From “The Validity of Religious Experience”
by Albert C. Knudson, 1873-1953
There is, then, no dispute as to the feeling of dependence on God. It is basal in Christian experience. There is also no dispute as to the consciousness of sin. It too is a fundamental element in Christian experience. In the abstract, there may be a question as to whether sin is absolutely universal. Theoretically, it may be, and I believe is, possible that a responsible human being here and there may have lived for some time wholly free from sin. But for all practical purposes, this possibility may be disregarded.
“All have sinned, and. come short of the glory of God.”
This Pauline word finds an echo in virtually every Christian heart. It expresses a profound Christian conviction and is a presupposition of the Christian doctrine of redemption. Redemption in Christian thought is primarily redemption from sin. It means also ultimate redemption from suffering and death. But redemption from natural evil is from the Christian point of view secondary. Moral redemption comes first, and it implies a state of sin from which we are to be redeemed.
But how is the state of sin to be conceived? Is it to be regarded as the result of voluntary acts or as a condition inherent in our finitude or in the present structure of our being? Are we sinners by virtue of the fact that we are human, and are we on that account under the divine condemnation? Or are we sinners only in so far as we have actually done that which is evil in the divine sight? To these questions, the answer of Christian experience is not altogether free from ambiguity. We judge ourselves from the standpoint of the ideal as well as from the standpoint of merit and demerit. From the standpoint of the ideal, we feel ourselves utterly condemned. We are all “miserable sinners,” sinful by nature, “dead in sin,” and wholly unable to do anything ourselves to merit the divine favour. Everything good within us is the gift of the divine grace. Such is our feeling in prayer, as we stand face to face with the ideal. We are all Calvinists when we pray.
But however natural this emotional attitude toward Deity is, it is only one phase of Christian experience. We are dependent beings, but we are also responsible beings. We are summoned to obey the divine will, and exhorted to believe in the divine grace and the assumption is that both the belief and the obedience are acts that lie within the range of our capacity. In believing and obeying we may be aided by the Divine Spirit, but the acts are nevertheless our own and as such, they point to a different conception of human nature from that which we have just described. We are not so totally sinful as to be devoid of any capacity for good. Merit as well as demerit, when properly understood, has its place in the ethical vocabulary of the Christian.
The extraordinary confusion which has appeared at this point in Christian thought, and which still prevails, has been due largely to a failure to distinguish the language of emotion from that of theology. In the presence of the greatness and holiness of God, we inevitably feel our own littleness and sinfulness, and we feel them so keenly that we naturally express ourselves in unlimited terms of self-abasement. But this does not mean that we actually regard ourselves as totally depraved and wholly devoid of the power of contrary choice. Such an extreme view may be suggested by the language that we employ in prayer. But it runs counter to the sense of responsibility and makes of sin a subvolitional state of the soul, either inherited or acquired through some mysterious participation in the sin of Adam. The attempts that have been made in the past to harmonise a subvolitional conception of sin with personal responsibility, represent some of the most extraordinary intellectual contortions that have appeared in the history of Christian thought. And it is no mitigation of their fallacious and self-contradictory character that similar attempts are at present being made in influential theological circles.
Sin on a subconscious or subvolitional level is not sin in the proper sense of the term. It has no ethical or unethical quality. It is a hypothetical entity that serves as a kind of metaphysical basis for the feeling of absolute dependence and for the belief in man’s moral helplessness. According to this conception of sin, we are all sinners through and through, and hence of ourselves can do no good thing. But no such extreme doctrine is necessary as a theoretical basis for our Christian experience of dependence on God. This experience is emotional, it varies in degree, and even in its most absolute form is not inconsistent with a limited degree of independence on our part. We may feel an absolute dependence upon God without surrendering the consciousness of our own freedom. Feeling is one thing and a metaphysic a quite different thing.
Christian experience does not require belief in the absolute impotence and absolute sinfulness of man in order that its sense of dependence upon a divine power may be adequately grounded. Indeed, such a belief logically cancels freedom and responsibility and transforms a personal trustful dependence on God into fatalism. It thus undermines the consciousness of sin. Joseph Wood Krutch has said that “the modern man cannot sin.” This is true if the modern man is a determinist. Determinism, both naturalistic and theological, destroys the possibility of sin in the ethical sense of the term and in any other sense the term is misleading and confusing. We gain nothing by extending sin into the subvolitional realm. We do not in this way deepen the sense of sin. We distort and disintegrate it. Sin to be real, to be a ground of self-condemnation, to be a condition of repentance, must have its root in human freedom. Subvolitional sin is not sin and no attempt to deduce such a conception of sin from Christian experience is warranted either by conscience or reason.
Our need for God grows out of our actual weakness and sinfulness, not out of theories with respect to them. To argue, as the strict Barthians do, that our weakness and sinfulness must be absolute and that the recognition of any independent strength of our own leads to godless pride, is a piece of closet theologising. It is not based on fact. On the contrary, it leads to self- contradiction and general befuddlement. If we are to think clearly on the subject of sin, we must distinguish between sin itself and the material of sin or what Paul calls ‘‘the passions of sin.” The passions of sin are not themselves sinful. They become such only when the will consents to their excessive and evil expression. It is also important to recognise that our need for moral redemption does not depend upon the traditional theory of original sin. It depends on the fact that as spiritual beings we have the task of moralising the nonmoral impulses, desires, and interests with which we are endowed by birth, and that this task is enormously difficult, so difficult that it can be accomplished only through the transforming and redeeming power of the Divine Spirit. The need for redemption is thus factual, not theoretical. It is based on our own moral experience and no other basis of the Christian doctrine of sin and redemption is necessary.