2/15/2008

Sin is Complicated: A Review of Plantinga's Book on the Doctrine of Sin

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. 202 pp. $13.99.



A Captivating and Balanced Perspective

There is a reason why Cornelius Plantinga's treatment of the doctrine of sin has, after more than a decade since it won Christianity Today's Book of the Year Award back in 98, continued to be a standard book in college and seminary classrooms. Using vivid imagery, ample illustrations that captivate the reader, balanced perspective and witty logic, all within a Christian worldview, Plantinga's treatment of the subject of sin is as entertaining as it is enlightening. One finds it easy to agree with the author's opinion that the subject of sin needs "constant sharpening" due to a widespread dumbing-down of the notion in contemporary culture. In popular magazines, for example, over indulging in food, as in a "Peanut Butter Binge" or "Chocolate Challenge," is considered sinful while "lying is not" (x).

"Know Thyself," said Socrates - Even Christians—many who have a biblical awareness of the doctrine of the fall and even total depravity—tend to be more aware that they are desperate sinners in need of God's grace than they are of their own particular sin-chemistry and how it might be working itself out in various areas of their own lives. We Christians all too often mistake our abstract theological understanding of sin in general for knowledge of the particular forms that nature takes in our day to day lives and the lives of loved ones; like a pastor who finds his escape from the pressures of family responsibilities in long hours of preparation for a sermon series on sin. Christians tend to have more expertise when it comes to dealing with the sins of their unbelieving culture than in knowing their own sin chemistry and how best to overcome it; like a Christian lawyer who becomes so critical of the corruptions in the legal field that she becomes vulnerable to apathy and irritability which in turn takes a toll on her marriage.

The author helps all to see the contours of that most deceitful and often most subtle enemy that reaps destruction without giving a news flash that it has come and gone, leaving the sinner hung out to dry. Therefore, just about anyone will benefit from reading Plantinga's breviary of sin. Unbelievers will be likely to get a smack in the face as the reality of sin becomes unavoidably clearer with every chapter. Believers will benefit, among other ways, by recognizing the sins Plantinga so vividly describes in their own lives with every new lens the author uses to sharpen our vision from a different angle.

Note: Although Plantiga's approach is to treat sin from a different angle in each chapter, I will only comment on three of his chapters: chapters 1, 2, and 8. His ten "angles" which correspond to the ten chapters are as follows: 1) Sin as Vandalism of Shalom, 2) Sin as Spiritual Hygiene and Corruption, 3) Sin as Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration, 4) Sin as The Progress of Corruption, 5) Sin as a Parasite, 6) Sin as a Masquerade, 7) Sin as Folly, 8) Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction, 9) Sin as Attack, 10) Sin as Flight [from God and fellow man].

Sin as Vandalism of Shalom: Why it gatta be like diss?

With his pithy maxim, "God is for shalom and therefore against sin," Plantinga manages at once to be both simple yet profound (14). This is the basic idea of his first chapter and rightly so. It is the perfect place to start. Unless one is able to recognize that God is not a kill-joy; that he is not out to make rules against sin arbitrarily, but that he actually has the good of his entire creation in mind—how will one properly appreciate the motives for divine imperatives? To understand God's motives behind his rigid imperatives is to better identify with his more ultimate concern. This axiom may be the most profound statement in Plantinga's entire book.

Perhaps this truism is profound precisely because it is thoroughly biblical. The principle is made glaringly obvious when Jesus says, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mk 2:27). Salvation is described as "eternal life" not "eternal obedience," because obedience gives true life while sin destroys it (Jn 3:16; 10:10). Although following Jesus may involve hardship and self-discipline, he appeals to his listeners by tapping into their desire for finding true fulfillment in life (Lk 17:33; Jn 4:10). By highlighting that God is against sin because he is for shalom, the author speaks to the ultimate concern of every human being for having a complete, whole, and fulfilling life. Individuals, as well as societies, all have the ultimate desire to enjoy life to the fullest. Shalom, as the author defines it, includes this fullest sense of life. Desire for this shalom should fuel evangelism because evangelism is the catalyst for shalom. The spread of the gospel begins the process of restoring all of creation back to its maker (2 Cor 5:12-20). The ultimate future for all believers is a restored creation (Isa 2:2-4; 11:1-9; 32:14-20; 42:1-12; 60; 65:17-25; Joel 2:24-29; 3:17-18) and one is to understand that this new creation has already begun in those who are reconciled, for they are reconciled to become an agent of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).

Because this element of the doctrine of sin is so often underscored in Scripture, every pastor should make constant appeal to the desire of the congregation to have abundant individual and communal life, to establish peace in their communities so far as they can, to play a role in the restoring of God's creation to its proper ends. Comprehending the shalomic state as the chief and proper end that most glorifies God also makes it easier for one to trust and obey the God who gives life as a reward for such obedience (Rom 2:6-11). This careful clarification about the nature of sin—it is vandalism to the shalom that all humans crave—strikes at the heart of human motivation and is a mighty weapon for mobilizing laity for just about any just cause.


Sin as Corruption: Spiritual AIDS

Defining corruption as "an unhappy cluster of spiritual perversion, pollution, and disintegration," the author appropriately describes the process of corruption as something similar to the process of the AIDS virus, a "progressive attack on our spiritual immune system that eventually breaks it down and opens the way for hordes of opportunistic sins" (33). In keeping with his thought in the previous chapter, Plantinga also recognizes that these corruptions make life "progressively more miserable" so that the very sin of corruption, as St. Augustine once put it, "'becomes the punishment of sin'" (33). Certainly this is the biblical teaching. God gives sinners over to their sin as punishment (Rom 1:24-28). The "great law of returns" (68-72) promises that sin will reap destruction (Gal 6:7). General revelation quickly yields specific cases in which one sin or set of sins leads to many more vices—like a spiral of death—and these vices in turn produce various undesired side effects (cf. 130, 134).

The author also gives satisfying attention to the inward nature of sin. The opposite of corruption is "spiritual hygiene" defined as "wholeness of spirit" that fits "the universal design" (34). Basic to such hygiene is internal longing for such hygiene (34). The ideal person, though she may fluctuate in her passion levels for holiness and go through dry spells, "longs to long again" during her wait in the wilderness (34). Furthermore, such a person overflows with gratitude and "passed-on-kindness" (35). Coming to grips with the emotional nature of spiritual hygiene helps one to see that "sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing."[1]

If this is true, mortal combat with the "diseased root" (33) will involve first and foremost a battle for the affections. If, as Plantinga suggests, sanctification is the cure for corruption, then true gospel ministry must primarily target the human heart in preaching, counseling, small groups, and all other means to life transformation. Holiness must not be thought of primarily in terms of "dos and don'ts," as though holiness is to be equated with action. Rather, both mortification and sanctification must focus on the human heart above all else. Given the great law of returns and the nature of sin as spiritual AIDS, sin should be presented in the church as something awful and destructive. Testimonies should underscore this aspect of sin; the preacher should look for examples of drastic consequences in the local newspaper; counselors should look for ways to present a horrible picture of the alternative to faithfulness; Christians in general should not be afraid to "scare" people about sin, since such a scare would be appropriate to the nature of sin itself and consistent with the biblical language about sin and its consequences.

Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction: Goin' for what you Know


The densest of all Plantinga's chapters has to be the chapter on Addiction. Within the span of about twenty pages, Plantinga tackles some of the toughest questions while critiquing some of the most prevalent thought about addiction (129-149). The category of addiction is certainly biblical. Deacons are not to be "addicted" to much wine, for example. The offered definition of addiction as "a complex…attachment to a substance or behavior in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood" seems fair enough (130). However, the author seeks to wrestle with the more practical questions about the nature of culpability in relation to addiction. He concludes that one oversimplifies the nature of addiction by thinking of it as either "simple sin" or "inculpable disease" because of the actual complexity of the interplay between external influences and internal culpability. This contention does justice to the complexity of reality and is therefore worthy of acceptance (140). On the other hand, the author certainly takes this principle too far when he suggests that a depressed person who slides into substance abuse may not be culpable for her addiction (144).[2] Certainly external circumstances may reduce the degree of culpability, but they do not erase culpability.

With that caveat, certainly Plantinga is right to think of addiction as not merely a moral malevolence but also a true tragedy. Thinking of it this way greatly promotes pastoral compassion in the local church for those suffering with addictions. As the author himself points out, as a result of this paradigm, "We therefore want to accuse him and also to sympathize with him" (140, emphasis mine). Addiction should be presented in the local church with sensitivity to the suffering of the addicted, the complexity of the causes and degrees of addiction, as well as the culpability of the addict. Furthermore, where possible, pastors should seek to remove the addict from environments and circumstances that tend to feed the addiction.


This Book is Dope Skrilla

The reader of Not the Way its Supposed to Be will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the complexity of questions revolving around the nature of culpability as well as a keener ability to discern the subtlety of sin and how it might easily get a foothold in one's life while in stealth mode. The preacher will find plenty of juicy illustrations for sermons on sin. All in all, Plantinga's writing style and taste for relevant questions and interesting illustrations make his book the best I have ever read on the subject.


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Footnotes

[1] Paul David Tripp, Instruments In the Redeemer's Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 67.

[2] Here the author seems to assume that depression is a mere physical evil, not a spiritual one, for he says: "Cases of intrauterine addiction, for example, belong in the former category, as do any other chemical or process addictions innocently contracted…. Perhaps some addictions in these cases qualify as physical evils rather than as moral evils" (44).

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