"The Dilemma of Defining Sin: a Reformed Tradition Perspective"

Pastor's Seminar, October 1995 - The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church

led by Elder, Virginia L. Lewis

[Moderator's Note: Bill Youlton's contribution has emphasized the need for us to understand what we mean by the concept of "sin." The term is abused by those who would use it as one more club against gay and lesbian persons. What follows is the "assigned homework" for a short seminar I led as a "prequel" to the homosexuality study which we did at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in 1995 (and because of which I am sometimes called "the Sin Professor"). It is of necessity incomplete. The somewhat lengthy readings from the field of Christian Ethics cannot be reproduced here without permission. The references are given. I will summarize them for you soon. For now, this will give you "something to start thinking about."]

"What western theologians have traditionally done is to sit around and ponder the nature of sin and speculate about the essential characteristics of Evil while allowing both to surround them in all forms. And those of us who have been the victims of that - who have had it stuck to them - have gone out into the world and have made (and are making) the attempt to do something about that Sin/Evil."

Spoken by a contemporary theologian who also is a lesbian living in a committed life relationship - and a mother - and the founder of a Salvadoran relief agency in the 60s.


I. Perceptions and Preconceptions of Sin

A. Take a moment to reflect on your personal definition of Sin:

1. What things did you consider "sinful" as a child; as an adult?

2. Has that definition changed, narrowed, broadened, become more or less relevant to the way you live your life? Explain.

B. Overall, is your personal definition of Sin determined more by cultural, theological, or experiential (relating to your life experiences) considerations?


II. The Biblical Perspective

A. The Bible uses the words commonly translated into English as "sin" comparatively infrequently. The following references to "sin" are given in the index to the NRSV New Oxford Ecumenical Study Bible. Read through them for an overall perspective.

Gen. 4:7; Exodus 32:32; Numbers 32:23; I Kings 8:46; II Chronicles 7:14; Psalms 119:11; Isaiah 53:12; Matthew 5:29; John 1:29; Romans 6:23; II Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; I John 1:7 (Tobit 12:10; Wisdom 10:13; Sirach 3:30)

B. The New Scofield Reference Bible (KJV) - the Bible of preference for religious fundamentalists - lists 156 total references to the terms "sin" or "sinner." Yet only seven (7) of those references define "sin" directly. Read those seven scriptures listed below ­ and attempt to state clearly what the Bible does say about the essential nature of sin.

Deut. 9:7; Joshua 1:18; Proverbs 24:9; Romans 14:23; James 4:17; I John 3:4 and 5:17


III. Our Confessional Statements

The PC(USA) Book of Confessions (a part of our Constitution) contains three definitions of sin. Read them below.

The Second Helvetic Confession (5.037)

By sin we understand that innate corruption of man which has been derived or propagated in us all from our first parents, by which we, immersed in perverse desires and averse to all good, are inclined to all evil. Full of wickedness, distrust, contempt and hatred of God, we are unable to do or even to think anything good of ourselves. Moreover, even as we grow older, so by wicked thoughts, words and deeds committed against God's law, we bring forth corrupt fruit worthy of an evil tree (Matt. 12:33 ff.). For this reason by our own deserts, being subject to the wrath of God, we are liable to just punishment, so that all of us would have been cast away by God if Christ, the Deliverer, had not brought us back.

The Shorter Catechism (7.014)

Q. 14. What is sin? A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. (Referenced: I John 3:4; James 4:17; Romans 3:23)

The Larger Catechism (7.134)

Q. 24. What is sin? A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature. (References same as for Shorter Catechism)


IV. The Theological Perspective

A. Read carefully James M. Gustafson's discussion of the "Human Fault." Pay particular attention to Gustafson's categories of fault ("sin"): misplaced trust or confidence, wrongly ordered objects of desire, corrupt rationality, and disobediance.

Reference: Gustafson, James M., Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective (Vol. 1), University of Chicago Press, 1981, pp. 293-306.

B. Read through Stanley Hauerwas' "on Learning to be a Sinner" and "Our Sinful Character" (both brief). Pay particular attention to his reference to R. Niebuhr and to Niebuhr's definition of "ethics."

Reference: Hauerwas, Stanley, The Peaceable Kingdom, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, pp. 30-34; 46-49.


V. Synthesis

Read John 8: 1-11. What precisely was Jesus' parting admonition to the woman caught in adultery?


For Further Study and Reflection:

1. What do the various definitions of sin which we have discussed share in common? Where are they in tension? Where might they be different but complementary?

2. How are sin and violence connected? Or do you believe that they are connected? Why or why not?

3. In light of the reading and discussion, would you change your definition of sin? If so, how? If not, why not? What difference would this new definition make in how you live the rest of the week? Does it respond to the complaint expressed by the opening quote?

4. Our misunderstanding of what "sin" is has particular relevance to the debate on ordination of homosexual persons. Please take your prayerful consideration of our discussions here into the church's study of homosexuality during the following weeks.

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