Leviticus 5 and the Question of Volition in Sin

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.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna and I saw Captain America: Civil War today, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the way the movie was handled. There was, of course, a suitable amount of action: car chases, fights, buildings being destroyed, etc. However, there was a well-developed plot that, while not exactly the story from the Marvel Civil War comic series, dealt with a number of the same major issues very well. In classical Greek tragedy the focal point of conflict it the collision of two equally real but mutually exclusive goods which inevitably ends in the destruction of one or both. This theme was a major part of the comic series and is a major part of the movie. Most everyone in the movie is actually trying to do the right thing, but they have radically different understandings of what the right thing actually is, and the film paints this extremely well. One of the deeper ethical issues that they handle with a good amount of tact and fairness is the issue of the relationship between volition, culpability, and responsibility. Let us assume that there is a murderer who is not in control of his actions: perhaps the individual is mentally deranged, brainwashed, in the midst of a night terror, etc. This individual kills several people, but does not actually choose to take any of the actions leading up to or including these killings. In the absence of volition but the presence of real suffering is the individual culpable for this suffering? Does he bear full guilt for the actions that were not in his control? Is he responsible in some way, but not in a way that implies legal or moral culpability and thus guilt? Is he freed of any and all responsibility because the actions were not his to meaningfully choose or reject? This is my challenge for you today.

As always, write a one thousand word story that presents your answer to the question. Also, watch the movie to see what their answer to the question was :).

Philosophical Story Challenge

Yes, yes it does.

By now you should all be familiar with this particular challenge. So, you know that your job is to write a story that is not only good and entertaining, but that also provides and defends an answer to the problem posed. So, today’s issue has to do with volition. Specifically a debate I recently had with a friend. The question assumes an all-knowing, all-powerful deity, and the free-will of man providing the ability to go against the desires of said deity, something that we generally call sin. The question is this: if said deity is all-powerful and all-knowing, is it possible for him allow man’s sin without intending man to sin? The question may also be phrased in this way: what is the difference between the desire of deity, the intent of deity, and the allowance of deity? So, have fun trying to answer this one. It should certainly be interesting.