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Mortal and Venial Sin in Hemmingsen

In his discussion in the Enchiridion Theologicum of “actual sin” (actuale peccatum), the fruit of “hereditary/original sin,” Niels Hemmingsen makes several divisiones, the first of which may be slightly confusing on an initial reading: the division between mortal and venial sin. While he keeps the traditional terminology, he differentiates the two kinds contingently rather than essentially.

He begins as follows:

“One kind of sin is mortal, the other venial. In order that we may understand this division correctly, there is need for some explanation. Therefore, to sin mortally (peccare mortaliter) is to sin that sin which brings the recompense of death (meritum mortis). And this recompense of death is threefold.”1

The reader might expect a corresponding explanation for venial sin that would begin, “To sin venially is to sin that sin that does not bring the recompense of death,” but he would look for it in vain in Hemmingsen. This is not an accident. As we shall see below, there is no way, properly speaking, to use a locution of that kind (e.g., peccare venialiter est peccare istud peccatum quod meritum non infert mortis).2 This is a crucial point for understanding Hemmingsen’s use of the divisio “mortal/venial.”

He goes on to enumerate the “threefold recompense of death”:

“The first is unforgivable (irremissibile), as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12; Mark 3).”

Hemmingsen here refers to the dominical saying found in, e.g., Mark 3:28-9: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

The second meritum mortis is as follows:

“The second recompense of death [i.e., sin deserving the reward of death] is forgivable (remissibile), because, although it does indeed bring the recompense of death, it is nevertheless forgiven (remittitur), if you should wholly cease to sin that sin; otherwise, it is not [forgiven]. Such a recompense is brought by those sins of which those who are guilty cannot have a part in the Kingdom of God. Paul lists sins of this kind in Galatians 5 and elsewhere.”

In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh (“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”) with the fruit of the Spirit. These kinds of sin are deadly, but, unlike the first, can be forgiven.

And then the third meritum mortis:

“The third recompense of death [i.e., sin deserving the reward of death] is that which the sin dwelling in the saints brings, and the evil desires for it that it arouses, and the hindrances it puts in the way of those striving to live piously. Sins of this kind are called venial. Although they are mortal by their own nature (for they in themselves [per se] render men liable to death), they are nevertheless called venial (venialia) on account of the mercy (veniam) with which the gracious Father is kind to those who fight against these sins by faith.”

There are a couple of things to note here. At the beginning of the section, as I remarked above, it appears that Hemmingsen is going to discuss first mortal sin, then venial sin; he divides the sins bringing death into three categories, and one might assume that afterwards he will have something similar: “here are the categories of sin that do not bring the recompense of death” corresponding to peccare venialiter. But now we find the discussion of venial sin as actually type 3 of sins bringing the meritum mortis. Venial sin, as it turns out, is a species of the genus mortal sin. The reason for this is that all sins are mortal by nature (mortalia sua natura), because they expose men to the punishment of death (morti). The kindness of God toward those He is sanctifying–toward those who fight against sin by faith–is what makes such sins occasions for mercy (venia) rather than death. Thus they are called venial, though they are intrinsically deadly.

  1. All translations are my own.
  2. The Latin is my own sketch for what Hemmingsen might have said had he wanted to say something of this kind.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.