Thursday, October 28, 2021

What is the Unpardonable Sin?

By AlexanderRahm - Own work, CC BY 3.0
There are a few passages of scripture that I cannot fathom. That's OK, in most cases, as I don't feel that I am capable of understanding everything about God. But there are several in this category I would really like to understand, because they may be relevant to my salvation or that of others.

Matthew 12:31-32 is one such passage. It reads:

Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
I recently listened to an episode of "The Road to Emmaus" podcast with Scott Hahn where that was the topic of discussion. It left me with more questions than answers.

Here's what's conventionally said about the unpardonable sin. The context of the two verses above is that Jesus has cured a demoniac and the Pharisees claim Jesus has done so by beelzebul (the devil) rather than by God's power. Jesus rebukes them, then offers those two verses. The footnote in my Bible says "To attribute to the devil the works of the Holy Spirit seems to imply a hardness of heart that precludes repentance."

Somehow this is often equated to the sin of despair (denial that one's sins can be forgiven) or the sin of presumption (the belief that I do not need repentance for the forgiveness of my sins). I'm not sure I follow the leap from attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to the devil to believing that  my sins are forgiven (or not), but there it is.

1864 "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.
Aquinas describes three different interpretations of the blasphemy agains the Holy Spirit (see highlighted text below):

For the earlier doctors, viz. Athanasius (Super Matth. xii, 32), Hilary (Can. xii in Matth.), Ambrose (Super Luc. xii, 10), Jerome (Super Matth. xii), and Chrysostom (Hom. xli in Matth.), say that the sin against the Holy Ghost is literally to utter a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whether by Holy Spirit we understand the essential name applicable to the whole Trinity, each Person of which is a Spirit and is holy, or the personal name of one of the Persons of the Trinity, in which sense blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is distinct from the blasphemy against the Son of Man (Matthew 12:32), for Christ did certain things in respect of His human nature, by eating, drinking, and such like actions, while He did others in respect of His Godhead, by casting out devils, raising the dead, and the like: which things He did both by the power of His own Godhead and by the operation of the Holy Ghost, of Whom He was full, according to his human nature. Now the Jews began by speaking blasphemy against the Son of Man, when they said (Matthew 11:19) that He was "a glutton . . . a wine drinker," and a "friend of publicans": but afterwards they blasphemed against the Holy Ghost, when they ascribed to the prince of devils those works which Christ did by the power of His own Divine Nature and by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Augustine, however (De Verb. Dom., Serm. lxxi), says that blasphemy or the sin against the Holy Ghost, is final impenitence when, namely, a man perseveres in mortal sin until death, and that it is not confined to utterance by word of mouth, but extends to words in thought and deed, not to one word only, but to many. Now this word, in this sense, is said to be uttered against the Holy Ghost, because it is contrary to the remission of sins, which is the work of the Holy Ghost, Who is the charity both of the Father and of the Son. Nor did Our Lord say this to the Jews, as though they had sinned against the Holy Ghost, since they were not yet guilty of final impenitence, but He warned them, lest by similar utterances they should come to sin against the Holy Ghost: and it is in this sense that we are to understand Mark 3:29-30, where after Our Lord had said: "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost," etc. the Evangelist adds, "because they said: He hath an unclean spirit."

But others understand it differently, and say that the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, is a sin committed against that good which is appropriated to the Holy Ghost: because goodness is appropriated to the Holy Ghost, just a power is appropriated to the Father, and wisdom to the Son. Hence they say that when a man sins through weakness, it is a sin "against the Father"; that when he sins through ignorance, it is a sin "against the Son"; and that when he sins through certain malice, i.e. through the very choosing of evil, as explained above (I-II:78:1I-II:78:3), it is a sin "against the Holy Ghost."

But here's my basic problem with all the interpretations above. If you say that this sin is only unpardonable because it is not repented of, then it is no different from any other mortal sin, and yet we don't call every mortal sin unpardonable. Blasphemy agains the Holy Spirit then, is not unpardonable.

Want an example? The mission of the Apostles and the formation of the Church is a work of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul considers this an abomination against the Jewish faith - something of the devil, and so he persecutes the Christians. Yet Paul repents and his sin is (presumably - ha ha) pardoned.

Furthermore Jesus says that whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven. Well, isn't that what the Pharisees did? They said Jesus was in league with beelzebul, they didn't directly mention the Holy Spirit (nor did Paul for that matter).

For that matter it would seem that saying a word against the Son of man will be forgiven if the person repents, just like any other sin. And one could say that claiming Jesus is in league with the devil seems to imply a hardness of heart that precludes repentance of that. And indeed we see that many of the Pharisees (as far as we know) did not repent of their words against Jesus.

St. Augustine (one of my personal faves) has an interpretation that at least is consistent logically, but I don't see how it follows form the text. That is, final impenitence is not mentioned, and indeed if the sin is impenitence then it is not a "sin" per se, but impenitence of sin, that precludes forgiveness. The text seems to imply there is a sin which precludes later forgiveness, not a state you are in later that precludes forgiveness from any sin. I guess one could interpret the text as meaning "whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit until death" but that's not what the text says.

And so the whole thing remains a mystery to me. The common interpretation does not make sense to me because the same logic applies to every other mortal sin, including blasphemy against Jesus, which Jesus explicitly says is not this sin.


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