“To live outside the law you must be honest”

January 9, 2014

platingaOr so said Bob Dylan in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, in his book about sin, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, offers reasons why this is true.

Reflecting classic Christian teaching, Plantinga writes that sin and evil are a privation: they represent the absence of something, namely the good. Like a parasite feeding on its host, they require the good in order to survive.

Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. In metaphysical perspective, evil offers no true alternative to good, as if the two were equal and opposite qualities. “Goodness,” says C.S. Lewis, “is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” Here Lewis reproduces the old Augustinian idea that evil “has no existence except as a privation of good.” God is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.[1]

Therefore, “good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”[2] He writes that biographers “make themselves students of this phenomenon,” especially in relation to towering religious or moral leaders in history.

Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables. Other ironies appear in other characters including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves. The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.[3]

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the “smartest blows against shalom are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence—that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.”[4]

1. Conelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995),89.

2. Ibid., 80.

3. Ibid., 80-1.

4. Ibid., 89.

3 Responses to ““To live outside the law you must be honest””

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    Now, that’s a very good book.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I will forever be catching up with Clay Knick’s library. Just send me a list of what you’re reading now, Clay, and I’ll be blogging about it in 2021 or so. 😉

      • Clay Knick Says:

        Well I’m trying to catch up with you: I’m reading Keller’s book on suffering. And let’s just say I have a few years on you and leave it at that. 🙂


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