We Were All in Adam
The Unity of Mankind in Adam in the Teaching of the Church Fathers
- ISBN: 9783110620542
- Published By: De Gruyter
- Published: September 2018
The concept of original sin—that all people inherit from birth a share in the biblical Adam’s disobedience—is commonly understood to be an innovation of Augustine of Hippo at the end of the 4th century. Prior to the aforementioned Latin patristic writer, most early Christian thinkers did not understand the consequence of the first sin to be much more than the state of corruption into which all are born. Augustine’s darker account of original sin, with its emphasis on humanity’s universal culpability, took root in the Latin West, but the Greek East retained a more optimistic outlook, claiming that Adam’s fall weakened humanity without rendering every human culpable for it.
In her book We Were All in Adam: The Unity of Mankind in the Teaching of the Church Fathers (translated from Polish), Marta Przyszychowska seeks to problematize this common narrative. Admittedly, Augustine is the first to use the terminology of “original sin” (4). Underlying Augustine’s doctrine, however, is an understanding of humanity’s unity in Adam which was universally accepted in the early centuries of the Christian church. All the early church fathers assume, Przyszychowska argues, that when Adam sinned, he “passed onto the entire human race not only mortality and suffering of the body, but also sin that is death of the soul” (121).
To make her case, Przyszychowska marshals forth ten Greek and Latin authors from the 3rd to 5th centuries, organizing their teachings on this subject into four models. These models—real unity, unity in Adam’s loins, Stoic material unity, and representation—evidence the variety of ways in which the fathers explain humankind’s participation in the fall of the first man. Importantly, Przyszychowska clarifies that these are not meant to be restrictive categories (9). Rather, most of the selected figures freely appropriate multiple models, even within the same texts. The models instead highlight where the authors most distinguish themselves from others, which leads to what seem like odd pairings—Origen of Alexandria with Augustine especially stands out—but which are intelligible under this organizational structure. As much as these models distinguish each group of fathers from the others, Przyszychowska contends that they differ only in how they understand humanity’s connection to Adam’s fall. They don’t deny the connection itself.
This study most excels in providing ample primary source evidence for Przyszychowska’s position. The passages she includes (helpfully provided in the original language with facing English translation) are lengthy, making this monograph at times feel almost like a sourcebook. Thus, readers will find themselves directly confronted with the voice of the authors who Przyszychowska has curated, rather than mere summaries. Yet, this is not to say that the author does not provide her own interpretation or place them within the context of recent scholarly debate. Her engagement is economical, but most often adroit. For example, in the space of just a few pages, she masterfully surveys the differing views on Origen’s seemingly contradictory statements on free will and sin and provides an incisive adjudication of the arguments (74–78). Summarizing the contributions of scholars such as Henri Crouzel (who argues that Origen left the choice of interpretation up to the reader), Leo Scheffzyk (who hypothesizes that Origen addressed some things to the ignorant and others to the initiated), and others who see a development in the Origen’s thought over time, she advances her own argument that Origen affirms both free will and universal with little concern for explaining how they coexist. Likewise, she shows her mastery of contemporary scholarship on Gregory of Nyssa (e.g., 41–43, 55–58).
Still, the limited space which Przyszychowska allocates to the patristic understanding of humanity’s relationship to the first sin and the vast secondary literature is not always salutary for her argument. For example, in her explanation of the Irenaean idea of humanity being “born in captivity,” Przyszychowska supplies only a few lines of commentary to accompany nearly an entire page of quotes from Irenaeus (15–16). Similarly, in her assessment of whether Augustine accepts the “sin of nature” or not, she provides her positive assessment with minimal explanation for why it should be accepted (87). Hence, the reader is often left desiring more justification for how the author decides amongst competing interpretations of the textual evidence.
One significant gap in Przyszychowska’s study is her lack of engagement with the Syriac patristic tradition. Every author must be selective in the material they treat, and in a 150-page monograph, one cannot hope to be exhaustive. However, since the author aims to show that this doctrine was universally accepted in early Christianity, incorporating the writings of Aphrahat the Persian Sage or Ephrem the Syrian would demonstrate that she has treated the full breadth of the patristic tradition on this topic. Neglecting these important witnesses to early Christian understandings of Adam is a significant oversight for which no rationale is provided.
Finally, through no fault of the Przyszychowska’s own, this work is beset by translation and editing errors throughout. In most cases, such as the improper use of definite articles, prepositions, or demonstrative pronouns, this is easy enough to overlook. Regrettably, however, sentences are so poorly rendered into English in some cases that it casts serious doubt on whether one has understood the argument presented. One of many examples: “In the Homilies on Leviticus, Origen speaks about skin tunics that God gave Adam to pass immediately to a different perspective calling the one who was clothed in tunics of skin generally the sinner, and then advise the audience to wash themselves of these” (63). This failure in translation and editing is pervasive, doing a disservice to the reader and author alike.
This book is best received as the beginning of a conversation and is particularly recommended to scholars interested in conceptions of sin and/or interpretations of the figure of Adam as they are understood in early Christianity. No doubt some will object to the line she draws from a universal understanding of the first transgression to the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Still, by examining her sources through the lens of humanity’s connection to the fall of Adam, Przyszychowska has successfully identified a lacuna in patristic scholarship. She has opened a new and promising avenue of research into this topic, providing both sources and models for interpreting them which deserve consideration (and a second edition!).
Daniel Edwards is a doctoral student at Marquette University.Daniel EdwardsDate Of Review:February 11, 2022