Unfaith or misplaced trust

Evidence for the idea of sin as unfaith or misplaced trust can be found in the Bible and throughout the history of theology. The idea was accented in the Reformation, in part due to the rejection of moral anthropologies which tempted people to claim righteousness before God as a result of their moral growth. A classic formulation of this is found in Luther's 'Large catechism' (Tappert 1959:365):

[T]he trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is...really your God.

The root term in the moral anthropology is no longer love or desire, but trust; sin, rather than being disorientation of desire, is trust in the wrong objects.

With various alterations this idea has been present in the work of recent Protestant theologians. Against the background of his philosophical theology, Paul Tillich could write that the Protestant principle 'is the guardian against the attempts of the finite and conditioned to usurp the place of the unconditional in thinking and acting' (Tillich 1948:163). It functions as a prophetic stance against the absolutization in personal and social life of all that is less than 'God'. Reinhold Niebuhr's interpretation of anxiety as the precondition of sin leads to the idea of sin as overcoming that anxiety by undue trust in all that is less than God; this issues in a distortion of valuations by individuals and by collectives (Niebuhr 1943:1: 178-240). H.Richard Niebuhr interprets faith as a reality in all human experience; it names the objects of our confidence and our loyalty, our trust and our faithfulness (H.R.Niebuhr 1960:16-23). His monotheism points to the One beyond the Many which relativizes all the many loyalties and calls humanity to a universal object of confidence and loyalty. In different ways for all three of these thinkers the Christ event gives knowledge which makes God ultimately trustworthy; e.g., in H.Richard Niebuhr it is only through Christ that we have assurance that God is the Redeemer, that we can know God as friend rather than enemy (H.R.Niebuhr 1963:174-8).

As with other interpretations of sin, a theologian's account of the person and work of Christ is crucial to the ethical outcomes that are claimed. In Reinhold Niebuhr, the stress is on the freedom to restrain the evil in the world in somewhat pragmatic ways, though grace is also a new empowerment. As with Luther, strong powers of sin continue, and thus excessive confidence in human moral achievements can lead to pride and to actions with morally bad outcomes. But the coming of the kingdom, known through Christ, points to an assurance of the fulfilment of the right and good 'beyond tragedy' which necessarily accompanies life in history. Trutz Rendtorff, after quoting

Romans 12:1-2, states that 'the Christian life is by its nature a life lived through faith. It is living out of freedom.' The exposition of the significance of this Pauline theme is a description of how human beings, in this defined way, structure relationships and act through 'their personal and social, historical and political individuality in their relationship to God' (Rendtorff 1986:1: 151 and 152).

The language of sin as unfaith, misplaced faith, or idolatry has its antidote in proper faith, in God revealed as Redeemer, in one sense or another. Whereas the language of love or desire as the primary term in moral anthropology lends itself to 'growth in grace', and thus to a more virtue-centred ethics, the relationship of trust is a more personalistic analogy, stressing freedom more radically, and tends to limit the possibilities of an ethics of virtue such as one finds, for example, in Aquinas. Sometimes these matters have been stated so as to show a fundamental difference between Roman Catholic (and by implication Orthodox) ethics and Protestant ethics. Thus, Earth wrote, 'between the Roman Catholic view and our own stands a difference in the concept of God, of man, of the sin of man, and grace which comes of him' (Barth 1981:30). The analogy of Bring in contrast to the analogy of faith lends itself to an anthropology of desires and loves, of sin as disorder in relationship to the order of being, and to grace as infusion and penetration of the characteristics of humans.

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