This Sunday in Sunday School, we’re going to study the Fall.[fn1] The lesson quotes Elder Oaks distinguishing sin from transgression:
This suggested contrast between a sin and a transgression reminds us of the careful wording in the second article of faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” (italics added). . . . [T]he act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall.
The problem with this—a problem that Elder Oaks seems aware of, and to which I’ll return—is that the meanings of sin and transgression are not materially different. Sin, according to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, is
The voluntary departure of a moral agent from a known rule of rectitude or duty, prescribed by God; any voluntary transgression of the divine law, or violation of a divine command; a wicked act; iniquity. . . .
(Bold added.) Transgression is defined as
The act of passing over or beyond any law or rule of moral duty; the violation of a law or known principle of rectitude; breach of command.
The OED provides even less space between sin and transgression. Sin is defined as
An act which is regarded as a transgression of the divine law and an offense against God; a violation (esp. willful or deliberate) of some religious or moral principle.
(Bold added.) The OED defines transgression as
The action of transgressing or passing beyond the bounds of legality or right; a violation of law, duty, or command; disobedience; sin.
So the Manual (and, By Extension, Elder Oaks) Is Wrong?
No. Because saying Elder Oaks is wrong misses the register in which he was speaking and, for that matter, misses a long history of prophetic misreadings of scripture.[fn2]
Take, for example, Jacob’s temple discourse. In the course of calling his people to repentance because of their pride and their desires for gold and silver, for multiple wives and concubines, Jacob says, “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.”
If we look at what the Bible actually says, though, we don’t see the Lord calling David and Solomon’s multiple wives and concubines abominable. In fact, according to Nathan, the Lord gave David Saul’s wives; the Lord was not, per the text, unhappy with David’s multiple wives, but rather with the fact that David killed Uriah to get his wife.
Similarly, the Lord does not seem to care about the fact that Solomon had 300(!) concubines and 700(!!) wives; the problem was that his wives were foreigners who turned his heart and worship away from the God of Israel.
Still, Jacob seems to use the scriptural account that God was displeased with specific details in David’s and Solomon’s practice of polygamy and concubinage as a hook for his own revelatory assertion that God found polygamy abominable, and that the Nephites, if they pursued it, would be violating divine law.
That’s Not All . . .
And this prophetic misreading of scripture isn’t limited to the world of Mormon scripture and prophets. In his book Pedagogy of the Bible, Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies at Yale,[fn3] he discusses premodern Biblical interpretation.[fn4] And he traces the idea of creatively misreading scripture back to the New Testament authors and to Jesus himself:
The Gospels do not often present Jesus as commenting on Scripture, but as we might expect, when Jesus does interpret Scripture in the Gospels, he exercises what from a modern point of view is quite a bit of freedom. . . . [W]hen the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife” (Mark 10:2), Jesus first asks them what Moses had commanded. They note that Moses permitted divorce (see Deut. 24:1-4). In an apparent rejection of that clear scriptural permission, Jesus instead quotes Genesis 1:27, “God made them male and female,” and Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Note that neither text, taken literally and in its historical context, says anything at all about divorce or remarriage. Yet Jesus is presented as passing over a clear text that allowed divorce and remarriage, and instead interpreting a text that says nothing explicit about divorce at all, and he then reads it as a prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
So What Was Elder Oaks Doing?
I suspect that what Elder Oaks really wanted to do was invoke the contrast between malum in se and malum prohibitum into the story of the Fall. But using lawyer Latin would have lost the vast, vast majority of Church members; contrasting sin and transgression, on the other hand, is a hook that can easily be understood and that illustrates what I believe is a true principal, viz. that some things are inherently wrong, while others are wrong solely because the law says they are.[fn5]
Note that Elder Oaks recognizes that he’s making an idiosyncratic distinction as he does so: he recognizes that “[t]hese words are not always used to denote something different.”
Still, he finds the distinction between wrongdoing valuable. And I do too. Not as a way to redeem Adam and Eve from having sinned; they were mortal, and fell short, as do we all. But I find it valuable as a way of understanding why eating the fruit of the tree was wrong.
Sometimes, that is, something that has no inherent moral valence can be contextually wrong. And sometimes, prophetic scriptural interpretation can be right, even if it doesn’t reflect the literal words in their original context.
[fn1] Yes, I know that’s Lesson 4, and Sunday’s the fifth Sunday of the year. But a couple weeks ago, between heavy snow and quickly-dropping temperatures, Church was cancelled after Sacrament Meeting. So we’re a week behind.
[fn2] As far as I know, “prophetic misreadings of scripture” is my phrase, but I think it fairly accurately describes a long, long history of prophets reading scripture in a non-literal manner to get at the heart of what God wants His people to know at any given time.
[fn3] (which, if you haven’t listened to it yet, you should really download and listen to his Open Yale course Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature. Like, today)
[fn4] In chapter 3, entitled, conveniently enough, “Premodern Biblical Interpretation.”
[fn5] The quintessential example is that murder is malum in se (that is, inherently wrong), while speeding is malum prohibidum (that is, wrong because there’s a law that says it is—absent a speed limit, there’s really no moral difference between driving 54 mph and driving 56 mph). Religiously, it would do us some amount of good to recognize violations of the Word of Wisdom as malum prohibitum: wrong because we’re under obligation to refrain from, among other things, alcohol. If we looked at it like that, we wouldn’t have to talk in circles to transform Jesus’ drinking wine into His drinking grape juice.