The Seven Deadly Sins, and Other Lists

February 3, 2012

Another passage where the Bible provides a list of sins is Proverbs 6:16-19:  “16 There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, 19 a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community” (NIV).  It’s a different list than the Ten Commandments, and there is only modest overlap between the two lists. I’m struck at the active quality of this list, the emphasis upon the part of the body that enacts the sinfulness: eyes, tongue, hands, heart, feet.  (Also note: no mention of homosexuality as something the Lord hates.)

The “Seven Deadly Sins” are another famous list with a connection to this passage from Proverbs. Where do these appear in the Bible? They don’t, though their origin is about as old as the compiling of the Bible into the book we know. The Seven Deadly Sins originate (as I understand it) in the work of a 4th century monk, Evagrius Ponticus. It was further developed by (St.) John Cassian (c. 360- c. 435) and Pope (St.) Gregory the Great (540-604). The Seven Deadly Sons were also discussed at length by (St.) Thomas Aquinas and by Dante in The Divine Comedy. It has also been developed or drawn on by other theologians, authors and artists for seventeen centuries.

Wrath, envy, lust, pride, gluttony, sloth, greed: the Seven Deadly Sins are drawn out of reflection on the Scriptures. We might say they represent a New Testament restatement of the Ten Commandments. Where the Ten Commandments focus on outward actions we are directed to do or not to do, the Seven Deadly Sins focus on motives or impulses that are sinful. That’s one thing Jesus emphasizes in his teachings: it’s the impulse that is sinful, not the outward action (“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Matthew 5:28).

One commentator notes that Dante considered all seven to be offenses against love. Pride, envy and wrath are forms of perverted love; sloth is an insufficient love; and greed, gluttony and lust are forms of excessive love of earthly things. Love is the cardinal virtue: we are instructed to love God wholeheartedly, and to love your neighbor as yourself; sin is failure to love wholeheartedly.

Thus, the conception of the Seven Deadly Sins turns away from the “list” view of sin, and provides instead a way of understanding in our hearts what God does and does not want us to do. Grounded in Scripture, this conception looks for a broad understanding of how we are to live rather than focusing on a scripture here (torn from context) and a scripture there (also torn from context). I see the Seven Deadly Sins as a teaching, based in Scripture, that helps us understand what loving God and loving others asks of us.

Where might homosexuality fall in this broad conception of sin provided by the Seven Deadly Sins? Lust is a sin to which any of us may fall prey, whatever our sexual orientation. Lust is a relentless seeking after worldly pleasure to satisfy oneself, without care for or commitment to others. Thus adultery is wrong, casual sex is wrong, having sexual relations with prostitutes is wrong, etc.

On the other hand, a sexual orientation towards others of the same sex that leads to love, commitment and faithfulness is no sin. Indeed, it is living as God asks one to live.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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