Monday, December 11, 2006

Some comments on sin

I will not venture an in-depth article such as Pr. Weedon's fine first offering but only an observation often made elsewhere but worth remembering: Sin is the starting place for theological reflection. The Augsburg Confession [AC] begins yes, with the doctrine of the Trinity but then quickly establishes that theology is not an abstract, philosophical enquiry into the nature of God or other intellectual matters but is a matter of sin and salvation. We are born, says the AC, without fear or trust in God. The God to whom we are introduced in the first article is lost to us. Theology begins with our lack of God. To begin anywhere else (e.g. the glory of God, the beatific vision, man's ascent to God) is to distort the Biblical witness from the start. Much as the Bible begins with God ("in the beginning, God") but quickly moves to the exile of our parents from that God, theology, devotion and piety must all begin in the fact of sin and our inability to reach to God, know God or follow Him.

This is a practical matter as well as a dogmatic one. Living in our baptism, living our baptism daily means beginning with sin, with death to the Old Adam. Every day we begin with sin, our sin, our condition, our actions, that which we must confess. This we never outgrow. Beginning with sin ensures that our eyes are focused then on Christ. Starting on our lack of God drives us to our only hope : the God who comes Advent!) to us, the God of the Incarnation, the God of the crucifixion, the God of the Gospel.

18 comments:

Holger Sonntag said...

As Melanchthon said (Ap. II, 33): "Knowledge of original sin is a necessity. For we cannot know the magnitude of Christ's grace unless we first recognize our malady."

Time and again you see that in churches where there is no or only a deficient knowledge of original sin the gospel quickly becomes a matter of the past: we've done that when we first became Christians; now we want to move on. Then we talk much about what we need to do in a way that is unaware of the clear limitations of "what we need to do".

So, you get the law wrong, you're condemned to get the gospel wrong too. All hangs together like a golden ring.

Rev. Alex Klages said...

Sin is the starting place for theology. I like that. It does explain, as Holger has already noted, why things consistently fall apart where the doctrine of sin is gotten wrong.

D. Bestul said...

Significant that Melancthon insists that the knowledge of ORIGINAL sin is a necessity.

So, it's not so much what we do or don't do, but WHY we, by nature, do or don't do it. Gets right to the heart of the problem. Not simply sinners because we sin [leaving the solution in man's reach] but we sin because we're sinners [leaving the solution well beyond man's reach.]

Seeing original sin for what it is --and recognizing that it's with us 'til the day we die--we never move beyond the 'magnitude of Christ's grace."

Bryce P. Wandrey said...

While I most heartily agree that the fallen condition of humanity is something that cannot be avoided and necessarily enters into any Christian theology, I wonder if the falleness of humanity is always the proper starting point for theology.

I think you rightly state that Scripture and the Confessions begin with a confession of God and His Triune nature. But it seems as though you pass over this too quickly to get to Genesis 3 and Article 2. Do you lose something in doing so?

Most notably, it would seem that we are left with a thin and weak metaphysics and ontology if we too quickly move from 1st Article creedal belief to 2nd Article creedal belief. This is not to say that in theology the essential movement from Creation to Redemption does not take place. But I think we might lose a richness and depth to Redemption by too quickly leaving behind the metaphysical and ontological (and we might lose a rich understanding of the Incarnation, of the image of God, by too quickly moving beyond 1st Article theology).

In your statement that sin is the starting point for all theology I am led to reflect upon a statement from a favorite theologian of mine, when he writes, "God's truth is, indeed, great enough to allow an infinity of approaches and entryways. And it is also free enough subsequently to expand the horizons of one who has chosen too narrow a starting point and to help him to his feet" (von Balthasar, "Glory of the Lord").

I take this statement as a continual challenge as I approach Scripture, the Confessions and other statements of theology, and I quote it here with the same intention.

Holger Sonntag said...

The important thing to keep in mind about "knowledge of original sin," according to the confessions, is that we don't know original sin "by our own reason or strength." We can't even fathom the depth of our corruption. God's law, the Ten Commandments spiritually (not worldly) understood, has to strike us like a bolt of lightning. Luther, e.g., is very clear on that in the Smalcald Articles (III, 1, 3). Melanchthon, in Apology IV, 8 is no less clear: the Decalogue, spiritually understood, requires works of the kind that reason cannot grasp much less produce. We understand our spiritual inability first when we've heard the law out.

A reasonable understanding of sin is the kind that we see in many a philosopher. Just yesterday I heard an ethicist on the radio. He said: ethics doesn't require you to be perfect, saintly. It just requires you to get along with people. So, people do bad things which make them bad, as was already observed by a commentator before. People don't want to say: we do bad things because we are bad. That makes the whole sin-thing sound so uncomfortably inescapable. Indeed, inescapable "by our own reason and strength" it is. What a miracle then that God would even want to have something to do with us!

One of the errors the Reformers observed in the Catholic theologians was that they defined sin based on reason. Unsurprisingly, they came up with remarkable powers still left in man even after the fall. The Lutherans asserted: anthropology, the doctrine of man, has to be developed based on God's word, clearly distinguishing law and gospel. We don't find out who / what we are before God by self-observation. We look to the Ten Commandments and to Christ respecitvely.

There's nothing wrong with outward obedience to God's law in its place. This is how this world, by grace, operates. Fatal problems set in when folks apply this thinking to our relationship with God.

A problem, also in discussion with Catholics, is the question already raised by Artistotle: it would be unjust to command what cannot be done. The syllogism then continues: since God is not unjust, he can only command what can be done / fulfilled. In other words, the conclusion is made from the commandment to the ability to fulfill the commandment (either with or even without God's gracious aid).

In many a writing, Luther pointed out: God's law is not impossible per se (Adam and Eve fulfilled it at first; Christ fulfilled it). It is just impossible *for sinners* to fulfill. Hence the principal purpose of the law is to show us that we are lost, condemned sinners, as Luther points out in Sm. Art. III, 2, 4.

Holger Sonntag said...

Bryce -- good points. Creation needs to be given its due, and in a certain sense it is indeed at the beginning, foundational for everything that follows. But it is not also true that we, as the fallen sinners we are, have a warped relationship to / understanding of creation? In other words, while the sequence First - Second - Third Articles has its right -- is it not also true that we first through the Spirit have access to the Son as the heart of the Father and first then also to the Father's works in creation (so 3-2-1)?

Before the Spirit, by the gospel, can reveal Christ as Savior to us and Christ's Father as our Father, doesn't he first have to lead us, by the law, to an acknowledgment of sin, even original sin? First then, it seems, can we begin to fathom God's unmerited goodness to us fallen sinners in the First but especially Second Articles.

The Small Catechism already contains a clear hint at our lacking worthiness by teaching that God sustains us richly and daily "without any merit or worthiness in us but only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy." Understanding creation aright, it would seem, implies a proper understanding of sin and justification.

One can of course argue, and maybe that's what you're getting at, that in creation, God established the foundational realities of this world, including, e.g., orders of creation as expressions of his will (the law). So then we could say: first after understanding the order of the world in creation we will then also understand our sin which will then make us fully appreciate the magnitude of God's grace in Christ.

Then, again, the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses precisely because our knowledge of God's creation had been darkened by sin. I'd therefore be interested whether (and if, how) the Confessions actually make the point: by looking at creation, we know we're sinners. If my memory serves me correctly, I can only think of the Ten Commandments, God's written law, being taught time and again so that sinners might know who they really are in themselves.

William Weedon said...

An important reminder - and calling us back to AC II, it is also vital to remember the use of the "disease" language for our fallen state. So that we may speak of "healing" in this regard too. A healing that is completed only upon the Last Day, to be sure, but a healing that begins now. Reminds me of Luther's point in Great Galatians, I believe, about the difference between grace and the gift in grace. We live under grace, God's pardon, to the very end, and thus living under it are assured of God's forgiveness. And with the pardon, always joined to it, comes the gift in grace, the Holy Spirit, who begins the work of healing within us. Which is what Luther speaks of also under Holy Baptism in the Larger Catechism.

Paul T. McCain said...

Pastor Weedon, do the Confessions anywhere pick up on the theme of healing/disease in reference to our justification? I recall at seminary in one of my grad classes with Dr. Preus that he literally filled a chalk board full of all the Biblical themes and illustrations used to describe our salvation, sickness/healing being of course one of them. I'm too lazy right now to do a word search in the BOC, so wondered if you can document this paricular motif in our Confessions?

William Weedon said...

Well, AC II is already mentioned (with disease language).

Here are a few more off the top of my head:

"But here in Baptism there is freely brought to everyone's door such a treasure and medicine that it utterly destroys death and preserves all people alive." LC IV:43

"The old man is *infected* with all vices and has by nature nothing good in him." LC IV:67

[Baptism] "daily strengthens the new man." LC IV:83

"We must never think of the Sacrament [Eucharist] as something harmful from which we must flee, but as a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy that grants salvation and comfort. It will cure you and give you life in both body and soul." LC V:68

"They should regard and use the Sacrament just like a precious antidote against the poison they have in them." LC V:70

William Weedon said...

Oh, also see FC SD I:5

"First, it is true that Christians should regard and recognize the actual transgression of God's commandments as sin; but sin is also that horrible, dreadful hereditary sickness by which the entire human nature is corrupted."

FC SD 1:6

"Before God they are thoroughly and utterly *infected* and corrupted by original sin."

FC SD 1:12

"All of this, however, has been so infected and contaminated by original sin that it is of no use before God."

FC SD 1:14

"Furthermore, human nature, which is so perverted and corrupted by original sin, must and can be *healed* only by regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. However, this *healing* is only begun in this life. It will not be perfect until the life to come."

Now, off to elders' meeting!

William Weedon said...

Oh, also see FC SD I:5

"First, it is true that Christians should regard and recognize the actual transgression of God's commandments as sin; but sin is also that horrible, dreadful hereditary sickness by which the entire human nature is corrupted."

FC SD 1:6

"Before God they are thoroughly and utterly *infected* and corrupted by original sin."

FC SD 1:12

"All of this, however, has been so infected and contaminated by original sin that it is of no use before God."

FC SD 1:14

"Furthermore, human nature, which is so perverted and corrupted by original sin, must and can be *healed* only by regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. However, this *healing* is only begun in this life. It will not be perfect until the life to come."

Now, off to elders' meeting!

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Pr. Weedon, I heartily agree with you.

Medicine language is one way (among others) which shows the way out of the common charge against Lutheran theology that it does allow for a real life of holiness. That if salvation is ever and always by grace and faith and never by "us" then "real" good works and holiness in and by Christians are then negated or neglected.

But as you say the Confessions do not say that. Rather salvation is always and ever wholly and completely Christ for us and outside of us. At the same time it is always and ever effective in producing good works in us. It is medicine. Our "getting better" is always and ever posited to Christ and never to us. The new life is always accomplished by grace through faith but it is real and done in us.

Comprehenditis ne omnes? (Get my drift?)

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Hi, Bryce, Hmmmm.. I seem to remember this conversation (grin).

True theology must start with sin because true theology must begin with Christ. Luther liked to say outside of Christ there is no God. He even said ( on my blog!) that outside teh Gospel there is no God. We cannot push the point metaphysically of course but metaphysics and ontology are a thin gruel indeed pursued apart from sin and Christ. The fathers insisted (Gregory of Nazianzus famously, if I recall) that true knwoledge of the Trintiy was impossible to one who did not have the Spirit of Christ.

By the way, we do not leave behind metaphysics or ontology but locate them with in a theological system. Determining the relative weight and postion of various propositions is the great task of systematics.

The triune nature of God is not grasped without the cross and the sacrifice of the incarnate Second person of the Trinity for the sin of man. We confess such when we make the sign of the cross at the invocation.

Wanna have lunch sometime?

Bryce P. Wandrey said...

Based upon Alms' last comments I have to wonder (without really trying making this into an infusion and imputation debate, which would be off topic) what to make of "Rather salvation is always and ever wholly and completely Christ for us and outside of us." As the Finnish school has pointed out, if I remember correctly, the stress of 'Christ for us' to the exclusion of 'Christ in us' is not apparent until the FC. As well the Finns will point resoundingly to Luther's commentary on Galatians (which I realize is not part of the Confessions but worth taking note of anyways).

But still, what do we do with such theological statements provided by St. John in 1 John 3:24 & 4:12-13 and Luther's favorite letter writer, James, in 4:5 where they appear to speak positively of the indwelling of Christ/His Spirit within us?

Once again, does this situation call for exclusion of an understanding of justification or for an opportunity to embrace more than one approach and prevent ourselves from too narrow an understanding? And to keep on task, do the Confessions exclude this dual understanding prior to or even in the FC?

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Bryce,

I did not exclude Christ in us.
In fact, the medicine language Pr. Weedon points out is in fact Christ in us language. Chrsit in us, healign us, bringing forth fruits, making us holy.

Yes we must praise to highest heaven the indwellign of Christ in us. I never deny it nor do the Lutheran Confessions.

Yet, at the same time, it is the central assertion of the Lutheran Confessions that salvation is extra nos in the most basic way possible; it is Christ who is responsible 100 % for our holiness and we are responsible for none of it.

This we do not outgrow as if slowly we become more holy and need less and less of Christ. There is always an extra nos charcter to the Lutheran view of living. Faith always must grab outside itself; must always hear the Word spoken, take the body of Christ, hear the absolution. All those things are Christ. In the end our holiness is nothing other than Christ received.

Paul Gregory Alms said...

I hate to bog this discussion down with too many comments (I have been in blog wars before and they are tedious ... so Rev. Moderator, if this too much use your mighty sword) but ....

Here is quote from a CTQ article in which Dr. Weinrich reviews a book by Daphne Hampson on the difference between RC and Lutherans. It is pertinent to our discussion, I think.

But Hampson has a critical edge as well, and no where is this more visible than in the chapter "Catholic Incomprehension" (97-142). Here she details, I believe with great lucidity, the failure of Catholic scholarship to understand Luther's understanding of justification by faith. As she shows, neither von Balthasar, nor Schmaus, nor Ralmer, nor Kung, nor Pesch, nor Dulles have ever actually grasped the dialectic of Luther's thinking. These are big names; yet in the light of Hampson's discussion they do seem to be guilty of her charge. Typical of her argument here is this statement:

Catholics seem to think that they can separate 'justification by faith' from 'extrinsic righteousness', saying that they accept the former while they must deny the latter. However, by 'justification by faith' they understand what they conceive to be the Lutheran way of saying that we are justified by God (that is to say the Lutheran equivalent to a Catholic saying that all grace comes from God). Indeed Lutheran 'faith' is frequently commuted into 'grace', as though these were simply equivalent.

But in speaking of 'justification by faith', Lutherans are not referring to virtue infused by God which thenceforth becomes an intrinsic property of the human. They are referring to that act whereby I trust in another and not in myself. In other words they are proclaiming the Christian to live by an' extrinsic' righteousness.

The Christian is accepted on account of Christ's righteousness and not on account of anything about the way that he or she is. In this situation to say that Catholicism too is not Pelagian, that Catholics proclaim all grace to come from God, is simply beside the point. What is pivotal to Luther is to have escaped the kind of introspective concern which an interest in receiving grace implies (98-99).

Clearly Hampson sees through easy accommodations.

Holger Sonntag said...

I think the problems with the indwelling of Christ by faith (mystical union, not just Christ "being there" like a log) start when we, like Osiander, make it part of forensic justification, not a result of it. The FC teaches the mystical union (SD III, 54), and it was a very popular theme during the period of Lutheran orthodoxy (cf. only Nicolai's "O Morning Star", many a Gerhardt hymn, and many a Bach cantata ...). Despite the efforts of the Finns, Luther cannot really have taught differently than the Formula, if he clearly distinguished justification and sanctification, law and gospel, grace as gift (effective justification) and favor (forensic justification). To be sure, Luther famously did say: faith grasps the whole Christ; in faith, Christ is present. But would the Formula of Concord really have disagreed with Luther, as the Finns allege, claiming that the former seperates God from God's effects in a "neo-Kantian" fashion? What the Formula does teach is that the gifts may not be seperated from the Giver (SD III, 65, see LC IV, 41 on baptism). It also teaches that the indwelling Holy Trinity moves the Christian to act properly (SD III, 54).

Osiander's error, in the Finnish reading, was primarily a Christological one: he separated the divine and human natures in Christ. But in the reading of the Formula, his was a confusion of justification and sanctification: Christ's divine nature with its essential righteousness dwells in us and thus covers our sins (SD III, 63). And while Osiander seems to have had an "ethical" interest in that he felt that teaching forensic justification is too comfortable a cushion for sinners, the Formula is certainly not "soft" on sinners either (III, 64 and art. IV): faith without love is dead; but it's still faith alone that justifies as it has its life in Christ.

To clarify matters, I hereby ask Bryce to write something up in a new post about the Finnish School in relation to Luther and the Confessions on justification and sanctification (there you have a nice topic for a dissertation!). It seems to me that they are using "Christ in us" as a wedge issue to separate Luther from the Confessions. That should be an important enough issue for us to study and debate in this forum since the Confessions do claim to summarize Luther's biblical teachings correctly.

Paul T. McCain said...

I'm going to conclude discussion on this topic. We've drifted from the topic into a debate over Luther and theosis, a position on which we can spend quite a deal of time, but in the end will set us free of our moorings in the "Hauptartikel" of the Faith, as we confess in the Lutheran Confessions. Thanks for the great comments.