Against God and Nature [a review]
Sin is one of those tricky words that we suppose we have a grasp of, but upon closer inspection turns out to be a bit more slippery to talk about than we first imagined. Though we might at first blush say sin is something like "doing bad things" or "being a bad person" or even "breaking God's law," all of these fail to adequately capture all there is to say about sin. Our discussion of sin might also venture off in various related directions: where did it come from? Is sinfulness inherent in what it means to be human? What has the forbidden fruit narrative in Genesis 3 to do with me? How ought we think regarding sin in the life of the Christ follower? What happens when I sin? Is it a failure of justice to forgive a sin?
Thomas McCall in his recent monograph, Against God and Nature, seeks to put forth a logically coherent and biblically faithful theory of sin that provides clarity to our modern cultural context regarding how we ought to think about sin. This is hardly the first theology of sin ever written, but as the title suggests, McCall wishes to make his mark in saying that sin is not only against God, but that it is fundamentally also against nature and against reason.
McCall works hard to articulate a biblically faithful understanding of sin that engages with current debates about sin and its satellite issues. For as the series introduction argues, "systematic theology attempts to address itself not only to the timeless issues presented in Scripture but also to the current issues of one's day and culture, [so] each theology will to some extent need to be redone in each generation."1 There is much to commend about McCall's work, and I will discuss the positive contributions he makes to the conversation, but then I will explain why I think it falls short of being something I could recommend.
Against God and... Stuff? What is a Nature?
Pop Christianity, regrettably, tends to lean toward fluffiness when it comes to expressing what, exactly, its belief system entails. Our songs are filled with religious vocabulary ("grace," "sin," "redemption," "brokenness," "love") and emotional fervor, but when we are pressed to explain what sin really is or what transgression means for those under grace, we come up short of an answer. Common sayings like "to err is human" reveal that we have uncritically folded the corruption of humanity into the definition of what it means to be human, even though doing so has troubling consequences.
This is where McCall's work shines brightly: his chapter on humanity, human nature, the sin nature, and what it means to sin against God and nature is a fantastic articulation of key Christian convictions. He ably demonstrates the futility of arriving at a definition of human nature by induction from our lived experience, because we have no sin-free point of reference. Instead, we must work backwards (as it were) from Christ the paragon of humanity to an understanding of what is essential to human nature and what is corruption.
He also is helpfully specific about what the word nature itself can and must mean. It is not enough, he contends, to talk about natures as if they were merely the sum of arbitrarily chosen attributes.2 No, when we speak of the Divine Nature, for instance, it is a bounded, discrete set of attributes that we must deal with, or else we are not speaking of God. These attributes are exegetically derived, and we do not have the freedom nor the ability for ourselves to determine what constitutes the Divine Nature or what constitutes human nature.
Another immensely beneficial aspect of Against God and Nature was his examination of not only "The Law" as a general category, but specifics such as OT purity laws. As a modern reader of levitical laws about uncleanness and their related purification rituals, it is easy to skim over them as rather odd, uncomfortable to read about, and just downright yucky. Why the weirdly detailed laws about menstruation or seminal emission? Why the laws about touching dead bodies? Do we really need to go there? McCall argues that these are sort of vivid object lessons of the movement away from "life" towards "death" and a "loss of vitality."3 They are meant to teach us that we live in the corruption and decay and death of this world, while God dwells in the purity of unapproachable light. This is not a subject that gets much attention, and it is a wonderful thing that McCall digs into it.
Against Christians With Whom I Disagree
For all that's good and helpful about Against God and Nature, it's hard to escape the feeling that he goes overboard in his airing of grievances against Reformed theology. This greatly weakened the rhetorical force of the book as an evangelical theology, for instead of aiming for a maximally catholic and orthodox common ground among the Christians to whom he writes, he descends into name-calling and intramural othering.4 It would be one thing to say, "Here are exegetical and historical reasons why the Reformed perspective on this doctrine or that doctrine fails to logically satisfy," and indeed he does do some of that, but he also can level utterly preposterous straw man arguments that I had to read multiple times to make sure he was not joking.
For example, he particularly goes after federal headship (which is a relatively common position regarding original sin among Reformed folks): "No one was around to vote for or approve Adam as our federal head at all," McCall avers. "So how, ...is [federal headship] not legal fiction?"5 The implication is obvious: an individual would only be morally responsible for Adam's sin if one personally made a conscious decision to vote for him to be a federal head, or representative leader, over oneself. Such a view seems so myopically American as to be self-satire. Could it possibly be that God elected Adam as the federal head of humanity, and without first collecting my vote? It is absolutely fair to say that such a position is a bitter pill, but to reject it out of hand because it fails to follow the American form of government is beyond ludicrous. It is fair to say that federal headship seems hard to square with passages like Deuteronomy 24:16 ("Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin"), but on the other hand, this verse and others related are hard to square with original sin in general, and that's the whole reason there are all these theories of original sin in the first place. Lastly, it is also worth saying that these arguments can be flipped and leveled against the substitutionary atonement as well: is it not a "legal fiction" for the blood of Jesus to cover anyone who failed to vote for him to be the Last Adam? I don't fault McCall for taking umbrage with Federal Headship, but I do wish he would've argued against it on its own terms.
McCall is not secretive about his reliance upon a libertarian free will in order to construct his notion of moral responsibility. In order for sin to even be sin, our decisions to stray must be authentically ours and cannot be imposed externally, for then the ultimate moral responsibility lies with another. Sin is when an individual exercises their free will against God and against nature.
This position is hardly unique to McCall, though there are others. An alternative view on the freedom of our choices is called "compatibilism," i.e. that the choices we freely make are compatible with divine sovereignty. This is to be distinguished from the (heterodox) view called determinism, which is the idea that no choices are freely made and that the universe is merely a clock within which we are cogs. McCall seems rather uninterested in portraying compatibilism charitably, immediately defining it as "soft determinism" and a fad among young Calvinists. He does not examine why it might appeal, but he does offer what he thinks to be an unassailable argument against it: "It is implausible to think that we have moral responsibility for events over which we have no causal control."6 Of course, a paragraph before he admits that compatibilism actually does leave room for causal control, in that we really can freely make decisions in accord with our will even if we do not have the power over our will itself. The inconsistency goes unnoticed in the attempt to align compatibilism with determinism, and it is another example of the unhelpful othering quality of the book: instead of locking arms with orthodox compatibilists against the heresy of determinism, he frames the argument so as to box them out.
McCall wants to situate free will at the headwaters of his theory of sin, but he doesn't get much further past the fairly standard arguments therewith. He is able to demonstrate that compatibilism is unworkable when you have already accepted libertarian free will as a given, but he never offers a critique of the position on its own terms or within its own coherent framework of things. Nor does he offer much of an argument for how to think about systemic sin or the corporate guilt of a people when moral responsibility rests entirely upon individual choice.
Life is not Fair
A common thread tying these problematic concerns together is that McCall works very hard to make sin and moral responsibility fair and palatable, but life is not at all fair! A corruption-only view of original sin (which he argues for over natural headship, federal headship, and the rest) feels more fair than something like federal headship because it merely handicaps the individual, but in my view the fairness of a doctrine is irrelevant to its truth.
A libertarian understanding of free will makes us feel like our decisions bear real, moral weight, but to hang the whole of hamartiology upon it is to so emphasize individual morality that there is little meaningful room to speak of guilt in a corporate sense in the family, church, nation, or whatever community we happen to be talking about. I want to be clear that the interplay between individual and corporate scopes of guilt is complex, and I doubt I could speak all that much more articulately about it. This theology of sin, however, simply does not advance the conversation in this regard.
To be fair, he does argue that "What these [liberation] theologians have in common is a deep sense that sin cannot adequately be considered in individualistic terms," and that "we should be open to any insights that we might gain about the structural impact of sin," but that seems relatively difficult to square with his thoroughgoingly individualistic understanding of sin as the exercise of one's free will against God and nature.7 To state it another way, if our theory is that sin is always individual and yet it can have downstream impact upon social, cultural, and political structures, then it seems reasonable to speak of these systemic issues not as sins but as byproducts of sins, and not something we are in any way guilty for.
The introduction defends the task of writing yet another theology of sin arguing that systematic theology is contextually situated and is aimed at answering the issues of the day.8 A theology of sin seems like a salient opportunity to talk about any of the evils of our day, such as white supremacy and the continued legacy of American slavery, immigration, gun violence, or the nearly dominant worldview that sees almost every evil through the lens of oppressors and the oppressed. While he does interact with these topics in a limited way in his discussion of liberation theologians, taking that tack makes these issues sound much less mainstream than they really are. If the book is explicitly framed as timely and culturally contextualized then it seems that should be a rigorous focus of the theology much in the same way that application is a rigorous focus of the NIV Application Commentaries.
His exploration of what a nature is, and his going so far as to say that sin is not just going against God but against nature as well has been and continues to be one of the most valuable things I meditate upon from this book. He does a decent job of talking about what makes a thing a sin and works hard to at least mention ancillary topics and viewpoints on almost every chapter in the book, but in the final analysis Against God and Nature fails to say much that hasn't already been said, and indulges in othering and hyper-exclusivity to the point that many evangelicals cannot affirm what he is writing, much less other Christians. I long for more theologies that strive for common ground with other Christians, that challenge and critique common positions, but at the end of the day leave space at the table for those who confess the creeds.
- McCall, Thomas. Against God and Nature (Crossway, 2019), Kindle Electronic Edition, loc. 254.
- McCall, Against God and Nature, loc. 5753.
- McCall, Against God and Nature, loc. 6131.
- For a beautiful example of a work that aims at this sort of maximal common ground, see the Reforming Catholic Confession of which Dr. McCall is a signatory.
- McCall, Against God and Nature, loc. 5077.
- McCall, Against God and Nature, loc. 4761.
- McCall, Against God and Nature, loc. 6897.
- McCall, Against God and Nature, loc. 254.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.