Thursday, May 03, 2012

Article 16: Of Mortal and Venial Sins

XVI. Of Sin after Baptism
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.


Today's article above is a cutesy amalgam of Reformed and more Catholic notions pertaining to sin. Catholic moral theology is very dense, to the point that some Anglicans refer to it as casuistry. Boiled down, Catholic moral theology makes the distinction between mortal and venial sin. By that, the Catholic Church believes that some sin is more heinous than others. I tend to agree with this notion (big surprise). 


For instance, if I stump my toe and yell a profanity, that would be a much lesser sin in the eyes of just God than if I grabbed a gun, walked into the nearest gas station, and shot 3 people in an armed robbery attempt. The former would be, under Catholic moral theology, a venial sin. The latter would be a mortal sin, meaning if I died then and there without repenting or receiving God's forgiveness in any way, I would be virtually assured of perdition.


Part of this stems from the Church in the early centuries grappling with what to do about sin after baptism, particularly if one renounced the faith under duress or persecution. If baptism was the washing away of sin and new life in Christ, what happened when someone sins, particularly grieviously, after baptism. Some thinking, particularly surrounding the Traditor controvesry with the Donatists, until around the time of St. Augustine was largely that if you committed major sin after baptism (particularly apostasy), you were just out of luck in the hereafter, which is why so many people put off baptism until very late in life, lest they sin and go to hell. This is what led to the evolution of the theology of mortal and venial sin, as well as the need for confession and penance, as well as the assurance of sacramental validity from a priest

St. Augustine is to be credited for sorting this out. The major question at the time was, "How can you know if a sacrament is valid if the priest is in some state of serious sin after baptism?" Basically, Augustine answered that we have assurance because the validity of the sacrament is not contingent on the moral validity of the priest administering the sacrament because everyone sins. He argued that if you followed the logic that sacraments administered by a priest living in sin were not valid, then no sacrament is ever valid because we all sin and can never know whether at the time of the sacrament, the priest was forgiven or not for various sins. We have to have faith in God's grace and Election.  

To many Protestants, sin is any rebellious act which separates us from God. Protestants (Anglicans included) have been very leery of going the Catholic route of trying to classify some sins as greater and more worthy of eternal damnation than others. This, to many Protestants, is the Church playing God. God is the judge, and not the Church. Basically, sin is sin, whether small or great. 


To continue the profanity laced toe stumping/felony homicide-aggravated robbery example above, to at least some Protestant moral theology, the person would be damned in either instance because it was a sinful act that by its nature separated the person from God's grace. While all sin does separate us from God to some degree, I have problems with lumping it all together if God is truly a justice and merciful God.

Certainly the Wesleyan/Holiness and Arminian crowds with their "backsliding" moral theology would be in line with this, but this is only true in some strands of Protestantism. Calvinism's predestination doctrine renders that idea of sin affecting the ultimate destination of one's soul somewhat moot, as it denies free will. Luther had the "Christians are both saints and sinners simultaneously" thing going, and was somewhat ambivalent as his life and theology progressed on that issue.

True to form, Anglicanism has never been comfortable in either camp. The English Reformers as well as Richard Hooker were quite loathe to adopt the mortal/venial sin dichotomy of the Catholic church, but were never quite comfortable in the Protestant "Sin is sin regardless of its scope" camp of moral theology. The Anglican funeral liturgy has always opted for what I call the 'Calvinist cop out' where we consign the dead "into the Arms of the Almighty," and basically say that we cannot ever truly know the condition of anyone's soul at death, regardless of however good or bad the person may have seemed. God is judge on matters of sin, and we are not.

This uncomfortable footing in either camp of moral theology is seen in this Article. It does not say mortal sin, but you will notice it opens with the cutesy term "Not every deadly sin..." That seems to suggest that there is at least the possibility of non-deadly sins, but that is never elaborated upon. The writers also oddly tie the notion directly to the unpardonable "sin about the Holy Ghost" which is referenced in Scripture but is never clearly defined in scripture. In the more honest theological commentary on those verses of scripture, usually the writer will give possibilities to what that sin is but will ultimately admit, however flowery in prose, that the Church really has no idea what Jesus was talking about there.

The type(s) of sin aside, this Article suggests that even heinous sins (though in the eyes of God this might not be different from lesser sins) after baptism are not necessarily unpardonable. This article also suggests that one can lose one's salvation through such heinous sins but can always be restored with repentance through God's grace. I believe the Catholic church would be in agreement on this issue of God's forgiveness. The Council of Trent in the 14th session proclaimed that, "If the baptized afterwards defile themselves by any transgression, it is not the will of Christ that they should be cleansed by a repetition of Baptism...they may be absolved...not only once, but as often as they penitently flee thereto, confessing their sins."

 I agree with that. I don't believe any act can separate us from God if we are truly and earnestly repenting of our manifold sins and wickedness, as it says in the Prayerbook language. Or, as St. Paul says in Romans:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

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