Written by Phil Monroe
Friday, 29 June 2012 00:00
Can your body make you sin? If so, are you still responsible?
Yes, and yes. However, in answering these questions, we might be missing a better question than that of responsibility, but I’ll get to that later…
I suppose you might like some defense of my position. I will do so both in this post and in the one to follow. Obviously, I’m going to tackle this from a Christian perspective that cares about sin and wants to think carefully about ontology (what it means to be human).
Some background beliefs
1. In the Christian life sin matters. Sin is whatever we do or are that violates God’s definition of holiness. In this life, sin is inescapable. Sin is that which fallen creatures do all the time. Thankfully, God provides a way of escape from the logical consequences of sin via the cross. Despite (no, because of the power of) this gift from God, Christians still care about eradicating sin even though it is not possible. It stands to reason, then, that we should observe the sources of sin in our life in order to stop them.
2. The classic Christian view of human nature is that we are made of two substances: body and soul. We are not just our physical bodies but something intangible was imputed to us when God breathed life into Adam. Our soul allows us to worship God. The bible refers to our soul in various ways: will, heart, desires, etc. The soul is the driver of the will and therefore responsible for the moral direction of our actions. Early theologically oriented scientists (think Descartes) assumed the existence of the soul but looked to explain how the intangible soul connected to the tangible body. Now with the advances in neuroscience we have better explanatory power in describing the action of thoughts, feelings, and knowing. However, the will remains a mystery. While we can explain neural networks and what the brain does when desiring something, we cannot yet explain WHY we want or desire certain things.
Some philosophers and theologians have attempted to deal with classic dualism by suggesting that we are only one substance. I am not capable of succinctly defending this position so I point you to Nancey Murphy and a review of her book here. She does a masterful job defending non-reducible physicalism.
Key questions and a partial answer
Whether two substances or one, the question we raise in this post is whether our bodies, against our will, can cause us to sin. And maybe more importantly, is there anything gained or lost if it is true that our bodies (apart from will) can cause us to sin? Are we culpable for such sins?
Let me take these two questions in succession:
Is it possible that my body (against or apart from my will) might cause me to sin?
1. We do nothing apart from our cells. We mediate all worship, desire, etc. through our cells. When we do good or evil, body and will are always involved.
2. Sin is not merely an act, but a disposition. All of me is tainted and not functioning as it was originally intended, including my physical body (and don’t I feel the effects of being over 45!). The dualist position is more in danger of treating sin as only what we consciously choose.
3. I don’t have to know that I broke the law (biblical or federal) to be guilty of violating the law. I didn’t know I was speeding but I still got a ticket. In the OT, lack of intention or knowledge violating the law did not protect against impurity or guilt (e.g., Lev. 4:22; 5:3).
4. If the body is broken and under sin’s curse it stands to reason that our bodies function in ways that are out of accord with our will. If they can move without our control (e.g., Parkinsonian tremors, Tourette-based tics) can they not also move in such a way that violates God’s design for us. We have some scientific evidence of this. Stimulate a certain part of the brain, and you will experience rageful feelings. Stimulate another part and you may have sexual thoughts. Consider a person with Tourettes Syndrome. There is some evidence of temporary volitional control (a surgeon is able to stop a tic during an operation) but other evidence suggests that these same tics (including cursing) burst out of the person despite conscious effort to eliminate.
Saying yes to this question violates our Western sensibilities.
If we accept that our bodies can act against or without the will, what do we gain or lose? I think the primary concern by many would be that somehow we will either be held culpable for sins we didn’t want to commit or claim innocence for sins we willfully committed. And this gets under our skin here in the West.
We want only to be held accountable for things we did do and not held accountable for things we either didn’t do or didn’t have any control over.
It strikes us as evil to be held accountable for that which we didn’t know was wrong. I once got a ticket for making a u-turn on a Chicago city street at 11 pm when no one (but the cop!) was around. There were no signs. I wasn’t familiar with Chicago rules, was lost in an unsavory neighborhood. And yet I still got the ticket. It didn’t seem right. But I did violate the law.
Our American judicial system isn’t the only system that holds us accountable for involuntary acts. Romans teaches us that because of Adam’s sin, all are sinners. I bear the culpability for his sin (and I make plenty of my own as well). I bear the impact of his choices in my entire being. Not only am I culpable, but I may need to confess my forefather’s sins. We see several OT prophets confessing the sins of the community—as if they were their own.
So, in short, I think we can answer yes to the question about whether our bodies can make us sin. They can because we (body and soul) are tainted by the Fall. It doesn’t make us more or less out of sorts with God whether our sin is chosen or involuntary. Happily, God doesn’t forgive only willful sin, he forgives sin period. And he makes it possible to not sin by imputing his righteousness to us.
Is there a better question?
Still thinking about culpability? If so, check back tomorrow for a little vignette to chew on along with a better question than just responsibility for behaviors.
Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychology and Director of the MA in Counseling program at Biblical Seminary. He maintains a private practice with Diane Langberg & Associates. You can follow his personal and professional musings at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.comor read more about it at http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/phillip-monroe.