A Sinful History

With every new election cycle, within some circles there’s always talk about what the Bible says about certain key talking points…on both sides of the aisle…be it aid for the poor or repealing abortion. Whatever the case, the Bible, as so often happens in pop, public discourse is treated as a monolithic, univocal entity. Little, if any, consideration is given to how it says what it says or why it does so in a particular way. Even if you are an inerrantist, it’s impossible to deny the stylistic complexity of this holy book, which includes poems, genealogies, narratives, apocalyptic writing, legal codes and the list goes on. Implementing a few basic critical tools (be they literary, historical, or redaction) and you’ll quickly see that the complexities run even deeper. In his book, Sin: A History, Gary A. Anderson looks at Jewish and early Christian understandings of sin and the ways in which writings about it changed over time. The result is an intriguing study of linguistic evolution with deep theological and relational implications.


The heart of Anderson’s argument is that Biblical descriptions of sin are varied but that two metaphors dominate, those of sin as either a weight to be borne or a debt owed for wrong behavior. He argues that the former was the main way in which centuries of Jewish communities would have understood sin. Thus, the implementation of the scapegoat practice, or all sacrificial practices, in which priests placed the weight of the sin on the animal to be sacrificed or sent out into the wild. In some ways, this understanding is with us yet. We speak of having the weight of the world on our shoulders or of being weighed down by a heavy burden…most often a guilty conscience.

Yet over time, Anderson argues that influenced by larger forces, this metaphor was gradually overshadowed by the metaphor of sin as a debt to be paid. Anderson writes of an economy, of sorts, between God and humanity. When we sin, we create a debt to be paid. The most interesting element of this metaphor and indeed all of Anderson’s book is the accompanying scriptural assertion that if we can accrue debt, we can also build up credit. Anderson shows that Jewish and Christian believers understood this credit coming from virtuous behavior…particularly in the giving of alms to the poor and vulnerable. There are numerous scriptural references to such divine/human economic relations that come into fresh focus in light of Anderson’s discussion. Consider Jesus’ command to store up treasures in heaven. Consider Paul’s assertions that the wages of sin are death. Consider Jesus’ numerous injunctions to fore-go all material possessions for the sake of God’s kingdom…to literally give up our lives in order to find them. Consider Jesus teaching the disciples to pray “forgive us our debts.” Consider Jesus’ frequent use of parables with debtor and creditor characters.

There is a fine line between this understanding of debits and credits and notions of self-salvation. Anderson strongly argues against this confusion. Giving alms, participating in charity, when done with the right spirit, is not faith in one’s own salvific powers, but faith in the ability and willingness of God’s ability to make payments on God’s salvific promises to us. Moreover, this economy and the ability to gain credits against debits is never a 1-1 correlation or an equation that, apart from God’s mercy, would ever fall in our favor. Anderson writes, “God’s capacity to show mercy does not always follow the rules of a strict monetary accounting.”

Historically, Anderson shows how this emphasis on credits and debits has lead to both ecclesiological and theological/soteriological controversies. The first should be fairly evident with the Catholic practice of indulgences, which lead, in part, to the Reformation. From a theological/soteriological perspective, we are forced to (re)visit several notions of God’s salvific work in Jesus, particularly Christus Victor and penal substitutionary theories of atonement. Turning to Anselm, Anderson argues that many of his critics and those of penal substitutionary atonement theory, fail to adequately understand and appreciate the depths to which debt notions of sin pervaded scripture and the early church. Though Anderson concludes with a defense, of sorts, of Anselm, he is not arguing that either Christus Victor or penal substitution are definitive soteriologies or necessary starting points, but rather that they should be reconsidered in light of this biblical survey.

Anderson’s book is a heady read and one that I doubt will find a wider audience outside religious studies students and scholars and research-minded ministers. My eyes glazed over while reading some of the philological discussions and history. The title is also a bit misleading. Anderson doesn’t provide a comprehensive history of sin and its cultural influences and implications throughout the centuries. This is a very limited discussion of biblical and rabbinic metaphors and their uses and implications.

Nevertheless, Sin: A History is an important book from a variety of perspectives, from theological to economic. First, it again reveals that language matters and that the words we use, especially about God and sin, shape worlds that in turn shape our existence. Anderson writes, “Sin, I realized, had a history. The developments in the characterization of sin had an immeasureable effect on how biblical ideas were put into practice.” Second, and speaking of biblical ideas and practice, it shows the complexity of Scripture. Far from being the clear-cut moral dictionary that many believers want it to be, the Bible is product of much editing and debate…neither of which was often pretty. Anderson claims early in his book, “One of the principal things lost is the way the concept of sin and forgiveness changes over time. I argue that the term sin does not have the same meaning in the book of Genesis as it does in the book of Daniel or the Gospel of Matthew.” Third, Anderson forces us to consider the very real, negative effects of sin and the very real ways in which we must atone for them, rather than simply just asking (or expecting) God to forgive and forget them. This is one of the things I appreciate most about Anderson’s book. He reminds us, “Crucial to this discussion is the notion that sin in biblical thought possessed a certain ‘thingness.’ Sin is not just a guilty conscience; it presumes, rather, that some-‘thing’ is manufactured on the spot and imposed on the sinner.” As such, we have agency in addressing and redressing this sinful thing that we have created. Finally, it is impossible to finish Anderson’s book and look at those around us, especially the poor and the vulnerable, the same way again. I close with a reiteration of Anderson’s potentially vision-altering summary of the writing of Tobit on the matter: “Tobit is suggesting that placing coins in the hand of a beggar is like putting a sacrifice on the altar–for both the hand and the altar provide direct access to God.”