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New Perspective and a Metaphor for Sin

Sin has a history, and the history of the use of words for sin sheds light on the current debate about the new perspective on Paul.  Gary Anderson, in his superbly written Sin: A History , demonstrates that the oldest and most predominant Old Testament idea  about sin was that it was a load to carry and a load to remove.

By the time of the New Testament, however, sin had shifted in its primary meaning to sin as a debt for which one must pay (or be punished) and a debt that can be cancelled (remitted) or released. Alongside this shift, of course, comes the idea that good works are merits that outweigh sins.
Here is where the new perspective issues arise: I have argued that the complaint against the new perspective can often be coagulated around an anthropology — that humans are full of pride and want to justify themselves. The new perspective, as you may know, contends that Judaism is not a works-based religion. Anderson’s work on sin, however, suggests that debt language became the common metaphor for sin. Which leads to this question:

Is sin-as-debt “just” a metaphor and not a realistic depiction of a bookkeeping God and Israelites/Judahites seeking to gain merit or is this a metaphor that captures this merit-shaped perception both of our debt to God and our response and God’s forgiving by way of “releasing us from our debts”? Anderson’s study on the development of sin as debt in the Second Temple period speaks into these new vs. old perspective issues. One most interesting of points is that “load” language was retranslated into “debt” language in the New Testament period.
Anderson demonstrates, also, that as soon as one finds language of sin as debt one will find language of atonement as satisfaction — and he dips into (Second) Isaiah to show this. (By the way, he critiques in passing the theory of many that satisfaction theory is a later Western development, and he argues this by showing that is clearly biblical!) Nothing is clearer than Isaiah 40:1-2:

40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”

says your God.

40:2 “Speak kindly to Jerusalem, and tell her

that her time of warfare is over,

that her punishment is completed.

For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins.”

Anderson translates “for her punishment is completed” with “the debt owed for her iniquity has been satisfied.” Here Israel is depicted as a debt-slave in Babylon; her time of imprisonment is over; she can now be forgiven/released from her debt. (Anderson will go on in other chps to discuss Lev 25-26 and its indebtedness theme impacting Jeremiah’s 70 years and Daniel 8-9. He also examines the misplaced Christian critique of works in rabbinic Judaism and an insightful study of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which he contends is thoroughly biblical and not the same as penal substitution.)

Anderson is also sensitive to the theological issue here, for indebtedness and payment make God look like a bookkeeper — but he makes this observation:

“Human sins have consequences. When individuals disobey moral law, a tangible form of evil is created in the world that must be accounted for. … Would it not be a word of grace to hear that our communal suffering [here he points to the American impacts of slavery] has been brought to closure, the debt satisfied?” (54)
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posted December 7, 2009 at 9:02 am

Does this “word of grace” toward slavery (or other wrongs) then mean that restoration has been accomplished or that restoration is made possible but still needs to be carried forth by those bearing that grace?
Does this make restoration/debt absolvement one dimensional (emphasizing that all sin is soley against God instead of chiefly against God)?

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posted December 7, 2009 at 9:04 am

One of the things i have always been taught is that sin is missing the mark. Jesus hit the mark. Humans cannot hit the mark in themselves and need another source for righteousness. Union with Christ involves being connected with a new source… think vine and branches. redemption/sanctification comes through the flow of that new source. Re new perspectives: I think what some of the new perspectives teach is that God gave humans a divine vocation… to image God, govern the earth, reflect God’s character, do justice… etc…but we were not able to do that because of our human nature. God made the Covenant with Abraham and God kept his side of the bargain but we did not… which is why the people of God were exiled. Sooo God came in human form, the word made flesh, and kept our side of the Covenant too. Now because we are united with Christ… we are sourced in the one who did keep the Covenant. Hidden in Christ, God is satisfied because the Covenant is not broken. my take on it all.

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Scot McKnight

posted December 7, 2009 at 9:55 am

joanne, Anderson’s thesis is not about this union with Christ dimension of sin, though. He’s more into the connection of works and faith and how sin works into that. There is a big theme in this book about correlation of debts and merits, with it being very clear that Judaism (and earliest Christianity) had something like this at work but God was bountifully gracious and that the Christian gospel is not a zero-game balancing act.

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John W Frye

posted December 7, 2009 at 10:17 am

Without discounting human pride and the desire to save ourselves via a variety of ways, I think the internalization of sin to solely pride is a dangerous reduction. Sin, while it has shades of internality and individual culpability, is primarily communal and relational. With sin as debt we can become navel-gazers, ignoring that as a people we have a purpose to fulfill within the Covenant toward outsiders. *That* was Israel’s sin…not living as God’s people for the sake of the Gentiles. So, I don’t think the new perspective is wrong in guiding us away from the hackneyed “works righteousness” formulated during the Reformation and read back into Galatians and the Gospels.

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posted December 7, 2009 at 10:21 am

With joanne, I’m wondering about the “missing the mark” picture as well as the (NT?) concept of sin as a power, without and within, that is active. I guess this concept of sin as an active power seeking to dominate is also present as early as the story of Cain (“sin is crouching at the dooor”), but is Anderson dealing with this at all or just dealing with it later?

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Bill Crawford

posted December 7, 2009 at 10:27 am

John Frye’s concern that “sin as debt” leads to navel-gazing, sems not to take into account the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Here we see debt-language also encompasses the horizontal (relational, communal) and not just the vertical or individual-and-God. Indeed, without the communal, there is no vertical.

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posted December 7, 2009 at 10:29 am

LOL! Happy accidental typo. I was not (intentionally) trying to tell the Cain story as a spooooooky story about sin! Free new sunday school idea, folks.

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Scot McKnight

posted December 7, 2009 at 10:38 am

T, Anderson’s book is interested in the two major ideas of sin in the OT: load and debt. The latter term is then traced through history. It is not a complete study of sin but of the metaphor of debt.
Yes, the point about the Lord’s Prayer is most significant: Jesus conceived of sin as debt-indebtedness to God, and he also emphasized “rewards” (the other side of debt).

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John W Frye

posted December 7, 2009 at 10:54 am

Bill (#6),
Thanks for that push back. I wasn’t clear. I am not denying that the NT uses “debt” language. That is one of Anderson’s key observations according to Scot’s review, that is, the shift is from “load” (OT) to “debt” (NT). I am concerned with what the Reformers did with “debt” language in reaction to Catholicism’s entrenched “merit” theology. I agree with the NPP that the Reformers erred in reading back into the NT the issues they were fighting in the 16th century. Remember Luther’s entrenched navel gazing? I still think that Scot is onto something in observing that “sin” today is tied to a certain view of anthropology. I think Jesus’ life of grace as evidenced in his meal-time associations reveals not in the least a “book-keeping” God.

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posted December 7, 2009 at 11:01 am

I do think something very important is lost when our concept of sin as a legal/accounting problem to fix (for a specific debt or crime) eclipses the functional concept (i.e., a load weighing us down, preventing us from fulfilling our intended purpose; a power that dominates; a thing that “entangles” runners).
The legal/accounting concept has a straightforward solution: payment/forgiveness, but that solution doesn’t really address the fact that we are still unable to fulfill our purpose as humans in this life. The “burden” of sin (in the OT and NT) includes but is much more than legal guilt or an accounting shortfall. It’s our inability to function properly. It is a mutation of our DNA that prevents proper human function in life. We can’t do what we want and need to do as humans. We need help in living properly, not just passing the audit down the road.

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posted December 7, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I’m reading Roy Gane’s Cult and Character right now. You might find it interesting, if you haven’t already read it. Very interesting, and very detailed, look at Yom Kippur and the associated sacrifices in Leviticus.

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