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Systematic Theology - Volume II
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§ 12. Realistic Theory.

Those who reject the untenable doctrine of preexistence and yet hold to the principle that guilt can attach only to what is due to our agency, are driven to assume that Adam and his race are in such a sense one, that his act of disobedience was literally the act of all mankind. And consequently that they are as truly personally guilty on account of it, as Adam himself was; and that the inherent corruption flowing from that act, belongs to us in the same sense and in the same way, that it belonged to him. His sin, it is therefore said, “Is ours not because it is imputed to us; but it is imputed to us, because it is truly and properly our own.” We have constantly to contend with the ambiguity of terms. There is a sense in which the above proposition is perfectly true, and there is a sense in which it is not true. It is true that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us because it is ours according to the terms of the covenant of grace; because it was wrought out for us by our great head and representative, who obeyed and suffered in our stead. But it is not true that it is ours in the sense that we were the agents by whom that righteousness was effected, or the persons in whom it inheres. In like manner, Adam’s sin may be said to be imputed to us because it is ours, inasmuch as it is the sin of the divinely constituted head and representative of our race. But it is not ours in the same sense in which it was his. It was not our act, i.e., an act in which our reason, will, and conscience were exercised. There is a sense in which the act of an agent is the act of the principal. It binds him in law, as effectually as he could bind himself. But he is not, on that account, the efficient agent of the act. The sense in which many assert that the act of Adam was our act, is, that the same numerical nature or substance, the same reason and will which existed and acted in Adam, belong to us; so that we were truly and properly the agents of his act of apostasy.

President Edwards’ Theory of Identity.

The assumption which President Edwards undertakes to controvert, is, “That Adam and his posterity are not one, but entirely distinct agents.”223223Original Sin, IV. iii.; Works, edit. N. Y. 1829, vol. ii. p. 546. The theory on which he endeavours to prove that Adam and his posterity were one agent, is not exactly the old realistic theory, it is rather a theory of his own, and depends on his seculiar views of oneness or identity. According to him, all oneness depends upon “the arbitrary constitution of God.” The only reason why a full grown tree is the same with its first germ; or that the body of an adult man is the same with his infant frame; is that God so wills to regard them. No creature is one and the same in the different periods of its existence, because it is numerically one and the same substance, or life, or organism; but simply because God “treats them as one, by communicating to them like properties, relations, and circumstances; and so leads us to regard and treat them as one.”224224Ibid. p. 556. “If the existence,” he says, “of created substance, in each successive moment, be wholly the effect of God’s immediate power in that moment, without any dependence on prior existence, as much as the first creation out of nothing, then what exists at this moment, by this power, is a new effect; and simply and absolutely considered, not the same with any past existence, though it be like it, and follows it according to a certain established method. And there is no identity or oneness in the case, but what depends on the arbitrary constitution of the Creator; who, by his wise and sovereign establishment so unites successive new effects, that he treats them as one.”225225Ibid. pp. 555, 556. He uses two illustrations which make his meaning perfectly plain. The brightness of the moon seems to us a permanent thing, but is really a new effect produced every moment. It ceases, and is renewed, in every successive point of time, and so becomes altogether a new effect at each instant. It is no more numerically the same thing with that which existed in the preceding moment, than the sound of the wind that blows now, is individually the same sound of the wind which blew just before. What is the of the brightness of the moon, he says, must be true also of its solidity, and of everything else belonging to its substance. Again, images of things placed before a mirror seem to remain precisely the same, with a continuing perfect identity. But it is known to be otherwise. These images are constantly renewed by the impression and reflection of new rays of light. The image which exists this moment is not at all derived from the image which existed the last preceding moment. It is no more numerically the same, than if painted anew by an artist with colours which vanish as soon as they are put on. The obvious fallacy of these illustrations is, that the cases are apparently, but not really alike. The brightness of the moon and the image on a mirror, are not substances having continued existence; they are mere effects on our visual organs. Whereas the substances which produce those effects are objective existences or entities, and not subjective states of our sensibility. Edwards, however, says that what is true of the images, must be true of the bodies themselves. “They cannot be the same, with an absolute identity, but must be wholly renewed every moment, if the case be as has been proved, that their present existence is not, strictly speaking, at all the effect of their past existence; but is wholly, every instant, the effect of a new agency or exertion of the powerful cause of their existence.”226226Original Sin, IV. iii.; Works, vol. ii., p. 555, note. As therefore, there is no such thing as numerical identity of substance in created things, and as all oneness depends on “the arbitrary constitution of God,” and things are one only because God so regards and treats them, there is “no solid reason,” Edwards contends, why the posterity of Adam should not be “treated as one with him for the derivation . . . . of the loss of righteousness, and consequent corruption and guilt.”227227Ibid. p. 557. According to this doctrine of identity, everything that exists, even the soul of man, is, and remains one, not because of any continuity of life and substance, but as a series of new effects produced in every successive moment by the renewed efficiency of God. The whole theory resolves itself into the doctrine that preservation is continued creation. The argument of Edwards in proof of that point is, that “the existence of every created substance, is a dependent existence, and therefore is an effect and must have some cause; and the cause must be one of these two; either the antecedent existence of the same substance, or else the power of the Creator.” It cannot be the antecedent existence of the same substance, and therefore must be the power of God. His conclusion is that God’s upholding of created substance “is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment.”228228Ibid. p. 554.

Objections to the Edwardian Theory.

The fatal consequences of this view of the nature of preservation were presented under the head of Providence. All that need be here remarked, is, —

1. That it proceeds upon the assumption that we can understand the relation of the efficiency of God to the effects produced in time. Because every new effect which we produce is due to a new exercise of our efficiency, it is assumed that such must be the case with God. He, however, inhabits eternity. With him there is no distinction between the past and future. All things are equally present to Him. As we exist in time and space, all our modes of thinking are conditioned by these circumstances of our being. But as God is not subject to the limitations of time or space, we have no right to transfer these limitations to Him. This only proves that we cannot understand how God produces successive effects. We do not know that it is by successive acts, and therefore it is most unreasonable and presumptuous to make that assumption the ground of explaining great Scriptural doctrines. It is surely just as conceivable or intelligible that God should will the continuous existence of the things which He creates, as that He should create them anew at every successive moment.

2. This doctrine of a continued creation destroys the Scriptural and common sense distinction between creation and preservation. The two are constantly presented as different, and they are regarded as different by the common judgment of mankind. By creation, God calls things into existence, and by preservation He upholds them in being. The two ideas are essentially distinct. Any theory, therefore, which confounds them must be fallacious. God wills that the things which He has created shall continue to be; and to deny that He can cause continuous existence is to deny his omnipotence.

3. This doctrine denies the existence of substance. The idea of substance is a primitive idea. It is given in the constitution of our nature. It is an intuitive truth, as is proved by its universality and necessity. One of the essential elements of that idea is uninterrupted continuity of being. Substance is that which stands; which remains unchanged under all the phenomenal mutations to which it is subjected. According to the theory of continued creation there is and can be no created substance. God is the only substance in the universe. Everything out of God is a series of new effects; there is nothing which has continuous existence, and therefore there is no substance.

4. It necessarily follows that if God is the only substance He is the only agent in the universe. All things out of God being every moment called into being out of nothing, are resolved into modes of God’s efficiency. If He creates the soul every successive instant, He creates all its states. thoughts, feelings, and volitions. The soul is only a series of divine acts. And therefore there can be no free agency, no sin, no responsibility, no individual existence. The universe is only the self-manifestation of God. This doctrine, therefore, in its consequences, is essentially pantheistic.

5. In resolving all identity into an “arbitrary constitution of God,” it denies that there is any real identity in any created things. Edwards expressly says, They are not numerically the same. They cannot be the same with an absolute identity. They are one only because God so regards them, and because they are alike, so that we look upon them as the same. This being the case, there seems to be no foundation even for guilt and pollution in the individual soul as flowing from its own acts, because there is nothing but an apparent, not a real connection between the present and the past in the life of the soul. It is not the same soul that is guilty today of the sin committed yesterday. Much less can such an arbitrary or assumed and merely apparent identity between Adam and his race be a just ground of their bearing the guilt of his first sin. In short, this doctrine subverts all our ideas. It assumes that things which, as the human soul, are really one, are not one in the sense of numerical sameness; and that things which are not identical, as Adam and his posterity, are one in the same sense that the soul of a man is one, or that identity can be predicated of any creature. This doctrine, therefore, which would account for the guilt and native depravity of men on the assumption of an arbitrary divine constitution of God, by which beings which are really distinct subsistences are declared to be one, is not only contrary to the Scriptures and to the intuitive convictions of men, but it affords no satisfactory solution of the facts which it is intended to explain. It does not bring home to any human conscience that the sin of Adam was his sin in the sense in which our sins of yesterday are our guilt of today.

The Proper Realistic Theory.

The strange doctrine of Edwards, above stated, agrees with the realistic theory so far as that he and the realists unite in saying that Adam and his race are one in the same sense in which a tree is one during its whole progress from the germ to maturity, or in which the human soul is one during all the different periods of its existence. It essentially differs, however, in that Edwards denies numerical sameness in any case. Identity, according to him, does not in any creature include the continued existence of one and the same substance. The realistic doctrine, on the contrary, makes the numerical sameness of substance the essence of identity. Every genus or species of plants or animals is one because all the individuals of those genera and species are partakers of one and the same substance. In every species there is but one substance of which the individuals are the modes of manifestation. According to this theory humanity is numerically one and the same substance in Adam and in all the individuals of his race. The sin of Adam was, therefore, the sin of all mankind, because committed by numerically the same rational and voluntary substance which constitutes us men. It was our sin in the same sense that it was sin, because it was our act (the act of our reason and will) as much as it was his. There are two classes of objections to this theory which might here properly come under consideration. First, those which bear against realism as a theory; and, secondly, those which relate to its application to the relation of the union between us and Adam as a solution of the problems of original sin.

Recapitulation of the Objections to the Realistic Theory.

The objections to the realistic doctrine were presented when the nature of man was under consideration. It was then stated, (1.) That realism is a mere hypothesis; one out of many possible assumptions. Possibility is all that can be claimed for it. It cannot be said to be probable, much less certain; and therefore cannot legitimately be made the basis of other doctrines. (2.) That it has no support from the Scriptures. The Bible indeed does say that Adam and his race are one; but it also says that Christ and his people are one; that all the multitudes of believers of all ages and in heaven and earth are one. So in common life we speak of every organized community as one. The visible Church is one. Every separate state or kingdom is one. Everything depends on the nature of this oneness. And that is to be determined by the nature of the thing spoken of, and the usus loquendi of the Bible and of ordinary life. As no man infers from the fact that the Scriptures declare Christ and his people to be one, that they are numerically the same substance; or from the unity predicated of believers as distinguished from the rest of mankind, that they are one substance and the rest of men of a different substance; so we have no right to infer from the fact that the Bible says that Adam and his posterity are one that they are numerically the same substance. Neither do the Scriptures so describe the nature and effects of the union between us and Adam as to necessitate or justify the realistic doctrine. The nature and effects of our oneness with Adam are declared in all essential points to be analogous to the nature and effects of our oneness with Christ. As the latter is not a oneness of substance, so neither is the other. (3.) It was shown that realism has no support from the consciousness of men, but on the contrary, that it contradicts the teachings of consciousness as interpreted by the vast majority of our race, learned and unlearned. Every man is revealed to himself as an individual substance. (4.) Realism, as argued above, contradicts the doctrine of the Scriptures in so far that it is irreconcilable with the Scriptural doctrine of the separate existence of the soul. (5.) It subverts the doctrine of the Trinity in so far that it makes the Father, Son, and Spirit one God only in the sense in which all men are one man. The persons of the Trinity are one God, because they are one in essence or substance; and all men are one man because they are one in essence. The answers which Trinitarian realists give to this objection are unsatisfactory, because they assume the divisibility, and consequently the materiality of Spirit. (6.) It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the realistic theory with the sinlessness of Christ. If the one numerical essence of humanity became guilty and polluted in Adam, and if we are guilty and polluted because we are partakers of that fallen substance, how can Christ’s human nature have been free from sin if He took upon Him the same numerical essence which sinned in Adam. (7.) The above objections are theological or Scriptural; others of a philosophical character have availed to banish the doctrine of realism from all modern schools of philosophy, except so far as it has been merged in the higher forms of pantheistic monism.

Realism no Solution of the Problem of Original Sin.

The objections which bear against this theory as a solution of the problems of original sin are no less decisive. There are two things which realism proposes to explain. First, the fact that we are punished for the sin of Adam; and, secondly, that hereditary depravity is in us truly and properly sin, involving guilt as well as pollution. The former is accounted for on the ground that Adam’s sin was our own act; and the latter on the ground that native depravity is the consequence of our own voluntary action. As a man is responsible for his character or permanent state of mind produced by his actual transgressions, so we are responsible for the character with which we come into the world, because it is the result of our voluntary apostasy from God. To this it is an obvious objection, —

1. That admitting realism to be true; admitting that humanity is numerically one and the same substance, of which individual men are the modes of manifestation; and admitting that this generic humanity sinned in Adam, this affords no satisfactory solution of either of the facts above stated. Two things are necessary in order to vindicate the infliction of punishment for actual sin on the ground of personal responsibility. First, that the sin be an act of conscious self-determination. Otherwise it cannot be brought home upon the conscience so as to produce the sense of criminality. And suffering without the sense of criminality or blameworthiness, so far as the sufferer is concerned, is not punishment, but wanton cruelty. And, secondly, to vindicate punishment in the eye of justice, in the case supposed, there must be personal criminality manifest to all intelligent beings cognizant of the case. If a man should commit an offence in a state of somnambulism or of insanity, when he did not know what he did, and all recognition of which on his restoration to a normal condition is impossible, it is plain that such an offence could not justly be the ground of punishment. Suffering inflicted on such ground would not be punishment in the view of the sufferer, or righteous in the view of others. It is no less plain that if a man should commit a crime in a sound state of mind, and afterwards become insane, he could not justly be punished so long as he continued insane. The execution of a maniac or idiot for any offence committed prior to the insanity or idiocy would be an outrage. If these principles are correct then it is plain that, even admitting all that realists claim, it affords no relief. It gives no satisfactory solution either of our being punished for Adam’s sin or for the guilt which attaches to our inherent hereditary depravity. A sin of which it is impossible that we should be conscious as our voluntary act, can no more be the ground of punishment as our act, than the sin of an idiot, of a madman, or of a corpse. When the body of Cromwell was exhumed and gibbeted, Cromwell was not punished; and the act was, in the sight of all mankind, merely a manifestation of impotent revenge.

2. But the realistic theory cannot be admitted. The assumption that we acted thousands of years before we were born, so as to be personally responsible for such act, is a monstrous assumption. It is, as Baur says, an unthinkable proposition; that is, one to which no intelligible meaning can be attached. We can understand how it may be said that we died in Christ and rose with Him; that his death was our death and his resurrection our resurrection, in the sense that He acted for us as our substitute, head, and representative. But to say that we actually and really died and rose in Him; that we were the agents of his acts, conveys no idea to the mind. In like manner we can understand how it may be said that we sinned in Adam and fell with him in so far as he was the divinely appointed head and representative of his race. But the proposition that we performed his act of disobedience is to our ears a sound without any meaning. It is just as much an impossibility as that a nonentity should act. We did not then exist. We had no being before our existence in this world; and that we should have acted before we existed is an absolute impossibility. It is to be remembered that an act implies an agent; and the agent of a responsible voluntary act must be a person. Before the existence of the personality of a man that man cannot perform any voluntary action. Actual sin is an act of voluntary self-determination; and therefore before the existence of the self, such determination is an impossibility. The stuff or substance out of which a man is made may have existed before he came into being, but not the man himself. Admitting that the souls of men are formed out of the generic substance of humanity, that substance is no more the man than the dust of the earth out of which the body of Adam was fashioned was his body. Voluntary agency, responsible action, moral character, and guilt can be predicated only of persons, and cannot by possibility be predicable of them, or really belong to them before they exist. The doctrine, therefore, which supposes that we are personally guilty of the sin of Adam on the ground that we were the agents of that act, that our will and reason were so exercised in that action as to make us personally responsible for it and for its consequences, is absolutely inconceivable.

3. It is a further objection to this theory that it assigns no reason why we are responsible for Adam’s first sin and not for his subsequent transgressions. If his sin is ours because the whole of humanity, as a generic nature, acted in him, this reason applies as well to all his other sins as to his first act of disobedience, at least prior to the birth of his children. The genus was no more individualized and concentrated in Adam when he was in the garden, than after he was expelled from it. Besides, why is it the sin of Adam rather than, or more than the sin of Eve for which we are responsible? That mankind do bear a relation to the sin of Adam which they do not sustain to the sin of Eve is a plain Scriptural fact. We are said to bear the guilt of his sin, but never to bear the guilt of hers. The reason is that Adam was our representative. The covenant was made with him; just as in after generations the covenant was made with Abraham and not with Sarah. On this ground there is an intelligible reason why the guilt of Adam’s sin should be imputed to us, which does not apply to the sin of Eve. But on the realistic theory the reverse is the case. Eve sinned first. Generic humanity as individualized in her, apostatized from God, before Adam had offended; and therefore it was her sin rather than his, or more than his, which ruined our common nature. But such is not the representation of Scripture.

4. The objection urged against the doctrine of mediate imputation, that it is inconsistent with the Apostle’s doctrine of justification, and incompatible with his argument in Rom. v. 12-21, bears with equal force against the realistic theory. What the Apostle teaches, what he most strenuously insists upon, and what is the foundation of every believer’s hope, is that we are justified for acts which were not our own; of which we were not the agents, and the merit of which does not attach to us personally and does not constitute our moral character. This he tells us is analogous to the case of Adam. We were not the agents of his act. His sin was not our sin. Its guilt does not belong to us personally. It is imputed to us as something not our own, a peccatum alienum, and the penalty of it, the forfeiture of the divine favour, the loss of original righteousness, and spiritual death, are its sad consequences. Just as the righteousness of Christ is not our own but is imputed to us, and we have a title in justice on the ground of that righteousness, if we accept and trust it, to all the benefits of redemption. This, which is clearly the doctrine of the Apostle and of the Protestant churches, the realistic doctrine denies. That is, it denies that the sin of Adam as the sin of another is the ground of our condemnation; and in consistency it must also deny (as in fact the great body of Realists do deny) that the righteousness of Christ, as the righteousness of another, is the ground of our justification. What makes this objection the more serious, is that the reasons assigned for denying that Adam’s sin, if not our own, can justly be imputed to us, bear with like force against the imputation of a righteousness which is not personally our own. The great principle which is at the foundation of the realistic, as of other false theories concerning original sin, is, that a man can be responsible only for his own acts and for his self-acquired character. If this be so, then, according to the Apostle, unless we can perfectly fulfill the law, and restore our nature to the image of God, by our own agency, we must perish forever.

5. Finally, the solution presented by Realists to explain our relation to Adam and to solve the problems of original sin, ought to be rejected, because Realism is a purely philosophical theory. It is indeed often said that the doctrine of our covenant relation to Adam, and of the immediate imputation of his sin to his posterity, is a theory. But this is not correct. It is not a theory, but the simple statement of a plain Scriptural fact. The Bible says, that Adam’s sin was the cause of the condemnation of his race. It tells us that it is not the mere occasional cause, but the judicial ground of that condemnation; that it was for, or on account of, his sin, that the sentence of condemnation was pronounced upon all men. This is the whole doctrine of immediate imputation. It is all that that doctrine includes. Nothing is added to the simple Scriptural statement. Realism, however, is a philosophical theory outside of the Scriptures, intended to account for the fact that Adam’s sin is the ground of the condemnation of our race. It introduces a doctrine of universals, of the relation of individuals to genera and species, concerning which the Scriptures teach nothing, and it makes that philosophical theory an integral part of Scripture doctrine. This is adding to the word of God. It is making the truth of Scriptural doctrines to depend on the correctness of philosophical speculations. It is important to bear in mind the relation which philosophy properly sustains to theology. (1.) The relation is intimate and necessary. The two sciences embrace nearly the same spheres and are conversant with the same subjects. (2.) There is a philosophy which underlies all Scriptural doctrines; or which the Scriptures assume in all their teachings. (3.) As the doctrines of the Bible are from God, and therefore infallible and absolutely true, no philosophical principle can be admitted as sound, which does not accord within those doctrines. (4.) Therefore the true office and sphere of Christian philosophy, or of philosophy in the hands of a Christian, is to ascertain and teach those facts and principles concerning God, man, and nature, which are in accordance with the divine word. A Christian cannot assume a certain theory of human freedom and by that theory determine what the Bible teaches of foreordination and providence; but on the contrary, he should allow the teachings of the Bible to determine his theory of liberty. And so of all other doctrines; and this may be done in full assurance that the philosophy which we are thus led to adopt, will be found to authenticate itself as true at the bar of enlightened reason. The objection to Realism is, that it inverts this order. It assumes to control Scripture, instead of being controlled by it. The Bible says we are condemned for Adam’s sin. Realism denies this, and says no man is or can be condemned except for his own sin.


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