Tuesday, December 02, 2008
The Relational Nature of Sin
Note: This is going to be a very long post. This was the theology paper I had to write for my Systematic Theology class a few weeks back. I thought I'd post it here so you can enjoy/rip me apart for my heretical neo-Pelagian reinterpretation of original sin. :) BTW, the focus on Calvin and Aquinas was due to the requirements of the assignment, not because I was exceptionally interested in their views on the subject, though I suppose they're as good representatives of the Western church's theology of sin as any.

The Relational Nature of Sin

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.


posted by Mike Clawson at 9:55 AM | Permalink |


At 12/03/2008 08:48:00 AM, Blogger Julie


just thought I'd get things started...


At 12/03/2008 12:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

I love it. It would go wonderfully with a similarly heretical paper I wrote about Jesus' relationships to sinners.

In all seriousness, thank you for writing this. It really helps put this issue in a more clear light for me. I've been unsatisfied with the typical expression of how we get our sin for some time, but I didn't know how to express a better alternative view.

So. Good stuff.


At 12/03/2008 12:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

test...my last comment didn't post!


At 12/03/2008 12:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

hmmmm. Let me try this again-

Great post! Glad I stumbled on your site.

I like the relational view of sin. I also think that the continued snubbing of God by a person is to become dehumanized - we become less of what we were intended to be by shutting ourselves off from the intimacy we can know in our Creator.
Have you considered how the image of God is not a status we own of ourselves but is one that is defined as community in relation to Jesus as mediator? That is to say, we express the image of God only insofar as we allow Jesus to mediate all our relationships.
This is a spin off of Bonhoeffer's work on life in community and the idea that without Christ in our midst we love out of need - we absord the other into ourselves to substantiate our own nothingness.
Christ as mediator (image of God) allows us to love freely rather than parasitically.

I'll stop here in case my post gets cyber-snatched again.

grace and peace,


At 12/03/2008 12:38:00 PM, Blogger RoboPA

Hey mike,
Excellent stuff man! I've been pondering through this for some time now, i.e. how to reconcile a more holistic and relationial understanding of sin (a la McKnight) with our traditional understanding of original sin as guilt and propensity that is inherited. You have given me much food for thought.

One question I have: if we go with McKnight's understanding of sin as breaking relationships in four areas: God, self, others, creation, and if we see sin as sociologically conditioned as opposed to inherited, what do we do with the broken relationship between God and self? Here's what I mean. It's easy to see how brokenness within myself, others, and the world is passed down "sociologically" by other broken people. If however, no concept of God is ever passed down, wouldn't your theory say that there would be no broken relationship between me and God, because there was no conditioning that wouuld have broken it (it was, in essence non-existent in my example)? In a post-Christian society, aren't people being raised in contexts where there is no concept of God, so how could they be socially conditioned to have such a relationship broken? Or am I missing something here?


At 12/03/2008 04:01:00 PM, Blogger Mark Baker-Wright

An interesting, if challenging, analysis. I actually think that many in my own PC(USA) denomination would find this intriguing, although they way it works against the foundational Reformed (and thus Presbyterian) doctrine of "total depravity" obviously means that it will find more than a few objections.

I've always noted that, in theory at least, the word "Presbyterian" refers more to a form of church government than a set of theological principles, but I've never seen that possibility evidenced in actual practice. I wonder what such a phenomenon (Presbyterian in government, but rejecting some of those TULIP doctrines) would look like.

(And don't even get me started on how awful a mnemonic TULIP is to begin with. Most of the letters refer not to the actual "doctrine word" but rather the adjective describing that doctrine. I mean, try it. The words "Total, Unconditional, Limited, and Irresistible" don't mean anything particularly useful, while "Depravity, Election, Atonement, and Grace" at least get to something....)


At 12/03/2008 09:53:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Ironically enough B-W, I wrote this paper for a theology class at the PC(USA) seminary I'm currently attending. My professor loved it, and I'm finding that while most people here do feel a basic loyalty to Calvin, most don't feel constrained to agree with him on everything or to hold slavishly to TULIP. They are very "free" in their interpretations of Calvin here I've found (they're good at making him say pretty much whatever they want him to say), and Barth seems to be as much as an authority for Reformed theology as Calvin in fact.

But all of that might just be this particular institution. I can't speak to the PC(USA) as a whole since I'm not presbyterian myself.


At 12/04/2008 09:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

I can go with sin and its effects being at least partially passed down sociologically. In fact I think it's obvious. No doubt we have been wounded by others, and we wound others. And that wounding results in an ever-increasing cycle of brokenness and dysfunctional behavior and further wounding.

But again I don't think it's a case of "either-or." I don't think your theory adequately addresses behavior that crops up that isn't (discernibly) learned anywhere - that seems to come from within. You can track a lot of "sin" back to the nurture side of the equation, but I think some of it you can't, and only the nature side of the equation seems to answer the question of "why are we like this?" in those cases. To use some of Scot McKnight's terminology, I think we come into the world as already cracked eikons of God. Yes, the cracking is furthered through socialization, but it seems to me that we don't enter the world perfect and whole either, as if with some theoretically perfect socialization you could produce a completely unselfish, kind person who consistently always displayed the fruits of the spirit.


At 12/04/2008 01:46:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

How would that work Karl? The main thought of my paper was that a relational condition has to be passed down through relational means. How, in your view, could a relational condition be passed down biologically? Is there a "sin gene" somewhere?


At 12/04/2008 02:07:00 PM, Blogger RoboPA

I think Karl is getting at my question as well. How is a relational sin of distance from God passed down when there is no concept of God within a particular social context?


At 12/04/2008 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Robo, I think the obvious answer would be that if God actually exists, but a particular person has no conception of God, then that fact in itself would constitute a break in the relationship that God desires to have with that person.

Though I think you'd have to try pretty hard to find someone who has no conception of God at all. Even in a post-Christian society people have at least some familiarity with the idea of God.


At 12/05/2008 09:29:00 AM, Blogger Travis Greene

I've often thought this about original sin. Maybe, if a person could be born and grow up independently of other fallen human beings, they'd be unfallen. Maybe. But that doesn't matter, because we can't. Try to care for a baby with a robot or something, and the baby will die from lack of human touch.

I think you're right on here. We all bear the scars of the Fall, but we also still bear God's creative thumbprints. I think this idea saves us from falling into Pelagian pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps pride and hyper-Calvinist no-human-being-can-do-anything-good total depravity. Not to mention thinking that unbaptized babies go to hell.


At 12/05/2008 02:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mike, why are those the only two options you are willing to consider - relational and biological?

I think there is a spiritual dimension to the person - regardless of exactly how you define it or how you feel about Greek vs. Hebrew or other conceptions of body/spirit. It seems to me that there is an element of brokenness at the spiritual level - brokenness in that imago dei that makes humans somehow different than other animals - that exists when we come into the world and which brokenness is furthered by the way in which we interact with each other.

That brokenness manifests itself in various ways including our insistence on independence and autonomy apart from God and our imperfect ways of relating to others. Whether you can explain it through genetics as per your "sin gene" comment I have my doubts, but that's not all that important to me. I do think there's more to human personhood than what can (or ever will) be explained biologically. However you define that "more" and however it is passed down or bestowed on a new human creature, I think there is fallibility and imperfection and a bent-ness present in it from day one. I don't buy that with perfect socialization you could produce someone who unfailingly manifested nothing but the fruits of the spirit all the time, was never selfish or whatever.


At 12/05/2008 06:00:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Karl, I don't think I really know what you mean by "spiritual". To me "spiritual" is simply another way of talking about the social/relational/psychological part of ourselves. I can't conceive of it as some kind of separate "thing" or "substance" that exists in us apart from our physical/psychological/social selves. I don't even know what that would be. What do you mean by "spiritual"? Unless you can give some definition to what you mean by that word that is somehow different from "biological" or "social/relational", just throwing it out there as if it explains anything seems like a cop-out. It's just an empty word devoid of any actual content.

As for whether perfect socialization could produce a perfect person, yes, I suppose that's a potential implication of my view. I don't see why that's so hard to believe. However, since perfect socialization is obviously impossible, it's a completely moot point.


At 12/08/2008 01:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mike, by using the term spiritual I am talking about the part of human creatures that is something more than mere biochemistry and atoms. The part (for lack of a better word) of Jesus that wasn't in the tomb. The part of the thief on the cross that was with Jesus in Paradise the same day he died, even as his body was disposed of outside of Jerusalem. The part of the human self that in the words of N.T.Wright experiences "life after death" before an embodied "life AFTER life after death." If it helps you to call it your psychological/social/relational self that's fine with me but I'd suggest that scripture and experience teach that component of you came into the world already flawed, just as much as your physical self (and everyone else's physical self) also came into the world already flawed, less than perfect, and headed toward decay.

I realize many people don't believe that such a thing exists in addition to and after the end of physical, bodily life. However I do, and because I think the Biblical narrative also assumes as much, it seems that any Christian approach that tries to describe human brokenness while ignoring that component or simply reducing it to biological and socialized aspects, is missing something fairly important.


At 12/09/2008 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Karl, I believe in that "something more". However, I don't believe that it is ever separate from our physical selves - it's all part of the same thing. Or, to put it another way, our biochemistry and atoms are also part of our spiritual nature. I don't believe that scripture teaches a body/spirit dualism - that's an infection from Greek philosophy as far as I can tell. From a Jewish/early Christian viewpoint both body and spirit are nothing without the other, mere dust or wind. So when we talk about what makes us who we are, I don't think it makes any sense to talk about something coming in from the outside prior to our bodily/spiritual existence. If the spiritual "component" comes in already flawed, then why? What is that? How does that happen? Again, without more definition, it's just an empty concept.

And once again, I feel like even asking such questions really misses the point. To talk about a flaw in our nature again takes a relational problem and tries to make it an ontological problem. If sin really is defined as relational brokenness (and I believe that it should be) then we can't come into this world already sinful, because prior to entering this world we were not in relationship with anyone or anything. We couldn't have been because, unless you believe in the pre-existence of the soul (as Mormons and some Eastern religions do and the ancient Greeks did), we weren't around to have any relationships. Sin can only start when relationship starts. It's not part of our ontological makeup; and I don't see where the scripture teaches anything like that (and before you mention it, I don't think Psalm 51 counts - that's poetic hyperbole, not a basis for core doctrines).


At 12/10/2008 10:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mike, I've read some about the differences between the Greek body/sould dualism vs. the Hebrew view(s), and about the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity. Certainly less than you, but enough to understand what you are saying. I'm not convinced that the idea of a disembodied spirit (or whatever you want to call that "something else") after physical death is solely a product of Greek thought, even if Greek thought distorted or exaggerated a body/spirit dualism ina way that was foreign to Jewish thought. What does your line of thinking do with Jesus's statement to the thief on the cross that "this day you will be with me in paradise"? Or to the state of "life after death" that comes prior to "life AFTER life after death" that N.T. Wright (who is certainly writing from within the 1st Century Jewish mindset) refers to? In the story of Jesus walking on the water, when it says the disciples were afraid that he was a ghost, was that because they had been exposed to Greek thought and no longer thought like Jews? Or what about King Saul and the medium, consulting the spirit of Samuel - regardless of what you believe was actually going on there, isn't that a pre-Greek story in which the existence of a disembodied "personal essence" of some sort post-death is assumed?

To your last question, if the body comes into existence already flawed (it is less than perfect and prone to decay even before being acted upon by pollutants, poor diet, etc.), then why would our capacity for, and inclinations in, relationship come into the world perfect rather than with a propensity toward disordered relationships?