Saturday, December 8, 2012


(Hamartiology, by the way, refers to “teaching on sin.”) 

This post will draw together some recent conversations I’ve had about sin before reflecting on the broader procedural issues for biblical theology that the variety of biblical teachings occasions.

First, then, the other day I was talking with a dear seminarian friend about hell. Our discussion followed some well-trod directions: we rehearsed the usual theodicy stuff (Is God Janus-faced, with two unresolved sides, love and wrath, doled out without cause to two groups of people? Alternately, if God is wholly committed to saving us, then what can hell even mean? God's inability to achieve his ends?). I said I didn’t get it: hell seemed so disproportionate to humanity’s wickedness. My friend responded by saying that I must not understand the sinfulness of sin. Presumably if I did, I would see that we do indeed deserve everlasting damnation. We agreed that this view, at least in the version we know, might owe somewhat to St. Anselm: according to this theologian, the offense of sin is infinite because it is against an infinite being, and thus it deserves a correspondingly infinite punishment. This is quite an understanding of sin: it is already boggling enough to consider that obvious cases of human wrongdoing such as violence and oppression rate as infinite offenses (what does this even mean?) – let alone peccadilloes like eating too much or thinking too highly of oneself! 

Of course it’s obvious that some difference stands between our epistemic recognition of the sinfulness of sin and its ontological reality. There is no question that we humans incessantly and self-protectively underplay and distort our manifold forms of sinfulness. But this is a far cry from the inconceivable gulf that opens up between even the most self-loathing and introspective perception of human waywardness (John Owen?) and the concept of an infinite crime. It would be hard to breathe in such a world, where every moment of human life would, being tinged with sin, deserve perdition. I asked at this point in our conversation whether such an understanding of sin had any biblical grounding. In what ways could the Bible authorize this vision of sin as a really bottomless horror? or condone this kind of abyss between our everyday perception of sin and its actual, limitless reality? The only witnesses that could be brought to the stand were Isaiah’s cry at the moment of his call, or Peters cry in the boat (“away from me, Lord”), or Jesus’ teachings about murder and divorce. I suppose also that Colossians does point to “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (common sins affecting college campuses across America) as reason for wrath to come on the “the disobedient” (3:5, 6). But even these seem more common-sense than the notion of an infinite crime.

Even more, I argued that much of the Bible’s teaching about sin is quite realistic. What, for instance, riles up the prophets? Mostly idolatry and injustice…and not idolatry in the intellectualized Protestant sense (e.g., “blogging can be a form of idolatry”), but rather in the actual, “baldly-beseeching-another-god-for-favor” sense; and not just injustice as in, “snide comments to your little brother,” but as in, “disenfranchising widows and orphans, amassing wealth at the expense of others,” etc. Or, what riled Jesus up? Religious hypocrisy. Forms of exclusion. Whatever else they were, the forms of human wrongdoing that earned YHWH’s and Jesus’ disapprobation were somewhat accessible. They do not require John Owen-style devotional gymnastics to get on board with. Certainly at times Israel in the OT and the religious leaders and disciples in the NT show remarkable obtuseness. But the scale of the difference between their grasp of sin and its reality does not match St. Anselm’s – I don’t think. The texts seem to expect that, to some extent, their readership will grasp the offense of Israel’s infidelity; that we will be “insiders” to Jesus’ own frustration with the Pharisees and disciples. In a word, the hamartiology here is calibrated way more to common-sense. 

On the other hand I have been talking recently with other seminarian friends who are interacting a lot with a certain stream of NT scholarship (“apocalyptic” – that underdetermined buzzword). For them, Paul is apparently the best and truest expositor of the gospel in the NT, and his view of sin definitive. According to them, sin is a “cosmic power,” along with death: not wholly personal, but to be thought of in ways analogous to a big, huge world slave-master, whose will fills all things and whose whole purpose is suffering and corruption. The aspect of human agency is downplayed on this telling: individual acts participate closely in the fabric of a whole realm subject to death. Sin with a capital S does such and such within me. Perhaps these folks are right with regard to Paul, I don't know. But again, it strikes me that there are plenty of other hamartiologies in the NT – and in the Bible as a whole. I don’t know the first thing about some of them (think of Leviticus’ complicated catalogue of sins! Some not even intentional). Perhaps even gathering up the diversity of these phenomena under the heading of “hamartiology” already begs the question.

In this instance as in all instances, the Bible houses a great variety of perspectives. I don’t have a global program for how to deal with this fact – but as I reflect on the practice of “biblical theology,” a number of possibilities lie ready at hand (besides just denying the issue). 

  1. Admit the diversity but posit a unity somehow “beyond the text.” This used to be my favorite option. In other words, though biblical versions of sin (or God or Christ or morality) may be rather formally disunited, in fact an excruciatingly careful charting of commonalities (and differences) can render a material unity visible. A hasty example: P may think of God’s connection with the world though God’s presence/glory and D may think of God’s connection to the world through God’s name. But both these sources consider God as a) somewhat transcendent b) having a connection with the world and c) connecting through some intermediary or hypostasis. I associate this approach with Brevard Childs, though perhaps he is content only to assert a Christological unity of reference across the breadth of the canon – and to leave other matters in their state of unresolved heterogeneity. He also supplies an eschatological answer to the question of disunity: we may not discern the unity here below, but in the kingdom we will get how the Bible accorded with itself. Again, this may apply only to its witness to Christ and not to other matters like hamartiology or ecclesiology.
  2. Relativize one teaching in favor of another. Just take Paul as definitive. This is some form of Sachkritik
  3. Put the various perspectives “into conversation.” This is a model that takes over the procedure from the above, i.e., carefully outlining the distinct claims and imaginaries of each biblical voice. But instead of seeking some kind of harmony in the content of the voices over against their formal dissimilarities, this approach gathers up the portions of the Bible that treat of a similar topic and leaves them juxtaposed, open. I associate this model with Carol Newsom.  She uses the metaphor of "calling a symposium" amongst the biblical witnesses.
  4. Weird historical note on option 3 ("Do like the ancient Egyptians"). The difference between Jewish and Christian interpretation is kind of a standard trope within biblical studies circles: (crassly) Jews are comfortable with contradiction whereas Christians seek closure. No doubt this is rooted in the different forms of the two canons, one containing vast and generically sprawling material from many centuries of religious reflection and development, the other centering around a single decisive figure and dating to an intense half a century. But recently I was reading Otto Kaiser’s book on the Sea in ancient Mediterranean religions (Die mythische Bedeutung des Meeres in Ägypten, Ugarit, und Israel). His preface to the section on Egyptian mythology sets up a basic methodological problem to those who want to offer a survey: namely, that the Egyptians seemed to have had no problem maintaining a huge, heterogeneous, and (at least by all normal metrics) incoherent mythology. In one place they speak of the sky as a great cow; in another as the father-god. Names interchange, deities blend into one another, story cycles swap tales. Despite many German attempts to systematize the variety or to posit a single divine reality behind the whorl of stories, Kaiser argues that the Egyptians just did not see their multifarious myths as problematic: they drew on different stories and gods depending on circumstance, and sat peaceably with the tensions. Probably this is only a subset of biblical theology option 3 – but I just thought it was interesting, the idea that not only hip postmoderns but also very ancient religionists were okay with unresolved intellectual pluralism (to a point: contrast the constant attempts of scribes in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East to bring manuscripts into a more harmonious and coherent state than they found them). It complicates and broadens the hackneyed Jew/Christian interpretive profile. 


  1. Very interesting post. I agree there's a big problem with attempting to systematize this in a way that scripture refuses to. The whole "infinte God, infinite offense" game is deeply unsatisfying, and I think may not be true to any of the biblical witnesses at all.

    I'm also not quite comfortable with the "unity outside the text" approach, even if christological, though I wonder if there's another way to get at this that is similar in a few respects. What we do have stated clearly in various parts of scripture (and in many different ways) is that forgiveness of sins belongs to God, even to God alone. Jesus does not lecture in detail on the nature of sin so much as he simply forgives it, and leaves his audience to marvel at the connection between forgiving a man's sins and restoring his body. The attempt to rationalize God's wrath strikes me as the worst kind of theodicy, an attempt to declare God righteous on the basis of some transparent, external standard (balanced infinities). Job's 3rd-rate Calvinist friend helps no one. This approach runs into particular opposition, ironically, from Paul himself, for whom God's righteousness comes precisely in his act of forgiveness. Sin isn't understood apart from God overcoming it in Christ.

    Now, can we reason back and say, "Sin must have been a pretty big deal for God to have dealt with it that way?" Sure. But the reduction of sin (and therefore its remedy) to a mathematical formula makes the mystery of the cross into a rationally transparent plausibility. Every biblical witness refuses to give us that--instead, we get, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

  2. I'm afraid I lack the scholarship or insight to discuss this matter on level ground, but it strikes me that you, and the many scholars you cite, may be trying to quantify something that is fundamentally a quantitative matter. Each of us may (must) choose one of two roads, and those roads lead in different directions: toward God or away from him. The horror comes in having that choice; that I have the power to stray so far that God can't (or won't) fetch me back, and I will be condemned to an eternity of my own devising. Sartre, I'm afraid, got it exactly wrong: Hell is myself.