Essay on Romans 5:12


This is the text of an essay submitted as part of my course at Wesley House, Cambridge for the module ‘Further New Testament Study’. It gained a provisional mark of 74 (a first).

Discuss the history of interpretation of any one of the following texts from Romans. What significance should the text have for Christians today?

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 

 Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι’ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον—

In this essay, I will start by considering the textual difficulties of φ πντες μαρτον, upon which so much rests. I will survey the major historical trends and note the differences and similarities of current Protestant, Roman and Orthodox positions in relation to the doctrine of original sin. Finally, I will draw out the consequences of our interpretation of this verse for our work and worship today.


Textual Difficulties

Great doctrines spanning centuries have been built upon two tiny words in this verse – φ ᾧ – and churches have split over their interpretation. There are two possible cases: masculine and neuter. If masculine, then it refers to ‘one man’; if neuter, to (the spread of) death. φ is variously translated ‘in that’, ‘in whom’, ‘because’, ‘for that’, ‘since’, ‘inasmuch as’ and ‘in which man’.[1]

If meaning ‘in whom’, then we were ‘in Adam’ when he sinned. Consequently, we were expelled with him, and exclusion from the Tree of Life explains why death came upon all. Although logical, there is no clear mechanism by which we were ‘in Adam’, and Scripture denies imputed guilt of another’s sin (Dt 24:16). It is helpful to distinguish between inherited sin(fullness), inherited guilt and (the) original sin, referring to Adam’s deed.[2]

If we take the subject to be death, the verse can be framed as ‘and so death spread to all men, on the basis of which (death), all sinned.'[3] Satan, the fallen angel, is the originator of both sin and death, and humanity, being subject to death, is subject to sin as well (Rom 6 & 7).

A third approach takes the subject of φ not as death itself, but the sin-death link established by Adam’s fall. It renders the verse ‘because of this, just as {through one man sin entered the world and through sin [is] death,} and so upon all men death spread, because of which fact [i.e. sin entering and bringing death] all sinned.’[4] Adam’s disobedience allowed sin into the world, and since we were incapable of resisting sin we became subject to its consequence, death.

The first option seems to stretch the linguistics to fit ideas which are not obvious in Scripture. The latter two, while providing a less detailed mechanism, fit better with the rest of Scripture and provide a more nuanced interpretation of God’s dealings with his creation.



I will briefly consider the Jewish understanding of the origin of sin. The two main ideas are a fall doctrine, and the Hebrew concept of yecer ha-ra, or ‘evil imagination’


The first draws much of its theology from the inter-testamentary writings and regards the sin that precipitated the fall as the literal seduction of Eve by the serpent (Sir 25:24), with the result that both she and all her progeny were tainted, together with the whole of creation.[5] The motif of sex being the first sin is still found in some traditions although it has little witness in the present canon.

The second considers humanity’s inbuilt tendency to transgress, but this is different from being born in a sinful state from which we need redeeming. Judaism does not teach inherited sinfulness, instead it has an ‘evil imagination’ (Gen 6:5, 8:21), a phrase used by God to describe humanity’s bad behaviour.[6] The Hebrew Scriptures (Sir 15:14-15) describe two antagonistic forces: the yecer ha-ra within and the torah without.


History of Interpretation

With this as the background, I will survey the major interpretations of Romans 5:12, starting with the patristic period.


Origen was the foremost influence of the early church, but equivocated over the crucial φ . Taking the conjunction to mean ‘in this’, he framed the verse as ‘the death of sin passed through to all men in this: that all sinned’, leaving the cause of the sin unstated.[7]

Alternatively, using the ‘in whom’ form, Origen considered that being literally ‘in the loins’ (Heb 7:9-10) of Adam could locate humanity in the garden with Adam.[8] Origen’s belief in pre-existent souls provided the mechanism by which those not yet born could be guilty of Adam’s act. Although this is a convenient device, it does require several additional concepts not obvious in Scripture, and so falls foul of Ockham’s razor.

Pelagius took the former alternative and, again, extended it rather beyond the remit of Scripture. He viewed Adam’s role as an example, rendering Rom. 5:19 as ‘just as by the example of Adam’s disobedience many sinned, so also many are justified by Christ’s obedience.”[9] The difficulty with this view is that it makes redemption unnecessary, and reduces Jesus’ ministry to a better example. It also ignores Eve, whom Adam imitated first (1 Tim 2:14).[10]

Ambrosiaster took the term ‘death’ as referring to spiritual death, not because of Adam’s sin, per se, but because his fall opened the way for us to obtain that death by our own demerit.[11] This is a worthy attempt to find a mid-way between Origen’s shared guilt and Pelagius’ mere example.


Moving from the patristic to the medieval period, Augustine emphasised the opposite strand from Pelagius, refuting the imitation thesis by arguing that if sin entered the world by imitation, then Paul would have called the devil, rather than Adam, the originator of sin.[12] Augustine maintained that we inherit the guilt of Adam through procreation (Ps 51:5). This accords with Old Testament sin-offerings after the birth of a child (Lev 12), and with baptising infants, both before any actual sins have been committed. However, the corollary is that unbaptised infants are condemned.[13] There is also a dualist aspect of this proposition, which is foreign to Hebraic thought and falsely links sex with sin.[14]

Anselm preferred the concept of original guilt over original sin. He regarded sin as originating afresh in each person, who, being germinally present in Adam, were guilty of Adam’s first sin. This thesis is supported by Christ’s virgin birth because this broke the link of transmitted guilt through the male line and had Jesus born in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3) rather than sinful flesh itself.[15] However, this requires a genetic lineage from an historical Adam, both of which are disputed; and if guilty of Adam’s sin because of heredity, then surely every sin of every ancestor too (Jer 31:30).[16]

Aquinas, with many scholastic theologians, argued that the ‘likeness of God’ was the ability of humans to conform their wills to that of God. This ability was lost at the fall, leaving humans aware of their sin, yet unable to remedy the problem. This approach benefits by dispensing with biological descent and concurs with the restoration of humanity to the likeness of God (2 Cor 3:18).[17] However, it minimises the fall to a loss of direction.


With the Reformation came a strong interest in sin and redemption. Calvin rejected Aquinas’ idea of unsullied reason and declared that all aspects of a person are subject to depravity.[18] He understood Ps 51:5 as poetic hyperbole rather than doctrine on descent and declared that Origen ‘disputeth philosophically and profanely’ by allowing the possibility of Adam as an example.[19]

Luther, similarly, read a hard fall at this locus. He reasoned from the phrase ‘by one man’ that the world was not corrupted by actual sins, because that would be by many men. Rather, all humanity was contaminated by Adam’s disobedience, all being guilty of this, irrespective of their conduct.[20] Like a sick person, diseased in every part and loathing the cure while longing for the sickness.[21]

Erasmus rejected ‘in whom’ (that is, Adam) for φ as being linguistically untenable and insisted that those who died before baptism were not condemned by inherited guilt. He wrote against Origen’s transmission of culpability and argued that this locus does not establish the doctrine of original sin.[22] Erasmus disagreed with Luther and Calvin, but his ‘softer’ readings were based on good scholarship and his conclusions fit with Orthodox and Roman views. [23]


As Protestantism diverged from Roman and Orthodox traditions, the differences in the interpretations of this locus became clear.

According to the Catholic catechism, Adam, as the first and type of all who follow, opened the floodgates of sin and transmitted the wounded human nature to all.[24] By allowing a representative Adam rather than a literal individual, any notion of seminal descent is put aside, and Adam’s sin rests upon humanity by regarding the whole race as one (Isa 6:5).[25]

Orthodox teaching is that while we have not inherited Adam’s guilt for his action, we have inherited its effects, the culpable party being not Adam but death itself, the work of Satan. [26] The many were made sinners not in that they personally sinned along with Adam, but rather they shared the nature of Adam, which acquired with him the weakness of corruption and subservience to the law of sin.[27]


Nineteenth-century humanitarian optimism disparaged inherited guilt. In theology, there was a liberal revolt against the deterministic teachings of the Reformation. The fall was either pre-natal or pre-cosmic, humanity’s state was morally neutral, and the first sin was less a positive choice to rebel as ‘a failure to climb as directly and perpendicularly as God had desired.’[28] This agrees with the etymology of ἁμαρτία, a failure to hit the target, but minimises the seriousness of sin and reduces redemption to a better aim.

The World Wars shattered this positive view of humanity, sparking a resurgence of interest in the origin of sin. Barth finds the cause in neither poor example nor inherited guilt, instead, Adam opened the floodgates of sin so that we might all drown by our own corrupted natures.[29] He dismisses both original guilt and original sin as misinterpretations of Paul’s intent and holds that the fall of Adam (which means ’humanity’) is a parable of the decision made by us all to live in enmity with God.[30] This middle way avoids the major rocks of Augustine while not languishing in the doldrums of liberalism.


Most contemporary theologians do not read this verse as positing a causal link between Adam’s sin and humanity’s guilt, although Grudem maintains an Augustinian position, reasoning that if we object to being represented by Adam in his fall then we should object to being represented by Christ in his righteousness.[31] While this maxim has difficult corollaries, the logic is inescapable.

Sanders sees a posteriori reasoning in Paul’s theology; Christ died for the redemption of all, therefore all must need redeeming, therefore all must have sinned. He criticises the approach of Bultmann and others who follow the narrative from plight to solution, maintaining that Paul’s reasoning takes the opposite direction.[32] The plight of humanity is revealed not with knowledge of the law but with the knowledge of grace.[33]



I will consider how our interpretation affects baptism of infants, our attitude to sex and our sharing of the Good News.


The practice of initiating infants has ancient roots (Gen 21:4), but with respect to Romans 5:12 we must consider what we understand baptism to be for. Some emphasise entry into the new covenant of faith. Others focus on washing away of sin, particularly of original (inherited) sin.[34]

Historically, Tertullian held the former opinion, advising that baptism be postponed until the candidate could speak for themselves, while Augustine insisted on infant baptism, regarding this as essential to salvation. [35] This goes beyond current doctrine of any mainstream church.[36] Augustine’s interpretation was also the basis for refusing Christian burial to those who died unwashed of Adam’s sin.[37]

In current practice, baptism is either a sign of entry into the new covenant, or entry itself.[38] This takes place either at birth, at Bar-Mitzvah age or at personal faith.[39] Some baptise only believers, some baptise children of believers, some baptise all. Since the nuances of this locus leave room for a variety of interpretations, it seems wise to not be dogmatic in imposing any one practice as the norm.


Our interpretation of Romans 5:12 also affects the church’s attitude to sex. If we regard guilt for Adam’s sin as being passed down through a sinful act of procreation, then this colours our whole attitude, resulting in an unhelpfully dualist approach which has more to do with Medieval attitudes than to Paul’s intent in this passage.[40]

Our understanding of Original/Inherited Sin will affect how we present the good news to those outside, and inside, our churches: the narrative of salvation – conviction of sin then revelation of redeemer; or the experience of Paul – revelation of redeemer then conviction of sin?

‘Hell-fire and Damnation’ preaching took a Calvinistic/Augustinian reading and was the approach of most Old Testament prophets, to little avail.[41] It is also used in some baptismal preparation, where it is understandably difficult to convince parents that their new-born is guilty of primal sin.

A liberal/Pelagian interpretation can lead to Christ being no more than one good example among many and leaves the possibility of rescuing ourselves from our sin.[42] While appealing to a post-modern, consumerist society, this bears little resemblance to Paul’s teaching.

The contemporary ‘new perspective’ reflects Jesus’s approach. He did not denounce those seeking truth, but pointed to himself as the solution and let them discover the problem themselves.[43] If you want butterflies in your garden, it’s better to plant flowers than chase them in with sticks.

(2599 words)



Achtemeier, Paul J, Romans Interpretation (Louisville: Westimster John Knox Press, 1985)

Augustine, On the Merits of Sins and Their Remission

Barclay, William, The Mind of St Paul (Glasgow: Wm Collins, 1958)

Barrett, C K, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Black, 1957)

Barth, Karl, A Shorter Commentary on Romans (London: SCM, 1959)

Bray, Gerald L and Thomas C Oden, Romans (Illinois: IVP, 1998)

Bruce, F F, Romans (TNTC) (Leicester: IVP, 1985)

Calvin, John, Commentary upon The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans, Trans. Christopher Rosdell (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844)

—. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Trans. Henry Beveridge <; [accessed 5 Nov 2016]

Catechism of the Catholic Church <; [accessed 5 Nov 2016]

Grudem, Wayne, Bible Doctrine (Nottingham: IVP, 1999)

Lane, Tony, Exploring Christian Doctrine (London: SPCK, 2013)

Luther, Martin, Lectures in Romans, ed. by Wilhelm Pauck, trans. By Wilhelm Pauck, Vol. XV (London: SCM, 1961)

Malaty, Fr Tadros Yacoub, The Epistle of St Paul. (Alexandria, Egypt, 2007-2008) e-book

Packer, J I, Sinclair B Ferguson and David F Wright, eds. New Theological Dictionary (Leicester: IVP, 1988)

Reasoner, Mark, Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)

Romanides, John S, ‘Original Sin According to St Paul’, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. IV, Nos. 1 and 2 (1955-6) <; [accessed 8 Nov 2016]

Sanders, E P, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (London: SCM, 1977)

Scott, S, ‘Translation of Romans 5:12.’ (29 Dec 2014) Biblical Hermenutics <; [accessed 28 Oct 2016]

Sheck, Thomas P, ‘Pelagius’s Interpretation of Romans’ in A Companion to St. Paul in the Middle Ages, ed. by Steven Cartwright (Boston: Brill, 2013)

The Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer

Williams, N P, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin: A Historical and Critical Study (London: Longmans, 1927)

All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version.


[1] This latter, Wycliffe’s translation, inserts ‘man’ – not present in the Greek but implied by the Vulgate.

[2] Barclay, The Mind of St Paul, p. 138.

[3] Romanides, ‘Original Sin According to St Paul’, note 323.

[4] Scott, ‘Translation of Romans 5:12’, answer, ‘Applying to Romans 5:12’.

[5] Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin, p. 58. see also Tyndale’s translation of Job 14:4.

[6] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 115.

[7] Sheck, ‘Pelagius’s Interpretation of Romans,’ p. 106.

[8] Origen worked from the Vulgate, which translates the ambiguous Greek φ with the unambiguous Latin in quo, ‘in whom’.

[9] DeBryn, quoted in Sheck, ‘Pelagius’s Interpretation of Romans’, p. 105.

[10] Calvin, Commentary, p. 135.

[11] Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, quoted in Bray et al., Romans, p. 131.

[12] Augustine, On the Merits of Sins and Their Remission, I.9.19, quoted in Luther, Lectures in Romans, p. 165.

[13] Contrary to Catechism of the Catholic Church, item 1261.

[14] Achtemeier, Romans Interpretation, p. 96. Barclay, The Mind of St Paul, p. 143.

[15] Sheck, ‘Pelagius’s Interpretation of Romans’, p. 107.

[16] Bruce, Romans, p. 122.

[17] Packer et al., New Theological Dictionary,  p. 642.

[18] Calvin, Commentary, p. 135.

[19] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.5. Calvin, Commentary, p. 138.

[20] Luther, Lectures in Romans, p. 165. Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, p. 49.

[21] Luther, op.cit., pp. 167-8.

[22] Although hinted at in other places, such as Job 14 & 25, Ps 58:3 etc. Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, p. 50.

[23] CCC, item 405. Romanides, ‘Original Sin According to St Paul’, note 234.

[24] CCC items 416-419.

[25] Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine, p. 75. CCC, item 402.

[26] Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, p. 44. Romanides, ‘Original Sin According to St Paul’, note 234.

[27] Cyril of Alexandria, quoted in Bray et al, Romans, p. 142.

[28] Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin, pp. 50, 455.

[29] Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, p. 51.

[30] Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans, p. 61. Bruce, Romans, p. 119.

[31] Grudem, Bible Doctrine, p. 214.

[32] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 474.

[33] Ibid., p. 443.

[34] CCC, item 403.

[35] Packer et al., New Theological Dictionary,  p. 71.

[36] CCC, item 1281.

[37] The Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer, The Order for the Burial of the Dead, preface.

[38] Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine, p. 180.

[39] Packer et al., New Theological Dictionary,  pp. 559, 567.

[40] Achtemeier, Romans Interpretation, pp. 96-97

[41] Jonah being a notable exception

[42] Achtemeier, Romans Interpretation, p. 96.

[43] Lk 5:8, Jn 8:1-11, Lk 15:11-32, Lk 19:1-10 etc, also Isa 6:1-5

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