Modern, progressive, thought is fundamentally and diametrically opposed to the doctrine of original sin. The most basic element of progressive thought is the idea that human evil and suffering is caused, not by a flaw in human nature, but by flaws in the organization of society, and that by correcting these flaws, man can build for himself Paradise upon earth. The doctrine of original sin, on the other hand, teaches that man is a fallen being, that the evils he commits and suffers arise out of his own flawed nature, and that he cannot break his own exile from Paradise but must trust in the grace and mercy of God. These two ideas are mutually incompatible and it is the latter, the doctrine of orthodox Christianity and an essential component of conservative thought, which most accurately describes man as he is in the world as it is.
The doctrine of original sin is predicated of man as a collective being. (1) It is the collective sin of our race, in which we each have an equal share. It is the same for any one person as it is for the next. Personal sin, on the other hand, refers to the sins which we each commit as individual persons. While one of the implications of original sin, is that each of us is guilty of personal sin, personal sin differs from person to person and is never exactly the same for any two individual people. Your personal sins are the sins which you have committed and for which you are accountable, whereas mine are the sins which I have committed and for which I am accountable.
If original sin is the realistic rain on the utopian parade of progressivism, personal sin is not exactly a popular concept with modern thought either. It is not that modern people think of themselves as perfect. That is far from being the case. “I’m not perfect” or “nobody’s perfect” are phrases that can be found on virtually everybody’s lips from time to time. Modern people do not like to think of their flaws and failings in terms of sin, however. In part this is because sin is a word with religious associations which seem antiquated to the modern secular mind. It is also because the word sin suggests the idea that one is responsible for one’s actions, and therefore guilty of one’s wrongdoing, for which one can and will be held accountable.
To be fair to modern man, these have never been popular ideas, at least when applied to one’s own self. Consider the words of Adam and Eve in response to God’s questioning in the Garden after the fall in the third chapter of Genesis. However one reads these chapters, literally or figuratively, the point is clearly there that passing the buck is as old as sin.
That having been said, sin is clearly one of those concepts that modern man considers himself too advanced to believe in anymore. Forty years ago a book was published that asked the question “Whatever Became of Sin?” (2) The author was Dr. Karl Menninger, a renowned psychiatrist and the co-founder with his father and brother, of the famous psychiatric clinic and foundation that bear their family name. According to Dr. Menninger, the concept of sin has been on the wane, first because as the modern state developed assuming much of the functions previously performed by the church, much socially undesirable behaviour was moved from the category of sin into the category of crime, and second because with the development of modern medical science, and particularly psychiatry, sinful behaviour has been further reclassified into the category of disease and its symptoms. Another factor he identified was the development of modern ways of regarding society as being collectively responsible for the erring actions of individuals.
Menninger did not see all of these developments as being entirely or even mostly negative – except perhaps the evolution of the modern state of which he wrote with an almost anarchist, individualist contempt. He nevertheless made the case that we still needed the concept of sin. Indeed, he wrote that it was “the only hopeful view.” (3) His reasoning was that since the world was still full of evil, we need the concept of sin, which allows responsibility for evil to be assigned but which also offers the possibilities of repentance, atonement, grace and forgiveness, to retain our sanity.
If the concept of sin has gone out of fashion as a way of thinking about and describing human behaviour that is undesirable and wrong, the same cannot be said of the concept of hypocrisy. The words hypocrisy and hypocrite are doing very well indeed, especially as terms of abuse for those who still hold to the old-fashioned ideas of sin and righteousness.
Hypocrisy is a charge which secular society and unbelievers like to throw against the Christian church and against Christian believers, perhaps without full comprehension of what it is that they are accusing Christians and the church. Often it seems as if those leveling the charge seem to think that the definition of a hypocrite is “a religious person who commits a sin.” This is not what the word means at all.
Hypocrisy was originally a Greek word. It was formed by adding the prefix hypo, which means under, to the verb krino, which means to separate, decide, distinguish or pass judgement. In the old Ionic dialect used by Homer, this compound originally meant to reply or to give an answer. In the later Attic dialect however, i.e., that spoken in Athens at the height of its classical civilization in the period before, during, and just after the Peloponnesian War, the word had been adopted as a technical term for use in the theatre. In this period, when Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were writing their great tragedies for the Athenian stage, the word hypocrisis referred to the work of actors in performing these plays. This usage evolved from the original meaning of the word because it literally described what an actor was doing in the play’s dialogue – answering or replying to the other speakers.
In English, we do not speak of the performing of a role on stage as hypocrisy, nor do we speak of the performers as hypocrites. Instead we use the words acting and actor to describe these things. The meaning of our English word hypocrisy is a metaphorical extension of the idea of acting. An actor is someone who pretends to be someone he is not, the character he is assigned in the play in which he is performing. A hypocrite is also someone who plays a role. He is someone who pretends to be more righteous or virtuous than he actually is. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He denounced the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites. Christ may not have been the first to use the word in this way but it is through His use that it became the word’s primary meaning.
If hypocrisy is putting on an act of being more righteous than you actually are is secular society’s charge that the church is full of hypocrisy accurate?
Sadly, it often is. Individual Christians and the organized church are frequently guilty of hiding their sins and putting on a front of righteousness. That such would be the case is indirectly suggested by the words of Jesus Himself. He would hardly have gone to such lengths to warn His disciples against the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees if He did not think them susceptible to that leaven. Where the charge falls short of hitting its mark is in the unspoken assumption that there is less hypocrisy outside the church than there is inside it.
In my first semester at Providence College there was a class that if I remember correctly was mandatory for all freshmen that was kind of an introductory course to apologetics and evangelism. Part of the course dealt with common excuses given for rejecting the gospel. When our professor, Stan Hamm, asked us how we would respond to someone who says “the church is full of hypocrites”, I blurted out “there is always room for more!”
While I had obviously said that as a wiseass remark, it does actually answer the excuse in a way. Hypocrisy, the pretence of being a better person than one actually is, is a ubiquitous trait of humanity, not just of the religious and it is often best exemplified by those who use the hypocrisy of the church as an excuse to avoid believing the gospel themselves. Indeed, in using the hypocrisy of the church as an excuse for not joining it, one is implicitly claiming to be non-hypocritical, to be completely transparent, open, and honest, which is itself almost certainly a pretence, and therefore, arguably the ultimate form of hypocrisy, being a hypocrite about not being a hypocrite.
In fact, an argument can be made that there is far less hypocrisy within the church than there is outside it. Those who level accusations of hypocrisy against the church when Christians are caught in sin often seem to assume that Christians purport to be sinlessly perfect and demand that others be as well. Yet the very opposite is the case. By the terms of orthodox Christian doctrine, one cannot be a Christian without confessing oneself to be a sinner.
Think about it. A popular method of sharing the gospel, among North American evangelicals, presents the way of salvation as the ABCs of Christianity. While this is not a sterling example of Christian orthodoxy – it distorts the gospel by presenting it as a series of steps that you have to follow in order to obtain salvation rather than a message of good news about how God has given us salvation in Jesus Christ – the A, in the ABCs, always stands for admitting that you are a sinner. (4)
In more traditional Protestant theology, divine revelation is regarded as being divided into two messages, Law and Gospel. The Law tells us what God demands of us, the Gospel tells us what God in His grace has done for us in Jesus Christ. The practical function of the Law is to show us our need for the Gospel – to show us that we are sinners, who cannot meet God’s righteous demands, and must therefore trust in the salvation God has provided in Christ.
In liturgical churches, a general confession and absolution of sin is made every time the Mass is celebrated. In the traditional order of the Latin Mass this was the very first thing that was done after the asperges, before even the introit. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer it is the first part of the eucharistic liturgy following the readings and the sermon. A general confession of sin is also made in the liturgy of the divine office and the private confession and absolution of specific sins is also encouraged by many churches, most obviously the Roman.
Christianity, in other words, is all about acknowledging one’s sins and trusting in God’s forgiveness. To the extent, therefore, that a person believes in and practices this religion of confession of sin and reception of divine forgiveness through faith, he is likely to be less of hypocrite rather than more of one.
Hypocrisy, let me reiterate, is more than just falling short of the moral standards one believes in or which are taught by the religion to which one belongs. The word that best describes that is actually the word with the discussion of which we began this essay, i.e., sin. (5) That confession of sin is one of the most fundamental elements of Christianity is the best answer to the charge that the Christian church is uniquely hypocritical, for hypocrisy is pretending to a righteousness one does not possess, a universal human trait that is lessened, somewhat, by Christianity’s requirement that one confess one’s sins.
To be fair, those to whom hypocrisy is the first thing that comes to mind when the church is mentioned could respond to the preceding argument by saying that it is the preachy attitude of the church combined with the sins of its members that they consider to be hypocritical. A response like this could be a legitimate complaint about the manner in which Christian moral truths are sometimes presented. It could also be a complaint that would be made regardless of the manner in which the message is presented because of a notion that as long as the church and its members are themselves imperfect people they have no right to proclaim moral truths.
If, however, imperfect people and institutions are disqualified from preaching moral truths, then nobody is left to preach them. Imperfect preachers are the only kind available. About twenty years ago I read a book, lent to me by my pastor at the time, in which the author made this point in a way that I have never forgotten. The author, Dr. R. C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries, wrote:
No minister is worthy of his calling. Every preacher is vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In fact, the more faithful a preacher is to the Word of God in his preaching, the more liable he is to the charge of hypocrisy. Why? Because the more faithful a man is to the Word of God, the higher the message is that he will preach. The higher the message, the further he will be from obeying it himself. (6)
Dr. Sproul is a well-known Reformed theologian, that is, a Calvinist. Calvinism, like all human attempts at understanding God, has its strengths and weaknesses. The holiness of God, that which sets Him above and apart from sinful man, which makes His grace amazing indeed, is one of the areas in which Calvinism tends to be strong and this was the subject of the book. This paragraph about the imperfection of preachers, and how the better they are at doing their job, the further they themselves are from that which they preach, comes at the end of a chapter based upon the propher Isaiah’s experience in the sixth chapter of the book bearing his name. Summoned into the presence of God, He declared God to be thrice holy, and himself to be undone. Yet, when God asked who would go and speak His message, the man of “unclean lips” volunteered and God accepted his service.
A few years ago I ran across another book whose author tackled the question of which is preferable, an imperfect testimony to moral truth or no testimony at all, and argued for the former. Among the points Jeremy Lott made in the provocatively titled In Defense of Hypocrisy, were that accusations of hypocrisy are often also examples of it, that many things that we would probably classify as examples of hypocrisy don’t actually meet the criteria for inclusion in that category, and that other things which are hypocrisies we are actually better off with than without. Examples of the latter would be the variations on “looking the other way” that are necessary for unwritten rules to work. In his sixth chapter, he made a compelling case for the idea that society is far more tolerable when unwritten rules – which often contradict the written rules, hence the need for the hypocrisy – are in operation, than when everything is done strictly by the book.
What I found to be the most interesting argument in the book, however, was an argument in the fourth chapter about religious hypocrisy, in which Lott traced the antihypocrisy movement back to its Founder, Who was, of course, also the Founder of the institution most often accused of hypocrisy. If the church has often been guilty of distorting Christ’s message and failing abysmally to follow His teachings – and, being composed of sinful human beings, of course, it has – the antihypocrisy movement has not done any better. Indeed, it has inverted His condemnation of hypocrisy. Whereas Jesus condemned the Pharisees for not living up to the standards of the Mosaic Law they preached, contemporary antihypocrites condemn the preaching of moral standards that one cannot live up to. Or as Lott put it “the bone that he couldn’t swallow was that they were far too self-serving in their reading, not necessarily that they were too demanding”. (7)
To make his point, he asked a fascinating “what if” question:
If the teachers of the law had ceased to teach and the priests had locked up the temple, would the preacher from Nazareth have said, Well, at least they aren’t being hypocrites? Not unless he suddenly decided to depart from the tone and tenor of everything he’d ever said in public. The Jesus of the Gospels would have raged against them twice as hard for abandoning even the trappings of religion. (8)
This reasoning seems iron-clad to me, especially when one considers that Jesus, while condemning the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, told His listeners they still had to respect their authority and obey the Law they taught (Matthew 23:2-3).
The contemporary antihypocrites, whose objection is to the preaching of moral standards rather than the failing to live up to them, would presumably not look askance at the disappearance of the concept of sin. If, however, Dr. Menninger was correct in regarding the concept of sin as the only way of thinking about evil in the world that provides us with hope, and if Jeremy Lott is correct in arguing that some kinds of hypocrisy actually make society more tolerable, we have good reason to regard the moral thinking of today as being greatly inferior to that of about seventy years ago. Perhaps it is time we turn back the clock.
(2) Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became Of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973).
(3) Ibid., p. 188.
(4) The B is for believe, but the C varies, in some versions being call upon the Lord, in others confess Christ, in yet others commit yourself to Christ.
(5) The technical term for the study of the concept of sin is hamartiology. This comes from the most basic Greek word for sin, hamartia. Its verbal cognate, hamartano was the word the Greeks used for falling short of your target when throwing a spear, and thus by extension, failing to meet your goals.
(6) R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1985, 1993), p. 50.
(7) Jeremy Lott, In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue (Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006) p. 108.
(8) Ibid. Bold indicates italics in original.
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