Misunderstanding the past: the meaning of 'sin'
From the Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen:
I stumbled into a BBC programme called Secret History in which Lucy Worsley was taking us around the 17th century William Cavendish’s castle at Bolsover. In one room there were walls and ceiling pictures on Christian themes: “..the little angels crying because Christ had just been crucified.” In the next room there were renaissance depictions of classical scenes: “..the gods of Olympus enjoying an orgy.”
Well, sort of. There was no attempt to explain how the 'little angels' – renaissance cherubs – had developed out of the terrifying images which were their origin: the terrible cherubim pillars of the Canaanite bull cult off the Old Testament, eventually theocratised into archangels by late Judaism. And in the “classical” pictures nothing was said to disabuse us of the misconception that the Olympian orgy was anything other than a 21st-century booze-up with added naughtiness.
An historian might have offered the information that the gods depicted were originally personifications of natural forces – including human natural forces – and so their merriment was a representation of something like a pagan creation myth. For good measure we were told that King Charles I, being 'cerebral' didn’t like this scene and in any case his visit to Bolsover happened at a time when 'Puritanism was becoming powerful at Court'. But Charles wasn’t a Puritan: they were actually his opponents. And he preferred the room with the biblical representations because he was a devout and informed Christian. He, unlike our guide, knew what they meant.
Secret History was history as entertainment; history as upmarket tourism, cultural voyeurism and interior décor. There is a lot of it about and it’s only one step up from all those Hollywood epics in which Pharaoh’s daughter or Salome share the same tastes as contemporary American teenage girls in whose accents they speak. It belongs to that brand of pretentious ignorance and cultural snobbery which regards telly visits to archaeological digs and posh houses as the means whereby one can imbibe an education effortlessly. Or at least a cultural lacquer. And the reason I mention it, apart from a brute desire to exorcise my irritation with the culture-as-fashion-icon gang, is to relate it to historical study in general and to the study of scriptural texts and ancient Christian dogmas in particular.
We moderns make the mistake of thinking that our predecessors were preoccupied with the same things which engage us; that they faced similar problems, asked similar questions and, if they were really clever and 'ahead of their time', came up with answers remarkably like ours. This mistake is perpetrated even in the most venerated academic traditions such as philosophy and the history of ideas. It works like this: someone says that Plato was an idealist. And, before you can say 'perfect world of absolute forms', someone else has immediately introduced those other philosophers Kant, Berkeley and F.H. Bradley as similar idealists who were therefore preoccupied with the same issues as those of Plato. As if Plato and Berkeley might walk into the pub and each immediately know what the other was talking about. Not so.
In order to understand the past it is necessary not simply to ogle it as if one were wandering in smart casuals with Lucy at Bolsover. We have to try to get inside the heads of our forebears and predecessors and ask what the answers might be which made them ask the particular questions they did ask. Then we must try to ask those questions again for ourselves. History consists in asking this: “What must the truth have been and be if it appeared like that to people who thought, spoke and wrote as they did?” Not, “What do we 21st century guys make of it?”
When we do this, we are in for more than a few surprises. It’s worth the effort for we might even emerge with the hint of an education. It throws a completely different light on Our Lord’s parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, when you discover that the local sheep around in the Galilee of that time were pretty well indistinguishable from the goats. And next time we hear the word 'sin', we shouldn’t think it just means sex or having a few too many – let alone one of our more exotic-bureaucratic sins of contemporary political-correctness such as 'racism' or 'homophobia'. If we wish truly to discover what the Christian faith has to say about sin and its possible cure, we have to ask ourselves what the biblical writers and the Fathers made of it. Let us take this very example.
For New Testament writers beginning with St Paul, and then for theologians such as Origen and Augustine, 'sin' meant the deeply flawed character of human existence – that which poisons our will and renders impotent all our attempts at virtue. It did not mean 'You’ve been naughty – must do better'. Because sin is what guarantees that you can’t do better. Still less does sin mean the particular transgression of an item in the moral or social code. Sin for Paul and Augustine was nothing other than the definition of our human condition as frail children of dust and feeble as frail. Sin is the existential plague of our total ruination and for which only the sacrifice of Christ is the cure. That was what Augustine’s quarrel with Pelagius was all about.
This has profound consequences. For once you begin to see sin like this, the drama of salvation becomes more vivid. For sin was and is the universal curse. God, by contrast, is the utterly blessed. So when the apostle says that Christ was made sin for us to save us from sin, he is speaking the unutterable, terrible violence which proclaims Calvary as the place where the Blessed One was made cursed. There on the Cross is the Creator of all life being tortured to death by his creation. Moreover, the scriptural writers believed that by sin death entered the world and the gospel story tells us that even God himself in Christ was subject to this death.
Now imagine: if this mere beginning of a genuine search for understanding the minds of our predecessors can so quickly blaze forth the deep tragic love affair between God and man which is our history, condition, tragedy and final destiny, just think what a consistent application of our intelligence over a lifetime might reveal.
It sure beats history as posh shopping, Lucy.
Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is an author and former rector of St Michael's, Cornhill in the City of London.