Friday, March 12, 2010

Sin 2: Hamartia in Paul

The previous post looked at the verb hamartano--"to do wrong," "to sin"--in the Pauline corpus. We found that the word had the basic meaning "to do wrong" and could be used generally or to do wrong against someone or something. In every instance where a specific act of sin was in view, it was avoidable. When a standard was in view, the Jewish Law seemed to provide the basic standard of wrongdoing in some way.

There was some ambiguity when it came to the fact that "all have sinned" because of logic--if all sin is avoidable, then how likely is it that no one would ever have successfully avoided all sin? It is here that later Christian theology has connected Paul's dots with theology.

In this post we look at hamartia, "sin," a wrong. The overwhelming instances of the word in Paul are in Romans. The first reference in Paul is likely 1 Thessalonians 2:16 where Paul indicates that the sins of Judean non-believing Jews of influence are approaching a full point where God will judge them. Their "wrongdoing" has almost reached its limit.

1 Corinthians, possibly next, has three verses (4 refs). 15:3 indicates that Christ died to atone for our sins, which Paul assumes all individuals have. 15:17 indicates that not just Jesus' death but his resurrection is also essential for such sins to be cleansed. 15:56 gives us our first reference in the study that speaks of the power behind sin. Paul here says it is the Law, a motif we will follow up on in Romans.

Galatians perhaps next gives us three occurrences. 1:4 again refers to Christ's death as an atonement for sins. 2:17 gives us Galatians' version of the "all have sinned" argument. We Jews also are found to be sinners (hamartolos), just as Gentiles are (hamartolos). Galatians 3:22 confirms once again that the Jewish Law serves in some way as the standard of what wrongdoing is. The Law--that is Scripture--imprisons everyone "under sin." That is to say, the Law demonstrates that everyone has done wrong.

2 Corinthians has two verses (3 refs). Paul could presumably have used the verb in 11:7 but instead says, "Did I do wrong" in relation to the Corinthians by his actions. 5:21 is of course a key verse of Paul's soteriology. Jesus did not "know wrongdoing" but he became "wrongdoing" to demonstrate and effect God's righteousness.

In 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians we have the same pattern we have seen before with the verb "to do wrong." The Jewish Law of Scripture in some way provides a standard when one is mentioned. Concrete acts of wrongdoing are treated as avoidable, although it is assumed that all humans except for Jesus have at some point committed wrongdoing.

Thus we come to Romans. All the uses of hamartia in Romans proceed from the basic sense of "wrongdoing." Blessed is the person whose wrongdoings are covered and that the Lord does not count against them (4:7; cf. 11:27). Wrongdoing entered the world through Adam and the fact that all humans went on to do wrong brought death to everyone (5:12). Should we continue doing wrong after God has forgiven us (6:1). The wages of wrongdoing is death (6:23).

The default standard is once again the Jewish Law of Scripture. Through the Law the audience becomes aware of sin (3:20). The Law tells us what wrongdoing is (7:7). Wrongdoing was in the world before the Law (5:13) but the Law informs us that we are sinners.

But it is in Romans 6-8 where the most concentrated use of the word occurs, indeed, Paul's most distinctive way of using the word. Sin is personified as a power. We saw the idea of Scripture imprisoning all under sin in Galatians 3:22. This idea also appears in 3:9. While these could simply mean that all have sinned, the later chapters of Romans possibly point to being "under sin" as being under the power of sin.

We now hear about being a slave to wrongdoing (5:21; 6:6-7, 10-14, 16-18, 20, 22; 7:5, 8-9, 11, 13-14, 17, 20, 23, 25; 8:2-3, 10). Knowledge of the Law and the commandment even aggravates the power of wrongdoing over us and leads us to do more wrong (5:20; 7:13). However, we are set free from this power when we are buried with Christ in baptism (6:4, 6). The rule of the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death (8:4).

Paul's theology of sin is thus that we cannot help but violate the Law before we are baptized, but that we are able to keep the Law through the Spirit afterwards. Whatever we might say of the avoidability of wrongdoing before Christ, we not only can but must not do wrong afterwards.

Romans also brings up an element of sin that harkens to Jesus tradition. Romans 14:23 says that whatever a person does that is not done from a heart of faith is wrongdoing. It is thus not enough simply to keep the Law. One must also act from a heart of faith toward God.

The remainder of references fit within Paul's more normal sense of doing wrong. Colossians 1:14 speaks of the forgiveness of our wrongdoing through Christ. Ephesians 2:1 tells of us being dead in our wrongdoing prior to Christ. 1 Timothy 5:22 and 24 again treat wrongdoing as something a person can avoid. 2 Timothy 3:6 speaks of certain women weighed down with acts of wrongdoing.

1 Timothy has a slightly different sense of law--it is largely stripped of its Jewish particulars (1:9). To be a sinner in 1 Timothy is thus to violate this general understanding of law (1:15).

We are thus now in a position to summarize Paul's sense of sin. Basically, we can speak of two distinct "language games" with two slightly different sets of rules. The first is arguably the more normal use of the word group. Here Paul thinks of concrete doing of wrong. In no instance of concrete wrongdoing does Paul treat such actions as unavoidable. In normal operating mode, Paul assumes that wrongdoing is avoidable and, indeed, Christians must not do wrong.

One can do wrong in relation to others and one can do wrong in general. When Paul points to a standard against which to determine wrongdoing, it is almost always the Jewish Law. What makes Paul's thinking ambiguous is the fact that he can speak of Law in several different ways. The two most prevalent are 1) a kind of moral core and 2) the Law in its Jewish, ethnic particulars. Paul only uses the Law as a standard to define wrongdoing in relation to the first definition.

Absolute perfection is never the standard. In fact, only in Romans 14:23 does Paul move beyond concrete wrongdoing to wrongdoing as intent. Elsewhere "sin" seems to refer always to action.

It is the second "sin language game" that complicates Paul's sense of sin and, indeed, it is from Romans 6-8 that Augustinian Christianity has drawn some of the signature understandings of Western Christianity (e.g., original sin, sinful nature, etc.). This is the idea of sin as a power, the universal wrongdoing of humanity, and the inability not to do wrongdoing prior to the Spirit. Yet even here is no sense of an expectation of absolute perfection as God's standard. It is simply affirmed that all humans have done wrong at some point in their lives.

Sin in the gospels and Acts tomorrow...


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