Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Evolution of Doctrine: Simultaneously righteous and sinner

An important conceptual change in theological doctrine was Luther's idea of "Simultaneously righteous and sinner" (Simul Iustus et Peccator).

In early Christianity, human righteousness is conceived of as being on a single continuum, with extreme wickedness at one end and godly righteousness at the other end. It is thus a grey-scale which measures morality:
Sinner <------------------------------------> Righteous
The basic idea is that a given human can only occupy one location on this scale at a particular time. Over time they can become better or worse - moral improvement, or moral decline. God is seen as approving of righteousness and disapproving of wickedness. The solution to avoiding God's anger is thus to move across the scale and become a better person, ie to repent of one's wicked ways and change them. This continuum is taken for granted by Christians throughout the first millennia: To become righteous is to cease being a sinner, and vice versa. There is never the thought of a "righteousness" that doesn't entail actually being moral and ceasing from sin.

Luther however took an axe to this continuum and cut it into two. In his system there are two such continua: One measuring human morality as it actually is, and one measuring God's (judicial) view of humans. On one continuum we can be sitting at "world's worst sinner" and on the other at "perfectly righteous" - our true moral state, and our moral state before God, are in Luther's system two totally different things.

The practical outworking of this is that there is no great need for humans to be actually righteous or live righteously, and thus Luther writes "boldly sin... No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day." This is a strikingly different attitude toward sinning compared to that evident in the first millennia writings (see the Desert Fathers for example).

The essential conceptual development at work here is the breaking of the old single-continuum into two, so that you can now be both sinner and saint at the same time, where in previous Christianity being one excluded being the other. In a sense it was Luther's projection of this new model back onto Paul's writings that shaped his entire theology. Paul was reread in light of this double-continua and what now came out of his writings was no longer talk of actual moral righteousness, but rather a way to be righteous before God despite actually being a sinner. Paul's gospel, in Luther's model, is then about how human beings can be righteous before God and sinners in actuality at the same time due to what Christ has achieved. Actual moral change is no longer a prerequisite to salvation, because the continuum that governs salvation and status in the eyes of God is now an independent continuum to that which measures our actual morality.


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, you may be right that the clear expression of this doctrine is new to Luther. But it is clearly to some extent implicit in Paul. See for example Romans 7:25b, which implies that the same individual (whether Paul himself or another) can simultaneously be serving God and serving sin. It seems to be even clearer in the words of Paul's opponents in 6:1,15 who seemed to believe that they could sin and that that would cause grace to abound.

Blogger Andrew said...

Well I was focusing on the post-Pauline development of doctrine. Paul's interpreters through until Luther held the unified view of sinfulness-righteousness and Luther is the first to propose the idea of being able to be sinful and righteous at the same time.

Now of course with any such model-change or doctrinal change, it has the potential to cast new testament writings in a new light: either the new model could be better and illuminate real intended themes in the texts that had been previously missed, or it could be confuse matters by imposing an incorrect model back onto the texts. But the very concept of reading the bible with this double-concept of sinfulness and righteousness in mind radically differs from the Christianity of previous church history.

It was certainly a common Reformation interpretation to see in Romans 7 Paul's post-Christian struggles with sin (thus implying that Christians are never righteous). However as I mentioned here recent scholarship is almost unanimously of the view that such an interpretation is incorrect and that the speaker is not Paul nor a Christian.


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