The third chapter of Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible deals with the ideas of sin and freedom. In the last post we discussed a bit of the embodied nature of sin. We do not seem to possess a separable soul capable of overriding the impulses of our bodies. This was illustrated by an extreme example of a tumor that undermined the control mechanisms in the brain and rendered a patient unable to resist the lure of pornography and sexual pleasure. The limitations imposed by the fully embodied nature of human decision making are not confined to cases of disease and accident however.
Dr. Green summarizes the scientific data:
Among the implications of these data, two are of special interest to us in this chapter. The first is simply the embodied nature of decision-making, its manifestly somatic basis, involving predispositions and emotion alongside logical weighing of considerations. Second, decision-making cannot be characterized by the laws of neurobiology in simple bottom-up terms, since our neurobiological profile is itself in a state of ongoing formation and reformation on account of environmental, and especially relational, influences and through self-reflexive evaluation of the bases and futures of past and prospective behaviors. (p. 87)
That paragraph sounds a bit like “professor-speak,” but there are important ideas here.
(1) We are embodied creatures and our decisions are constrained by this fact. The idea of a libertarian free will to choose just doesn’t fit with the data.
(2) Our choices and behaviors today influence our future choices. Relationships and community play an important role.
In the remainder of the chapter Dr. Green looks at the biblical concept of sin in 1 Peter, James, and the letters of Paul, primarily Romans. The question is how the concept of sin according to Peter, James, and Paul, relates to the neurobiological ideas of decision making and human behavior.
What is the biblical concept of sin? How does this relate to human behavior and decision making?
In his letter Peter refers to the former way of life practiced by his audience, behaviors to be avoided, and labels for those who are antagonists. These concepts help to define his view of sin… sin is living outside of the way of God.
“Sin,” then, is inhabiting the muck and executing the ways of a religious and moral climate set against God; it is present as an ethos of unrestrained immorality and craving that cannot but shape persons in its likeness. (p. 89)
Because of Christ his followers can be done with this way of life. The capacity for transformation is a divine gift – both through the example of Christ and through the power of Christ’s life and death. The human family needed liberation from the bondage of a sinful past. Christians enter into a new community and a new way of life. This new way shapes all.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3)
Dr. Green summarizes his reading of 1 Peter:
For 1 Peter then, human life is life on the potter’s wheel, so to speak – being shaped one way or another, by the ancestral ways expressed in taken-for-granted social conventions, or by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the formative influence of the people of God. Humans act out their formation, so the primary questions must be, Formed according to what pattern? Formed within what community? (p. 94)
In the book of James sin is the child of desire born through friendship with the world. Friendship with the world is a unity of heart and mind with the ways of the world. There is a strong emphasis on both the personal and the relational.
The very epitome of the sinful life is not an act but an allegiance, relationally delimited: “friendship with the world.” (p. 95)
Partiality, hypocrisy, bitter envy, selfish ambition, these characterize friendship with the world. Peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, absence of partiality and hypocrisy, these characterize the way of of God. As in 1 Peter there is an internal and a relational component – but the problem of human desire is internal to the human person and the solution must be internalized.
The challenges of exilic life provide an arena for the unbridled exercise of human passion, the result of which is sin and death. … Required is a transformation of human nature by means of divine wisdom, the divine word that must be received and fully embodied so that it imbues who one is and what one does. Theologically this is nothing less than a conversion of the imagination, those patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behavior that animate our lives. (p. 98)
According to Dr. Green Paul’s view of sin is universal – not because Adam sinned, but because all sinned.
Paul’s affirmation of the universality of sin derives from his understanding that Adam’s sin set in motion a chain of effects, one sin leading to the next, not because sin was an essential constituent of the human condition but because all humanity followed Adam in his sinfulness. (p. 100)
This isn’t sinfulness passed on as a contagion but sinfulness as an inescapable part of human community ever after. Reading beyond what Dr. Green has written – this is not necessarily a condition introduced by a unique act by a unique couple, but a statement of the rebellion of mankind and the condition of humanity as a consequence. Paul may see Adam and Eve as the progenitors, but his understanding of sin and human nature does not rest on this.
Moving on, Dr. Green sees six aspects of sin in Paul
(1) The perspective is cosmological. Sin is a condition of the human family.
(2) Acts of wickedness are expressions of sin, they are not themselves the problem.
(3) The expressions of sin evidence the moral integrity of a God who takes sin seriously. God gives humanity over to its own desires. As Wisdom 12:23 puts it: God “torments” those who live unrighteously by allowing them their own atrocities. This idea fits with the Paul’s understanding of sin.
(4) The giving over to sinful desires means that humanity is now in a condition of slavery to sin.
(5) Sin is a rupture of the divine-human relationship, human relationships, and the relationship between humans and creation. Sin is not private, it is in relation to God, to others, and to the cosmos.
(6) Humanity embraces a lie and receives a corrupt mind. [T]he conceptual patterns by which humanity perceives the world and orders its behavior is out of touch with the way things are. (p. 102)
Paul talks very little about the forgiveness of sins. Dr. Green identifies only two places (Eph 1:7, Col 1:14). Rather humanity requires a liberation from enslavement. We are liberated from the enslavement to sin and death and brought into a new community of the people of God. This new community was inaugurated and enabled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Pulling this together. Dr. Green suggests that the following three ideas are coherent with both neurobiology and New Testament perspectives on human nature, human sin and human freedom.
1) We do what we are. That is, our behaviors are generated out of, and so reflect, our characters and dispositions.
2) Who we are is both formed and continually being formed socioculturally, and especially relationally.
3) “Choice” is contextually determined.
Biblical faith pushes beyond the inherited human nature to a broader view of the people of God. Dr. Green doesn’t quite go here in this chapter, but the conclusion seems inescapable. Sin is not the specific acts or behaviors of an individual but the condition of humanity. The acts, bitterness envy, sexual immorality, and so forth characterize a life shaped by a community apart from God or rebelling against God.
We are called and enabled to join the people of God and to re-form ourselves along biblical theological lines in the community of the people of God. This is not an instantaneous change, but an ongoing formation for which community is absolutely indispensable. There is no transformation without the church (being in relationship with the community of the people of God).
This chapter ends rather abruptly and leaves many ideas dangling. The next chapter, Being Human, Being Saved, may bring more of this together.
What do you think of Dr. Green’s identification of the nature of sin according to Peter, James, and Paul? Is this in accord with your understanding?
Does the emphasis on the communal nature of sin and sinfulness make sense?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net