Is Evangelical Morality Really Solipsistic? A Friendly Defense of Psalm 51

King David, apparently being a solipsist.

King David, apparently being a solipsist.

I love my buddy Morgan. He’s progressive, a Methodist, given to flights of rhetorical overkill, and has a passion for people coming to know Jesus that I deeply admire. But, as you already can guess, we disagree a lot. Take for instance, his recent post on the “solipsism” of a lot of Evangelical Morality (side-note, anytime ‘Evangelical’ appears on his blog, something very, very bad is going to be corrected):

“Against you alone have I sinned.” These words from Psalm 51:4 are attributed to the Israelite king David speaking to God after he knocked up another man’s wife and had that man betrayed and murdered on the battlefield. Many evangelical pastors have praised this verse for how it names sin, but I consider it to be one of the most morally problematic verses in the Bible. It does do a very good job of encapsulating the solipsistic morality that I grew up with as an evangelical, in which sin had nothing to do with hurting other people and everything to do with whether or not I was displeasing God…

Jesus actually has a response to King David’s solipsistic sin confession. King David says to God, “Against you alone have I sinned,” as though he hadn’t done anything wrong to Bathsheba, the woman he raped and impregnated, or Urriah, her husband whom he had killed, or all the other soldiers whose lives were compromised because of the disastrous battle tactic by which Urriah needed to be killed. Centuries later, in Matthew 25, Jesus says back to David and every evangelical who thinks sin is strictly between me and God: “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”

In other words, yes, you sinned against me as God because I stand with those you sinned against, not because of some stupid abstract “honor God” thing that you use to make other people’s humanity irrelevant to your morality. Matthew 25 is an utter repudiation of a solipsistic “theocentric” morality. God hates sin not because God’s holiness demands purity and rule-following for the sake of his “honor,” but because God’s holiness is his radical hospitality toward and solidarity with the least among us who are the greatest victims of our society’s sin. God demands our honor for the sake of the people who get hurt as the byproduct of our dishonor…

It’s not that God can’t handle our imperfection. He’s not allergic to our sin. He just wants to build a human community where the most vulnerable members will be perfectly safe. This can only happen among people who have put ourselves completely under the mercy of God by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, which makes us humble, teachable, and malleable in God’s hands. Yes, we need to honor God, but our honor for God is never abstracted from its impact on how we treat other people.

Alright, so there’s the gist of it. You can go read the rest here.

Now, I’ll say what I always say with Morgan: the problem’s usually not in what he affirms but what he denies. This situation is no different. I guess some people fall into the solipsism thing. If Morgan fell into it an Evangelical church, I suppose it happens. I don’t see it as a major trend, with many of the conversations about sin that I have with students having to do with the impact of their actions on others (and I’m still in an evangelical church). Still, if it is happening, it needs to stop. Morgan is absolutely right to say that our love and obedience to God simply cannot be separated from our love of our neighbors. Any morality that has us screening out the horizontal dimension entirely simply isn’t biblical.

As Jesus put it (Matt 22:36-40), the two great commands are to:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. AND…
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus lists them both together with the implication that neither can be separated from the other. That said–and this is key–neither can they be reduced to the other. God doesn’t just hate sin because it hurts people, though that is one reason. God also hates sin because he himself is one of the offended parties, if not the chief offended party in any sin. This is the case because as Creator, Lord, Judge, and Lover of creation there is no moral situation in which he isn’t a directly interested party.

This is what David’s confession acknowledges in a hyperbolic and poetic fashion on Psalm 51:4. (Incidentally, that’s another relevant point to remember, the Psalms are songs.) The force of the lyric comes from the fact that everybody knows this is a horizontally grievous sin, which is why it’s unnecessary to pit David against Jesus here. What David’s confession acknowledges is that underneath that, the deep reality is that all sin has a directly Godward orientation even when it has a horizontal one. This is in keeping with a broader biblical understanding that every sin against another is a sin against God (2 Sam 12:9, 10, 13; Gen 39:9; Prov 14:31; 17:5). As Bavinck notes, though not all sins are equal, every sin violates God’s laws and constitutes a rejection of God’s law–which is an expression of his good, loving will–in toto. What’s more, as such, every sin is a personal rejection of God. Every sin, then, is a declaration that at some level we have judged God is not good enough, righteous, beautiful, and everything else that he is. This is no “abstract” standard of honor we are offending against, but the personal justice and goodness of the Triune God.

Part of the problem with definition is that sin seems to be equated to its results construed primarily or solely in terms of harm. Sin is wrong because it harms someone. But because God isn’t “harmed” by our sin, that means he isn’t the offended party, or he can only be so in relation to us. But that’s manifestly false.

Consider a silly example: Say I have superpowers. Say I’m secretly Superman and I’m invulnerable to physical harm. Now say nobody knows that I’m Superman and a neighbor who hates me for no good reason takes out his gun and shoots me. Now, am I harmed? No. Am I still an offended party? Is there still not a situation that needs to be redressed? Has this person who shot me still committed a very grievous act against me even if the only harm he’s caused is put a hole a t-shirt? Yes. Relationally, even though I’m impervious to his assaults, he still stands in the wrong in a very serious way.

In the same way, simply because God is not “harmed”, or can “handle’ our various sins and so forth, that doesn’t mean that every act of hostility committed against his law isn’t a serious violation towards him that he has every right (indeed, as Rector of the universe, a possible duty) to deal with. Yes, God’s life is one of overflowing perfection that cannot be unseated or overwhelmed, and yet that doesn’t mean he can’t have claims related to his own person with respect to sin that extend beyond us. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Triune God has a proper, divine self-regard that we need to acknowledge if we are to have a fully biblical understanding of sin. The danger of forgetting this is actually its own form solipsism. It’s good for us to be reminded in our spiritual walk that not everything is secretly about us.

Again, I’m all for Christians not being solipsists, but false dichotomies are tired, unhelpful for our walk with God, and need to be dispensed with quickly.

Soli Deo Gloria

9 thoughts on “Is Evangelical Morality Really Solipsistic? A Friendly Defense of Psalm 51

  1. I’ve been in conservative evangelical churches all my life – 25 years. Same for my parents and most of my friends I’ve had and my wife and her family. Some of my friends have come from ultraconservative churches where drinking and girls are the devil and I’ve been to some of those churches myself. I have never heard, read or seen anyone interpret that particular verse in that way, or interpret sin/morality in that way. Ever. I’m baffled by that. Actually, I call BS on that. Actually, I’ll go even further: no evangelical thinks about sin the way this author says they think.

    And has anyone, in all of history, in the entire universe, ever thought that David was actually saying that his sin was only between him and God? How woodenly, flatly and literalistically do you have to read the Bible to think that, and to think that Jesus is speaking against David when he gives his Love Commandment? You have to be squinting pretty hard to get that kind of reading out of those verses.

    The most offensive part about that article, though, is that thats not even solipsism. Lol. Uhg. You have far more patience and goodwill towards men than I do, Derek.

  2. Most Evangelicals don’t take sin seriously enough.

    That’s why they believe they still have a “free-will”. Which, when it comes to the things of God (choosing God), is blasphemy.

  3. “The danger of forgetting this is actually its own form solipsism.” Yes, in the form of anthropocentrism. Loving God and loving neighbor are the two great commands, and they should not be separated, but it is essential to note that loving God is first.

  4. As an evangelical United Methodist I see many indications that we’ve reduced sin to the “harm principle.” With the rest of the culture, we’re good utilitarians. This is plainly evident in our moral imagination in the sexuality debates. It’s also evident in the way we’ve taken to talking about Wesley’s General Rules (http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1658). Doing no harm is the first of Wesley’s rules. In our rush to simplification, we lop off the examples Wesley provides. The first of the possible harms he mentions is “The taking of the name of God in vain,” followed by “The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.” Wesley’s formulation – which includes examples – clearly presupposes that God can be “harmed.” The other two rules, reduced to “Do good” and “Stay in love with God,” are like the first, both worthy of approval AND shorn of Wesley’s examples.

  5. It’s as unsurprising that conservative evangelicals deny the existence of solipsistic morality in their ranks as it is that ex/post/progressive evangelicals identify it as one of the major problems that scandalized us and drove us away. I don’t see what’s so horribly wrong with defining sin in terms of harm rather than in terms of breaking rules. I do so for apologetic, evangelistic reasons. Because I’m trying to explain to people that God’s love is the reason behind everything God does and tells us to do. My emphasis on God’s benevolence causes me to affirm that God doesn’t have any arbitrary tastes but decrees everything for the purpose of creating a world where everyone fits (aka shalom). I suspect that Calvinists need to believe that God does have incomprehensible arbitrary tastes as an affirmation of his sovereignty because if God is completely other-regarding and benevolent in his decrees then he’s just an anthropocentric projection. Yes, we need to love God and love neighbor both. But the reason God is a “jealous” God is not because he’s emotionally needy but because it benefits us to worship him and he loves sharing his joy with us. The reason God enjoyed the “pleasing odor” of bulls on his altar was not because he needed to consume certain quota of beef each month but because the discipline involved in the whole sacrificial system created shalom in the Israelite community and prepared the way for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. You have your reasons for needing God to be arbitrary; I have my reasons for arguing that he isn’t. I just don’t think that a harm-based understanding of sin is something to freak out about. It makes a lot more sense and more biblically accurate to me to talk about God’s holiness as his covenantal commitment to protect those who live under his mercy from their oppressors than to talk about it as an abstract concern for rule-following that isn’t always ultimately rooted in God’s fierce love for those who get hurt.

    • Morgan,

      a. Nowhere did I say God is arbitrary. Never said it. You keep imputing that because you refuse to acknowledge that it’s appropriate for God to have some sort of self-regard based on the truth of who he is without reference to us. Also, nowhere do I deny the element you’re talking about. It’s there and I say so explicitly. I just think there’s a lot of verses you’re sweeping under the rug.

      b. “Abstract concern for rule-following” is also a gross mischaracterization of what I’m talking about. God’s law is an expression of his will, love, and person. The Triune God is not an abstraction, but about as personal as it gets.

      Brother, you’ve got to get past defining your theology against the bogeyman Evangelicals as a rhetorical trope. It doesn’t do anybody any favors.

      Love ya, though.

  6. Indeed. I’ve never seen David’s “against You alone” statement as solipsistic, or even in contrast to the idea of sinning against others. “You hurt what I made, you hurt me. Same diff.”

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