Original Sin 17 – Blocked Transmission

In addition to the issue of Christ’s nature that I discussed yesterday, which I perceive as the central problem, the idea that all mankind naturally inherits guilt in a “sinful nature” but that Jesus didn’t tends to raise another question. How is it that Jesus did not inherit our nature of inherited guilt when he became human? It seems to me that many Protestants simply ignore the question. I could be wrong, of course. I’m hardly an expert on any Christian tradition. But that’s my impression. I am aware of two different ways this question is answered, though.

The first I remember hearing in a sermon from a Baptist minister when I was a teenager. It stuck in my head all these years because it sounded so strange to me at the time. I wasn’t sure at first if he was serious or not, but it quickly became apparent that he was. I have no clue how common or uncommon this idea might actually be. If anyone does know, feel free to add that information in the comments. Here’s the thread of the explanation as I recall it.

Because Adam ate knowingly and was not deceived like Eve, his offense was worse. Both ‘fell from grace’ with God, but it’s from Adam that the guilt of original sin is inherited. As a result, children ‘inherit’ their nature of original sin from their fathers, not their mothers. The guilt is transmitted through the male descendants to their offspring. Since Jesus did not have a human biological father, he did not inherit the nature of inherited guilt and was thus born free of original sin.

In my mind, even if I try to take the idea seriously, it immediately raises another question. It’s safe, I think, to assume that at some point in the future, we will be able to do in vitro fertilization from cellular genetic sources other than, strictly speaking, a female egg and a male sperm. Ignoring for the sake of this question the whole matter of bioethics and whether or not this is something we should do, let’s just assume it will happen. Does that then mean that a child conceived from the genetic material of two women would also be born without a nature of inherited guilt? And what about a child conceived from the genetic material of two men? Does that child get a double whammy of inherited guilt?

I might sound facetious. I’m trying not to be, but the idea still strikes me as absurd decades after I first heard it. But if that is truly what some people believe, they will need to face questions like that and figure out how they are going to answer them.

The other response to this question lies in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Roman Catholic Church. This is actually a more sophisticated dogma than the way it is sometimes portrayed by those outside the Church. It holds that Mary was miraculously preserved from the stain of the inherited guilt of original sin in order to provide a fitting womb for the infant Christ. It does not, as is sometimes said, that God could not have (or did not) simply preserved the infant Jesus from inheriting the stained nature of inherited guilt. It uses more the language of honor, reverence, and what was fitting. Also tied into this is the idea that Mary needed to be so preserved in order to offer her free assent to God.

I will note that the Immaculate Conception was fixed as dogma in the 19th century, so it’s a relatively recent Roman Catholic dogma. And I will also note that Eastern Christians, who certainly cannot be charged with a failure to hold the Theotokos in great honor and esteem, view it as unnecessary specifically because they do not agree that the state of sin for Adam’s transgression is transmitted to every human at conception. Although it retains much of the character of a mystery, it’s my understanding of the Roman Catholic teaching that though it is normal for human beings to inherit the guilt of Adam (which they do note is different in some sense from the guilt for acts we actually commit ourselves), God can intervene and prevent that from happening and he specifically did so with Mary and (I presume) Jesus.

The question that raises in my mind is probably different than the ones it raises for most people. My question is simple and direct. If God can choose to act to preserve people from inheriting some aspect of the guilt of their ancestor’s transgression without damaging their free will or their nature as his icons, why has he not chosen to do so for all people? After all, if the Christian God is truly a good God who loves mankind, we are under the curse of inherited guilt through no fault of our own, and he is able to simply free us from inheriting that guilt through a unilateral act, why hasn’t he done so for everyone?

If I were to accept any sense of original sin as inherited guilt, it would probably be the Roman Catholic version. It is the most nuanced and reasonable of all the variations. And yet it tends to collapse as well. In my mind the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not alleviate that underlying tension. It makes it worse instead.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 5, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    scott,
    I read many of the posts in this series over the weekend, but didn’t finish until this morning. In trying to find the most relevant place to comment, I landed here. I’ll try to keep my snarky voice under the table.

    As a recovering Baptist, I’ve grown up within the stockholm syndrome of this ideology, among others. Somewhere among your posts, you summed it up beautifully when you said we were not necessarily created with inherent guilt, but simply ‘we were created human’. (i’m doing a poor job paraphrasing..)

    I can only speak of my experience, and in the church in which i grew up, inherited guilt was part of a Puritan ‘worm theology’, perpetuated IMO to produce humility (instead of freedom). The story above perfectly illustrates what I was taught growing up. But, if Adam was created without guilt, doesn’t that mean that we also were created guiltless? As eikons? Imago Dei? Genesis 3 says, because of Adam’s sin, the *ground* was cursed…not the man. My children don’t inherit my guilt, they inherit my humanness and mortality…Death spread to all men because all men sinned. Death didn’t spread to all men because Adam sinned (Romans 5).

    Of course, I could be wrong.

    It seems consistent that Adam and Tom are created within the scope of humanity, yet also in the image of the Trinity. That Adam disobeyed and Tom disobeyed. Doesn’t Scripture seem to indicate that what we call ‘sin’ is that which makes us less God-like and less human? That Jesus came to restore and heal that very thing? To heal our nature and restore immortality? We turn from ‘life’ to sin…and it’s wages is death.

    Of course, to do that, wouldn’t that necessitate Jesus being born with the same nature and ‘inheritance’ of being human? Doesn’t his redemptive mission on our behalf *require* that little ingredient..?

    And the more I look at Scripture concerning the Enemy, I find just how active and personal his ‘roaring about’ really is. I’m not so sure I have an inherited guilt-disposition towards lust, pride, or gluttony…rather that I face a vastly older and wiser opponent who consistently baits the hook with just the right attraction. A method he’s successfully honed over eons of history. While it may seem to me that it’s an inherited struggle (almost genetic!), I tend to believe that Satan has watched men just like me for thousands of years and has become an expert as his craft.

    Sorry this is completely disjointed… I’m sure there is more to come..

  2. Posted April 5, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    So that is a reasonably common Baptist teaching? I wondered about that.

    The sense I get from Genesis 3 is that “the ground”, that is creation itself, is not just cursed because of man’s sin, but by man’s sin. We are the ones cursing and disordering the created world. That also fits with Romans 8 and Colossians.

    If God is indeed our only source of life, then to turn from God is not just to die, but to seek a non-existence we are helpless to attain. And, of course, the reality that Jesus had to share our nature, to be fully human in every way, in order to redeem us, seems essential to me. Certainly many Christians have suffered for their refusal to relinquish that truth.

    I’m fairly sure I’ve never done anything or been the sort of person to warrant the personal attentions of Satan. And, in truth, I’m not sure I’ve even offered much of a challenge for or required much attention from the most junior demon in his service. I’ve been ruled by my passions more than not over the course of my life. I think that’s part of the reason it’s so important to me that Jesus experienced all that we experience, was tempted in every way we were tempted, and did so as a fully human man. A superhuman, superhero Jesus could be many things, but not a God who meets me in my weakness.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I appreciate them.

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