As I said on Tuesday, this week is kind of crazy and so I’m afraid that you’re going to have to put up with posts that simply have to do with what I happen to be thinking about. I hope that they are, in some way, helpful to your writing, but if they are not then I’m sorry.

Many Christians today don’t bother to read the books of the law (other than Genesis and the five 10 chapters of Exodus), which is sad, because there is a lot of great stuff in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Leviticus chapter 5 specifically deals with guilt offerings made for unintentional or even unknown breeches of the law. In other words: “If X happens and you didn’t intend for it to happen, or if you did X and either didn’t realize that it was against the law or didn’t realize that it is what you were doing, then you are still guilty and must confess, repent, and present a guilt offering to the Priesthood.”

Now, volition was considered an important part of wrongdoing by the ancient Greeks, and this has held true for much of the history of Christian thought and of modern lawmaking. In general, if 1) one can present a case that he could not be reasonably expected to know that something was against the law, 2) one can present a case that he could not reasonably predict or have prevented the harmful effects of his actions, or 3) one can present a case (or more likely have one presented for him) that he could not reasonably understand that his actions were unlawful and/or immoral, then he is generally understood to be innocent of the crime of which he stands accused–even if he actually did the act. Some examples can be presented as follows: 1) if the American Congress secretly passed a law banning the sale of firearms, and then started arresting gunsellers based on that law, then the cases would almost inevitably be thrown out of court. The reason for this is that for a law to actually be considered a law in any meaningful sense the Government must promulgate it (or make it known) to the people that it will impact. Now, it is entirely possible that a man could avoid all new sources and commit a crime that he was unaware was a crime, but in this case he is not considered to be reasonably unaware that it was not a crime (for instance, if I don’t see a posted speed limit sign and get a ticket, I am still guilty even though I didn’t know that I was breaking the speed limit). The distinction here is whether the government fulfilled its responsibility to promulgate the law. 2) If a man is driving down the street and a child runs out right in front of his car such that he cannot break or swerve in time to avoid hitting the child then the man is not considered guilty of murder. He clearly had no intention to kill the child, and he could not have reasonably taken any actions to avoid hitting the child. 3) If a man is intellectually disabled to the degree that he actually cannot understand the significant legal distinctions (for instance, an individual who is intellectual incapable of comprehending the concept of death) then he is not considered to have committed murder even if he kills someone because he cannot understand what murder is.

This same conception of volition has been applied to sin throughout most of the history of the Christian church. Thus, we are all imperfect in many ways and may certainly do thing that would be considered sinful if 1) we had an accurate understanding of God’s character, and/or 2) we had an accurate understanding of our own actions. These may be consider ‘unintentional sins’ in Leviticus 5. However, Christian thought has generally absolved Christians of personal guilt for unintentional sins: if I don’t know that I’m sinning then I can’t repent for what I’ve done, and if I have been committing the same sinful action for years before I realize that it is sinful then it is unlikely that I can ever specifically repent or make restitution for every specific instance of that sinful action. Thus, Thomas Aquinas (among others) famously declared that human action is necessarily volitional and that anything that is not human action cannot be considered sin. Thus, if I do not actually make the choice to sin then I am not sinning. In the modern conception of sin this seems to contradict the Levitical law.

However, I believe that the crux of the problem here is that modern Christians tend to think of sin only in terms of ‘crimes against God.’ This is not to argue that sin should not be thought of in these terms, as certainly volitional sins fit this model almost exactly. However, it is to say that sin is more than just willful acts of rebellion against God. This is the distinction between natural sin and personal sin (or natural sin and volitional sin), or the distinction between effects of sin and acts of sin. The death of a child that ran out in the middle of the road or an act of killing performed by a mentally handicapped individual who is incapable of understanding ‘killing’ still result in horrible tragedies, and these may be considered the effects of broken people living in a broken world. In fact, the Levitcal law had provisions for accidental killings that seem to have served the same general function as modern manslaughter laws (which would cover the situation involving the child). Similarly, the guilt offering demanded in Leviticus 5 is not simply the same as the sin and guilt offerings demanded for volitional sins in the Levitical law. Instead, the requirements of Leviticus 5 may be understood as recognizing that men as a whole are broken and that this brokenness often results in sad, or even horribly tragic, circumstances. Further, it recognizes that men should be held responsible for the degree to which their brokenness contributed to the situation, but they should not be held responsible in the same way that an individual who willfully committed the same act would be held. Thus, under modern law a killer who is incapable of understanding his crimes would not be found guilty and sentenced to time in prison, but he likely would be committed to a psychiatric institute for care and treatment. This similarly recognizes that his brokenness contributed to the situation, but not in the same way that a willful act of killing would have.

Thus, a robust concept of the distinction between the effects of being broken people living in a broken world, and our responsibility based on those effects, and willful acts of rebellion against the laws of God is necessary for an appropriate understanding of scripture and for an appropriate understanding of sin, justice, and grace.

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One thought on “Leviticus 5 and the Question of Volition in Sin

  1. One correction and a thought. In Virginia a person declared incompetent but guilty is still found guilty but not held responsible, i.e. is sent for treatment rather than to jail. If they are returned to competence they still have a criminal record and, if the treatment is shorter than the sentence, may have to spend some time in jail, or, more likely, under supervised probation.

    Our concept of sin needs to be broadened. If pride and arrogance are sins, and they are, then I am essentially constantly in sin! It is an unconscious process that must be made conscious. If sin is “falling short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) then it is a descriptor of my ongoing condition that I cannot change, Jesus is my only hope.

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