Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Indicative of Christian Morality

George Strickland

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"Sin" is a word that does not easily from modern lips. Its most commonsensical synonym would be "evil," and "to sin would then mean "to do evil." But even that translation is widely problematic today, at among those who fancy themselves to be progressive. It is perhaps enough to recall the unease when President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and when more recently President George W. Bush referred to states sponsoring terrorism as an "axis of evil." The unease, of course, was hardly ever caused by the belief that the governments of those countries were morally admirable. But the word "evil" evokes an attitude that a progressive worldview proscribes-being intolerant, "moralistic," "judgmental." Some of the reactions to the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, especially in pronouncements of progressive clergy, sharply illustrate this: Instead of condemning the perpetrators of the massacre, one is supposed to understand "the root causes" of their actions, to recall the injustices of one's own society, and even "to look for terrorist within every one of us." This is not the place to discuss the intellectual confusions and the political consequences of the worldview sustaining the aforementioned assertions. Suffice it to reiterate that the topics of sin and evil are not easily addressed in our contemporary cultural milieu.

Philosophers have distinguished between "moral evil" and "natural evil." The first refers to the acts of human beings, the sending to the imperfections of the world quite apart from human action-say , and act of murder as against the death of an innocent person (or, for that matter of an animal) by "natural causes." Both raise the issue of theodicy, which cannot be discussed within the limitations of this essay. Rather, I will focus on "moral evil"-acts of which human beings are guilty and for which they are culpable.

There is a rather long philosophical tradition which holds that evil is not to be taken as a reality in its own right, but rather is simply the absence of good. Greek philosophers thought that evil, in this sense, is the result of ignorance-true knowledge, or wisdom, would eradicate evil. In contemporary culture, especially in America, explaining away the reality of evil commonly uses the conceptual tools of modern psychology: Acts called evil (not least the criminal justice system) are the result of various unresolved problems in the biography of the actor: the agenda, then, is not to judge but rather understand, and presumably treat therapeutically (of course, this way of thinking has made deep inroads in the criminal justice system itself, which is based very different notions of culpability, and this has lead to a good deal of confusion). Perhaps this approach can be summarized by saying "Hitler had a very bad childhood."

It seems to me that the entire tradition of denying the reality sui generis of evil, from the Greeks on down to contemporary social workers, constitutes a massive trivialization of the phenomenon. (I confess to holding a particular sympathy for the old rigorist Tertullian, who raised the searing question, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?)

The recent episodes in our time from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to the slaughter of the innocents in Beslan Russia only underscore the mind-numbing horrors of modern history. Such episodes serve as a measuring device for any theory of evil. They are, in fact, "icons of evil."

It seems to me that all the trivializations of evil collapse in the face of such incidents. Is murder of innocent victims the absence of good? Is it the result of ignorance or of some psychological pathology? Did the terrorists have a bad childhood? Even if one gives credence to this or that empirical explanation of terrorist mentality and actions, I will say that such explanations are interesting to social scientists but not very plausible in the kind of world in which we live.


The Biblical view of sin is multi-layered. In the Old Testament sin is any action that goes against God's commandments. The two tablets of the Decalogue make very clear that there are sins against God as well as sins against other human beings. There is an idea which was to have far-reaching consequences in the development of Christian thought and morality. This, of course, is what led to the doctrine of "original sin."

The Old Testament contains the idea of a "fall"-the fall from an original state of innocence through the sin of Adam and Eve, and also some sort of fall by rebellious angels. But this idea is quite marginal to the moral teachings of the Old Testament, and rabbinical Judaism was never very interested in it either. It was the New Testament which pushed this idea toward the center of its message, not in all its books but most importantly in the Pauline ones: There are not only individual acts of sinning, but the human condition as such is marked by sin. In other words, "original sin" became an important Christian doctrine, though there were quite different interpretations between the eastern and western traditions.

Pauline Tradition

I think it is fair to say that the western tradition is heavily influenced by St. Paul. The locus classicus of St. Paul understanding can be found in his letter to the Romans (chapter 5:12ff):

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sin-(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by one man's offense many died, much more the grace of God, and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many...the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through the righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In looking at this passage, one should keep a few things in mind. First it comes from a letter, possibly written in haste and under difficult circumstances; that is, St. Paul was not writing a theological treatise. Then, the whole context of the passage is a great thanksgiving for the redemptive grace to be found in Christ, not a thesis on sin for its own sake. Still, the basic assumptions made by St. Paul here are quite clear: Human sinfulness is a condition into which we are born, which is sharply accentuated by a divinely given law whose commandments we are unable to fulfill, and for which we are culpable over and beyond any individual acts of sinning; and furthermore, death is intrinsically linked to this congenital condition of sinfulness.

There is a clear line of development of this issue from St. Paul through St. Augustine to the Protestant Reformation (which, among other things, can be seen as a resurgence of Pauline thought in the resulting rift in the Western Church. The major theme is utter human depravity, of which every individual is guilty and from which the individual cannot free himself. Luther's lonely struggle with his overly relentless conscience was very clearly a replication of St. Paul's struggle with the Jewish law, in both cases to the accompaniment of feelings of utter unworthiness. It was only logical, then, that it was another Pauline assertion-that we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law (Luther added that it was by faith alone)-which showed Luther the way out of his crisis of conscience.

Johannine Tradition

Within the New Testament, the Johannine tradition serves as a useful counterpoint. As in the classic text in the fourth chapter of the First Letter of John: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." It would probably be an exaggeration to describe the Orthodox Church as Johannine and the Western Church as Pauline-the differences are more complicated. Yet the western tradition is undoubtedly more legalistic and indeed moralistic, presumably reflecting the prototypical Latin mindset. Orthodoxy is more metaphysical, its piety and morality more influenced by a more sanguine view of human nature. It does not deny the reality of sin, even "original sin," as part of the human condition, but it less harsh in its anthropology and much less juridical in its view of salvation.

Thus John Meyendorff, one of the great Fathers of contemporary Orthodoxy, has a concept of sin that he calls "ontological"-a great circumstance, grounded in a cosmic catastrophe, into which the human race has fallen and for which it or any of its members cannot be held accountable. Being compelled to live in this condition, human beings in their struggle to survive have a propensity towards evil, which at times, of course, can lead to concrete acts of horrendous evil. Thus sin is embedded in a general "fallen" condition of man and of the whole creation: death is the most important consequence of this "fall." The redemptive power of the risen Christ brings about the victory over both sin and death, and this triumph reverberates throughout Orthodox thought. The "fall" has fatally disrupted the relationship between God and man: redemption is movement toward a restoration of this relationship.

The Indicative of Christian Morality

Some years ago there was a lot of attention given to the acronym W.W.J.D.-"What Would Jesus Do? among Christians, especially Evangelicals. It was a multimillion-dollar bonanza for companies marketing bracelets, T-shirts, pens, key chains, calendars, stuffed animals, and tote bags, selling not only in Christian boutiques but in mainstream sores like Wal-Mart. "What would Jesus do?" sounds like the right question. Right? Wrong!-the wrong question, because it lets us off the hook; it puts us in charge of the answer. The right question is "What did Jesus do?" and how does that inform our view of morality? Christians have always looked to the real Jesus of the Gospels in search of a word, a model, a promise, or a sign, to challenge us, to direct us, to clue us in as to where to stand, when to march, how to act. After all the revolutions in recorded history have come and gone, there remains the revolutionary message and ministry of Jesus that outlasts and transcends them all. He read His first manifesto in the synagogue, taken from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.

He came to the defense of the defenseless. He took sides in the struggle for the poorest of the poor, forgotten people locked up in jails, the blind, all victims of affliction and oppression.

Jesus never talked in gradual measures, or piecemeal changes. He had an emphatic, all-or-nothing way of speaking. He was not for reform, but repentance; not for accommodation but for conversion. It was the mark of His mindset to speak in the indicative-in absolutes, in total terms, involving a reversal of signs so that plus is minus and minus is plus. Jesus used the indicative mode-"look at this," "look at that." (This insight is derived from the theologian Frederick Neumann, who developed it with regard to an understanding of conscience.)

One of the most poignant examples of Jesus' use of the indicative is found in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery:

Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him [Jesus] a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" This they said, testing Him, that might have something of which to accuse Him, But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you? She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more (John 8:3-11).

In effect Jesus was communicating to the crowd, "Look at what you are doing! This should not be!"

Using dramatic, apocalyptic language, Jesus addresses the inheritors of the kingdom of God in Matthew 25, "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me." Put another way, Jesus is saying, "This is what you have done! Well done! This is how things ought to be!" Jesus informs our conscience to act in certain ways and to refrain from others actions triggered by scenes that come into view and carry with them moral implications. Some scenes call for us to protect, love and care. Whether it is a question of love between man and woman, parents and children, neighbors or others, we are required to look to the good of the other. Conversely, there are scenes that present themselves as calling for moral condemnation and redress. It doesn't stretch the imagination too much to consider scenes of abused children and the millions of unborn little ones, treated like garbage for the sake of someone's personal convenience. The example can be multiplied indefinitely in terms of the many scenes of human cruelty, oppression and injustice.

Put simply, different scenes call for moral judgment and action. The Christian worldview, over and over through the centuries, has pointed the conscience of individuals to scenes where the immeasurable worth of human beings has been denied or trampled upon. Christian conscience, I think, mainly expresses itself in a voice that says a resounding "no!" or more precisely that says "look on this scene-it should not be!"

George Strickland is co-editor and contributor to the Directions to Orthodoxy website.

Posted: 9/15/04

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Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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