Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“Go, and sin no more.”

[Comments on this hypothetical or thought experiment are welcome. I am particularly interested in learning how a Christian might explain the following as deeply mistaken based on reasons generated from within her Christian worldview.]

I am a sinful human being (since ‘the Fall’), in other words, more prone by nature to sin than to goodness. Jesus, the human incarnation of God, died a horrible if not humiliating death on “the Cross” for my sins. In other words, I alone could not seek and attain forgiveness for my sins, at least since Anselm (c.1033-1109), who argued in theological terms that humanity owed God a ransom of “satisfaction” for sin, a debt, however, that was unpayable owing to our lowly status (notice the feudal analogy or metaphor). Hence the significance of the Crucifixion: the Incarnation of God through Jesus Christ—innocent of sin and equal to God, so to speak—allows the Son to offer himself (a sacrifice, through suffering) to the Father on humanity’s behalf. In other words, Christ’s Passion, his sacrifice on the cross, was to make amends for our sins.

Anselm’s formulation meshes well with the Gospel understanding of sin as a kind of debt that is relieved or forgiven with the expiatory sacrifice of Christ’s death, meaning we need no longer be enslaved by the power of sin. The Catholic Church adopted this doctrine in the 16th century, and the Reformation only reinforced its spiritual and moral psychology for those who broke from the Church: “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood/to every believer the promise of God/The vilest offender who truly believes/That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Anselm’s interpretation is sometimes called the penal (or juridical) theory, as Christ has borne the penalty for sin instead of us. Because our sin is an infinite offence against God, it requires a correspondingly infinite satisfaction that only God can make (and did, through Christ).* This is not too different from “sacrificial” and “satisfaction” theories that claim Christ is the sinless offering who makes a universal expiation of the stain of sin, but under this conception Christ is not a substitute for us but more like a delegate or representative of humanity.

Given my proclivity for sin, or vice, or moral lapses, and so forth, I will invariably sin. But that’s OK, at least insofar as I know Jesus died for my sins; at any rate, I can ask for forgiveness and (might? can? will?) receive it. This is ripe for a perverse moral psychology: I know I will likely sin; I then in fact succumb to temptation (that knowledge alone makes it more likely!); I can live with my sin(s) and inevitable sinning, as it were, for I have been forgiven (ex ante) generally by Jesus—by way of substitutionary atonement—and, in any case, I can seek God’s forgiveness ex post facto, and be assured that it will be granted provided my faith and beliefs are sincere (and I happen to be particularly adept at convincing myself that is the case), including being truly remorseful, and thus reassuring myself that I will go and sin no more (or at least struggle to be good or deserve God’s unconditional love).

And yet, knowing what a miserable creature I am, that is, one who is constitutionally liable to sin, I know, at least in the back of my mind, that should the sinful occasion arise yet again, I am free, indeed quite likely, to repeat this mental and behavioral pattern of moral psychological evasion or rationalization if not religious absolution: after all, I am both forgiven in advance, and likely to be forgiven after the deed. What better reason to have for being a Christian! 

* Anselm’s substitutionary atonement theory was theologically contested by a notion of exemplary atonement, the essence of which goes back to the French theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142): “The purpose and cause of the incarnation was that God might illuminate the world by his wisdom and stir it to the love of himself.” This theory has been deemed “subjective” in comparison with the aforementioned “objective” theories. What is central to the exemplary theory is the extent to which God’s love is revealed through Christ, most poignantly in Christ’s acceptance of a brutal and unjust death. It is this—God’s unconditional love for us as embodied in the life and death of Jesus—which should move us to repentance. A corporate rather than individualist interpretation of atonement appears in the late 20th century with Liberation Theology that took hold in Central and South America. In this case, atonement is effected as reconciliation which, in turn, must be demonstrated as a living fact, at both the individual and collective levels. Alas, the exemplary theory has never been anything near as popular as Anselm’s formulation in Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant.

In a future post, I hope to discuss the ideological function of “substitutionary” and “satisfaction” theories of atonement, which “was both influenced by, and influenced penal thinking. It represented a construal of the crucifixion … which reinforced retributive thinking, according to which sin or crime have to be punished, and cannot properly be dealt with in any other way” (Timothy Gorringe, in his 1996 book, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation). I suspect those intellectual elites familiar with substitutionary and satisfaction atonement doctrines sensed their potential for moral psychological abuse and thus, it seems, an attempt was made to break the (actual or possible) mental and behavioral pattern of moral psychological evasion or rationalization if not religious absolution mentioned above with the incorporation of satisfaction doctrine into the criminal justice system’s doctrinal legal justification of (retributive) punishment.


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