A Patre: A Theory on the Transmission of Original Sin

A position paper for CT520 Systematic Theology 2 (Williamson College) by Robert L. Solberg

A sinful (corrupted) human nature is not an essential part of being human. Adam and Eve were fully human, and they were created without corruption. However, every human being since the Fall (Gen 3:1-7) has not only been judged legally guilty of Adam’s sin; they have also inherited a corrupted human nature. So how is it that Yeshua,[1] who was born fully human so many generations after Adam, could have avoided such corruption? The immediate answer would seem to be because the Holy Spirit conceived Him. However, He also had a human mother. Why did Yeshua not inherit Miryam’s[2] sinful nature? This paper will advance and defend a theory called A Patre[3] that proposes our corrupted human nature is transmitted paternally at the time of conception. The case for A Patre will be built on three orthodox Christian doctrines: the federal headship of Adam, the inherited corruption of sin, and traducianism. To these doctrines, further scriptural observations will be added to develop a full-orbed theory.

Two Leading Positions

Immaculate Conception

The Catholic Church believes Yeshua did not inherit a sinful nature from His earthly mother because Miryam was free of original sin from the moment of her conception (Reynolds, 2012). Although this doctrine had been around since at least the Middle Ages,[4] it was not adopted as Church dogma until Pope Pius IX promulgated Ineffabilis Deus in 1854 (Hillerbrand, 2011, p. 250). Not surprisingly, Protestants roundly rejected Ineffabilis Deus as “an exercise in papal power” and the doctrine itself as “without foundation in Scripture” (Herringer 2019, p. 507). Indeed, a lack of scriptural support is one of two fatal flaws in this doctrine. The second flaw is that the concept of Miryam’s “immaculate conception” only serves to push the problem back by one generation. If Yeshua was born without original sin because Miryam was without original sin, how was Miryam born without original sin? Are we to believe her parents were also sinless? If so, it would necessitate an uninterrupted regression through every generation of humanity back to Adam, ending with the untenable conclusion that the entire human race must be sinless.

A Special Work of the Holy Spirit

Another position taken on this issue is offered by Grudem (1994), who explains that “the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary must have prevented not only the transmission of sin from Joseph (for Jesus had no human father) but also, in a miraculous way, the transmission of sin from Mary” (pp. 531-532). Grudem points to Luke 1, where the angel Gabriel came to Miryam to tell her that she would give birth to a son she was to name Yeshua:

Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

Luke 1:34-35, CSB

Grudem suggests that the use of the conjunctive adverb therefore in this passage indicates that Miryam’s child could be called holy because the Holy Spirit conceived Him in her womb. This, explains Grudem (1994), is why “the legal guilt and moral corruption that belongs to all other human beings did not belong to Christ” (p. 530).

Laying the Foundation for A Patre

Of the two positions stated above, Grudem’s theory regarding the Holy Spirit’s special work is the only tenable option for answering the question before us. However, it lacks detail as to the means of transmission of our sin nature. Without denying Grudem’s position, an additional theory can be advanced to add explanatory power to it. In his seminal work, Dogmatiek, Herman Bavinck wrote, “There have been only two men whose life and works have reached out to the very boundaries of humankind, whose influence and dominion extend to the ends of the earth and even into eternity. They are Adam and Christ” (Bavinck, 1998, p. 95-96). There are two additional points of analogy that can be noted between Adam and Yeshua, which are exclusive to these two men and germane to the A Patre theory: First, both men were conceived free from a sinful nature. Second, neither man had an earthly father. Indeed, they were both conceived directly by God Himself.

The Male Headship of the Human Race

To understand how Adam and Yeshua could have been conceived with uncorrupted souls, we start by contemplating the concept of headship in Scripture.[5] As Lloyd-Jones (1970) notes, “God has always dealt with humanity through a head and representative. The whole story of the human race can be summed up in terms of what has happened because of Adam, and what has happened and will yet happen because of Christ.” (p. 178). Indeed, Genesis sets up a clear distinction between male and female roles established at the beginning of creation, even before the Fall. These differences are denoted in various ways and point to Adam’s role as the head of Eve. For example, Adam was created first (Gen 2:7), Eve was created as a helper for Adam (Gen 2:18), Adam named Eve (Gen 2:23), God named the human race “man” not “woman” (Gen 5:2), and God spoke to Adam first after the Fall (Gen 3:9).[6] The male role of headship is later explicitly confirmed by the apostle Paul. “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3). This passage reveals that the concept of headship extends even beyond mankind to the Trinity itself.

The headship of Adam includes his role in the Fall, as well. Of Adam, Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). However, Scripture teaches that the first person to disobey God was Eve, not Adam (Gen 3:6, 1 Tim 2:14). The reason Paul does not speak of mankind sinning in Eve is because of Adam’s headship. Although Adam and Eve both disobeyed God, it was Adam who was held legally responsible for bringing sin and death into the world because, as Hoekema (1994) notes, “Adam was not only the father of the human race, but also our head and representative” (p. 118). Grudem (1994) further observes that “all members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam.” (p. 495). Thus, sin was imputed to mankind because of Adam’s disobedience alone, which sets up a pattern of male headship that acts as a foundational element in the A Patre theory.

Guilt and Corruption

The Bible teaches that there are two aspects to the sin we inherit from Adam, which theologians typically refer to as guilt and corruption. Our inherited guilt, sometimes called original sin, is a legal adjudication in which God imputes Adam’s sin to mankind. In Romans 5:19, Paul teaches that “through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” The original Greek renders the phrase “made sinners” as a completed past action, which indicates that the moment Adam, as the head of the human race sinned, God attributed his sin to all of mankind.

The domain of the A Patre theory is the second aspect of inherited sin; corruption. Scripture teaches that our human nature, from our conception, includes a disposition to sin. Every part of our being—intellect, body, desires, motives, emotions, et al.—is affected by our corrupted or fallen nature (Jer 17:9; Rom 7:18; Titus 1:15). Thus, on our own, we are unable to do anything that will in itself please God (Isa 64:6; John 15:5; Rom 8:8; Heb 11:6). In this corrupted spiritual state, we cannot even come to God under our own strength (John 8:34; Eph 2:1-2; 1 Cor 2:14). The focus of A Patre is on how this corrupted nature is inherited.

The Creation of the Human Soul

Lastly, to understand how Adam and Yeshua could have been conceived with uncorrupted souls, we must consider how human souls are created. There are three popular positions held by theologians on the origin of the human soul: creationism, traducianism, and pre-existentialism. For purposes of the A Patre theory, the position of traducianism will be adopted. According to Barnett (2015), “The word traducian comes from the Latin tradux, which means ‘branch of a vine.’ This means that every human being is a ‘branch’ off of his or her parents.” On this view, the soul and the body of the child are generated by the father and mother at conception. As Grudem (1994) points out, “Traducianism could explain how the sins of the parents can be passed on to the children without making God directly responsible for the creation of a soul that is sinful or has a disposition that would tend toward sin” (p. 484). It can be noted, as well, that traducianism is consistent with Imago Dei, the doctrine which teaches that God created man in His image (Gen 1:27). Our ability to create other human beings like ourselves is one way in which humans share a likeness to God.

A Patre in Full

Since God held Adam (not Eve) responsible for the inherited legal guilt of the human race, it stands to reason that, as the head of the human race, Adam (not Eve) is also responsible for the corrupted sin nature that humans inherit from their parents when their souls are created. In other words, our corrupted human nature is transferred through the father, A Patre. If sin is transmitted paternally, it explains how Adam, as the first human, could have been conceived with an uncorrupted nature. Furthermore, it reveals how Yeshua’s virgin conception (Matt 1:18) would exempt Him from inheriting a corrupted human nature (1 Pet 2:22, 1 John 3:5). Although Miryam had a fallen human nature, as Yeshua’s mother, her fallenness would not have been transmitted to Him. Thus, without an earthly father, Yeshua (like Adam) would not have inherited a corrupted human nature. On traducianism, human souls are created by the mother and father, and God is not directly responsible for their fallenness. A Patre adds further illumination to this position by positing that the father alone is responsible for transmitting a fallen human nature.

A few clarifying comments must be added. First, this theory does not imply that women are not fallen. Scripture is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The theory only suggests that the sinful nature of the mother is not transmitted to the child. Thus, A Patre is consistent with Romans 3:23 because every human—whether male or female—has a father from whom they inherit their sinful human nature. Second, it should be noted that, while we all inherit original sin from our human fathers, God wants to be our perfect spiritual Father and free us from our sinful nature (John 8:34-36). This is why Yeshua taught that we need to be born again (John 3:1-10, 1 Pet 1:23): so we can become children of our perfect heavenly Father (John 1:12).

Potential Objections

Does this theory not make the transmission of sin akin to a sexually transmitted disease? 

A Patre does not posit that sinfulness is transferred biologically. Our sinful nature is not a physical thing, a fact demonstrated in the angels (who are non-corporeal beings) that have fallen into sin (Luke 10:18, 2 Pet 2:4). This theory instead postulates that human souls, as immaterial entities, are generated on a spiritual rather than physical level, and it is at this level that original sin is transmitted from human fathers to their progeny.

Does this theory negate the need for a virgin conception?

To address this question, a distinction must be made between two separate issues: the virginity of Miryam and the fatherhood of the Holy Spirit. On the former, it can be argued that the primary significance of Miryam’s virginity is as an unequivocal divine validation of (a.) the fulfillment of the prophecy of the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14, (b.) the purity of Yeshua’s birth,[7] and (c.) Yeshua’s supernatural paternity as the Son of God. On the latter issue, Scripture indicates that the Holy Spirit’s fatherhood validates that Yeshua was the Son of God in a sense that no other human being can claim; He was divine progeny. “The angel replied to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).

One further insight may be noted. While Adam and Yeshua are the only human beings who can claim God as their paternal father, Scripture also refers to the nation of Israel as God’s son (Ex 4:22; Deut 14:1; Jer 31:20; Hos 11:1). Israel is a people fathered by God. Where Israel, as God’s “firstborn son” (Ex 4:22), ultimately failed in its obedience to the Lord, Yeshua as the true, faithful Son of God perfectly lived out the calling first given to Israel. Where Adam, as the head and representative of humanity, failed in his obedience to the Lord, Yeshua, as the “last Adam,” did not. Like Adam and Israel, Yeshua was conceived holy and sinless. Unlike Adam and Israel, Yeshua was able to remain holy and sinless to the end.

Conclusion

The A Patre theory holds that the spiritual means of the transmission of moral corruption (original sin) is through the paternal line. This theory is consistent with the scriptural teaching that sin is not an essential part of human nature, but rather a corruption of God’s original design of mankind Imago Dei. A Patre is also consistent with orthodox Christian positions on the male headship of the human race, the doctrine of inherited sin, and the creation of the human soul. Additionally, this model adds explanatory power to Yeshua’s virgin conception, His supernatural paternity as the Son of God, and how corrupted human souls could be created without God being directly responsible for their fallenness. Lastly, there appears to be no scriptural basis on which A Patre must be rejected.


Footnotes

[1] This paper will use the Hebrew name for Jesus: Yeshua (יהושע‎).

[2] This paper will use the Hebrew name for Mary: Miryam (מרים).

[3] Latin for from or by the father.

[4] The Council of Trent (1545-1563) affirmed Miryam’s freedom from personal sin, though not original sin.

[5] It is beyond the scope of this paper to mount a full defense of the doctrine of the male headship of the human race. Thus, this position will merely be explained in sufficient detail to support the A Patre theory. This same approach will be taken for the two following positions discussed: inherited sin and traducianism.

[6] These examples are found in Grudem (1994), Chapter 22: Man as Male and Female.

[7] The purity aspect also applies to Miryam’s singleness. The fact that she was unmarried at the time of Yeshua’s conception and had not been married previously speaks to her purity, a significant issue not only in Scripture but also in the Hebrew culture of the Ancient Near East.


References

Barnett, T. (2015, September 29). How Did You Get a Soul? Creationism versus Traducianism.

Bavinck, H. (1998). Gereformeerde dogmatiek. Kok. (Quote translated by A. A. Hoekema)

Grudem, W. (1994). Systematic theology : an introduction to Biblical doctrine. Zondervan.

‌Hillerbrand, H. J. (2011). A new history of Christianity. Abingdon Press.

Hoekema, A. A. (1994). Created in God’s image. Eerdmans.

Lloyd-Jones, M. (1970). Romans. Zondervan.

Reynolds, B. E. (2012). Gateway to heaven : Marian doctrine and devotion image and typology in the patristic and medieval periods. New City Press, Cop.

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