1st Adam, 2nd Adam Motif in Romans 5: Barth’s Canon within a Canon?

I was just reading Everett F. Harrison’s commentary on Romans in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; in particular I was reading his coverage of Romans 5:12-14, I was motivated to look over some commentaries I have on hand because of the discussion surrounding the historicity of Adam amongst some contemporary biblical exegetes (like Peter Enns and others). Of course, and rightly so, most commentators are not going to be engaging in speculation about whether Adam was a historical personage or not; instead, the steady exegete will seek to lay bare the intent of the particular passage’s message as understood (intra and intertextually) through the theology, in our instance, of the Apostle Paul. In light of this, I wanted to focus on Harrison’s own exegesis of Paul in Romans 5:12-14 juxtaposed with what he thinks is Karl Barth’s reading of this same pericope; in particular, what Harrison thinks of Barth’s understanding of the person of Adam vis-á-vis the person of Jesus Christ as Paul’s ‘second Adam’. Here is the text in question, first in English and then the Greek text:

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned — 13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. –Romans 5:12-14 (NIV)

12 δια τουτο ωσπερ δι ενος ανθρωπου η αμαρτια εις τον κοσμον εισηλθεν και δια της αμαρτιας ο θανατος και ουτως εις παντας ανθρωπους ο θανατος διηλθεν εφ ω παντες ημαρτον 13 αχρι γαρ νομου αμαρτια ην εν κοσμω αμαρτια δε ουκ ελλογειται μη οντος νομου 14 αλλα εβασιλευσεν ο θανατος απο αδαμ μεχρι μωυσεως και επι τους μη αμαρτησαντας επι τω ομοιωματι της παραβασεως αδαμ ος εστιν τυπος του μελλοντος –Romans 5:12-14 (GNT)

The issue I want to consider, relative to Harrison’s reading of this text juxtaposed with Barth’s, is the critique that Harrison offers of Barth’s ‘theological-exegetical’ reading of this passage; in particular the ‘image of God’ in the theology of the Apostle Paul. Harrison, somewhat in passing, notices that Barth understands Paul’s usage of Adam in a way that is only typological of Paul’s real point about the image of God, that Barth thinks should really be in reference to the ‘second Adam’, or Jesus Christ. Harrison summarizes, and questions Barth’s reading in this way:

In his book, Christ and Adam (Harper, 1956), Karl Barth has advanced a provocative interpretation of Adam as a type of Christ. He has attempted to reverse the order: “Man’s essential and original nature is to be found … not in Adam but in Christ. In Adam we can only find it prefigured. Adam can therefore be interpreted only in the light of Christ and not the other way round” (p. 29). It should be evident, however, that Paul’s thought here is not moving in the orbit of man as made in the image of God and therefore in the image of Christ who is the image of God. To import the preexistence of Christ is to introduce an element foreign to Paul’s purpose and treatment in this passage…. [Everett F. Harrison, Romans, in 10 Expositors’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, edited by Frank E. Gæbelein, p. 63]

Harrison may be right, de jure or in principle, that Paul’s own orbit of thought may have not been fully articulated, even to himself, in regards to a full blown, what we might call, Chalcedonian Christology (or even a Johannine one); but, de facto, or in actual fact, Harrison, I think is wrong to suggest that Paul’s own unarticulated theology does not invite the exegete and theologian to step deeper into the theological trajectory that Paul’s occasional writings presuppose. In other words, I think Harrison is wrong to assert that Paul’s ‘orbit’ of thought cannot be driven further than even the Apostle Paul drove it in his own context. I float this, because much of Paul’s own theology, delimited as it is by the type of literature he was inking ‒ Epistle – by definition is going to remain unarticulated and enthymemic (or some of his premises are unstated and just presumed on his part). So for Harrison to suggest what he has in regard to Paul’s thinking about the ‘second Adam’ as primary to the ‘first Adam’ relative to understanding, theologically, the function that the image of God language ought to play in Paul’s accounting; I think is highly presumptuous.

Karl Barth is obviously committed to a theological exegetical approach to interpreting scripture. He is committed to what some have called a ‘principial’ and intensive christocentrism in his reading of holy writ; such that he seeks to ground all of his reading of scripture, as if scripture’s reality (res) only is realizable when couched in its teleological (‘purposeful’) shape provided by Jesus Christ himself.

So the question is: Is Barth playing fast and loose with scripture, imposing his own theological grid and ‘canon’ on the canon of scripture; thus morphing it into a re-imagined wonder world of modern theological impulses? Or, is Barth following the trajectory that Jesus himself set in the reinterpretation of the Old Testament scriptures as if those scriptures were really all about him? Not just about him at a surface glance, but about him in all of his depth and reality as the ‘eternal Logos’, and the second person of the Trinity.

I think Harrison sets up a false dilemma, placing a historical-critical reading (Harrison’s) in competition with a depth theological reading that Barth follows. These approaches don’t need to be seen as discordant, one with the other, but instead they can (and ought to) be understood as mutually implicating and complementing one of the other. Such that the historic-critical realities of Paul’s own textured thought are what lead us (by their own presupposed theological depth and context) to the kind of reading that someone like Barth or even John Calvin have offered in regards to Paul’s letter to the Romans (and elsewhere).



  1. About 30 years ago I was in a bible study with a professor of the OT (he wrote a commentary in the EBC series). We were studying 1 Cor 7:1-7 and a seminary student asked the professor if, according to Paul in the text, it was wrong to have sex with your wife if she is on her period? The professor said “yes” it would be wrong because Paul, being a Jew, would never violate the blood laws of the OT and would have instructed the Corinthians to do the same. At the time, I was a fairly young Christian and my only thought was “how could he get that from the text, it doesn’t say that?” “how does he know what Paul taught the Corinthians?”. If I knew then what I know now, we would have had a rousing discussion concerning many issues his answer brings up. Obviously, the OT professor, a great guy, had his own theological understanding of the interaction/continuity between the OT and the NT – understandings beyond the text.

    In your post we have the same thing. Let’s assume that Harrison is generally correct in his historic-critical understanding of the text – we have that in our pocket. Barth comes along and says “yes, but there is more that Paul had in mind” and expounds some interesting theological connections that he sees in Scripture. How do we judge if Paul had Barth’s understandings in mind? I don’t think we can. It’s one thing to say “I think” it’s another to say “Paul thinks”. We wind up choosing our teachers by their appeal to our own sensibilities (usually arising from those same teachers). If we stay with the text and its exposition, we’re on fairly safe ground. But where are we if we allow men to take us beyond the text with their opinions, however personally profitable they might be? We end up even more divided than we already are because of our wranglings about the text. The text is profitable and tough enough, why add another layer to confuse the matter?

    And regarding your second to the last paragraph, it is one thing for Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. to “reinterpret” the OT, quite another for those outside of that circle. Another interesting post, thanks.


  2. Hi Steve,

    This is much more complex than you make it out to be. Here’s an anecdote I recently put up on my Facebook wall:

    To assert that to think the Apostle Paul after Calvin or Barth is wrong; naively fails to recognize that thinking the Apostle Paul after or through NT Wright, Dunn, or whomever is just as “impure.”

    We are on safer ground to think from the Trinity and Incarnation and the ecumenical grammar attendant to that than we are to think from subjective and at points ad hoc historical reconstruction. What you are suggesting is and seem to be presupposing is that you have major confidence in the biblical historian’s capacity to get it right. But of course the problem with that is that there are as many historical reconstructions of the text’s milieu as their biblical historians. Further, if you want to reduce the text’s meaning to its cultural-linguistic reality, and its structural givenness (ie. propositions); all that we have done is imported a certain kind of rationalist rendering of the text that has lost its depth dimension and abstracted it from its given theological reality in Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity.

    It is not as simple as you make it seem, and I obviously don’t think to read the Bible trinitarianly or through the incarnation and its attendant categories and emphases is to supply an artificial matrix on Scripture; but instead I see this as the necessary move in order to engage the text beyond its signatory mode (the words), and get to its depth dimension and inner-reality in Jesus Christ.

    To wrest biblical hermeneutics away from its Trinitarian reality and hand it over to historians and grammarians gives the keys to them, and takes the key away from God himself. I actually pretty strenuously disagree with you, and have many posts on this issue that could elaborate my point further.

    If you affirm the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union, then you too are engaging in a deep theological exegesis; now all you need to do is be intellectual honest with your affirmation of said doctrine, and not see it as an addendum to the faith — which from what you’ve said above, seems like a necessary corollary for you.


  3. I don’t see anywhere in the above comment where the text’s meaning is *reduced* to its cultural-linguistic reality, but that’s an aside observation. There may or may not be multiple historical reconstructions of a given text’s milieu, but one could easily say the same about ‘theo-logic’ depth readings of Scripture, eh?


  4. WF,

    I don’t see where it isn’t *reduced*; can you supply the alternatives that Steve left unstated?

    I don’t think so, on the theo-logic depth. The point is de jure; there is one Trinity, and one orthodox grammar related to that–there are of course contested ways of articulating that today, but the criteria for discerning whether these contested ways are within the orthodox fold (like social trinitarianism or Barth’s self-replicating God, etc) is what was given in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan creeds. There aren’t many orthodox grammars for the Trinity, but only one, with nuance within that continuum. It is a false parallel to compare that with historical reconstruction; especially when said reconstruction resides in the realm of theologoumena, and not in the realm of the ecumenical creeds. https://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/the-hierarchy-of-scripture-creeds-confessions-theologoumena/


  5. Reductionism is when is you say that there is nothing but X, or that something ‘really only is’ X, which is hardly what Steve did. Deriving our understanding of the meaning of the text by taking its context seriously is not reductionism, unless of course you have a different understanding of reductionism. It may be wrong or it may not be – it is certainly not reductionism.

    Regarding theo-logic-depth, I’m not so sure. I mean, yeah, you have the creeds, but those are hardly free of their own problems, so I don’t know if appealing to them solves the problem so quickly. Ecumenical grammar is great and all, but it’s not like Scripture doesn’t have its own trinitarian grammar.


  6. WF,

    Believe it or not, I actually know what a reduction entails. X can represent a continuum of belief with all kinds of nuance on it; most things can be reduced to one level or another. In fact I am pretty reductionistic myself; I actually believe hermeneutics can be reduced to solus Christus. When Steve made his points he did so enthymemically, i.e. speaking with certain unstated premises informing his thoughts, and so I was identifying that. There are only so many alternatives available when it comes to hermeneutics. What I saw Steve doing was rejecting theological exegesis, and usually when that is done things are indeed being reduced to another alternative for hermeneutics; and it is something that I reject tout court.

    I never said creeds don’t have their problems, or don’t need to be constructively engaged; my point there was that for better or worse, they have become the ecumenical standards (to one extent or another) for what is considered orthodox (i.e. Trinitarianily or not). My basic point in highlighting this was to point out a categorical distinction between reconstructed biblical history (which I would place in the realm of theological opinion), and the creeds, which are different from said level of opinion.