On the Question of the Seven Deadly Sins, Part 2

Why Seven Sins?

It’s entirely arbitrary. We could list 1 or 7 or 107. The 1 sin would be Pride, which is usually (not always) said to be the source of all the rest. 107 sins would be insufficient if we wanted to subdivide them all. But because it’s easier to analyze anything if we start with a manageable number, Christians have often listed Seven Deadly Sins.

To Christians and Jews alike, 7 has often been a sort of mystical number. It may derive from the 7 planets visible to the ancients. (They were spared from having to decide whether or not Pluto was a planet!) This may have been the source of the 7 days of the week, the 7 days of Genesis, which number (I think) is common all over the world, though there is no necessary reason in nature why weeks must have 7 days. Then the Old Testament proceeds to speak of 7 archangels, and Isaiah mentions 7 Spirits of God. The Book of Revelation gives us 7 letters to 7 churches of Asia, and 7 angels with 7 plagues. Since then Christians (especially Roman Catholics) have enjoyed listing other things in “sevens” – 7 virtues, 7 sins, 7 sacraments. I’m reminded of Father Alexander Schmemann’s comment that, until Orthodox made contact with Roman Catholics and Protestants, it never occurred to us that sacraments were something to be counted!

However, as I say, categories help us to get a handle on the topic, and thus the Seven Deadly Sins.

A little history of how the idea of Seven Sins came about

Actually the categories have shifted occasionally. The following is from Sacred Origins of Profound Things, by Charles Panati:

“The Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus first drew up a list of eight offenses and wicked human passions. They were, in order of increasing seriousness: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius saw the escalating severity as representing increasing fixation with the self, with pride as the most egregious of the sins. Acedia (from the Greek “akedia,” or “not to care”) denoted spiritual sloth.

In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items, folding vainglory into pride, acedia into sadness, and adding envy. His ranking of the sins’ seriousness was based on the degree from which they offended against love. It was from most serious to least: pride, envy, anger, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Later theologians, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, would contradict the notion that the seriousness of the sins could be ranked in this way. The term “covetousness” has historically been used interchangeably with “avarice” in accounts of the Deadly Sins. In the seventeenth century, the [Roman Catholic] Church replaced the vague sin of “sadness” with sloth.”

Are we sufficiently confused now?

So for this series I’m just going to stick with the Seven Sins and their definitions as found in our Antiochian Pocket Prayer Book. I’m Antiochian, and it’s as good a place to start as any.

Seven Interior Sins

These Seven Deadly Sins are the interior, spiritual roots of external acts of sin, the manifestations of sin. (A depressing list of external acts of sin could go on almost forever.) For example, because of greed (interior) one may steal or tell lies or even murder (exterior).To put it another way, stealing or lying or murdering are the symptoms. Greed is the disease that causes the symptoms. So, if we are to get rid of sin, we need not only try to control the external symptoms (though that’s helpful), but even more important we need to cure the inner disease itself. The Seven Deadly Sins are the diseases. As we continue we’ll see that, as with any bodily illness, often diseases and symptoms are interconnected. (As I’ve discovered by my own experience, a virus or infection, while not a cause of my neuropathy, can make the symptoms of neuropathy much worse.)

This is why the Orthodox Church is not “moralistic”, focused chiefly on rules and external control. We are much more concerned to heal the “sin-sick soul”. Do that and then 1 with a little guidance, if we “inform the conscience” as they say in the West, and 2 if we strengthen ourselves through our involvement with the Church and all that entails, the moral life will naturally follow. But if we work only on the external acts of sin, we’ll never be cured and the symptoms will keep coming back.

Finally, the Seven Deadly Sins

…and their definitions, taken from the Antiochian Pocket Prayer Book.

  1. Pride: the lack of humility befitting a creature of God.
  2. Greed: too great a desire for money or worldly goods.
  3. Lust: impure and unworthy desire for something evil.
  4. Anger: unworthy irritation and lack of self control.
  5. Gluttony: the habit of eating or drinking too much.
  6. Envy: jealousy of some other person’s happiness.
  7. Sloth: laziness that keeps us from doing our duty to God and man.

As we go along, I’ll elaborate somewhat on these definitions and refine them, since I’m not entirely satisfied with a couple of them.

Students, there will be no homework for this course. You do not – repeat: do not – need to practice up on your sins in order to be prepared for the classes.

About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.

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