Hating the sin and loving the sinner?

Posted on May 8, 2008

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Mark Driscoll seems to have been making quite a lot of capital recently with the claim that ‘ “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner” is not a Biblical claim–Gandhi said it, and he was on a different team to ours’ (variously phrased in different talks and publications, but this is the gist of it). The most charitable reconstruction of the logic would go something like this: ‘if Gandhi said it, it carries no authority for Christians, and so must be tested against Scripture; but various verses of Scripture (e.g. Ps. 5:5) speak of God hating the sinner; therefore the initial claim must be wrong.’

A moment’s research would have revealed to Driscoll that his claim is actually wrong. It struck me as implausible when I first read it (I’m no expert on Gandhi, but I’m not aware of his claiming privileged insight into God’s attitudes particularly often). What Gandhi actually said, according to Mohandas Gandhi’s 1929 biography, was that we should love the sinner whilst hating the sin, not that God did (an attitude, incidentally, commended rather earlier by St Augustine of Hippo, writing about the practice of discipline in a convent, which should always be applied cum dilectione hominum et odio vitorum Ep. 211).

What of God’s attitude? Driscoll makes his point in discussing the atonement, and actually raises a rather interesting question. Why does God not leave us in our sins? There are, at first sight, two recurrent answers in the Christian tradition. The first would be that God does in fact love the sinner in some meaningful way. This is Calvin’s answer: Habemus ergo omnes in nobis, quod Dei odio dignum sit…Verum quia Dominus quod suum est, in nobis perdere non vult, adhuc aliquid invenit quod pro sua benignitate amet. Utcunque enim peccatores vitio nostro simus, manemus tamen eius creaturae… (‘For we all have that within us which is deserving of God’s hatred … But because the Lord wills not to lose that which is his within us, he still, from his own kindness, finds something to love. For however much we are sinners through our own fault, we also remain his creatures’ Inst. II.16.3; my translation).

The other view can be represented by St Anselm: multo magnis propter eandem inconvenientiam impossibile est, nullum hominem ad hoc provehi, ad quod factus est. (‘It is much more the case, because of this same unfittingness, that it is impossible for no human being to be lifted up to the end for which s/he was made.’ CDH I.25) Salvation, here, is not a result of God’s love for the sinner, but of the ‘unfittingness’ of God not saving. I have explored this at some length in a published essay; I take Anselm’s point to be that God’s purposes in creating included the glorification of (some) human persons, and so, post-fall, for Him not to act to save would mean that human action (viz, sin) had frustrated God’s purposes, which is by supposition impossible.

In modern Reformed terms, does God act primarily out of love for His creatures, or out of concern for His own glory? I suspect that if the two positions are interrogated with an adequate account of divine simplicity in mind, there might be less difference between them than at first sight appears, but that would take a full paper to argue…

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