The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§4)

This chapter looks at all of Paul’s allusions to the Adam and Eve narrative from Genesis 1-3. If Christ is the second Adam, we had better understand the first one.

. . .

Chapter 3: Humankind under Indictment

§ 4: Adam

Following the pattern of Romans, our next topic must be human depravity. Paul makes it clear that all the anthropological terms we reviewed in the previous chapter are corrupted to various degrees in humans—even pneuma! The complete picture of Paul’s anthropology views humans as ungodly (literally, “without worship”), sinners, and enemies of God. This dark side of humanity is not only a force from without, but a toxin within. Paul roots that interior flaw in humanity’s first ‘disobeyer’: Adam.

Paul’s theology of Adam comes primarily from Genesis 1-3. Four elements of the Genesis narrative are important:

  1. There is an ambivalence between Adam-the-person and Adam-as-humanity.
  2. There is a Hebrew word-play between Adam/humanity (adam) and ground/dust/earth (adamah): God formed adam from adamah and the adamah was cursed because of the disobedience of adam until the adam will return to adamah upon death. Paul’s body-as-embodiment language amplifies this wordplay.
  3. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not a tree that would let Adam and Eve them know the difference between right and wrong (it’s presumed they already know that by the command not to eat from it). Instead, the tree gave Adam moral autonomy apart from God to determine good and evil.
  4. Disobedience meant death, described as exclusion from the tree of life. We’re not sure whether death was a normal part of creation and the tree of life pushed it back, or whether one bite from the tree of life would endow adam with eternal life.

The Hebrew scriptures take little notice of the Genesis narrative, so we need to turn to how Adam is presented in post-biblical Judaism. An examination of the major texts: Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon, Jubilees, Philo, Life of Adam and Eve, and even the post-Pauline apocalypses of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch show that Adam was a serious theological discussion-point that Paul lived in the midst of. There is a unity on two points:

  1. All take seriously the interplay between Adam-as-person and adam-as-humankind.
  2. All believe the Genesis account provides an explanation for the reality of death.

The texts disagree on whether Adam is the cause of all the sin in generations to follow or each are responsible for their own sins. They also disagree on the nature of that sin: pleasure, desire, sex, and a failure to acknowledge God are major candidates. It’s worth noting that Paul knew and deliberately echoed the Wisdom of Solomon.

Now that we’ve reviewed the background of Paul’s understanding of Adam, we can turn to his own exposition as laid out in Romans.

Romans 1:18-32. Humans are only truly human in their relationship to their creator. However, they are constantly replacing the role their creator should play with baser things which lead them to futile thinking and darkened hearts. The Adam narrative underlies this whole passage since the desire to be free from their creator is precisely the sin whereby Adam fell. In addition to Paul’s condemnation of Gentile-style sexual immorality, there is an implicit condemnation of Jewish idolatry insofar as Romans 1:21 draws on Jeremiah 2:5-6, and Romans 1:23 draws on Psalm 106:20. Paul is likely knowledgeable of the tradition that views the law-giving on Mount Sinai as a new creation, and the subsequent golden calf incident as a new fall.

Romans 3:23. The axiom that all have fallen short of God’s glory echoes a twofold theological tradition:

  1. The thought that Adam’s sin results in the deprivation of God’s glory leads to the hope of the age to come expressed as a restoration or enhancement of the original glory.
  2. The ambiguity over whether the glory was lost or fallen short of reflects the ambiguity of the Tree of Life: did Adam and Eve lose the eternal life they already possessed, or did they lose the opportunity of attaining it via the tree?

Romans 5:12-21. Here Paul sums up (like Moses in Deuteronomy) two paths: Adam or Christ, death or life. We can understand Paul’s thought in five points:

  1. Death is tied up with sin and is not merely a consequence of the way we were created.
  2. Another ambiguity: all die because all sin, while at the same time, sin begins with Adam.
  3. Paul had a double understanding of death: the death of humanity is the outcome of Adam’s first sin, as well as the consequence of our own transgressions.
  4. Paul has a complex notion of sin. It’s a personified power, something to be counted like a statistic, something that grows, as well as individual acts.
  5. Paul uses four words for sin: sin (hamartia), overstepping / transgression (parabasis), false step/transgression (paraptōma), and disobedience (parakoē). The latter three words are stronger than the first catch-all term. All humans are subservient to sin and death, however guilt only enters with the individual’s own transgression which is a deliberate breach of a divine command.

Finally, it’s important to note that Paul’s understanding is universal: he involves both Hebrews and the Gentiles in this.

Romans 7:7-13. This passage pins the blame for subjection to death on sin, not law. Although it’s difficult to see at first glance, Paul again evokes the Adam narrative. He does this by using the 10th commandment as his example, which Philo, Apoc. Mos., and James remind us is the origin of sin. Paul believed (along with many others) that the primal sin was misplaced desire: the covetous desire to be like God. To sum up this passage, all is well with humans when no law needs to be applied. However, once sin takes its opportunity to tempt humans to break the law, death is applied. As in the former passage, Paul sweeps up the Jewish people in this along with the Gentiles.

Romans 8:19-22. This is the final place where Adam is evoked in Romans. Here creation is included in the future hope, since it was subjected to futility because of Adam’s sin. Paul makes the point that humanity lives in their environment, and that both people and land (adam and adamah) are wreaked. Hope for the future includes a renewed environment for us to be embodied in.

In sum: Humans are more than weak, they’re sinful failures. Instead of enjoying their roles as creature (to God) and human (to the world), they freed themselves from their role as creature and paradoxically lost their ability to be human. They now disdain their likeness to God by preferring the likeness of animals, and are dominated by death. They feel that life is futile and out-of-joint along with the rest of creation.

. . .

This chapter brought a lot of things together in my mind. I think I failed to grasp the philosophical depth of Paul, having been so caught up in systematic categories. The one thought that kept coming to mind is the need to begin here to form a Christian understanding of ecology.

Oh, mercy mercy me. Things ain’t what they used to be.

< §3: Humankind

§5: Sin and death>

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2 Responses to The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§4)

  1. Brian Lachine May 27, 2009 at 9:30 am #

    It was either Dunn or Ellul who made the observation that “the fall” was not necessarily about rebellion against God, but the fact that man could now decide what was good and what was evil – a trait only God had prior to the eating of the fruit.

    I appreciate Dunn’s “soft(?) systematic approach to Paul. Looking back at the first Adam to understand the second Adam (Narrative approach) seems to fit a little more nicely.

    Good summations Steve. Peace (cheese)

  2. Stephen Barkley May 27, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Yeah, I remember you telling me about Ellul making those observations already in Subversion. It resonated when I read it in Dunn.

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