Posted by: duncandrews | January 27, 2012

A Breviary of Sin – book review

Things have been a bit quiet here for a while, so I thought I’d kickstart my blogging again by posting some of the material I’ve written over the past few years studying at Moore Theological College. First up, here’s some sections of a review I wrote a couple of years ago of Cornelius Plantinga’s ‘Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin‘. Besides having a cool name, Plantinga has written a gem of a book on a topic that’s gone out of fashion but that lies at the heart of the gospel and desperately needs to be recaptured – the tragic reality of human sin. It is engaging, deeply moving and challenging. But it does have its inadequacies – and they raise some important theological issues, so you may find this post interesting even if you haven’t read the book.

A great strength of this book is the frankness with which Plantinga approaches his subject. Throughout, he does not shy away from detailing the horrible impact of sin to illustrate his argument. Real life examples are given, from cases of corporate or political corruption (p. 28) to stories that are personal and deeply confronting, such as the ‘Christian man’ who ‘also sexually molested his daughter Sylvia from age four to twelve’ (p. 46). By not shying away from the ugliness of sin, and by writing in a dispassionate (although not disinterested) style, Plantinga shocks his readers into confronting this reality for themselves. Readers cannot keep this book at a distance; Plantinga succeeds in drawing them in, exposing not only the evil that is outside of them but also that is within.

However, the climax of the book is, somewhat unexpectedly, the short epilogue. After spending the entire book looking at the stark and ugly reality of sin, Plantinga lifts the reader’s vision, briefly but powerfully, to the grace of God. Any discussion of sin, he claims, will only be part, and a lesser part, of the story of God and his world. As stubborn and perverse as sin is, it is ‘not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way’ (p. 199). Both sin and grace are needed – sin without grace forgets that at the heart of Christianity is ‘not our sin but our Saviour’; while grace without sin trivialises the cross and cuts ‘the nerve of the gospel’ (p. 199). Sin is much more pervasive and destructive than we realise, chiefly because of its power of self-deception (ch. 6); and yet the more we are exposed to its evil, the more we are exposed to the wonder and power of the gospel of grace.

The most serious weakness of Plantinga’s book, however, is the inadequate vision it gives of God’s original intention for life, what Plantinga calls ‘shalom’. Plantinga understands shalom to be ‘God’s design for creation and redemption’ (1995, 16). Sin, accordingly, is ‘disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony’ (p. 5). Under this paradigm, redemption is essentially a return to Eden, a restoration of the kind of relationships enjoyed between God, humanity and the world before the fall. This restorationist eschatology, however, is inadequate and leads to an impoverished understanding of sin. What is needed, and what provides a decisively Christian, because christocentric, eschatology, is the trinitarian vision of creation provided in Scripture.

What becomes important within this trinitarian perspective is not only the way things were meant to be, but the way things were meant to become. There is, in other words, a teleology in creation. Creation before the entrance of sin was not a static existence of perfect, ‘shalomic’ relationships. Creation, as a work of the Triune God, was purposive. It is here that christology becomes central. As the Apostle Paul writes, the entire created order was created by, through and for the Son (Col 1:16). The Father’s plan is ‘to unite all things’ in Jesus (Eph 1:10), to ‘put all things in subjection under his feet’ (1 Cor 15:27). Creation, then, has a christological teleology, and any attempt to understand what it was that sin corrupted has to be approached with this framework in place.

If creation before the fall was not only a set of right and harmonious relationships but those relationships moving towards an appointed goal, then sin is not only that which corrupts those relationships but, more fundamentally, that which seeks to turn them away from their proper end. Redemption therefore is not a restoration but an eschatological completion, a redirecting of creation back to its original goal found in Christ.

In the light of this eschatological framework we are in a position to see the inadequacy of Plantinga’s definition of sin as the ‘culpable disturbance of shalom’ (1995, 16). Shalom is too weak to capture the fullness of God’s creative intention. The concept itself is, of course, good: relational wholeness, flourishing and delight were indeed present in God’s good creation and will be present again the new creation. But these rightly ordered and enjoyed relationships were not an end in themselves but only the context within which creation was to move towards its goal.

Sin, therefore, has a more direct God-ward element than Plantinga admits. While he does recognise the God-ward force of sin, the bulk of his book and illustrations are about horizontal sins – towards creation, not towards God. The reader is left feeling that sin is anti-life, tragic, self-destructive and in the end utterly foolish; but not that it grieves and angers the holy Father because of its affront to His great purpose to glorify His Son. For all the positive insights in Plantinga’s work, it would be better grounded and sin more accurately exposed, if this God-ward force of sin, arising from the biblical eschatology outlined above, were acknowledged.

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