for a cosmopolitan terminology in his presentation of Christ in the Gentile world. At the same time he had to keep faith with the biblical hope of Israel. In the Adam narrative Paul would find a time when mankind was still one prior to the particularistic covenants with Abraham and Israel. Adam was the universal man and an ideal prefiguration of Jesus Christ for the needs of Paul’s Gentile mission.

Even within the New Testament as a whole we find little evidence of an Adamic Christology. Mark 1 :12f may reflect this faintly and the Letter to the Hebrews does quote and interpret Psalm 8 in relation to the heavenly lordship of Jesus over the world to come (Hebrews 2:5ff). Yet the accent of the Letter is upon the divine Sonship of Jesus throughout (1:1f, 4:14) while the human nature of Christ is important because of the reality of his trials and sufferings (2:18). Jeremias has drawn10 attention to the collocation of an Adamic genealogy of Jesus beside the Adamic type temptations of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (3:23 – 4:13). But this could be due to the creative influence of Paul on Luke’s use of the Gospel tradition. Outside of Paul’s writings there is no actual mention of Christ as Adam and to him ought to go the honour of at least fully articulating what may have been an earlier but diffuse christological tradition.

3. Romans 7:9–11

The consensus of opinion is that these verses recall the Fall narrative of Genesis and are a kind of Pauline psychoanalysis of the latter. Both the terminology and ideas are too suggestive to be unintentional. But why did Paul pattern his own account on the paradigm of the temptation and transgression of Adam? An answer to this question can be drawn from the three leading motives of the passage.

(i) Commandment. The Law of the Decalogue is the central theme of the seventh of Romans. Just as a single command enshrined the whole of Adam’s obedience to God so Paul narrows the Law down to one commandment, the tenth (v. 7) which constrained and transfixed him (he entole). In Romans 5:13f Paul had already suggested a similarity between the Adamic administration and the time of the Law through Moses.

Both were characterised by specially revealed commandment from God. In this chapter of Romans Paul writes very much as a Jew (v. 1) for whom the Law was ever the centrifugal element in life. Like Adam also the Law took the form of a single prohibition which forbade the least sinful tendency. In this primacy of divine commandment Paul perceived a common ground with the first man.

(ii) Deception. In verse 11 Paul remonstrates about the element of deception which he discovered in his service of the Law. These words may recall those of Genesis 3:14 (LXX). In Paul’s account the deceiver was indwelling sin while for Adam the deceiver was a personal tempter (Genesis 3:1). Paul however personifies sin throughout this passage perhaps with the intention of pointing up the diabolical background and origin of all human sin and of tying his own religious experience of temptation more intimately with the very first temptation of man to sin. The deception came in a double form. Firstly, the word of the divine commandment was itself used as the instrument of temptation (cf. Genesis 3:1 with Romans 7:11). Just because of this method of temptation Adam and Paul were caught unawares. Secondly, the temptation held out a false hope. Adam was misled into believing that an independent knowledge of good and evil would be beneficial for him. Paul was persuaded that he could achieve self-righteousness and life by the Law.

(iii) Death. The idea of death dominates both narratives (Genesis 3:17ff and Romans 7:9f). But the concept of death cannot be restricted to the event of physical dissolution (cf. Romans 12ff). Paul speaks of this death as appearing in the midst of his life (v. 9) and appears to understand it in more subjectivist and attitudinal terms. Thus death here must denote the destruction of his hopes and the emergence of self-despair. Such an interpretation would be in keeping with the Genesis account where it is affirmed that Adam will die the very day he transgresses the command (Genesis 2:17). The initial fulfilment of this threat comes in the sequel when Adam experiences fear in the presence of God (3:8ff).

Paul was religiously secure and complacent before he was made aware of the full implications of the Law.

The combination of these three outstanding elements in the life of an individual (ego) naturally suggested to Paul a comparison with the experience of Adam in Genesis. Further points of contact could be traced in the activity of human desire (epithumia) in both accounts (Romans 7:8 and Genesis 3:6). Again, Paul identifies a time when he was without law and alive (v. 9). Adam was created without law inasmuch as the gift of the commandment came later (Genesis 3 :7f cf. 3:15ff). It seems best to understand the expression in Paul as referring to time when Paul was religiously secure and complacent before he was made aware of the full implications of the Law (Calvin, Hodge, Murray) rather than as referring to the time before he became a responsible son of the commandment (Dodd, Sanday and Headlam, Barrett).

By this autobiographical use of the Fall narrative Paul has allowed for a certain type of generalisation of account of Adam’s temptation in. This may come as a surprise after his treatment of and fall into the same passage in Romans chapter 5 which was historical and theological. But there is no inconsistency. Paul recognises an order of precedence in the exegesis of the Genesis passage. In Romans 5 he enunciates in classic fashion the primary significance of the Fall narrative for biblical revelation and soteriology. But he recognises too that this interpretation does not exhaust the total intention of the Genesis record. While respecting the unique and unrepeatable position of Adam in Genesis 3 Paul also allows the passage there to address everyman on an individual basis. In particular it speaks to the Jewish man who is under the Law. Paul’s treatment of the passage here has been followed in the history of the interpretation and application of Genesis 3 (vid. Calvin ad loc.).

4. Romans 8:19–22

The latter part of the Fall narrative (Genesis 3:14–19) provides the background to Paul’s thought here. In  the light of that passage Paul is enabled to reflect upon the widest implications of the fall of Adam both in the present and for the future. Taking his cue from the words of Genesis he addresses himself to the subject of the creation (ktisis) which in the context is to be understood in terms of the non-human, physical universe. Paul delineates three qualities in its existence.

(i) Vanity (mataioteti’,V . 20) or “the frustration of not being able properly to fulfil the purpose of its existence”.11C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, I (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 413.

This will express Paul s interpretation of the curse pronounced by the Creator upon his creation (Genesis 3:17f). The aorist form of the verb here (hupetage) suggests the actual moment and effectiveness of that judgement. The verses 21 and 22 further elaborate this as decay (v. 21) and pain (v. 22). The latter idea is derived from a metaphor of child-birth and may have suggested itself to Paul from the terms of the curse upon the woman (Genesis 3:17 LXX, stenagmon). The frustra tion of the creation is pervasive (sun-, v. 22) and rests upon the whole order.

(ii) Unwillingness (ouch hekousa, v. 20). The expression indicates the passivity of the creation in the event of a curse. The creation was a victim of circumstances outwith its own control. This can only point to the person and action of Adam and his position as lord over the world (Genesis l:26ff). Adam was appointed the responsible custodian of the earth whose action would affect not only his own kind but the entire universe. It comes as no surprise then that the curse upon the earth is presented as an extension of the curse upon the man (cf. Genesis 3:17—“because of you”). As in Romans 5:12ff Adam is again though more extensively here presented as a representative figure.

The future glory of the creation will exceed what was originally known.

(iii) Hope. Undoubtedly this is the dominant motif of Paul’s discussion and part of a larger discussion on the same subject. At least three observations offer themselves here. Firstly, Paul may well have in mind the words of Genesis 3:15 about a seed of the woman bruising the serpent’s head. Frequently this reference has been understood of the Messiah who would overthrow the work of Satan and emancipate his people (cf. Romans 16:20). Unless Paul thought in some such way there is no evidence from the Genesis passage itself of that hope which Paul ascribes so potently to the creation. He claims that the creation was subjected in hope to vanity (v. 20) which indicates that the hope was imparted at the same moment as the curse was announced. Secondly, Paul handles the subject of the hope of the creation in a distinctive way. Judaism at large in view of several Old Testament passages believed in a renewal of the world (cf. 2 Esdras 7:75, 2 Baruch 73:6–74:4, I Enoch 45:4f, I QH 11:13f, SB 3, pp 247ff, 840ff). But these popular expectations went on the assumption that the old would return in the new and that the Endzeit would correspond to the Urzeit. Paul seems to infer that the future glory of the creation will exceed what was originally known for he connects it with the inheritance of the children of God through Christ (v. 21). Elsewhere Paul argues that the eschatological order will excel the present order as the Second Adam transcends the first (I Corinthians 15:45ff). Thirdly, behind the present passage Paul may have in view the work of Christ as Second Adam. The whole discussion belongs to the reality of sonship (Romans 8:14ff). The children of God will receive the new creation as their inheritance (v. 19). Adam was the original son and heir (cf. Luke 3:38) but through his disobedience forfeited his inheritance. Christ by his obedience as the Second Adam (Romans 5:19) has regained the inheritance for man and shares it with his people as co-heirs (v. 17).

5. Conclusion

From this survey of the Letter to the Romans we may rightly claim that the Fall narrative of Genesis has affected Paul’s theological outlook at a number of significant points and exercised a pervasive influence over the doctrinal part of the Letter. In summary we draw up the following points.

  1. Paul treated the Fall narrative as an integral part of the biblical narrative of man’s history and as a reliable account of the origin of human sin and death.
  2. Paul may have believed that the original sin of Adam set the pattern for all subsequent transgression in idolatry and immorality.
  3. Paul viewed Adam as a representative figure who acted on behalf of other men and as such was a natural type of Jesus Christ.
  4. The Fall narrative provided Paul with the form of a universal Christology the deeper roots of which lie within Old Testament prophecy rather than in Hellenistic or Jewish speculations.
  5. In addition to the above the Fall narrative provides an invaluable illustration of the way in which sin and temptation operate in human life.
  6. From the Fall narrative Paul was able to read off the wider aspect of the Christian hope in the eschatological renewal of the universe.