In 1973 American psychiatrist Karl Menninger penned a book with the intriguing title, Whatever Became of Sin? Good question. But we now know in part what has happened to sin. It’s been pulled. That is, one dictionary has actually taken the term out altogether.
A recent story in the Mail on Sunday reports on changes made to the Oxford Junior Dictionary. And it seems it is not just the word ‘sin’ which has got the axe. According to the story, a number of Christian and biblical terms have been deleted, including “abbey, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, monk, nun, pew, saint”.
The article quotes one concerned parent: “Lisa Saunders, from County Down, Northern Ireland, compared six editions since the 1970s and was horrified to discover that a whole range of words relating to Christianity, nature and British history had been axed over the years. ‘The Christian faith still has a strong following,’ she said. ‘To eradicate so many words associated with Christianity will have a big effect on the numerous primary schools who use it. We know that language moves on and we can’t be fuddy-duddy about it, but you don’t cull hundreds of important words in order to get in a different set of ICT words’.”
The article also provides the rationale from the publisher: “Oxford University Press said it analysed millions of words from children’s books and the school curriculum and looked at how frequently they occurred in considering how to update new editions. Advice from teachers is also taken before the final choice is made. Vineeta Gupta, head of children’s dictionaries, said: ‘We are limited by how big the dictionary can be – little hands must be able to handle it – but we produce 17 children’s dictionaries with different selections and numbers of words. When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed. We are also much more multicultural. People don’t go to Church as often as before. Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism, which is why some words such as “Pentecost” or “Whitsun” would have been in 20 years ago but not now’.”
So what is one to make of all this? Several thoughts come to mind. Sure, as Western societies become increasingly secular such terms will therefore continue to fall out of use. But the fact that a word may not be used a lot may not be a good reason for pulling it from our dictionaries.
Historical terms were also pulled from the dictionary; words such as “coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade”. But as the years roll on, perhaps many will not know or care about such things as the Holocaust. Does that mean we should feel free to delete that term as well?
Certain terms are simply a part of the Western heritage and are too vital to be left out. Christianity played an enormous role in the establishment and continuance of Western civilisation, so it should not so readily be dismissed from our collective memories.
Theological demolition jobs
But leaving aside for the moment what words we include or exclude from our dictionaries, the gradual disappearance of the notion of sin has far-wider implications and ramifications. For this notion is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian worldview. Take away our understanding of sin, and these two major religious traditions no longer make any sense.
Indeed, biblical Christianity is incoherent without the notion of sin. There can be no good news of the Gospel without first understanding the bad news of sin and the Fall. The mission of Jesus makes no sense if we remove such concepts from our thinking.
Jesus made it clear that the reason he came to earth was to save sinners. For example, as he said in all three Synoptic Gospels: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”. Take away the doctrine of sin and we take away the doctrine of the Incarnation. Indeed, we take away the entire message of the New Testament.
But of course very liberalised versions of Christianity are quite happy to dispense with the notion of sin altogether. They think it has no place in the believer’s vocabulary or theology. Plenty of examples come to mind here.
One quite famous example is Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral fame. He of course does not like to talk about sin. He is more concerned about people’s self-esteem. He wants us all to think positively, and he is quite unhappy with the biblical notion of sin. In 1982 he said this: “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem”.
Or as he put it in 1985: “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”
In this he stands in the tradition of other positive thinking advocates such as Norman Vincent Peale. Peale wrote his influential and best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. Like Schuller, his views are a far cry from that of Scripture. Indeed, the book was so opposed to biblical thinking that it prompted Adlai Stevenson to quip, “Paul I find appealing, Peale I find appalling”.
Such anti-sin thinking has been a hallmark of liberal theology for several centuries now. New England was greatly influenced by liberal theology. The very unbiblical Unitarianism was mainly the religion of the elite in New England in recent times, so critics joked that Unitarian preaching was limited to “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston”.
This debilitating theological liberalism has been rejected by many of course. Perhaps most famous is the renunciation penned by H. Richard Niebuhr. Writing in 1953 he said this: “The liberal gospel consists of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”
Such a Gospel is of course no Gospel at all. Without sin, the whole biblical understanding of why Christ came collapses. And without sin, we are simply left with nebulous and anaemic understandings of man’s predicament and condition, such as poor self-esteem, a bad upbringing, ‘society is to blame’, and so on.
Thus while some dictionaries may want to consign the term to the bin, the notion of sin is fundamental to who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. To ignore or minimise our sinful state is like ignoring the large cancerous tumour growing in a patient, and hoping things will just turn out alright.
But that will not do. Death will be the result unless drastic action is taken. And in the spiritual realm, the cancer of sin must be dealt with, or we will all perish. And that is exactly why Jesus came, to destroy the effects of sin and bring us back into a right relationship with God.
So please, put that ‘S’ word back in the dictionary. It is simply a sin to leave it out.