Sin: A History
By Gary A. Anderson
Yale University Press 2009
Reviewed by Randall Radic
To say the least, the concept of sin is very interesting. To some people – those called Christians – the subject of sin is vitally important. Because they want to avoid it at all cost. If they do, they get to go to Heaven. If they don’t, they may end up in Hell.
When the reviewer was in seminary, he took a course called Hamartiology, which is a fancy theological term for ‘the study of sin.’ Unfortunately, it was not a hands-on course. If it had been, the reviewer feels confident in saying he would have scored quite well. No, the course was abstract and conceptual. One of the abstractions studied was the Doctrine of Sin. A small part of which is below.
A. Definition and Classification.
a. Sin is a violation of the law or standards of God. These divine standards are revealed in the Word of God. Sin is also transgression against divine law.
b. The Westminster Catechism’s definition of sin: “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of any law of God given as a rule to a reasonable creature.”
c. Dr. L. S. Chafer’s definition of sin: “Sin is that which proves unlike the character of God.”
d. The sinfulness of sin lies in the fact that it is against God even when the wrong we do is to others or ourselves. The essence and law of God are perfectly harmonious. Therefore, since God’s character and standards are perfect, anything that violates that has been defined in the Scripture as sin.
Pretty boring, huh? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The text goes on and on for another 10 pages.
Thank God for Gary Anderson’s new book, which is titled simply Sin: A History. It is not boring and it is not conceptual. It’s just the opposite – delightfully quirky and very imaginative. For it shows how the idea of sin, which was originally conceived of as a physical onus, changed. Sin changed from being a load that each person bore into a debt that required payment. In other words, sin went from being a personal burden to being an economic burden. And this change had a dramatic impact on the history of the Church and its definition of sin.
Once sin’s transformation is understood, the reader begins to understand why penance came into being, why charity entered the picture, and why salvation – according to some – can be bought and paid for, as if available at the local 7-11 convenience store.
Professor Anderson is not your typical seminary professor. For he has taken a remarkably dry subject and injected it with a vital energy. In his delightful book, sin leaves the stodgy world of abstraction and becomes a commercial system of great reality. If you owe, then you pay.
Sin is an easy read because Professor Anderson abandons the usual scholastic style of writing – which is more often than not as boring as heck – and writes with elan, using brilliant allusions and turns of phrase just like a popular novelist.
On the Astral body rating system, where one star means ‘skip it’ and five stars means ‘race out an buy it,’ Sinrecieves 5 stars. In fact, not reading this book probably constitutes a sin.