Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review of Matt Jenson's "The Gravity of Sin"

The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se. By Matt Jenson. London: T & T Clark, 2006, 202 pages. Reviewed for Koinonia Journal.

Much ink has been spilled in recent years of the importance of relationality for theological anthropology. Unfortunately, this trend has too often spoken of humanity in abstraction from the doctrine of sin. Matt Jenson's new study is a crucial step towards filling this gap in contemporary theology. In this revision of his St. Andrews doctoral thesis, Jenson traces the use of the metaphor of humanity curved in on itself (homo incurvatus in se). His thesis is that this metaphor provides 'the best paradigm for understanding sin relationally' (p. 4). What makes this image the best is its descriptive breadth: various sins can be understood as different manifestations of the gravitational pull away from humanity's constituitive relationships. But this descriptive breadth does not come automatically with the emergence of the metaphor of incurvature. Therefore, Jenson traces the development of this metaphor from its beginnings in Augustine (ch. 1), through its radicalization by Luther (ch. 2), to its broadening by Barth (ch. 4) in conversation with its feminist critics (ch. 3).

Jenson draws on a close reading of Book XIV of the City of God to display Augustine's relational account of sin. Since the goodness of humanity rests in its participatory relationship to God, sin must be understood as a privation of this relationship. Driven by prideful orientation of the will towards oneself, humanity "falls" or "turns" in on itself. This disruption of the proper order of loves (love God and love all things in God) leads to falsehood, pride, and isolation. The remedy for sin is reverent humility before God, brought about by participation in the humility of Christ. Jenson registers a concern that Augustine's profoundly relational account of humanity and sin seems to contradict the inward turn of the second half of On the Trinity. One wonders whether this dissonance could be accounted for developmentally, perhaps as an instance of Augustine's consistent development toward a more pessemistic anthropology. Nevertheless, this ambiguity in Augustine is fruitful for Jenson's narrative, as it paves the way for Luther's radicalization of the metaphor of incurvature.

Based on a study of his early lectures on Romans, Jenson shows how Luther deploys the language of homo incurvatus in se more consistent and thoroughgoing manner than Augustine. Luther's understanding of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator means that sinful incurvature persists throughout the Christian life. Original sin is understood qualitatively as affecting the whole person. The sinner has a propensity toward evil beyond mere privation of the good. One's whole being is inclined in the wrong direction. Such a total understanding of sin requires any equally total understanding of salvation wherein humanity is killed and resurrected. Repentance means turning wholly outside of oneself and therefore away from natural reason, enjoyment (rather than use) of the world, and especially a religious concern with one's virtue. This radicalization of the incurvatus to include the homo religiosus is Luther's most important contribution, according to Jenson. It this kind of move that shows the fecundity of the metaphor. It also reveals the risks of an approach to sin that undermines human flourishing. If all self-seeking is sin, then those who are oppressed are barred from overcoming their oppression. Jenson explores this criticism of the incurvatus in the following chapter.

Jenson dedicates chapter three to a summary of and response to Daphne Hampson's feminist critique of Luther's doctrine of sin. Hampson argues that sin understood as prideful incurvature is not true to women's experience of self-loss. It is therefore an incomplete account of sin. Furthermore, such an account is harmful because it discourages women from seeking the automony they need. Hampson's alternative is to promote a spirituality of "coming to oneself" that emphasizes anthropological continuity. Jenson identifies three problems with Hampson's critique: (1) a strictly gendered account of sin is deterministic, narrow, and ideological, (2) the location of continuity in autonomous persons undermines the seriousness of sin, and (3) the metaphor of incurvature includes but is not reducible to the sin of pride. This last point sets up Barth to enter the story as the theologian who broadens the range of the metaphor of incurvature and thereby anticipates feminist concerns.

Jenson's inclusion of a generous engagement with feminist criticism widens the appeal of his constructive proposal. However, the tension in Jenson's narrative might have been heightened by focusing more on the feminist unmasking of the reduction of sin to pride and less on the particular inadequacies Hampson's alternative. Perhaps he could have selected a less radically post-Christian feminist as a dialogue partner. This would have made Barth's triumph a little less easy and therefore all the more laudable.

In his final chapter on Barth's doctrine of sin, Jenson demonstrates how the metaphor of incurvature can be broadened to include pride and self-loss, therefore vindicating its adequacy as a paradigm for sin. Jenson carefully describes Barth's Christological method for understanding humanity and sin, relying heavily on Church Dogmatics III/2. He then turns to a close reading of the three parallel sections on sin in CD IV/1-3. After summarizing Barth's treatment of pride and falsehood, Jenson gives extended attention to the section on sin as sloth. In keeping with the dialectic of Jesus Christ as servant and Lord, Barth understands slothful self-loss as the dialectic pair of prideful self-seeking, both of which are variations of humanity's incurved resistance to Jesus Christ. This thorough exposition of Barth is offered as evidence that the metaphor of incurvature, if applied carefully, has sufficient explanatory power as a broad paradigm for sin.

Jenson's exposition of Barth is insightful and detailed despite its brevity. He is fair to Barth even as he fits Barth into his own constructive project. On one point, however, his constructive appropriation of Barth creates a blind spot. Jenson chooses to discuss the three aspects of sin out of order. This is understandable in light of his constructive intentions, for Barth's inclusion of sloth alongside pride is Jenson's main point. But it is also unfortunate, for in this case his proposal would have been advanced by a more relentless attention to structural details. For Barth, falsehood as the sinful resistance to Jesus Christ as the true witness leads naturally to the kind of missional ecclesiology that Jenson recommends in his conclusion. Aside from this missed opportunity, Jenson's exposition of Barth is excellent.

As for the book as a whole, Jenson succeeds masterfully at recommending the metaphor of homo incurvatus in se as a sufficient paradigm for sin. In so doing, he has taken a major step forward toward the development of a relational hamartology. Along this constructive path he also offers a rich account of three major figures in the history of theology. Conspicuously absent are any medieval voices that speak of sin as incurvature (e.g., Anselm's Proslogion), though it must be acknowledged that Jenson does not pretend to be offering a full-blown reception history of the motif. Along with many constructive comparisons of figures, developmental concerns get shortchanged. For instance, is it really appropriate to compare the early Luther with the mature Augustine and Barth? Also, the singular focus on one metaphor leaves some interesting themes under-developed. For instance, Jenson repeatedly notes the ironies inherent in human sinfulness, but he does not tie these insights together.

Such problems are dwarfed in comparison to the riches of this book. With crisp prose, Jenson tells a good story and argues a convincing point. The footnotes initiate the reader into a larger conversation. The lack of an index is a disappointment, given that this is the kind of book to be referenced repeatedly. The Gravity of Sin would make an ideal textbook for seminary and upper-level college courses. It is a much-needed book for shaping current developments in theological anthropology, precisely because it takes sin so seriously.

Any thoughts?
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im John from Melbourne.
What about the always already condition of the Lightness of Eternal Being instead---the Garden of Indestructible Light.


A culture and civilization "informed" by the gravity of sin inevitably leads to the unspeakably dreadful politics and "culture" described in these two references.


By contrast a (potential) civilization informed by the lived paradigm of Indivisible Conscious Light would produce a culture as desribed in this reference----which also contains a shocking description of where we are right now in 2008.