In late medieval and early modern Western thought, sin is a religious concept that needs to be understood against the background of biblical writings and the doctrinal traditions of the churches. Rather than attempting an in-depth analysis of the most sophisticated theological and philosophical discussions, the present entry offers a basic conceptual framework in which such discussions take place between 1300 and 1650. The positions of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Johann Eck, and Ignatius of Loyola are briefly described.
KeywordsHarmful Emotion Personal Guilt Modern Theologian Sinful Person Evil Thought
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
In the Latin New Testament, the concepts “sin” and “debt” are often interchangeable. For instance, the prayer of Jesus “Our Father” employs “sin” in Luke 11:4 and “debt” in Matthew 6:12. Sinners need forgiveness of their debts. Forgiveness takes place both as an act of grace and in terms of payment. In the social imagination of medieval and early modern people, the logic of payment and the logic of gift are complementary and overlapping mechanisms (Zemon Davis 2000). By confessing his or her sins, an individual receives forgiveness as an act of divine grace; at the same time, this person pays back some of his or her debt by doing works of satisfaction.
In addition to such economic horizons, the vocabulary of the lawcourt is often employed. The sinful person carries guilt (culpa) and deserves punishment (poena). Forgiveness covers both the forensic and the economic dimension of guilt and debt. The legal vocabulary allows for sophisticated distinctions. For instance, in the Augustinian tradition of original sin, future generations may receive the punishment of Adam’s sin even when they have no personal guilt related to it. The baptism of infants can be explained with a view to similar considerations: the baptismal water can cleanse a person from inherited guilt and punishment even when no personal guilt is ascribed to the infant. On the other hand, the baptized person continues to commit actual sins. Therefore, his or her later guilt needs to be reconciled through the mechanism of confession and absolution.
The angelic Fall was typically considered to have been the first sin. It was followed by the original sin of Adam and Eve. While this original sin is, according to the Augustinian tradition, transmitted sexually, the theme of inheritance is predominantly discussed in legal (rather than sexual or corporeal) terms. The sins of an individual person are seen in terms of theological and legal continuity with the first sin. At the same time, each person remains legally responsible for his or her own sins.
The moral dimension is likewise prominent. The distinction between good works and sin is analogical to the distinction between virtue and vice. According to moral philosophy and theology, some moral flaw is found in the sinful person. While forgiveness cannot by itself make sinful persons virtuous, their future virtue can be trained by the works of satisfaction, educational efforts, and the effective powers of sacramental grace. In this manner, the ethical vocabulary of virtue is connected with the quasi-economic interplay of gift and payment.
Standard Catholic theology, in particular Thomism, operates with the help of these three (economic, legal, moral) conceptual frameworks of sin. Legal and moral analogies underline the personal responsibility of an agent for his or her sinfulness. The baptized can, at least in theory, avoid sin and cleanse themselves of culpability through using the sacraments of the church.
Especially in the monastic traditions, the moral and legal picture of sin is regarded as superficial, as it does not reach the roots of sinfulness. Monastic theologians often emphasize that emotions and even everyday perceptions are already in themselves sinful. Sin is not something that takes place only after an act of free will; rather, our whole emotional and sensual life is sinful. The words of Jesus regarding the sinfulness of lust (e.g., Matthew 5:28) offer support for such a position. Philosophically, many monastic theologians approach the Stoic ideals of a complete eradication of harmful emotions and a holistic control of one’s own inner life. On the other hand, conscious intention and free consent are often thought to be the moral and legal prerequisites of culpably sinful action. If emotions are considered to be judgments in a Stoic fashion, it may be possible to consider harmful emotions as sinful in this sense of culpability (Knuuttila 2004).
Like many monastic theologians, Martin Luther maintains that a merely moral and legal understanding of sin is theologically inadequate. For him, sin is a holistic power of corruption (Verderbnismacht) that is connected with the powers of death and devil. While Luther strongly advocates the baptism of infants, he also considers that baptized Christians continue to be sinful in some sense. Christians are “righteous and sinful at the same time,” since they cannot eradicate all repugnant harmful emotions during their corporeal life. For this reason, Luther can say, for instance, that Christians commit sin even while doing good works. This is because their good works remain in some sense contaminated with the remnants of their sinfulness (Schneider and Wenz 2000; Bultmann et al. 2007).
For Roman Catholicism, this is a too pessimistic and even Manichean picture of Christian humanity. In the Leipzig disputation of 1519, the issue of remaining sinfulness was debated between Luther’s adherents and the Catholic theologian Johann Eck. The standard Catholic position, defended by Eck, considers that the basic evil desire of concupiscence can be called sin before baptism but not after it. After baptism, conscious sinful intention and consent are needed to make Christians truly sinful. Eck grants, however, that the Church Fathers have dealt with this problem in different ways. He concedes that the Lutheran way of labeling the concupiscence of the baptized Christians as sin is possible if the word “sin” refers to their punishment (poena) rather than to their guilt (culpa) (Seitz 1903, 242–255). In this manner, Eck shows some understanding of the monastic traditions of the Western church.
The Council of Trent (1545–1563) defines the normative Catholic teaching on sin in its Decree on original sin (sessio 5) and Decree on justification (sessio 6) (The Council of Trent 1990). The Council condemns, for instance, the Lutheran view that righteous people sin in their good works (sessio 6, canon 25). In this manner, Catholics evaluate the relative importance of remaining concupiscence differently from Protestantism. Basically, Catholics consider that Christians should remain free from sin (sessio 6, cap. 11). John Calvin takes over Luther’s radical view of permanently sinful concupiscence (Institutio 2, 2, 24) (Calvin 2006). He teaches that the human nature is so corrupted that a total renewal of human mind and will is needed (Institutio 2, 3, 1–5).
In spite of the confessional divide we cannot draw the conclusion that early modern Roman Catholicism merely stuck to the old legal and moral vocabulary. The most influential early modern treatise on sin is contained in The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (2009). The readers of Ignatius are expected not only to perform the exercises but to compile a training diary, allowing them to chart their progress in this healing. Ignatius distinguishes among three kinds of morally relevant thoughts: some arise from one’s own will, others from external good spirit, and still others from external evil spirits. Resisting evil thoughts is counted as merit. Ignatius admonishes the reader to remember the angelic Fall, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the mortal sins of later people. Such remembrance trains the mind to understand the gravity of sin.
The introspective dimension belongs integrally to the exercises of the first week, devoted to healing from sin. Readers ask who they really are and lessen themselves, first by comparing themselves to other people, second by comparing all humans to angels and saints, and third by comparing all creation to God. The chain from the angelic Fall to human sinfulness is thus reversed and returned to God. This process affords a truthful grasp of one’s bodily corruption and foulness. Meditating on hell complements these exercises. Readers are invited to visualize the flames of hell, hear the laments of the souls there, smell the odors, taste bitter things, and feel the burning of the flames. The body and its five senses play an important role in the exercises.
Philosophically, Ignatius’s introspective emphasis and his constant attention to the corporeal and sensual existence of human beings are innovative features that have preserved their legacy until our day. Like the early Protestants, Ignatius does not consider sin to consist primarily in moral and legal matters. Rather, the healing from sin concerns the entire corporeal and spiritual existence of human beings. Ignatius wants the reader to train his or her cogito, the introspective capacity of thinking one’s own inner world. In many ways Ignatius is concerned with how the reader appropriates the contents of his or her own mind. Ignatius is thus close to the later German philosophy of Aneignung, a concept developed by Hegel and Kierkegaard.
The Protestants also develop techniques to cope with sinful thoughts and emotions. Johann Gerhard’s Meditationes sacrae (2010) can in some ways be read as the Lutheran counterpart of Ignatian exercises. As the early modern theologians often connect sin with death, meditating on death is a major concern of such techniques. The modern Enlightenment view, according to which death and illness belong to the category of nature, whereas vice, sin, and bad (=corrupt?) will belong to the different category of morality, is not clearly developed in the seventeenth century.
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