I have had numerous responses across social media about yesterday’s article on sin. It’s title, “Sin Is Not a Legal Problem,” drew some strong reactions. A particular concern is worth thinking about carefully. There is, as many have pointed out, plenty of juridical language in both the Scriptures and in the liturgical tradition of the Church. Quite specifically, someone noted that 1John 3:4 has this: “Sin is lawlessness.” One translation that I was confronted with had it: “Sin is illegality.” What can be said of this? Have I made a point that denies both the Scriptures and the Tradition?
There is no argument about the use of juridical language. However, such language in our modern usage tends to be read in a highly modern manner. It takes us into the realm of our secularized world, where ideas and psychology are the only realities between people. The language of Scripture and Tradition has a world-view in which law, legality, justice, and the like, have a concrete content, and are not simply relational abstractions. And this changes everything.
When the Fathers used the word “symbol,” they understood that something was actually, really and truly made present. A symbol makes present that which it represents. This is fundamental in the doctrine of the Holy Icons. In our modern world, a symbol represents something that is not there, it is a sign of absence. Indeed, because our modern world-view is essentially one of nominalism, we believe that the ancient notion of symbol is simply impossible. It feels like superstition to the modern consciousness.
However, as moderns, we have a very strong sense of psychological realities. In the same manner, we have a very strong sense of legal and social obligations. These seem to be abstractions to us, a network of responsibilities with requirements and consequences. But we do not think of these obligations as having an actual substance. They are how we think and feel, or how we should think and feel. But none of this disturbs our fundamental world-view that we are utterly distinct individuals in a material world in which only abstract associations connect us.
Modern marriage is a good example. Contemporary culture believes that the relationship of marriage is essentially a psychological agreement, the result of a choice and a willingness to cooperate. However, the language of the Church is that of union. We say that the “two become one flesh.” For the modern consciousness, such language can only be understood as a metaphor, a beautiful way of expressing a psychological or legal “relationship.” For the Church, such language is quite real and concrete. They truly become one flesh. This difference between the ancient Church and contemporary consciousness explains the present development of same-sex “unions.” Contemporary Christianity very weakly responded to the demands for same-sex marriage with legal imagery: “it is against God’s law.” And this only meant, “God does not like this.” Nothing stronger could be said. The argument based on marriage as a union has no standing in a culture whose worldview is grounded in nominalism.
And so we come to the use of legal and forensic imagery in theology and doctrine. The Biblical and Traditional use of this language has everything in common with the Church’s understanding of marriage. The commandments are not an abstraction, a statement of preferred obligations, regulated by reward and punishment. They have substance. Indeed, if we understand them correctly, they are nothing less than the divine energies.
Someone shared a wonderful passage from St. Justin Popovich on 1John 3:4. It illustrates my point quite well:
Sin defiles man and his being, which is in the divine image of God and God-given. It is the fundamental impurity, proto-impurity, and the origin of all impurities. Purity is, in reality, purity from sin and its impurities. That is holiness. For only through the help of the holy energies, which are received through the Holy Mysteries and holy virtues, is man able keep himself from sin. For such purity, such holy purity, is the divine law of man’s being. This purity is achieved and maintained by living in goodness, in love, in prayer, in righteousness, in meekness, in fasting, in self-restraint, and in the rest of virtues of the Gospel–simply put, in holiness, conceived of as the synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies. In opposition to purity, to holiness as law, to the divine law of man’s being, stands sin as the first and fundamental lawlessness…. In sinning, man breaks all of God’s laws and brings about lawlessness, and through lawlessness comes anarchy, disorder, and chaos. Sin is the transgression of the law, it is transgression of the law of God. The law is from God, while lawlessness is from the devil.
If, in a modern context, we say that sin defiles someone, a person who hears us only hears a psychological reality. It means nothing more than that someone thinks that person is defiled. It is one of the reasons that traditional Christian language is being labeled as “hate speech.” If I say that something is an abomination, all that is heard is that I think it is an abomination. Many have taken this same mode of understanding and imported it into their Christian consciousness. They believe that something defiles someone, because God thinks it defiles someone. The defilement only exists in the mind of God. God is just one more psychological actor in a universe of relationships.
But this brings us to my description of sin as not being a “legal problem.” St. Justin says that “sin defiles a man and his being.” This is not contemporary language. He means exactly what he is saying. It is of a piece with St. Athanasius’ description of sin as death, corruption and non-being. Sin is something, not just a thought in the mind of God. It kills us, and not because God is doing the killing. Sin is death itself. The “lawlessness” of 1John 3:4 is the anarchy, chaos, and disorder of death and corruption. Sin is utterly contrary to the life that is the gift of God.
This is why St. Justin (and the Church) can say that the remedy of sin is holiness, the “synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies.” When we partake of the holy mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, they “cleanse us from all sin.” This is not a simple change of our status in the mind of God. His Body and Blood are life. They are the antidote to death, decay, corruption and non-being. They destroy the lawlessness that is the anarchy, chaos and disorder of death and corruption.
In point of fact, I have no problem with juridical language, nor should any of us, so long as it is understood in a manner free from the nominalism of modernity. I have used the word “legal” to describe this hollow notion of psychologized abstractions. That is all the word “legal” means in our modern vocabulary. If we speak with one voice, the same voice of the sacraments, the holy icons, and the dogma of our faith, then our use of juridical language will be rescued from the ash heap of modernity. However, contemporary thought forms are very deeply engrained. We do well to take care with them.