Transgressors in Eden

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 transgressionSin 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.

(Bold added.)

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.

(pp. 47-48.)

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.


  1. “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.”

    Exactly. And great post — thanks!

  2. J. Stapley says:

    I think it is important to note that the way we use sin and transgression varies in different times and places. E.g., this reading of “transgression” doesn’t jibe well with several prominent uses in the D&C.

  3. John F et al:
    It might also help us spend some time learning WHY things are malum prohibitum, i.e., as Paul says, that we do not “become a stumblingblock to them that are weak”. (1 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 8). We do it as we are our brothers keeper.

  4. Shawn H., yes, the solidarity angle is one approach to understanding the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom (hopefully you realize and understand that the Word of Wisdom was not always interpreted in the way that we bind ourselves by it today), which I have also discussed in the past.

    In more recent years, I think there is more insight into the “why” of the Word of Wisdom found in D&C 89:4: “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days”.

  5. Rob Osborn says:

    Adam committed sin by partaking of the forbidden fruit. It is called “transgression” because he knowingly broke the commandment of God. As a result Adam and Eve spiritually died and needed repentance and baptism. This is the classic story about whose will you are going to follow- Gods or Satans. Adam chose to follow after Satan in this instance and as a result he suffered the first spiritual death which is dying unto godly works.,

  6. I find an appeal to the Biblical record on the point of God’s view of David and Solomon’s polygamy problematic. I think Jacob is a more reliable source, since his (inspired) account is transmitted through prophets for the purpose of teaching doctrine while the Biblical record is transmitted through scribes for the purpose of aggrandizing kings and creating a narrative for a nation.

  7. The Other Clark says:

    Need more examples of malum prohibitum? Pick up your CHI and open to any page.

  8. I have heard the distinction explained opposite of Ron. That the action was classified as a transgression because Adam did not have a full understanding of the law and its consequences. Without this knowledge (which he needed the fruit to gain) he was not fully accountable. If he had been accountable, then it would have been a sin. Any thoughts?

    Can we explore why a law might be malum prohibitum? A speed limit might be set to establish a normal of safe speed, with the understanding that citizens that break this law endanger the people around them. Don’t eat them apples Adam, ’cause I’ve yet to teach you about mortality.

  9. Most people aren’t terribly aware of the effects of going 85 vs going 55, but are still willing to speed. Adam was givin a pretty definite commandment – eat and die. No matter what the rationales, he could not avoid the effect of his decision. It would have been a different world had Adam decided to trust God had a plan, and obeyed (likely resulting in God giving the fruit when they were ready), rather than deciding he knew better with his very limited knowledge.

    English is such a difficult language to work with. in the Church, we have lots of words that implicitly (or explicitly) carry meanings that almost, but don’t quite, fit what we mean. We can’t even go from English to English without arguments over what was actually meant when something is said. I have dear hopes that Adamic (or whaever God’s native language is) is much clearer.

  10. wreddyornot says:

    If we’re going to niggle and show off our Latin, etc., I wish somebody would just list which is which, *in se* or *prohibitum*.

    I for one think that sin and transgression are one and the same thing.

    Are all sins/transgressions equally serious? No, clearly not.

    Is ignoring authority’s warning about not eating certain fruit of a particular tree a sin/transgression only if one understands why? Se.

  11. Frank, you raise a question that many will debate when you state, “It would have been a different world if Adam decided to trust God had a plan, and obeyed…”

    Was there another plan or was Lucifer’s meddling all part of the plan in the first place? Not a specified plan, but instead an anticipated outcome by putting all the pieces in place and allowing them to proceed of their own accord. A Fall had to happen. Adam and Eve had to choose and encounter good vs. evil. Ultimately God couldn’t give us our agency, He protected it and ensured it would be the driving force in our lives as it should be if we are to learn and mature through trial and error and reliance on faith.

  12. OD, the way I see it is that there was no decision made by either Adam or Eve that would have frustrated God’s plan for his children. That leaves open the possibilities of only one of them eating the fruit, but the plan still being able to progress. That’s why I figure that if A&E had not disobeyed, they would have been given it by God when they were made more ready for it. (warning:temple talk) This is affirmed a bit by Lucifer declaring that the fruit was given to other A&Es, and that he believed that since he was the one to give the fruit, he was the god of this world. (and was treated by those who served God like a child declaring he is the Emperor of the United States).

    Lucifer wasn’t even necessary for convincing A&E. One of the prevailing thoughts is that Eve would have worked it out and disobeyed anyway. I think the additional information given by Lucifer may have tipped her decision making over to disobeying, but even in that it was barely a bump in the overall plan for this world. I also disagree with Eve in her assertion that it was better to transgress so they can have children, even though she believed (but did not know) they would never have children if they did not transgress.

    Anyway, it’s a bit off topic, but that’s how I see the whole Eden thing.

  13. I’m curious how many people reading this take this story literally, i.e., Adam and Eve were real individuals who lived in a real garden, Lucifer came to visit them, there was a real tree whose fruit could make them mortal, etc. I’m not sure myself how literal it is; I think there were actual people named Adam and Eve who lived in an ancient time and they were perhaps the first to speak with God or to seek Him and make covenants with him. As for being the first people created, living innocently in a garden, etc., I’m not sure. I haven’t worked it out in my mind yet. I’m not trying to start a fight over literal vs. metaphor, since to me it doesn’t really matter because I can learn from the story whether it’s factually true or only spiritually true, I’m just wondering.

  14. Personally, Villate, I read the Garden narrative as a mythological re-telling of the pre-mortal War in Heaven. I see “The Fall” as beginning when we made the choice to be separated from God in order to fulfill His plan (the moment when the process of Atonement could begin), including needing to live in a setting where we would be subject to competing enticements and decide who would be our own personal God of this world. Ultimately, I see it as a symbolic depiction of the choice we all made to accept pain, suffering and growth over the lack thereof (side-by-side with our own helpmeet[s]) – and I see that choice as continuing to be the primary purpose of life.

    We can go with the flow and just exist as others tell us what to do in a life of relative ease, or we can stumble along trying to figure it out for ourselves, falling over and over again, but always looking for messages / messengers from Heavenly Father and trying to resist urges and actions that would prompt us to hide from Him.

    As to the distinction between sin and transgression, I like the Book of Mormon standard that there is no sin to those without law – meaning there is no sin without adequate understanding. I also like the Biblical and Book of Mormon standard that the Atonement covers transgressions automatically and universally. That allows our theology to include the grand concept that nobody will be worse off for having chosen to accept God’s plan than they would have been if they had accepted Lucifer’s plan, instead. All will be blessed for the original decision to accept God’s plan by not being punished for Adam’s transgression (and the resulting natures with which we struggle as a result of being separated from God and subject to hereditary weaknesses and inclinations).

  15. Doesn’t this raise the Euthyphro Dilemma, or at least a variant of it? In other words, is something wrong *because* God forbids it, or does God forbid it *because* it is wrong? Is “true” morality “above God,” or does God dictate morality?

    Elder Oaks’ analogy suggests that truly bad things, like murder, are wrong in themselves — are, in a sense, “above God.” But God is portrayed as giving Nephi license to kill Laban; and he also tells Abraham to kill Isaac, although he retracts that at the last second. But the lesson must be (if you believe it really happened) that murder is wrong *unless* God commands it. So murder is not “above” God after all; He controls life and death, including the consequences of taking life. And we appear to have established the other horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma, the horn that Elder Oaks implicitly rejects: things are wrong *because* God commands them and *until* He makes an exception. In that light, “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not eat” are morally indistinguishable.

    Long story short, I don’t think Elder Oaks’ explanation holds up. But I’m happy to hear why I’m wrong. My thinking here is unfinished.

  16. The Bible gives an example of prophetic misreading in Daniel 9, which reinterprets Jeremiah’s prophecy that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years to read that it meant 70 weeks of years, that is, 490 years. So the phenomenon you describe is very old indeed.

  17. I’d go farther and suggest that 2 Nephi involves a prophetic misreading of Isaiah. In fact I think that this kind of misreading is a key part of what prophets do. (See: Joseph Smith, all over the place.)

  18. Another great post, Sam. Glad you came aboard BCC.

  19. Wasn’t Elder Oaks expounding on the mid-twentieth-century theological distinction by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, especially in his book Doctrines of Salvation?

  20. Daniel Smith says:

    I think you are right. The malum in se vs. malum prohibitum distinction is what Elder Oaks is trying to make for a lay audience but I think the decision to label the malum in se category sin was unfortunate. It ends up leading to some twisted logic that leaves mormons arguing that transgression is the opposite of what the word actually means (as Mark has heard).

    The Old Testament has a fairly well established system for describing wrong doing and it would avoid confusion to just use it. Sin is the broadest category and encompasses any way in which something might fall short of perfection. Transgression is violating some command of God and maps quite well to malum prohibitum. Iniquity is gross wickedness, depravity; it maps best to malum in se. Abominations are a contentions category at the moment but the simplest explanation is that they are acts culturally unacceptable for jews and would also be transgression and/or iniquity.

  21. Rob Osborn says:

    Section 138 of the D&C gives the clearest definition of “transgression” I have found. Here-

    32 Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.

    There are two ways we can sin- we can sin in ignorance- without a knowledge of the truth or we can sin by transgression having a knowledge of the truth. Here this verse explains that transgression is always coupled with sin- sin is the act of doing that which is bad and transgression is the part of sinning through direct disobedience to known law.

    Section 29 of the D&C is very clear that Adam fell into temptation by the devil and became spiritually dead needing repentance at that point. Repentance is only for sins- nothing else. Transgression, as previously mentioned, is the particular process of rejecting law while committing the sin. Transgression is always coupled with sin. One cannot transgress the law and commit no sin- that would be a paradox!

  22. My two cents is that if you want to use these terms (“sin” and “transgression”) with this specialized meaning in your own explanations, like Elder Oaks does, or when discussing the teachings of other mid-20th century leaders that used the distinction, go for it. But if you start trying to read the distinction back into the scriptures which more often than not (I would say always, actually) use “sin” and “transgression” to mean the same thing, you’re going to have a bad time.

    As for the specific question of whether “transgression” as used in the articles of faith means something different from sin, I don’t think it does, but if reading it that way helps somebody understand Elder Oaks’ point: that eating fruit itself is not an evil act, but disobedience to God’s commands is still a “transgression,” I suppose its relatively harmless, as long as we understand that “transgression” is still “sin” at least in the sense that the Lord uses it when he says that he “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” But if you start trying to make distinctions there, suggesting that the Lord might look upon “transgression” with some degree of allowance, for example, you’ll be barking up the wrong tree

  23. melodynew says:

    The tree, the fruit, the choice – so far as I can tell, it was all about Eve and Adam coming to recognize there is more than one source for inspiration. God can inspire, provide knowledge. Other-Than-God can also speak to us.

    Neither sin nor transgression were involved, simply enlightenment about what darkness looks like. And even that darkness is illuminated in the Light of Christ. “I know thee now. . .” This story is about the moment when we begin to see the truth of evil. And how else can we become like God?

  24. Carey Foushee says:

    “I also disagree with Eve in her assertion that it was better to transgress” –Frank

    Then you also disagree with Adam where in Moses 5:10 he says “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God”.

  25. Carey Foushee says:

    I once heard a great example that illustrates the difference between malum in se and malum prohibitum, it comes from the Andy Griffith Show. Andy tells Opie about a boy who comes upon a pond that has a sign posted that says “No Swimming”. However, the boy finds that there is a little child in the pond drowning and then asks Opie what would he do. “Jump in and save him Pa”, Opie says.

  26. Carey – No, actually. He’s just describing the effects of eating the fruit, which was his transgression. He’s not saying it was better to transgress than not. If he’d not transgressed, but was given the fruit by God, the verse would have been the same save for calling it a transgression.

    The difference between the A&E transgression and the drowning analogy is that the first was part of a plan; no benefits to transgressing were given or eevn thought of before being instroduced by Lucifer. The analogy would only be apt if the boy had been told the pond would have killed him if he jumped in, the had been told by someone nearby, “it won’t really kill you, and it’s the only way to save the world”.

  27. I think it’s interesting how confident humans tend to be that their view is the one and only true view.

    Personally, I really like accepting multiple views, even when they conflict, as opportunities to learn different lessons. That doesn’t work for some people, so I don’t advocate it for all people, but it works for me – largely because I simply am not confident I know the one and only true view.

    Finally, I realize I had failed to say how much I enjoyed this post – and the various comments expressing different views. Thanks, Sam.

  28. Hmmmm. I don’t buy Jacob misunderstanding something as serious as God’s views on polygamy, or reinterpreting them with his own spin. If you take as a given that polygamy is a good thing (per sources that wouldn’t be acceptable in a court of law), then I can see how you would have to think Jacob did that in order to avoid your own cognitive dissonance. I personally prefer to believe that Jacob knew what he was talking about, and that the bible has been altered and corrupted over the years (much like the traditions of our fathers in the LDS church, with the maintenance of widows and orphans being an example ready at hand).

    Lastly, I see in Jesus’ answer to the question of divorce a pattern for how we should be looking at scripture. He quotes the word of God. Using basic logic, (i.e. don’t undo what God has done–He did it for a darn good reason), he shows us how to find wisdom, and to understand that what God says has deep ramifications, and we need to be prayerful and thoughtful about His word.

    While I appreciate what you’re trying to say about sin and transgression, I find the wresting of the Book of Mormon and suspicion of Christ’s methods problematic.

  29. “I see in Jesus’ answer to the question of divorce a pattern for how we should be looking at scripture. He quotes the word of God. Using basic logic, (i.e. don’t undo what God has done–He did it for a darn good reason), he shows us how to find wisdom, and to understand that what God says has deep ramifications, and we need to be prayerful and thoughtful about His word.”

    This is a really interesting insight. I agree that his answer can teach us about how to view scripture, but I’m not sure I agree that that lesson is to take the word of God and use basic logic, because surely, the law of Moses was also the word of God, and applying basic logic to that would lead one to the opposite conclusion. I think the lesson Jesus is teaching us about reading scripture is that there is a hierarchy of scripture: that the narratives that frame the plan of salvation (the creation, the garden, the fall, the atonement) contain and enact principles that are deeper and more important than even the commandments and the law. Essentially, he is teaching us that the received word is not necessary inerrent, and that it is not enough to just memorize and quote the chapter and verse that seemingly answers the question at hand; instead, we have to struggle with the principles and dilemmas that underlie the stories that we call scriptures, and seek the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to derive what those stories are supposed to teach us.

  30. What exactly did Satan do that was beyond redemption? I have been thinking about this, and thought I would just throw it out here. Sorry.

  31. Sam, your last paragraph statement beginning “I suspect” is a little bit misleading; you’ve used the ellipsis in your first-para quote to shorten the paragraph and obfuscate Elder Oaks’ insight. A direct quote from Elder Oaks would reveal the following:

    Some acts, like murder, are crimes because they are inherently wrong. Other acts, like operating without a license, are crimes only because they are legally prohibited. Under these distinctions, the act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. [Emphasis added.]

    That’s as succinct a law-school definition of malum prohibitum and malum in se as one can offer without lapsing into Latin, as well as offering context for his definitions of “sin” and “transgression,” and making that paragraph perhaps one of the most clear explanations of the root of the difference between the LDS view of the Fall and the view of the rest of the Christian world.

    If we were to use a Venn diagram, we might say that “every sin is a transgression, but not every transgression is a sin.” This is a hard concept for our non-LDS brothers and sisters to grasp, but it is key that we realize they don’t get it – they think we’d all be living happily in Eden had the fruit not been eaten.

    That said, every time I hear someone say that Jesus only drank grape juice, I want to put my head through the chapel wall.

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