Can We Still Talk about... Sin? (Part 3 of the series)

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


To the immediate right is image 37 that appears in Wikimedia Commons when you do a search on the word "sin." It's from a late 19th century Bible teaching postcard, and is entitled "Solomon's Sin." It's the first image that clearly relates to sin as English speaking persons have used that term-- with the exception of a death metal artist and porn star (fully clothed!) who include Sin as part of their stage names. So I'd say they don't count.

Image 38 is relevant as well, a photo of a fresco in Ravenna (I think, it doesn't say) depicting Ham's sin. (Both are in the public domain). After these, though, it's not until Image 219 that anything related to the word "sin" as we usually use it shows up. This is a photo of a 16th century painting portraying the original sin (Adam and Eve at the "Apple" Tree). Because it portrays nudity (of Adam and Eve), it seemed wiser to me not to post it.

worship-planning-can-we-still-talk-about-3-2Why would "sin" as we use it be so infrequent a topic on Wikimedia Commons? In part, of course, it's because "sin" means "without" in a good number of the "romance" languages, and so shows up frequently in the titles of other images. In part, too, it's because "Sin" is the name of a letter of several Semitic alphabets-- including Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and old Phoenician. Then there's the whole panoply of images related to "sin" as in the mathematical "sine" function (the sine wave). Given all of these uses, worldwide, the English theological term "sin" is simply not all that significant. At least not on Wikimedia Commons.

So what about Google-- using "Strict Safe Search" guidelines? A couple more very old Adam and Eve paintings show up in the first row of results, but mostly it's references to the graphic novel "Sin City" and a variety of other cultural images that probably point toward one form or another of sexual temptation, with a few Spanish language references here and there as well. Sin City related images alone outnumber Christian imagery over the first 5 pages of results by a factor of at least 8 to 1 (48 Sin City, 6 Christian related-- 5 if you don't think William Blake was "orthodox" enough to count). The last of these appears on the last row of results on page 5-- the only depiction of Christ anywhere in the first 10 pages of results.

From this brief, non-scientific survey, it appears "sin," as English-speaking Christians use it as a theological term, does not appear to have much currency in the "safe" imagery of the online world, and where it does, it is associated almost exclusively with paintings more than two centuries old. Is this just "search engine bias," or might it have something important to tell us about the relevance of our usage of this term among Internet users?

Is it the case that Christians are no longer producing visual representations of sin that gain cultural currency in an English speaking world, and perhaps have not done so for a very long time?

And if we have indeed ceded the visual playing field, or allowed it to become truncated to what perhaps the majority in the current English speaking world would describe as ancient mythical imagery, is this a symptom as well, and now perhaps even a cause to some degree, of our weakened capacity to have any serious cultural conversation, or even any serious theological conversation among ourselves, about sin?

Is it possible that our issues with "sin" may have gotten even more daunting than that. Could it be we're not even sure what we mean when we use the term "sin" anymore.

So What Is Sin, Anyway?
It's a good question. The roots of the English word are different and actually not related, at all, to the Hebrew, Greek and Latin terms in which the Bible has lived for most of its history.

The English word comes from the Old English, "synn," and in turn from a variety of Germanic roots, which go back through other Middle eastern languages (including Hittite!) to words related to the verb of being-- in Latin, "sum" (I am). Etymologists believe this traces to practices common in many court settings of multiple cultures over time that required a person found guilty, by whatever means, also to confess before the accusers, "I truly am [guilty]." Once that declaration of guilt is made, the accused could be immediately punished. Our English word, sin, then, comes packaged with all of these stories of persons accused and found to be guilty of committing some harm against another or the community more broadly and summarily punished in part to repay the debt created by the actions now established to have been taken (the word guilt itself connects with a "debt" etymologically). The accused is thus also, always, a debtor requiring punishment.

From Greek (and thus both the New Testament and the Septuagint of the Old Testament) we have two different and entirely unrelated words-- [h]amartia, and paraptoma. Hamartia is primarily an archery term, meaning, "missing the target." We don't quite have an English equivalent for this, and so most often translate it simply as "sin." Paraptoma refers to a mis-step, or a stumble. This is the origin, via Latin, of our English word, "trespass"-- to cross up the feet while walking (trans-- across/cross-- plus pes/pedis, foot or step). Neither implies a judicial proceeding, or any finding of guilt, or any punishment beyond the fact of the failure to do what was intended-- either to hit the mark one was aiming at, or to walk without stumbling.

In Hebrew, the most related root, and the root most frequently translated "sin" in English is "Chata." This root does also have some connotations of judicially established guilt-- proof of harmful action that requires a debt to be paid. But its primary meanings have more to do with those found in the Greek words used to translate it, above-- missing the mark, or stumbling, whether intentionally or otherwise. If the "miss" were intentional, a "sin of the high hand" as Number 15:30 put it, the consequences could be dire indeed (being "cut off," whether killed or banished from the community at least for a time). But the ritual life of these people as described in the Old Testament, perhaps most clearly regarding the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, Leviticus 16), makes it clear that for them "sins of the high hand" were the more exception. Most of our sinning results from trying to do good and failing, or perhaps not having yet gained the skill or the habits to do better.

To be sure, as we see at Yom Kippur, even our unintended sins bring about a measure of guilt toward God, each other, and even the wider creation. Our relationships get fouled up by this "spiritual gunk," and we need ways to restore what has been broken or fouled, "by what we have done and by what we have left undone," as one Christian prayer of confession puts it. This guilt, however, is more an observable sign of our frailty and failure, in Wesley's terms, to avoid all the harm we could or do all the good we might have. This guilt is not specifically assigned by others to me or to us as a result of a particular action breaking a particular rule and causing particular harms. It is no less real, no less damaging, but it is more the product of our failed attempts to do good than our discovered (or self-admitted!) attempts to do harm.

The Rise of Sin and Its Retribution and the Fall of Stumbling and Our Restoration

While what follows here is the stuff of doctoral dissertations and historical theology texts, I'll try to make this simple without, I hope, overly simplifying and badly distorting.

Essentially, one can say that Judaism bequeathed Christianity, both in its languages and its texts, a robust yet nuanced understanding of "sin." In this Jewish and early Christian vision, while sin is sometimes viewed as a rebellious and harmful act that requires a "just" God (or "just" legal system) to impose severe penalties, more often it is the product of failings that requires mercy from God and the community, a mercy combined with teaching and other forms of empowerment until people no longer act as they had done, or failing that, until the harms they unintentionally continue to cause can be lived with. God's desire and ongoing work toward us is always to show mercy and continue to prompt us through each other and through the work of the Holy Spirit to amend our ways, until our ways and God's ways are one.

In short, the dominant Jewish, early Christian, Orthodox and Western Christian (via the confessional) understanding of the way to deal with "sin" has been restorative, about helping persons end harmful behaviors, break free of them, and learn to take up helpful ones more effectively.

Now, note that this was no lenience or laissez-faire approach to sin. You harmed people. You were hurting yourself. Your relationship was God and others was damaged. Mercy did not and does not within this tradition mean acting as is none of that mattered. What it means is that by God's grace there are real ways forward from here that not only repair the damage done, but can bring about greater health and good for you and for all in the days ahead... if we all follow through. The Western confessional, then, for example, was intended as no crutch, but a positive means both to acknowledge what was awry and for confessor and the confessing to find ways to walk with less stumbling going forward.

This work of mercy and restorative love in response to sin in its most normal form-- human failings-- was and remains seriously grace-filled work on all sides. There were exceptions all along the way, of course, but this had been, for centuries, the Christian norm.

Calvinism, Methodism, and Reviving the Old Norm
But it was a norm fading fast in an increasingly industrializing, depersonalized, and Calvinized/Puritanized England by the time Methodism came about in the 18th century. Protestant efforts to overthrow the confessional with its "overly-merciful" or "unnecessary intermediator" priest and impose instead the Pastor as absolute lawgiver and standard of truth for church and culture corresponded with a decided tilt in the English understanding of sin, away from "trespass" and toward "rebellion deserving of exile or capital punishment" as the new norm. Total depravity meant we were not only entirely incapable of doing anything good, we could not even desire to do good, and so could only be worthy of eternal punishment unless God chose to overlook such, through Christ, for the elect (limited atonement and unconditional grace). These few, only, would be won by God toward the good by an irresistible grace, and they, and they only, would persevere.

Such a frame of reference had become the dominant model of sin and conversations about sin within the Puritan wing of Anglicanism beginning in the 16th century, and has remained there long since the demise of the Puritan Commonwealth and the Restoration of the Monarchy (and a more mainstream version of Anglican doctrine) in 1662. It remains also the dominant frame of reference in many, if not all, forms of Protestantism still largely influenced by "Calvinistic" (note, I do not say Calvin's!) doctrines, worldwide.

And this frame of reference, as we see, depends deeply on an account of "sin" more akin to the Germanic and Hittite origins of that word than on the biblical, early Christian, earlier mainstream Western and continuing Orthodox interpretations.

And I would add, an account at odds with a Wesleyan and early Methodist understanding and praxis as well.

Yes, Methodists were known for their hellfire preaching at times. And yes, we have always believed there is a hell, that it will be populated by some people, that there is a judgment coming for all flesh, and those found wanting will not enter the fullness of the new creation in the age to come.

But at the heart of our movement was an effective recovery of the earlier, biblical, Jewish and Christian view of sin, and the means by which the work of restoration could be enacted within the community of believers as the primary response to sin as we usually encounter it. The phrase Wesley and the early Methodists most frequently used to describe the heart of their meetings-- whether in bands, class meetings or society meetings-- was, "watching over one another in love."

Watching over one another in love was precisely about an understanding that what mucks up our relationships with God and our neighbors is very likely less about our willful intention to harm others ("sins of the high hand," for which the punishment is exile or death), and far more about not yet having let the Spirit do all its work to free us from walking in harmful ways. We do try to walk aright, fail, and with the help of others both redress that failure and learn to walk better. We do try to hit the mark, miss it, and then with the help of the Spirit and others both deal with what happened because we missed and learn how to "shoot more true" in all kinds of circumstances. God isn't out to save some few by fiat, but all who desire it, not to elect a few but to lead all who will follow more and more toward perfection in love, loving as God loves, in and with our frailties. Wesley was clear about this: We will still make mistakes as we progress in this way. What we may and should expect to do less, over time, is to sin knowingly-- to do and want to do what we know can only cause harm to ourselves, God, or our neighbors.

To be a Methodist meant meeting at least twice a week for over an hour each time to watch over one another in love (three times or more if you were also a leader or involved in a band!), in addition to attending worship in a congregation weekly somewhere. This was no laissez-faire approach to the sins that most frequently beset us-- the sins of our failings. Mercy for such offers no verdict, summary judgment, and immediate, final sentence. Like Roman Catholics through the confessional, when it worked aright, early Methodists took sin quite seriously, recognizing that it takes time and great love to learn to walk without stumbling, to aim without missing the mark.

Losing the Way, and the Cultural Conversation
These practices of watching over one another with such love, such mercy, and such an intention to help one another walk and aim aright were almost entirely abandoned by dominant culture Methodists in the US by the 1840s. Without Methodists practicing this distinctive way of overcoming the power of sin in their lives, it is no accident that the wider cultural conversation in the US became dominated by a more Calvinistic vision, represented particularly among the variety of Baptist churches in the South, who grew to outnumber and "outcompete" Methodists not only in the South, but nationwide.

But let me suggest we may have also harmed our own heritage in this country, and with it the mainstream Christian conversation about sin, by abandoning the class meeting as norm as well. The various "holiness" traditions that separated from Methodism beginning in the early decades of the 19th century, and then from each other over time, were right that "mainline Methodists" were becoming too laissez-faire to some degree, especially the more they made optional or neglected their class meeting and its intended purposes. However, too often the response of the new holiness churches to our "laissez faire" accountability was becoming a version of accountability and sin that placed the Calvinistic narrative as norm. This meant that for them, holiness could easily become more synonymous with doing specific actions and abstaining from others rather than with learning to walk and aim aright toward entire sanctification, "perfection in love in this life."

Thus, the failure of Methodism to maintain its means of watching over one another in love not only allowed another meta-narrative of sin to dominate the cultural conversation, it may well have also partly caused that to happen as holiness movements and their descendents, including Pentecostalism, multiplied and split and multiplied again through the next two centuries.

What this has meant for the American cultural conversation about sin, at least, is that it has been dominated almost entirely by a Calvinistic vision of sin-- and perhaps most prominently of sexual sin. (It is no wonder at all that the current "culture war" issues associated with Christianity in the US have primarily to do with abortion, marriage and homosexuality).

Which brings us to where we began-- the observation that sin, as Christians historically have used that term-- appears fairly rarely in image US-based search engines, and there largely in very old paintings that reflect the argument and approaches to sin far more consonant with Calvinistic than biblical, early Christian, earlier Roman Catholic, ongoing Orthodox views and early Methodist practices and teaching.

So, Can We Still Talk About Sin?
Certainly, but seriously, is anyone not already part of a deeply Christianized culture still listening? Or perhaps more to the point, listening to us?

If image search engines are any indicator, almost no one is listening to a truly Methodist meta-narrative of sin-- perhaps ourselves included.

How do we change that?

It seems to me there may be two ways forward-- each, equally important.

One is the creation of new art-- lots of it-- and well-tagged-- that depicts a more comprehensive Jewish/Christian and Methodist vision of sin and how to live freed from its power and influence in our lives and our communities.

Sometimes, great art can inspire great action.

So go, artists, go!

The second way-- we must live this vision again, even as we had in our earliest days. Laissez-faire does not address the damage sin does. A juridical and ultimately punitive set of responses for any "infractions" sets the norm where the Bible does not set it-- on those relatively few instances where persons truly, actively cooperate with evil on purpose. We need to live in ways that do enable us to watch over one another in love. For that, we may need again a common rule whose point is not to keep all articles of the rule perfectly-- and so enact the Calvinistic vision-- but rather to love and live better aligned with the way we pledged at our baptism. So to love and live with each other, forgiving and learning from our mis-steps and our poor aim, until we love perfectly as God loves us.

Does this mean we would never remove ("cut off" as in Numbers 15:30) anyone from some parts of our fellowship? Hardly. Mr Wesley and the early Methodists were clear how essential removing persons who clearly did not wish to keep our rules was for the good of all. This does not mean we remove them from the church, or even, necessarily, from "professing membership." But if the way we most concretely watch over one another is in something like a covenant discipleship group, or a class meeting, and someone persistently fails to make progress, and seems willfully to refuse to do so, it's time to admit to such persons and to the group that this group is no longer a good place for such persons. "Cutting off" for such persons may be, in such rare instances, the best mercy we might offer.

If we can talk about sin primarily as the Bible does, as missing the mark and stumbling in our walk, then, yes, we can still talk about sin. We Methodists of all people, if we live a Methodist way, can not only talk about sin in this way, but actively watch over one another in love until more of us aim and walk aright.

So let's not only talk about sin-- let's deal with it, bibically, Christianly-- as disciples of Jesus, as missional Methodists!

And then let's see what artistry new seekers begin to find when they go searching online!