Tuesday 22 May 2007

Matt Jenson: The Gravity of Sin

Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 202 pp. (review copy courtesy of T&T Clark)

The doctrine of sin has fallen on hard times in recent decades, especially in the wake of Karl Barth’s argument that we can speak of sin only in the light of grace, so that an independent “doctrine of sin” becomes illegitimate. Of course, Barth himself developed a massive doctrinal account of sin; but his methodology has made subsequent generations of theologians reticent about this theme. Indeed, in a 1993 article, David Kelsey wondered: “Whatever happened to the doctrine of sin?”

It seems, however, that this situation is now changing. In recent years, Eberhard Jüngel has offered an intensive existential analysis of sin in his work on Justification (1999); Marilyn McCord Adams has offered a brilliant philosophical account of Horrendous Evils (1999); James K. A. Smith has argued for the hermeneutical significance of sin in The Fall of Interpretation (2000); Alistair McFadyen has demonstrated the ability of Christian language to interpret distinctively modern pathologies in Bound to Sin (2000); and younger scholars like Joy Ann McDougall (Emory) and Dirk Evers (Tübingen) are currently working towards new accounts of the doctrine of sin and its relationship to theological anthropology.

In this elegant study, Matt Jenson (a regular reader and commenter here at F&T) has made his own timely contribution to this renewed exploration of Christian talk about sin. Jenson takes up the traditional metaphor of humanity as “curved in on itself” (incurvatus in se), and he argues that this metaphor can serve as a model for the interpretation of diverse forms of human sinfulness within the broader framework of a relational anthropology. If human personhood is constituted by relationships, then sin can be understood “as a violation, perversion and refusal of those relationships” (p. 2).

Jenson begins by exploring the development of the introversion metaphor in the theology of Augustine. He offers a charitable (perhaps too charitable!) interpretation of Augustine’s theory of original sin – namely, that this is a “profoundly relational” affirmation of the involvement of all human beings with one another (p. 16). And he observes that, for Augustine, “freedom” and “autonomy” are mutually exclusive terms, since we are truly free only to the extent that we are turned towards God rather than towards ourselves. Nevertheless, Augustine threatens his own relational account of sin with his emphasis on a spirituality of inwardness. Such inwardness, as Luther later discovered, can itself become a powerful expression of sin, drawing us into “a disorienting spiral in on ourselves” (p. 45).

Luther thus built on – but radicalised – Augustine’s understanding of sin, since he saw clearly that the homo incurvatus in se may be precisely the same as the homo religiosus. While Augustine envisioned salvation as the healing of human nature, Luther’s more radical vision demanded nothing less than the death and resurrection of the sinful self. Still, both Luther and Augustine believed that the self is drawn out of itself only when it is turned towards God, so that its identity is located in him.

Luther’s account of sin and personhood has been subjected to sharp critique, especially by feminist theologians who believe that such a conception serves to underwrite oppressive and abusive power structures. Jenson explores this critique as it is developed in the work of the post-Christian feminist, Daphne Hampson. Hampson advances a relational theory of selfhood, but she rejects the metaphor of sin as a “curving inwards.” According to Hampson, this metaphor focuses on prideful egoism as the paradigm of human sinfulness, so that salvation is subsequently understood as a humbling of the proud. But she argues that this is a fundamentally masculinist conception of sin; women, after all, “have simply never been in the position of power which would give one the opportunity and the imaginative resources to conceive of a prideful setting oneself in the place of God” (p. 103). The focus on pride, then, simply entrenches women in the sins to which they really do incline, especially to a sinful diffusion of the self in others.

Jenson criticises this argument for its rather simplistic characterisation of the different gender-types of sin (men’s sin as self-assertion; women’s sin as self-denigration). But he notes that Hampson is right to emphasise the diversity of sins: we don’t all sin in the same way. He thus takes up Hampson’s two main categories: “we sin in both self-exaltation and self-denigration” (p. 128). Further, he accepts the crucial point that it is inadequate simply to regard “pride” as the paradigmatic form of all sins.

In the final chapter, Jenson thus asks whether the model of sin as curvature can be extended to describe “the (often radically) different experiences of people in sinning” (p. 130) – in particular, whether it can account for sins both of self-assertion and of self-denigration. These two main categories are in fact parallel to Karl Barth’s categorisation of the paradigmatic sins of “pride” and “sloth.” And Jenson argues that Barth’s construal of the types of sin broadens the scope of our understanding of sin in a way that “anticipate[s] many of the concerns of feminists” (p. 183). But while Daphne Hampson thinks of freedom as the endeavour to extricate the self from all forms of dependence (on God and on others), Barth offers a more radically relational vision of freedom: “freedom is always freedom ‘for another’ and as such has one direction and one direction only. That is the direction of the Son, whose way is towards God and others” (p. 181).

And so Jenson concludes that the concept of homo incurvatus in se provides a model which can interpret a diverse range of sinful experiences, while foregrounding the relational structure of human personhood. To be human is to be in relation; to be a sinner is to pursue relationlessness. The church, therefore, should be viewed as the body of people who are “called out” – “out of the world, yes, but also out of ourselves”! To be included in the church is to be among those “who live excurvatus ex se, finding … ourselves in Christ and in one another” (p. 190).

The Gravity of Sin is a stimulating and lucid account of Christian talk about sin, and it’s a welcome contribution to the contemporary retrieval of this doctrinal theme. Naturally, there are many remaining questions that a full reconstruction of the doctrine of sin would have to answer, such as:

  • What is the connection between a relational model of sin and the broader social, political and economic structures of evil?
  • What is the relationship between the dogmatic language of sin and contemporary biological, psychological and anthropological understandings of human personhood?
  • What is the connection between the phenomena of sin and human mortality?
  • What is the relationship between specific experiences of sin and the universality of sin?
If, as Jenson proposes, the concept of introversion can be taken up as a general model for the interpretation of sin, then one might also be able to bring fresh – and properly theological – approaches to questions such as these.


Jon said...

Matt Jenson? Didn't he do his PhD at St Andrews university? I remember chatting to him about the subject next to one of the photocopiers in St Mary's College. What a small world it is!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review - I've just gotten a copy of this, and it looks great.

Anonymous said...

"To be included in the church is to be among those who live excurvatus ex se, finding … ourselves in Christ and in one another." Thanks - that's beautifully put!

Shane said...

Thanks for the recommendation, the book looks interesting.

Now what I want to know is this: Does our author believe that sinners are human beings or not? That is to say, does he make justification an essential change or an accidental one?

Anonymous said...

Morning Shane,

Sharp question. I guess if one answers "essential", it means that sinners aren't even human. Good old Aristotelean logic!

You must know the great Barth vs. Brunner fight of the century on natutal theology. You'd definitely be in Brunner's corner, Ja?

On the wonderful inversion homo excurvatus ex se, I guess you could say that Christians are called to be convex, not concave!

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Shane -- that's an important question. In response, here's a passage that I think you'll appreciate (from the chapter on Luther):

"The danger in abandoning a privative account of sin and evil is that sin obtains an autonomy which allows it actually to transform the person into something other than God's good creature. As a result, salvation comes to be seen as a certain (perverse) kind of creatio ex nihilo, which amounts more to a wiping of the slate and starting over rather than the vindication of creation" (p. 56).

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for the excellent review. Does Jenson interact with Juengel at any length? It seems that, among theologians after Barth, Juengel more than anyone else has taken up the theme of homo incurvatus in se as the defining characteristic of sin.

Shane said...

Thank you Ben, that quote is right on the spot and it expresses perfectly some of the reservations I have with some recent theologians doing away with the privative concept of sin.

I don't know much about the Barth/Brunner bit, but I'm ok with the idea of natural theology, although I would distinguish it from theology proper (Sacra Doctrina). The natural theologian attempts to prove the existence of a first mover, necessary existent, etc. Whether those arguments are successful or not, clearly they do not do away with the need for revelation.



Ben Myers said...

Yes, David: Eberhard Jüngel crops up from time to time, although he's not a major part of the study. (I can't tell you exactly how often he crops up since, alas, there's no index!)

Jenson actually frames his whole argument with an opening quote from Jüngel: sin, Jüngel says, is "the urge towards relationlessness and dissociation", and the sinner is "a person without relations". Jenson then returns to this quote on the last page, and he closes the book with an incisive Barthian qualification of Jüngel's remark:

"The sinner is a person who tries to live without relations, who lives as though she had no relations. That is, curved in on herself, the sinner is one who lives as if reality were other than it is. In doing so, she sits under judgment, but it is a judgment oriented towards hope, the hope (and trust) that reality is not as she thinks and hopes. In this sense, it is hope against hope, hope that the sinner's cause has been taken up (like it or not) by one who will not let her fall our of relationship with him" (p. 191).

Matt Jenson said...

Jon - yep, it's me. I hope you're so well.

Shane - I agree with Kim. A sharp question indeed. The importance of it became clear to me in writing the book and in conversation with a friend. Ben's quote indicates my answer: justification is an accidental change. However, it is the kind of accidental change that is, well, fairly essential. That is, without such a change, we would waste away, doing the ontological equivalent of a shrinky-dink. By rightly calling this 'accidental', we affirm the continuity of creation and redemption. But by reminding ourselves that this accidental change takes the form of crucifixion and resurrection, we affirm the cost of continuity and the radicality of redemption. [Instructive here is the theological cul-de-sac of Flacius' tough-on-sin comment that the sinner is in the 'imago diabolus' and the response it evoked in the Reformation.]

Bruce Yabsley said...

The (excellent) discussion up to this point has taken for granted that "human personhood is constituted by relationships", as quoted from the book, and understood as relationships with other persons.

Maybe this is paranoid, but as both a physical scientist and an introvert this makes me somewhat nervous.

Are "relationships" here considered to include relation with the wider world: with things, animals, systems, culture, ideas, principles, and ideals? Or are these kinds of relation considered under another head?

This is connected to the first of Ben's questions, What is the connection between a relational model of sin and the broader social, political and economic structures of evil?, which has not been addressed so far.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this very helpful review and reference. i found the combination of personal and relational elements that the inward turn offered quite illuminating.

i am actually Joy McDougall's research assistant and this book will be a valuable addition to her continued work toward a feminist theology of sin. thanks for helping me in my job.

she is actually positively appropriating Luther's bondage of the will for dogmatic and feminist purposes. also, ian mcfarland (also of emory) is working on a book on the sin and the concept of the fall. the bare bones will be available in the upcoming oxford handbook of systematic theology edited by Tanner, Webster, and Torrance. sin, as always, is on the upswing!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this info, Joshua -- it's good to hear that Joy McDougall's book is progressing, and Ian McFarland's work sounds very interesting as well. I'll look forward to seeing both books when they're published!

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