Chad Ashby on Recognizing the ‘Sins of Our Fathers’ Means Admitting We’re Their Children

Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Mitsuru Sakurai / Sedmak / Getty / Wikimedia Commons
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Mitsuru Sakurai / Sedmak / Getty / Wikimedia Commons

Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina. He is a graduate of Grove City College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

My dad has been bald since I can remember. As a high-school kid, I convinced myself that I didn’t have his hairline. Here I am, 34 years old and slowly succumbing to the inevitable arithmetic of heredity plus time.

Some inheritances can’t be escaped. We’ve seen this truth on full display during the widespread protests this summer. A generation of Americans is coming to terms with the nation that’s been passed down to them. Each Confederate monument crashes with symbolism: I’m not like my father—or my forefathers!

In recent years, our culture has been groping in the darkness toward a doctrine of primeval sin based on societal categories of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, evangelical Christians seem to be struggling with the plain ramifications of what we claim as basic truth. Belief in original sin means taking seriously in the present the sins of the past.

Historic Christianity has produced various conceptions of original sin but analytical theologian Oliver Crisp has pinpointed where all orthodox traditions intersect: “Original sin is an inherited corruption of nature, a condition which every fallen human being possesses from the first moment of generation.” Sin is not merely a matter of imitating bad behavior. It’s an inheritance: “In a way akin to congenital genetic conditions that are passed from both parents to their child, original sin is passed down the generations as a kind of moral disorder or defect.”

Anecdotal and statistical data bear this out. Regarding patterns of intergenerational child abuse, the Children’s Bureau reported, “Many (but not all) studies on the topic have found that parents who experienced childhood maltreatment are, as a group, more likely than non-abused parents to have children who are abused or neglected.” Children of alcoholics are at a 50 percent higher risk of becoming addicted themselves. Even as American rates have risen over the past few decades, children of divorcées still remain more likely to experience divorce.

But can someone be genetically predisposed to racism? Or sexism? Or corporate fraud? Even in cases of clear correlation, researchers consistently admit the difficulty of disentangling the dizzying array of factors that play into these matters. Is it genetics? Is it environment? In his book The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses epigenetics, a third factor in the conversation. Somewhat like the bone callus on my left tibia formed from a childhood hockey accident, “every genome acquires its own wounds, calluses, and freckles.”

We know that sin is being passed down from generation to generation, but is it nature, nurture, or something else? When we survey the biblical record, the answer becomes clear: all of the above.

Generations of Sin

Taking our cues from Augustine and Luther, we begin in Romans 5 where the apostle Paul writes, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (v. 12) Original sin hung around the neck of Adam like a giant millstone, and sinking into Sheol, he dragged every generation thereafter into the watery depths with him. “Men were bound by the chain of death,” Augustine explains, rattling down through the ages with iron links that took the shape of parents and children.

Paul is not making a new argument in Romans; he is pulling a theological thread that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. To borrow a line from Sophocles’ Antigone, the Old Testament presents the ruin of sin never ceasing but “cresting on and on from one generation on throughout the race—like a great mounting tide.” As salvation history gains momentum, we see generational amplification of the sin that originated in the garden.

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Source: Christianity Today