Gary brought up an interesting issue earlier today. The distinction many, particularly Joseph Fielding Smith, have made between a sin and a transgression. Allow me to quote Gary’s quote of Elder Oaks.
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said: â€œI never speak of the part Eve took in this fall as a sin, nor do I accuse Adam of a sin…. This was a transgression of the law, but not a sin … for it was something that Adam and Eve had to do!â€ (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:114â€“15).
This suggested contrast between a sin and a transgression … echoes a familiar distinction in the law. 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. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall. (Ensign, Nov. 1993, 73.)
For the record, I favor the sin/transgression distinction, although I tend to do it along different lines than Elder Oaks. To me the fundamental problem is that in the garden of Eden Adam and Eve were innocent and did not know good or evil. If sin is to knowingly choose evil, then it is hard for me to understand how it could be a sin in the normal sense of things. I typically appeal to Mosiah 3 and how when little children sin, Christ automatically atones for their sins.
Of course the obvious rejoinder is that Benjamin does call what children do a sin. But he does distinguish between sins we are responsible for and sins we are not. So I think the distinction is present, even if the language isn’t.
What Elder Oaks is discussing seems different. He is discussing a law that represents inherently the good versus a law that one might call expedient. Thus murder is both illegal and wrong whereas speeding is illegal but not necessarily wrong.
While I’m sympathetic to Elder Oaks (especially when speeding down I-15) I have two problems. First, Elder Oaks’ reading entails that what God tells us isn’t always right. That seems to lead to some troubling implications if we take it seriously. Secondly it raises the difficulty of telling, with respect to divine rules, what is just a formal rule versus what is an ethical rule. Certainly in the Eden accounts there is nothing to indicate what Elder Oaks asserts. Now it is true that we can think of commands of God we might term policy. But aren’t we under command to obey even if it is policy?
Consider the Word of Wisdom. It appears only to have been made a formal command since the 1930’s. Even if one takes it as a command since its revelation in the restoration, it also doesn’t appear to have applied to people in Palestine or Zarahemla. Yet, does that mean it isn’t really a sin if I go out and get drunk? I don’t think so. Something can not be inherently wrong, but can be wrong because of the relationship I am in. My relationship with God in my current context entails that drinking alcohol is wrong. Why wouldn’t this be true of Adam and the fruit in the Garden?
I’d be interested in your thoughts.