Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin by Thomas McCall

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  1. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    Better formatting here.

    Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin by Thomas McCall

    OVERVIEW
    Rating: 3.5 out of 5
    Length: 13-15 hrs. to read (402 pages)

    Short Summary:
    In Against God and Nature, Thomas McCall offers readers a comprehensive, well-organized treatment of the doctrine of sin. Despite the systematic approach, McCall does not miss opportunities for pastoral application.

    Who Should Read This Book?
    This book definitely finds itself on the more academic end of the spectrum. Despite its occasional dives into philosophical concepts, however, the educated layman will find the book useful, if challenging at various points. Given the wealth of other works cited, pastors might also find the work helpful as a reference volume, though they should be aware of the author’s underlying theological commitments.

    SUMMARY

    The How:
    Against God and Nature is part of the Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series published by Crossway and edited by John S. Feinberg. An introduction to this volume is followed by seven additional chapters, each of which focuses on a discrete topic. McCall begins, appropriately, with a chapter on “Sin According to Scripture,” over the course of which he lays out the Biblical vocabulary of sin and then walks the reader through the Bible’s passages on sin. Subsequent chapters cover such topics as the origin of sin, the doctrine of original sin, and the results of sin, while an appendix proposes a way to reconcile the supposed difficulties between the idea of “the original sinners” and contemporary scientific thought.

    The entire series of books is intended to offer an entry point into the various topics. On that score, this volume does a fair job. While most of McCall’s discussion will be accessible to the beginner, some of the deeper philosophical passages will likely require some degree of slogging for some readers.

    The Why:
    “The study of sin,” McCall writes, “brings us to a recognition of our desperate need of divine grace, and it points us ahead to the beauty and hope of the Christian gospel.” (page 17). Christians can “understand sin rightly only in relation to God--and thus to know sin better is to know God better.” (pg. 31). Some significant segment of professing Christians, it is probably fair to say, have never thought long and hard about the topics this book addresses. McCall, I think, is correct to say that through grasping a better understanding of what sin is and how it affects everything, we gain not only a better understanding, but also a greater appreciation of the Gospel.

    ANALYSIS

    As noted above, the first two chapters comprise the introduction and a discussion of sin through the course of Scripture. Few, I think, would quibble with McCall’s definition of sin: “Sin is whatever is opposed to God’s will, as that will reflects God’s holy character and as that will is expressed by God’s commands.” Indeed, it’s hard to see much practical difference between McCall’s definition and that of the much more famous Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

    Although I find myself largely in agreement with the materials in the first two chapters, some of McCall’s points seem to made with language that I would regard as slightly too loose. For instance, McCall write that God “offers a pathway for all who suffer or sin to experience his blessing.” (pg. 53, emphasis added). Granted that McCall is not writing a book on soteriology, but rather hamartiology. Nevertheless, from my vantage point, the word “pathway” falls short of the kind of definite atonement that I believe Scripture teaches.

    McCall’s decision to refer several times to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the first time on page 115 in the chapter on “The Origin of Sin”) was a little puzzling to me. True, there will be points of agreement between Roman Catholics and Protestants on doctrines of sin, but why not compile the same information from Protestant sources?

    Chapter 3, which contains McCall’s discussion of the origin of sin, also contains an interesting discussion on the origin of “angelic sin.” I suspect that for some Christians, it is a topic that has always been somewhat in the peripheries of their theological thought and I found McCall’s discussion interesting. However, he seems to draw from sources that are primarily of the Medieval period or earlier. Perhaps the topic has not garnered much in-depth discussion since then, but I was left with the impression that a more balanced discussion would have incorporated a broader array of sources.

    One of the chapters that I found the most engaging was Chapter 4 on the doctrine of original sin. McCall identifies six major theories of original sin. He posits, however, that “none of the major theories of original sin can claim to be demanded by Romans 5 . . . the viability (or lack thereof) and strength of the various theories will have to be decided on other, and broader, theological grounds.” (pg. 184). He categorizes the theories as follows:
    1. Symbolic/existential

    2. Corruption-only

    3. Federalism

    4. Realism

    5. Mediate views

    6. Conditional imputation of guilt
    Under the first of those theories “the sin of Adam and Eve [was] purely symbolic of the passage of humans . . . from a kind of innocence to sin and alienation.” Modern science, this view holds, make the notion of an original pair of humans untenable (a topic McCall deals with directly in the appendix). McCall dismisses this view as being excluded by the text of Romans 5:12-21

    Corruption-only theories of original sin affirm the “corruption in original sin without a corresponding affirmation of guilt.” (pg. 156, emphasis in original). This view is probably most closely-identified with the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, but also holds sway in the Orthodox Church and in the thinking of the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. McCall writes that adherents of such a view “are often drawn to it because . . . they worry that any corresponding claims about original guilt are [not] congruent with true justice.” (pg. 159). One of the questions this view seems to leave unanswered, however, is that if imputed guilt is unjust, how could imputed righteousness be any more just or congruent with God’s true grace and mercy?

    Federalist views of original sin insist that Adam’s posterity inherit not only the corruption of sin, but also his guilt, as the “federal head or legally appointed representative of humanity.” McCall fairly outlines the federalist position, I think, but still manages to give the view short shrift when he quips that, “To say that this view is counterintuitive is to put it mildly.” (pg. 162).

    Realism is the view that McCall proposes as “the most prominent alternative to the federalist position.” (pg. 166). Here is where McCall places Augustine and Jonathan Edwards. In this view, “there is a sense in which we are one--that is, really one, rather that just viewed as one in a legal sense--with Adam.” (pg. 166). By making the unity with Adam real in a way that other views do not, the realist view avoids some of the criticism lobbed against federalism. McCall acknowledges, however, that realism is not without its critics.

    McCall also outlines some “mediate views” which hold that “we are both corrupted by original sin and guilty for it--but that the sin for which we are guilty is not exactly the sin of Adam.” (pg. 170). He discusses Anselm in some depth here, but (perhaps surprisingly to some) also cites generously from John Calvin. He concludes this section by discussion a proposal by Millar Erickson that “we suffer guilt from original sin, but it is only a conditional guilt (until ratified by us).” (pg. 175).

    On the “soft determinism” or “compatibilism” of Jonathan Edwards, McCall refers to I Corinthians 10:12-13, which refers to “the way of escape” from temptation. Citing William Lane Craig, McCall concludes from this passage that “one had the power either to succumb or to take the way out--that is to say, one had libertarian freedom.” (pg. 186). However, this seems to misunderstand what Edwards and others say about the human will. Even if Craig correctly interprets “a way/the way,” that does not mean man could choose the way because he does not (cannot) will such a choice. Edwards was laboriously particular about distinguishing moral inability and natural inability in his work Freedom of the Will, but McCall seems to misunderstand or ignore the distinction.

    It is in the latter part of the same chapter, in discussing the “Metaphysics and Morals of Original Sin,” that one of McCall’s previously unstated philosophical commitments begins to poke through. He writes: “[F]or those who can embrace Molinism, the mediate view offers a way to hold both to the full-blown or robust doctrine of original sin . . . and to the moral responsibility without which the doctrine of sin collapses entirely.” (pg. 199). A passing reference to Molinism might have been attributable merely to the author’s fleshing out the implications of the mediate view of original sin were it not for subsequent endorsements of the controversial doctrine: “Here I follow the helpful summary of Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account” (pg. 347, n. 27) and “various versions of the broadly traditional accounts [of divine providence], with Molinism and Thomism taking pride of place in most discussions.” (pg. 352).

    One of the ideas that McCall comes back to throughout the book is whether sin and the fall were necessary or essential.

    “If being sinful is essential to being human, then Christ is either a sinner (and thus himself in need of salvation) or not really human (and thus not able to be our Savior). Either way leads to outright heresy. What Christ reveals to us in the incarnation, however, is that being sinful is not essential to human nature. He was fully and completely human--yet without sin. Sin is not essential to being human. To the contrary, as we shall see shortly, it is a perversion of genuine, authentic, and healthy humanity.” (pg. 210).​

    This seems, however, to present a possible false dichotomy.The distinction between a common attribute and an essential one seems valid, but when what is common has actually become universal--common to everyone--what is left of that distinction?

    In Chapter 5 on “The ‘Sin Nature’ and the ‘Nature’ of Sin” McCall writes: “[W]e should be open to the possibility that they [i.e., liberationist, feminist, etc. conclusions about sin] may offer helpful--if sometimes uncomfortable--insights into sin and its impact. In particular, we should be open to any insights that we might gain about the structural impact of sin.” (pg. 264) This seems to be a very dangerous concession in favor of theologians that McCall admits (in the same paragraph!) are sometimes “opposed to classical Christian orthodoxy” and are “out of step with Scripture.” Given the questionable starting point for black liberation theology and other such ideologies, it would be infinitely better to work within the bounds of Scripture and classical Christian orthodoxy if it is truly necessary to delve into any “structural impact of sin.”

    Regarding the results of sin, McCall writes in Chapter 6 that “depravity can be said to be ‘total’ in the broadly extensive sense that it impacts all members of the human race. . . . The second way that this depravity is said to be ‘total’ is in the sense that all parts of aspects of the human person are negatively impacted by it.” (pg. 309, emphasis in original) My only reservation here is with the word “impact,” because it seems to leave room for the Semi-Pelagian view to creep in (a view that McCall himself rejects). It leaves the door open for one to say, “Yes, every part of our being is impacted, but it’s not so much of an impact that it totally corrupts my ability to respond to God.”

    Finally, the appendix contains an interesting discussion about how Christians need not choose between contemporary science and traditional Christian doctrine when it comes to the topic of the origins of human life. McCall gives scant attention to the young earth point of view, but that can be excused, perhaps, given that this is merely an appendix and not a comprehensive treatise on that topic. The discussion did, however, yield a new favorite, quirky phrase: the “Pregnant Hitch-hiking Monkey Thesis.

    CONCLUSION

    In terms of achieving the goal of writing a book on the doctrine of sin that is both accessible to a general reader while also being helpful to academics, I think Thomas McCall more or less succeeds. He does a good job of fairly presenting the range of views on these important topics. Before picking up this book, I had not read any of Thomas McCall’s writing (at least, not outside the context of the appendix to W. Robert Godfrey’s book Saving the Reformation). Perhaps if I had done so (or at least remembered that he was the co-author of a recent biography of Jacob Arminius), I would not have felt like his views on some of the underlying theological and philosophical issues were not readily apparent. In Against God and Nature, however, there is ample material to give beginners a good overview of the doctrine of sin as well as supply seemingly countless avenues for further and deeper study.

    FAVORITE QUOTES
    • We cannot have an adequate understanding of it [sin] precisely as sin apart from divine revelation and the theological reflection that is made possible by that revelation. (pg. 27)
    • For sin is not, and cannot be reduced to, the mere transgression of a set of law or an abstract moral code. No--no indeed! Sin is the treacherous rejection of the Holy One for whose love we were made! (pg. 69)
    • The sin itself consists not in eating the fruit that elsewhere God pronounced “good”; the sin consists in the disregard and rejection of God’s will and ways. In this light, we can begin to see that it is such rejection and rebellion that is so terribly heinous--and even the things we think small or insignificant are momentous when done in opposition to the revealed will of God. (pg. 117)
    • Sin is contrary to reason rightly ordered. (pg. 235)
    • Confronted with my own transgression, I do no good to myself or my neighbor to focus on myself by denying that my action was really sinful. If I sin against my neighbor and my Lord, I should confess that sin, trust God for his forgiveness in Christ and empowerment by the Holy Spirit, and seek further reconciliation while thanking God for his provision in Christ. I should not seek to do for myself what God has done for me in Christ. I should not seek to justify myself. (pg. 250)
    • The love of God is a holy love. It cannot be reduced to sentimentality or indulgence; it does not ignore or brush away or indulge our sinfulness. Instead it is expressed in a way that is pointed directly at our sin problem. There is no divine holiness that can be considered in abstraction from God’s love. And there is no divine love that is not pure and holy. (pg. 329)
    • We may tend to see these [i.e., the wrath of God and the love of God] as if they are in tension or even opposition, but the Bible itself does not do so. (pg. 334)
    • Repentance should not in any sense be understood as somehow preparatory for grace-- as if somehow we make ourselves acceptable accounts for God’s grace by groveling. (pg. 361)
     
  2. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    True, but McCall is an Arminian, after all.

    His book on the Trinity and Monotheism is outstanding.
     
  3. Joseph Knowles

    Joseph Knowles Puritan Board Freshman

    Yes, and once that became apparent, I tried to keep it in mind when reading the book without letting it unfairly cloud my judgment. It really is quite a good book and reading it definitely enriched my understanding of some historical theology on these points as well as giving me avenues for further study.

    I'll have to check out that other book when I have the urge to scratch that metaphysics itch that I get every once in a while.
     
  4. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    Dr. McCall was one of my favorite teachers in seminary. I took apologetics from him, which ended up being—much to his dismay, I'm sure—my gateway drug to Van Tilian Presuppositionalism. I also took an upper-level historical theology course on Arminius and Arminianism from him. I found this class truly fascinating. It is my opinion, and it really remains my opinion, that Dr. McCall has the greatest intellectual capacity of practically every professor on the campus of TEDS (and, yes, that would include Dr. Carson). Dr. McCall simply has a giant intellect, regardless of my disagreements with him theologically.
     
  5. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    He's an outstanding scholar. The way he maneuvered through the Trinitarian debates was brilliant.
     
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