Romans is ground zero for the historic Christian doctrines of the fall, original sin and atonement.
Owing in large measure to St Augustine and John Milton (Paradise Lost), it’s become so commonplace to read Genesis as describing a Fall it often surprises Christians to learn that others, namely the Jews, read it any other way.
Not to mention, the traditional categories of Creation and Fall, which focus on Genesis 1-3 to the exclusion of the other 47 chapters in Genesis, ignores the central plot of Genesis: the promise of God to renew the world through the people of Abraham.
Reducing Genesis to Creation and Fall, to chapters 1, 2 and 3, misses that the calling of Abraham is intended by God to be creation redux.
New Creation, which climaxes in Revelation 21-22, begins in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abram.
Distilling the narrative down to Genesis 1,2, and 3 to a story of Creation and Fall lops off entirely the story of Abraham and what God was trying to do in and through Abraham.
It creates a problem (original sin) to which Jesus is the solution completely independent of Abraham or Israel.
It pushes the Jews out of their own story.
Just ask yourself: how many Christmas songs can you name that reference in any way the promise to Abraham? I can’t name any. They’re all about Jesus coming to heal the ‘curse’ of original sin.
So how did we end up with a reading of Genesis according to the Creation/Fall theme?
It’s all a matter of hindsight.
While Jews read Genesis 1 as an allegory of our disobedience and an attempt to describe the less than perfect state of the world, St Augustine, reading Paul, saw in Genesis an allegory for the total and complete alienation of creation from God. The Fall in Eden describes how Sin corrupts the goodness of creation, every creature best intentions and renders us incapable of venturing to God on our own. Look again at Paul’s words in Romans. Because of what happens in the Garden, all of creation is effected, ‘groaning’ for redemption.
The Fall necessitates grace.
But if Christians did not inherit this way of reading Genesis from the Jews, then how did it arise?
Why does Paul see creation this way, as enslaved and suffering under the power of Sin? Why was Augustine’s notion of the Fall able to take root and survive in the Christian memory?
It’s a matter of hindsight.
Jews and Christians read Genesis differently because of Jesus.
It’s not that Paul or Augustine read Genesis in isolation and discovered an insight never before uncovered. It’s that after Easter and Ascension, having turned out to be the sort of Messiah no one expected, Jesus provoked the first community into asking all sorts of questions that then begged still more questions.
Why did Jesus need to come if not to liberate Israel from Rome?
Why did Jesus meet with such a violent end?
What does Easter accomplish?
How we are different/similar to Christ?
It was by reflecting on and discovering who Jesus was and is that the first Christians discovered anew who it is we are. The Fall and its attendant understanding of our own sinful nature are beliefs only possible in light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.
Let me break it down.
Take this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, one of the earliest documents in the New Testament:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
This text is actually a Christian hymn, earlier than Paul’s letter. The hymn gives a window into how the very earliest community of believers understood and worshipped Jesus.
And what does the hymn sing about?
It praises Jesus as the image of God.
Back to the imago dei.
What is it?
According to the early Church, it’s Jesus. Christ is the image of God.
For the earliest believers, it wasn’t just that Jesus is God. It’s that Christ is the created image of God. In other words, he isn’t just true God as the creed says he’s also true man- the true human.
Look at it another way. If God is Trinity then the life of the Son belongs eternally to God; therefore, when God declares in Genesis 1 ‘let us make humankind after our likeness’ God’s talking first and foremost about the life of Jesus.
In his desire not for his own furthering but for the Kingdom
In his relationships that paid no regard to prejudice, convention or fear
In his obedience to the way of God no matter the cost to himself
In valuing the Reign of God over the finite kingdoms and power of the world
In his truthfulness
And in his absolute trust in God, that God would vindicate him
The early Church found in Christ a content-filled definition, an embodiment, of what it means to reflect the image of God.
Rather than a priori doctrines, Fall and sin and Sin are discovered by hindsight.
We read Genesis realizing something we couldn’t have realized before Christmas:
we are not who Jesus is or was in his earthly life.
Our world isn’t the sort of place that welcomes or tolerates a person like Jesus.
The world may be replete with goodness and it may show forth abundant beauty but it still crucified Christ.
Think of the crowds on Palm Sunday who hail and welcome Jesus only to cry for his death later in the week- we may be good people but we still crucify Jesus.
As Paul says, even our best intentions net results that fall far short of Jesus’ life.