This is part 2 of a three-part series on original sin. This continues yesterday’s theme of exploring the counter-intuitive notion of inherited sin. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the implications of original sin.
III. The Problems With the Two Extremes
The American view imagines that each of us are autonomous individuals, who spring forth fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This seems to be a view shaped by a pretty radical Arminism and a secular American ethos. From a secular context, it’s a good policy: you don’t want the law arresting you for your dad’s tax evasion, and our “forgive and forget” attitude in certain contexts (like foreign policy and bankruptcy) is both thoroughly Christian and smart public policy. Unfortunately, it’s just not realistic. I think that there are at least two areas where even secular society recognizes this. The first is in racial issues, particularly surrounding the issue of reparations. The basic premise is that based on your ancestors’ status, you’re either born into a position of privilege or disadvantage, and that a laissez faire attitude towards this situation re-entrenches these racial barriers. Interestingly, one of the common arguments used by opponents is: “my ancestors never owned slaves,” an argument which actually conceeds that penalizing children for the injustices of their ancestors is just (in some contexts).
Ari Roth produced a play with the significant title Born Guilty, based upon a book of the same title by Peter Sichrovsky. The point of both the book and the play is to examine the way that the children and grandchildren of Nazi war criminals struggle with their sense of identity, as they try to come to terms with their ancestors’ barbaric actions. So it seems that even the least religious among us recognize something fundamental exists: so much of who we are is shaped by our parents, who were in turn shaped largely by their parents, and so forth, whether one believes in nature (where it’s passed on in our genes), nuture (where it’s passed on through their raising us), or both. On the other hand, the Mediterranean view unfairly punishes those, like the thief’s great-great-great-grandson, who had no chance to live an upright life. (I think, given that the readership of this blog is overwhelmingly Western, that the difficulties with the Mediterranean view are fairly well apparent, so I’ll leave it at that).
IV. The Biblical View
It seems, then, that the right answer is somewhere in the middle. And that, incidentally, is the view that the Bible takes: somewhere in between the modern Western view and the ancient (and apparently, modern) Mediterranean one. So, for example, God threatens in Exodus 20:5-6 to punish “the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” But on the other hand, says that “the son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20). And Deuteronomy 24:16 tells us that “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”
At first glance, these seem to be contradictory, but they’re really not. After all, even those who support reparations, a penalty of sorts, due to the ancestoral sin of slavery wouldn’t support imprisoning those same slave owner descendants. If there’ s a punishment, it’s a light one, and intended not out of vengence, but out of a sense of justice.
Additionally, in Exodus 20:5-6, God uses the love/hate Semitism. It generally, as here, means a comparitive favoring, not literally “love” or “hate” (just as you aren’t literally to hate your parents in Luke 14:26). Israel is blessed with a favored status for their faithfulness: they don’t earn God’s love, or get He who is Love Incarnate to love them more. That’s nonsensical. Rather, it means the same thing here that it means in Romans 9: God lifts up those He will lift up, and casts down those He will cast down. Sometimes, this is based upon a parent’s sin, other times, it’s not. for His own purposes (which is why we can’t assume that the poor and suffering are out of God’s favor — Christ shows the opposite to be true).
But those who are disfavored, even for the sins of the father, aren’t loved less by God. Here’s an interesting example: Deuteronomy 23:2 says that illegitimate children are barred from the assembly of Jehovah. In Genesis 38, we see two children produced out of wedlock (by inlaws, no less): Perez and Zerah. According to the lineage in Matthew 1:3-6, David is the first descendant born not under penalty of this sin. This adds a lot of meaning to his proclaimation in Pslam 122:1, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to the House of the Lord.'” He was the first in his family to be able to join them in ten generations. But that didn’t mean that the ten generations before him were all in God’s disfavor: Ruth, his great-grandmother, even has a book in the Bible named after her. God disfavored (or even, cursed) her in one regard from an ancesteral sin, but this lifelong penalty was no obstacle to His love of her and His blessing her in other ways based upon her Faith.
Admittedly, a punishment that penalizes children is foreign to us, but it would be pretty absurd to dismiss it out of hand for simply that reason. Severe judgment would be unjust upon someone who commit no sin themselves, but some sort of reciprocal penalty (like taxing those who benefit from the system of slavery, even inadvertantly) can certainly be fair. Additionally, mild intergenerational penalties, usually in the form of family shame or stigma, are (a) pretty effective deterents to sin, and (b) tied to human nature. We naturally are influenced in our view of someone based upon who their dad was. Sometimes, this is a positive, sometimes not (DJAMDG mentioned Franklin Graham recently, and I think he’s a good example of someone who has experienced both the benefits and perils of being someone important’s kid).
I think that the Bible recognizes both that we are not liable for the actions of others, and that blood is thicker than water. The Biblical view is probably much more nuanced than I’m presenting it here, or giving it credit for being, but I think it’s fair to say that whatever the view is, it seems to reflect some pretty reasonable beliefs about the connection of an individual to his or her family.
Tomorrow: What impact does inherited, or original, sin have?