Federalism and seminalism are two theories having to do with original sin and how Adam’s sin ultimately touches the rest of the human race. Neither term is used in Scripture but have been coined to try to explain the biblical data.
Federalism sees Adam as the representative head of all humanity. When Adam sinned, he sinned not only for himself but as the representative (federal head) of all humanity. His decision was binding upon all people of all time. In the same way, leaders of a government may enter into agreements with other nations, and those agreements are binding upon all the citizens, even though they had no direct input regarding the agreement and may even be unaware of it. Adam sinned, making himself and everyone he represented a sinner. Adam’s guilt (not just his sinful nature) is imputed to every human being.
Seminalism sees Adam’s sin as something that corrupted the human nature he passed on to his posterity, as the entire human race was genetically present in Adam. Adam’s guilt is not passed on to his children, but his sinful tendencies are. His children, with their corrupted nature, readily join in Adam’s rebellion at the first available opportunity and are therefore guilty of their own sin.
Both federalism and seminalism fall within Christian orthodoxy. Both views affirm the biblical doctrines of original sin and total depravity. Both sides would wholeheartedly agree that, outside of Christ, people are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1).
Seminalists usually turn to Hebrews 7:4–10 for support. The writer of Hebrews uses an incident in the life of Abraham to explain that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than that of Levi because Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek. How could Levi have possibly paid tithes to Melchizedek, when Levi was not even born yet? The answer, according to Hebrews, is that, “when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor [Abraham]” (verse 10). That is, when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, it was as if Levi were also paying tithes, because Levi was “genetically present” within Abraham. This seems to parallel seminalism, which says the whole human race was “genetically present” within Adam at the time of his sin. The problem with drawing a theological conclusion about seminalism from Hebrews 7 is that the writer clearly says, in verse 9, that Levi’s payment of tithes was only in a manner of speaking (“one might even say” in the NIV; “so to speak” in the NASB). The writer is using an analogy that would have been understood by his Jewish readers to emphasize a particular point. When we co-opt this analogy to make other points, we risk going astray. The point is emotional and rhetorical rather than biological. Ultimately, Hebrews 7:4–10 does not address either seminalism or federalism. The truth must be discerned elsewhere.
Federalists find support for their position in Romans 5. Here Adam is the representative of fallen, condemned humanity, and Christ is the representative of forgiven and renewed humanity. The primary issue for the sinner is who will represent him before God.
However, a closer examination of Romans 5 will demonstrate that the federalist view is read into the passage rather than read out of it. Verse 12 says, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” Federalists often point out that, in the phrase “because all sinned,” the Greek word for “sinned” is in the aorist tense and therefore must refer to a single instance in the past—the moment when Adam sinned. In other words, when Adam sinned, we all sinned. But this is a misinterpretation of the aorist tense. The aorist is used when a writer wants to express an action without emphasizing the tense. Any interpretation resting upon the use of the aorist is on weak footing because the interpreter is emphasizing something that the writer chose to de-emphasize by his use of the aorist. Romans 5:12 simply says that, through Adam, sin and then death passed to all people because all sinned (a truth obvious to any person with a basic biblical knowledge and an observant nature). The verse says nothing about when or where all sinned—it simply states a brute, undeniable fact, and it should be noted that the thrust of the verse is how death (not sin) passed to all.
Further evidence for the federalist position is sought in the next two verses (Romans 5:13–14): “For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses.” Once again, the primary subject seems to be death, not sin, although sin and death are inextricably linked. The federalist reads the above verses to mean that there was no law from Adam to Moses, but people still died—and their deaths must have been the result of Adam’s sin. However, a better reading of the text is to see that Paul is insisting that, even though the Mosaic Law was not given until Sinai, there must have been some kind of divine law in place because sin is not imputed if there is no law. It is clear that people were still sinning as evidenced by the fact that people still died from Adam to Moses. The emphasis of the passage is that people did break some kind of law, even though they did not break the Law of Moses. Depending upon which way the text is read, the meanings are almost opposite. Either people died because they sinned according to some other law (seminalist), or they died because of Adam’s sin, even though they did not sin personally (federalist). The federalist reading seems untenable in light of the flood and the universal condemnation of Romans 1–2 apart from the Law of Moses.
Finally, the federalist points to 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, which states, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Here federalists see that representation is the issue. All who are represented by Adam are under condemnation, but all who are represented by Christ are redeemed. However, this is not an affirmation of the federalist position regarding original sin or anything that happened in the Garden of Eden. It simply describes the current situation. Furthermore, the passage also assumes that those who are represented by Christ have made a conscious decision to have Him represent them.
In conclusion, the passage that seminalists use to support their position really does not address the issue. Likewise, the passages that federalists use to support their position do not directly touch on the issue. The debate between federalism and seminalism has been going on for many years, and it is not realistic to imagine that this short article will settle it. In the final analysis, Scripture condemns all people for their actual sin. However, humanity’s problem is not only individual acts of sin, but also a nature that is wholly steeped in sin. Individual sins are simply the result of a sin nature that we inherited from Adam. Paul goes to great lengths in Romans 1 and 2 to make the case that all people are guilty before God because they have broken the law as it has been revealed to them. He does not charge them with Adam’s sin. Therefore, it seems that the most natural reading of Scripture would lead one closer to the seminalist position.