Both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin fundamentally define sin as a breaking of relationship. For instance Calvin declares in his Institutes that “Unfaithfulness [to God], then, was at the root of the Fall.” Furthermore, both highlight sin as having both individual and social aspects. In other words, the brokenness is both within us and external to us. We are sinful people born into a sinful world. I think contemporary theologian and biblical scholar Scot McKnight does the best job of elaborating on this multi-faceted character of sin in his book A Community Called Atonement, where he describes sin as broken relationships between ourselves and God, self, others and the world. Likewise, Jesus himself said that the whole of the Law can be summed up in two commands: love God and love others . If God’s desires for humanity are thus all about love, then sin, in the teachings of Jesus, would have to be defined as a failure to love, which is another way of saying, once again that it’s about broken relationships.
However, I want to suggest that if this is the case, if we agree with Thomas, Calvin, McKnight, and Jesus that sin ought to be primarily understood as a break in relationship between ourselves and God, self, others, and the world, then it has further implications for how we understand original sin, sin’s effects on us as human beings, and also what it means to be saved from it. I also want to suggest that while Thomas and Calvin get this basic definition of sin right, their subsequent conclusions about the nature and transmission of original sin, and its effects on human beings are out of sync with this definition. After asserting the relational character of sin, both Thomas and Calvin then proceed to describe sin’s effect on us in primarily ontological terms. For instance, Thomas speaks of sin as “disorder in the disposition of the parts of the soul”, and Calvin likewise talks of a “hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul”. Sin thus quickly moves beyond the relational sphere into a more individualistic problem of our corrupted natures. While neither Calvin nor Thomas neglect the relational and corporate effects of sin in their writing, I would argue that these balancing themes often appear to be subordinated to individualized questions of forensic righteousness and personal sanctification because of their understanding of sin as an ontological condition. Salvation thus becomes primarily about personal forgiveness, individual sanctification, and post-mortem reward rather than relational reconciliation and healing. These emphases often become even more pronounced in the theology of their later followers, even when Calvin or Thomas themselves appear more balanced. I would suggest that we instead need to back up and keep the definition of sin as relational brokenness wholly in our vision as we explore the effects of sin and what it means to be saved from it. Sin as relational brokenness will have very different implications than sin as a corruption of human nature.
Let us first consider the implications of this view of sin as relational brokenness on our understanding of original sin. What does this definition of sin imply about how the original sin is “passed down” to us? Again I would suggest that both Thomas and Calvin’s views stem more from their ontological descriptions of sin, rather than a relational definition. Thomas said it was an “inborn” (i.e. biological) inheritance from our first parents , and Calvin (quoting Augustine) said it was an “inborn defect from our mother’s womb” and that we are “born infected with the contagion of sin.” I would argue, however, that neither Thomas’ nor Calvin’s views seems to have much to do with the definition of sin as relational brokenness. How can a relational situation be transmitted through genetics or “infection”? I suggest instead that a relational condition would have to be passed down through a relational/social process.
More specifically I want to suggest that the relational brokenness which we call sin is primarily the result of what sociologists would call “socialization”. It seems to me that both Thomas’ and Calvin’s views reflect an “essentialist” view of human nature wherein we are born with a fixed identity that determines who and what we are. To put it in more familiar (though potentially misleading) terms, they would argue for nature over nurture as the chief determinant of our sinfulness. In contrast to this, I would suggest a “constructivist” view of human nature wherein biological inheritance (nature) plays a role, but is not wholly determinative. Rather we become who we are through a complex interplay of nature and nurture, and especially through the process of socialization, that process of social interaction by which we learn the moral norms, attitudes, values, motives, social roles, language and symbols of our culture and through which our personalities, self-identity, and inward character is shaped. In other words, we become who we are in relationship with and through the influence of others.
If this is the case, then sin as relational brokenness would be as much, and probably much more, a product of socialization as it is of any natural inheritance. We are raised by and formed by broken people who exist in broken relationships with each other, both inter-personally, communally, and societally. Recalling McKnight’s description of sin, we’d have to say that this brokenness also extends to their relationships with God, with the created world, and within themselves as well. This being the case, we cannot help but become broken ourselves. Who we are and who we become is shaped by broken people in a broken society. Humans are inherently social/relational beings and it is impossible for us to exist apart from relationship. Therefore it is not possible for us to avoid being affected by relational brokenness. Original sin is thus “inherited”, but socially, not biologically. Sin is not “inborn”, but neither is it strictly “willful”. We are “sinners” before we ever consciously choose to sin, because even before we’ve become aware of our brokenness it has become a part of us. Thus my view is similar to Pelagius’ idea of sin as passed down through “imitation”, though not entirely since I do not imply willful imitation. Calvin mentions Pelagius’ view, though offers little by way of counter-argument to his position except to rail that if sin is propagated by imitation then Christ’s righteousness would also be communicated to us by imitation, and, according to Calvin, this is “sacrilege” and “well known” not to be the case. In my opinion Calvin’s critique of Pelagius simply begs the question and is not convincing to me in any case.
I want to turn now to the effect of sin on the human person. If sin is about broken relationships, and if it is passed down socially, not biologically, what does that imply about the extent of sin’s effects on us and whether or not we are capable of overcoming it? Calvin’s view was that our depravity was total. We are wholly corrupted by sin. “The heavenly image was obliterated in him, ” according to Calvin. However, in my opinion, this view doesn’t match up well to an idea of sin as relational brokenness, especially if we pair it with an understanding, suggested by Scot McKnight along with many others, of the imago dei as having to do with our being created in relationship with God, self, others and the world . Yes, all of our relationships are broken to one degree or another, but they are not wholly destroyed, nor are they wholly corrupted. Nor does this brokenness happen totally and immediately in all instances, as a doctrine of total depravity would seem to require. Rather, brokenness tends to be gradual and degenerative (we can all likely think of good relationships in our past that have slowly gone sour for one reason or another). Things tend to get progressively worse, but not all at once. If this is the case, then there must have been some original goodness in our relationships that is being degraded, and thus they cannot be said to have been totally depraved.
In this instance I think Aquinas’ view was that we are still good in our natures, but habitually inclined towards sin fits better with the definition of sin as relational brokenness . We are still relational beings. We are still capable of loving God and others, just not perfectly. The good and the bad end up getting all mixed up together. The imago dei, which I do take to be fundamentally about our nature as relational creatures, is not “obliterated” by sin. We still exist in relationship. But those relationships have a tendency to become broken and degrade with time because of the socialized effects of sin in our lives.
However, it is also important to recognize that, even if we retain some basic capacity for healthy relationships, because of the complex social nature of sin, we are still incapable of overcoming relational brokenness on our own. If we attempt to fix our own personal brokenness, we still have to exist within a broken society that continues to shape us and drag us back into unhealthy patterns and relationships. On the other hand, if we attempt to fix society, our own personal brokenness usually tends to thwart our efforts. Both things need to happen at the same time, but the long history of failed utopian efforts suggests that this ultimately impossible for broken human beings in a broken society. We can’t fix everything needs fixing all on our own.
I want to suggest that this inability to heal our own brokenness is why we need Christ. His life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ongoing ministry through the Spirit and through the church begin to heal the personal and corporate brokenness that keeps us trapped in cycles of sin. The life and teachings of Jesus provide us with a model of how to live life to the full in service of God and others, thereby moving us towards both personal and corporate wholeness. The death of Jesus demonstrates God’s forgiveness of our sins, thereby restoring relationship between us and God, and also provides a model of how we ought to self-sacrificially forgive others sins against us so as to break the cycle of revenge and violence and restore our relationship with others. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates God’s ability to ultimately triumph over sin and its effects, thereby giving us the hope to continue on in his mission to restore broken relationships in the world, even when it requires personal suffering and sacrifice. Furthermore, the inner work of the Spirit, aided by our practice of spiritual disciplines and sacramental means of grace (which I personally extend far beyond the traditional “sacraments” – all of life is potentially “sacramental” inasmuch as God can communicate his grace to us through any variety of physical means), begins to heal our personal brokenness. And finally the church as the body of Christ is intended to be a community of reconciliation where we can begin to be re-socialized into new patterns of behavior and then sent out as agents of reconciliation in the world. The church as a healing community begins to transform individuals with God’s love, and the church as a missional community seeks to transform the world with God’s love.
However, it should be recognized that this process of inward and outward healing and reconciliation is an ever ongoing process. The inward work of the Spirit doesn’t immediately eradicate all of the influence of sin in our lives, nor does the church always live up to its calling to be a community of reconciliation; thus none of us succeed in imitating Christ perfectly. Just as the influence of sin is gradual and degenerative, likewise Christ’s work of relational healing and reconciliation is a gradual process of restoration.
Nevertheless, I believe that keeping the relational nature of sin in front of us is vitally important so that we don’t get so sidetracked into focusing on notions of personal forensic righteousness that we forget what the problem is that we’re trying to fix in the first place. As I’ve only briefly alluded to in the last few paragraphs, understanding the nature of sin directly affects our understanding the nature of the atonement, of the Spirit and of the church. In other words, if we misunderstand the nature of the problem, then we are bound to misunderstand the nature of the solution, and I am afraid that, too often, this is precisely what ends up happening to those who follow a Thomistic or Calvinistic theology too uncritically.
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