“We each individually inherit special tendencies to this or that form of evil from the misconduct of our several progenitors.”
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers
Commentary on Exodus 20:5
We see here that sinful dispositions and tendencies can be genetically inherited. There was a time that was not a scandalous thing to note among Evangelicals and Reformed. Different people groups can be characterized by a constellation of different besetting sins just as they can be characterized by a constellation of varying character strengths. If several generations of McAtee’s have been drunkards and wife-beaters then it is likely that I, as a McAtee need to take special care about those particular sins since I am genetically predisposed to those sins. This is not to say that sin is only genetic as if sin always = genes. It is to say that sin is not only a matter of environmental considerations. When we look at sinful tendencies in a person’s life we must consider a whole constellation of factors — environment, genetics, and errant thinking to name a few.
Because of this kind of understanding articulated by Ellicott, it was understood that particular family lines, tribes, nations, and races could be generally characterized by not only their sinful weaknesses but also by their ethical strengths as well. In this, there is no materialism, Darwinism, or even genetic fatalism but instead merely a recognition that familial behavior runs in familial lines and that due to genetic considerations. Just as I might get my height from my Fathers so I might get a disposition towards envy or lust. I still remain responsible for my own sin, just as my father was responsible for his sin. To note that sinful habits may run generationally is not to excuse such sins but it is to better understand and deal with them.
Now of course the modern Liberal and most modern Christians, unknowingly influenced as they are by the intellectual tradition of Franz Boas believes the above kind of truth to be HERESY. The modern Christian is appalled to think that sinful tendencies can be a genetic phenomenon and that Christians might actually have certain anticipations based on knowing an individual’s familial background according to familiarity with a few generations of that same person’s background.
Some people might claim that the idea that sinful tendencies that run in familial lines would be unfair of God. However, should the pot say to the potter, “Why have you made me this way?” We are and forever shall remain our parent’s children. As Christians, by grace, each generation has to seek to rise above their familial weaknesses while burnishing their familial strengths so that God may wrench from us all the glory possible in our generation.
All of this is captured by proverbs that used to be commonplace such as “good seed makes a good crop” and alternately, “behavior goes to seed.” These kinds of truths were so obvious that our fathers made maxims to live by out of them. Today, observing what I have observed here is considered controversial and even racist.