A short interview with Tim Carter, who has just published The Forgiveness of Sins (James Clarke, 2016)
You seem to have an obsession with sin! As your new book and your previous book are about sin. What led you to write both the first, and then this new book?
Actually, I prefer to think that I have made progress in moving from writing about sin in the first book to writing about forgiveness in the second: that feels like I am moving in a positive direction! Actually something that bugs me about the church is that we have been given an amazing message of forgiveness, yet we are very good at making people feel guilty…
The first book grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the way in which people seemed to assume that St. Paul must have had a really negative view of human nature because he talks about people being enslaved to sin. In that book I tried to argue that Paul refers to sin as a power in the specific context of the debate concerning justification by faith rather than by works of the law: he wanted to define the human plight in a way that made it clear the Torah was not an effective boundary marker separating righteous Jews from Gentile sinners. To this end Paul argues that sin reigns over everyone, whether they observe the law or not, and the only solution is to die with Christ to the power of sin and to live one’s life in the liberating power of the Spirit. In this way the ethnic boundary marker of Torah is replaced by the eschatological boundary marker of Spirit-reception.
The second book arose from the realisation that Luke writes more than anyone else in the New Testament about the ‘forgiveness of sins’, yet he is often criticised for having a weak theology of the atonement: particularly in the version of Luke-Acts found in Codex Bezae, Luke seems actively to avoid suggesting that ‘Christ died for our sins.’ That led me into exploring the link between the forgiveness of sins and the death of Jesus in Luke-Acts. I think that Luke actually sees a close correlation between divine forgiveness and human interpersonal forgiveness.
Sometimes people ask why Jesus had to die before God could forgive us. The answer is that he didn’t, at least not in the sense that the wrath of God had to be satisfied by some sacrificial bloodletting before he could bring himself to forgive us. Rather, in Jesus God himself takes the place of the innocent victim of injustice, and it is from that context of suffering and vulnerability that God extends forgiveness to sinful humanity. Without the cross, the idea that God could just write off the sins of those who perpetrate atrocities against others is abhorrent: only through the death of Jesus does God have the right to forgive our sins. That’s why Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness from the cross (recorded in Codex Sinaiticus) is so important.
Then I found myself wondering about the phrase ‘the forgiveness of sins’, its antecedents in the Old Testament and other Jewish writings, the different ways it is used in the New Testament, and the contexts in which the phrase is used in the early church. The more I looked into it, the more I felt that this subject was important enough and interesting enough to warrant writing a book about it.
How have you found the time to research and write alongside being a local church minister? Have Brighton Road had to hear lots of sermons on ‘the forgiveness of sins’?
It’s taken twelve years! I have benefited enormously from opportunities to share my thoughts at a variety of study groups: Steve Finamore ran a small study group a few years ago; the Colleges ran some conferences for ‘Baptist Ministers doing Theology in Context’ and LST ran a series of annual research conferences; then there was the annual British New Testament Conference. Without the seminar opportunities provided at these events the book would never have been written: I aimed to produce a paper every year, and each of those papers became the basis for a chapter in the book.
The advantage of writing about something like forgiveness is that there is a constant interplay between the reality of pastoral ministry and what I read in the study. And I am fortunate in that I find that studying invigorates my ministry. So, I aim to spend half a day a week studying and make full use of study weeks and sabbaticals to bolster that. Brighton Road have been fully supportive of my studies, and I am profoundly grateful to them. They haven’t had to sit through loads of sermons on forgiveness, but if any of the brave souls who have bought the book actually read it, they will find the basis for a number of sermons in its pages.
Can we expect to see in the future a third book on sin?
I have, on occasion, been referred to as ‘Dr Sin’ at Brighton Road, and I am not sure I want the label to stick! At the back of my mind are some thoughts about guilt and shame which would tie in with the ‘sin’ theme, I guess. But whereas immersing myself in forgiveness has been good for me, I am not sure that exploring guilt and shame would be such an edifying experience. Anyway, there has been a fourteen year gap between the last book and this one, so don’t hold your breath.
What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?
I’d want to recommend two great books that tie in with the theme of forgiveness and atonement.
Simon Gathercole has written a pithy study entitled, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker Academic, 2015): in about 100 pages he explores different ways of understanding the death of Jesus and examines 1 Cor. 15:3 and Rom. 5:6-8. It’s a book that can be read at a single sitting, but which stimulates a lot of helpful thinking and reflection.
A second book which is really well written is David Downs’ Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity (Baylor University Press, 2016). This explores how Jews and early Christians all saw atoning value in practical acts of mercy, and argues that this way of thinking can also be found in the New Testament. The challenge that stays with me from reading this book is a practical one: faced with the rise of docetism, the church argued that orthodox belief in the physical death and resurrection of Jesus went hand in hand with caring for the physical needs of the poor. It’s a potent reminder that faith and praxis always need to go hand in hand.