Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Unintentional Wrongs

So is it possible to do evil without knowing it or without intending it?  It is certainly possible to wrong another person without knowing or intending it.  The Old Testament certainly has a category of unintentional sin.  In fact, the Levitical system of sacrifices primarily provided for unintentional sin (e.g., Num. 15:22-31).  We can infer from the stories of the Old Testament that there was atonement for intentional sin (e.g., when David sinned with Bathsheba), but this fact is not at all clear from the sacrificial instructions of Leviticus and Numbers themselves.

However, the New Testament shows little interest in this category.  The "sins committed in ignorance" in Hebrews 9:7 relate to the time before the audience was "enlightened" (e.g., 6:4), before they experienced the Spirit and confessed Jesus as Messiah.  The kind of wrongdoing that is of interest to the New Testament is not a vague violation of anything that "misses the mark" or anything short of absolute perfection.  Rather, it is wronging others, particularly intentionally, and knowingly doing wrong.

Paul puts it this way, "Everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23).  What he means by that is when you are seriously unsure something is okay for you to do before God and you do it anyway, you are sinning.  You are doing wrong.  The knowledge of what you are doing is key.

Similarly, James 4:17 gives us a classic definition of what we might call "sins of omission," when you do not do something you know you should. "Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin" (NRSV).  In both these cases, the key to what it means to sin or do wrong is not so much the violation of a rule but the intent to violate a rule. [1]

The point is that sin is overwhelmingly a question of intent and motive in the New Testament.  It is not primarily some legalistic measurement against an absolute standard.  One can wrong another person unintentionally or unknowingly.  These kinds of incidences can be called sin, but they are important to God because of what they do to the other person rather than as a matter of great concern for God in relation to you.

Biblically, one can also unknowingly or unintentionally do things that are wrong according to God, even though they do not wrong your neighbor.  It is important to recognize this category as very obscure in the New Testament.  The NIV 2011 of Romans 5:13-14 says, "sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam."  Paul seems to say that there were consequences for such sinning, even though God did not consider such individuals guilty in a moral sense.

In other words, Paul seems to support our claim even here, namely, that the question of guilt and the question of morality has to do with knowingly doing wrong.  Unintentional wrongs we might do are thus not evil, even though we can consider them wrongdoing, even sin.  A person could unintentionally kill someone in an incredibly tragic way.  But if it was truly unintentional--and not involving any inappropriate choices on our part--then technically we would not call it evil. [2]

It is also clear here that the popular notion that "all sin is sin" is also unbiblical to the core.  If by the idea that "all sin is sin" you mean that, before God forgives our past sins, one sin drives us to God's forgiveness just as much as any other sin, this would be correct.  However, since God looks at sin primarily in terms of our intentions, it would not be true to say that God looks on all wrongdoing the same after we have believed.

As an example, you can wrong your spouse in many different ways in a marriage.  For example, a husband could forget his wife's birthday.  But this "wronging" of your spouse is of quite different moral significance than a husband cheating on his spouse with another woman. [3] The level of intention and actual wrong to the wife is of a completely different level.  The relationship can easily survive missing a birthday.  It may or may not survive an affair.

In the same way, both God's evaluation of wrongdoing and the consequences of wrongdoing can vary widely.  Paul does not kick the arrogant and spiritually immature out of the Corinthian church.  He does, however, kick out the man sleeping with his step-mother.  The level of the sin correlates with the intensity of the wrong done and the level of intentionality.

The ancient model of patrons and clients gives us great insight into how such things likely worked in Paul's mind.  Words like grace (charis) and gifts (charismata) from God are terms of patronage.  You did not earn the graciousness of an ancient patron.  The gift was always disproportionate to anything you might do for the patron.  But you could solicit patronage.

Similarly, gifts of patronage technically came without payment, but this fact does not mean there were no expectations.  There were informal rather than formal strings attached.  At the very least, the patron expected to be praised and given honor for his or her giving.  If you were ungrateful, you certainly would not continue to receive patronage.

This model corresponds well to what we find in Paul.  Our right standing before God is a gift of grace from God.  We solicit it with our faith but we cannot earn it.  God does have certain expectations of us thereafter.  Those who do not press on will not win the prize of God's "upward call" in resurrection (Phil. 3:14).  Those who do not discipline their bodies to win the contest will be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).  Those who insult the Spirit of grace will find themselves with no sacrifice for sins left (Heb. 10:26-31).

The notion that "all sin is sin" is thus unbiblical when applied to wrongdoing after individuals are forgiven their past sins.  Sin rather becomes almost entirely a matter of one's intent to do wrong.  It becomes a relational issue.  Some wrongdoing, such as sins of surprise, are more a matter of neglect than high intention and have less immediate effect on one's relationship with God our divine Patron.  Other sins may involve such a high level of intentionality in wrongdoing that they would revoke God's patronage all together and sever our relationship with God.

Accordingly, unintentional and unknowing wrongs do not fall under our definition of evil.  Things that happen and things that are done unknowingly can have very bad consequences.  But for them to fall under the "problem of evil," they must be things a moral agent intends to do on some level.

[1] Here it is probably worth pointing out a common misinterpretation of Romans 3:23.  The New Living Translation interprets this verse to say that all have sinned by falling short of "God's glorious standard."  But in fact, what Paul is saying is that all lack the glory of God, a glory God created humanity to have at the beginning (cf. Ps. 8:5) and that we hope to receive when Christ returns (e.g., Rom. 5:2; 8:18).

[2] In our world, drunk driving almost always does involve inappropriate choices.  So if a person were to kill someone else unintentionally while driving drunk, such a wrongdoing is a moral act because it has involved a prior choice to drink and drive.  It falls under Wesley's category of a "sin of surprise."

[3] On the other hand, a one time "sin of surprise" in forgetting your spouse's birthday can become more an more of a "high handed" sin if you do not do something about it.  Sins of neglect, when not addressed, quickly become sins of intent.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

As organizations become larger, it becomes inevitable that there will be "unintentional sin", because of "the system". While knowing that this is always true, how can a "Christian organization" desire to grow beyond "simplicity"? As the fact of knowing that "systems" always diminish "the individual", such continued growth becomes intentional sin. Is the answer the sacrifice of individuals, or a limitation upon growth?

Now, that might make some reconsider "Christian commitment"! Or will there be a 'theologizing' about such sacrifices for "survival" of the organization and "Christians" will go about their business.

These "truths" do not correlate to the "ancient text", because the ancient text isn't able to take into account the modern world!

John Meunier said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this.

I'm used to reading critiques of Wesley that say his understanding of sin was deficient. They say his description of sin as knowing or intentional sin falls short.

I've never really understood that, but don't find many contemporary commentators who uphold a Wesleyan understanding of sin and evil.

Ken Schenck said...

I don't remember how strong Wesley was on unintentional sin, but if you read my post on Clean and Unclean, you might guess that I see a development in the understanding of sin from the OT to the NT. Sin is largely a matter of act in the cultic portions of the OT, just as religion in the ancient world had little to do with ethics (that was philosophy). The prophetic strand thus stood in tension with the cultic (e.g., Isa. 1; Micah 6). In Paul and to some extent Jesus, then, the "act" oriented sense of sin almost completely disappears making sin almost entirely a matter of the "heart."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Those who use the OT as a leadership model, would affirm the model of "Kings", which is a government structuring, or organizational leadership. But, not all Protestant traditions agree as to the understanding of the OT, as some denominations (Churches of Christ) or some theologies (replacement of Israel with the Church) don't understand the OT to have much to say to NT believers. (But, then, this is heresy according to the orthodox).

Your analysis of "the heart" is one or "the personal". The personal cannot be affirmed in an organizational structure, as the personal must be known. Therefore, all Christian denominations would concur that the NT was the basis of ecclesiastical organization, as this was the intent of the Catholic Church at its development and empowerment.

Therefore, "Christian" historically was a disempowered small group standing in opposition to the power of the Roman Empire. Does this image translate in modern day? Yes, if one is a separatist. No, if one conflates the supernatural to the natural realm where life must be lived in the real world; a political one, where the individual is protected against power by his own free choice of association, or disassciation.

John Meunier said...

Thank you for pointing me toward the other post. Just as it was with Jesus and Paul, it is still complicated to understand the relationship between the law of the Torah and the New Covenant.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems to me that when one conflates the supernatural into the natural, then one has to affirm a Constitutional government, not a tribal society. Constitutionality is en "Enlghtenment project", but not all are open to Enlightenment principles.

Enlightenment principles are not socialized, but personalized. This is what is known as the "rule of law" and "equality before the law", as there is not "Divine Right of Kings". And the only way to hold "Power" accountable is by "checks and balances" within the power structures themselves.It is unfortunate and alarming that such checks and balances are being undermined in our nation incrementally.

Individual who care to take part in their government, which is a proper responsibility in a free society, must seek to be informed and inform, and do what they can to further ethics withint government!!

Patrick said...


How about the view that Torah's role was not to be followed, but, to show the Jews they could not follow it, thus forcing a call to God, "I am a sinner, help me"!

This seems to be Paul's view of the old Torah.

Then, we have the New Covenant replacing/superceding it, the Torah of Christ who gives us the gift of the spirit and His virtue love.

When we love God and man, we have fulfilled even the old Torah according to Jesus because of Him.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't know whether you are the same Patrick that I responded to on Ken's other post, but your suggestion is "evangelical-ese"....symbol or meaning or beauty, justice and truth are understood in various contexts and ways.

"God" is the theological language, "God" is leadership language in the political realm, "God" is what is considered "perfect" according to the standards of a particular culture.

Because people in the modern age, are not to be ruled by "Kings", or "God (s)", but by the rule of law, there is a social contract to abide by the "rules" that were developed by our Founding Fathers, legislated under our Constitution and defined by our courts. This to me is justice, beauty and truth, because it allows liberty of association, not determination of purpose, like religious communities would like to define...everything according to "God" as a Sovereign Being...a real entity, not just a figment of one's projection...or cultural bias.