Cover Image: Original Sin (NSBT)

Original Sin (NSBT)

Henri Blocher (Apollos, 1997)

Blurb Review by Dr. Daniel J. Treier

Review by Dr. Daniel J. Treier

The Christian doctrine of original sin, according to Henri Blocher, "tries to account for sin as a universal phenomenon and yet a matter of personal responsibility, for its being 'natural' in a sense and yet contrary to our true 'nature,' for its being there even as we stand before God and under God" (p. 12). Indeed, the doctrine's relevance for our time is hard to square with its recent neglect. Such neglect prompted this fresh exposition of the doctrine with Holy Scripture claimed as the norma normans. Acknowledging his indebtedness to Augustine, François Turretin, Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, Søren Kierkegaard, John Murray, and Paul Ricoeur, Blocher nonetheless avers that we treasure tradition not by servile adherence to it, but by, as it were, sitting on the shoulders of fathers and elder brothers who were giants indeed, and thus do we hope to be granted the grace of seeing even further and ever more clearly. (p. 13)

And the result is not your Fathers' doctrine of original sin.


The Fathers' crucial divide was between Pelagian and Augustinian explanations of Rom 5:12-21, the key text: humans imitating Adam's sin or humans having Adam's sin imputed to them. On the Pelagian view, there is no causal relationship whatever between "through one man sin entered into the world" and "death spread to all people," between "through one man" and "all sinned." "Death spread to all people" because "all sinned" in and of themselves, following Adam. The implication is that (at least theoretically) each person could avoid sinning and thereby attain life by obedience.

Moreover, the seeds of newer versions of Pelagianism lie in the fertile soils of modern science, literary-critical studies, and theological interpretations of early Genesis. On these bases, many have taken Gen 2:4-3:24 as the symbol-laden story of Everyperson, to the detriment of any historical fall from created goodness. So, after combating some Pelagianisms in chap. 1 ("Original sin as taught in Holy Scripture," that is, universal, natural, inherited, and Adamic), Blocher's chap. 2 on "Original sin as Adamic event" can combat newer ones. There, in the fine tradition of his earlier In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (InterVarsity, 1984), he carefully defends a nuanced interpretation of Genesis that retains a historical fall.

If we follow that line, then we may also join with Augustine's rejection of the Pelagian approach to Romans 5, for at least three reasons. First, it makes a hash of v. 14, where some persons die despite not imitating Adam. How could death thus reign over them on the Pelagian account? Second, however we understand the Adam-Christ typology in the passage, the "gift" language precludes imitating Christ to attain righteousness (the analogue of the Pelagian approach to Adam). Third, there is an apparent causal link throughout the passage between Adam's sin and human sin, condemnation, and death (a dominant argument of John Murray's magisterial account The Imputation of Adam's Sin, Eerdmans, 1959; note vv. 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19). Admittedly, the causal link is not specified, but the universality of sin and death seems inexplicable on the Pelagian view.

Having opted for imputation, one must decide between a realist and a representative view of human participation in Adam's sin. On Augustine's realist view, described well by S. Lewis Johnson ("Romans 5:12-An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology," in New Dimensions in New Testament Study [ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1974], 298-316), all human nature participated in Adam's sin as his natural progeny, while still not differentiated as individuals. This "seminal headship" view seems to accord well with Heb 7:9-10, and is appealing for the extent of human participation with Adam. Our guilt seems a bit "justified" in that case.

But not so fast-significant problems arise. First, why Adam and not Eve? This seems to raise the issue of representation, not just realism via human generation. Second, why just the one sin, and the one sin of Adam, rather than all those of subsequent humans? Third, v. 14 is significant again: real participation in Adam's sin is not exactly the issue as regards death's reign. Moreover, the contrary view of "federal headship" would appeal to the larger logic of the passage, specifically the Adam-Christ linkage. We are not justified by relationship to Christ through human generation-we do not really participate in his righteousness.

So most (even mildly) Calvinistic evangelicals are left with Murray's representative view, in which we are imputed Adam's sin, condemnation, and death because we participated with him acting as our federal head. Likewise by God's grace Christ becomes the federal head of "the many" who are imputed righteousness unto life. This is, on Blocher's terms, a "tight" view of the Adam-Christ relation in Romans 5. Moo notes that the case for this view rests in large measure on linking vv. 12, 18, and 19 together (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 327). That is, the "all sinned" of v. 12 is explained as participation in Adam's sin because in vv. 18-19 "one transgression" (Adam's actus) results in condemnation (guilty status) and being constituted sinners (a sinful habitus). Ergo, Adam's actus (vv. 18-19) must also have been ours (v. 12). For this tradition, the unity of Pauline logic in the passage-and the synergy of the Adam-Christ typology-hang on this explanation.


The usual "loose" ways of relating Adam and Christ remain inadequate for Blocher: he is no Pelagian. Nevertheless, he is compelled to depart from the Reformed view, arguing for an Adam-Christ relation in Romans 5 that is between "tight" and "loose." Justification is not at issue here, he asserts, having been explicated in chaps. 3-4. Rather, assurance is at issue: the certainty of the outcome is the point of the typology. Nothing (chap. 8)-not even the Torah (chap. 7), nor sin (chap. 6), nor death (chap. 5)-can separate us from the love of God in Christ (p. 79, referring to Moo's commentary).

Within this framework, Adamic imputation does not have to be strictly parallel to our larger view of Christic imputation (justification). The imputation of Christ's righteousness is not always in view here, except by force: the easy temptation is to render v. 19 "the many will be justified" rather than its most probable sense, "the many will be made (or constituted) righteous." This flex (between v. 19 and vv. 16-18) suggests a larger point-"grace reigning through righteousness unto eternal life"-about a certain outcome, not a mechanistic detail regarding imputation. (It is intriguing that the other significant Adam-Christ passage, 1 Corinthians 15, focuses on life-or-death outcomes too, and the unions are not exactly analogous there either-a point on which I am indebted to Scott Swain [who should not be held to follow Blocher].

A. How Blocher Links Adam to Christ

What then is Blocher's "looser" but not "loose" Adam-Christ link? His central claim in chap. 3 ("Discerning Paul's mind on Adam's role") is to account better for vv. 13-14, and v. 20, than do the traditional interpretations. Rather than taking the referent of v. 14 to be infants and/or idiots (e.g., Johnson), or the force of vv. 13-14 to be merely an aside (e.g., Murray), or their significance to be impenetrable (e.g., Bultmann), he can take these verses seriously. He claims that the difficulty of vv. 13-14 for all sides uncovers a shared, hidden, disjunctive premise: either we are condemned for our own sins (and Adam's role is reduced to that of a remote fountainhead, losing much of its significance) or we are condemned for his sin (and the equity of that transfer is hard to see). Now what if this "either/or" were misleading? (p. 77)

Paul's assertion "all sinned" (v. 12) was of questionable relevance to Gentiles, who on a Jewish view would not really be accountable to God, being outside the covenant and without the Torah. So, having established Jewish accountability to God via the Torah (chaps. 2-3)-and having used ignorant Gentile obedience to the Torah rhetorically to support that (chap. 2)-Paul handled Gentile accountability. To be sure, they did not have the Torah, but neither did pre-Mosaic Israelites; still they were accountable to God, on account of Adam. In other words, Adam's role in the passage is "to render possible" the imputation or "judicial treatment" of sins, by his role as representative head: in sinning, all humans violate the covenantal command of Genesis 2 (p. 77).

We have hinted so far that Blocher claims to handle the force of vv. 13-14, 20 better than the traditional views, without losing the force of the Adam-Christ typology. There could be more advantages still. 1) He enables us to take "all sinned" (v. 12) with its near verbal parallel, 3:23 (p. 72), in its most natural sense, as a reference to all humans' sinning. 2) He enables us to reject the imputation of alien guilt from Adam to all people, a notion that is "repugnant" to both non-Christian and Christian moral sense (a moral sense apparently consistent with various Scriptures, such as 2 Sam 24:17 and Ezek 18:20; see pp. 74-75, 130). 3) He enables us to see Paul's appeal to Adam in a canonically satisfying light. On the one hand, Adam's disastrous role was acknowledged occasionally in other Jewish literature, and even in some OT hints (such as Ecclesiastes). On the other hand, Jesus and the Prophets do not appeal to it; Paul uses it sparingly, and in ad hoc fashion for his larger argument; the "tight" view seems to take it all out of canonical proportion (pp. 32-35). 4) He also accounts for an analogy between Adam's failure and Israel's. Both had covenant relations to God; in committing apostasy by violating explicit divine commands, they bore curses rather than blessings, summing up human failure in themselves and pointing to our need for redemption in Christ. For Blocher this does no violence to Rom 5:12, 18-19, and gives 5:13-14, 20 their rightful place.

B. How Blocher Links Adam to All People

At a doctrinal level, then, Blocher maintains a non-metaphysical corruption of human nature in Adam (e.g. Eph 2:3), a habitus eventuating in sinful acta (Rom 5:12) by all people for which they are guilty. Indeed, we are guilty in status from the point of conception, because our will is bent toward sinning. This accounts for the universality of sin, condemnation, and death, yet universal responsibility for it too; for biblical doctrine and our own experience; for personal responsibility and social solidarity.

Blocher's view is not mediate imputation. (That is, should we supply a "middle term" [Moo, Romans, 326] between "Adam sinned" and "all died"-"all sinned" taken as "all are corrupt"? On the mediate view, what is really imputed is the corruption of Adam's nature, a habitus, on which basis one's status is then guilt before God-and Adam's sin is imputed as actus. Contrast this with the Roman Catholic view, in which status/actus and habitus both become ours, but the former is done away in baptism, and the remainder of the latter-concupiscence-is not sinful or blameworthy in the strict sense. Reformed theologians declared mediate imputation heretical in the scholastic period, despite its apparent affinity with Calvin's and Luther's appeals to hereditary depravity.) Blocher, rather, takes Rom 5:12 almost in a Pelagian way (each of us sins). There is no imputation of Adam's guilt at all, not even subsequent to imputation of his habitus. How then is our guilty status certain: why is Blocher's view not Pelagian? He posits an important distinction between compensation and punishment, or debt and guilt (p. 75). We undergo the fact of death in solidarity with Adam, as the children share the sins of the father. We do not undergo the penalty of Adam as if it were ours. Rather, by sharing in his consequences-in the spread of his corruption and death-our sinning certainly happens and our guilt can be reckoned.

In Blocher's mind, therefore, he has modified the federal view in three ways: 1) dropping the notion of alien guilt; 2) emphasizing the relational nature of our imputation from Adam; and 3) gaining a broader notion of Adam's headship, that accounts for the complexity of human birthing and being (p. 130). Nothing must drop out of a biblical view of justification, or of eternal punishment, on this view, which better explains redemptive history and Romans 5.


What then shall we say? Has Blocher, from the shoulders of the giants, glimpsed a new vista framed by Genesis 3 and Romans 5? Readers steeped in the Reformed tradition quite probably will have their doubts. Despite evangelical commitment to sola scriptura, long-held traditions make a fair claim to our continuing allegiance, until such time as their own problems or alluring alternatives compel change. Beyond this fair-minded reserve about giving up on the imputation of Adam's guilt, there is the current (somewhat frenzied) emphasis on justification via the imputation of Christ's righteousness-as a result, some may resolve quickly not to loosen the Adam-Christ link in Romans 5. Another potential problem for the book is sheer density: its 135 pages are rich but at times disturbingly complicated. Competent theological associates and this reviewer took hours of verbal and written discussion to ferret out Blocher's claims and their exact significance compared to the tradition.

However, Blocher's book merits strong consideration. First, to clear a potential objection, his looser Adam-Christ linkage is not necessarily problematic for justification by faith alone. His wariness about the imputation of Adamic guilt is not unheard of among evangelicals; in fact, his slightly looser Adam-Christ linkage could mean a more productive conversation with Wesleyans and Arminians. Yet he maintains the firmest possible commitment to penal substitutionary atonement (cf. Henri Blocher, "The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ: The Current Theological Situation," EuroJTh 8/1 [1999]: 23-36.) Second, he is probably right that the federal view handles Rom 5:13-14 deficiently; thus internal problems invite a re-working of this tradition. Third, he may claim to offer an alluring alternative, based precisely on solving this key problem.

Even if his alternative is found wanting-once weighed on truly balanced scales-the book must be heard in academy and church alike. Chaps. 4 and 5 ("Original sin as a key to human experience," "Original sin as propagated and broken") contain characteristically wise dogmatic conclusions, speaking the word of biblical theology toward a proper hearing in complex human experience. Therefore we must hope that teachers of theology will spend the effort to make its weighty riches accessible, and that these riches will be held close to the light of Scripture, that we may see just how brightly they shine.

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