Oct 1, 2010

Posted by in Philosophy & Apologetics, The Looking Glass | 10 Comments

Is Sin Genetic?

by John Athanasiou

Scientists claim that conditions such as homosexuality, violence and alcoholism are very likely, in some cases, to have a genetic contributing factor. If proven, this will be a biological fact.

The world’s interpretation will be that this discovery mitigates a person’s culpability for a crime.

Scientists have not yet located the "evil" gene.

The Christian interpretation should remain that there is no mitigation. However, we must have sound reasons for this claim, otherwise it is only dogma. Below is an example of dogma, bad logic and fallacy.

God is Just; He Doesn’t Command the Impossible
God is just (Rom. 3:26). If God genetically predisposed certain men to sexual immorality, He can’t require abstinence from such conduct, because He is a just God. Since God condemns sexual immorality, principles of justice demand that we conclude it’s impossible for God to genetically predispose anyone to sexual sin.

(Excerpt from biblestudyguide.org)

This is what scripture has to say on the subject.

“He came to his own,  and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:11-13)

Blood is bloodline or pedigree, the will of the flesh is nature (including genes) and the will of man is nurture. Whichever one (or combination) of these predisposes a person to sin, the new birth supersedes them all. The new birth should not merely supplement nature and nurture but replace them as the new governing factor for our lives.

Jesus said,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. (Matthew 23:29-31)

If the Pharisees were God’s children, then they would not identify themselves as children of their murderous forefathers.

So it makes sense to say,

And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. (Matthew 23:9)

Jesus is not telling people not to call their dad ‘dad’. By ‘call no man your father’ he means regard no man as your father; your truest father is God. The shackles of nature and nurture are broken at the new birth. By faith a new nature, – super-nature, is possible. When fully grown, it replaces the old nature where sin and even disease are concerned.

The basis for guilt then, even cases of genetic predisposition, is the same as ever. Freedom from sin is freely available in Christ through repentance and faith, and men fall into sin when they do not turn to him.

Justin Mulwee

Justin is a penniless vagabond with a tiny internet soapbox.

  1. A more important question: does the corruption of sin have a physical component that can be passed down, generation to generation? Does alcoholism “leave a mark” on the genetics of the next generation? What about rage, gluttony, greed, or lust? What is it that makes the children of alcoholics, abusers, etc. predisposed to the sins of their parents?

    I do think that there is a genetic change from the corruption of sin, not as an excuse, but as a burden. Some people have more to overcome because of the family they have been born into.

    This is what Christ came to heal.

  2. Cory Miller says:

    I think there’s a difference in saying that a particular sin is genetic and saying that sin itself is genetic. While I obviously don’t fully believe that because of a certain strand of DNA we are separated from God, and if we were somehow to physically extract that strand, we would become right with God. However, due to the fall, we have indeed become corrupted, and not just in soul. I think that yes, every person is now born with the propensity to sin, but not in a particular way.

    In fact, as Christians, I think we more than anyone ought to understand that yes, sin is a problem genetically and spiritually, only because our flesh and being has been corrupted and cursed and because we live in a cursed world. Someone may use the argument, “I was born this way”. Of course you were. We all were. But does that make the action or lifestyle okay? Does it legitimize the actions? Of course not. In fact, the only reason we don’t all commit such heinous crimes is due to the common grace of God that holds us back from sins that would make Adolf Hitler look like a petty schoolboy.

    I think we do have a genetic and a spiritual problem. This is why in the new Heaven and new Earth we will have new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. And in the now, even if we are born into sin, Jesus Christ came to free us from that bondage and set the captives free, and that is what it means to be born again. To be born into righteousness and to be cleansed from that life before. That’s how it looks to me. Cheers.

  3. I wouldn’t say that argument you quoted was illogical, just that it contained an ambiguous term. If “genetically predisposed to sin” means–and I think this is the crux of the issue–that we have no more choice in the matter than what color hair we (naturally) have or a cleft chin, then of course it would be unjust for God to hold these things against us (on the non-Calvinist view, I suppose). Two points weigh against this assertion.

    First, in everyday speech we do not use “predisposed” to mean that we are compelled by nature to do something. We mean that we have a predilection or aversion to some object or action which we (rightly or wrongly) trace back to some past cause.

    Secondly, neither has science shown any predisposition (genetic or otherwise) to be absolutely compelling in a deterministic sense. I may have a predisposition towards strawberries, but I don’t have to eat them. In the same way, someone with homosexual impulses doesn’t have to act on them. For that matter, someone with heterosexual impulses doesn’t have to act on them–I consider both celibacy and monogamy to be conquests over nature.

    My point is that Original Sin is already considered by all Christians to possess all the characteristics of a genetic predisposition except inculpability and the ability to be observed by scientific means. Well, there seems to be no good reason to accept inculpability and no good reason not to accept that Original Sin cannot be so observed. In fact, one would expect it to be. Just as death and decay are scientifically observable realities, why should not the sin that brought them into the world be also?

  4. John Athanasiou says:

    @ Travis
    Even if predisposition did mean ‘compelling’ in the deterministic sense, (which it doesn’t) it is exactly my point that it would make no difference to the solution which is to break the connection. The degree of predisposition is irrelevant – only a quantity – the solution is qualitative: A transfer form the governing impulses of nature to faith over which nature is powerless because faith is transcendent to nature. (Granted that faith must reach maturity, why else did Paul fear for the young churches?)
    The conquests over nature that you mention above are actually accomplished by faith if you think carefully about what is involved.

  5. Justin Mulwee says:

    I think it would make a difference. What if someone had a genetic predisposition to, say, rebellion, which absolutely caused him to rebel in a deterministic sense? How would he even turn to God in order to escape?

  6. @John

    I’m not sure that I agree with the solution. Certainly there have been other faiths and philosophies (e.g., Stoicism, Buddhism) which have been just as successfully ascetic, desire-suppressing, and nature-conquering as anything in Christianity. Is it faith itself that has the power to conquer the desires of the flesh or (as I think you mean) the True Faith, faith in the one and only God and Christ His Son? If the latter, how do you account for non-Christian and even non-religious ascetic practices? If the former, then it seems that your transformative principle has no need of God.

    Forgive me, but it seems like a very simple and more likely answer to this question is not faith but free will, which all humans possess by virtue of their rational minds and immortal souls. I.e., the reason we are not, like the beasts, mere slaves to our impulses (nature) and environment is that we have a will which rises above them. It is something beyond the material world acting on the material world (i.e., our bodies, our natures) and thus breaks free from the giant interlocking causal event we call nature. In a sense, there are only three operative causes in the universe: (1) nature, (2) God, and (3) human minds. And nature almost doesn’t count, since it is neither a self-caused nor (on some views) self-sustaining thing, but an effect–more accurately, a series of interlocking instrumental causes–of which God is the ultimate cause.

  7. John Athanasiou says:

    Joh 8:34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant (slave) of sin.
    Joh 8:36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.

    So though we have free will it is powerless to rise above those impulses to which we have become enslaved. Free will is good for when we are tempted into sin that we are not already enslaved to, (see 1 Cor 10: 13) but useless once we are enslaved. We ‘sold out’ our free will while we are becoming slaves, so when we have become slaves it no longer avails us. (Addiction is a good analogy).

    Paul says, For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Rom 7:19
    I think you mean that free will allows us to turn to God through Jesus but he does the rescuing through our faith. Salvation comes from outside us altogether, (Jesus) but the means by which we appropriate it is faith. If free will gave us power over whether or not to sin in all circumstances, Paul would be using slightly different words. i.e. the good that I would, I do: and the evil which I would not, I do not.

    Regarding your first point, I think God honours good faith on any level, and in any culture, but of course it is not saving faith.

  8. Daniel Rubio says:

    That particular passage is very controversial. However, it does not amount to a denial of free will (unless reading it through a very Reformed lense, in which case your theology has bigger problems).

    It’s probably a rhetorical flourish of Paul’s as he sets up the ‘triumphant’ passages of chapter eight, and should not be read as a treatise on the freedom of the will.

    If for any sin, the ‘sinner’ has no choice but to commit the sin, he/she cannot be held accountable for that sin; instead, the force that compelled him/her is responsible.

    Thus, nothing can be called sin unless it was chosen. One cannot accidentally sin or be forced to sin. Sin is an intentional choice. If anything other than that is counted as sin, God’s justice is compromised.

  9. John Athanasiou says:

    @ Justin,
    If I understand your question you are saying it does make a difference to the possibility of salvation through faith if predisposition is so compelling that it amounts to determinism because the compulsion would not allow us to use our free will to turn to God for help or to use faith to receive that help.
    Jesus said, “with men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible”. (Mar 10:27). During the plagues of Egypt Pharaoh did repent on the later, more severe, occasions but during these intervals of repentance which God afforded him (by a series of extreme manipulations of his environment) Pharaoh did not seek to worship or learn about this God of Moses but delayed until his nature began to ‘eat up’ the grace of repentance. The repentance didn’t last because he didn’t follow it through while he was freed from the compulsion in his nature, during that interval of grace.
    ‘God’ therefore hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in other words, Pharaoh reverted to his natural condition and, as Travis mentioned above, nature… is … a series of interlocking instrumental causes–of which God is the ultimate cause.
    Because Pharaoh was so rebellious he was supernaturally afforded the opportunity to use his free will to turn to God but he didn’t use it. And, don’t use it, sooner or later = lose it! (Mtt 13:12).

    @ Daniel
    A theology that explains the scriptures is less problematic than one that explains them away!

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