Federalism and seminalism are two theories regarding original sin used to explain how Adam's sin impacted the rest of humanity.
What are federalism and seminalism? Which is correct?
Federalism identifies Adam as the head of all humanity in a representative sense. When he sinned, it bound everyone throughout time with sin. It's like when the head of government signs a treaty, all those in his country are bound by those terms. Adam's sinful nature, and therefore his guilt, becomes everyone's sinful nature and guilt.
On the other hand, seminalism sees Adam's sin passed on to humanity as more like a genetic characteristic. Because Adam is the first human, his sin causes his children throughout the generations to be corrupted by sin and therefore guilty of their own sin.
Either view can be embraced by Christian orthodoxy. Both views hold to the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. Adherents of both views would affirm that apart from Jesus Christ, humans are dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1–3).
Federalists point to Romans 5 as one support of their view. Romans 5:12 says, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—". Federalists point to the Greek aorist tense being used for "sinned," saying it points to a single instance in the past. However, the aorist tense is used when a writer wants to use a verb apart from an emphasis on tense. In other words, the writer was not concerned with when sin happened, but that it did. Romans 5:12 is pointing to the fact that all sin and that all die. The verse emphasizes more how death entered the world than how sin did.
As Federalists continue in Romans 5, they interpret the statement in verses 13 and 14 that death continued from Adam until Moses (when the law was given), as indicating that people died because of Adam's sin. There was no law, and yet there was death, so the sin for which people died must have been Adam's. However, this seems to be an unreasonable conclusion given the global flood (Genesis 6—9) and what Paul writes in Romans 1—2 regarding universal condemnation apart from the Mosaic Law. It seems more likely that Paul is talking about there being another divine law in place even before God gave the Mosaic Law. Sin was still imputed as evidenced by the fact that people still died, so there must have been some type of law in place.
Federalists also rely on 1 Corinthians 15:21–22. "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." This Scripture clearly states that those who are represented by Adam are under condemnation, but those represented by Christ will be saved. This is true, but doesn't speak to how those represented by Adam end up under condemnation. It only speaks of the way things are, not how they came to be so. It also assumes that those represented by Christ have made a conscious decision to have His representation.
Seminalists rely on Hebrews 7:4–10 as a key passage: "See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him."
By referring to the ability of Levi to pay tithes to Melchizedek before he was born because he was in his ancestor Abraham, seminalists say therefore the entire human race was genetically present in Adam. When Adam sinned, we all acquired sin because we are his descendants. However, the writer of Hebrews clearly says the analogy of Levi and Melchizedek is not to be taken literally—in other words, not biologically or genetically. The writer is saying this analogy is merely an analogy, not a pattern to be followed in doctrine. This biblical passage does not support seminalism.
Neither supporters of federalism or seminalism can find clear biblical support to uphold their view. Both are biblically plausible. What matters is the truth that all people are guilty of sin and separated from God. We all need a savior, and the only One who can save is Jesus (Romans 3:23; 6:23; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8–10).
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