The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture


Sin— Chapter 10

posted by Ben Witherington

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SIN–CHAPTER 1O

 

            Anderson begins his tenth chapter by quoting a couple of church fathers that provide evidence that sin and salvation were seen in mercantile terms, in terms of credits and debits,  benefits and deficits. The quote from the Epistle to Diogenetus is worth repeating–“For what else could cover our sins but his righteousness? In whom was it possible for us, in our wickedness and impiety, to be made just, except in the Son of God alone?  O the sweet exchange , O the inscrutable creation, O the unexpected benefits, that the wickedness of many should be concealed in the one righteous, and the righteousness of the one should make righteous many wicked!'”   This quote of course is an echo of some of the things Paul says in Rom. 3-4 but what is most interesting about this is not merely the language of exchange but the reference to persons not merely being counted righteous, but being made just or made righteous.   In other words this is not just about ‘reckoning’ but about being made righteous, and that benefit as well is connected to the atonement in this early Christian document.

            The real issue here, that Anderson is probing is the quid pro quo idea, not so much from the divine side of the equation which leads to a notion of exchange–our rags for Christ’s riches, but the notion of merit,  of our almsgiving or good needs, which merit a positive response from the Almighty.  Anderson wants to insist (p. 153) on the near universal use of the idea of almsgiving for the purposes of reconciliation, even reconciliation with God, but it is not clear to me that this idea is actually grounded in the NT, if the issue is not merely rewards beyond salvation, but rather salvation itself.  I don’t dispute that we find the notion of sin as a debt, and Christ’s action as canceling the debt in both the NT and in church fathers such as Ephrem of Syria.  The issue is whether this is the only way sin is viewed, and thus salvation is depicted, such that we could call this a controlling metaphor that unlocks the Christian theology of sin and salvation. One of the more serious theological problems with the whole discussion is the notion that God could be in our debt, as if our almsgiving could put God in the debtor side of the ledger, so that God owes us something because of something good we have done.  This makes little sense of the Biblical theology of creation in which it all belongs to God in the first place. Furthermore, the indebtedness of humans to God is so vast, that whatever good deeds we did could never balance the ledger and make God in our debt. And again the issue here, is not what this or that church father may have speculatively said,  the issue is Biblical theology,  because of course the Fathers often misunderstood the Biblical witness and its import, and all the more so when there was never an ecumenical council set up to discuss the atonement and settle on a doctrine or dogma about it. 

Anderson wants to go on to suggest that having faith is, in effect, issuing a loan to God, giving God an opportunity to prove trustworthy and a good investor of our trust. The basis of such thinking is, for example, Prov. 19.17– ‘he who is generous to the poor makes a loan to God.’  But surely this is a figurative way of speaking, not a suggestion that God can be put in our debt.  It simply means the person in question is doing what God would and is doing through the person in question.  What Anderson’s work here does do, ironically, is it shows that there is plenty of church historical basis for modern bad theologies about ‘name it and claim it’ or the ‘word of faith promise’ and the like, and all the more so the closer we get to the Middle Ages and the further away we get from the NT era itself.

Anderson goes on (p. 160) to clarify the matter as follows: 1) consider the analogy of a parent who gives a child a sum of money, so that the child can buy the parent a birthday present; 2) the money is of course the parent’s not something earned by the child, and so the child in one sense, through the gift, is simply giving back the parent what was the parent’s in the first place, but; 3) the child freely chooses to take the money given her and buy the gift, and indeed chooses the gift and freely offers it back to the parent in question so; 4) this act is seen as meritorious for through the gift the child is parting with something in order to express gratitude.  “The gift does not create the relationship–the child need not do anything in order to be loved by his mother—but it does in some sense enact the love that characterizes it.”   While this is true enough, it does not explain how exactly the gift from the child, which is freely given and not owed, in any way shape or form puts the parent in their debt, or makes a loan to the parent.

Anderson concludes the chapter by reiterating that the notion of the treasury of merits, or even the notion of indulgences need not offend the conscience of the Protestant unless, of course the Protestant in question refuses to mis-interpret what the NT says and suggests about such matters.  The NT does not affirm the notion of a treasury of merits in heaven built up by saints good deeds on earth,  It does speak about rewards in heaven or in the kingdom, but that is another matter and has nothing to do with getting saved, or for that matter with getting years off of purgatory, another non-Biblical concept.   



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