Fallen: A Theology of Sin
September 29, 2014
Fallen: A Theology of Sin. Theology in Community. Edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 320 pp. $19.99/£12.99
One might not expect to walk away from a book on the theology of sin feeling very edified or upbeat, but as I considered my many positive responses to this volume, I found myself grateful and very much encouraged. This alone might be worth the value of the book; however, many other features of this book are to be commended. As the other contributions to the Theology in Community series do, Fallen: A Theology of Sin walks us through the biblical evidence and concludes with a theological synthesis and application(s). This helpful structure gives the reader a good sense of where he has been and where he is heading. Therefore, if only for the theological method alone, I can commend this series and this particular volume. Given this method, while I am usually not enthusiastic about most reviews that plot a course straight through the book, such a course seems the best way forward in this sort of book.
In his contributions on sin in the OT in this volume, Paul House tells the story of C. S. Lewis's difficulties when writing The Screwtape Letters. As Lewis's biographer A. N. Wilson put it, writing from the perspective of Screwtape the demon was arduous, since it required "the ceaseless identification of himself with the malign and diabolic point of view" (p.80). So one might wonder why it is necessary to write a book about sin, even an encouraging one. Why should ten authors and all of their readers devote the energy to this task when there are so many other valuable topics to consider? Of particular value in answering this question is D.A. Carson's opening chapter, "Sin's Contemporary Significance." In this chapter, we are presented with a compelling reason for diving headlong into the study: "It is impossible to engage in probing, biblically faithful theological reflection without thinking deeply about sin" (p.32). Beyond this, Carson argues, our culture's overwhelming confusion about sin demands that we have a clear biblical understanding of this doctrine. If you find yourself wondering whether an entire book about the doctrine of sin is worth the trouble, Carson's opening chapter will likely convince you otherwise.
As we move into the biblical material, Paul House paints a helpful overview of the picture of sin throughout the OT. House rightly focuses on the lack of trust in God and covenantal unfaithfulness that lies behind sin (all the way to the Garden, I would add). While his observations along the way provide a wealth of insight into the OT's conception of sin, I found House's summary statements especially helpful. In the OT, House concludes, sin is perversion, sin is active, sin is relational, sin is pervasive, and sin is deadly (pp.80-81). Because of this, all nations, including Israel, are in desperate need of God's grace and promised redemption--and that redemption was on its way indeed. While sin consistently rears its head and wreaks havoc, the OT never lets sin have the last word.
In the NT section, Robert Yarbrough and Douglas Moo provide expert guidance through the Gospels, Acts, and Hebrews to Revelation (Yarbrough) and Paul's Letters (Moo). While Yarbrough's summary was helpful throughout, I confess at times I felt like he was trying to do too much in too little space. Yarbrough's approach was to address the hamartia and adikia word groups, summarizing their content in different sections of the NT. While I certainly understand the need to be brief and summarize where possible, at times I felt myself wanting a little more exposition. I also found myself wanting a little more in Moo's exposition on Paul; however, I also found Moo's approach more satisfying for this format. Rather than focusing on word groups, he takes a more conceptual approach to sin, addressing the nature of sin and its relationship to the Law, the "environment" of sin with respect to the flesh, Adam, and the spiritual powers, and the consequences of sin. As was the case in the OT, the root problem of sin is not one particular action; rather, Moo rightly argues, it is a failure to "glorify God or give thanks to him" (Rom 1:21). Moo concludes with an encouraging note to believers in Christ: we are dead to sin, so have been given the status and power to fight against it!
While we could get into the weeds of any number of issues in the biblical overview, it is best to move forward, for the remaining chapters provide a wonderful model of how one builds on the biblical material and moves through the theological process. In his chapter on sin in the biblical story, Christopher Morgan provides a helpful biblical-theological guide for putting the exegetical pieces together and seeing the place of sin in the story of the Bible. As Morgan puts it, "Sin is only the backdrop, never the point" (p.162).
As I consider which chapter was the most instructive for me, Gerald Bray's historical theology overview quickly rises to the top of the list. For example, in spite of Bray's insistence that it should come as no surprise, I did not know that Genesis 1-3 was the most commonly cited in the early church (p.166). Other gems tucked into this chapter include the influence of Augustine on virtually all subsequent theological discussions of sin (not as surprising, I confess), the helpful explanation of the move toward Mary's perfection in the Western church (as sin was seen as a "congenital defect" it was difficult to see how this could not be passed to Jesus apart from Mary's prior cleansing or perfection), and Bray's discussion of the gradual dissolution and trivialization of sin as a consequence of a tendency toward legalism in some branches of Protestantism (pp.182-83).
The contributions from John Mahony, Sydney Page, and David Calhoun treat a number of theological topics quite helpfully. Mahony's theology of sin for today, Page's emphasis on Satan as a defeated foe, but a dangerous one nonetheless, and Calhoun's discussion of sin and temptation are all insightful and valuable contributions. Calhoun's discussion of the value of temptation--as we learn to run to Christ and are therefore increasingly conformed to his image--leaves the reader encouraged and determined to overcome sin and temptation (a value not to be overlooked when looking for theological reading). I must confess, however, that I found these three chapters a little more difficult to follow. Perhaps it is my predisposition toward biblical studies and biblical theology, but the main points in these chapters, while overall quite sound, were, in my opinion, not quite as tightly argued as the rest of the book.
It is worth the effort to read the rest of the book if only to appreciate to its fullest Bryan Chapell's concluding chapter, "Repentance that Sings". Here, in typical Chapell style, Christ is exalted, the gospel is on full display, and Christians will surely be edified. Chappel does not pull punches when describing sin in all of its ugliness, but he also holds out in all of its glory the solution to sin and God's grace that leads to joy-filled repentance.
In spite of the inevitable disagreement or question here and there, I found this volume an instructive, encouraging, and God-glorifying journey. Against the backdrop of the dark night of sin, we are left amazed when the blinding light of God's grace shines forth. I would highly recommend it as both a tool for theological education and a resource for pastoral care.
Chris Bruno is author of Churches Partnering Together (Crossway, 2014) and the forthcoming The Whole Bible in 16 Verses (Crossway, 2015) and teaches at Northland International University