Southern Baptists and the Doctrine of Imputed Sin

James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888), the founding president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, affirmed the federal headship of Adam and the doctrine of original sin. On whether man inherits guilt and is under condemnation prior to actual personal transgression, Boyce writes:

Consequently, at the very moment of birth, the presence and possession of such a nature shows that even the infant sons of Adam are born under all the penalties which befell their ancestor in the day of his sin. Actual transgression subsequently adds new guilt to guilt already existing, but does not substitute a state of guilt for one of innocence. [Emphasis added]

It is the position of some in the SBC (see Steve Lemke’s article here) that a denial of original guilt is a Baptist distinctive, however, such an assertion is fallacious. Particular Baptists and Calvinistic Southern Baptists have historically affirmed that all the posterity of Adam inherit not only a corrupt nature that leads to actual transgression but also inherit the very guilt of Adam, the federal head of all mankind. To speak accurately, Baptists have historically both affirmed and denied the doctrine of original guilt or imputed sin.

In his Abstract of Systematic Theology, Boyce addresses the nature of the relationship between Adam and his posterity. Boyce writes:

Section 3—The Connection Between Adam and His Posterity

1. Manifestly the universal sinfulness of mankind is due to some kind of connection with Adam. Being thus universal, it cannot be accidental, nor without some controlling cause. Unless some change was made in human nature at large, or it became liable to new conditions, or there was a connection of the life and state of all with that of the one, no reason can be assigned for the fact that invariably the fallen condition, and not the original one is found in every man. Yet it is manifest that while Adam’s was the first sin, and while that was not committed according to the tendencies of his nature, all of his posterity have been born with the corrupt nature which thence ensued, with all its tendencies and its actual development in due time into personal transgressions.

2. This has not resulted from the mere imitation of an example; but is a deep rooted evil inherent in their natures. It is found there before they can perceive the example, much less imitate it.

3. Such is the natural relation borne by all men to Adam, as their common father, that nothing but his death before the birth of posterity, or some such miraculous influence as goes against nature, or at least acts apart from it, and is believed to have existed in the birth of Jesus, could have prevented all the evils which befell Adam from coming in like manner upon his posterity. By natural generation they must be born with sinful natures such as his, and must, therefore, be corrupt and guilty, eternally destitute of God’s complacent love, and liable to natural death.

4. While the above would follow from mere natural law, the Scriptures teach us that Adam was not merely the natural, but also the federal head of the race. This is done not only in express language, but especially by teaching that the relation borne to Christ, our federal head in salvation, is similar to that borne to Adam in our sin.

5. This shows that the mass of mankind proceeding from Adam by natural generation sinned in him, not consciously, but representatively, and therefore are justly treated as though they had consciously sinned, because they are responsible for the act of their representative. [Emphasis added]

6. This adds nothing to the penalty which must have been suffered nor to the guilt which would have accrued from natural headship; for guilt is simply just liability to punishment.

7. In each case, whether of federal, or of natural headship, the same difficulties appear. (1.) In each we are dealt with for an act with which we had no conscious connection. (2.) In each we are made sinful, and therefore sinners, by that act; for the inherent corruption is spoken of and treated by God as sin in the highest degree to be reprobated and punished. (3.) In each the consequences of sin are equally beyond escape. If it be contended that under natural headship we could not be punished until we had actually sinned, it may be replied: (1.) That this does not appear to be the fact, for at least some of the penalties, namely, corruption and natural death, and we believe all, are inflicted before actual sin. (2.) That it would show no more equity or justice in God, nor any advantage to us, but rather disadvantage, that our probation, upon which the infliction of these penalties depends, should have taken place in the weakness of infancy, and under the disadvantages of an already corrupted nature, rather than in the personal and intelligent act of the one perfect man connected with us by natural generation.

8. But while, under the natural headship, every evil would befall which could arise under the representative, or federal headship; under the latter would come blessing, in the event that Adam should maintain his integrity, because, as represented in him, we should have been confirmed with him according to the gracious promises and power of God.

9. It would also appear that only through the representative headship could blessing come in the event of the fall. Had our fall been through merely natural headship we can see no way for recovery. But to the fall under the federal headship of Adam corresponds our salvation under the federal headship of Christ.

10. In support of the Scriptural theory, therefore, we can not only adduce the fact that the federal headship of Adam was just and right, because duly constituted by God, and that too in the fittest person of the whole race, but that it was an act of special mercy and grace, not only in itself, as involving the blessing of participation in the good as well as the evil, but as making a way for restoration in Christ the second Adam.

James P. Boyce. Abstract of Systematic Theology (Kindle Locations 5400-5441). Kindle Edition.

  • Steve Lemke

    Thanks for referencing my article. I hope you will reread it carefully, because you did not accurately represent what I said. What I said, as the readers who follow the link can see, is that belief in the age of accountability is a Baptist distinctive vis-a-vis Presbyterian beliefs. I never said that no Baptist in the history of the world affirmed some conception of original sin. Your counterevidence of citing one theologian misses the point of my study, which was about Baptist confessions (which are more significant than an individual person’s theology). I did note how even Particular Baptist confessions moved away from the stronger Westminster Confession language on this subject. I also noted that no major Baptist confession affirmed “original sin” by name. In part because Baptists deny infant baptism and affirm the age of accountability, we do not believe in original sin in the way it is commonly understood in the broader theological spectrum as inherited guilt. The Baptist Faith and Message affirms that we “inherit a nature and environment inclined toward sin,” not inherited guilt. If I remember correctly from previous conversations, you cannot fully affirm the BF&M 2000, or at least it is not the most accurate statement of your beliefs. I and most Southern Baptists do.

    • thedailybleat

      Dr. Lemke,

      Thanks for stopping by. 

      In your article you cite the WCF to give an explanation of imputed sin. Directly after, you state “Baptists have not typically understood the impact of Adam and Eve’s sin the the Presbyterian way.” You then go on to say that in light of the denial of inherited guilt by Baptists, an “age of accountability” is a Baptist distinctive. This reads to me that you are associating a denial of inherited guilt with an affirmation of an age of accountability, thus claiming both are Baptist distinctives.

      As to your agreement that there may have been some Baptist out there somewhere who affirmed inherited guilt, I believe there is evidence to show that inherited guilt was not a minority position in the SBC but was the prevailing position in the convention. The BF&M 1925 states: “whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” This affirms condemnation before actual transgression.

      Regarding my affirmation of the BF&M 2000, I do affirm the BF&M 2000 as any good 5-point Calvinist at SBTS does. Though, I imagine your interpretation of the document differs much from mine.

  • Robert Vaughn

    “Age of accountability” is not a Baptist distinctive. It is a distinct belief of most Baptists who hold depravity, conditional election, general atonement, and eternal security. That’s not a broad enough sweep to make it a BAPTIST distinctive.

    This question also comes to mind (if Bro. Lemke is still watching this). If infants do not inherit the guilt of Adam, why do they die? Is physical death not a result of the sin of Adam?


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