Q: Whence knowest thou thy misery?
A: Out of the law of God
As this is a short question and answer, this should bring a short response. As stated in the previous part, I was not especially happy with the term ‘misery’ appearing in the catechism. It is such a common word with a very specific meaning (as pointed out in the comments to part 2) that the risk of it being misunderstood in a modern context is too great to warrant its continued usage. See, for example, my recent take on semantics and the changing nature of words.
As such, and particularly given the answer in the catechism, I would rather answer a slightly different question, which makes the answer more coherent. This may be a methodological flaw, but so be it. I do not pretend to be perfect and I’m not presenting a systematic theology in this project. Here, the pragmatist supersedes the purist. So I would rephrase the question as “How are you aware of sin?”
Most of the answers have footnotes on them with references to passages in scripture to back them up. Some have multiple attestation, though how closely the answers fit the scriptures is quite variable. In this instance, the whole answer is built on a single scripture, Romans 3:20. I would possibly cite quite a bit of the early chapters of Romans in support of this idea, though some of this will be expanded upon in the follow up questions in the coming weeks.
The thrust of questions 3-9 in the Heidelberg Catechism are really looking at the idea of “total depravity” as famously espoused by John Calvin. In this particular question, I don’t disagree with the answer.
However, I might change the emphasis so as to focus on what functions the law fulfilled. The traditional reformed view has, to be very brief (and admittedly, crude), been one of a dichotomy between law and grace. One of the insights that I learned from looking at the new perspective on Paul was the notion that the law was one of the ways in which the Jews identified themselves. They were the ones who were partakers of the Abrahamic covenant but also those who adhered to the Torah. With the advent of christianity, the view of the law was reformulated. The idea of the law being an identifier has been replaced (but please don’t take my use of the word as indicating that I am a wholesale supersessionist – I am not) by the notion of our identity being found in the Christ, the Messiah. The law, however, is not superseded. I am trying to be careful so as not give the false impression that I am a supersessionist. It is tricky to give a nuanced view which inevitably uses some of the same vocabulary but which has a different focus. So while the law remains, its function is now rethought.
Now, the idea of “sinning” (as a verb, meaning to transgress) is an act which highlights the state of sin which we are in (see previous part in this series). Though there may be legal repercussions with local authorities, the focus here is not on a framework for government or jurisprudence. This is about the state of relationship between humans and God; a relationship that has been broken by one party and fixed by the other.
However, as the next question asks more about the law, I shall not elaborate further here. So my summarised response thus looks like this:
By ‘misery’ I understand this to be better described in the modern vernacular as ‘sin’. My sin is highlighted to me by my own transgressions of the law of God, which illuminates that which is dark in me.