The writers of the New Testament believed the Old Testament stories were factual accounts of actual events. This belief controlled their understanding of what God had done throughout history.
New Testament scholars sometimes try to connect the Old and New Testaments by stating that the New Testament borrows types, narratives, and themes from the Old. It’s true that the New Testament writers often did this, but you must realize that they didn’t borrow arbitrarily. They did not see the Old Testament as a convenient source book from which they could take material to be reinterpreted. They believed that God spoke through his prophets in the holy texts, and that he did more than just tell fascinating stories.
Paul mentions Adam in Romans 5
The apostle Paul wrote in light of this. It’s difficult to understand the Apostle Paul’s writings unless you recognize the ways in which his thought was shaped by key controlling narratives from the Old Testament.
Romans 5:12-21 is just one example of this:
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (Romans 5:14)
A lot of commentaries don’t quite know what to do with these verses. Why does Paul bring in Adam at this point in the text? Many scholars treat these verses as an excursus, but I’m convinced that if you understand what Paul’s trying to do with controlling narratives throughout the book of Romans, the sudden inclusion of the story of Adam is not surprising at all.
Abraham in Romans 4
Let’s work backwards for a moment, just as Paul did in this section of Romans. Paul began this letter by establishing two major themes—the righteousness of God and the universal corruption of both Jews and Gentiles. Then, in chapter 4, he began to tell a story:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? (Romans 4:1)
Why did Paul pause in the middle of a theological discussion to tell a story? Paul knew that God had worked in the Old Testament through a successive series of covenants, and that each of these covenants had a story behind it. These stories matter.
Paul didn’t begin Romans 4 with just any story; he chose to remind his readers of the foundational controlling narrative of the people of Israel. It’s difficult to understand the New Testament if you don’t know about God’s enduring covenant with Abraham. The Story of Abraham and of Abraham’s covenant with God shapes almost the entire Old Testament, and it’s a key controlling narrative for the New Testament writers as well.
Old Testament Covenants are Controlling Narratives
Paul teaches that we who are in Jesus are made part of God’s covenant with Abraham. Thus, we have salvation, peace, and access to the Abrahamic promise through our Lord Jesus, Messiah. Paul is reminding us here that the story of our salvation goes back in time before us, before even the crucifixion—all the way back to the faith of a desert wanderer named Abram. Once he’s established that, Paul reminds us that the story of our salvation goes back even further than that, to God’s covenant with Adam (Genesis 2:16-17, Genesis 3:14-19).
Paul then goes on in Romans 5:12-21 to remind his readers of God’s covenant with Adam. The story of the Adamic covenant is another controlling narrative throughout scripture. God’s promise to Abraham is an extension of his promise to Adam. Paul knew that, and he wanted to be sure his readers were aware of it as well.
Try reading through the book of Genesis and making a note of all the passages in which Abraham, or the blessings upon Abraham, are mentioned. The faithful God made a promise to Abraham, and He has kept that promise through the ages. Watch for the language of blessing, land, and descendants in Genesis, especially in chapters 1-36. God’s promise to Adam was elaborated in his promise to Abraham, and his promise to Abraham was further elaborated in future covenants.
God is faithful to each and every one of his promises. Behind each promise is a controlling story that influences enormously the way Paul tells the gospel of God.
This blog was adapted from a class Dr. Sloan taught on the book of Romans at Houston Baptist University.