Alister McGrath, Adam, and the Great Apostle

paulIn his short interview, “What are We to Make of Adam and Eve?” (see here), Alister McGrathAndrea Idreso Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, and President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA)–contends that while it makes sense to say that Adam and Eve (hereafter, A&E) were real people, it makes even more sense to say that they are stereotypical or symbolic individuals. “They encapsulate the human race as a whole,” that is, all of us: past, present, and future. Everyone seems to be weighing in on the A&E debate these days (Lamoureux, Enns, Keller, Venema, Mohler—the list goes on), and there are slight gestures here and there in the direction of the Apostle Paul. But so far there’s been little by way of the testing of conjectures against what Paul says about Adam in Romans 5. What we typically get, I’m afraid, are vague comments to the effect that there are other “ways of reading” Paul. I take it that’s what McGrath will want to say.

The Great Apostle’s Argument

Here’s an initial suggestion. Suppose we start with a short argument from Paul involving Adam, look at its structure, and then see how well McGrath’s “symbolic Adam” fits in with Paul’s logic. For the sake of brevity, let’s just consider Paul’s words in Romans 5:12 – “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Initially, we might set out this little bit of reasoning as follows:

(1)  Sin came into the world through one man.

(2)  Death came into the world through sin.

And so:

(3)  Death spread to all men


(4)  All sinned.

Now since (4) is clearly being given as an additional reason for (3), we can re-arrange the argument (if we like) in this way:

(1)  Sin came into the world through one man.

(2)  Death came into the world through sin.

(4)  All sinned.


(3)  Death spread to all men.

Call this the ‘Source and Spread Argument’ (SSA, for short). Premises (1) and (2) specify the source of sin and death in the world. Premise (4) serves as the “logical bridge” between the “one man” and “all men.” After all, someone might say, “Just because sin and death entered the world through the ‘one man’, it doesn’t mean that’s a problem for the rest of us.” What accounts for the spread? The inclusion of (4) ensures that it is a universal problem.

As it stands, however, (4) is incomplete. To effectively forge the link between the one man’s sin and death and that of “all men,” (4) has to be connected in some way to the one man’s transgression. Otherwise, the argument is inconclusive at best. The way to do this, of course, is to pay attention to something Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:22 – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Notice the expression: all die “in Adam”—the one man. That’s our connection; the “all” is in the “one.” (Paul is implicitly assuming this in Romans 5:12.) Hence we can rightly generalize from sin and death originating in “the one man” but nevertheless spreading to “all men.” Making use of this “in” construction, then, and given that sin and death are correlates, Paul’s (4) can be more perspicuously expressed as

(4*)      All sinned in the one man (Adam).

And with that minor clarification, the argument seems to be in order.

The Oxford Theologian’s Assistance?

Now let’s test McGrath’s attempt to assist the Great Apostle (who was no doubt largely ignorant of contemporary Darwinian dogma). For McGrath, Adam is a symbolic or representative individual; he stands for the entire human race. If the Apostle Paul is thinking the same way, we should be able to substitute “all men” or “everyone” for Paul’s “one man,” and still end up with a sound argument (i.e., a valid argument whose premises are true). Making the relevant substitutions gives us the following McGrath-style gloss on Paul:

(M1)  Sin came into the world through all men.

(M2)  Death came into the world through sin.

(M4*)  All men sinned in all men.


(M3)  Death spread to all men.

Difficulties abound. First, in order to avoid the fallacy of equivocation, “all men” must mean the same thing throughout; it has to mean “everyone whatsoever.” Otherwise, we don’t have a universal human problem for Christ to solve. But if so, then to speak plainly, (M1) is false. For sin did not enter the world (past tense) through everyone because not everyone who does or will exist has always existed. The heavens and the earth have existed from the beginning; not so for ‘all men’. What McGrath really needs to say here is that sin is continually coming into the world through everyone. But then (M1) is badly mistaken; it’s stated in the wrong tense. Paul has it in the past when (on McGrath’s views) it should be the continuous present.

Secondly, consider (M4*). It makes sense to say that all sinned in Adam. However, what could it possible mean to say that all men sinned in all men? That’s hardly intelligible. At the very least, it’s ambiguous. Here the two most plausible ways of reading (M4*) are perhaps these:

(M4*a)  All men are sinners just by virtue of being men (i.e., being human)


(M4* b)  When any man sins, every man sins.

The first of these readings is almost certainly false. It assumes that there is a necessary or essential connection between being human and being sinful. No doubt it’s true that all fallen humans are sinful. It doesn’t follow that all humans simpliciter are sinful. Otherwise, we shall have to say that Christ qua human was sinful, and Adam was a sinner prior to his sinning.

The second reading is no better. On the face of things, the inference just looks invalid. How does it follow that everyone sins from the fact that I sin? Here someone might respond (as Jonathan Edwards seems to have) that the human race comprises one complex, organic whole. And then the idea, I suppose, would be that if one part of this great whole (the body of humanity) were to sin, the whole body would be guilty of that sin as well.

But there are serious problems with this line of thinking. For one thing, the analogy is flawed. As Wainwright points out [1], if one part of your body (say, your hand) steals a loaf of bread, it’s true that you as a whole are guilty of stealing. It hardly follows that each part of you is guilty of having stolen. Similarly, even if the human race (as a whole) has been infiltrated by sin, it won’t follow that each and every individual member of that whole is also sinful. That’s just the fallacy of division. In fact, we actually know this inference is invalid because (as we just noted) Jesus Christ is human; but neither did he sin, nor was he a sinner by nature.

So it’s virtually certain that on a McGrath reading of Paul, the SSA argument is unsound since it has multiple false premises. A moment’s reflection also reveals that it’s invalid. For suppose we allow McGrath to put his spin on Paul’s premises. Suppose, in particular, we allow him the claim that sin didn’t originate from a single source (Adam), but rather each of us has brought and continues to bring our own sin (/death) into the world. Well, in that case, the conclusion of the McGrath-style SSA is false. It’s false that death “spreads.” If each of us is the cause of his own sin and death, we wouldn’t talk about death spreading at all (as this suggests causal transmission from a point of origin). It’s worth noting that the word Paul uses for “spread” (dierchomai) is also used in Luke 5:15 – “Yet the news about him [Jesus] spread all the more(NIV). Here the news would have “spread” from an initial report, and then have been transmitted (by way of telling) in sequential fashion (one person after another).

However, if there is no singular, real, Adamic origin for sin, and if we’re all just the source of our own sin, we wouldn’t talk about sin “spreading.” What we would say, no doubt, is that sin proliferated as the numbers of human beings increased over time. “Spreading” is entirely the wrong concept to invoke here, in which case if we interpret all of Paul’s premises through McGrath’s Darwinian lens, what we get is an argument with true premises but a false conclusion. The argument is a bust.

So here is my advice to McGrath, Enns, Lamoureux, and the rest: start from the Great Apostle first. Resist the powerful temptation to begin with secular science, and then Jerry-rig the Great Apostle to fit Mr. Darwin’s scheme.

Works Cited

[1]  William J. Wainwright, “Original Sin,” in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

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2 comments on “Alister McGrath, Adam, and the Great Apostle

  1. This is a very interesting analysis. I am sympathetic to McGrath’s explanation with the exception of his reference to evolution. That said, I don’t think either of these views engages the question of “how” original sin spreads. I’m not certain as to what “in Adam” means in scripture. Certainly, we cannot assume that sin propagates through genetics, since this would indicate that Adam’s (or the symbolic man’s) biological DNA changed at the time of original sin. I would like to see an argument for “how” original sin propagates.

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