“feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine”? Sonderegger on Anselm and the Debt of Sin

companion to atonement

“Perhaps no other theologian was so honored in his day and rebuked in ours as St. Anselm of Canterbury.”

So opens Katherine Sonderegger’s essay, “Anselmian Atonement” in the new T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. There are many reasons for this disparity in evaluation, of course, but at the heart of it is the split between what Sonderegger dubs the “Theological Anselm” (the dry, cold, logician consumed with merciless ruminations on divine justice and honor known in modern, theological texts) and the “Historical Anselm” (the humane, prayerful, passionate churchman known to medievalists).

Despite the vast advances in historical scholarship helping us understand the latter, the former portrait lives on, dominating the discussion, and spoiling our view of the doctor and his work, especially with respect to atonement. Sonderegger’s own exposition aims to bring a sort of reconciliation between the two, showing a coherence between the two portraits which corrects the distortion. And she does so magnificently. At least to my sympathetic, non-specialist’s eye.

A bit of her exposition I found particularly helpful came in her treatment of one of Anselm’s central claims: to sin is an offense against God’s honor. From there the logic runs that since God is infinite, an offense against his infinite honor is proportionately infinite as well. In which case, only an infinite gift or an infinite punishment will do to atone for it. This basic argument passed into the theological tradition and has been a mainstay ever since.

Now, there are at least two main objections that may be lodged against it: first, that is is culturally limited, and second that it is simply wrong. Sonderegger takes them in turn.

First is the common argument that all of this is a cultural imposition of Germanic feudalism upon the Gospel:

…to our modern ears all this sounds like so much feudalism, run riot in the field of doctrine. To be sure, “honor,” especially as it is to person and office, belongs squarely in imperial, monarchical societies. But we need not reduce theological idiom to the culture out of which it springs. Indeed, our very ability to learn from the doctors of the church rests on a non-reductive account of theological discourse…

Could we not say, in more modern idiom, that certain acts take on a measure of harm or cruelty or folly in proportion to the significance and intimacy of the person wronged?…Consider the long overdue phone call to a neighbor and to one’s mother…The intuition may be argued against on certain abstract principles, but it is the rare conscientious son or daughter, I would wager, who would treat the slight of a missed telephone call as “all the same: between the neighbor and the mother. Our intuitions are strongly formed, I would say, by ties of loyalty, intimacy, and obligation; and to our flourishing. The salience of the person—her irreplaceable significance in our lives—weighs heavily in our moral reasoning. When we object—“You did that to your own mother?”—we replicate the form of Anselm’s claim that sin is principally a wrong against the Person and Honor of God. (182)

In response to the cultural objection, Sonderegger tells us we can’t be blinkered historicists. Yes, culture impacts our theological discourse, but it is not an imaginative or conceptual prison out of which we cannot escape. Sonderegger’s intellectual sympathy translating medieval concerns into modern ones in a way is an outstanding example of that. (As a side-note, though: Mary Douglas has suggested that the best analogy for Leviticus’s theology of “atoning” for the altar is, in fact, Medieval honor societies.)

But the second half of the quote begins to answer the second objection, which is to simply to challenge Anselm’s formula as straightforwardly false. I have to confess, the “infinite honor of the person” to the “infinite offense” formula was not always appealing to me. Considering the unique relation in which one stands to a parent or some other beloved highlights the propriety of a proportionate reckoning of offense against persons.

Your neighbor is a person worthy of respect, kindness, and so forth; there is a real obligation. Your mother, though? She gave birth to you. Fed you. Cleaned you. Nurtured you. Your obligation to her as a person outstrips your debt to your neighbor inestimably. How much more, then, your obligation to God your Maker, who created you and sustains your very being with a loving intimacy that is sui generis? Such an obligation must be absolute.

Sonderegger elaborates on this point:

Such a “personal calculation” remains notoriously difficult to fix. Anselm wisely refrains from offering a mechanism for weighing such loving fealty. Rather he appeals once again to our intuitions. When we fervently admit—“we would do anything for her!”—we do not offer an enumerated list of the tasks we would undertake for the beloved, nor do we aim to express the conviction that fifteen acts of love would be far more acceptable than twelve. We intend something far more tangible, earthy, and global than all that. Our deeds carry our heart: that is closer to the calculus here. The Good who is God outweighs infinite worlds of worlds: indeed, outstrips the good of saving them. God’s Goodness is Infinite, then—“positive Infinite,” in later scholastic terms. But unlike the negative form, the positive calculus remains ineffable. It is just who God is, what I mean by the very word “God,” that He is beyond any creaturely worth. Always he is greater: from this worshipping impulse springs the Name of God evoked in the Proslogion, “That than which none greater can be conceived.” (183)

This quote highlights something else we need consider. When thinking of the weight of the offense of sin against God, we can’t limit it merely to his “irreplaceable significance” to our lives in terms of his creative provision. There is also the simple beauty of God’s being in himself.

Return back to the analogy of an offense against your mother. It’s not just that she’s your mother who has done all of these wonderful things—it is the recognition that she herself, in her person beyond her relationship to you, is simply wonderful, who deservedly provokes a response of “loving fealty.” In that sense, it’s not just a matter of saying, “you did that to your own mother?”, in a generalizable sense of “we all owe our mothers a debt,” but that your own mother in particular is wonderful in a way demands a universal respect.

I’ll leave things here for now, but this is just one small sample of the way Sonderegger’s essay is a model of sympathetic exposition and the possibilities of an atonement theology which retrieves the insights past teachers without merely repeating them.

Soli Deo Gloria

My October CT Column: The Cynics Guide to Sin

ctThis is an open link to an unlocked version to my column for October’s Christianity Today issue.  Here is an excerpt:

Wickedness should not surprise us. A robust view of sin prepares us for the reality that institutions grow corrupt, politicians fudge promises, and even within the church folks gossip, cheat, and lie. Pastors fall. None of this is new.

It’s important to maintain a healthy realism about humanity’s moral potential. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out after World War II in Creed or Chaos?, “The people who are most discouraged are those who cling to an optimistic belief in the civilizing influence of progress and enlightenment.” The brutality of the war, she said, was “the utter negation of everything they believed.” Meanwhile, those who held a doctrine of original sin were better prepared to cope—sinners acting like sinners was no crushing blow.

Still, much of the news in 2017 has threatened to push my realism in the direction of cynicism. Everywhere I look, I find myself tempted to offer the most cynical take on my neighbors. Their votes? Myopic self-preservation. Their social media posts? Virtue-signaling. Their silence? Cowardice. When they change their minds? It must be cultural capitulation.

Even within the church, there seems to be an increasing temptation to believe the worst of others. On edge and distrustful, we are tempted to wash our hands of each other altogether. Why risk the struggle for unity in the body when we’re just going to get burned?

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Euphemisms for Sin: You’re Not Just “Broken”

sinChristians have become pretty good at thinking of euphemisms for sin (our acts and our condition). It’s fairly common to hear from pulpits and in worship tunes about Jesus dealing with our brokenness, weakness, failures, mistakes, and so on, often in a therapeutic and medical mode. And I think, so far as it goes, that’s not all that bad.

People lament it, but terms like those can be helpful in a number of ways. For one thing, they speak an initially non-threatening or relatable language to people for whom the term “sin” has lost its sense. As Francis Spufford points out, for many, the word ‘sin’ connotes nothing more than chocolates you shouldn’t eat and lingerie.

Second, they can help broaden our conception of sin as both acts that we do and a condition that we’re in. Many have no idea what it is to be a sinner, but surveying their lives, their choices, the chaos without and within, they do know something is radically broken.

Also, I think they can help us understand that element of sin that makes us pitiable and “miserable.” Not all sin is experienced as this conscious, active rebellion. It feels like something we fall into, no matter how hard we run away or would like to avoid it. There’s something about the human condition in sin which makes it sorry and deserving of compassion. Sin is misery and wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). There is something broken about us.

What’s more, much that falls in this overall category of “sinful” behavior, thoughts, etc. which we speak of in euphemism, does have a non-culpable, psychological and medical component which should be dealt with as such. This should impact the way we pastor, counsel, and evaluate others in the Church. Some do struggle against heavier burdens. Telling someone to repent themselves out of a behavior linked to a chemical imbalance or childhood trauma is a recipe for pastoral malpractice. These things do need treatment, healing (human and divine).

But these euphemisms have their limits and so cannot replace or dominate our vocabulary for sin. This is so for at least a couple of reasons.

First, in Scripture, sin is defined theologically. Sin is sin because it is committed ultimately against and before God. This is the point of David’s bit of hyperbole when he says, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Taken flatly, it’s false. He stole Uriah’s wife and then had him killed; he sinned against him. Jesus himself speaks of us sinning against our neighbors (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:4). All the same, David has cut to heart of it: primarily and ultimately, sin involves acts and a mindset hostile to God’s loving rule and his good law (1 John 3:4).

Recent euphemisms don’t quite capture this active sense of opposition, pride, hostility, and violation against God, his creatures, and his world.

Which leads to the second problem: most of these euphemisms (if used exclusively) downplay the agency and responsibility of persons. In general, they tend to move everything into the categories of the therapeutic and the medical, instead of the moral. But our condition cannot be reduced to these categories.

No, Scripture gives us a wide variety of terms like “transgression”, “iniquity”, “rebellion”, “idolatry”, “wickedness”, and, yes, “sin” straight-out. And there is something necessary about using these words to describe the myriad forms of human viciousness: hate, racism, adultery, slander, gossip, theft, cheating the poor, fornication, dishonoring our parents, lack of charity, insult, and so on.

We have collectively, and individually, ruined ourselves in setting ourselves in opposition to God’s goodness in these ways. In Adam, the moral break and rebellion preceded any other kind of brokenness which followed as a result.

What’s more, we actively make choices to set ourselves first before God and our neighbors daily. We choose what is easy or profitable or beneficial over what is right. And we rationalize it with just about any sort of defense that’s at hand–including the therapeutic.

And so we need to be able to name that and own it.

Indeed, there’s something healthy and morally empowering in hearing your sin named as sin. If you exclusively think of yourself in the realm of the therapeutic and medical, it’s hard for many to imagine repentance. You can’t repent of “brokenness” in the same way as you can of wickedness.

It can be bracing to hear someone say, “That is sin. You must turn to Christ and repent of it.” Of course, even to repent, we need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, but the way we relate to these things changes. I am an active, moral agent, making real choices one way or the other. And that matters.

This is not even close to a comprehensive statement on these things. If I had time and space, it would be good to discuss differences between acts and conditions, corruption, etc. It would be also fruitful to explore the dimension of sin that Scripture names as bondage and enslavement. God has an enemy who tempts, enslaves, and binds people to sin. And I think that forms something of a third category between the therapeutic and the moral dimensions.

At the end of the day, though, I’m simply saying we should not be reductionists about sin. It is a multi-faceted reality and we should speak as diversely and complexly about it as Scripture does.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Cornelius Plantinga’s discussion in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a good place to start thinking about this stuff.

The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.

But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.

Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”

Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our  — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”

Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.

Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s.  Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).

Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.

Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.

Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)

Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.

Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pride Goes Before the Fall, But Unbelief Goes Before Pride

apple sinOne of the classic debates medievals and later theological types liked to kick around was, “What as the first sin of Adam?” Not what the particulars of it were, mind you–they all read Genesis 3 closely–but the essence, so to speak. What drew Adam and Eve toward violating God’s command? Was it primarily lust and desire? Or sloth?

In his question devoted to the subject (Institutes, Vol 1. Top. 9, Q. 6),  Turretin notes that among the various options forwarded, two stand out as the most popular. The first is pride, an opinion favored mostly by Roman Catholics; second is unbelief, which is the typically Protestant option. Being archetypically Protestant, Turretin opts for the latter. For Turretin, the general apostasy and turning away from God that led to Adam violating God’s covenant command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an “incredulity” and contempt towards God’s word.

Of course, Turretin knows that the act of sin, and particularly the first sin, is quite complicated. Parsing out the various moments, acts, components, and so forth reveals various dimensions which definitely joined pride to unbelief. Nonetheless, Turretin thinks that when we sink down to the roots of the act, it’s caught up tightly in the faculties that judge falsity and truth, error and unbelief.

He then gives a number of, well, numbered reasons for thinking we ought to give priority of the root of unbelief.

  1. First, looking at the first attack point of temptation shows us where the origin of sin lies. What did the serpent first challenge? The integrity, reliability, and goodness of God’s word (“Did God really say?”, “You will not surely die”). This precedes his temptation to pride (“you shall be as gods.”)
  2. Second, “pride could not have place in man except on the positing of unbelief.” In other words, you can’t think too highly of yourself unless you’ve already stopped believing in God’s word of threat against disobedience.
  3. Third, the Bible points to sin as seduction and its roots in Satan’s cunning and deceptions (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14; Gen. 3:1).
  4. Fourth, only unbelief would have made him think that it is virtuous or a good thing to not be dependent on God for your good in all things. The desire for independence and autonomy from our good Creator is folly.
  5. Fifth, Turretin points out, if Satan first tempted Adam to sin, well, either he believed him or he didn’t. If he did, then unbelief follows. If he didn’t, well,  explain how he ended choosing sin in the first place?

Okay, but where does that unbelief come from?

But unbelief could not have place in man, unless first by thoughtlessness he had ceased from a consideration of God’s prohibition and of his truth and goodness. If he had always seriously directed his mind to it…he could never have been moved from his faith and listened to the tempter. Hence, therefore, unbelief or distrust flowed first. By this man did not have the faith in the word of God which he was bound to have, but shook it off at first by doubting and presently by denying; not seriously believing that the fruit was forbidden him or that he should die. Again, note the credulity by which he began to listen to the words of the Devil…believing that God envied him the fruit and that he would be like God and omniscient. Thus he made an erroneous judgment by which he determined that the object presented by the Devil was good for him. Hence presently his appetite and his inclination of concupiscence and its motions influenced the will to the eating of the fruit. At length, the external action followed. This inconsideration may well be called the beginning or first stage of sin.

There’s a few brief points worth making here.

First, I think the logical priority of unbelief makes sense according to Turretin’s schema. That said, we need to be careful here and remember that he’s speaking of Adam according a prefall state. The relation between the will and the intellect is a bit more complicated now that things have been disordered through sin.

This bit of theology is worth reflecting on for its practical value. Turretin says that Adam could have only fallen into sin through thoughtlessness. By not constantly meditating on the reality of God’s word, his command and his promises, he was tempted to doubt, then unbelief. No wonder the Scriptures constantly remind us to keep God’s word on our minds at all times, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).  Distance creates distrust.

And that’s at the heart of most temptation to sin, right? Distrust in the goodness of God? Distrust that his commands and prohibitions flow from his good character? Disbelief that whatever sin we’re actually drawn towards is actually bad for us and that God wants to keep us from those things that would hurt us?

Finally, unsurprising, then, that salvation is caught up with the restoration of faith by the Holy Spirit. Faith is the opposite of unbelief. By faith we trust God’s promises, are restored to proper relationship to God through union with Christ, and receive the Holy Spirit who even reconciles us to trust, not only God’s promises, but God’s law as well (Rom. 8:7).

So, to sum up: pride goes before the fall, but unbelief goes before pride. Be constantly meditating on his word day and night, praying that God would increase your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

Are All Sins Really “Equal in the Eyes of God”?

Scales-of-justice-2One of the most common truisms you’ll hear as a kid growing up in Evangelical churches is that “in the eyes of God, all sins are equal.” If all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20), and breaking one part of the Law means you’ve broken all of it (James 2:10), then there’s a sort of equalizing effect at work here, right? Whether you’re a murderer or a serial jay-walker, you’ve violated the law and so stand accused in the dock on the same charge as anyone else: sin.

Now, there are two main uses to which this doctrine is usually put. First, it’s often used as a way of curbing pride or discouraging judgmentalism. Since everyone is a sinner, including you, there’s no place for feeling better than your neighbor just because they seem to have sinned in a worse way. Second, since all sin is equal in God’s sight, there’s also no use in you thinking you can earn your way into God’s graces, or justify yourself because you haven’t committed any of the “really big” sins.

You may be able to tell, I have a big caveat to add here.

I have to admit, as a kid this idea never sat well with me. I mean, I wouldn’t deny that we’re all sinners in need of salvation, or that no one should feel better than others, or that all sin leads to judgment, but I remember very clearly arguing in Bible study that there’s definitely a distinction between greater and lesser sins. There’s got to be a difference between beating your child and sneaking a peek on a tough answer on your quiz; it seemed to me like utter nihilism to deny any sort of distinction like that.  If a human judge gave the thief 25-life along with the murderer, we’d say there’s something off with her ability to discern right from wrong, and subtle gradations of human justice.

But where does that leave our theology of judgment, sin, and salvation? If there are worse and lesser sins, it seems cruel to punish both with the same ultimate judgment. If treating the thief and the murderer equally seems unjust in this life, then how much more in the life/state to come?

As it turns out, there’s good biblical reasons to affirm both the fundamental equality of sinners before the dock of God, as well as the distinctions between sins that seem intuitive to our basic instincts. Bavinck has an excellent little section that will set the stage for us:

Aside from the difference between diabolical and human sins, there is also a great deal of difference among the latter…Granted, in principle sin and virtue are indivisible: those who have one have them all, and those who lack one lack them all. Between good and evil there is no gradual transition. A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.  The law of God is an organism that, when violated in one of its commandments, is violated in its totality, for God, who have the commandment that was violated, is the author of all the other commandments as well (James 2:10). But not all sins are for that reason equal. The different names for sin already bear this out. In Genesis 4, in connection with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, we learn that the inner disposition is of greater value than the gift. Though the law given to Israel contains a wide range of ceremonial commandments, the entire Old Testament makes clear that the value of the ethical conduct far surpasses that of cultic and ceremonial acts. Faith is reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Amos 2:6ff; 5:14, 21f; Hosea 4″1f; 12:6; Mic. 6:6, 8; Isa. 1:11f; 5:8f; Jer. 7:3; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; 18:5f; 2 Cor. 12:20f; Gal. 5:19; etc.). The law itself moreover, makes a distinction between sins that are committed inadvertently, out of ignorance or weakness, do not break the covenant, and can be expiated within the covenant, and sins that are committed consciously and intentional (…”with a high hand”), place the perpetrator outside the covenant, and make him worthy of death (Lev. 4:5; 22:14; Num. 15:22f; 35:11f; Josh. 20:3, 9). Scripture never abandons the objective position that locates the standard of sin solely in the law of God. Yet the guilt of violation is greater or less to the degree the commandment was violated more or less intentionally.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 149-150

The whole section is worth perusing as Bavinck goes on to parse the biblical material even further. Still, we see both truths, that the law of God is one, and that all who violate it stand condemned, but that even so, God makes distinctions between types of sin. Murder really is a bigger deal than theft. Stealing because you’re poor and hungry is not the same thing as cheating your impoverished employees out of fair wages to pay for a lavish vacation. What’s more, those sins that we knowingly commit, thinking to ourselves “I know this is contrary to God’s demands, but I’m going to do it anyways” have a greater weight than the transgressions that we give ourselves over to in a foolish, unthinking moment. Our everyday, human instincts are not entirely wrong here, but are, in fact, confirmed by biblical material.

What then of the equality of sinners before the bar of God’s justice? Biblically, it’s not so much that all sins are flatly equal, but that any sin is a sign of violation of the greatest sin. “A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.” What Bavinck is saying is that even the “small” sins, flow from the deep, great, fundamental stance of lawlessness towards God. From another angle, Martin Luther said of the first commandment “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (Larger Catechism). In other words, we only ever murder, or lie, or cheat, or steal, or commit any number of piddling little sins, because we are already caught up in the greatest, most flagrant violation of all: idolatry, worshiping something other than the true God as God.

This is the reason that Paul writes we all have fallen short of the glory of God. His indictment of human sin, debauchery and lawlessness begins with idolatry in Romans 1:18-23, and from there we see humanity given over as a consequence to the various sorts of sin listed in 1:24-32. Considered simply as “thief” and “murderer”, the murderer is clearly guilty of a far greater crime. That said, both thief and murderer stand before the bar under the far weightier charge of “idolater” and “cosmic traitor.”

Incidentally, this is part of the answer to the charge that no one has done anything merit the eternal judgment we are warned of in Scripture. I’ve discussed the inherent symmetry of handing the person who has spent a life-time pursuing everything but God, a future without God. Still, that aside, that many of us don’t observe our idolatry with the horror with which it is presented in Scripture is not an indication of the Bible’s over-scrupulosity, but our own comfortable we’ve become with our own sin. As Anselm famously put it, “you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.”

To sum up then, are all sins equally vile, condemnable, and is distinguishing between them a merely human way of looking at them? No. To say so is to go beyond Scripture and even to do violence to our righteous moral instincts about everyday human justice. But are all sinners “equally guilty” before God, in no place to merit their salvation, or boast and brag over others? Yes.And one more question: does God’s extend his abundant, overwhelming, and astonishing grace in Christ to all? Thankfully, we can say a bold “Yes, and Amen!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Sin: Self or Circumstances?

Society-of-the-spectacleChristianity has a simple message: Jesus saves from sin. When you start asking questions about what that means, you realize that simple message can generate, and indeed, necessitates some very complicated explanations. A simple question like “Who is Jesus?” can call forth debates that span centuries, councils, and countless learned treatises that, even when they establish a solid baseline, never fully come to the end of the issue.

So what of the other part of the equation? What are we talking about when it comes to the ‘sin’ that Jesus saves us from? While we could tackle this from a number of angles, one question that has been a rather thorny one in the modern period is whether sin is more of a personal or a social reality. Painting with a ridiculously broad brush, one could say that contemporary pop-Evangelicalism and mainline liberalism have typically taken opposing approaches to sin and sanctification.

Evangelicalism has typically focused on sin as a problem with individuals. I choose to sin, personally disobeying God, loving things other than the Lord my God with heart, soul, mind, and strength first. If society as a whole is debauched or unjust, it is because of the collective individuals of which it consists. Liberalism has typically given priority to society and structural issues. Sin is less about personal acts of unrighteousness, but rather unjust systems of oppression that trap people in harmful, destructive behavioral cycles. If holiness is to be achieved, we must change the social structures first and the individual issues will be mended from there.

So which is it? The sinful self or the circumstances that lead to sin? Jurgen Moltmann weighs in:

‘Change yourself’ some say, ‘and then your circumstances will also change.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is supposed to have to do only with persons. Unfortunately the circumstances will not oblige. Capitalism, racism, and inhuman technocracy quietly develop in their own way. The causes of misery are no longer to be found in the inner attitudes of men, but have long been institutionalized.

‘Change the circumstances’ others say, ‘and men will change with them.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is supposed to be a matter only of circumstances and structures. Unfortunately, however, men will not oblige. Breakdowns in marriage, drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism continue undisturbed. Structures which make people unhappy can be broken down, but no guarantee is attached that men will be happy.

Thus both must be done at the same time. Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well.  But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else.

The Crucified God, pg. 23

Once again, the Gospel is a simple message but it is not simplistic. We need salvation both from our own personal sin and rebellion, as well as the redemption of broken social structures that are generated by and aggravate that rebellion. Evangelical that I am, I think the latter is rooted in the former; in the narrative of Scripture, sin moves progresses from the personal (the garden, Gen. 3) to the social (Babel, Gen. 11). Still, it does not help to ignore either as we think through reality of redemption.

Now, as always, its beyond me to suggest how that all plays out. I work in the local church, primarily at the level of the individual, and am only now framing my theology of how the Church, either as an organism or an institution, should be engaged in social change. I do know that as I continue to pursue these questions, I don’t have to panic as the world is firmly in Jesus’ saving hands.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons God Isn’t Obvious — Some Kierkegaardian Observations

kierkegaard 2At some point in life, most of us have wondered why God isn’t more obvious. Why doesn’t he clearly reveal himself to all people in a clear and distinct manner? Why all this business about an incarnation, and a book, or an internal word of the Holy Spirit? Why doesn’t he just make it so everybody gets it?

In a brilliant article on Kierkegaard’s (K) conception of God, Paul Moser and Mark L. McCreary draw our attention to 4 Kierkegaardian considerations on the elusiveness of God. Note though I have numbered, labeled, and removed footnotes, what follows is a direct quote:

  1. Merely Objective Knowledge Isn’t Enough First, K maintains that those who seek God merely by means of objective information will be frustrated. Although K does not disapprove of objective knowledge as such, he strongly warns against approaching God as an impersonal object to be studied. In his words, ‘God is not like something one buys in a shop, or like a piece of property’. Instead, God is a personal agent, a subject with definite redemptive purposes for humans. Human knowledge of God, therefore, ought to be characterized by subjectivity and relationality, not by impersonal or detached forms of objective knowledge. Merely objective knowledge about God does not entail personally knowing God via a God-relationship. Moreover, obtaining merely objective knowledge may also promote complacency or a false sense of superiority. As K puts it, the ‘most terrible thing of all is’ to be ‘deceived by much knowledge’. In the end, some people who pursue only objective knowledge or evidence of God miss the fact that God is a subject and they therefore fail to encounter God as a personal agent, as person to person in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. In this respect, knowledge of God is not available in a purely objective approach
  2. Presumptuous Approaches Are Inappropriate Second, K expects that God will remain hidden from presumptuous individuals. In Christian Discourses, K devotes an entire discourse to the theme of presumptuousness. Presumptuousness might manifest itself when someone ignores God, explicitly denies God’s existence, or demands particular services from God. All of these manifestations stem from a position of selfishness and cognitive arrogance wherein one desires to live ‘as if he were his own master, himself the architect of his fortune’. However, a presumptuous stance demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who human beings are and who God is. Human beings are not ultimately their own masters, just as God is not a genie in a lamp who exists to cater to their wishes. As K points out elsewhere, an attitude of presumptuousness begins and ends in despair. Therefore, such an approach is likely to leave one without illumination regarding God’s existence and character.
  3. Denial of Sin The third reason why God may remain hidden from many people brings us back to the crucial issue of self-knowledge. According to K, to know and relate to God properly (as a morally perfect agent), one must break through to a consciousness of one’s sin. Sin and moral imperfection separate, or alienate, human beings from the holy and morally perfect God. To lead people to such an awareness, according to K, God creates each human being with an inner conscience, i.e., a personal ‘preacher of repentance’. However, the truth of one’s sinfulness is difficult to confront for a human. Many humans are afraid of this truth and prefer to retain a posture of self-sufficiency and an attitude of selfishness. Therefore, owing to selfish choices, actions, or fears, God’s call to many humans via conscience is ignored or avoided. As a result, such people fail to hear God’s voice.
  4. The Offense Finally, K explains that Jesus’ life is the possibility of offense and, as such, prevents many people from enjoying a God-relationship. K emphasizes sin to discuss forgiveness. After one’s confession of sin, the claims of Jesus should be of interest to one. K notes that Jesus offers rest to each individual through reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins. However, many people do not accept this offer because Jesus is also the possibility of offense. First of all, it is potentially offensive that Jesus, a human being, claims to have divine authority. Next, it is highly offensive that Jesus ‘declared himself to be God’. K describes in detail the various ways in which this claim can be offensive. The very concept of the ‘God–man’ is also problematic for some. K describes this ‘composite’ as the absolute paradox, as a ‘sign of contradiction’, and as something that brings the understanding to a standstill. There is no irrationalism here, but rather an insistence that profane reason and profane history can never directly demonstrate (i.e., deductively prove) that Jesus is also God. K maintains that this situation is the result of Jesus’ free choice to hide his divinity in what he calls ‘the most profound incognito’. The significance of the incognito is that it forces the issue of needed human faith to the forefront. K likens the possibility of offense to ‘standing at the crossroad’, where ‘one turns either to offense or to faith’. Those who are offended at Jesus turn away from faith and hence also from forgiveness and a personal God-relationship.

So why is God elusive according to Kierkegaard? Once again Moser and McCreary:

All of the aforementioned issues are inseparable from K’s conception of God. When individuals think or act in ways that prevent them from recognizing God, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the character of God. To search for or demand merely objective knowledge of God is to miss the fact that God is a subject, a personal agent with definite redemptive purposes for humans. To approach God presumptuously ignores that the fact that God, if God exists, has the wisdom, power, and authority to be God, that is, one who is worthy of worship. Those who drown out their conscience sometimes deny a contrast between God’s moral perfection and their selfishness and moral deficiencies. In addition, those who are offended at Jesus might misunderstand God’s humble, compassionate, and self-sacrificing love for God’s lost and dying creatures.

In other words, God doesn’t want to meet you as anyone other than himself. He wants you to know the real God—to reveal himself in ways that are consistent with his own character.

Would we want anything less?

Soli Deo Gloria