From one perspective it might not seem like we need that much help understanding sin. After all, we’re already pretty good at it. And we certainly see enough of it around us. So maybe we can dispense with reading entire books about sin, unless, of course, they’re bestsellers and include lots of sex, death, and/or destruction.
You probably won’t be too surprised to find out, though, that practicing sin isn’t the best way to understand sin. And that’s where Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Crossway, 2013) comes in. Part of Crossway’s Theology in Community Series, editors Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson have put together a nice collection of essays on a range of issues relative to the doctrine of sin, trying to help people develop a strong biblical-theological framework for understanding sin. And despite some unevenness, they largely succeed.
Fallen includes eleven essays from a range of biblical scholars and theologians. After an introductory chapter from D. A. Carson on “Sin’s Contemporary Significance,” the following five chapters offer a biblical theology of sin. Four of them tackle different parts of the canon: the pentateuch (chapter 2), the rest of the OT (chapter 3), the Gospel, Acts, and Heb-Rev (chapter 4), and Paul (chapter 5). Then Christopher Morgan offers a more synthetic look at
skin sin in the biblical story as a whole (chapter 6). The next chapter tackles the historical perspective, tracing the development of the theology of sin throughout church history. And then John Mahony offers a chapter-length summary of “A Theology of Sin for Today.” The final three chapters look at sin in relation to specific topics: Satan, sin, and evil (chapter 9), sin and temptation (chapter 10), and repentance (chapter 11).
As you can see just from the distribution of chapters, the book is particularly strong on tracing a biblical theology of sin. As Carson points out in the introduction, sin is a prominent motif throughout the biblical story. So nearly half of the book focuses on summarizing that material. Doug Moo’s chapter on “Sin in Paul” was a particularly fine summary of the material, usefully pulling together much of what Paul has to say and how it impacts a theology of sin. And I appreciated Christopher Morgan’s chapter looking at sin throughout the entire biblical narrative. That helped pull the biblical section together, helping connect the dots in the story of sin.
Although several chapters included comments on how the doctrine of sin relates to issues of everyday life, the two concluding chapters on temptation and repentance helped orient the volume toward practical issues in life and ministry. Anyone who wrestles regularly with the painful realities of living in a broken world will wish that the book had more to say about real-life challenges. But that would probably require another book entirely. Given the limitations of its focus, Fallen still does a nice job in places of connecting its biblical/theological material with everyday issues.
And Gerald Bray’s historical summary of the doctrine of sin was excellent. It’s no small task to summarize what the church has thought about any theological issue throughout history, let alone one as vital and complex as the doctrine of sin. But Bray succeeds in offering one of the better chapter-length summaries of the historical material that I’ve seen.
In addition to these strengths, Fallen does have some unfortunate shortcomings. First, despite calling itself “A Theology of Sin,” the biblical theology of Fallen was much stronger than its systematic side, with Mahony’s chapter being the only one focused exclusively on developing a constructive theology of sin. The book gives the distinct impression that once you have summarized the biblical material, there’s not much theological work left to be done other than dealing with a few specific issues like Satan and temptation. And that limited theological engagement contributes to most of the book’s other weaknesses.
Second, although several authors address the fact that sin in the Bible is a corporate reality, always impacting more than just particular individuals, the corporate side of sin is never developed in full. Thus, Fallen contains no real discussion of social sin (i.e. the ways that sinful social structures perpetuate sinful practices and ways of being), focusing largely on individual sin and salvation. The closest is a brief section in Mahony’s chapter emphasizing that sin “is both personal and social.” But less than a page is hardly adequate for discussing the ways that sin transcends individuals as it is embodied in social structures and practices. And the sections of the book focused more on practical application are almost exclusively individual as well, with little mention of racism, classism, or other more corporate issues.
Similarly, I would have liked to see something on how our cultural context shapes the way that we view sin. For example, Fallen’s index doesn’t contain a single reference to poverty, despite the fact that economic injustice is frequently mentioned in biblical discussions of sin. Granted, a relatively brief book like this can’t talk about everything. So the authors have necessarily selected what they think most important. To what extent, though, does our cultural context shape what we think is important, the sins that attract our attention?
Finally, Fallen does little to bring sin into dialog with the other doctrines. Carson notes in the introduction that sin is “enmeshed” with other theological issues, but the book never unpacks this. Despite containing a chapter on “Sin, Satan, and Evil,” the book contains little on questions about so-called “natural” evils (e.g. earthquakes) or whether God is the “author” of sin, both of which connect sin to the doctrine of God. And we could say the same about other doctrines like Christology (e.g. the significance of Christ’s sinlessness), pneumatology (e.g. the connection between sin, sickness, and healing), anthropology (e.g. sin and the image of God), and eschatology (e.g. hell). Of course, the book would have been much longer if it had tried to tackle these issues in full. But it wouldn’t have taken too much to help the reader see these connections and understand how one’s view of sin impacts a variety of other theological issues.
In the end, though, Fallen is a tremendously helpful book. It brings together a combination of biblical, theological, and practical perspectives on an important topic, packing an awful lot into just 300 pages. And it will be most useful when you understand what it really is—a biblical theology of sin with a quick overview of how that biblical material relates to several theological and practical issues. To get the most out of Fallen, then, I think you would do well to pair it with a book that offers a more constructive theology of sin (e.g. Plantinga’s very readable Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin or Shuster’s more involved The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become as Sinners).