Theology In Outline, Part 4: The Nature of Sin

About This Episode

We continue our revisiting of the Reformation, commemorating its 500th anniversary, through a comparison of brief works of Robert Jenson and Brian Gerrish.

In this episode we focus on Brian Gerrish's understanding of sin. Below you'll find some key quotes from the chapter we discussed.

Thesis 7: Estrangement from the Creator may, as mistrust, be guiltless; but as defiance to the Creator it is sin, which arises from inborn egocentrism and the collective pressures of society, infects a person's entire existence with self-interest, and makes the self powerless to achieve the purpose of its creation without redemption.

What is sin? can be fully answered only from the perspective of redemption. Hence, in harmony with his consistently christological approach, Karl Barth changed the traditional dogmatic order and dealt with sin in the context of the divine work of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, not as a separate dogmatic locus that comes before reconciliation (CD IV/ 1: 359). But there can be no objection to treating the sin of humanity, as well as the original perfection of humanity, before Christology if, with Calvin and Schleiermacher, we recognize that the measure of both is the person of the Redeemer. The conviction of sin, as Christian faith understands it, arises from confrontation with the Christ who is proclaimed in the gospel. But this experiential sequence need not determine dogmatic order. The christological reference may govern the account of sin either by the order adopted, as in Barth, or by conscious and explicit anticipation, as in Calvin (Institutes, 1: 189, 248; Comm. Gal. 2: 21) and Schleiermacher (CF 270, 279). We can more readily retain the link with our two principal guides if we take the second option. It is precisely the connection of sin with the words and work of Jesus Christ that raises doubts about the one-sided concept of sin in the Western theological tradition. The identification of sin with active resistance to the will of God is an unwarranted narrowing of all that comes between God and fallen humanity in Scripture generally, and particularly in the message of Jesus. There seem, then, to be two choices for dogmatic theology: either to enlarge the concept of sin or else, as in my thesis 7, to acknowledge

Gerrish, B. A.. Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (p. 77). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Augustine's view of Adam's sin as an act of pride, and its transmission to others by natural procreation, has exercised a fateful influence on Christian theology in the West. (Eastern Orthodoxy has been more inclined to the opinion of Augustine's Pelagian adversaries that we can incur guilt only by imitation of Adam's sin.) But Augustine's view has also evoked dissent that goes well beyond Calvin's slender modifications, and dissent has been furthered by the recognition that “Adam” does not name an individual in prehistoric time but stands for humanity in every time. Schleiermacher approved of Augustine's view of sin as a turning away from the Creator, but on the transmission of sin he broke relatively new ground. And Søren Kierkegaard (1813– 55) gave the discussion another fresh direction by his searching psychological reflections on anxiety and the sickness of despair.

Gerrish, B. A.. Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (p. 82). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Perhaps the commonest idea of sin in Christian literature is (3) the self-love that goes with the first humans' pride, ambition, and temptation to become like gods (Gen. 3: 5). But Christians infer the precise nature of sin not just from the story of the fall but also, and decisively, from the proclamation of redemption. The message of Jesus came as a summons to self-denial (Mark 8: 34), and Paul's gospel announced the crucifixion of the old self (Rom. 6: 6; Gal. 2: 19– 20; 5: 24). It follows from the remedy that those who have identified the sickness of sin with amor sui (love of self) are not mistaken: the root of sin is egocentrism. The source of this condition is in part the natural perception of early childhood that the entire environment is there to meet the child's needs. We might say that sin (rather than religion, as the Freudians say) is infantile regression. In this sense, we can agree with the traditional doctrine that we are born sinners. We need not dismiss even Calvin's gloomy observation that the entire nature of infants is a kind of “seed-bed of sin” (Institutes, 1: 217 [Beveridge]). But are not infants also seedbeds of grace?

Gerrish, B. A.. Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (p. 86). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

But self-love is not simply innate: it is constantly fed by the interaction of one self with other selves, the other being perceived as both a threat to one's own ego and the material for its fulfillment. Sin is always (5) social sin. The collective pressures of society, open to daily observation, have encouraged modern attempts to reinterpret original sin precisely as solidarity in sin. Augustine's harsh verdict that humankind is a single damnable lump (a massa perditionis) can then be retrieved as the recognition that each of us is not merely an individual sinner but inextricably entangled in a network of sinful (that is, self-serving) relationships, to which we make ourselves captive and for which we share responsibility. In Emil Brunner's vivid simile, we are “like the individual strawberry plants which, underneath the surface, are tied up with one another in a texture of roots.” 13

Gerrish, B. A.. Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (p. 87). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

It is no doubt true that in the Old Testament the emphasis falls on sin as rebellion. But due account must be taken of the historical context. In the story of Israel, sin is naturally viewed as a rebellious people's spurning the covenant. The gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, did not come only as judgment on the sin of going after other gods. It was also— and foremost— addressed as good news to persons who were burdened by hardship and pain. Jesus could certainly denounce the presumptuous sins of the self-righteous. But, according to the Gospels, he understood his ministry to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: the Spirit had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (Luke 4: 16– 22; see Isa. 61: 1– 3). Matthew testifies that Jesus fulfilled another passage from Isaiah: “He will not wrangle or cry aloud. . . . He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory” (Matt. 12: 17– 21; Isa. 42: 1– 4; cf. Ps. 147: 3). Remarkably, this was not the angry messiah John the Baptist anticipated (Luke 3: 7– 9; in Matt. 3: 7– 12 the angry words are addressed to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not to the crowd generally). Jesus' mission was to the lost (Matt. 10: 6; 15: 24; 18: 11; Luke 19: 10; but see Luke 12: 49), and the series of parables in Luke 15 suggests that there are more ways than one of being lost. The prodigal son was lost willfully, but the sheep wandered off aimlessly, and the coin went uselessly out of circulation.

The nature of estrangement is understood not simply from the sin of Adam, nor from Paul's controversy with the Pharisees, but mainly from the gospel: the malady is known in the cure, and what we need is disclosed in what we are given. In terms of our concept of faith, there are at least two kinds of faithlessness: mistrust as well as defiance. Alongside the word of judgment that shatters the defiant ego, there are the words of gentle rebuke to those of little faith (Mark 4: 40; Matt. 6: 30; 8: 26; 14: 31; 16: 8; Luke 8: 25; 12: 28; 17: 5) and words of compassion to the weary, who carry heavy burdens (Matt. 11: 28). The message comes as reassurance to the mistrustful, and it calls the defiant to account. As such, it stirs the two-sidedness of elemental faith in an intelligible world that makes moral sense to us. Elemental faith is seen on reflection to belong to the class of inevitable beliefs, but in actual experience it sometimes slips away. The gospel is a reaffirmation of something in the depths of every human being so that it is heard not as heteronomous, or imposed from without, but as corresponding to the law of our being: it resonates within. This, to be sure, is not all the gospel is and does! More belongs to the doctrines of redemption, to which the present chapter is only a prelude.

For now, thesis 7 sums up my critical comments on the vocabulary of sin and is structured by the recognition that there are more ways than one of lacking or losing faith. Estrangement from God may be grounded in willful rebellion, but it may also be a lack of trust that has more to do with depletion of the self than with self-assertion. Of course, this does not exhaust the varieties of estrangement, and there is no need to suppose that these two are wholly exclusive. Mistrust may be blameworthy if it refuses the reassurance of grace and reflects the pathological self-preoccupation of the victim. Defiance, when it comes to itself, discovers that not guilt but the Father's compassion has the last word (Luke 15: 17, 20). But mistrust and defiance will serve as ideal types for the dogmatic presentation of what it means to live by faith.

Gerrish, B. A.. Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (pp. 88-90). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Episode Details

September 19th, 2017

32 mins 33 secs

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