Atonement: The Realistic View of Adam

Ken Hamrick

Active member
Most are familiar with Federal (or Covenant) Headship, also known as the representative view, in which God designated Adam our representative. Less well known is the alternative: Realistic (or Natural, or Augustinian) Headship.[1] It is the older of the two views, and was held in early form by Augustine. Even since the Federal view became prevalent, a strong minority has remained that holds to the Realistic view.[2] The hallmark of the Realistic view is that the immaterial, moral nature of all men was propagated out of the substance of Adam in such a way as to implicate us in his sin; and this due to that nature having a real, participative presence in Adam. In short, that part of us that chooses to sin (or not) was not created “brand new” at our conception, but was created as a part of Adam, chose to sin while in Adam, and was afterward passed down to us.[3] This is also called the participative view.

A century after Calvin, a theologian named Cocceius founded Covenant theology and Federal Headship; however, Augustine’s principle (of a real participation in Adam) was not abandoned until much later, so the two theories were combined at first (a mysterious, realistic participation within Adam was still held, but with Adam also being the designated representative to explain why “only his first sin was imputed”). This combined view, as it relates to Adam, was held by most in the Western Church, as George Fisher explains, from the seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries.[4]

Robert Landis held it to be prevalent until the late nineteenth century. However, Landis maintained that most held the realism implicitly, refusing all attempts at philosophical explanations—holding only to the bare revealed fact that all men actually (in reality) sinned when Adam sinned. But while they lacked philosophical explanation, they did not lack for conviction in the matter. In their minds, revelation trumped human reasoning and philosophies.[5]

This has, at times, been a matter of protracted controversy. Did we participate in Adam’s sin, or does God merely view us as if we sinned in Adam? Or, as Landis explained, was the sin imputed because it is ours, or, is it ours only because it was imputed?[6] Landis may have been the last significant defender of the combined view before it was relegated to the shadows by the popularity of the federal view. Augustus Strong gave a renewed defense for the Realistic view in the early twentieth century; but now, it is uncommon to find someone familiar with such views. I submit that it was a mistake to abandon the Augustinian principle. The covenantal/federal system works best when it is grounded on the shared identity of a real union between Adam and his progeny—not a mere “union” in God’s chosen perception, but a real union within the man, Adam.

The Church used to be of a realistic mindset—presupposing that reality (the substantial, objective reality in which we exist) was necessary to truth and justice, and was important to God. In other words, in order for something to be true, it must exist in reality and not merely exist in the thoughts of any mind—even God’s mind. Sin belongs to the sinner alone. It cannot be transferred from one man to another without contradicting truth and reality. The proposition that God is able to accomplish such transfers merely by choosing in His thinking to do so—that a man can be made guilty merely by how God views him—would be just if God sent men to hell only in His mind and not in substantial reality. But since hell is a real place, then real justice requires men to own real crimes for which to be sent there.

This Realistic thinking sounds strange to the believers today. Nominalism has become the philosophical framework in which theology is done. Just as Realism was the framework for the participative view, Nominalism was the philosophy behind the representative view.[7] In the Realistic view, mankind’s guilt was not primarily due to God’s imputation, but was due to mankind having participated in the first sin. God’s imputation simply reflected that participation. That participative presence was replaced by the Nominalists with a divinely designated representation. In the Realistic view, we own Adam’s sin and deserve its consequences, but in the Federal/Covenant view, God imputed Adam’s sin to us without any culpability on our part.

In the Realistic view, our union in Adam was literally in the man, Adam; but Nominalism denied any such union, and relocated the union from inside Adam to inside the mind of God alone. Thus, it removed the basis of how God deals with men from “concrete” reality to mere thought; and by doing so, swallowed up justice in sovereignty. This forced God’s justice to be defended as incomprehensible. In Realism, God does what is right because it is right; but in Nominalism, what God does is right merely because it is He who does it, and we have no right to expect to understand His ways.

The strength of the Realistic view is its simplicity and plain understanding of God’s justice. It’s not right to hold men responsible for a sin that they didn’t commit or participate in. God has given men, created in His image, a sufficient sense of justice to understand that He doesn’t hold the innocent as guilty—that gratuitous salvation is grace but gratuitous condemnation would be injustice. This is why the “Augustinian Church,” until nearly four centuries after the Reformation, held on to the principle of realistic participation—even after Federal/Covenant theology was adopted—and only abandoned the principle relatively recently.

Building on this foundation of a real, participative union in Adam will enable us to finally understand the role of the Holy Spirit and what a real, participative union in Christ entails, unlocking the mystery of the very mechanics of atonement.

Ken Hamrick

[1] Biblical realism is the recognition of a shared personal identity, effected by immaterial (spiritual) union or singularity of immaterial origin, which is sufficient in itself to account for the headships of Adam and Christ. More broadly, Biblical realism is a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice are dependent upon substantial reality—a reality which He may sovereignly change but cannot justly ignore.
[2] Including: William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003); Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 2009); Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993); Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Bloomington: Bethany, 2011); Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); as well as those who combine the two views, such as: Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998); Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
[3] Adapted from my article, “Realism & The Fall: A Response to Steve Farish,” found at
[4] George P. Fisher, “The Augustinian and the Federal Theories of Original Sin Compared,” Discussions in History and Theology, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880), pp, 355-357.
[5] Robert W. Landis, The Doctrine of Original Sin as Received and Taught by the Churches of the Reformation Stated and Defended, (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1884), pp. 32-33.
[6] Ibid., pp. 32-34.
[7] Nominalism is the denial of any union of species within substantial reality, relegating all such unions to mere perception of union in the mind. In theology, this is the denial of any union of immaterial nature of mankind in Adam, and the relegation to a mere union in God’s chosen perception. In the broad picture, it is the diminishment of the importance of substantial reality—a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice have no standard other than His own sovereign will.