Federal and Natural Headship

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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 descendants 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 descendants 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 descendant—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.”

Divinitie
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.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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TylerR's picture

Paynen:

Federal Headship emphasizes we are guilty of Adam's sin - the guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to us in a legal sense.

Natural Headship emphasis we are responsible for our own sin. Natural headship does not teach that we are responsible for Adam's sin. We are responsible for our own. It is the rebellious disposition which is passed on.

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA, where he's an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

TylerR's picture

Nevermind - see above!

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA, where he's an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

DavidO's picture

Tyler and/or paynen,

How/why do all die in Adam if they do not inherit his guilt?

paynen's picture

Tyler,

It doesn't really matter how it is worded, whether you say its Adam's sin or your own. It is just really hiding behind personal language. The entire idea of imputed guilt, which is the term used by all natural and federal headship"ists". Literally means the guilt of one placed on the other. Also the idea that God is holding a few DNA strands responsible for sin just increases the ridiculousness of it does it not? those who believe in natural headship tend to use personal sin language when you bring up the passage in Ezekiel, but they use imputed sin language when you talk about us actually being there in a state that can commit sin, or when you ask the question, "Am I guilty of my father's sin?" Natural headship stretches scripture and is inconsistent, Federal headship just doesn't make any logical sense talking about legal representatives. Peleganism clearly is wrong biblically. 

 

This modified natural headship view that removes imputed guilt, although still rough around the edges, seems to be more cohesive and seems to fit better with the character of God and the rest of Scripture as a whole. I don't normally like to question years of church history theology, but the natural headship view has received little attention as far as it growing as a solid doctrine. It gives so many new theologians and Bible college student fits. We are made to basically just accept it because there is no better way to look at it... at least not one that is acceptable... Its time that ended.

paynen's picture

David,

In my view purely because they genetically inherit the physical and spiritual human disease known as total depravity which prevents spiritual birth (the only cure being Christ) and gives mortality of the flesh. So when Adam sinned the entire human race became mortal, or all died in Adam.

TylerR's picture

Your wrote:

Also the idea that God is holding a few DNA strands responsible for sin just increases the ridiculousness of it does it not? those who believe in natural headship tend to use personal sin language when you bring up the passage in Ezekiel, but they use imputed sin language when you talk about us actually being there in a state that can commit sin, or when you ask the question, "Am I guilty of my father's sin?" Natural headship stretches scripture and is inconsistent, Federal headship just doesn't make any logical sense talking about legal representatives. Peleganism clearly is wrong biblically. 

Please forgive me, but I honestly don't understand what you're saying. 

You wrote:

I don't normally like to question years of church history theology, but the natural headship view has received little attention as far as it growing as a solid doctrine. It gives so many new theologians and Bible college student fits. We are made to basically just accept it because there is no better way to look at it... at least not one that is acceptable... Its time that ended.

I wish you the best of luck. I am off to other things . . . 

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA, where he's an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

paynen's picture

when you hold to the view of imputed guilt you must say one of three things:

 

Natural Headship - Because we were in Adam as bits of genetic material we are responsible of Adam's sin by association.

Natural Headship - Due to our genetic ties to Adam his sin was directly imputed onto our accounts at the point he sinned.

Federal Headship - Adam is our legal representative and therefore God imputed original sin onto all of our accounts.

 

All of those have real severe problems, as far as being a strong argument, from pure ridiculousness to biblical contradictions.

Charlie's picture

It may be useful to take this particular case - Adam - out of consideration. It appears to me that federal or collective representation of various sorts occurs often throughout the Bible. The actions of leaders or heads of groups carry very real consequences for the entire group. 

A striking example is the plagues on Egypt for Pharaoh's sin. As the leader of Egypt, his personal decisions have horrific ramifications for his people. Notice too that the final plague is not based on individuals, but on households. Even more curious is that the person who will be the principal object of punishment - the firstborn - is probably not the person making the decision about whether or not to bloody the door. Thus, we are left with a dilemma: either we 1) admit that God is punishing innocent people (innocent at least of the particular sin they are being punished for), or we 2) recognize a real link between the moral standing of a collective head and the group. The first seems patently unjust, the second incomprehensible. But perhaps it is only incomprehensible because of a long line of modern thinking about the irreducible individuality of morality.

One objection might be that the Egyptians were all complicit in slavery, so perhaps there is enough guilt to go around. But take a different example, Abraham and Abimalech in Genesis 20.  Abimalech, who has misunderstood the situation through no fault of his own (as God confirms in v. 6), has taken Sarah (to his house or harem?) but has not yet approached her sexually. God tells Abimalech to return Sarah, or God will kill him and "all who are" his, a term that includes not just immediate family, but extended family, family slaves, potentially the whole kingdom. So, God threatens that heads, many of whom might be entirely ignorant of the situation, will roll if Abimalech disobeys! Not only that, but some punishment has already taken place, not directly on Abimalech, but on the women of his household, rendering them infertile. 

So again, is God punishing individuals for sins in which they are no way connected, or is there a real moral transference between collective heads and their groups?

BTW, this is seen in the New Testament as well with household baptisms and a few other things.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

paynen's picture

There is a real difference between what happens when a country or a nation is punished for something, Primarily because in all those situations the country is collectively guilty of the sin, in Pharaoh's case, it isn't just Pharaoh who is guilty, but he is the representative of the Egyptians. Pharaoh is making his decisions based on a collective cultural system. All of Egypt worships Pharaoh as a god. The will stand with him. Yet there were those who didn't it is fairly clear that there were exceptions made, due to their being a mixed multitude in the Exodus. So at some point during the plagues these Egyptians became Hebrew proselytes. The same would of tended to be true of Abimelech's situation. When cities in the OT were destroyed it almost seems that almost every time people who threw themselves at the feet of the Jewish people in true repentance and obedience to the God of the Jews were spared.

In the NT case I don't think because the head of the house made a decision they were all saved. Either 1. they all made individual decisions and where baptized as a family, or they went along with the head of the household even though they didn't really believe, then they wouldn't be in heaven. I don't think there is room in theology for that to work. 

In the case of Adam Federal Headship has him making a representative decision for an entire human race that doesn't exist and although you could say that when we accept Christ we are throwing ourselves at the mercy of Christ and following Him in obedience like what is stated above. But that doesn't really rightfully explain why we are given the "punishment" in the first place. If it followed the OT pattern we would have that option at the point of the sin being made on whether we stand with him or against him. Similar to the golden calf episode in exodus where Moses asked who would stand with God. Also one must consider that the Romans 5 passage does not include any sort of representative language. Adam and Christ are parallel you must turn Federal Headship around and explain how Christ is our new representative. This is possible, but you lose the unity of Christ. If Christ is purely just our representative then we are not fellow airs with him. The other logical implication of that is that Christ didn't really reverse death or take our place, He just lived perfectly and therefore if we chose to associate with Him instead of Adam we are seen as under His headship by God.

You lose almost the entirety of dispensational premelienial theology if you accept that view, you pretty much have to adopt a reformed system.

TylerR's picture

I beg you to not make broad brush statements encompassing very complex issues that men have written literal volumes on throughout the ages. 

In the case of Adam Federal Headship has him making a representative decision for an entire human race that doesn't exist and although you could say that when we accept Christ we are throwing ourselves at the mercy of Christ and following Him in obedience like what is stated above. But that doesn't really rightfully explain why we are given the "punishment" in the first place.

Reformed brethren will now speak of a Covenant of Works and criticize your characterization because you did not adequately represent their position.

If it followed the OT pattern we would have that option at the point of the sin being made on whether we stand with him or against him

A strong Calvinist would now ask you your position on election and effectual calling, and wonder if you hold to a synergistic cooperation in salvation.

Also one must consider that the Romans 5 passage does not include any sort of representative language. 

Are you really sure about that . . . ?!

Adam and Christ are parallel you must turn Federal Headship around and explain how Christ is our new representative. This is possible, but you lose the unity of Christ. If Christ is purely just our representative then we are not fellow airs with him

Not sure what you are talking about. 

The other logical implication of that [federal headship] is that Christ didn't really reverse death or take our place, He just lived perfectly and therefore if we chose to associate with Him instead of Adam we are seen as under His headship by God.

Again, your statement sounds synergistic. I don't know what your theology on this is. I also don't follow the implications. I ask you to read Charles Hodge on this matter. He advocated Federal Headship. 

You lose almost the entirety of dispensational premelienial theology if you accept that view, you pretty much have to adopt a reformed system

Your discussion of Federal Headship did not touch on the dispensational framework, or the pre-millennial return of Christ with the church. I do not understand how anything you mentioned impacts dispensationalism, unless you wish to argue against a Covenant of Works, which you did not mention. 

I don't know what your position is on anything, obviously, but your plethora of broad, sweeping statements about complex issues is dizzying. Not trying to be nasty, please don't take it as such. 

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA, where he's an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

paynen's picture

What I said clearly stated that Federal Headship is directly tied to Reformed Theology. My intentions were not directly to deal with reformed theology as a whole or even really disprove Federal Headship. My intentions were basically to say that a big discussion of Federal Headship.

 

Basically I just wanted to say I don't want to deal directly with Federal Headship in this discussion, because it is linked to an entire theology that I don't agree with. Obviously those who come from a reformed perspective are not going to agree with Dr. Bauder and I. Federal Headship makes sense to Reformed theologians and one would have to dismantle their entire system of theology in order to really deal with that fully.

 

Sorry if I was being confusing.

alex o.'s picture

This natural view presentation by Dr. Bauder makes much sense if thought of from this perspective (of race). I have not reviewed the Federal Position recently but from the Bible, this natural view seems right without adding *baggage* of the the Reformed position.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

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