Federal and Natural Headship

March 22, 2013

Most people balk when they are first confronted with the biblical teaching that all humans sinned in Adam. Their initial reflex seems to be, “How can God hold me accountable for something that Adam did?” This intuitive reaction to the doctrine of original sin is so consistent that it might just lead to the suspicion that most people are born Pelagians.

The two principal theories that attempt to answer this question are called federal headship and natural headship. To most people, the theories are hardly more comprehensible than the doctrine itself. Federal headship states that God sovereignly appointed Adam as the representative head of the human race, so that whatever obedience or disobedience Adam chose would be imputed to his posterity. Natural headship states that all of the human race was somehow in Adam, participating in his sin.

Most people can’t help thinking that federal headship is unfair. This supposed unfairness, however, evaporates pretty quickly once the theory is understood. Everybody understands that some people have to make choices for other people, and that sometimes these choices are matters of life and death. For example, small children are not allowed to decide for themselves whether they will receive an inoculation or other painful procedure. They do not have the maturity to make a wise choice. Parents are tasked to make the decision for the child, and a good parent will make the choice that mature persons would make for themselves if given the choice. Certainly Adam was in a better position to choose to obey God than any of his posterity. It makes sense that God would permit Adam to choose for all of his children. No evidence exists that any of Adam’s children would have made a better choice. In fact, none of them ever does.

For most people, natural headship is even less comprehensible. The theory teaches that the entire human race was somehow in Adam and sinned with him. Unfortunately, this articulation conjures up all the wrong images. People see themselves as microscopic homunculi situated within Adam’s body during the temptation, perhaps jumping up and down in anticipation of the sin and cheering him on in high, thin voices. Envisioned this way, the theory is easy to reject—but it is not really so ludicrous.

Natural headship grows out of the conviction that the human race is more than simply a collection of individuals. One must not define humanity by identifying recognizable human beings and then posit the race as an abstraction of these particular individuals. This approach would almost certainly overlook human persons who do not share the most recognizable properties. Those with genetic abnormalities could easily be classified as non-human, as could embryos. In fact, the so-called “pro-choice” movement took exactly this approach when attempting to justify abortion on demand. Who could believe that a tiny blob of tissue constituted a human person? The results have been disastrous.

The correct approach is to begin with the idea that the human race is a real thing. All those who proceed from the race are human beings, whether they share the more obvious characteristics of people or not. An embryo in the womb is a human being whether or not it looks like a miniature adult. Human nature pertains first to the race and only subsequently to individuals.

Perhaps an analogy can be found in the body, which comprises trillions of cells. Babies have very small bodies. Over time, those bodies grow to many times their original size: a seven pound baby may end up as a three hundred pound man. Not only do the cells multiply, but cells are regularly sloughed off and replaced by other cells. Most of the cells in the body are probably replaced (on average) every seven to ten years. Yet the body at eighty is numerically identical with the body at eight days—it is the same body. The identity of the body does not depend upon the continuity of the individual particles of which it is made.

At the present moment, the human race includes around seven billion living individuals. In 1999 it numbered about six billion. During the intervening years, upwards of 50 million people died each year, while about 135 million were born. The race now includes around one and one half billion people who were not part of it in 1999. It has lost half a billion people who were part of it at that time. But here is the important thing: it is still the same race.

Baby Boomers who grew up during the 1960s can remember when the human race included only three billion people. Nearly half of those are now dead—most of the generation that lived through the Depression and fought World War II is gone. Something like five billion people have been born into the race since the beginning of the 1960s. But it is still the same race. The integrity of the race does not depend upon the identity of the people whom it comprises.

In 1350 the total human population around the globe numbered about 370 million. Reeling from famines and plagues, the human race was much smaller than it is now. It included only a fraction of the number of individuals who now compose it. But it was the same race.

During the Middle Ages, humans numbered in the millions. At some point before that, the human race numbered in the hundreds of thousands. At one time, the race must have numbered in the hundreds. After the flood, the human race included only eight individuals. But at each stage, it was the same race.

If we trace human history back far enough, we shall make an important discovery. At one time, the human race consisted of a single individual, Adam. He stood in a unique position. Adam was not merely a solitary person. He was the entire human race. In some sense, all of the human race was in him, summed up in his being, because the race was the same race. All of his natural descendents emerged not only from him as an individual, but also (and more importantly) from him as a race.

When Adam acted, the entire race acted. When Adam chose, the entire race chose. When Adam sinned, the entire race sinned. This does not mean that all of his billions and billions of offspring were somehow individually present. It does mean that all of Adam’s descendents are included in the human race, and when Adam sinned, he was the same race.

God did not merely assign Adam’s choice arbitrarily to other people. No, in a meaningful sense we were in him, acting with him, sinning with him. We were not there as individuals, but as part of the undifferentiated essence of the human race. His guilt was not only personal, it was the guilt of the race. Whoever is Adam’s natural descendent—whoever is purely and simply a human being—must necessarily have been in him, participating with him.

“Because of this, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread unto all humans, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The text does not say that all were charged with one man’s sin. It says that all sinned. It could not be otherwise, for all were in him and all participated in his choice. McGuffey’s reader got it right: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

George Herbert (1593-1633)

As men, for fear the starres should sleep and nod,
And trip at night, have spheres suppli’d;
As if a starre were duller then a clod,
Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav’n they also serve,
Divinities transcendent skie:
Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.
Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.

Could not that Wisdome, which first broacht the wine,
Have thicken’d it with definitions?
And jagg’d his seamlesse coat, had that been fine,
With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
Was cleare as heav’n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which onely save,
Surpasse in brightnesse any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and pray.
Do as ye would be done unto.
O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day!
Who can these Gordian knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his bloud for wine.
Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there designe,
Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then burn thy Epicycles, foolish man;
Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.
Faith needs no staffe of flesh, but stoutly can
To heav’n alone both go, and leade.

This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.