Friday, March 12, 2010

Sin 1: Hamartano in Paul

I'm doing a word study this weekend on variants of the harmart- root:
  • hamartia - "sin"
  • hamartema - "sin"
  • hamartolos - "sinner"
  • hamartano - "to sin"
This post is the verb, hamartano, in the Pauline corpus. I am asking three questions:
1) What is the definition of sin?
2) What is the standard of sin (absolute, intention, etc.)? and
3) What is the basis of sin (what causes it)?

Hamartano appears 20 times in the Pauline corpus. The basic sense is "to do wrong," but one can do wrong in general (with either an implicit or explicit standard) or one can do wrong in relation to someone or something.

In 1 Corinthians, we find both senses. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 you do wrong toward your own body by sexual immorality. In 8:12, you do wrong toward your brothers and toward Christ by causing others to stumble. Intention is clearly an element in the action that leads to "wronging" your body, your brother, or Christ. At the same time, one may not have intended to do wrong toward these individuals. In that sense "sinning against" in these instances may or may not be intentional.

The wrongdoing, however, gives no sense of a standard of absolute perfection. This is "doing wrong against" in a fairly concrete, avoidable, and normal sense. In every case the sin is avoidable (note that one of the two instances of the word hamartema appears also in 6:18 and has the basic sense of "a wrong that has been done"; the other instance Romans 3:25, is similar).

The second group of "sinning" instances in 1 Corinthians are more general. A person who marries does not "do wrong," does not sin (7:28, 36). A standard is assumed here, although it is not concretely mentioned. Again, the act being examined is a fairly intentional, normal one, but the question of wrongdoing is not judged in terms of intent. And again, there is no sense of a standard of absolute perfection. Not sinning is quite possible.

The final reference in 1 Corinthians is 15:34, where Paul tells the Corinthians to stop sinning, to stop doing wrong. Clearly he believes this standard to be attainable. All the instances of sinning in 1 Corinthians, therefore, assume that it is possible not to sin, not to do wrong to Paul's satisfaction, not to do wrong against others.

By far most of the references to sinning as a verb are in Romans, as are most of Paul's references to sin. While we want to hold off on most of the references to the noun hamartia until the next post, some appear in the same context of the verb in Romans.

The first use of the verb is in Romans 2:12: "All who do wrong without law will also perish without law. But as many did wrong with the Law will be judged by way of the Law." This is a helpful verse, because it implies that the Jewish Law provides the criteria by which wrongdoing can be assessed in some way. In general, Jews thought it possible to keep the Law up to God's expectation. Paul himself calls his lawkeeping "blameless" before believing on Christ (Phil. 3:6). We will have to see, however, whether Paul holds to this normal standard of wrongdoing elsewhere.

We learn little of what the standard of doing wrong is from Romans 3:23 or 5:12. Certainly the wrongdoing of Adam in 5:12 was an intentional, avoidable act of wrongdoing. 5:14 may very well imply that those from Adam to Moses did wrong like Adam even though they did not have a clear command they knew they were violating. In this sense, their sin might not have been conscious violation. This, however, does not mean the standard was unattainable. These individuals simply did wrong perhaps without knowing it. Similar dynamics apply to 5:16.

Romans 6:15 assumes the same standard for wrongdoing--the Law in some way. But the assumption is that a person can in fact avoid doing wrong in this way.

We thus can summarize the use of the verb "to sin" in 1 Corinthians and Romans as having two basic senses. By far the dominant use is to do wrong, with the default standard being the Jewish Law in some way. A second use is to do wrong against someone or something. Whenever Paul talks about concrete acts of wrongdoing, these acts are always avoidable. That is to say, we find no sense that Paul's concrete standard is unattainable. The assumption is rather than one might very well not "do wrong" in these ways.

It is when Paul generalizes and makes overarching theological statements that we run into questions. Paul's concrete, individual mentions of sinning always seem to assume sin is avoidable. Yet all have sinned, and all those sinned from Adam to Moses. If sin were really avoidable, how could this be the case? Then we begin to fill in gaps as theologians, moving beyond what Paul actually says. We will pick up this thought in the next post.

The last three uses of the verb in the Pauline corpus are in Ephesians 4:26; 1 Timothy 5:20; and Titus 3:11. Ephesians says not to sin when you are angry. The implication is both that anger in itself is not a sin and that one can avoid doing wrong while being angry. 1 Timothy calls for public rebuking of those who sin, which implies both that sin is avoidable and that Christians are not to be "those who sin." Titus speaks of a particular type of person as one who sins, again, thus distinguishing this one who sins from Christians who do not sin.

In these three instances we again see that concrete acts of sin are treated as avoidable and sinning is not normal for a believer.

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