A Realist’s Review of J.V. Fesko’s ‘Death in Adam, Life in Christ,’ Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Fesko’s misrepresentations are disturbing. As I read his section on Augustine[23], I thought maybe he had misunderstood Augustine when Fesko claimed that Realism was about a “biological” union in Adamthat Realism claimed a physical presence of all men in Adam. However, after Fesko described the views of Shedd and Baird (the Realist School of the 19th century), and showed that he does indeed understand that the view is about the propagation of the soul and the “co-agency” of all men while in Adam[24], he continues for the remainder of the book to refer to Realism as “biological” and “physical transmission”not as additional to “spiritual” or “immaterial transmission” (which he ignores) but as if “physical” and “biological” accurately described the Realistic view. Misunderstanding Augustine might be excusable, but continuing the error even after showing a basic understanding of Shedd and Baird is inexcusable! Fesko says,

In Shedd’s opinion, the only way someone can be guilty is if they voluntarily will something. Hence, guilt arises from a voluntary action of the will. Without going into the details, Shedd links all individuals under Adam’s representation based upon Romans 5. As Shedd understands it, the Westminster assembly drew the connection between Adam and his offspring based upon this passage, but he nevertheless admits that this is ‘one of the darkest points of speculative theology.’ And hence, the Westminster Confession does not exhaustively explain the precise nature of imputed sin. Rather, ‘They locate the individual in Adam, and make him, in some mysterious but real manner, a responsible partaker of Adam’s sina guilty sharer, and, in some solid sense of the word, co-agent in a common apostasy.’ Despite the darkness that shrouds the subject, Shedd argues this co-agency rests in a natural or substantial union between Adam and his posterity…[25]

Shedd had no reluctance to go into the details: it was Fesko, not Shedd, who glossed over how Shedd linked all individuals under Adam by saying, “Without going into the details…” Shedd saw “co-agency” in the “substantial union between Adam and his posterity.” Was the substance of this substantial union material (“biological/physical”) or immaterial? Clearly, it was the immaterial to which Shedd referred. How then can Fesko proceed from this point on to continue to label Realism as “physical” and “biological,” ignoring the immaterial?

Fesko states, “An underlying element within Shedd’s formulation is the adherence to traducianism, which maintains that human beings create souls through the act of procreation.”[26] More misrepresentation! Traducianism is not about human beings creating souls by propagation any more than they create the bodies of their children. Traducianism is propagation of the immaterial as well as the materialthe soul as well as the body. Fesko cites Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology on this topic. Did he fail to read the material he cited? Shedd states (bold mine):

Traducianism applies the idea of species to both body and soul. Upon the sixth day, God created two human individuals, one male and one female, and in them also created the specific psychico-physical nature from which all the subsequent individuals of the human family are procreated both psychically and physically. […] Creationism and preexistence both alike maintain that the human soul is individual only and never had a race-existence in Adam. […] The question between the traducianist and the creationist is this: When God created the first two human individuals, Adam and Eve, did he create in and with them the invisible substance of all the succeeding generations of men, both as to the soul and body or only as to the body? Was the human nature that was created in Adam and Eve simple or complex? Was it physical solely, or was it psychico-physical? Had the human nature in the first pair two sides or only one? Was provision made for propagating out of the specific nature deposited in Adam individuals who would be a union of body and soul or only a mere body without a soul? […] The traducianist asserts that the entire invisible substance of all the generations of mankind was originated ex nihilo by that single act of God mentioned in Gen. 1:27, by which he created “man male and female.”[27]

Clearly, Shedd holds that it was God who created the substance of the souls of all men when He breathed into Adam to make him a “living soul.” Human beings procreate but they do not create either part of that two-part human nature consisting of the soul and the body.

Now, having read Shedd’s explanations above, which side of that two-part nature that was created in Adam and propagated to us is pertinent to our having been co-agents in Adam’s sin? Is our moral agency in our body or our soul? If at a funeral, the preacher demands, “Let those who believe in Christ stand up,” is the man in the coffin then guilty of denying Christ by not standing? Obviously not, because his moral agency has departed with his soul, in which it is exclusively found. And it is the propagation of the soul as the seat of the moral will that is the key to Realism’s claim of universal co-agency in Adam’s sin. Even Charles Hodge, adamantly against traducianism, gave a proper definition of it:

What is meant by the term traduction is in general sufficiently clear from the signification of the word. Traducianists on the one hand deny that the soul is created; and on the other hand, they affirm that it is produced by the law of generation, being as truly derived from the parents as the body. The whole man, soul and body, is begotten. The whole man is derived from the substance of his progenitors.[28]

Fesko presents, in Part I Summary, “a number of issues for consideration…:”

1. What is the nature of the connection between Adam and his offspring? Moral? Legal? Physical? Exemplary?

2. Are sin and guilt purely ontological and therefore require a physical means of transmission?[29]

Where is the missing “Immaterial/Spiritual?” category option? And why is Realism still being portrayed as the “physical” option? There is complete agreement on all sides that, “ontologically,” humanity has a physical connection to Adam, since the bodies of all men have their origin in him. Realism is not distinguished by the assertion of what is already universally agreed upon. Realism asserts what Fesko and others disagree with, to wit, that humanity’s connection to Adam is not merely of the body but is also of the soulnot merely physical but also spiritual or immaterial. Furthermore, such an immaterial connection happens by an equally immaterial propagation: the physical does not propagate the immaterial nature any more than the immaterial nature propagates the physicalthe physical is propagated physically, while the spiritual is propagated spiritually; “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

Fesko, discussing the “different views on the manner of humanity’s participation in Adam’s sin,” states:

2. Realismthis view was first made famous by Augustine who, based upon his mistranslation of Romans 5:12, believed that all humanity was seminally present in Adam. In some sense, then, humanity was really truly physically present. In addition to Augustine, similar views appear in John Calvin (1509-64), W. G. T. Shedd (1820-94) and James H. Thornwell (1812-62).[30]

Still, Fesko tries to maintain that Realism is about being “physically present” in Adam, and explicitly attributes this to not only Augustine but also Calvin, Shedd, Thornwell, and all who hold to “this view” of Realism! His argument here is commonly used today by Pelagians, that the Realistic view can be traced to an error of translation in the Latin Vulgate in Rom. 5:12, which used “in whom all sinned” instead of “because all sinned.” But this, even if accepted as error, changes nothing in the exegesis if the context is considered. Indeed, even the Nominalistic Federalists such as Fesko have to agree in the main with Augustine here. Ask even the Nominalists how it is that all men sinned in such a way as to cause sin and death to enter into the world, and they must answer that we sinned “in Adam!” The fact that they read into the text a meaning for those words that is different from what the Realists understand does not make Adam, in the text, any less the one “in whom all sinned.” Fesko does not intend to convey that the phrase, “because all sinned,” means that all sinned as individuals. The sin referred to in that phrase is none other than the one sin of the one man, Adam. So what, then, is Fesko’s point in arguing that Augustine’s translation of, “in whom all sinned,” misled him to think realistically? He simply loses sight of his own position while cherry-picking an opportunity to use a well-worn criticism of the Realistic view.

Yet, strangely, the nominalistic federal/covenant view does not reject the realistic language and terms of Augustine. The language of sinning “in Adam,” of being “in Adam,” of “natural union,” of “seminal union,” of guilt and corruption being passed to all men “by natural propagation,” of Adam being “the root of mankind,” etc., had no meaning whatsoever, in the beginning of such usage, other than a realistic meaning. It would have been much clearer if the nominalists had simply abandoned such terms and replaced them with such as, “represented by Adam,” “representative union,” “federal/covenantal union,” of Adam being the “covenant head of mankind,” of guilt and sin being passed to all men “by imputation,” etc. And, surprisingly, this was suggested by such men as Catharinusa completely nominalized federal headship that was shockingly in line with the federal thinking of today… and it was soundly rejected and denounced by Calvin and the other Reformers of his day.[31] The kind of complete revolution in thinking required to change from realism to nominalism could not be forced upon the Church over night. Rather, it had to be gradually brought in over centuries, not with outright replacement of terms and ideas, but as an insidious erosion of the meaning of terms from realistic to nominalistic ideas, which took time. All of the realistic terms remained in place, while they were eventually understood by the majority to mean something which those who coined such terms would never have understoodhaving the same form but devoid of the substance. [And some of this co-opting of terms makes no sense in common language, but is accepted in theology: who would actually speak in such a way as to say that, “Because my congressman voted for a certain bill, then I have voted for that bill in my congressman?” Being represented by someone does not, in English, put you in the representative in any sense or reasonable manner of speaking!] So then, even Fesko himself, must agree that all sinned “in Adam;” and if Augustine was really so far from the truth, due to a mistranslation, then all of the other realistic terminology that comes from Augustine and is still cherished by Nominalists today ought to be abandoned as well.

The Nominalist, John Murray, says in his exegesis of Rom. 5:12 that the Vulgate rendering of “in whom all sinned” is “grammatically untenable” but still “theologically true.” [32] He concludes, “As we correlate this premise of I Corinthians 15:22, namely, that ‘in Adam all sinned’, with the teaching of Romans 5:12-19 there is only one conclusion: all sinned in Adam in his one trespass.” Another Nominalist, Charles Hodge, says of Rom. 5:12: “It was by one man, he [Paul] says, that sin and death passed upon all men; because all sinned. They sinned through, or in, that one man.”[33] So it seems that this supposed mistranslation, “in whom all sinned,” is not a misunderstanding, however much it may be grammatically incorrect. Therefore, Fesko’s claim that this mistranslation led Augustine into the error of Realistic thinking is specious. It was not the translation but how Augustine understood it that is Fesko’s real objection. But it’s far easier to dismiss the Realistic understanding as “caused by a mistranslation” than to substantively engage it and prevail. We would expect such an argument from those who hold to neither federal/covenant nor realistic headship, but not from one holding in one hand that we did sin “in Adam” and in the other hand that “in Adam” language caused Augustine to misunderstand! It’s a case of shooting himself in the very foot he uses to stand upon Augustine!

In his Part II Summary, Fesko again asks: “1. What is the nature of the connection between Adam and his offspring? Moral? Legal? Physical? Exemplary?” and he answers: “The survey of Romans 5 reveals that God does not base humanity’s unity upon biological, moral, physical, or exemplary but a federal-legal connection.”[34] Where in this list of possibilities is the adamic co-agency of the propagated soul that Fesko was introduced to by Shedd and Baird? He lists the second question and answers it:

2. Are sin and guilt purely ontological and therefore require a physical means of transmission?

Paul does not posit a physical means of transmission in his Adam-Christ parallel. Against the backdrop of the Old Testament, there is no physical connection between Achan and Israel or David and Israel, for example, when God holds the nation accountable for their individual actions. The bond is legal, or more specifically, covenantal. The covenant binds the individual and the corporate body.[35]

If the ontology in question were physical, then it would require a physical means of transmission; but since it is spiritualof the soul and immaterial naturethen it requires an immaterial means of transmission and not a physical one. In all such example cases, such as Achan and David, in which those who did not immaterially descend from the one for whose sins they are being temporally held accountable (including the children of such destroyed peoples as Sodom and Gomorrah), it is only Realism that can answer how these are just. Nominalists can point to these as if the existence of such cases itself proves the justice; but ultimately, they must fall back to the argument that one cannot object to being held accountable for another’s sin while accepting that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. This is the rock bottom of their covenantal edifice: they have no where else to go. But the Realist asserts that because all participated in Adam’s sin, no one is conceived with any rights to anything other than death and hell. Because we participated in Adam’s sin, we have no right to complain if God brings temporal penalties upon us for the sins of othersor for the sins of no one other than Adam. God decides when we will die and how, and we deserve nothing but misery in between. That is how it is justand apart from our realistic participation in Adam’s sin, no covenant would be enough to establish justice in and of itself. Since the fall, all such covenants were between God and sinnerssinners who had no right standing before the bar of justice. But notice: Not in any such case is anyone eternally judged or sent to hell for another’s sin.

Fesko states, in his chapter entitled, “The Doctrine of Imputation,” “If you eliminate the doctrine of the covenant, there are only three other options to explain the universality of sin: social, biological, or decretal bonds,” and, “Apart from covenant, theologians have sought to account for the transmission of sin and guilt through biological means (e.g., Augustine, Shedd) […] Moreover, Paul specifically states that when Adam sinned, ‘all sinned’ (Rom. 5:12), which rules out a biological means for accounting the universality of sin and guilt.”[36]

Fesko cannot find a single quote where Shedd or Baird state that the connection between all men and Adam’s sin is “biological” or “physical.” He shows a poor reading comprehension when it comes to Realistic authors, but a tenacity for repeating his erroneous characterizations. If by “biological means” he actually intends to refer to the immaterial participation and propagation of the immaterial nature to Adam’s descendants, then why does he think that Paul specifically stating “that when Adam sinned, ‘all sinned’:… “rules out a [realistic] means for accounting for the universality of sin and guilt”? He has already shown that he knows that the Realistic view holds to traducianism, and he knows that this is the propagation of the soul. He already knows from Shedd and Baird that this involves the co-agency of all such descended souls in Adam prior to their descent (whether he agrees or not is immaterialno pun intended). Such a realistic, immaterial means that involved the co-agency of the moral and spiritual nature of all men would indeed account for the universality of sin and guilt! Even Murray says as much:

It must be acknowledged that if this view were proven to be correct it would adequately explain the two aspects from which the one fact or event may be viewed, namely, that “one sinned” and “all sinned”. The question is whether the relevant evidence supports this construction of the Adamic relation.[37]

Only by restricting this realistic connection to Adam to the merely “biological” can it be “ruled out” by the prospect of all having sinned when the one sinned. So here we see at least a consequence (if not a motivation) of Fesko’s continued use of the blunderous terms, “physical,” and, “biological,” to describe the Realistic connection between Adam and the race. Fesko states:

Adam violated God’s covenantal law, and as the representative for his offspring, this meant that his action was the action of all of his offspring. The covenant binds the actions of the one to the lives of the many. The apostle Paul makes this point explicitly: ‘By the one man’s disobedience the many were constituted sinners’ (Rom. 5:19a). As Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and others rightly point out, immediate imputation best explains Paul’s statement. Paul mentions nothing of biological descent or sociological imitation. People are sinners because they are guilty of Adam’s sin; they are not guilty because they are sinners […][38]

The word Paul uses for “constituted” in Rom. 5:19 can mean to set over or appoint, but it can also mean to render, make or cause to be.[39] The word itself is not decisive as to whether a nominalistic meaning (the former) or a realistic meaning (the latter) is intended. Nominalists say that God appointed us sinners based on Adamic imputation; while Realists say that our sin itself rendered us sinners. The American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is not intended to accurately describe the state of one who has committed a crime (it merely describes how he ought to relate to our system of justice). The accurate state of the case is that the man is in fact guilty as soon as he commits the crime and prior to his appearance before the judge. It’s the same for theology: Adam was a guilty sinner as soon as he sinned, and logically (if not chronologically) prior to God imputing or accounting him as such. He was not guilty due only to God’s accounting him as such, but rather, he was guilty because he sinned, and God’s accounting reflected that reality in truth. As far as the corruption of his nature, it is sin that corrupted his nature, and not God who added corruption to his imputation as a penalty. Sin brought its own penalty in this case. Now, if it is true that the immaterial nature of all men was literally in Adam, later springing from him as offspring of the soul, so to speak, then all men were rendered sinners and guilty at the very moment of their participative sin in Adam. Their sin, not God, made them (and Adam) guilty and corrupt sinners. Note that no “physical descent” was necessary to this, since even if Adam had not begotten any descendants, it would not have changed our condition as guilty and corrupt within him. All that would have changed is that we would have shared in his eternal destiny, since we would have gone there still within him.

The Nominalists want to say that because of a covenant, God treated mankind as if all men were in Adam and as if his actions were our actions; but the Realists hold that God treats us that way because we really were in Adam and his moral act really was the act of all mankind. The Nominalists really are in a centuries-long pickle, since they want to hang on to the old Augustinian framework of thinking, but without going the length of Realism. As for Fesko, he seems to have never learned an accurate account of theological history (such as Fisher provides), in which it is taught that nearly all who held to covenant theology during it’s first century of popularity combined it with the Augustinian principle of realistic participation in Adam’s sin.

All covenants rest within, are grounded upon and are judged by the greater moral framework of God’s moral law (which proceeds, immutably, from His nature). Was Adam’s sin wrong even without any covenant? Or was it only wrong because it broke the covenant? Certainly, breaking a covenant with God is wrong; but, disobeying God is wrong even if no covenant were present. Were the penalties that Adam and Eve endured deserved only because they broke the covenant or would they have deserved such penalties merely for disobedience even without a covenant? There can be actions stipulated in a covenant that, if committed, would break the covenant, but which are, in themselves and outside of any covenant not sinful. Just look at all the dietary restrictions in the Mosaic Law. Prior to Moses giving the law, it was no sin for those of Israel to eat shellfish; but after the Law came, it was sinful for those of Israel alone. While a covenant may stipulate requirements that are amoral in relation to the greater moral framework, it cannot rightly stipulate requirements that are immoral in relation to the greater moral framework. If a covenant were to stipulate that one must blaspheme God twice per day, then it would be moral to break the covenant and immoral to keep it. No covenant can contravene the greater moral framework, which stands on its own even without any covenant. Adam was guilty of violating the greater moral framework prior to any covenantal guilt. So then, the Nominalists’ argument that the justice of the covenantal arrangement whereby Adam’s descendants are held guilty for his actions is found in the covenant itself is circular reasoning. To hold those who did not commit the crime as if they did violates the greater moral framework. But to hold them accountable for realistically and seminally participating, according to how they participated, would not violate the greater moral framework. It’s all about God’s judgments being according to truth.

It is in this respect that even Fesko slips into a realistic mindset as he objects to those who claim Adam was a “mythic icon:”

How can God impute the non-existent mythical act of one non-historical mythical figure to the rest of humanity? If Adam did not exist, then there is no act of disobedience to impute, which means either there is no corporate solidarity with him and hence no corporate guilt, or that God created human beings defective with a predisposition towards sin. Such a conclusion not only strikes at the goodness of the creation but at the very heart of the doctrine of God. How can a holy and upright God create humanity with a proclivity towards sin and then hold them accountable if they were unable to act otherwise?[40]

Here, Fesko shoots himself in the other foot. If God can impute the sin of Adam to a non-existent humanity based on a non-existent, mythical union, then he ought to be able to impute to a non-existent humanity the mythical act of a non-existent mythical figure. If the rest of mankind did not exist, then there was no union of men on which to ground any imputation. If the men did not exist, then no union is possible between them; rather, this mythical union is no more than a divine attitude by which men are treated in a way that does not accord with the reality or truth of the case. If we allow that God treats us as if we were in Adam even though we know that we were not actually present or participating in him in any way other than in God’s mind, then consistency would demand that we have no problem with God treating us as if we sinned in a man whom God also treats as if he existed when he really did not except in God’s mind! Fesko objects because, like all men, he innately understands that justice must be grounded in reality; but in attacking those who have taken his nominalism a step further than he has, he seems to overlook the steps he himself has already traveled down that road. Corporate solidarity with a mythical figure can be imputed by the same mechanism that Fesko has been defending. If God needs no substantial presence of the moral nature of all men within Adam in order to impute his guilt to an otherwise non-existent humanity, then he needs no substantial, real presence of Adam, either! Under Nominalist principles, if God says you’re guilty of Adam’s sin, then you’re guilty, and no man named Adam existing in substantial reality is required. Fesko says that it “strikes at the goodness of creation [and] at the very heart of the doctrine of God” [to conclude that] “God created human beings defective with a predisposition toward sin.” He thinks this would be the case if Adam did not exist within reality but only existed in God’s mind. Fesko asks, assuming that Adam was mythical, “How can a holy and upright God create humanity with a proclivity towards sin and then hold them accountable if they were unable to act otherwise?” To which all Realists reply, “Exactly!” If any link in the chain between justice and reality is mythical, imaginary, putative or delusional, then the whole thing is delusionaljustice fails. Adam must have been real. His sin must have been real. Our participation and presence within him must have been real. Mythologize any of those three and you’re left with a justice-in-name-only concept. I’m thrilled that Fesko understands at least one-third of that.

This review will be continued in Part 3.


[23] Fesko, pp. 32-41.

[24] Ibid., pp. 131-138.

[25] Ibid., p. 132.

[26] Ibid., p. 134.

[27] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003), pp. 431-433.

[28] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Reprint, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), p. 68.

[29] Fesko, p. 171.

[30] Ibid., pp. 210-211.

[31] Robert W. Landis, The Doctrine of Original Sin, (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1884), pp. 392-399.

[32] John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1959), p. 9 fn. 10.

[33] Hodge, Vol. II, p. 202.

[34] Fesko, p. 225.

[35] Ibid., p. 226.

[36] Ibid., p. 241.

[37] Murray, p. 26.

[38] Fesko, p. 254.

[39] Thayers.

[40] Fesko, P. 214