The Noetic Effects of Sin

Sin is not only a moral, social, and relational problem; it is an epistemological problem as well. While we often refer to actions which are contrary to God’s will as sins, Sin is greater than the some of these parts. Sin is the condition of the distortion of our entire being which manifests itself in our thinking, feeling, and acting. It is an individual and a corporate condition, manifesting itself not only in the actions of individuals, but of groups, societies, cultures. It is clear then that Sin affects our reasoning and hence our knowing. This is often referred to as the noetic effects of sin.

In his article ‘How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model,’[1] Stephen K. Moroney presents and offers a critique of two models of the noetic effects of sin represented in the teachings of Abraham Kuyper and Emil Brunner, followed by a constructive proposal of his own.

While Kuyper and Brunner present two different models, they share a crucial similarity. Both Kuyper and Brunner posited (in somewhat different ways) that the noetic effects of sin are felt most when it comes to matters of theology and ethics, and least (if at all) when it comes to matters of observation and logic (e.g. natural sciences, mathematics). The dependence of Christians on Revelation/Scripture for the former sets us radically apart from all others, whose efforts to establish truth in such matters will necessarily rely on self-sufficient reason and come to err. They both tie sin to reason employed apart from revelation/scripture. As Moroney observes regarding Brunner, ‘Nowhere does he speak of the noetic effects of sin in believer’s thinking. Brunner’s argument is always from the noetic effects of sin to the distinctives of Christian thinking.’ (441) Both Brunner and Kuyper focus on the object of study and ignore the subject doing the studying, apart from what they consider to be the determinative factor; whether the subject is a Christian or not (440). Unfortunately this is a serious shortcoming, reminding me of the way in which “reason” is sometimes set in opposition to “faith” or “revelation.”[2]

In my own words, in these models Sin does not affect the process of reasoning at all, rather, the state of the world as fallen means that we cannot know the truth in matters of theology and ethics apart from God’s revelation. Therefore those outside of Christ will always be “blind” in such matters. It matters then a good deal what we mean by the term “Sin” in this discussion.

Constructive Proposal

Moroney's Model for noetic effects of sin (442)

For his constructive proposal Moroney uses sin to refer both to acts (whether mental, emotional, or physical) that are contrary to Gods will, and the disposition to carry these out. (442, fn.49)

While Moroney agrees with Kuyper and Bruner that sin ‘tends to disturb human thinking about some matters more than other,’ (442; this is represented in “the object of knowledge” column from less (bottom) to more (top)) the noetic effects of sin include the distortion of the process of our thinking, not simply in terms of the sources we employ, but in terms of the influences on our judgments.

Because the noetic effects of sin involves ‘the complex interplay of multiple factors’ as indicated in the diagram, the noetic effects of sin vary from person to person, and it is not possible to ‘forecast exactly’ how sin will distort someone’s thinking. (447) I think this point is very important. When it comes to biblical interpretation, we do not always come to the wrong conclusions because we wish to believe that the text says something, even where the more controversial issues are involved. And we should not assume to or judge that others are doing so lightly. According to Moroney knowledge (however comprehensive) of the factors that shape and influence any particular ‘knowing subject’ is not necessarily enough to determine how sin is affecting someone’s reasoning. Sometimes it is, and we may claim that is very clearly so. But we need to recognize the complexity before rushing to conclusions.

What this should lead us to first and foremost is to a heightened self-awareness and a chastened view of our own success in the pursuit of truth:

‘The reality that sin distorts our thinking reminds us not only of our need to be self-critical and open to others’ corrections but also of our need to humility. If we take the noetic effects of sin seriously, then we are faced with the humbling prospect that this side of heaven some of our beliefs, in particular our beliefs about God… will be erroneous.’ (449)

So it should be clear that the flaws or errors in our thinking (its processes and results) are not always the effect of sin. We all have a capacity to know, to understand, but most of the time this requires effort and work. Understanding and misunderstanding are simply part and parcel of the way in which our thinking/inquiring is designed to function, and I do not think that this is the result of a “fall.” I think it is simply how God has chosen to create us. It is Sin that we introduced into the world which complicates the whole Endeavour.

[1] S.K. Moroney ‘How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model,’ Christian Scholar’s Review XXVIII:3 (Spring 1999): 432-451.

[2] “Reason” is not itself a source of knowledge to be set against or alongside of revelation. Rather reason is employed in the persuit of knowledge, whether the source of this knowledge has made it clear (revelation) or whether it needs to be generated through inquiry into that of which knowledge is sought. I realise that the distinction is often made between knowledge gained through revelation and knowledge gained through reason, but here I think the latter term is not entirely appropriate and confuses matters.

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One response

  1. I heard this term for the first time in a theology class tonight (after 25 years in one of the best teaching churches in America, surprisingly). But after looking for work on it– too late at night for all this theology– most people seem to limit the term solely to Romans 1 type stuff… yes, whatever, that’s obvious– but without any mention of the effects of sin on a Christian’s ability to truly know God in scripture. The reason I locked onto this term so vividly tonight is that I just ended a marriage two weeks ago to a man who could quote the word backwards and forwards, who read it incessantly at times, but who wouldn’t stop lying and manipulating all the members of his family and his church (not to mention numerous marriage counselors). Indeed, today my daughter finally revealed how much pain she’s in over his actions, in that when she told him some things she would like to see change in their relationship, he ceased communicating with her entirely for two solid weeks and counting. But this is a man who claimed to be desperate to keep the marriage and family together, to do what God wanted, etc., etc.

    And I always struggled with the fact that he read the word, he knew the word, he knew it better than I did– but it seemed to have no effect over the course of 22 years that I was married to him. But he would never truly turn away from his habitual deceit of me and other people in the church. So it finally makes sense to me– and seems so obvious– that sin affects totally one’s ability to understand who God truly is as he’s revealed himself in Scripture.

    It’s too bad there’s so much material about the non-believer’s understanding of the word– because that much is obvious– but it seems to me far more useful to focus on the effects of sin on the believer’s interaction and understanding of the word– and a warning that disobedience to God can affect far more than you might even be aware of.

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