The word 'sin' is a religious or theological term. It is not simply to be equated with wrongdoing or alienation, although it can be used in that more general sense. Indeed, Austin Farrer, defined 'to sin' as 'to do the wrong thing in relation to some person'. But, for our purposes here, sin is to be understood as wrongdoing or alienation vis-a-vis God. Swinburne defines it as 'failure in a duty to God'. That definition has to be expanded to include the state of alienation from God brought about by such failure and by participation in the consequences of many such failures. This is the state from which, according to the Christian gospel, we are rescued, saved and liberated by what God did in Christ. Swinburne goes on to differentiate between objective and subjective sin, the former being some wrong deed or state in which we are involved unwittingly, the latter something for which we are knowingly responsible and guilty.
The most contentious aspect of the Christian understanding of sin concerns 'original sin', the ancient doctrine, derived from St Paul and developed by, among others, Augustine, Luther and Calvin, whereby the whole human race is held to have inherited the consequences, even the guilt, of Adam's primal sin. We are all, unwittingly or wittingly, 'fallen' creatures, alienated from God, just by being born and brought up in a fallen world. Philosophers have attempted to make some sense of this doctrine, but, generally speaking, have balked at the idea of inherited guilt. Swinburne rejects the notion of original guilt, but accepts that the circumstances of our evolutionary origin make us inevitably prone to sin. We may point also to the social and cultural pressures that surround us from childhood. In a fascinating essay defending the doctrine of original sin, with some help from the eighteenth-century American Calvinist philosopher Jonathan Edwards,
William Wainwright argues that, while 'there is a sense in which the guilt of the communities to which I belong is mine, it is mine only in the same sense in which the histories of those communities are part of my history'. In the end, Wainwright, too, insists that I cannot literally be guilty of the offences of my ancestors.
This distinction between original sin and original guilt is clearly set out by Michael Langford in the course of a discussion of the sinlessness of Christ.18 The conclusion of his brief exegetical and historical survey is that 'no one is born with original guilt, but original sin is simply part of the human condition, a condition that does not absolutely necessitate that we sin, but which — given the fact that we are relational beings — encourages us to do so, and entails that nearly all do'. Again, with regard to the doctrine of the fall, he writes: 'The human race is indeed ''fallen'', in the sense that there is a collective problem of human frailty and sin which nearly always drags both individuals and institutions downwards.'19
Langford's defence of the propriety, indeed the necessity, of subjecting Christian doctrine to rational scrutiny might be thought to fall foul ofMerold Westphal's insistence, in an article on sin as an epistemological category, on the corruption of the intellect as well as the will as inherent in the 'total depravity' of the human condition. But Westphal's appeal to St Paul's attack on 'the wise' fails to take the measure of, for example, Paul Gooch's demonstration that Paul's target is not reason as such but rather the arrogant conceit of the worldly wise.21 And for a Christian philosopher to appeal to Marx, Freud and Foucault in the course of castigating his fellow Christian philosophers, Plantinga and Wolterstorff, for their use of critical rationality in theological investigation does not inspire much confidence in Westphal's judgement. Much to be preferred is Swinburne's view that there is 'every reason internal to Christian theology for resisting the Calvinist position' on total depravity. Human sin and alienation from God are serious enough problems without the morally implausible magnification accorded them by some Calvinists.
We turn now to the questions of judgement and punishment. It goes without saying that wrongdoing has consequences, not only for its victims, but also for its perpetrators themselves. The consequences for its perpetrators include guilt and, at least on the human scene, some form of condemnation and reckoning. Before things can be put right, there has to be not only repentance and apology, but in many cases redress, where that is possible, and, in serious cases, as determined by law, punishment. Forgiveness is another matter. Even in human terms, it is not obvious that forgiveness is only possible where repentance, apology and redress, let alone punishment, have taken place.
There is not space here to consider the vast literature on theories of punishment. The reader is referred to the chapters on this subject in Swinburne's book and in J. R. Lucas's Responsibility. In his light-hearted Appendix 2, 'The Which? Guide to Theories of Punishment', Lucas shows how, while deterrent and reformative theories of punishment have a clear utilitarian logic, only retributive theories succeed in matching punishment to guilt and vindicating both the law itself and the victims of wrongdoing. Above all, as both Swinburne and Lucas insist, only retributive theories leave room for mercy. Swinburne, indeed, goes further than this: 'Mercy can only be meritorious if retribution is right. Mercy goes beyond justice.' It is important to note the difference between such a 'vindicative' interpretation of retribution, and a 'vindictive' interpretation. Philosophers are agreed that the latter, while reflecting a natural emotion, makes no moral sense at all.
Before we ask how far these understandings of punishment apply to God's dealings with the sinner, we need to reflect further on the subject ofmercy and forgiveness. We have already noted that, on the purely human scene, it is quite possible for people to forgive even the most appalling evil deeds without waiting for repentance or apology. I quote, at this point, Richard Holloway, not a philosopher, but a retired Bishop: 'The mystery remains that this prodigal universe sometimes redeems its own pain through extraordinary souls who, from somewhere beyond all possibility, forgive the unforgivable.'26 Such an individual human possibility does not necessarily, of course, involve the remission of punishment. For individuals do not punish. It is the state and the law that exact punishment. And, while a judge may indeed show mercy, he is bound by the constraints of justice to do so only within the limits ofwhat the law prescribes. When we turn to the question of divine punishment and divine forgiveness, however, we have to ask ourselves whether God is to be thought of primarily by analogy with a judge or by analogy with, say, the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Where forgiveness is concerned, Marilyn McCord Adams's article, 'Forgiveness: A Christian Model',28 offers a profound and detailed account of the way in which a Christian theological framework makes best sense of the possibilities of forgiveness in human relations. By setting both the offence perpetrated and the suffering caused in the context of God's love for both offender and victim, the latter is enabled to forgive, in the hope and trust that, in the end, truth will out, the wrong will be rectified, and both offender and victim will be transformed and reconciled.
The implications of this understanding of human forgiveness within a theistic framework for our understanding of God's own merciful love are very great. We shall be returning to this point again and again as we survey current theories of atonement. Suffice it to say here that, on Adams's view, there is no condoning of evil on God's part. After all, God in Christ 'paid horrendous suffering the ultimate compliment, by identifying Himself with it on the cross'. But, she insists, 'God is not interested in retribution, but in reform'.29 We note again, in Adams as in MacKinnon, the stress on identification.
On such a view, the requirements ofjustice are not so much condemnation as a facing up to the truth about ourselves, the truth about what we have done, and the truth about where we are. Only so can reform begin. Only then can 'mercy go beyond justice', to quote Swinburne once again.
In the light of these considerations, we proceed to examine some examples of work on the Atonement by contemporary Christian philosophers.
Was this article helpful?