The doctrine of original sin is both one of the most important biblical teachings and one of the most perplexing. The doctrine states that all human beings are born sinful, due to our being descendants of Adam. In the Augustinian theological tradition this has been taken to entail both innate guilt and a natural tendency or disposition toward sinful behavior. Even devout Christians who readily affirm the doctrine of original sin may struggle with the justice of our suffering the effects of sinful choices made by our distant ancestors. Adam’s sin was, well, Adam’s sin. So why should we be corrupted by this, much less regarded as guilty from birth?
One way of dealing with this problem, dating at least as far back as Irenaeus, is to appeal to Adam’s “federal headship” of humanity. Being the father of the human race, Adam served a representative function, such that all of his acts also counted on behalf of his descendants. This view is popular in Reformed and other evangelical circles (as is the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement of Christ, the logic of which parallels that of the federal theory of original sin).
Whether one finds sympathy with the federal view, most will agree that the notion of one person’s sin (or obedience, for that matter) counting “on behalf” of someone else is counter-cultural, at least vis-à-vis our highly individualistic modern Western perspective. Recently while reading the book of Hebrews I felt my own Western individualistic sensibilities jostled by a passage that seems quite pertinent to this issue. In discussing Melchizedek the priest, the writer notes that Abraham “gave him a tenth of the plunder!” (Heb. 7:5). Then he brings into the discussion Levi the priest, a descendant of Abraham, and a few verses later the writer says, “One might even say that Levi…paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (7:9-11; my emphasis). Though just an expression, the fact that the writer would appeal to this idea at all is striking. And it provides a potentially helpful reinforcement of the idea that we were somehow “in” Adam when he rebelled. That is, to use the Hebrews phraseology, “one might say, that I incurred a moral debt at the Fall because when Adam sinned, I was still in the body of my ancestor.”
Now, of course, we still need an explanation as to the sense in which the writer of Hebrews means that Levi was “in the body” of Abraham and how, in using this analogy, we are “in” Adam when he sinned. But the language in this passage provides a clue that there is something significant in the very fact of biological ancestry and, in turn, human procreation. Although counter-cultural and quite un-modern, we need to take seriously the notion that there is some sort of moral unity entailed by our biological unity. Even if we cannot know how this is the case, it is helpful to know that it is the case. And perhaps being more confident that it is so will serve to better inspire us to explore and develop metaphysical accounts as to how it is so.