From Our Fathers
One of the things that amazed me when we first moved from Minnesota to Tennessee was the history I found here. For a while, my small company rented a house in Franklin, a town founded in 1799 that sits about 15 miles south of Nashville. Our office-house sat right across the street from an old cemetery. Franklin was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, so I was not too surprised to find the graves of Civil War soldiers there. But I was amazed to discover that the cemetery was also the final resting place of four veterans of the Revolutionary War. It was moving to see the family plots where sons and fathers from the same family were buried next to each other going back centuries. It’s hard not to think of one’s own lineage in that setting; where you come from, what has been passed down to you, and what you will be passing down to the generations after you. You hope you pass down most of the good stuff, and not so much of the bad.
A friend at work recently asked me if I thought mankind was basically good or basically bad. I told him I thought mankind was basically bad, in terms of being “fallen”, or morally corrupt. Imagine if we had a National Immunity Week in the USA where every citizen was given complete freedom to do whatever they wanted with no legal repercussions. I’d lock my family in my house and brace for chaos in the streets! As James Madison famously said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” It’s only by the grace of God that we can manage to do good things with our lives and hope to overcome the sins that our fathers may have passed down to us.
This got me thinking. How is it that sin gets passed down from generation to generation? If we traced our lineage all the way back to the beginning we would find that mankind was not originally created fallen (Gen 1:31). But we fell into sin and our human nature was corrupted (Gen 3:1-24, Rom 5:12). And that brings up an interesting question. If human nature has been corrupted, how could Jesus be fully human (Hebrews 2:5-18) yet not have a fallen nature like every other human being?
This was the topic of a classroom discussion I was part of at seminary a few months ago. During the discourse, a thought occurred to me. What if sin is transmitted paternally through human fathers? I suggested my nascent theory to the professor but he dismissed it as too problematic and moved on to the next student’s question. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I sensed that this theory could make sense of a lot of things. So, at the risk of becoming a theological bull in a glass Bible shop, I decided to pursue it myself.
The word “father” does not only refer to a male parent. It is also used to refer to the source or head of something; the founder of a family line; a progenitor. As in our forefathers, or our Heavenly Father, or our Founding Fathers. What’s interesting is that if we trace fatherhood all the way back to the first human, we see that Adam was the federal head—in a sense the father—of the human race. And in Romans 5:12 Paul says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Yet Scripture tells us that the first human to disobey God was Eve, not Adam (Gen 3:6, 1 Tim 2:14). So why don’t we speak of mankind sinning “in Eve”? Why is Adam held responsible for mankind’s first sin? It’s because Adam was the head of Eve (1 Cor 11:3) and therefore, although Adam and Eve both disobeyed God, it was Adam who was held guilty for bringing sin and death into the world. And this, as my theory posits, sets up a pattern in which mankind’s fallen moral condition descends generationally through the paternal line.
I’m not implying that women are not fallen, of course. Every human being is fallen because every human has a father through whom they inherit their fallen human nature. Every human except one. If sin is passed down paternally, it would explain how Jesus’ virgin conception (Matt 1:18) would exempt Him from inheriting a corrupted human nature (1 Pet 2:22, 1 John 3:5). Although Mary had a fallen human nature, as Jesus’ mother her fallenness would not have been transmitted to Him. And Jesus did not have an earthly father from whom He would have inherited a corrupted human nature.
Other than Jesus, Adam was the only other human being who did not have an earthly father. And Adam is also the only human other than Jesus who did not start out life with a corrupt human nature. God as a perfect Father created Adam with an unfallen human nature. Adam then corrupted that nature by sinning. Adam’s corruption was then passed on to the entire human race (Rom 5:12). Christ then came to earth to restore our fallen nature (Eph 2:4-5). Like Adam, Jesus began his human life with an unfallen human nature. But unlike Adam, Jesus did not sin and corrupt that nature (2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 1 Pet 2:22). While we have all inherited a fallen nature from our human fathers, God wants to be our perfect spiritual Father and free us from that sinful nature (John 8:34-36). This is why Jesus says we need to be born again (John 3:1-10, 1 Pet 1:23); so we can become children of a perfect Father (John 1:12).
I want to hasten to add that I am not implying that sinfulness is passed on biologically, like some sort of disease. Our sin nature, what we call “original sin”, is not a physical thing. We know this because even angels (who are spirits) have fallen into sin (Luke 10:18, 2 Pet 2:4). Also, Adam was created without original sin and his life began immaterially. God first formed his physical body, but Adam’s life did not actually begin until, in a separate act, God breathed it into him (Gen 2:7). So we have warrant to believe that life is passed on at the spiritual rather than physical level. And this is the level at which I am suggesting sin is transmitted from a human father to his progeny.
There is one last issue to address, which is the idea that our sin includes aspects of both corruption and guilt. What I’m talking about in terms of the paternal transmission of sin is our moral corruption. The guilt aspect of sin, on the other hand, is more of a legal matter (Romans 5). And I’m not prepared to say that our guilt is passed on paternally. Rather it seems to me our guilt arises out of our legal status before God. But that’s a matter for another article.
At the end of the day, I believe the biblical case demonstrated above for sin being passed down through the father is quite strong. And to think I only used to feel bad about passing on a cheesy sense of humor to my kids.