Friday, February 9, 2007

The Starting Point: Sin

In my previous two posts it has occurred to me that the critical and important issue at stake in this discussion is the starting point of sin. The philosophical underpinnings of psychology begin at a different point than theology (behavior, self-perception, relationships, etc.), and so it is no surprise when the two come at times to points of conflict. One 'school' of psychology seemed to find that correct starting point in the work of O. Hobert Mowrer. If you are interested, there is a very informative archived article from Time magazine, dated September 14, 1959, entitled "Sin and Psychology." Mowrer saw the inadequacies of the old Freudian insight psychotherapies, which simply assumed that if people gained insight into their troubled minds they might find healing. Mental hospitals were full of people, who if the Freudian theory was correct, should have been saints by then, instead of the troubled souls they were. The old theories were not working, Mowrer said.

It is understandable that Mowrer would go only so far with his new theory. And the greatest downfall of all is that he really did not have a good solution. In theological terms, he, as all before him, had only the law to use. They could only turn back to the person and ultimately declare: heal yourself. It is a dead end street.

Psychology, as was noted in a previous post, can ferret out symptoms of sin that the theologian misses. They see the evidence of the deeper problem. To that extent there is value. It's the philosophical baggage that inevitably comes with psychology that complicates the matter and turns the poor troubled person back in on themselves.

However, the Church has often missed the starting point of the issue as much as psychologists. If only we can help people to see what is wrong in their lives, they can then be counted on to apply the correct principles and straighten out the problem. Yet, we can never forget that man is, by nature of the Fall, a sinful creature. On his own he can do no good. Try as he might, he always comes up short. And worse yet, his guilt over his failure remains to haunt him.

In the Augsburg Confession the Reformers understood that the starting point was sin, but they also saw the solution in the unlimited grace of God in Christ, proclaimed and applied to the sinner's life through Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution.

Over on the blog site Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (which is a good site to check out!), Pastor Gregory Alms notes that:

"Sin is the starting place for theological reflection. The Augsburg Confession [AC] begins yes, with the doctrine of the Trinity but then quickly establishes that theology is not an abstract, philosophical enquiry into the nature of God or other intellectual matters but is a matter of sin and salvation. We are born, says the AC, without fear or trust in God. The God to whom we are introduced in the first article is lost to us. Theology begins with our lack of God. To begin anywhere else (e.g. the glory of God, the beatific vision, man's ascent to God) is to distort the Biblical witness from the start. Much as the Bible begins with God ("in the beginning, God") but quickly moves to the exile of our parents from that God, theology, devotion and piety must all begin in the fact of sin and our inability to reach to God, know God or follow Him.

This is a practical matter as well as a dogmatic one. Living in our baptism, living our baptism daily means beginning with sin, with death to the Old Adam. Every day we begin with sin, our sin, our condition, our actions, that which we must confess. This we never outgrow. Beginning with sin ensures that our eyes are focused then on Christ. Starting on our lack of God drives us to our only hope : the God who comes Advent!) to us, the God of the Incarnation, the God of the crucifixion, the God of the Gospel."

As I prepared for my first adult instruction class last night, my lesson began with sin. Did you know that the various words that are translated "sin" in the Old and New Testament amount to over 600 references? Sin is a central topic in the Bible. But then, why shouldn't it be? The Scriptures were written, essentially, to point us to Christ, the answer to sin's curse of death and hell, a curse that begins with the opening chapters of Genesis. And so we should do no less with the troubled. We cannot back away from sin. We dare not color over its dark and ugly hues with whitewashed dreams. But we cannot leave them there either, with only the accusing law that continually condemns. They need the sweet Gospel, the good news that declares them free in Christ. Only here in Christ is there healing. Only here.

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