Sunday, July 13, 2008

Deus caritas est

I was disturbed this week to learn that many Evangelical Christians, who I see very much as sisters and brothers in Christ, read Romans chapter five in such a way that they take Paul to be writing about universal condemnation due to the sin of Adam. I have a couple of problems with such a reading. The first problem has to do with the mischaracterization of the doctrine of original sin. To wit: there are two major ways that the doctrine of original sin is misunderstood. "The first misunderstanding is confusing original sin with actual, or personal, sin. Put simply, this view sees each one of us as guilty, personally culpable, for the state into which we are born. There is no personal culpability with regard to original sin. . . The second possible misunderstanding does not see us as guilty of original sin, but holds that we are being punished for it nonetheless. This means believing that we are being punished for somebody else’s sin" (Original Sin: The Need for Justification). Reading Romans five as universal condemnation is indicative of the second misunderstanding.

The second issue I have with reading Romans five as universal condemnation is that this is not what Paul is trying to communicate. This much seems clear from even a cursory reading of verses 12-14. Yes, physical death entered the world because of our disobedience, as verse 12 indicates, but verse 13 clears the matter up considerably: "sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law". If we look at this through the lens of moral theology, it becomes even clearer. People do that which is wrong, which is contrary to the will of God, that which neither shows a love for God or for neighbor. Nonetheless, because actual sin requires a knowledge that what one is doing is wrong, along with freedom in choosing to do it, Paul here is writing that, while alienated from God through wrongful actions, such is not sin because there is no culpability, no guilt imputed by God, due to ignorance of the law. Now, God's chosen people, who Paul addresses in this letter, are a different story because they have the law. This is made clear earlier in the letter where we read in , that "through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3,20). To read it otherwise is to posit a God who is not just, but who is capricious and even vindictive. Now, we could get into all kinds of difficulties regarding natural law. Let's look at a pagan religious practice and a contemporary practice that will shed some light on the matter.
Objectively, we believe that any sexual activity with a person other than one's spouse or outside of marriage is objectively wrong, that is, to use the loaded phrase from moral theology, intrinsically evil. In other words, it is always and everywhere wrong regardless of the intentions of the persons engaging in such activity as well as of the circumstances. Nonetheless, in order for it to be a sin, the persons engaging in such activity have to know that it is wrong and freely choose to do it anyway. To wit: a person compelled or coerced into engaging in such activity bears no culpability, is guilty of no sin. The person who does not know it is wrong is not guilty. Let's put aside false claims of ignorance and even discussions about vincible ignorance for now. The two cases are sacred prostitution in the ancient world and pre-marital sex in our western culture. Can a pagan who is raised believing in the goodness and obligatory nature of temple prostitution be condemned for practicing it, either as prostitute or patron? Can a person raised outside the Christian faith, outside the church, with the mores of the world, likewise, be condemned for engaging in pre-marital sex? Again, there is no question about both practices being intrinsically evil, that is, objectively wrong.

This is where, not knowledge of the law, but the truth and unboundedness of God's love is necessary. Trying only to bring people to a knowledge of the law (i.e., "What you're doing is wrong and here's why") is pointless. I think Fr. Timothy Radcliffe gets it right, I think Craig Gross, who is head pastor of XXX Church, gets it right by understanding that "[t]he Church has nothing to say about morality until our listeners have glimpsed God's delight in their existence. People often come to us carrying heavy burdens, with lives not in accord with the Church's teaching, the fruit of complex histories. We have nothing to say at all until people know that God rejoices in their very existence, which is why they exist at all" (What is the Point of Being a Christian, p. 59). The good news, which we Christians spread, not because we have to, but precisely because it is good news, which we can never keep to ourselves, is the FACT that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8,1-2).

Again, as regards universal condemnation (words that make me shudder when imputed to God who is Love) in Romans Paul writes: "For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Rom. 2,12-16). A footnote in the New American Bible tells us about this passage "Jews cannot reasonably demand from Gentiles the standard of conduct inculcated in the Old Testament since God did not address its revelation to them. Rather, God made it possible for Gentiles to know instinctively the difference between right and wrong. But, as Paul explained in Romans 1:18-32, humanity misread the evidence of God's existence, power, and divinity, and 'while claiming to be wise, they became fools.'" So, we can conclude that all people will be judged by God, who is both merciful and just. Insofar as those who have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ conform their lives to the law "written on their hearts", they will not be condemned.

This leads us to the question can other religions, besides Christianity, be vehicles to salvation for their adherents? I do not ask this question in some relativistic way. I ask it from the perspective of the church, which proclaims that salvation comes only through Christ Jesus, who alone is God and man, divinity Incarnate. So, I write particularly about those who have never had Christ preached to them at all (Rom. 10,14-15) as well as those who have not been taught Jesus in a manner consistent with an authentic proclamation of the Gospel. In other words, those who have only been told by Christians that God condemns them, not that God loves them, personally, individually, and knows the number of hairs on their heads, that they are an irrepeatable act of God, bearers of the imago dei.


  1. A very thought-provoking post. I was raised as a Lutheran, so not Evangelical, but something like this idea was very basic to my formation. There was more emphasis for me, however, that salvation was also universally offered to all, which of course you don't find emphasized with those of a more Calvinist bent. The net result being, yes, we are punished for sin that isn't ours, but we are redeemed by grace that isn't ours, so we just don't really factor into this equation much at all, other than as the being God loves and saves.

    This post brings me to ponder Mt. 24:12: "with the increase in lawlessness, love in most people will grow cold." What the world needs in the face of seared consciences, or uninformed consciences, is more love, not less. Why are we prone to have it the other way?

  2. "The net result being, yes, we are punished for sin that isn't ours, but we are redeemed by grace that isn't ours, so we just don't really factor into this equation much at all, other than as the being God loves and saves."

    I think this is a really concise way of putting it. I do not mean to impute ill-intentions to other Christians. Like you, I would see Evangelicals in the U.S., as non-theological as most tend to be, as Calvinists. Having spent a lot of time in parts of the world not Christian, I find people more hospitable than in Christian countries, more family-oriented, etc. In other words, one does not have to be a Christian to love. In fact, like Ghandi, I am amazed at how loveless Christians often are.

    Also, I think other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, the various strands of what we call Hinduism, and Buddhism, are quite adept at forming consciences in many healthy ways. That is what is so great about natural law, it begins with reason, not revelation. Of course, it is greatly aided by revelation, by faith in Jesus Christ. The biggest stumbling block for many people in accepting Christ is Christians.

  3. I quite agree, sad as it is. With the malformed/deformed conscience issue, I am thinking much more of those in the "Christian west" who perhaps know of institutional Christianity, but not of Christ. Or those for whom, sadly, institutional Christianity has served only to raise barriers against Christ.

  4. Indeed, love must precede morality. Otherwise, it is either unattractive and easily rejected, or one merely becomes a "korrekt Christian". Either way, it ain't for me.

  5. I just wrote a post which flowered after our above discussion here: Moralism and Love: Conversion of the Korrekt.

  6. I love your post and felt compelled to comment on it.

  7. I'm still trying to catch up on my reading after all my travels, and this post really got me. I train catechists, and sometimes the groups will contain Protestants -- and sometimes the catechists have atheist spouses or spouses of other religions -- and the question of "who will be saved?" does come up. The first time it came up, I was bewildered and very unhappy at the turn the conversation was taking -- I was also unprepared for dealing with the very raw way in which questions and "answers" were being raised. In these circumstances, I always silently beg the Holy Spirit for help. Then I spoke, with a very authoritative voice (this was what I was being paid to do!), and these words came out of my mouth: "I only know one thing: There isn't one person in this room who, after death, won't be surprised." That put an end to the speculations and got us back to the subject at hand! Thanks for a very useful post.

  8. "I only know one thing: There isn't one person in this room who, after death, won't be surprised."

    Beautiful and inspired. It puts me in mind of the title of N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope.


A political non-rant

In the wake of yesterday's Helsinki press conference, which, like a lot of my fellow U.S. citizens, as well as many people abroad, left ...