Full Disclosure on Sin

October 1996By Greg Erlandson

Greg Erlandson is Editor in Chief of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, and a former Book Review Editor of the New Oxford Review.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin .  By Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Eerdmans. 136 pages.. $19.95.



There was a time when notions like sin, Hell, and repentance were commonplace. We were all sinners in the hands of a righteous God, and the stink of mortality was everywhere in the air.

Those were the bad old days, as we are so often told.

Today we live in an enlightened age of antioxidants and antidepressants. Armies of therapists have sprung up to fend off guilt, seen as a kind of toxic residue of those bad old days. Throw into the mix the high priests of daytime talk shows, the lords of chat who can parse the intricacies of dysfunction with the skill of a scholastic theologian, then lace liberally with the sense of aggrievement that now passes for social concern, and one has a world peopled solely by victims and co-dependents. Hell is a fable. Sin is for abstract systems of thought. Repentance is unnecessary.

While Christian thinkers for the better part of the century have warned of the dangers of modernity’s rationalizations, today it is not uncommon to find such thinkers embracing them. As one Catholic columnist suggested recently, one’s peccadilloes now seem so inconsequential.

But of course, if our peccadilloes and sins are insignificant, then what need have we of grace, or the saving death of the God-man, or for that matter the Church?

Incredible as it seems in this sin-drenched century, serious Christians are faced with the task of trying to resurrect the notion of sin. That is the challenge that Cornelius Plantinga Jr. chooses to tackle in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. The title itself gives away Plantinga’s strategy, a sly allusion to Rush Limbaugh’s best-selling opus, The Way It’s Supposed to Be. Plantinga’s book is larded with knowing invocations of popular culture in the hopes that the skeptical reader might understand that sin’s reality is not only in our hearts, but in our headlines.

In trying to get moderns to understand the reality of sin, Plantinga eschews the approach of such commentators as Henry Fairlie who, in his book The Seven Deadly Sins Today, sought to reinvigorate the classic categories of sin. Instead, Plantinga tries to develop a new language for some old verities. He tackles with a great deal of subtlety and insight the modern escape clause of “addiction” and everywhere he seeks to counter delusions of modernity that have us teetering on the verge of an utter lack of self-understanding.

While his samplings of sin range from the monstrosities of the 20th century to willfully lazy grammatical usage, perhaps his quintessential example is Woody Allen’s famous justification for his affair with the young adopted daughter of his long-time companion Mia Farrow: “The heart wants what it wants.”

“The imperial self overrules all,” Plantinga observes. In the face of all warning and all manner of good, the self wins out.

This monstrous triumph of self destroys what Plantinga paints as a moral ecology of human life. “God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be,” he writes. Shalom is “a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” But sin disrupts the ecology of this Eden as surely as any oil spill.

To Plantinga’s credit, he does not leave his readers clucking at that world out there beyond Christian publishers such as Eerdmans and Catholic periodicals such as the New Oxford Review. In a chapter titled “Masquerade,” Plantinga tackles the self-deception that can be the deadliest temptation of the religious mind. Nothing, said Martin Buber, hides the face of our fellowman more than “morality,” and nothing hides the face of God more than “religion.” Religion is not an automatic antidote to sin. In fact, it can hide the sin within us more cleverly.

Plantinga asks how many of us — and not just the televangelist preaching salvation through greed — deify our own images rather than really believe in God? Each faction of the Christian body — progressive or conservative — conjures up a God in its own image, rather than attending to the “countercultural images of God in Scripture.”

Anyone who has known the sinfulness of a religious person knows the masquerade that religion can provide. In a Christianity now radically polarized between competing creeds and competing understandings of the Gospel, tradition, and salvation, self-delusion is as grave a temptation as any fleshly comfort.

As a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, it is probably not so strange that Plantinga never addresses the issue of Catholic sacramental Confession. However, there are two disturbing stories of ad hoc absolutions — one a papal soldier’s account of how he received papal absolution for all manner of murder in defense of the Church, the other a priest’s nonsacramental “absolution” for a Nazi death camp commander.

Since many of those he cites — Fathers of the Church and others — are Catholic, I found it odd that he did not wrestle a bit more openly with the Catholic understanding of sin and forgiveness. Yet it is hard to criticize Plantinga very severely on this point, since many Catholics themselves have developed a mumble on the subject.

Plantinga’s final warning — directed at all the Christian churches — is mightily applicable to many a Catholic theologian and pastor. “To speak of sin by itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God…. But to speak of grace without sin is surely no better…. For the Christian church…to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the Gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.”



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