Realism & The Fall: A Response to Steve Farish

KH LogoAlso posted at SBC Open Forum.

By Ken Hamrick

The Winter 2017 issue of The Founders Journal contains a brief, informative article on Original Sin, by Steve Farish, entitled, “The Fall Brought Condemnation and Corruption.”[1] To his credit, he does not present only the representationist “party line,” but also tries to present the realist side and its problems. This is commendable. But as a realist, I would like to engage Mr. Farish on some of his points. The realist perspective has much more to offer than he has presented.

From the start, Mr. Farish defines the realistic view in a way that no realist would: “The Realistic View […] understands Paul in Romans 5:12 to mean that all human beings were physically present seminally in Adam at the time of his sin […], so that when Adam sinned, all human beings literally and physically sinned in him.” The terms, “physically present,” and, “physically sinned,” utterly miss the point of the realistic view. All sides agree that our physical nature came from Adam. The hallmark of the realistic view is that the immaterial, moral nature of all men was propagated out of the substance of Adam in such a way as to deservedly implicate us in his sin; and this due to that nature having a real, participative presence in Adam. In short, that part of us that chooses whether or not to sin was not created “brand new” at our conception, but was created as a part of Adam and passed down to us. [2] This is also called the participative or Augustinian view.

Mr. Farish states, “Many Reformed theologians have recognized validity in some aspects of the Realistic View, but have seen the Representational view as the lead idea on these issues. They have historically found far more persuasive the Representative View.” The use of the term, historically, ought to carry with it an obligation to at least mention the historical change: how the Reformed Church began with a realistic understanding, and transitionedover two centuriesinto the representational view (or, federal headship) as it is today.  Louis Berkhof states:

In the scholastic literature and in the writings of the Reformers, too, all the elements which later on went into the construction of the doctrine of the covenant of works were already present, but the doctrine itself was not yet developed. Though they contain some expressions which point to the imputation of Adam’s sin to his descendants, it is clear that on the whole the transmission of sin was conceived realistically rather than federally. Says Thornwell in his analysis of Calvin’s Institutes: “Federal representation was not seized as it should be, but a mystic realism in place of it.”[3]

George P. Fisher states, regarding the influence of realism:

That the realistic mode of thought extensively influenced Protestant theology at the Reformation and afterwards, admits of no question. But since it is far from being true that all Augustinians have been avowed, much less, self-consistent, realists, it is better when we speak of them as a class, to say that they are swayed by a realistic mode of thought than that they are the advocates of explicit realism.[4]

Federal headship (the representative view) did not arise until Cocceius, a century after Calvin; however, Augustine’s principle of realism was not abandoned until much later, with the two theories being combined at first. Fisher sets out the three main theories of Original Sin (referring to the realistic as the Augustinian):

The fundamental idea of the Augustinian theory is that of a participation on the part of the descendants of Adam in his first sin; in consequence of which they are born both guilty and morally depraved. The fundamental idea of the federal theory is that of a vicarious representation on the part of Adam, in virtue of a covenant between God and him, whereby the legal responsibility for his first sinful act is entailed upon all his descendants; participation being excluded, but the propriety of his appointment to this vicarious office being founded on our relation to him as the common father of men. The Augustino-federal or semi-federal theory is a combination of the two, the covenant relation of Adam being prominent, but participation being also, with more or less emphasis, asserted.

[…] The federal doctrine is the offspring of the seventeenth century. In fact it may also be said of it, in the form in which it is now held, that it is the offspring of the eighteenth century; since, in the preceding age, the great majority of the theologians who adopted the theory of a covenant coupled with it the Augustinian principle. That is to say, they maintained the Augustino-federal or semi-federal doctrine as above defined.[5]

This has, at times, been a matter of protracted controversy among the Reformed (and Protestants in general). Did we participate in Adam’s sin, or does God merely view us as if we sinned in Adam? Although the representative view has been accepted by the majority and is often taught without even a mention of the realistic view, a significant minority of noteworthy theologians who are realists remains even today.[6]

As late as the nineteenth century, this debate raged once again, in American seminaries and theological circles. Mr. Farish mentions that J. P. Boyce had studied under Charles Hodge. Interestingly, Hodge played a pivotal role in this debate, taking the representative view to its logical end by stripping it completely away from the older “realistic mode of thought.” In response, the realistic theologians of his own Presbyterian denomination rose to challenge him, in what George P. Hutchinson calls “this most fascinating debate in American theological history.”[7] Hutchinson states, “Nowhere in the history of theology has this question been given more serious attention than among Reformed theologians in America, especially among the Presbyterians.”[8]

William G. T. Shedd[9] was Hodge’s counterpart as leader of the explicit realists. Robert W. Landis[10] defended the implicit realism as it was historically held by the Reformed Church. In the end, the view of Hodge and the Princeton school gained the majority. However, the issue is far from settled.[11]

John Murray, in the twentieth century, restated the representationist view in a way that strongly disagreed with Hodge’s separation of culpability (reatus culpae) from liability to punishment (reatus poenae). Reacting to the realists’ insistence that there can be no just punishment without culpability, and no culpability without real participation, Hodge denied that culpability is necessary to punishment, citing the righteousness of Christ as being imputed to us without any merit on our part—an alien righteousness and, by strict parallel, an alien sin imputed to the race. But in resorting to this strict parallel, as Murray points out, Hodge contradicts the historical view of the Reformed. Murray’s solution, however, is not realistic, but the opposite, and amounts to imputing culpability with the sin.[12]

Although these men were Presbyterians, they earned great respect even among Baptists; and we owe them much for their work on many important doctrines. One noteworthy Baptist theologian who became a leader of the realistic view in the early twentieth century was Augustus H. Strong.[13]

Objections to the Realistic View

The oddest and yet, most common, objection to realism is that, “If the realistic view is correct, then why was only Adam’s first sin imputed to the race and not his subsequent sins?” This strikes against common sense and simplicity. The question fails to comprehend the finality and ruin that took place at the first sin. What makes the first sin different from subsequent sins is not some change in representative capacity, but merely and simply the fall itself—changing both mankind and the world from unfallen and holy to corrupt and condemned. Dwell on that catastrophe and you may find the embarrassment that ought to attend any question regarding imputation of subsequent sins. If Adam’s second sin had been imputed to us, would we be doubly condemned?—doubly depraved?—doubly mortal? No subsequent sins bring about the changes that only the first could cause.

Looking to the Adam-Christ analogy, would Mr. Farish want to restrict the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to only His final act of obedience? Is not His every act of righteousness imputed to us? Just as Christ’s final act stood as the sum of the righteousness of His life, Adam’s every subsequent sin was encompassed in his first. When we speak of Christ’s one act of obedience, we speak of the righteousness of His whole life; and, when we speak of Adam’s one act of disobedience, we speak of the sin of his whole life—and ours. “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—”

One misunderstanding of the realistic view has been caused by some realistic theologians who leaned too heavily on philosophical language. It is not necessary to describe our union in Adam in terms of, “specific unity,” etc. By describing the union in terms that only apply to descent from our common parent, we miss the parallel to our union in Christ—and this is precisely the objection. We do not descend from Jesus. We were never “in His loins” or in “seminal union” in Him. There was not in Him an entity of “unindividualized” human nature, “specifically and numerically one,” that is passed down to us. Therefore, it is objected, the necessary analogy of Rom. 5:12-19 disqualifies the realistic view as inadequate. Two things are wrong with this objection.

First, the immaterial nature that is ours from Adam does indeed have something in common with the immaterial nature that we gain in Christ. Hutchinson perceptively asks, “Now we know that whereas the vital union with Adam is natural, the vital union with Christ is supernatural; but may we not ask whether there is perhaps a divinely intended analogy between these two relationships, and, if so, what is the precise nature of such an analogy?”[14] As a realistic opponent of Hodge, Samuel Baird expounds this analogy:

We have seen the zeal with which the position is maintained, that the doctrine of imputation “does not include the idea of a mysterious identity of Adam and his race.” By parity of reason it should not include the idea of a mysterious identity between Christ and his people. And accordingly, in the system presented in the review [by Charles Hodge, of Baird’s book, The Elohim Revealed], the relation which in the Scriptures and our standards, the mystical union sustains to justification is ignored, and the doctrine represented as complete without it, and to the exclusion of it. “Christ in the covenant of redemption, is constituted the head and representative of his people; and, in virtue of this federal union, and agreeably to the terms of the eternal covenant, they are regarded and treated as having done what he did and suffered what he suffered in their name and in their behalf.” According to our understanding of the Scriptures, it was provided in the eternal covenant that the elect should be actually ingrafted into Christ by his Spirit, and their acceptance and justification is by virtue of this their actual union to him. “[… The] union, which is constituted by virtue of the transmission of the nature, itself conveys a proprietary title in the moral and legal relations of the head; whilst the efficient principle which thus unites, is also fruitful in effects appropriate to the nature whence it flows. Thus, the sin of Adam, and the righteousness of Christ are severally imputed to their seed, by virtue of the union, constituted in the one case by the principle of natural generation, and in the other, by ‘the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,’ the Holy Spirit, the principle of regeneration […]” [The Elohim Revealed, p. 317].[15]

Baird, continuing, refers to a real inbeing:

[…]If the imputation of Christ’s righteousness be founded in a real inbeing in him, wrought by the uniting power of his Spirit in regeneration,—if it is thus that we are brought within the provisions of the covenant of grace to our justification, it follows, (we will venture the word,) incontestably, that the imputation to us of Adam’s sin, is founded in a real inbeing in him, by natural generation, by virtue of which we come under the provisions of the covenant of works, to our condemnation. But this, according to our reviewer [Hodge], is “simply a physiological theory,” involving “a mysterious identity,” which he cannot admit. Hence the necessity of ignoring the doctrine, in its relation to justification<.[16]

It is this “real inbeing” that we have in both Adam and Christ that is the heart and soul of Biblical realism, and is an area with great potential for developmental gains. Our old nature was propagated out of Adam, but our new nature is gained in Christ. Both involve a community of nature: one old and in Adam when he sinned, and one new and in us now. This brings us to the second thing wrong with the objection.

The parallel is not exact, but inverse, involving opposites. We were born out of Adam, but we are reborn into Christ. The sinful, spiritual nature of one man was propagated into the many; but the many are justified by being spiritually brought into One, Christ. The nature of one (Adam) became dispersed into the many separate individuals, the sin of one leading to the condemnation of the many; but, now the many are being collected into the One (Christ), and the sins of the many are justified through union with the One.

Adam is not merely the physical progenitor, but also the spiritual progenitor of his race of people. Christ is the spiritual progenitor of His new race of people. The old race is propagated naturally because the immaterial nature is propagated along with the material nature. The new race is propagated supernaturally because the Holy Spirit unites the believer with the immaterial nature of Christ. The parallel holds.

Another objection is that if Christ represented us prior to our mystical [realistic] union with Him, then by analogy, no realistic union with Adam is needed for representation. There is some truth to the idea of representation: both Christ and Adam did represent us. But that representation is like the shell of an egg: without the inner substance, we have only a shell of truth. It fits well as far as it goes, but it is a shallow understanding of what is really involved.

Having been propagated out of Adam, we were in him in a real, participative way. All who were “in the loins” of Adam shared identity with him. Therefore, we have a corporate ownership in what he did. With Christ, the parallel is opposite. His defining act took place long before we are joined to Him. And here is the key: when Adam’s nature is propagated into a child of Adam, the person of Adam is not propagated; however, when the nature of Christ is propagated, the Person of Christ is “propagated” (given) to that new child of God. When we were in Adam, we were united to the person of Adam and his moral actions. But when we were propagated out of Adam, we were no longer “in his loins,” so to speak, and no longer shared identity with him.

We were one with Adam long ago, but have since been propagated out of himthough we still have his nature; and now, when we believe, we are made one with Christ. Because His Person and nature are inseparable (just as His humanity and Divinity are inseparable), we gain a real, participative ownership in all of his human accomplishments. We did not need to share Christ’s identity when He suffered, died and rose again, because we share His identity nowand the Christ in us now was certainly one with the Christ who did all these things.

Only by a vital union within substantial reality can two people share identity in such a way as to justify a shared ownership of moral actions. The God of truth does not close His eyes to reality, and declare as just that which is unjust. Rather, He makes changes within reality to satisfy justice and then declares it so. One man cannot justly die for another unless the two can somehow become one man in realityand this is what God accomplishes! It is not enough for my salvation that God sees Christ on the cross; for me to be saved, God must see the Christ of the cross actually in me. This is the necessary substance that fills the shell of true representation.


[1] Found at http://founders.org/2017/02/22/the-fall-brought-condemnation-and-corruption/, Founders Ministries, accessed 03/23/2017. Note that The Founders Journal misspelled the author’s name as “Steve Farrish.”

[2] There are pitfalls in terminology to be careful of here. Many terms and even ideas that were realistic in origin seem to have been coopted (and redefined) by representationists. Other terms are defined differently by the different sides. Thus, confusion abounds. George P. Hutchinson, The Problem of Original Sin in American Presbyterian Theology, (Toccoa: Sola Fide, 1972), p. 106, observes, “Another observation which pertains to the subject matter of the debate is simply this: the immense and often overwhelming complexity of the issue under discussion. This fact is particularly demonstrated by the maddening confusion of terms as they are used by the various disputants. For instance, one term may mean one thing in the theological expression of one man, and quite another in the terminology of another.” For example, John Murray,  in The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 26-27, asserts what seems to be agreement with the realists, claiming that representationists do not deny “community of nature” in Adam, that “natural union is involved in natural headship,” that “[…] this human nature which became corrupt in Adam is transmitted to posterity by natural generation.” However, what he means by natural generation involves the whole of human propagation, which, to representationists, incorporates the divine creation ex nihilo of the immaterial side of that nature. So then, his ostensible agreement with the realists that human nature (with only the immaterial side in dispute) “is transmitted to posterity by natural generation,” sounds well and good, but it is really no agreement at all, since that aspect of the human nature that is at issue is not, in the representative scheme, naturally generated, but is supernaturally generated as a subsumed part of the “natural generation” process. Furthermore, the supposed “community of nature,” as it respects the immaterial side, exists (in the representative view) nowhere other than in the mind of God, even though it is called a union “in Adam.” On the other hand, the realists locate the union of nature literally within the man, Adamthe terms, “in Adam,” mean exactly that. And as for transmission of a corrupt nature to posterity, through what medium is it “transmitted?” If God creates the immaterial nature out of nothing, then there is no unbroken medium between generations through which to “transmit.” Such an idea would entail transmitting through the mind of God as if divine creation ex nihilo were an involuntary reflex. Again, the representationists have agreed to a realistic-sounding proposition only by depleting the proper substance from the meaning of its terms.

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 211.

[4] George P. Fisher, Discussions in History and Theology, (New York: Scribner’s, 1880), “The Augustinian and the Federal Theories of Original Sin Compared,” pp. 359-360.

[5] Ibid., pp. 356-357.

[6] For example, see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).

[7] Hutchinson, p. 105.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003).

[10] Robert W. Landis, The Doctrine of Original Sin, (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1884). Hutchinson (p. 66) calls this book “a goldmine of historic material on the doctrine of original sin.”

[11] Hutchinson, p. 113, states: “Hodge is the great formative theologian of traditional American Presbyterian theology, occupying a position relatively similar to that of Augustine in relation to Catholic theology, of Calvin in relation to Reformed theology, and of Edwards in relation to New England theology.” Hutchinson’s book is indispensable to understanding the history and development of this doctrine.

[12] Murray, pp. 72-95.

[13] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, (Valley Forge: Judson, 1907).

[14] Hutchinson, p. 122.

[15] Samuel J. Baird, A Rejoinder to The Princeton Review, upon The Elohim Revealed, (Phila.: Joseph M. Wilson, 1860), pp. 32-33. This was a rebuttal of Hodge’s scathing review of Baird’s magnum opus, The Elohim Revealed in the Creation and Redemption of Man, (Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1860).

[16] Ibid., p. 34.


Copyright © 2017 by Ken Hamrick. All rights reserved.

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