It’s Time for New Thinking on Atonement, Part 6: The Realistic View of Adam

This eight-part series introduces the new perspective of Realistic Substitution, which unties the knots and answers the questions that previous theories could not. It is the ancient Realistic view of Adam further developed and applied to Christ.

The parallel between Adam and Christ is striking, as evident in Rom. 5:12-21. Inadequacies in our understanding of how Adam’s sin ruined us may impede our understanding of how Christ saves us. But, if we find new depth in our view of Adam, we may find new depth in our understanding of the cross.

We’re all born sinners, spiritually dead, mortal, subject to the pains and evils of this world. But, why? How can God hold us responsible for what some man did six thousand years ago? Why didn’t we get the same chance he did, starting life in a perfect world with an unfallen nature? You may say that life isn’t fair, but even that fact is a consequence of Adam’s sin alone. Evangelicals (Baptists included) have generally answered these questions in one of two ways.

Most are familiar with Federal (or Covenant) Headship, also known as the representative view, in which God designated Adam our representative. Accordingly, God made a covenant with Adam, stipulating that the consequences of his success or failure (in his moral probationary period) would be inherited by us. Success would have meant that humanity would be blessed and righteous forever; but alas, his failure meant that we would be held responsible as if we had sinned Adam’s sin—born sinners, alienated from God, and subject to the miseries of mortality.

Less well known is the alternative: Realistic (or Natural, or Augustinian) Headship.[15] It is the older of the two views (by 1200 years), and was held in early form by Augustine. Even since the Federal view became prevalent, a strong minority has remained that holds to the Realistic view.[16] 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 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 to sin (or not) was not created “brand new” at our conception, but was created as a part of Adam, chose to sin while in Adam, and was afterward passed down to us.[17] This is also called the participative view.

A century after Calvin, a theologian named Cocceius founded Covenant theology and Federal Headship; however, Augustine’s principle (of a real participation in Adam) was not abandoned until much later, so the two theories were combined at first (a mysterious, realistic participation within Adam was still held, but with Adam also being the designated representative to explain why “only his first sin was imputed”). This combined view, as it relates to Adam and original sin, was held by most in the Western Church, as George Fisher explains, from the seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries.[18]

Robert Landis held it to be prevalent until the late nineteenth century.  However, Landis maintained that most held the realism implicitly, refusing all attempts at philosophical explanations—holding only to the bare revealed fact that all men actually (in reality) sinned when Adam sinned. But while they lacked philosophical explanation, they did not lack for conviction in the matter. In their minds, revelation trumped human reasoning and philosophies.[19]

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? Or, as Landis explained, was the sin imputed because it is ours, or, is it ours only because it was imputed?[20] Landis may have been the last significant defender of the combined view before it was relegated to the shadows by the popularity of the federal view. Augustus Strong gave a renewed defense for the Realistic view in the early twentieth century; but now, it is uncommon to find someone familiar with such views. It is a forgotten idea. I submit that it was a mistake to abandon the Augustinian principle. The covenantal/federal system works best when it is grounded on the shared identity of a real union between Adam and his progeny—not a mere “union” in God’s chosen perception, but a real union within the man, Adam.

The Church used to be of a realistic mindset—presupposing that reality (the substantial, objective reality in which we exist) was necessary to truth and justice, and was important to God. In other words, in order for something to be true, it must exist in reality and not merely exist in the thoughts of any mind—even God’s mind. Sin belongs to the sinner alone. It cannot be transferred from one man to another without contradicting truth and reality. The proposition that God is able to accomplish such transfers merely by choosing in His thinking to do so—that a man can be made guilty merely by how God views him—would be just if God sent men to hell only in His mind and not in substantial reality. But since hell is a real place, then real justice requires men to own real crimes for which to be sent there.

This Realistic thinking sounds strange to the believers today. Nominalism has become the philosophical framework in which theology is done. Just as Realism was the framework for the participative view, Nominalism was the philosophy behind the representative view.[21] In the Realistic view, mankind’s guilt was not primarily due to God’s imputation, but was due to mankind having participated in the first sin. God’s imputation simply reflected that participation. That participative presence was replaced by the Nominalists with a divinely designated representation. In the Realistic view, we own Adam’s sin and deserve its consequences, but in the Federal/Covenant view, God imputed Adam’s sin to us without any culpability on our part.

In the Realistic view, our union in Adam was literally in the man, Adam; but Nominalism denied any such union, and relocated the union from inside Adam to inside the mind of God alone. Thus, it removed the basis of how God deals with men from “concrete” reality to mere thought; and by doing so, swallowed up justice in sovereignty. This forced God’s justice to be defended as incomprehensible. In Realism, God does what is right because it is right; but in Nominalism, what God does is right merely because it is He who does it, and we have no right to expect to understand His ways.

The strength of the Realistic view is its simplicity and plain understanding of God’s justice. It’s not right to hold men responsible for a sin that they didn’t commit or participate in. God has given men, created in His image, a sufficient sense of justice to understand that He doesn’t hold the innocent as guilty—that gratuitous salvation is grace but gratuitous condemnation would be injustice. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” This is why the whole “Augustinian Church,” until nearly four centuries after the Reformation, held on to the principle of realistic participation—even after Federal/Covenant theology was adopted—and only abandoned the principle relatively recently. It is not that Federal headship is incompatible with Realistic headship; but rather, the growing influence of Nominalism drove out the participative principle (and the combined view), because the two are antithetical.

Samuel Baird taught that God’s covenant with Adam was not superimposed upon a creature and creation as an afterthought; rather, God designed into His creation all the elements of that covenant as part of the intrinsic nature of Adam and the world.[22] The representationists tell us that God stipulated that what Adam lost he would lose for all his posterity, even though the posterity had only a physical link to Adam. But the consequences are better explained as having been written into the constitution of man as God created him, so that a spiritual covenant with Adam was a spiritual covenant with all those who would be propagated out of him. God created Adam in such a way that spiritual death in Adam would be spiritual death in all his posterity, and in such a way that none of his posterity could divorce themselves from his act or claim injustice on God’s part for the conditions into which they were born.

Building on this foundation of a real, participative union in Adam will enable us to finally understand the role of the Holy Spirit and what a real, participative union in Christ entails, unlocking the mystery of the very mechanics of atonement.

[15] In this article, I will mostly be referring to Biblical realism—that Biblical principle of shared identity based on immaterial union, to which philosophical realism (with all its excesses) came to be applied. Biblical realism is the recognition of a shared personal identity, effected by immaterial (spiritual) union or singularity of immaterial origin, which is sufficient in itself to account for the headships of Adam and Christ. More broadly, Biblical realism is a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice are dependent upon substantial reality—a reality which He may sovereignly change but cannot justly ignore. It was from this paradigm that the principle of realistic union was arrived at. Although explicit theological realists have most commonly employed the terms and constructs of Plato’s realism in expounding principles of Biblical realism, such use of Plato is neither necessary nor beneficial. When divested of unnecessary Platonic constructs, Biblical realism yields an understanding of justification, rebirth and atonement that is vastly superior to all other systems, and solves many longstanding theological problems.
[16] Including: William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003); Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 2009); Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993); Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Bloomington: Bethany, 2011); Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); as well as those who combine the two views, such as: Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998); Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
[17] Adapted from my article, “Realism & The Fall: A Response to Steve Farish,” found at
[18] George P. Fisher, “The Augustinian and the Federal Theories of Original Sin Compared,” Discussions in History and Theology, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880), pp, 355-357.
[19] Robert W. Landis, The Doctrine of Original Sin as Received and Taught by the Churches of the Reformation Stated and Defended, (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1884), pp. 32-33, explains:

Our participation of Adam’s offense is directly affirmed in the inspired announcement that all sinned, and that they were, in consequence, constituted sinners, or exhibited in their real character as such. And this is affirmed to be the reason why death, or the judgment unto condemnation passed upon all. We repeat, that we know nothing as to the mode or manner of this participation. Nor is such knowledge at all needed in order to our full confidence in the truth of the Divine averment. The posterity of Adam were punished because they all alike were guilty with their parents; though in what manner the ethical appropriation of that guilt actually occurred we know not; and neither do we believe how it occurred, since the how is nowhere revealed. The fact that we all sinned in the first sin is of pure revelation; and as such we reverentially receive it. […] the fact stated is to be received simply as a fact revealed by the Holy Spirit; and such in every age has been the position of the Augustinian Church. […] The doctrine itself, that we all sinned in the first sin, is of pure revelation, and as such neither our philosophy, nor our notions of the “absurd” and “impossible,” can have any thing to do with it. The Holy Spirit does not teach absurdities, nor do they believe absurdities who believe what He teaches.

[20] Ibid., pp. 32-34.
[21] Nominalism is the denial of any union of species within substantial reality, relegating all such unions to mere perception of union in the mind. In theology, this is the denial of any union of immaterial nature of mankind in Adam, and the relegation to a mere union in God’s chosen perception. In the broad picture, it is the diminishment of the importance of substantial reality—a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice have no standard other than His own sovereign will.
[22] Samuel Baird, a contemporary of Landis and Charles Hodge, provided, in The Elohim Revealed in the Creation and Redemption of Man, (Phila.: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1860), pp. 308-309, a clear picture of how God’s covenant with Adam was a covenant with all men:

Here, however, it is necessary to enter more particularly into consideration of the manner in which Adam was invested with the function of a representative. That the cause of that office was the will of God, is not disputed by any who recognise the office. But it is a question how the Creator gave effect to his will in this matter. Was it by a positive arrangement, unessential to the completeness of the constitution of nature, extraneous to it, and superimposed upon it after the work of creation was complete? Or, did He so order that the relation between the representative body and its head should be an organic one,—a relation implied in the very structure of Adam’s nature, incorporated with the substance of his being, and constituting an element essential to the completeness and symmetry of the whole system, physical, moral and spiritual? By many orthodox theologians of the present day, it is held, that the representative relation of Adam did not exist, until the positive provision was made respecting the tree of knowledge; when it was constituted by a decretive act of God’s sovereignty. We are constrained to take the opposite view, and to maintain, with the older divines, that the relation is as old as the first inscription of the covenant of nature on the heart of man in his creation. We look upon it as the essential element in the parental relation as it subsisted in Adam,—the element which gives the family constitution all its significance. Purposing to introduce a system of representation into his moral government, God gave effect to that purpose by the manner in which the parental relation was constituted between Adam and his seed.