Intellectual Sins

Although it has positive features and passages, I was disappointed in Gregory Mellema’s Sin, both for what it was and for what it wasn’t. One could call them intellectual sins of commission and omission.

Let’s begin with the second sort of disappointment. I had read that it would be a philosophic consideration of sin, and because I have a certain idea of philosophy, one that includes a systematic examination of a subject, deliberate concept-formation, dialectical engagement with opposing views, and well-earned conclusions affirming universal (or at least general) truths, I came to the book looking for that.

Moreover, I had certain issues in mind, some raised in the exchange between Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger in the early 2000s on the right relationship between faith and reason. Habermas famously said that faith could venture into the public square if it was willing to cast its claims in terms accessible to all. In other words, faith was welcome if it could be cast in “rational” terms. Habermas intended to be open-minded, but he wasn’t particularly open to critical investigation into his understanding of reason, and he wasn’t really open to the possibility that faith might transcend reason and thus be able to help it see its limits and to complement its discoveries. In short, I was expecting sustained philosophical reflection on a term and concept introduced by faith and refined by theology, during which philosophy applied its own criteria and, perhaps, was led to acknowledge a mystery. As it turned out, very little of that applies to this treatment of sin.

Professor Emeritus at Calvin University, author of several works of moral philosophy, Mellema is up-front about the character of the book and his aims. In the Preface, he forthrightly declares that he “will not attempt to offer a definition of sin that stipulates necessary and sufficient conditions.” Moreover, “this book does not take the form of a single, sustained line of argument developed over the course of multiple chapters.” Neither definition nor argument (in the singular)! “Rather, each chapter addresses a particular topic and contains arguments appropriate to its subject matter.” One might call this a string of pearls, but minus the string. Tacitly acknowledging this less-than-flattering implication, he ventures that “if there is a single overarching link among the ten chapters, it is that the topic of sin is fundamentally connected to the subject matter of morality” (italics added). So, the book is not a systematic analysis of the concept (and reality) of sin, and its disparate discussions are connected with a subject, morality, that it doesn’t address systematically either. 

The eclecticism of topics is mirrored by an eclecticism of authors: “This volume brings together contributions by such philosophers as Marilyn Adams, Robert Adams, Rebecca DeYoung, Alvin Plantinga, Michael Rea, Eleonore Stump, and Richard Swinburne.” Mellema claims that these contemporary philosophers’ “contributions” are brought by him “into a coherent discussion,” but he doubly qualifies that claim, first by saying that it “has the potential to clarify our understanding of the nature of sin” (italics added) and secondly by saying that he has produced “a book-length treatment of philosophical issues concerning sin” (italics added). One sees that he is aware of the intellectual aim of grasping “the nature of sin,” but he draws back from it, seeking rather to shed variegated light on it, or, more precisely, on “issues concerning sin.” In the end, the whole doesn’t add up, but it wasn’t intended to do so. A number of pearls not forming a necklace is an odd thing.

Outsourcing One’s Thinking

Confronting these claims and self-characterization of the book, I looked to see if it was cobbled together from earlier articles or essays, but found no evidence of this, so I was left with some threshold questions: What accounts for the choice of parts that don’t really make a whole? Is there a conception of philosophy that undergirds it? Alas, the overview of the book provided in the Preface made no effort to indicate an inner logic or rationale, much less to provide a guiding conception of what philosophy is and how it operates. The same was true of a closing survey in the Conclusion, which merely distilled and reiterated the previous treatments.

Venturing outside the work, I discovered that Dr. Mellama has written four books on moral philosophy, or rather issues and aspects of the discipline. Their titles indicate them: Complicity and Moral Accountability (2016); The Expectations of Morality (2004); Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation, and Offence (1991); and Individuals, Groups, and Shared Moral Responsibility (1988). This was a bit more helpful because all of these topics are found in the Sin book. They thus form something of the background, perhaps elements of an armature, of the sin-discussion. Add to them the congeries of contemporary philosophers mentioned above, some of the vectors and “forces” of the pluralistic treatment of sin come to view.

It appears that Dr. Mellama was a long-time professor of moral philosophy who had an (unspecified) interest in contemporary philosophical treatments of sin and wanted to engage with them: “My choice of topics was largely the result of issues thought to be significant by philosophers who have written about sin.” This seems to me tantamount to outsourcing important elements of one’s thinking. To be sure, to them he added and consulted earlier authorities, whether theological (Augustine; Aquinas; Luther), creedal or confessional, or philosophic (Aristotle). Still, a coherent whole doesn’t materialize when neither the logic of the parts nor the conception of philosophizing that produced them is articulated. Instead, this particular series of discussions emerges from largely unexpressed authorial motives and commitments. It also exhibits problematic modes of thinking.

The Treatment of Original Sin

The book begins with a treatment of “original sin” and ends with a presentation of various “world religions” on sin. It seems to me that a treatment that followed the lead of the subject matter would have begun with the world religions that introduced the concept of sin into human understanding, thus acknowledging its original sources and conceptualizations. Then, one could have turned to original sin as a distinctive element in some, but not all, religious conceptions of human sin and sinfulness. To be sure, one could speculate as to why Mellema began with original sin, but this would be only that, speculation, because he doesn’t tell us why he did so, what intellectual, logical, or even pedagogical necessity he had adopted.

To this, one has to add that his treatment of original sin is not conducted as billed. The reader will perhaps have noticed that I have employed the vague generic term “treatment.” This was to indicate that Mellema indeed talks about a topic, but to leave open how he intended to do so and how he in fact does. The beginning chapter on “Original and Inherited Sin” is not auspicious in this regard. In the Preface, he promises that “Chapter 1 deals with sin as a fundamental feature of the human condition that is permanent and inescapable. . . . Here various traditional views as to the nature of sin will be examined and evaluated” (italics added). However, when one turns to the first page of Chapter One and reads its forecast of things to come, one finds the following:

The first section of this chapter surveys how this doctrine has been understood by various philosophers and by various religious traditions. The second section takes up the question of the noetic effects of sin. The third section deals with the question of whether the doctrine of original sin is unfair or unjust to those of us who are supposedly affected by it. The final section takes up the doctrine of primal sin, sin that had its origin prior to the existence of human beings, the theory of sin as uncleanness, and the doctrine of depravity.

In this forecast, one doesn’t see any promise of “evaluation,” least of all of the “various traditional views as to the nature of sin.” The closest thing to evaluation is the third section’s taking up the question of the unfairness or injustice of the doctrine of original sin (admittedly an important question). But when one reads that section, one finds that rather than evaluating, Mellema takes a different tack and offers (without endorsing) an amendment to the doctrine that might make it more “plausible.”

Too often, it’s as though cited authors are merely writing entries for an undergraduate philosophy of religion textbook, rather than trying to articulate the drama of human existence or engaging in debates of the greatest moment.

He suggests that “an advocate for the doctrine might defend a version of it different than what has traditionally been understood as the Augustinian account.” He then proceeds to introduce a new concept, “taint,” and after explaining it, ventures that “perhaps analyzing [original sin] in terms of taint or stain rather than culpability confers some plausibility on it.” While this indicates a certain generosity of spirit on Mellema’s part, one looks in vain for any evaluation in the chapter, whether of the doctrine of original sin itself, or of “various traditional views about the nature of sin.”

Intellectual Engagement

There are other actual defects in the chapter (including the misuse of the word “credulity” when he means “credibility”), but what I found most lacking was any adequate acknowledgement of the enormous intellectual challenges inherent in the doctrine, as well as the human drama it limns. For example, Mellema relates the thought of two Christian philosophers (Michael Ruse and Eleanor Stump), the first who thinks that evolution helps prove original sin (!), the second who wants to articulate a version of the doctrine that isn’t susceptible to being discredited by evolution. In these two disparate treatments, we see contemporary philosophical believers recognizing the internal need of a “reasonable faith” to engage with this modern scientific finding but taking two nearly opposed paths in response. It seems to me that calls, at the least, for some acknowledgement, if not wonderment, curiosity, and intellectual engagement. None of that is forthcoming, however. In fact, I had to bring the two treatments together, since it isn’t done in the text.

There were other such intriguing pairings that could have been made in the chapter, including pairing Augustine with the official “theology of the Roman Catholic Church.” It is striking that the originator of the classical understanding of original sin was not wholly endorsed by his Church. One might have asked, why not? 

As these two examples indicate, there’s a remarkable lack of elemental wonder and curiosity in Chapter One’s rather monochrome survey of a theologically fundamental, historically influential, and humanly provocative teaching. I can understand being dispassionate in the midst of clashing renderings, but it also seems legitimate, even desirable, to exhibit appropriate philosophical sentiments before them.

The Human Drama

As for the human drama inherent in the doctrinethat humankind is estranged from God, the highest Good, and is subject to a congenital need for assistance, healing, and elevation—“grace”—that they themselves cannot provide—while the words are there in the text, the pathos and urgency of determining the truth of the matter is not. Too often, it’s as though cited authors are merely writing entries for an undergraduate philosophy of religion textbook, rather than trying to articulate the drama of human existence or engaging in debates of the greatest moment. That original sin implies broken friendship with God that cannot be humanly mended doesn’t cast its dramatic light—or disturbing shadow—on the discussion. Nor, for that matter (with a few telling exceptions), does it cast much of a shadow on the rest of the book.

By and large, the rest of the book stays on a more human plane, the plane of “morality.” Here, Mellema is more comfortable, here he is in his element. The writing becomes more vivid, more personal, and positions are taken: a human voice, and characteristic philosophical moves (making distinctions, above all), appear. But this welcome appearance of a human voice doesn’t repair the eclipse of the divine in many of the accounts, as sin is often considered from a merely human point of view, and its real and ultimate stakes—friendship broken or maintained with God, eternal life or death—recede from sight. From the perspective of the doctrine of sin, original and mortal, Mellema’s stated aim in the work falls woefully short.

If there is a single overarching link among the ten chapters, it is that sin is fundamentally connected to the subject matter of morality. I believe that analyzing these points of connection is profitable not just to enhance our theoretical understanding of sin but to give us a greater depth of knowledge as to how the moral choices we make can more effectively avoid sin and contribute to lives that are satisfying and authentically worthwhile.

Sin, no doubt, consists in the violation, major or minor, of any number of constitutive human imperatives and relations—with one’s fellows, with non-human creation, even oneself. But to leave out the fundamental and decisive relationship with God deprives all the others of their specificity as sins. I do not deny that there is a natural moral order, that good and evil, right and wrong, conscience and obligation, are accessible to man as man. But sin, it seems to me, adds something specific and determinative to all of that, putting them in a new light and heightening their stakes. Either “friendship with God” is a reality (or a possibility), or it isn’t. At some point, the philosophical analysis of morality needs to consider that game-changing possibility. It may have to reconsider its earlier categories and judgments.

Admittedly, these are deep waters. Where to repair? Earlier, I alluded to the few discussions after Chapter One that brought God back into the picture and made Him central to the discussion of this or that aspect of sin. It’s quite striking that the majority of these passages involve Roman Catholic teaching and thinkers, whether Ludwig Ott’s classic, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, or, behind both, the “Universal Doctor,” Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). When Mellema reports, or when he engages, these Catholic sources, something approaching systematic thought, something that brings “both ends of the cord together,” occurs. Nature and reason, conscience and obligation, are recognized and given their due. But they’re never divorced from supernature or grace, and they are presented as participating in a drama beyond nature or philosophy. It’s against this Catholic/catholic backdrop or standard that one might judge Protestant and Islamic notions of sin, human nature, and ethics. In so doing, however, one would have to venture beyond Mellema, who here too presents accurate renditions of the latter, but does (next to) nothing with them. That’s a disappointment, at least to this Catholic philosopher.