Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sin and Community

Understanding the concept of sin has important implications for the idea of the atonement. This post seeks to explore ideas related to sin as seen in the Gospel traditions and Judaism, trying to highlight the role of community in Jesus' understanding of Jewish law.

An important element related to the concept of the atonement is the idea of sin. It is clear throughout Christian tradition that regardless of what particular view of the atonement has been taken, the idea that Jesus Christ in some way atones for sin is a part of it. Other important New Testament writings (particularly the letters of Paul) also speak to the centrality of sin to the work of Jesus Christ, and how sin and the concept of law are closely connected. What follows is an interpretation of how sin and law were seen by Jesus as recorded in the Gospel traditions of Christianity. This is not meant to be any sort of final analysis of the topic, but rather an element that should be considered in any reflection on sin and law as it relates to the atonement.

Paul makes numerous connections between sin and law in his writings. For example, in Romans, Paul states in various places "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin" (3:20), "But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (5:8), and "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:23). The law in question is the Jewish law revealed in the Old Testament and interpreted throughout the centuries, and Paul claims that it is through this law that humans become conscious of sin, which brings death. The way to avoid death and have life is found through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Violation of the law is seen as sin, which again following Paul, points to the need for atonement. However, there is a difference between how law is understood in the Gospel traditions and how it is typically understood today. The late Christian anthropologist Paul Hiebert observed " Specific laws were perceived as just not because they corresponded to some abstract ethical norms but because they sustained shalom within the community. Punishment served to restore the integrity of the community’s life and its relationship with God” (Transforming Worldviews, 160). Hiebert's analysis fits in well with what can be found in Jesus' attitude towards the law as recorded in the canonical Gospels.

Numerous instances in the Gospels record Jesus reflecting on the law in a way that places community relationships at its center. Mark 2:23-27 records an incident in which Jesus and his disciples are charged by the Pharisees with breaking the law by picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus' reply, in verse 27 is "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Also, when asked what the greatest commandment of the law, Jesus' response (recorded in Mark 12:29-31) is "'The most important one,' answered Jesus, 'is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.'" The tradition recorded in Matthew 22:40 also states that Jesus added "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands." This also fits in well with the frequent criticism of the Pharisees for their understanding of the law.

These passages illustrate several points about how Jesus seems to view the law. One, is that he saw it as a tool for people to aid them in living, and not as a set of commands meant to bind them. Two, he saw love of God and love of neighbor as being at the core of the law. This fits in with Hiebert's summary of the law as meant to sustain peace within the community rather than in obedience to certain absolute ethical standards. Such an idea of absolute ethical norms does not seem to be what Jesus had in mind when he spoke on the subject of the law in the Gospels. Seen through this context, sin as a violation of the law is an act of breaking of community with other humans and with God. This community-based context is important to understanding the role of sin in the doctrine of atonement, and at least seems to require some consideration in any broader treatment of the concept of sin.


Rich said...

Hi Matt,
Good start, I liked the post.

Harlan Quinn said...

Hi Matt,
we know Jews and Christians believe that the Jewish laws were given by divine revelation to Moses, and then elaborated upon by the priests, rabbis and Jesus, etc
but what about all the other "laws" or "rules of comportment" in the world that started in the little local communities, even between neanderthals?
Were those rules and "laws" given by god?

Harlan Quinn said...

I forgot to mention that I think there is even a school of thought that the Jews borrowed some of their laws and structure from the laws of hammurabi.

How does that fit with God given Jewish law?

Matt K said...

What I talking about is the purpose for law, not its origin. I think "law" when it is given by God is a reflection of a moral nature that we possess as part of the imago dei. I don't see how that could not apply to neanderthal communities, since it seems that neanderthals were indeed spiritually aware.

I don't think there is a problem with structure and principles being drawn from hammurabi. As I've written elsewhere, I firmly believe that God communicates through cultural contexts, and our response to that communication will necessarily draw upon the resources of our day. If Sumerian law is the context for law in which the ancient Hebrews dwelled, then it is not surprising to see an influence from it.

My point is that the purpose of the law is not necessarily to be found in the literal contents of the law, although I do believe that it reflects principles that God is affirming.

Harlan Quinn said...

so regarding the purpose for law,
a purpose presumes an intent,
from whose intention is the rule derived?

So is it your view that Law or our ability to recognize a problem and make a rule about it comes from god or is something that occurs naturally as a result of interacting in a group?

don't forget that non-humans have the ability to derive "rules of comportment" within their groups as well.

I guess the question is as follows:

does god give us the ability to recognize a problem, make rules about it and then become Jesus who uses it as a tool for teaching,

or does the ability to recognize a problem and make rules about it emerge naturally from social interactions of sentient beings and then God as Jesus uses it as a tool for teaching?

Matt K said...


I think there are probably elements of both options you suggest, although I am happy saying that our rule making capacity develops through natural social/evolutionary interactions and that God finds ways of interacting within these frameworks that we have developed.

I would say that our ability to create social structures comes as a reflection of God's relational nature (this is where the doctrine of the Trinity comes in for me) which I believe is reflected in the universe God has created (I tend to think of creation as God allowing matter to explore its capabilities in a sense, creating, changing, evolving, growing and destroying within the physical parameters of the universe. The destructive abuses of this freedom inherent in all matter is what I think God is seeking to redeem). In that way, I think it can reflect (in a more indirect sense) aspects of God while still being a human construction.

Harlan Quinn said...

Hi Mattk,
you say that social structures are a reflection of Gods relational nature. It could also be the other way around. God is a reflection of the emergence from a complex system of apparent intelligence, in the same way that a swarm of birds or school of fish appear to be guided by one mind as they make their patterns in the sky.

Couldn't it be just as equally true that the social structures are simply a result of the decisions made during the interaction of self-interested parties in an attempt to maintain their comfort?

it seems to me that it works out just as well that way, with less unknown variables. The way I propose is completely observable, verifiable and mostly predictable.

And what benefit does a god get from creating something that he has to seek to redeem? In my view that goes against common sense. What you propose is a god that purposefully builds a poor quality product to ensure it needs to be reworked or needs compensation.

Matt K said...

I think its very plausible that social structures reflect self-interested parties seeking to achieve their own comfort. However, I don't think all social interactions can be reduced to just that. Like most things, its an element that needs to be considered, but we shouldn't take it to be the whole story.

I'm not saying that social interactions are a sort of "proof" of God's existence, I just think that humanity's social tendencies may be an echo of the character of their creator. This doesn't take away from other forms of explanation, it just points to their multiple realizability.

I don't think God gets a benefit from creating something for the purpose of redemption (I also think reducing everything so that it can be viewed through a lens of cost/benefit is an impoverished view of things). I think that our world reflects the kind of world in which love is possible to exist, which is what one should expect if you believe that God is love. Love requires freedom and can't be coerced, and this entails the potential for rejection and perversion of the power to choose. This is why redemption is needed.