Amending for Their Sins

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On a paper or exam last semester (I don't remember which), a student described someone who might "prepare for death by amending for their sins". My first guess as to the student's intent was that they meant "atoning for their sins". But why choose this word to confuse with "atoning"? I suspected maybe it had to do with making amends, something that seemed to me to be foreign to the idea of atonement, which (according to biblical teaching as I understand it) isn't accomplished by you. You don't atone for your sins. It's something that has to be done on your behalf, whereas making amends is something you do for someone else.

But this was probably a Roman Catholic student, probably raised with a simplistic understanding of what Catholicism teaches (given the bulk of the student body where I teach). Perhaps it's less strange to connect atonement with making amends if you think you earn your own atonement by doing good works, as I think a lot of nominal Catholics think their church teaches (it doesn't quite; at least, it's not as simple as that, because of the strong view of God's grace that stands behind any good work that God brings people to do). If you're thinking of working to repay God for your sins or something crazy like that, then you might think atoning is something like making amends to God for all the bad you've done. Someone of that mindset might easily confuse the two concepts.

But suppose you were to take this at face value. What would it even mean? I would understand grammatically what it would mean to amend your sins. You add something to them. I'm not sure if that would be good or bad, since it might be amending your sins by complicating them with further sins, or it could be amending your sins by removing some of the sinfulness. But amending for your sins? Amending what for your sins? Don't you need a direct object? It's at least grammatical to speak of amending an essay for my sins, but I'm not sure what it would even mean to amend for my sins without a direct object.

10 Comments

I think the confusion might be specifically, partly in the sacrament of penance. It's never been explicitly stated (in what is admittedly only four times I have been) that the acts of penance prescribed are only understood as pertaining to temporal punishment for sin (I think), not as pertaining to the absolution itself. Add in peoples' ability to oversimplify things they hear, and the incredible likelihood of bad catechesis on the point, and, well...So in a sense, there are 'amends' made, but not for salvation proper. I'm definitely not a Catechism though, so I might have this wrong. What I do know is that the penance does in some sense amend something, and I could see an easy confusion between that thing and proper salvation.

I think this student could be just as readily Reformed Protestant (i.e. Federal Calvinist). The thomistic concepts of infused grace and created grace are really quite synonomous; so that cooperating with God in salvation by habitus becomes quite amending like.

Just my 2 cents.

Bobby, do you mean this Federal Vision stuff that has recently cropped up in Reformed circles under the influence of the New Perspective? If so, then it's basically Catholic theology. But this isn't the case of a student who knows a theological tradition well. It's a case of hearing some stuff growing up, confusing it, and applying the wrong word. I'm not sure Federal Vision has been around long enough, and the student body at this Jesuit institution in the northeast is mostly nominal Catholics who barely understand what they believe, so I would find it very unlikely that it's Federal Vision influencing the misunderstanding.

Jeremy,

I'm sure you're right on the student, and their understanding of the actual theology. But my point was to at least get at the fact that "Federal Theology" proper operates under a notion of created grace (grace as a quality or substance) which is much like the infusio kind that RCC's so often think about and through. Just see some of Richard Mullers' stuff, and how the Federal Tradition has adopted this Thomistic conceptuality (vs. methodology).

What I'm getting at, is that I'm not surprised that this would come through in watered down ways; whether the student be RCC or "Classically Reformed." In other words I wouldn't be surprised to find this same kind of watered down theology at some place like Calvin college :-).

I really don't think created grace is limited to Federal Vision theology; despite what they say!

Speaking strictly to the grammatical point, 'amend' is also an intransitive verb, which means 'to reform oneself.' Webster's 1st edition gives a fuller definition that may be more to the point of what your student meant: 'To grow or become better, by reformation, or rectifying something wrong in manners or morals. It differs from improve, in this, that to amend implies something previously wrong; to improve, does not.'

Intransitive? So we can talk about people sitting around amending? That seems completely ungrammatical to me at this current stage of the English language.

Other definitions of amend as an intransitive verb include 'to improve oneself' and 'to behave in a more acceptable way than in the past,' both of which fit in the phrase quoted from your student. Not only is each of these current, but I haven't run across any dictionaries that fail to list the intransitive form. Yet, even if this weren't the case, I don't see how that would make it ungrammatical at the current stage of the English language. There would need to have been more than a mere shift to an archaic definition; e.g., a change in verbal inflections or word order, or the replacement of certain intransitive forms with reflexive forms.

I don't see how any of these might be current, at least not in the circles I run in. I've never heard anyone talking about people just amending. You amend something. You might encounter people talking about amending their ways (an eggcorn for mending their ways, I would guess). But that's transitive. I could see people leaving the direct object implicit, such as talking about how the correct path for those who disagree with the Constitution is to amend rather than to read your own views into the Constitution. But that's transitive without an explicit direct object. I'm having a hard time hearing it as remotely English to speak of someone simply amending the same way someone can simply sit.

You're right: you do amend something. Think of it like the verb 'eat.' Whenever you eat, you always eat something. That's even the case for the first use of 'eat' in the previous sentence-'whenever you eat.' There, 'eat' is used as an intransitive verb, even when it's clearly understood that something must be consumed in order to eat. According to Merriam-Webster's tenth edition, the first definition of 'eat' as an intransitive verb is-'to take food or a meal'. Contrast this with the transitive definition that fits the second clause of the sentence-'you always eat something'. It is-'to take in through the mouth as food'. In both cases, something is being eaten. In the first, however, because the object acted upon is already contained in the definition of the verb, that verb is intransitive. The same is true of the intransitive definition of 'amend,'which is 'to reform oneself.' The object is already contained in the definition, and so the verb is intransitive. People do not sit around and simply amend; they amend themselves.

As for the phrase 'amending their ways,' it's hard to tell whether it or 'mending their ways' is the eggcorn. Both fit their respective definitions. For 'amend' used as a transitive verb, these are 'to put right' and 'to change or modify for the better.'

I can't seem to access the OED through either academic library that should allow me to do so, so I can't look for how old these might be or for any examples of intransitive "amend".

It does seem that "mend your ways" and "amend your ways" are over a century old, so it's hard to tell which is the eggcorn based on how often either is used contemporarily. What I did find is this: the ESV uses both in the same book, and this: different Bible translations use the two.

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