The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin. I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.
Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle). Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it. Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.
The extreme of “totally evil”
At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.
The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept. All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level. Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’. Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture. A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’. The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature. There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil. The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’. And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.
The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity. In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature. And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.
The extreme of “basically good”
This leads to the positive “basically good” view. In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative. Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate. In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature. Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection. So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.
The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect. It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us. After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves. Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!
And here we see the weakness of this view. At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life. It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do. And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.
It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa. What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.
The Doctrine of Sin
It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory. But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth. Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8). To be a human is a glorious thing. But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).
The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin. Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”. That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest. Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.” I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”. We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve. We steal and cheat. We parade our acts of charity on social media. We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after. Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.
The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin. So we are sinful. So what? Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness. The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply. Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact. But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.” This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.