Paul among the Evangelicals, §3: The Argument (3.2)

3.2. The Arguments for and against Universalism in Rom. 5:12-21

While there is some debate over how to organize Paul’s convoluted argument in vv. 12-21, a large majority of scholars agree that Paul begins in v. 12 with a protasis which is not followed by its apodosis until v. 18. In vv. 13-17, Paul answers hypothetical questions regarding his original assertion that sin and death came into the world through one human, and on that basis came to all people.[16] The heart of Paul’s argument, as well as the argument for a Pauline-based universalism, is found in the parallel statements of Rom. 5:18-19:
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life (δικαίωσις ζωῆς) for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (NRSV)
On the basis of this verse, there are two main questions: (1) what does “all” mean? and (2) what is the relation between the “one” and the “many,” between Adam and all, on the one hand, and Christ and all, on the other? The proponents of universalism argue in response to these two questions: (1a) the “all/many” who are referenced in vv. 18a and 19a are the very same ones referenced in vv. 18b and 19b; and (2a) the actuality of the relation between Adam and the rest of humanity (condemnation) corresponds to the actuality of the relation between Christ and the rest of humanity (justification). The critics of universalism argue instead: (1b) the “all/many” reference in vv. 18-19 is determined not by its parallel structure but by the differences between the “one man” Adam and the “one man” Christ, and in particular, by v. 17; and (2b) there is no correspondence of actuality between those represented by Adam and those represented by Christ, because the movement between Christ and the humanity is a movement from potentiality to actuality, from possibility to reality. I will address the two questions under debate in more detail.


16. Cf. Stanley E. Porter, “The Argument of Romans 5: Can a Rhetorical Question Make a Difference?” Journal of Biblical Literature 110:4 (1991), 671f. John Poirier argues “against most scholars” that vv. 13-14 are an expository rather than disjunctive parenthesis; “Romans 5:13-14 and the Universality of Law,” Novum Testamentum 38:4 (1996), 356.