PART TWO : Doctrine of Sin (p.55)
What a religion believes is wrong with humanity, what it thinks stands in the way of reaching salvation, constitutes its doctrine of sin. One needs to know what has gone wrong in order to know how to correct it. Having discussed the goal of humanity as fellowship with God, we turn in part two to a diagnosis of what hinders us and consider the nature of divine judgment on sin.
In creative love theism, sin is not defined primarily as a legal infraction or in terms of transgressions that require punishment. Sin is a mysterious refusal to accept God's love (chapter 5). God responds to this rejection with judgments suitable to the situation but, like the father of the prodigal, remains unwilling that any should perish. Therefore God's work of judgment is aimed at restoration of relationships, not a rejection (chapter 6). Similarly, the Second Coming of Christ is not a final doomsday but the climax of a series of comings in history aimed at restoration (chapter 7). But since it is possible for sinners to remain stubbornly impenitent and finally to reject God's love, we must also discuss hell (chapter 8).
CHAPTER 5 (pp. 57-66)
DIAGNOSIS : Defective Love
What is it that keeps people from Salvation? A religion with a legal framework will interpret sin in a moral way, as a transgression of precepts. Religions that stress lack of knowledge as the problem will define sin in terms of mistaken beliefs. Where religion is understood as a personal encounter, however, sin will be seen as what spoils the relationship, causing alienation and estrangement. In creative love theism, sin is a rejection of God's love and a turning away from his gracious presence. In a broader sense, sin is the power that obstructs God's plan to make things new, the power that enslaves reality under the dominion of death. [Langdon Gilkey explains how he came to realize how deep the problem of sin runs in Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).]
The best way to understand sin is to define it against the backdrop of what humanity was made to be. Sin is what frustrates God's purpose for us. [Systematic theologies often fail to identify the essence of sin, preferring just to record the multiplicity of biblical terms for it; see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984), pt. 6. There is value in trying to get to the heart of the matter.] First of all, to be in God's image is to have the capacity for a personal relationship with God, to enjoy the freedom to respond to God. He wants us to respond to his grace in every area of life. [On the image of God, see Philip E. Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989).]
Second, there is the fact that we humans are social and relational beings, that we find our identity in coexistence with one another before God, not in isolation. Our freedom is meant to be exercised not in isolation from others but in interaction. We are created for life in community, for relationships of mutual fidelity. In this way we are to image the triune God, who delights in love and community.
Third, being in God's image is not a static condition but a calling with a goal. Genesis tells us that it involves exercising stewardly dominion over the world and taking responsibility for unfolding history. As people of destiny, then, we feel restless for a fulfillment of our lives and look to the unrealized future. We are creatures of hope, open to what is coming, in dynamic partnership with God, looking for the kingdom of God.
This positive picture of human nature and what it is meant to be helps us understand the meaning of sin. Sin reverses and distorts what we are meant to be. The disorder of human life is visible in brutality and deceit and in the alienation and oppression that characterize the human condition. The created structures of humanity have been disrupted on every level.
First, sin tries to deny the relationship with God that we were created for and to hide our need for divine grace. Sin says no to the call of God. It is a refusal to serve God and live gratefully before him. Sin is not primarily lawbreaking or a code violation (serious though that is), but a rejection of God and his love for us. It may take many forms: it may take the form of pride, in which we declare ourselves to be gods in place of God, or it may take the form of sloth and self-rejection, a refusal to accept the challenge of life with God.
Second, sin distorts proper social relationships among us. It is not only the refusal to live before God but a refusal to live with and for our neighbors. This underlies the specific transgressions against them. At this level too, sin takes different forms. In the folly of self-exaltation one can seek to have power over and dominate others; or in acts of self-destruction one may give up and slide into powerlessness. In either case our humanity is damaged, whether by lording it over others or by failing to resist being oppressed and just giving up.
Third, sin refuses our destiny in its refusal to be open to God's coming kingdom. This refusal may take the form of either resignation or presumption. It can manifest itself in an attempt to bring in the kingdom without God due to confidence in ourselves and our goodness, or it may take the form of forsaking the promise of the kingdom and throwing in the towel. Either way we close ourselves off from the future to which God points us.
We believe it is a mistake to think of sin primarily as the violation of a code, because it is more than that. Sin is the disruption of our relationship with God. This is well illustrated in David's experience recorded in Psalm 51. The Bible tells the story of how he possessed Bathsheba by getting her husband killed in battle. Without doubt that is a violation of the commandments, but that aspect is not mentioned in the psalm. Without mentioning Bathsheba, David confesses: "Against you [God], you alone, have I sinned" (Psalm 51:4). Though it was certainly wrong to have treated Uriah and Bathsheba as David did, the offense was ultimately against God himself. Breaking rules is wrong, but breaking relationship is worse.
Because God is love, sin should be understood essentially as a refusal of love. Made for relationship, humans have the ability to accept or refuse that. The meaning of the fall into sin is that instead of trusting God and finding security in him, the couple try to find it in themselves. It seems that the decision to create human beings was a risky thing for God to do. Making a creature capable of love meant creating a person with the possibility of either receiving or refusing love. The possibility exists for such a person to give love to something or someone for which that love was not intended. Evidently God wanted us to love him freely - without freedom, love could not be genuine. As it happens, we employed our freedom to serve selfishness and pride and chose a self-destructive independence.
Sin is the refusal to anchor ourselves in God and find our security in him. It is the decision to misuse the gift of freedom and disrupt the created structures of existence, leading to alienation and disorder. Sin tries to deny our relatedness to God and our need of his grace. It is the refusal to live in the service of God and in friendship with our fellow creatures. Not so much the violation of a moral code, sin is the disruption of the relationship for which we were made.
Breaking that relationship not only caused us grief, but it also brought great pain to God. God's is the pain of a lover who calls but receives no answer. Listen to the pain in Jesus' lament: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Matthew 23:37). Isaiah describes God's sorrow in these terms:
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that did not call on my name." (Is 65:1).
In Hosea, too, God asks himself what he can do with his people in the face of this betrayal (Hosea 11:8). What will it take to put things right?
In the cross we see what sin is in its essence, and what the remedy has to be. The death of Jesus shows both what sinners are prepared to do when God comes among them and what God is prepared to do to save his ungodly enemies. In putting Jesus to death, sinners revealed how far they were willing to go to be gods themselves. This act, more than any other, reveals what a self-enclosed life really means. This is a life that wastes opportunity and falls into inhumanity and dissolution. At the cross we see sinners just like ourselves putting to death a man completely committed to the cause of men and women.
Sin is the rejection of God's love and of God's will for the world. It is a rejection of what we were created for, the rejection of a dynamic relationship with God. The judgment of God must blaze against it, but this is really the response of a rejected lover, not a judicial condemnation.
What is the reason for the awful wrongness at the heart of human life? Doctrines of original sin are not uncommon today, even among secularists, because it is obvious that life is not now what it was meant to be. One does not have to believe in God to sense that something is terribly wrong and to see the need to account for it.
Karl Marx conjectured that humans must first have lived in harmony with one another before the class distinctions that produce alienation appeared. In this paradise lost, humankind was once innocent (he surmised), free of exploitation, but by reason of some dark error we fell from grace. Sigmund Freud, for his part, posited an archetypal memory of humanity in its prime, from which it has fallen. Claude Lévi-Strauss imagined a transition from a natural state to a cultural one that has left humanity scarred. He views the theft of fire from the gods (that is, technology) as leading to the tragedies of civilization.
All three of these secularists happen to be Jews, and one hears echoes of biblical thinking in their musings. Each is trying to explain some breach of covenant with creation which produced humanity's present predicament. All are trying to replace theology with a mythology of their own.
In religions too there are doctrines of original sin. Buddhists believe that sin originates when we begin to desire things, while monists view ignorance as the basic mistake. In Christian theology, original sin is pictured in the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In this story we are able to reflect on our own lives and discover at the depth of our being the same temptation to pride or despair or to destructive independence. But how did this one decision produce a corporate result such that the whole race is inclined to sin? The Bible does not explain how this happened, though we can try to tease out something. Scripture is more practical than speculative, more inclined to speak of the reality of sin, the need of repentance and the promise of redemption than to supply explanations. We might say that the Bible is more interested in the exodus from sin than in its genesis, more oriented to a victory over sin that to explaining its origins.
But the Bible does present sin both as a universal condition and as a chosen act for which persons are responsible. [Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).] It sees sin as both the corruption of individuals and an active power in corporate structures.
Also, the fact that we are social beings helps us see that our actions affect others and not just ourselves. Decisions have social and corporate effects; they are more than isolated individual decisions. They may have a social, even racial, impact. Think of individual birds in a flock. Each is flying on its own, but they all turn together as if their movement were orchestrated. Similarly, we have all witnessed crowds of individuals lusting for blood or cheering their sports team on. We have been pained to see what tribes do to one another in acts of cruelty that hardly a person among them would even consider on his or her own. The concept of original sin is in touch with deep realities well known to us.
We are able to conceive of Adam's decision to turn away from God as a decision that became more than an occasional act of his own: a decision that has come to characterize humanity as a whole. Original sin refers to a mysterious self-disposing away from the divine call, a disposition that marks humanity as a whole. Though we are many, we are also one. Humanity in Adam made this fateful decision in its collective heart and soul.
To some extent we can see how this works out in terms of the influence our decisions can have on one another. Few of our sins are completely private choices - they often affect others. In its account of the Fall, the Bible tells us that something has gone wrong with humanity as a whole. This is a profound insight, even if we cannot know the precise mechanism. [Gregory A. Boyd has helpful thoughts in Trinity and Process: A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne's Di-polarTheism Towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), pp. 396-99.]
It makes sense to think of the Fall as being historical. There must have been a moment when the decision was first taken and the new direction was first chosen. Depravity is not natural but must have begun at some point, though we cannot date it. Such a turning point would have had to be posited had the Bible not reported it.
Freedom and Responsibility
As for individual moral responsibility in a social context such as this, we see each person as being sucked into the vortex of a damaging historical process. There is a tragic dimension to this: they cannot prevent it from happening to them. But we should not think of them as personally responsible for the sin of the ancestors, but only responsible for their own deeds. Ezekiel points in that direction, telling us outright not to blame others for our plight: "It is only the person who sins that shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). People are responsible for their own actions, not anyone else's. No one is compelled to do evil. When we sin, we mimic the transgression of Adam, and our freedom is circumscribed by fallen history. Freedom is never more than finite freedom, and after the Fall it gets circumscribed by the sinful dynamics of history.
Agents are expected to respond to the situation they face and to influence the future as they can. They act within limiting conditions - but they do act. In a crime of murder, for example, there are always mitigating circumstances. There may have been violence in the home; the murderer himself may have been the victim of abuse. But the crime is still taken seriously by the legal system. We never say the murderer had to do it and could not help it. In our own thinking we recognize both social and individual responsibility, just as the Bible does.
It is important to add that although we are fallen creatures, we are still bearers of the image of God. We participate in God's image now under the conditions of sin, but the likeness is not annihilated. The ember is still glowing. We can repent and respond to God's call to return like the prodigal. Indeed, God repeatedly calls on us to turn to him and be saved, and this is a genuine invitation. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wants them to turn from evil and live (Ezek 33:11). [Harry R. Boer, An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990).]
We may add that this is true of anyone anywhere. One can relate to the God of heaven and earth on the basis of the image and the presence of the Spirit of God in the whole creation. Sinners may not be able to find God - but God can find them. Christ died for them, and God can apply the benefits of redemption to them as he did with Job. The Hound of Heaven can pursue the sinner until the decision is made to return or remain in isolation. As Peter states, "In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:35). [Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), chap. 3.]
Forensic Theism and Sin
Forensic theism views sin primarily as infraction and God as a Judge who makes rules and assigns penalties for disobedience. Sin is defined primarily as disobedience to the rules. Islam, like Pharisaism at the time of Jesus, is a religion that satisfies people who want authoritative direction on what is right and wrong. They accept that they are imperfect but want assurance that there are actions that if taken will enable them to make up for any sins they have committed. As noted in an earlier chapter, the requirements of Islam are by no means impossible for ordinary men and women to satisfy: confess the name of God and Muhammad his prophet, pray five times a day, do your duties, and you are on your way to heaven.
Sometimes Christians have the same mentality. They think they will be accepted if they do their best, if they give to charity, are kind to animals, help those in trouble and so on. Sin is mere human imperfection, and since (happily) God does not require perfection, we can attain a passing grade by paying attention to the prescriptions.
Other versions of forensic theism take sin much more seriously than that. They may say that God has decreed only perfection to be acceptable, that there is no passing grade. A single sin would be enough to condemn us, and ignorance is no excuse. Everyone is guilty because of the sin of Adam. His infraction resulted in all humans' being pronounced guilty and destined for hell. Even children are condemned from their first breath. Depravity is so grave that it is thought impossible for sinners to turn to God even though he calls them. God chooses some to be saved and sends the rest off to eternal death. [On Western views of original sin, see John Murray, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1959).]
There is a certain amount of comfort in such a model. Assuming you know that you have been chosen, there is assurance. If you have understood the gospel and accepted it, you are presumed to be born again and among the elect. You can be sure that God has a place for you in the lifeboat.
Unfortunately, the forensic model makes God appear immoral and less loving than human parents generally are with their children. But such objections may be of little concern to forensic theists who assume that God has the perfect right to make the rules as he chooses and who believe that any critical question of God's authority is blasphemous. This is how they hear the apostle Paul:
Who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction? (Romans 9:20-22).
If every lump of clay is spoiled with original sin, according to this view, God is perfectly just in sending any person to hell. And if we are among the few who are lucky enough to be chosen, we can magnify God's grace without feeling bad about the others who get the hell their sin deserves anyway.
Of course we question that this is what Paul was getting at. The passage about the potter has nothing to do with individual guilt and salvation. These words of Jeremiah refer to God's dealings with the nation of Israel and have no arbitrariness attached to them.
Catholic and Orthodox Understandings
At the Council of Trent, the Counter-Reformation purged crasser elements of ritualism from the Catholic tradition, but agreement concerning original sin remained between Protestants and Catholics. Augustine's theory that all humans deserve damnation from birth was accepted by both sides. What Protestants and Roman Catholics disagreed about was the remedy for original sin. Roman Catholic theologians denied the imputed righteousness proclaimed by Protestants and taught that original sin could be reversed by an impartation of grace through baptism and other sacraments of the church.
Neither side seemed much concerned abut the moral objection that those outside the narrowly defined "grace" of God were consigned to hell because of original sin. The Augustinian interpretation just fed the need to save the heathen from that fate and fueled the zeal of missionaries like Francis Xavier, who once had water thrown over six thousand fishermen in West India as he recited the baptismal formula and afterward reported to the pope that thousands of souls had been saved.
A similar logic required nurses in hospitals to baptize babies in danger of dying, to save them from hell. Given the model that considers the heart of every newborn to be infected by original sin, the rule was logical enough. Only in the twentieth century have Catholic and Protestant theologians been able to understand things better. A change of theological model has taken place, a softening of the view that original sin condemns all of humanity automatically to hell. With the reforms of Vatican II, a different doctrine has appeared. Sin in modern Catholic doctrine is explained more as a defective heart attitude and broken relationships. It would be hard to find a Catholic theologian nowadays who would consider that the unbaptized and all non-Catholics go to hell. [George Vandervelde, OriginalSin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981).]
The Greek Orthodox understanding is that sin reveals humanity's need to become like God again, experiencing what is called deification. Sin has marred the image of God, and the solution is to have one's eyes opened (by sharing in the liturgy) to heavenly and incarnational realities. Orthodox theology never asserted that there was no salvation outside the church but assumed the church was involved in the salvation of the whole human race. The Western theory of original sin never made sense to the Greek fathers, who did not see it in the New Testament and wisely avoided it.
Sin in Creative Love Theism
In creative love theism, sin is a misuse of human freedom and a repudiation of the divine love - a view that looks more to Irenaeus (c.130-200 AD) than to Augustine (354-430 AD). [For a comparison between original sin in Augustine and in Irenaeus, see John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1966). Sin is not connected to bodily existence or any natural condition. It is a universal condition as well as a freely chosen act for which we are responsible. Sin is more than the corruption of individuals; it is a power active in corporate structures as well as individual lives. We are dealing with an encompassing reign of evil and a solidarity of humanity in sin and alienation from which God wishes to set us free.
The story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit should not be interpreted according to judicial models. The Fall was a disruption of family relationships: persons fell out of a loving relationship with God and one another. God wanted to engage in conversation with them, but they hid from him. The loving relationship was broken by our betrayal, with the result that the couple were ashamed and sought to hide rather than continue the conversation with God. Then things went badly wrong between the man and the woman themselves also, and instead of loving they begin to blame one another.
The story is inexhaustible; for example, it has feminist implications. Men and women were created to be social beings in harmony, and both were appointed to exercise dominion over the creation. What went wrong in the Fall was that the man usurped dominion for himself and began to impose it in illegitimate ways at the expense of the woman, while the woman fell into a subordinate role that also corrupted the intended mutual relationship.
How we define sin makes an important difference for how the remedy is understood. Healthy parents, even when betrayed, do not condemn or exclude their children. Their desire is to enjoy reconciliation and for the child to be freed from whatever is preventing participation in loving family relationships. In the same way, God is not obsessed with the guilt of our sins but with the matter of restoration. He longs and works for the liberation of his creatures. Forgiveness is needed, and penitence too, but the bottom line is that God still loves us though we have failed.
Creative love theism works with the picture of two modes of existence. Adam turned in the direction of death, but Abraham looked away from the curse of sin to God who raises the dead (Rom 4:18-22). Anyone with faith is a person moving from the grip of death toward the freedom of a full life. Death in Adam and life in Christ are the alternatives God sets forth before all humans.
Creative love theism frees us from a picture of a God who condemns us for legal infractions. It offers the good news of a loving God who is for all people everywhere.
Chapter 6 .....