Not the Way It's Supposed to Be - A Review

Sin. It’s one of those topics that we are all skilled in the practice of, but often try not to think about a whole lot. Too often, our concept of sin is narrowed by a set of concerns for personal redemption and our consideration of its devastating power is abbreviated by the belief that our sin has been paid for at the cross by Christ.

This thin conception of sin has devastating effects on Christian engagement in society and the degree of empathy many Christians have for those who commit obvious, flagrant sins. Cheap grace can only abound when the severity and pervasiveness of sin throughout our individual lives and the fabric of society are underappreciated.

The tragedy of much contemporary and theologically orthodox Christianity, particular among evangelical Protestants, is that a faulty definition of sin has led to thin ethics. Sin is sometimes popularly perceived of as something that is paid for by the cross and then entirely behind the Christian. To a degree this is true, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross provided a path for the elect to be redeemed. Forgiveness for sin is now available for those that repent and put their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the hope for eternal life. All of this is true, but it neglects some of the ongoing effects of sin in even the lives of Christians and especially in the world around us.

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Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, is an important book for understanding the nature and effects of sin. The book was originally published in 1995, and won multiple awards. It is both excellently written and exceedingly positive. This is the sort of book that should remain in print because of its enduring value as an accessible and theologically precise systematization of the doctrine of sin.

The key concept for Plantinga is Shalom. The Hebrew term shalom refers to holistic flourishing of the world across multiple dimensions. From a human perspective, shalom entails right relationship with God, non-human creation, and humanity. This flourishing existed only for a short time in the beginning of creation, which we see described in Genesis 1 and 2. We have the promise that it will exist later in the New Heavens and New Earth, as depicted in prophetic passages like those at the end of Revelation and in several sections of Isaiah. We live in a world right now that has had its shalom disrupted.

With the idea of holistic flourishing in view, the concept of shalom becomes both clearer and more complex. Sin is no longer a transaction between God and humanity alone, but a transaction that has implications for a whole web of relationship. Ultimately, sin’s penalty is due to the offence of God’s character (Ps 51:4), but its substance may be primarily disruption of the human-creation or human-human relationship.

When we begin to understand that sin is a disruption of shalom, the cycles of Judges begin to make sense. The people of Israel were oppressed, the repent, God sets them free, they fall into sin. That sin has both personal implications (separation from God) and social implications (disruption of systems and relationships). Thus, we can see that God might be justified in desiring to begin society all over again if “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . For all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen 7:11–13) Sin isn’t just a personal violation of God’s law, it also entails distortions of all of human relationships.

Plantinga’s book begins from unquestionably orthodox foundations in the Reformed tradition. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be explores dimensions of sin as it is seen in both personal and social dimensions. He approaches the topic by describing sin categorically. It is a form of corruption, which requires a concern for spiritual hygiene. Its corruption permeates life and society. Sin is a parasite on the good in this world. It is an attack on God’s Kingdom and his common grace. Sin finds its way into human interactions and life in unbelievably difficult ways through addiction, a little-considered dimension of sin. (Usually addiction is dealt with as a simple failure in will-power.) Sin can also be a form of flight from the responsibility to deal with faults in shalom and neglecting our call to restore it.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a Christian classic. It’s taken me years to get around to reading it, but it’s a book that is consistently found in the footnotes of other significant texts. The book was named the Christianity Today book of the year for 1996, because of its theological acumen and its clarity. Plantinga’s book is one that is accessible to any reasonably theologically engaged Church members.

If this book were published today, it would likely be viewed with suspicion because it explores the social implications of sin. This begins to sound a bit too much like social justice for some people. If the fear of considering the impact of sin on holistic flourishing of creation by some Christians will have hugely negative influences on the ability of future generations of Christians to appropriately relate to society. We are already seeing this happen as younger generations, recognizing the implications of Christianity for social ethics, are drawn to non-orthodox versions of Christianity because (despite denying central tenets of the faith) they often have a better (or at least more engaged) attitude toward the social implications of Christianity.

A Review of a Commentary on Habakkuk

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There are little tapped wells of wisdom in the minor prophets. For many evangelicals, the twelve short books that come between Daniel and Matthew are “lost books” that AWANA kids memorize the order of but may never hear a sermon from.

Treating the minor prophets as flyover country in our annual reading plans is a huge mistake, as is readily apparent in Heath Thomas’ recent commentary on Habakkuk. With only three short chapters, it might seem difficult to fill over two-hundred pages, but this latest entry in the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary Series never lacks with biblical and theological material to enrich the reader.

Thomas is an Old Testament scholar and the Dean of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has published several books, focusing on biblical interpretation and material in Scripture dealing with lament and suffering. Habakkuk offers fertile ground for discussing lament, suffering, providence, and faith.

This commentary on Habakkuk uses a method of interpretation known as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” or TIS. The approach is often caricatured and sometimes unclearly explained by its proponents. However, Thomas’ exegesis of Habakkuk shows TIS at its best: he deals with the biblical data and linguistic research while setting the book in the rich theological and historical context of its interpretation as Christian Scripture. This is a volume that both honors the text and reads it in light of the whole canon and the tradition of faith which has preserved it.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One begins with a lengthy introduction, followed by a chapter on each of the chapters in Habakkuk. The exegesis in these chapters is section by section, as with many biblical commentaries. Part Two consists of three chapters that explore Habakkuk theologically. Thomas delves into the major themes in Habakkuk as they relate to biblical theology, the relationship between the minor prophet’s short book, prayer, and shalom, and finally the usefulness of Habakkuk for spiritual formation. The first portion of this commentary is helpful, but the second part is worth the price of the book alone.

Habakkuk is a book that is worthy of deeper study, as Thomas makes plain. God’s sovereign power is evident as he gives Habakkuk the promise that he will use a rogue nation still not yet a major power to bring his judgment on injustice and eventually fulfill his purposes. Habakkuk shows the expected degree of disbelief and shock at God’s promise to use the Chaldeans. And yet, by the end of the three chapters, the reader sees that Habakkuk has come to a sense of hope in God’s coming justice, even if he himself does not witness it firsthand.

This commentary is academic and will best be used for deep study of the book of Habakkuk. It will be fruitful reading for professors and students alike. Educated pastors will also find this a useful resource to include in their library. Though studying the book of Habakkuk would benefit many lay people, this volume is likely to be too dense for the average person in the pew.

Though it is geared toward an academic audience, the theological discussions Thomas includes in the latter portion of the volume will make this a tool for both sermon preparation and spiritual formation by pastors who choose to invest in this book. By interpreting the volume through a theological lens—a lens that has been formed and smoothed by millennia of Christian teaching––Thomas has written a volume that is spiritually enriching as well as exegetically precise. In other words, Thomas helps the reader to see both what the text of Scripture says as well as why it matters.

This is a book that deserves attention. It would be a welcome addition to the library of an institution or those who engaged in exegesis of texts. Heath Thomas’ commentary on Habakkuk will be a useful tool for decades to come.