Missing the Mark by Mark Biddle is a great expansion and critique of the doctrine of sin. I think it’s one of the best volumes on this topic I’ve ever encountered. This is a quick review of the material.
Biddle seeks to make a comparison between the biblical view of sin as it has been treated in scripture, both OT and NT and the “traditional” view. (I think Biddle is an OT scholar). The traditional view of sin treats sin as “crime,” which carries individual connotations, guilt, punishment, etc., and does this very well. However, the traditional view does not do a good job of considering the whole biblical witness to the doctrine of sin. It doesn’t really do a good job of considering the appropriate texts in consideration of their language, history, and culture.
One of the major difficulties he points to is the problem posed by trying to create a systematic theology out of a narrative. People who lived in a myth-based culture told stories which sort of resist the tradition systematized doctrine of sin, see Gen. 3. This is not a systematic rendering of sin’s origin but a narrative rendering of sin’s origin. Not that one cannot successfully systematize theology, but it is a difficult task primarily because the tendency will be to read one’s own cultural presuppositions into the texts and doctrines.
The traditional doctrine of sin, also called the “juridical” model has limitations. Sin, in this view, is primarily seen as the willful rebellion of a discreet moral agent. However, it does not account for all of the variables which are involved in any sinful situation. Though it deals with individual agents, it cannot adequately deal with a very moral person who is spiritually indifferent. It also struggles with how to view children who act violently at very young ages (hitting siblings, etc.).
Biddle argues that in the Scriptures sin has many connotations. Most of these deal either directly or indirectly with aspects of sin which the juridical model cannot adequately describe or consider. He points out three common themes: sin as failure to fully human, sin as failure to embrace authentic freedom, sin as basic mistrust.
FAILURE TO BE FULLY HUMAN
To be fully human as human was intended to be by God – this is the telos of humankind. Clearly this failure is part of the Genesis narrative as well as Ecclesiastes and many NT texts. One aspect of the failure in the garden was comprised by human over-reaching or an attempt to be more than human. Biddle points out that humans have always been uncomfortable with “the boundary between finite creatureliness and infinite deity.” (p.43) Creatures struggle between the image that can be seen and the glory of God which cannot; between “the eternity in our hearts and the mind of God.” (p.44) Thus humans inevitably attempt to erase the boundary between these two and in so doing, attempt to become more than human – assuming status or authority which is not due to them. (p.43-44)
SIN AS FAILURE TO EMBRACE AUTHENTIC FREEDOM
Here sin is explored from a different angle. From this vantage point missing the mark isn’t rooted so much as rebellion, but as a refusal to claim one’s intrinsic value as a human being. It takes many forms: falling for a lie (p.52), avoiding in fear (p.52), arrested development (p.54), and slavery to base animal desires (p.58). All constitute a “failure to fulfill the potential of human existence,” (p.63) of the failure to be fully human.
When fully fleshed out, the implication of this view of human sinfulness is that Christ is the quintessential human and that to be fully human requires the faithful imaging of God’s Son through a continued creative kenotic effort directed toward others. (p.64-66)
The “failure to be fully human” mode of sin is able to explain some of the false dichotomies generated by “sin as rebellion modes.” Citing the ways in which the former succeeds and the later fails in complex situations such as addictions, sexual abuse, and gender discrimination, Biddle shows that humans chronically underachieve, which he sees as a sinful failure to achieve God’s gift of freedom and full humanity. (p.67-73)
SIN AS BASIC MISTRUST
Here Biddle explores what he calls, “an even more essential form of sin,” (p.77) which is sin as basic mistrust. In this mode, sin takes the form of a failure or unwillingness to place ultimate trust in God, God’s faithfulness, or God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Biddle considers this mode of sin even more basic than human overreaching toward or under realization of their basic humanity. (p.75-76)
One relevant contemporary point Biddle makes is that the question of mistrust is rarely construed toward God’s ability/inability to provide. More common is a mistrust of the existence of God altogether. This underscores a fundamentally important issue to keep in mind when studying texts where the basic contemporary problem did not likely come into play for the writer and audience, i.e., in Eden, the wilderness, in the prophets, the wisdom literature, the Gospels and epistles. (p.80)
Biddle aptly points out that “sin as mistrust” has significant implications for ministry. Since God’s personhood must be mediated through persons, someone with limited experience with trustworthy parents, caregivers, etc., might have extraordinary difficulty overcoming their basic mistrust of God. Biddle says they must be taught the capacity for trust itself through the ministry of reconciliation. (p.92-93)
Biddle continues to outline some more important shortcomings of a purely juridical understanding of sin. Two which are of utmost importance are: First, the idea that Christians are redeemed solely from the eternal consequences of their sins fosters indifference toward holiness. (p.96) Second, this view fails to give proper attention to the dynamics of sin in the systems of the everyday world, even the mundane human cost of sin. (p.96) A third, which is the primary focus of this chapter, is the overemphasis on intentionality. An act which produces harmful results is only considered sinful if intent to do evil was present. Thus errors can be morally neutral. But the bible asserts that “the quality of evil is inherent in a sinful act regardless of the agent’s intention.” (p.98) Thus, Biddle argues, the significance of intentionality needs to be rethought and perhaps deemphasized. (p.95-98)
Another insightful assertion is that defining sin in juridical terms which reinforce individual autonomy can leave the church without the theological framework to deal with tragedy. This is really significant for those doing ministry post 9/11. His insistence that the church fulfill the priestly role seems revolutionary. He rightly asserts that the church must acknowledge/lament meaningless suffering, consciously embrace priestly restitution, avoid the blame game, and avoid hyper-individualism or the privatization/interiorization of sin. (p.112-114)
Biddle sets his last chapter up on the basis of his view that the individualistic Juridical view of sin coupled with a sort of popular “gnostic” discomfort with the every day world has created a system which systematically ignores the nexus of sin and its consequences. He aptly terms this nexus “sin’s afterlife in the everyday world.” Sin in the OT was called ‘awon which referred to all three components: the act, the guilt, and the consequences. (p. 115-117)
Biddle works creatively in considering the ongoing effects of sin. Nowhere is this more potent than his rethinking of the Western notion of original sin with its overemphasis upon the guilt of free agents. He counteracts this with the biblical notion that after the first pair, humans encountered a world where human-human and God-human relationships were twisted and warped. No subsequent human enjoyed the possibility of complete freedom because “sin had already perverted the options.” (p.129) This seems to be a stronger way to view original sin as opposed to biological transmission of guilt. (p.128-129)
Twice Biddle cites Old Testament examples of systemic sin and the way in which sin sends shock waves throughout the sinner’s environment. David’s sin with Bathsheba is one such example. (p.130-131). But the more sobering example concerned Jeremiah. Especially Biddle’s observation that there seems to be a sense in which sin had reached such a critical mass that even repentance couldn’t stop the impending doom.
Biddle deals with one of the most difficult pastoral issues concerning sin. This is the reality that although God certainly forgives sin, the natural results of sin will still occur. God will give strength and courage, but the damage sin does to one’s life often feels like judgment. Only a biblical view of sin can grapple with this issue. (p.135)
Sin is a very difficult doctrine to study and understand. It is just not a comfortable thing to talk about and explore. However, I think it is an important thing to think about and this book helped me to expand the ways in which I view this most basic issue