If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
1 John 5:16-17
Duns Scotus and the Finiteness of Sin
One of the Subtle Doctor’s rather contrarian contentions against the majority opinion of the medieval scholastic world was his insistence that sin was only finite in magnitude and gravity. St Anselm, representing the later medieval consensus, argued that all sin was infinitely grevious because it is an offense against the infinite being, and to this infinitely grevious sin required an equally infinitely great and valuable atonement, the sacrifice of Christ. However, Scotus contended that sin cannot possibly be infinite in magnitude because sin was an inherently creaturely act, and the actions of finite empirical creatures cannot possibly be infinite in magnitude. Scotus further argued that to argue that sin was infinite in magnitude was to postulate a summum malum or “chief evil” corresponding to the summum bonum or chief good which all creatures moves towards, i.e. God. This was essentially to be guilty of a form of Manichaean dualism where both good and evil are equally infinite, necessasitating the rejection of sin as being infinite in magnitude.
But with ruthless consistency, the Subtle Doctor didn’t hesitate to follow through the implications of his own logic; he also argued that since Christ’s obedience to God was also a creaturely act, therefore, horrors of horrors! Christ’s merit was itself also finite! His argument was that merit was a concept applicable only to creatures, for it is creatures who can, and are obliged to, acquire merit in relation to their conformity to God’s will. So of course logically if God’s will was the standard which determines merit, God himself must be above the very standard and concept of merit itself. Thus God was in some sense “beyond merit and demerit”, God just is.
Thus with this we can already anticipate one obvious reply. Can’t Christ’s merit be infinite by virtue of his union with the divine Word which surely is infinite? But the divine Word is already beyond merit or demerit, there is simply no merit for the divine Word to simply “transfer” over to the human Christ.
The Exposure of Sin’s Weakness and Insignificance
Let us explore one more part of Scotus’s thought before building up from his arguments. Scotus however was willing to agree that there was a sense in which sin and Christ’s merit was infinite. Scotus argued that there was two ways in which a thing can be considered to be “infinite”, namely, “intensively” and “extensively”. “Intensively” referred to the idea that something was infinite “inwardly” or “in itself”, “in relation to itself”. “Extensively” on the other hand referred to the idea that something was infinite “outwardly”, “in relation to something external”.
Thus considered “intensively”, no evil, no sin, and no creaturely action in itself can possibly be infinite, for there is only one infinite, i.e. God. But considered “extensively”, a creaturely action can be considered “infinite” based on its directional relation or in relation to its end, goal, terminus. When an act is directed towards a union with God, then that action is an infinitely good act, but when that action separates and turns away from God, then in this rather limited sense, that act is an infinite sinful act. However, we must stress that Scotus is very careful not to postulate a dualistic summum malum for sinful creatures to move towards. There is only one summum bonum, one end which all creatures can move towards.
So what happens to those creatures who live in sin do not journey towards the God, and yet also do not journey towards an evil end? Here is where we leave the actual writings of Scotus (for now!) and develop our own argument. They simply remain with their own finite lives, whose acts are all too finite and whose hearts are set upon all too finite possessions or objects, cut off from the broader context and connection to the Infinite. Thus the St Paul speaks of how the wrath of God is revealed against the wickedness of mankind by giving them up precisely to these sinful lusts/desires from which they desire and act for finite objects, severed from their broader context and path to the infinite good, i.e. God (Romans 1:24-25). Of course the problem is that finite acts and objects, by virtue of being empirically contingent, limited and finite, will eventually “run out” or decay and dissolve, as desire runs through it and reaches the end of it. Thus the delusion of the wicked heart given up by God will fall into idolatry by infinitising the actions and objects of desire and making them the be all and end all and the man who has been seized by this lie of the devil will do everything in his power to prolong and “serve” the lie of the finite object of desire/worship or deed by extending it as far as possible before it reaches its end.
So in the end, the man whose desires and goals terminates at finite goods, or whose actions and deeds are not oriented towards the infinite, will end up with nothing and reduces to an empty void. (As a side note, therefore Milton’s Satan, a being who eternally and everlastingly revolts against God in some glorious Nietzchean defiance, would simply be an impossibility. The sin of Satan’s revolt must also be finite, and therefore it would eventually be defeated by the infinite, as with all the sinful rebellion of all his minions and the reprobates. There would be no parallel rebel colony in glorious existential defiance against the will of God in hell. But this is another discussion and I highly recommend Andy Saville’s Hell without Sin.) Thus, at heart, the problem of sin is the problem of the first two commandments, not having seeking after the true Infinite in the heart, and idolatry of “infinitising” and setting one’s heart upon the finite creation and finite acts for the creation. However, this “infinitisation” of the creation and creaturely actions is simply a lie of the devil. Thus, in a certain sense, the sin only seems to be infinite, because the devil makes us believe that our sins and the object of our sins, have infinite meaning, value or significance or simply reality.
But now we can ask, what’s up with all this talk about finity and infinity, etc? The answer is that people do not merely “sin” in some general abstract sense. They commit particular concrete sins with a very definite delimited empirical meaning. Thus, we do not merely “offend” against God in some generic sense, we commit theft, murder, adultery, fornication, we covet, lust, distrust God, blaspheme, etc. Thus, all sin has a particular concrete and delimited meaning and is most certainly not “infinite” in its significance and scope. This of course is not to deny that one sin can lead to another in a sort of “chain reaction”, and sin can expand in its meaning and magnitude. But the point remains that these sins are discrete, finite and definite. (As a side note, there is an interesting contemporary discussion as to how can everlasting damnation be justified given the finite nature of sin. One answer goes that although sin is finite, but the damned continueto sin in hell, increasing their (finite) penality, and as they sin, their sentence increase, and this goes on and on… into eternity.)
Now of course God can simply “solve” the problem of sin by simply wiping out mankind altogether. But that would of course be overkill (literally!), like trying to solve the problem of divorce by abolishing marriage. You’ll have no divorce alright, but you’ll have no marriages either. Thus, God wants to keep man, but wants to solve the sin. Thus he does a “surgical” action, finite sins calls for finite solutions. Those concrete empirically delimited sins must be engaged and confronted precisely as concrete empirically delimited sins. Remember, the delusion of the devil is precisely that sin has infinite meaning and significance. God will not play by the devil’s game, thus, he sends his Son to be incarnate, to be a contingent empirically delimited creature like us, and in his creaturely concreteness, he can address each of our sins in all their particularity, healing, absolving, reconciling, all types of wounds, all kinds of sins and all sorts of sinners, and most vitally, he gives us hope that there is something beyond the life of sin for us, by exposing the end, the finiteness of sin itself, that indeed sin does not possess infinite significance or meaning over us, that it is not total or complete in its hold over us, that there is indeed a life for us beyond sin, the life in union with Christ. Thus, Christ comes to “de-infinitise” sin and expose it as finite by tackling it precisely in all its finite particularity with finite redemptive actions (healing, feeding, forgiving, eating with sinners, suffering, etc) and “re-orient” our lives back towards God. As Karl Barth puts it, the Church “will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it”.
Christ’s Finite Merits Applied Infinitely
It would be useful to come back to Scotus again. Now according to Scotus, there is a sense in which Christ’s merits, although finite because they are creaturely acts, can be infinite. Again we need to appeal to the “intensively” and “extensively” distinction. Christ’s merit, considered “intensively” and in themselves, is finite, however considered “extensively” can be infinite. But “extensively” in relation to what? Here we invoke Scotus’s (in)famous divine acceptatio, that God is willing and choses to accept Christ’s merit as infinite, that by a divine fiat or will, he simply chose to treat Christ’s merit as infinite. However it is important not to misunderstand Scotus here. It has often been argued that if God wanted to, he could accept the merits of the saints or even an angel as infinite for redemption. But this is not true. God chose to accept Christ’s merit as infinite “extensively”, in relation to Christ’s union with the divine nature. Thus, Christ’s finite merits are accepted as infinite by God because of him being the incarnate Word.
Here we leave Scotus again to develop our own argument. To say that God simply decided to accept Christ’s merits as infinite doesn’t really say anything interesting. To add that Christ’s merits are accepted as infinite by God in view of his divine union doesn’t seem to really distinguish Scotus’s doctrine from that of the majority medieval tradition which simply cuts out the “middle man” of the divine acceptatio and just go straight to saying that Christ’s merits are infinite by virtue of the divine union. How can we improve on Scotus’s thought?
Let us recall our previous argument about what the whole talk about finite and infinite sin is really all about. We wanted to “de-infinitise” sin so that we would not be distracted by abstractions and treating sin as some general overall thing, but as concrete, particular and empirical realities. Now, the concreteness of sin is wiped away and dealt with by the equally concrete and empirically finite and delimited deeds of Christ. Now, these deeds are meritorous, but not infinite so. Let us now give the divine acceptatio a different meaning. Now God will deal with our finite, empirical and concrete sins also by engaging with it directly by the particular, concrete and delimited meritorous deeds of Christ. But Christ is no longer physically with us. So how is Christ going to deal with our sins concretely? First, Christ sends down the Holy Spirit upon the Church, then the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit preaches the message of Christ to us. When we receive and believe in that message of Christ because of the conviction wrought by the Holy Ghost, when we apply the different, particular and concrete parts of his life to our own (his healings, his promises, his forgiveness, his love for sinners, his forgiving his murderers, etc), God is willing to accept this faith in his Son in the power of the Spirit as sufficient merit for atonement of our particular sins. And in this sense, Christ’s merit is “infinite” because it can be infinitely applied to as many people as possible and to as many myraid life situations and sins as there can possibly be. Christ’s “finite” merits or concrete particular deeds has both the power and capacity to speak, address and save any and everyone, no matter the greatness of their sin, or the depth of their depravity. And on account of the intercessions of Christ pleading the merits and his life, and the faith and conviction wrought in sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit sent by Christ, God is pleased to accept these as sufficient atonement and forgiveness. In this sense does the divineacceptatio “infinitise” the finite merits of Christ, by applying the finite merits of Christ to a potentially infinite or limitless varieties of sinner and life situations. It would be interesting to speculate further about how God does publicly declare his acceptance of the life of Christ for our justification and atonement by vindicating it via the resurrection as St Paul writes, he was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25), but I think the point has been made.
Conclusion: Finite Sin, Finite Redemption, Finite Faith
We have looked at the finiteness of sin and how it is dealt with the finiteness of Christ’s deeds. To conclude, we should see how these can be concretely applied to us by considering the “finite” nature of faith. Let us begin with Melanchthon’s explanation as to what is true faith in his Apology,
The adversaries feign that faith is only a knowledge of the history, and therefore teach that it can coexist with mortal sin. Hence they say nothing concerning faith, by which Paul so frequently says that men are justified, because those who are accounted righteous before God do not live in mortal sin. But that faith which justifies is not merely a knowledge of history, not merely this, that I know the stories of Christ’s birth, suffering, etc. (that even the devils know,) but it is to assent to the promise of God, in which, for Christ’s sake, the remission of sins and justification are freely offered. And that no one may suppose that it is mere knowledge, we will add further: it is to wish and to receive the offered promise of the remission of sins and of justification.
Thus, faith is not only a knowledge of the particular deeds and events of Christ’s life, it also “to wish and to receive the offered promise, etc”.
The problem however with the developmet of the Protestant tradition is that how exactly does faith “receives” the grace and salvation of God has never really been clarified. The manner which the tradition has developed, especially in the English Reformed, is that the faith which “receives” this salvation is identified by some form of subjective intensity or sincerity, or some form of heightened spiritual experience, which “truly” believes or rest in Christ, etc.
However, the Lutheran tradition has actually a very simple and concrete meaning as to what it means to believe in Christ and “receive” his benefits. To use an analogy, what does it mean to say that a child relies on his parents? To say that a child relies on his parents is not to say that the child has some special conscious experience of his or her parents. It is to say that the child looks to his parents for the goods for his life. When the child is hungry, he turns to his parents for food, when he needs money to buy stuff, he turns to his parents for cash, when he wants to know what to do, he turns to his parents for instructions, when he has hurt himself, he cries and runs to his parents for help. Thus, we say that the child relies, trusts and expects his good from his parents.
Likewise, when we speak of “trusting” in God and putting our faith in him, we are not speaking of some esoteric or special moment of experience, etc. We mean it in a very ordinary sense, by particularing the events and needs of our lives. When we have sinned, we repent and turn to God, desiring in faith, asking and expecting God to forgive us that particular sin on account of Christ, which we concretely and really do receive in absolution. When we possess some need, or when we have some worry, or ask of God’s grace to aid us for those needs, trusting and believing that God will address and resolve those particular needs and worries, and that God truly has a care for us when we are going through those times of troubles and will see us through those particular troubles. Thus, each of our particular temptation, committed sin, worry, need, etc, is to be confronted in all their particularity, not abstracted into some vague generality, and we call upon God in faith to aid us and help us in those times, trusting and believing that God will supply the strength to endure that particular temptation, forgiveness for that particular sin, resolution for this particular worry, etc.
In short, faith isn’t some momentous special experience or consciousness of Christ, it is simply the daily and constant reliance upon Christ for each and every particular event in our lives, trusting that Christ will give us his particular grace addressed for each particular event. And with this I leave with Hermann Sasse’s remarks on the nature of faith,
…we do not forget that justifying faith is not the matter of a single moment, but the substance of our whole lives. Such faith is not some act of our commitment to God that is particularly perceived and experienced in some isolated moments of our life. Rather it is the constant though always clouded reliance on the Gospel’s promise of grace.