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.

8 Responses to “Original Sin, Ancestry, and Biological Unity”

  1. Marc Belcastro


    Dr. Spiegel:

    You noted that the logic of the federal head theory (FHT) parallels that of the penal-substitution theory (PST). From what I recall, I believe that you either reject or aren’t sympathetic to PST. If so, by virtue of the logical parallel, does that mean you similarly reject or aren’t sympathetic to FHT? Do you think the logical parallel is sufficiently strong or intimate to make it the case that commitment to one view implies commitment to the other, or that rejection of one view implies rejection of the other? I suppose that there may be features of one theory which aren’t shared by the other theory, and that this dissimilarity might render one of the theories vulnerable while leaving the other immune.

    • Jim Spiegel



      Great question. I believe the penal-substitution theory is true as far as it goes, but falls woefully short as a complete theory of the atonement. I think it only makes sense as a supplement to a more fundamental commitment to the “mystical union” view, which emphasizes the deep spiritual connection between Christ and his church (as recommended, I think, by the N.T. references to the church as the “body of Christ”). Somehow, mysteriously, the elect are “one” with Christ, which helps to explain how his suffering, death, and resurrection can be ours as well. And I think this mystical unity somehow parallels our connection to Adam, whereby his sin and curse becomes ours as well. So a major attraction for me in the mystical body idea is the way it preserves that parallel.

  2. Kaitlyn Dugan


    Dr. Spiegel,

    I know we’ve talked about your issues with penal substitution (PS) in the past (on the way back from a glorious ethics bowl event). If I remember correctly, you have two issues with it. First, as you’ve already stated, PS doesn’t make enough of the biblical motifs that witness to “mystical union” with Christ. Second, you think that PS doesn’t give enough justification (no pun intended) to the doctrine of sanctification. Moreover, you believe that the idea of “mystical union” will naturally make up for the second issue I just listed concerning sanctification. This is due to the idea that since we are “mystically united” to Christ, the logical consequence is a new nature and a sanctified life.

    If the above is correct, and that is a big if, I have two questions:

    1. Do you see a weakness among those who champion penal substitution in the western tradition regarding their doctrine of sanctification or do you see a weakness with the *followers* of said tradition? What is your motivation for trying to recover a sense of “mystical union” with Christ in your atonement theory beyond faithfulness to the text? When I read Calvin’s Institutes a few semesters ago, I was incredibly surprised how insistent Calvin is about the truth that even though justification is never contingent upon sanctification, the latter is never separated from the former in the life of the believer. I know many within Protestantism, especially Calvin and Luther scholars, are growing increasingly weary about the lack of a robust account of sanctification in the traditional Protestant reformed confessions. As such, many scholars are reworking Calvin’s understanding of “union with Christ” in the Institutes and even Luther’s understanding of imputation as having an incredible amount in common with Eastern Orthodox notions of theosis. However, I often wonder if this is more due to ecumenical interests rather than reading Luther and Calvin on their own terms. I do not believe that one has to rework the material in Luther and Calvin to find their insistent support for sanctification, especially within Calvin’s third use of the law.

    2. My main question is this – how does the notion of “mystical union” with Christ ensure the Creator/creature distinction? Are you arguing that the individual believer and the Church are mystically united with the divinity or the humanity of Christ? If the former, then how are we not ontologically changed? If unity with his divine nature equates to an ontological change on the part of the individual believer, again, how is the distinction between God and man maintained? It seems, as Bruce McCormack has noted, that Calvin’s christology will only allow for one to say that the individual believer and the Church are united to Christ’s human person. Calvin never abandoned his serious concern for the Creator/creature distinction. As such, I wonder how much one can call themselves “reformed” or even “Protestant” (true to the original definition) if one believes that the individual believer or the Church are “mystically united” to the divinity of Christ.

    • Jim Spiegel



      Yes, you have accurately characterized my concerns about the penal substitution view. And I agree with your observation that we need to take more seriously the views of the Reformers (esp. Calvin) when it comes to the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Calvin’s emphasis on union with Christ in the Institutes is indeed striking.

      As for your question about maintaining the Creator/creature distinction given the mystical union of Christ, I actually see no grounds for concern there. In any other context, ranging from the “uniting” of a couple in marriage to the “united” states of America, to even talk about union implies a recognition that the things being united are already distinct. Otherwise we would use a term like “fuse,” “mix,” or “hybridize.” Also, the biblical writers’ uses of the metaphors of the church as the bride and the body of Christ, both of which implicitly recognize the distinct ontological status of Christ and his followers, should be sufficient safeguards against any pantheistic worries.

  3. Eric Sague


    Would the close connection between biological unity and moral unity be a reason to take an emergent view on the soul ( i.e.William Hasker)? Perhaps part of the consequence of Adam’s sin was a biological defect that would be biologically passed down to the next generations. This biological defect results in the generation of imperfect/damned soul. Through sanctification, God’s work on the soul, each soul could slowly reshape the body (radical anti-epiphenomenalism). But we would require a recreation/resurrection for our flaw-generating body to be completely overcome.

    Of course it seems unlikely that there would be a “moral soul” gene or that Jesus’ brain structure would prove radically different than all other men. (What type of brain could generate a “god-soul”? Or, I suppose, Jesus would be the one case of implantation rather than emergence?) And I don’t think that the emergent view would necessarily explain why Adam’s guilt is shared.

    Also, all of this sounds quite a lot like traducianism, a belief deemed “stupid” 1500 years ago. Still, I’m sympathetic with emergent dualists (despite the fact that I’m currently working on a writing sample on the incoherence of Hasker’s argument).

  4. Kaitlyn Dugan


    Dr. Spiegel –

    I don’t think most would deny distinction prior to unity. The question remains as to what one means when they say “union with Christ” – what are we being united to concerning the person of Christ? His divinity or His humanity? I think the Orthodox would say the former while Calvin (as some would argue) would always say the latter. The problem is that a lot of people are not careful when they speak about union (not referring to you) and they aren’t clear what they mean by union. Furthermore, since this lack of clarity is apparent, it remains unclear how the distinction between Creator and creature is maintained when one participates in the divine. That would mean they become divinized human beings implying a change in ontological status, thus the distinction between Creator and creature is blurred.

  5. Marc Belcastro



    Concerning the idea of “union with Christ,” what’s the significance of the disjunction “His divinity or His humanity”? That is, why must the Christian’s unification be with one of Christ’s natures or the other? Why not suggest, instead, that the Christian is united with the person of Christ? Assuming that this suggestion is adequate, the Christian’s being united with the person of Christ seems to further suggest, if not imply, that the Christian is united with both of Christ’s natures. But perhaps I’m missing something important about the disjunction.

    Regarding your worry about maintaining the Creator/creature distinction, I agree with Dr. Spiegel that there doesn’t appear to be much cause for concern. It seems to me that the incarnation demonstrates that something—indeed, someone—can undergo a radical change without undergoing an essential change. If we hold that the Son underwent an accidental (i.e., non-essential) change at the incarnation, and the change was itself quite considerable, maybe this permits us to hold that union with Christ is also a process involving considerable, but accidental, change. Now, to clarify, I don’t intend to suggest that the incarnation serves as a template or parallel for the Christian’s unification with Christ, which is to say, that the Christian acquires a divine nature analogous to Christ’s acquisition of a human nature. I merely want to highlight the metaphysics of the incarnation (complicated as it may be) as a potentially helpful conceptual resource.

  6. Marc Belcastro


    Dr. Spiegel:

    Thanks for the helpful comments. I’m inclined to think that no single theory of the atonement is sufficient or complete by itself, so I agree that PST will need to be a constituent of a broader, more expansive theory. Judging from what you’ve said thus far (to Kaitlyn and to me), it sounds like your misgivings about PST concern its incompleteness more than they concern its plausibility, making the problem more extrinsic and less intrinsic. Would you describe your misgivings about PST as pertaining not to what it does say but to what it doesn’t say?


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