Thus far we discussed the fall of our first parents in Paradise, and we reached the conclusion that it was, indeed, a fall, and not merely an act of sin. By the first act of disobedience, consisting in eating of the forbidden tree, the nature of our first parents was corrupted. It was not merely weakened, but actually debased and ethically corrupted, so that henceforth they could no longer serve the Lord their God in love. They lost the image of God, their knowledge of God became darkness; their righteousness was subverted into rebellion; and their holiness was turned into pollution. Enemies of God they had become. And the reason for this corruption cannot be found in the “natural” effect of that first sin, but must be attributed to the execution of the death sentence which God had threatened upon disobedience. Death was inflicted upon them the moment they transgressed the commandment of God. And death would henceforth have dominion over them, not only physically, but also in the spiritual sense. The carnal mind is death. It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
But now we must consider another question. The Catechism is speaking, not merely of the corruption of the nature of our first parents, but of our nature. Through the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in paradise, our nature has become so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin. The universality of sin is not only clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures, but is also a matter of universal experience. All men sin and reveal that they are corrupt by nature. That is the testimony of all history, of everyday life, as every issue of our daily papers clearly shows, and as every news broadcast over the radio proclaims; it is the testimony we bear to one another in our social life in the world, for not only do men condemn in others that which they themselves practice, but no man puts confidence in the integrity of his fellows : when any transaction of importance takes place it must be duly sworn and signed and sealed before witnesses; and it is the testimony of every man’s conscience, for man not only knows that he is sinful, but he cannot recall that he was ever different. All men are always sinful and corrupt. That is the terrible fact with which the Catechism deals here. The question is: whence is this depravity of the entire human nature?
It cannot escape our notice that the Catechism, in answering this question, emphasizes the organic unity rather than the juridical or legal solidarity of the human race. The question of original guilt is left out of consideration, and the fact of original corruption receives all the emphasis. That the human nature has become corrupt, and that, too, through the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, so that we are all conceived and born in sin, is the truth that receives all the attention. The organic oneness of the race is stressed. Adam and Eve were our first parents. Both were the bearers of the whole human nature. By their fall and disobedience both became corrupt. And this corrupt human nature, in which it is impossible to do any good, they propagated, and it is continually being propagated in the way of conception and birth. In other parts of our Confessions this same aspect of original sin is emphasized. Thus we read in Art. 15 of the Netherland Confession: “We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as the root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God, that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.” And in Canons III, IV, 2, 3, the matter is stated as follows: “Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness, A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. Hence all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation as the Pelagians of old asserted, but by the propagation of a vicious nature. Therefore, all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.” It is evident that the Confessions consider depravity a moral or ethical disease, a corruption of the human nature that is transmitted from parent to child by the generation of the father and the conception of the mother, and that clings to the nature of the child from the moment of conception, even in the womb.
And this is the explanation of Scripture. The psalmist complains: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Ps. 51:5. And Job utters the words: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.” And in Rom. 5:12-14 we read: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. For until the law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed where there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.” In the last passage the apostle is really considering the universality of the reign of death. Nor is there any reason to limit this “death” to the corruption of the body and temporal or physical death only, as some would have it. Sin and death are mentioned in connection with each other, and that entirely in general, without limitation. The death that came through sin certainly includes spiritual death, the corruption of our nature, our being in bondage to sin. The one man Adam is here represented as the one by whom the floodgates of sin and death were opened upon the entire human race. The text makes us think of the dikes that protected the Lowlands in many places against the angry sea. The waves would beat against them sometimes so persistently and powerfully, that they were pierced and the lands behind them were inundated. “Through one man,” thus we read literally in the original, sin entered into the world, and death by sin. And this would be quite impossible except for the organic unity of the human race. In the way of propagation the corruption of sin spreads to the very last of men that are born of women. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” John 3:6.
This raises the question as to the conception and birth of each individual child, particularly of the “soul”. The difficult question of the origin of the soul always was a favorite topic of discussion among theologians. In recent years the discussion was revived in the Netherlands, especially by the book of Dr. Water ink in the “Origin of the Soul”, who was accused of Apollinarianism because of his apparent identification of the human person with his spirit. Much was written on the subject, but unanimity of opinion was not reached. In the past there were three explanations of this problem. The first is known as the theory of preexistentianism, and held that all the souls were actually created in Adam, and that therefore, all human individuals really sinned in our first father and in him became corrupt. This appears to have been the view of Augustine, a view that was really based on a mistaken explanation of the last part of Rom. 5:12: “for that all have sinned.” He interpreted that clause in the sense that is given to it in the Dutch translation: “in welken alien gezondigd hebben.” But this cannot possibly be the correct rendering of the original. It does not justify the translation “in whom all have sinned”; but very definitely must be rendered: “for that” or “because all have sinned.” But this theory never found much support among theologians, as might be expected. Apart from the fact that it finds no support in Scripture, it meets with too many difficulties and is really an impossible philosophical conception. A second solution of this problem is known under the name of “traducianism.” It, too, proceeded from the distinction of body and soul, and held that the whole man is born from the parents in each individual instance. Soul and body constitute the whole man, and soul and body each individual is conceived and born. The main objection that was lodged against this conception is that propagation is only applicable to the body: spirits do not propagate their species. This is a rather philosophical objection. It seems to me that a far more weighty objection to this view may be deduced from the incarnation of the Son of God. If the whole man, person and nature, soul and body, is conceived and born from the parents, it seems difficult to escape the dilemma that, either Christ was not a complete man, or He was two persons, a human person as well as a divine. And that would lead us to the error that is known as Nestorianism. A third theory is known as Creationism. It holds that the body is born from the parents, while the soul is created by God in birth or conception, or sometime between conception and birth of the individual child. Nor is it difficult to raise objections against this theory. Does only part of the human nature propagate itself? How must it be explained that children resemble their parents, not only physically, but also with respect to traits of character? And, more difficult still, how must the language of our Confessions be explained with respect to the propagation of a corrupt offspring by a corrupt stock? If God creates each individual soul, how does that soul become defiled and corrupt? And if the human nature consists of body and soul, did not Christ, then, assume the whole human nature from the virgin Mary?
All these objections would seem to suggest that the distinction of the human being in body and soul cannot serve as a basis for the explanation of the propagation of original corruption. It does not offer us the proper working hypothesis. The reason for this must, perhaps, be found in the fact that it is not clearly defined what is meant by “soul”. In Scripture, too, the word for soul has different connotations. Sometimes it is used for the whole man; in other passages it is properly translated by life; while again in other parts of the Bible the meaning of the term closely approximates that of spirit. It would seem expedient, then, to proceed from a little different point of view and choose another distinction as our point of procedure. I mean the distinction between person and nature. The whole living nature of man is propagated through generation, conception, and birth. But this propagation of the human nature takes place under the operation of an act of providence whereby that nature becomes a personal nature. This distinction and explanation has this in its favor, that it is in accord with what we confess concerning the incarnation. Also in the incarnation of the Son of God the whole human nature, we believe, is conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary and born from her. But the Son of God assumed an impersonal human nature: the Person also in this case came from God, is, in fact, the very second Person of the Holy Trinity Himself. If, then, the human nature is become corrupt in paradise, and the whole human nature in each individual child that is born comes from the parents through conception and birth, we can conceive of the possibility that a “corrupt stock produces a corrupt offspring,” and that, as the Catechism expresses it: “our nature is become so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin.”
But this raises another question. Does not the doctrine that all men are conceived and born in sin, so that they are incapable of doing any good, exempt man from all responsibility? I am born corrupt, totally depraved. I came into the world with a nature that was incapable of doing any good. And this I certainly cannot help. I never had a chance. To fight against this corrupt nature is not only hopeless, but also impossible, for the simple reason that I do not even have the inclination or the desire to reform myself. I am “by nature” prone to hate God and my neighbor, and I always was, quite without any individual fault of my own. Rut does it not follow, then, that I cannot be held accountable for my sin? If it is not my fault that my nature is corrupt, how, then, can actual sin that arises from this nature as from a foul fountain, be reckoned to me as guilt? Can God hold me responsible for that which I cannot and never could do? Am I not rather a victim of circumstances, of cruel fate, that is to be pitied rather than condemned? The Catechism does not consider this aspect of original sin in this connection, but only looks at the matter from the organic viewpoint. Rut unless this question is also asked and answered, the whole subject of the universality of sin and death has not been treated. Hence, what must be our answer, what is the Scriptural answer to this question?
Scripture teaches us, that also from a legal viewpoint God created the human race as a body, a legal corporation, and that the first man Adam was made the head of this body in a representative sense. Even as the human race was created of one blood, so that there is organic unity, so there is in the one legal corporation of mankind legal solidarity. Pelagianism is fundamentally individualism: each individual man stands or falls his own master; there is no communal responsibility and communal guilt. Rut this is condemned on every side, not only by Scripture, but also by actual experience, and by real life in the State, in society, in the home. It is true, of course, that there is individual responsibility. Scripture emphasizes this very strongly. When the children of Israel complain that the dealings of the Lord are not equal, and attempt to justify themselves in their sins, the Lord says to them through His prophet: “What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The children are not punished for the sins of their fathers in which they themselves do not walk. Rut that does not alter the fact, that there is also legal solidarity and communal responsibility and guilt among men. God warns in His law, that He will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, even in the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him. And this is plainly corroborated in actual life. Individualism stands condemned everywhere. If our government declares war, it is the government, and not the individual citizens, that is responsible for this act. It bears the sword, and it is responsible for the way in which it uses that sword also in war. It is only in this light and on this basis that it can be maintained that the individual soldier does not commit the sin against the sixth commandment, when he kills the enemy in battle. But this does not mean that the individual citizens are at liberty to decide for themselves, whether or not they shall take an active part in the war. No right minded citizen will say: let the government, that declared war, fight it out! On the contrary, the government occupies a representative place at the head of the State. When it declares war, every citizen is actually in war. When, to meet the expenses of the war, a huge debt is accumulated, as is the case in our present time, that debt is ours, even though we had no part whatever in its accumulation. And even our children and our children’s children will have to bear the burden of that debt. Thus it is in the home and in society. Everywhere we see that one must assume responsibility for another. And thus the Bible teaches that the whole human race was created a legal body represented by the first man Adam, so that his first sin is imputed to all, and all men are born under a load of guilt by virtue of their being members of this legal corporation. This also answers the question that was recently debated in circles of the Reformed Church of America, whether infants are guilty before God in Adam. That they are cannot, in the light of Scripture, be regarded as questionable.
This is the meaning of that last clause in Rom. 5:12: “for that all have sinned.” We must remember that the apostle is discussing here the problem of universal death. All men are under the dominion of death. Death reigns. Rut death is no accident. Nor is it the end of a natural process of decay and corruption, the inevitable and natural end of all life. It is punishment for sin. Rut if it is punishment for sin, how can death be universal? Not all men have sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression. Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those that had no law, no special commandment, and no personal opportunity to keep or to violate that commandment as did Adam. Resides, death evidently reigns over the infants in the cradle. It makes no distinction. Rut how can this be harmonized with the justice of God if death is punishment? Where is the legal ground for this punishment of death upon all? The answer is: “for that all have sinned”. Rut when and how did all sin? The answer is: in and through the sin of the one man Adam. For through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and death passed upon all men. And vs. 18 of the same chapter of the epistle to the Romans states very specifically, that by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation. This is a purely legal statement. One man sinned, all are under judgment, all are guilty. This could never be the case, if Pelagianism were true and the human race consisted of a number of individuals without communal responsibility. But this is very clear, if the one man that sinned is accounted as the representative of the entire race, so that all are reckoned in him. This, then, is the Scriptural solution of the problem of original sin. All men are born in sin, with a corrupt nature, that is inclined to hate God and the neighbor. And this original pollution is the punishment of spiritual death, inflicted upon the whole human race, because of the communal guilt of all mankind in the first man Adam.