Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Ten propositions on sin

by Kim Fabricius

1. Reinhold Niebuhr famously described original sin as the one empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. Niebuhr was wrong. We know whence his statement gets its intuitive purchase: the omnipresent reality of self-alienation and social disorder. But sin is a theologoumenon, and, like all theologoumena, it is a matter of faith, not disinterested observation. To be specific, sin is a matter of faith because, definitively, it is a disruption between human beings and God – and the knowledge of God is itself a matter of faith.

2. What is the nature of this disruption? The fundamental form of sin is disobedience. “The Lord God commanded…” (Genesis 2:16) – and our paradisal parents did not do as they were told – for their own good. They transgressed the “Thou shalt not,” they trespassed on the Edenic orchard. As Paul typologically interprets Genesis 2 in Romans 6, the key terms are Adam’s παράβασις and παρακοή and, in contrast, Christ’s ύπακοή. It is precisely as the obedient one that Jesus is the sinless one.

3. Do I take the story of the “fall” in Genesis 2 to be “history”? No more than I take the three-story universe of Genesis 1 to be “science”. So the story of the fall isn’t true? Don’t be silly! Only a discredited positivism would reduce truth to the “facts” of history and science, quite apart from the issues of contructivism and perspectivism. Robert Jenson disagrees. He takes Adam and Eve to be actual hominids, “the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God’s command.” Jenson’s target is an idealist understanding of the fall as a “myth”, but his palaeo-anthropological alternative is, in my view, a category mistake. The fall is neither a timeless idea nor a chronological moment but a pre-historical narrative disclosure of the way it is with you and me. The fall is a foil to the history of humanity.

4. The fall-as-foil forestalls two other errors. First, “The Bible knows no ‘sinless man’ and consequently no state of innocence” (Claus Westermann, citing H. Haag); thus the fall “is not a fall in the sense that man after has become anything else than man was before” (Bruce Vawter). Brueggemann observes that there is no “pre-commandment” human being; neither is there a pre-disobedient human being. And, second, the story of the fall is not an aetiological narrative; that is, it is not an explanation of sin. Sin is sure – and sin is a surd: irrational, non-necessary, inexplicable. Kierkegaard, that great anatomist of sin, is our teacher here.

5. After disobedience, there are several contenders for the clown crown of foundational sin. Unbelief and pride feature prominently in the history of harmatology. Karl Barth, the theologian of grace, appropriately accents ingratitude. In Thomas Mann’s disturbing retelling of the Faust legend Doctor Faustus, the satanic counter-commandment is “Thou shalt not love.” And to add to the witches’ brew, consider Augustine’s take on sin as disordered desire (concupiscentia), and Luther’s take on the sinner as homo incurvatus in se.

6. A word on “total depravity”. Calvin’s doctrine develops Augustine and Luther’s insight that we are (in Alistair McFadyen’s incisive wordplay) “bound to sin”. It is both polemical and dogmatic. Polemically, it is an attack on Origen’s platonic privileging of the mind, and Erasmus’ privileging of the will, over against the “lower appetites”. Thus does Calvin correctly interpret the Pauline category of sarx. Dogmatically, total depravity “means, not that there is no capacity for good in human beings, but that no human activity is altogether blameless”; “no privileged area of the personality can be depended on for salvation” (William J. Bouwsma). As grace goes all the way down in God, so sin goes all the way through and up in humans.

7. A Pauline anatomy of sin must also observe a crucial distinction between sin and sins. Paul’s fundamental harmatological category is not sins as moral failures but sin as alien and enslaving power that foments sins. Consequently Paul almost never speaks of the forgiveness of sins, rather he speaks of sin’s defeat and conquest – by Jesus Christ. Indeed that is how we gauge just how radical and universal sin actually is: it takes the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ to break it. That is, it takes grace to reveal the human condition. As E. P. Sanders puts it: Paul “deduced the plight from the solution.”

8. You know the phrase “ugly as sin”? Whenever I think of it I picture Duccio’s “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain” with its nightmarish figure of the devil. I also catch a whiff of Luther’s shitty Satan. But how could the utterly repulsive be so totally tempting? Consider, then, the film The Devil’s Advocate (1997), in which Al Pacino plays a Lucifer whose attractiveness contributes as much as his corporate clout to his persuasiveness. His text might come from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” Sin is no Ugly Betty.

9. On the other hand, the devil is a liar. He makes sin seem so exciting, both as lust and lure to power. “Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing,” C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood. In fact, sin itself always turns out to be unoriginal, recycled, predictable, dead boring – the Same Old Thing. But Satan is so streetwise that, like gullible teenagers or old folk with bad memories, we are always falling for his provocative promises. Thus W. C. Fields on original sin: “A sucker is born every minute.” By the way, one of the best antidotes to temptation is a sense of humour. Like all tyrants, the devil insists on being taken seriously, so take the piss and remove the sting.

10. Finally, a crucial pastoral point, based on an acute theological insight, which Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger puts powerfully and succinctly: “The paradox of the knowledge of human sin is that human beings can ultimately know themselves as sinners only in the light of forgiveness. Known sin as such, Barth argues, is always finally forgiven sin. We cannot fully perceive ourselves as sinners, he suggests, apart from Jesus Christ.” Which is why repentance “cannot possibly perpetuate debilitating shame”; rather, as a homecoming, it is ultimately an act of sheer joy.


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