Book Reviews

The Gravity of Sin

Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther, and Barth on Homo Incurvatus in Se (London: T & T Clark, 2006), xii + 202. $39.95

Reviewed by Jason T. Ingalls (July 23, 2008)

We need to hear more about sin. While Matt Jenson’s thesis is more nuanced, his recent volume seems to be saying just that. Jenson claims that we have lost a specific way of speaking and thinking about our human condition and that this loss does a disservice to ourselves and our fellow human beings. So, in Jenson’s account, not only do we need to hear more about sin, but we also need to be able to conceptualize and talk about sin in ways that are true both to our experience and to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

In an attempt to find better ways to think and talk about the pernicious reality of sin, Jenson introduces, expounds, and extrapolates the notion of homo incurvatus in se – “humanity ‘curved in on itself’” (2) – as a basic paradigm that helps us describe, name, and identify sin in a relational context. Taking the relational turn in contemporary ontology, theology, and anthropology for granted, he argues that “the image of being ‘curved in on oneself’ is the best paradigm for understanding sin relationally, that it has sufficient explanatory breadth and depth to be of service to contemporary Christian theology” (4). St. Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, Daphne Hampson, and Karl Barth are his able conversation partners.

Jenson starts with St. Augustine because it is here that theincurvatus in se conception begins to develop. Augustine is important for a relational idea of sin precisely because, as Jenson shows, Augustine’s doctrine of sin is already relational in character. Jenson carefully outlines Augustine’s thought, starting with the prelapsarian human condition and spending time with Augustine’s explication of Genesis 1-3. Before the Fall, Augustine characterizes human beings as necessarily relational and social in character, with reference both to God and each other (8). Augustine’s conviction that “in Adam all sinned” is basically relational (16) and the origin of evil is placed squarely in the human will (cf. 20) as a privation of the will. In other words, sin is a turning of the will away from its proper object. Sin is a break in relationship with God that leads necessarily to a break in relationship with others. In sin, human beings fall into slavery to themselves and cease to live lives of freedom in the sight of God. Humanity’s choice to be radically autonomous from God is the root of all evil. This ugly root Augustine calls pride, and the antidote he gives is humility. Augustine’s humility is not a self-abasement, as some might think, but a realization of one’s ontological participation in God and one’s redemption in Christ (cf. 9-13). This humility is highly relational, requiring a turning away from the self to God and others. Jenson does a fine job of showing that the “ambiguous inwardness” of De Trinitate, with Augustine’s admonition to look within for the imago dei, does not vitiate the basic relationality of Augustine’s account.

Where Jenson critiques Augustine is that the “in then up” account of human relationality in De Trinitate is not yet “sufficiently Christian” because Augustine’s Christ “remains a glorious via rather than a redefinition of Augustine’s God” (43-44). Augustine conceives of humanity as necessarily relational but the relation is between the soul and the “fleshless God.” Christ’s human nature is a type of “shortcut” to divinity, and his mediation ceases at the eschaton to be replaced by the beatific vision. Jenson argues that Augustine did not follow his relational insights through “to a sufficiently objectivist, extrinsic and materially mediated account of the Christian life” (46), though Jenson considers Augustine’s idea of humility as a turning away from the self to God and others as a step in the right direction.

Martin Luther radicalized and reorganized Augustine’s insights around the guiding metaphor of homo incurvatus in se. Accepting Augustine’s basic emphasis on pride and humility, Luther applies incurvature not only to the totus homo but also to homo religiosus, thereby rejecting any type of incremental growth in righteousness that remained in Augustine’s thought. Luther also radicalizes Augustine’s ideas about the order of loves in which the soul climbs higher and higher through desire until it finds its rest in God. Since even the religious person is curved in on itself, desire has no place. Pride is the paradigmatic sin, as it was in Augustine, and the prideful person can desire nothing but themselves. Our desires cannot take us to God. Only faith can do that. In radicalizing incurvature, however, Luther retains the basic structure of ascent in Augustine’s thought while replacing desire with faith and grounding it in the mediation of Christ in a way that Augustine did not. According to Jenson’s reading of Luther’s famous dictum simul iustus et peccator, we are all – even the most pious among us – completely trapped and curved in on ourselves while simultaneously being turned out from ourselves by our faith in Christ.

Pride is the paradigmatic sin for both Augustine and Luther, but Jenson does not think this account is adequate. This leads him to interact with feminist theologian Daphne Hampson’s post-Christian critique of Luther in order to complicate the pride-as-sin paradigm. Hampson critiques the Augustinian tradition’s understanding of incurvature by arguing that considering pride to be the paradigmatic sin does not account for women’s experience of sinfulness. Hampson argues that women’s cardinal sin is not pride, but is rather a lack of self-assertion, a falling back into oneself that she names self-diffusion or sloth. It is here that Jenson does his best work in applying Hampson’s insight that the pride-as-sin paradigm is insufficient while offering a substantial critique of her post-Christian feminism. Challenging Hampson’s implied gender essentialism, Jenson acknowledges that he himself needs the grammar of sloth and self-diffusion to speak of his own sinfulness and that it would be a tragic waste if we were to deny women and men the ability to speak of their sinfulness as either pride or sloth, for they are “complementary aspects of the same pathology” (129, quoting McFadyen, Bound to Sin, 156). Whether, to follow Kierkegaard, the sin is “in despair willing to be oneself” (pride) or is “in despair not willing to be oneself” (sloth), the basic pathology is still an incurvature, either in activity or passivity.

It is in conversation with Karl Barth that Jenson finally develops the “sufficiently objectivist, extrinsic and materially mediated account of the Christian life” that he wanted from Augustine (46). Barth defines human sinfulness by means of Christology and plots his three forms of sinfulness (falsehood, pride, and sloth) along a Christological grid. The first sin, and the covering for the other two, is falsehood in which the human being denies the knowledge that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ includes them and was for them by grace. But once human beings become aware of this claim, their reaction is characterized by the other two forms of sinfulness: pride or sloth. In pride, we deny our participation in Jesus Christ’s servant humility, thus trying to establish our own being. In sloth, we deny our participation in Jesus’ royal resurrection and ascension where we are set in him at the right hand of God the Father. In pride, we amplify our being in order to deny the call to humility. In sloth, we subsume our being in order to deny the call to victory. Whether by self-assertion or self-diffusion, we try to deny what is basically true of us in Barth’s account: we are established from all eternity in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The greatest strength of Jenson’s work is his ordered emphasis on revelation and experience. It seems that for Jenson an account of sin must not only make sense dogmatically; it must also illumine the experience of people trying to use the grammar of faith to describe their own sinfulness. This ordered twin emphasis allows Jenson to handle Hampson’s critiques fairly and charitably. By accepting that pride-as-sin is not sufficient to describe both women’s and men’s experience of sinfulness, he opens the door for an expanded grammar and vocabulary that does justice both to revelation and the lived Christian life. By allowing pride and sloth to be different expressions of incurvature, Jenson broadens the metaphor of homo incurvatus in se in dogmatically and practically helpful ways.

That Jenson sometimes loses focus on his topic is this book’s greatest weakness. His descriptions are accurate, fair, and charitable, but sometimes he gives lengthy explanations at the expense of clarity, concision, and analysis when simple descriptions should suffice. Yet, in a theological world in which thinkers like Augustine, Luther, Hampson, and Barth are consistently stereotyped and pigeon-holed, one wonders how else Jenson could have advanced his argument to those whose minds he would like to change. If it is true, as he claims, that a relational ontology coupled with a relational understanding of sin as incurvature are the best ways to conceive of the human person in relationship with God and the world, then, perhaps, he can be forgiven going the extra miles necessary to reclaim the ideas of these thinkers (especially Augustine) for contemporary theological reflection.

G. K. Chesterton in his Orthodoxy said that the truly remarkable thing about Christianity is not that it predicted the obvious things about humanity but that it instead foresaw the obscure and difficult ones. It is the same with Jenson’s account here. By resuscitating and expanding homo incurvatus in se as a metaphor for sinfulness, Jenson points to something unexpected but true about us and about the world: we need to hear more about sin. In The Gravity of Sin, Jenson proves himself an able guide to this rediscovery of ourselves.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.