Offences against law vs. the heart

We have competing accounts of sin as offences against a divine person and violations of divine law. Given the approach that natural theology takes to God, it has tended to see him as more law-like than person-like, which makes sin and its remedy an essentially impersonal affair, in much the same way that any legal matter is an impersonal affair. The “person” of God is offended only in a metaphorical and extrinsic sense, the way the dignity of the crown is offended by pickpockets or vagrancy. Understanding sin in this sense makes both sin and its response given from the outset: some offence happens, we accuse the offender, marshal up the evidence for and against him, and no matter what happens the way forward will be clear and given in advance. If the prosecution fails, the accused is let off; if it succeeds he is assessed a penalty laid down in advance.

But this is not at all a description of what an offence against a person is like, especially when love gets involved. Persons are given with all of their virtues and faults, and loving relations usually start out in a state where the good elements of the person dominate consciousness, and the faults and vices of the person are seen in light of them. The vices are sometimes overlooked for the sake of love, other times more or less gently corrected. other times joked about. But when an offence against the relationship occurs, these faults suddenly shift to a new modality of consciousness: they begin to be seen as characteristic faults. All of a sudden even minor offences are seen as indicating what the person is. We go over to our brother’s house for Christmas and notice that his wife bought vegan egg-rolls again. “Dammit!” I think to myself, “She knows that everyone hates those except her – but that’s just the sort of self-absorbed bitch that she is. Why did my brother every marry that woman? No wonder her kids are such brats!”* Now all these claims might be perfectly true – maybe she is self-absorbed, maybe this is why she keeps buying egg-rolls, and maybe it does have a bad affect on her children. Like everyone else, your sister-in-law has not just moral blemishes but real vices – she habitually enjoys and insists upon actions that really wound the hearts of those around her, and to point out that everyone else has vices too does not make the wounds she inflicts any less painful. What I want to stress is that we are facing  problem that cannot be resolved by multiplying insight or objectivity, even to the point of omniscience. In the face of such faults, hatred is just as reasonable as overlooking, gentle correction, or irony. Ceteris paribus, it is just as reasonable to sever the relationship as to continue it.

Legal relationships are mediated by the law, which is detached, impartial, and predictable, and where the response to offences is impersonal and given in advance; personal relationships are mediated by the heart, where the response to offences can never be impersonal or given in advance. The response to offences against law is some sense of proportion, restitution, and measure; but the response to offences against the heart is very different. The heart overcomes offences against it by some sort of mutual suffering. The one offended has to consume the offence inside of himself, the one giving the offence has to recognize that he must do something in response to the pain he is caused, but it is not at all in his power to control the outcome. This absence of control is a crucial difference: the law always gives the offender some active control over the power of restitution – he can pay the fine, serve the time, kowtow to the right authority, offer the prescribed sacrifice. Offenders against the heart have no power over the situation, even though they are duty bound to some sort of response.

It is in this light that the opposition between law and grace becomes so striking. We will never quite escape the desire to see sin as a matter of law – for this allows us to control it. There are no shortage of arguments that sin could only ever be law – how could it be a matter of the heart, if God could never be deprived of some good or glory by his creatures? What could it possibly mean to wound the heart of the divine nature? This works fine as poetry – silly self- indulgent poetry – but what could it mean in theory?

*Obviously, all the events, words, and persons spoken of are completely made-up


  1. Peter said,

    December 25, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    –“What could it possibly mean to wound the heart of the divine nature?”

    Funny you should mention this. Just the other day someone objected to me that the concept of sin was incoherent because the divine cannot suffer, and thus anything we do cannot be said to hurt God.

    • thenyssan said,

      December 25, 2014 at 8:06 pm

      You should see teenagers go after the logic of Cur Deus Homo.

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