Sin, Autonomy, and Biblical Critical Theory
If I alone can determine what is right and wrong, true and false, just and unjust, I will always be bumping heads with all the others who also think and act this way. With no higher objective absolutes that transcend my and your judgments and assessments, we will always clash. Real human dignity and community can only come from recognising who God is and how we share in the image of God.
There are many ways to describe and discuss sin. Perhaps one definition of major significance is to speak in terms of autonomy. In its simplest form this means self-law or self-government. However, if there is a God who created us and seeks to govern us for our own best good, then autonomy is the height of folly – as well as sin. It is idolatry on steroids.
We perhaps see this especially played out in the radical trans movement. Here we have folks who have so deified autonomy that they believe they can – at will – redefine morality, redefine biology, redefine truth, and redefine reality. Talk about playing God! Talk about kicking God off his throne and elevating mere man in his place.
Last week I penned a piece featuring the important new book by Christopher Watkin: Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan, 2022). As I said there, this is such a wide-ranging and significant volume that a short review will hardly do it justice.
So instead I will feature aspects or chapters of the book in a number of articles. The first one focused on Ch. 23 and is found here.
What I want to highlight today is found in Ch. 5: “Sin and Autonomy.” The Australian Christian philosophy professor also stresses autonomy as the heart of sin, and shows why it is so very destructive. And let me preface this by citing a paragraph from the previous chapter, “Sin and Society”:
The absence of a sustained emphasis on sin and judgment in Christian cultural engagement is, at least, a little odd and, at most, a heinous omission that leaves Christian cultural theory limping and unbalanced. After all, sin is such a crucial figure in the biblical rhythm of creation, fall, and redemption, the rhythm that taps out the distinctively Christian approach to all things from identity and ethics and the environment to culture, the economy, and politics. 108
Exactly right. So it is vital that we speak about sin and identify it properly and accurately. Autonomy is key to all this. And it is the perfect descriptor of what happened in the garden with our first parents:
Adam and Eve choose to live by their own law, their own code of what is permitted and not permitted, rather than by God’s law, and they choose to do so in a world that God has created and sustains, as the creatures God has created and sustains. In the context of Genesis 3, autonomy manifests itself as deciding for oneself what is to be counted as good and evil. It is not, of course, deciding for oneself what is good and evil, because God has already settled that question, and any new legislation that Adam and Eve pass down from their DIY parliament does not annul God’s royal decrees. 133
All this should be sensible enough to understand, but sin of course twists everything, including our understanding. So it is like a toddler telling his parents that he knows what is best, that he can fend for himself, and that he is able to determine what is right and wrong. Or as Watkin expresses it:
It is hard to underestimate the extent to which many in our society today fail to consider what the Bible has to say about God on its own terms because that would require admitting that our own autonomous reason may not be the most reliable truth-discerning tool in the universe. One of the crucial pennies to drop in the minds of those who find their way to faith in their adult years is often the realization that, if there really is a God such as the Bible reveals him to be, then he is smarter than I am and his judgement is more reliable than mine: if he and I differ on a matter, and if he is really God and I am really a creature, then it is more than reasonable to assume that he is correct and I am mistaken. To reach any other conclusion would require a bizarre routine of epistemological gymnastics. Either God is God and I am not, in which case his judgement is to be trusted over mine, or else God is not God, in which case there is no reliable way of satisfactorily arbitrating at all between what is reasonable and what is not.