Saturday, September 08, 2012

Preaching Up Sin

George Fox and the other early Quakers of the 17th century were not known to shrink away from controversy. In fact, they often seemed to have sought out confrontation with Anglican priests and Puritan preachers. One of the common charges the Quakers levied against the Calvinist Puritans in particular was that they focused too much on "preaching up sin." I always imagine Fox having a bit of a wry smile when leveling this charge against the "hireling preachers" (as he called them) of the day. But I also think there is a deadly serious truth behind the criticism of "preaching up sin" that goes to the core of the meaning of the Christian faith and how we live our lives from day to day.

The Bible, of course, has much to say about sin. I have studied the topic of sin (Hamartiology) in some detail and I think it is an important term to define. Is sin rebellion? Is it ignorance? Or is it simply falling short? My favorite definition of sin comes from Mark Biddle in his book "Missing the Mark", which is that sin is our failure to develop into the fullness of being human and to embrace authentic freedom. I believe that sin is, at its essence, the failure to allow God's love to do its transformative work within us.

A few months ago I led a group through an in-depth study of Atonement Theories (atonement, or at-one-ment, is a word coined by 16th century theologian William Tyndale to describe the reconciliatory work of Christ). Our study lasted several weeks and looked at Christus Victor and Ransom and Satisfaction and Penal Substitution and Moral Influence and Covenantal and Governmental and (my favorite) Narrative Christus Victor. One of the key factors that we discussed was the degree to which the believer participates in appropriating Christ's atoning work. Many, if not most, of the Atonement Theories developed during the history of Christendom are transactional in nature: A transaction was made between Jesus and God (or between God and Satan) in which humans play no direct role other than being dependent upon the success of the transaction for salvation. In those theories, atonement is an abstract and external event. God changed his orientation towards humankind because of Christ's atonement--humankind doesn't change (except perhaps to concur with the necessity of the transaction). Our justification is imputed, rather than infused. And so the bumper sticker says "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." It follows naturally that if one's theology is built on a transactional view of atonement, then the effects of the atonement are going to be abstracted. Thus, for the Protestant Reformers, humans are always sinners--born into sin and consigned to sin until we die.

But another way to look at the work of Christ is not so much as a change in status from God's perspective that is projected upon us (through the blood of Christ) from the outside, but instead as an intrinsic change that occurs inside of us through the power of Christ. Redemption occurs from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. Salvation is a process, rather than an event.

The ramifications are profound. An imputed justification from a transactional atonement does not provide (it could be argued) the motivation or empowerment to overcome sin in one's life. It is not transformative. Thus, "preaching up sin" is ultimately a defeatist theology. On the other hand, if we view the work of the Spirit as a redemptive process occurring deep within us--that we can choose to surrender to and cooperate with--where we are convicted but also empowered by God, it results in a hopeful, overcoming and practical theology. As the believer undergoes inner transformation, they transform the world around them (as William Penn wrote, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.").

I think this fundamental difference in ramifications is what the early Quakers were getting at when they spoke out against those who were constantly "preaching up sin." Their criticism strikes me as being just as relevant today (and the solution proposed by Friends just as life-giving) as it was in the 17th century. Belief in substitutionary atonement is the norm for Evangelical Protestantism (many aren't even aware that there are other views) and in recent years there has been a resurgence of neo-Calvinism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But this most excellent righteousness—that of faith, I mean—which God imputes to us through Christ, without works—is neither political nor ceremonial, nor is it the righteousness of God’s law, nor does it consist in works. It is quite the opposite; that is to say, it is passive whereas the others are active. We do nothing in this matter; we give nothing to God but simply receive and allow someone else to work in us—that is, God. Therefore, it seems to me that this righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, can well be called passive righteousness." (Luther, Commentary on Galatians)

"We must be wholly at rest that God may work in us; we must yield our will; we must resign our heart; we must give up all our fleshly desires. In short, we must rest from all our activities of our own contriving so that, having God working in us (Heb. 13:21), we may repose in him (Heb. 4:9), as the apostle also teaches." (Calvin, Institutes)

Is there anything in the quotations above that Friends would disagree with? I'm not sure at all that Quakers invented the notion of "the work of the Spirit as a redemptive process occurring deep within us--that we can choose to surrender to and cooperate with--where we are convicted but also empowered by God." Views of the Atonement held by the leading reformers were not as coldly intellectual as you suggest here.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Jay Miller said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post about the way we talk about sin in different Christian cultures today.

I especially appreciate that while you are critical of "preaching up sin," you do not throw the baby out with the bathwater; sin holds a crucial place in the the framework for how we understand our relationship to God; it is not, however, the end-all be-all. If sin is, as you describe it, a failure to allow God's love to work in us, naming something as sin should be a liberating first step to allowing that work to take place. Often, even in Evangelical Quaker circles which one might expect substitutionary atonement to be normative, it seems to me that we are often shy to speak frankly about sin. which, paradoxically, only gives it more power.

Regarding the previous comment which gave some examples of atonement theologies where humans are described as passive in relationship to God, I don't think Quakers, especially those in the 18th century, would have categorically disagreed with this. Consider the often (but not totally) passive nature of Friends worship. The idea is to be still, to release distraction, and to wait for the Holy Spirit. We are active perhaps to the extent that we are willing to be passive, to relinquish control, and volition. However, obedience is also central to Friends worship, and this perhaps speaks to the the active, transformative nature Quaker atonement that Danny is writing about. Atonement, oneing with God, makes us active instruments of the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate the suggestion in the previous comment that the leading reformers were not merely intellectual and transactional thinkers. Too often I think Quakers can be guilty of an exceptionalist attitude that thinks it has discovered something new that in fact has been present at other places in the Christian tradition for centuries.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

What is the end result of what Luther and Calvin are describing there? For Friends it would be that through the Holy Spirit it would be possible to live a sinless life. Calvin, on the other hand, said "How very abominable, then, is the pride of those who hardly imagine that they offend in the least possible way; nay, who even, like certain fanatics of the day, conceive that they have attained to a state of sinless perfection!"

The basic thrust of "preaching up sin" as I understand it is that if perfection is not possible, then Christ is not able to overcome sin in a person's heart.

3:54 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

I'm not sure what the technical theological phrase might be for this... But the typical form of traditional atonement theories, in which Jesus makes peace with God to save humankind from Wrath -- has struck others besides me as entirely bassackward. Really, Jesus makes peace with humankind so they can start to see God less blinded by their own fearful projections.

It's human beings who perform the actual violence that happens to Jesus. There are violent consequences, which Jesus predicts -- but no sign that God is committing that violence either to protect Jesus or to exact retribution for it. 2nd Temple Judaism fails to deliver what God had in mind, is wiped out in a violent conflict with Rome [ala that vineyard parable]. Jesus' followers -- and Hillel's -- carry on God's work afterwards.

It's human beings who have a hard time making peace. They kill Jesus because they imagine God being like themselves. Jesus doesn't like this -- but allows it because defending himself via the wrong sort of power would not have conveyed the right message. It hasn't been an easy thing for people to grasp; it's really quite horrible that it's taken this to get our attention... but on some level, regardless of the perverse intellectual twists people put on it, we see that we are being spared the worst consequences of our folly.

And as Jacques said (roughly): ~"It's only when people see that they're already forgiven, that they can realize they've been sinners."

8:15 PM  
Blogger Daniel P. (Danny) Coleman said...

Thank you Forrest, Mark, Jay and Anon for these thoughtful comments!

9:45 PM  

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