What are the origins of the notion of sin as a debt? Why was almsgiving such an important practice for Jews and Christians in the first Christian centuries? These are two of the important questions that Gary A. Anderson attempts to address in carefully crafted Sin: A History.
Anderson, a professor of Hebrew Scriptures at the University Of Notre Dame, argues in this monograph that the notion of sin as a spiritual debt drawn from the accounts of God as the divine creditor has a history that dates back to the post-exilic strata of the Old Testament and that the practice of almsgiving came to be seen during this same period as a way of repaying such a debt and of storing up a heavenly treasury. However, the implications of this research are significant not only for those interested in strictly biblical or historical research; they also shed a great deal of light on one model of understanding the atoning death of Christ which is frequently exemplified by Anselm of Canterbury.
Sin: A History develops its arguments in three parts. In the first part it retraces the shift from understanding sin as a burden to be carried by the guilty to understanding sin as a debt. The second part focuses in on the development of this metaphor from Leviticus 26 and Deutero-Isaiah to its application to the atoning death of Christ in the Syriac-patristic authors. The final section of the book addresses the practice of almsgiving as a meritorious act which secures the forgiveness of sins. In each of these sections Professor Anderson demonstrates his detailed research methods and keen insights as well as his appreciation of the wide ranging implications of his work.
The result of this research is an important study of the history of the notion of sin as debt which not only demonstrates its relation to other significant biblical metaphors for sin, but also reflects the importance of this understanding of sin for the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. As a result, it demonstrates that the theological ideas such as meritorious cooperation with the divine act of redemption and Christ's death as an atoning sacrifice may not be as easily cast aside as some have attempted. Thus the greatest strength of the volume is that it treats a highly important, yet under researched topic with great detail and strong arguments in a way that is accessible and valuable for a wide audience including graduate students and experts with interests in scripture, patristics, Christology, soteriology, and ethics.
The greatest weakness of the work lies in that the brevity of the volume and its wide-ranging implications may leave those with interests more peripheral to those of the central thesis of the book longing for more. In particular, the final chapter which deals with the scriptural foundations of Anselm's satisfaction theory in the notion of sin as a debt invites further reflection on how this background might affect the reading of Cur Deus Homo
and the contemporary appraisal of this work and other recent forays into the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion. Nonetheless, Anderson's clear concise writing and solid line of argumentation on the history of sin as a debt is to be highly commended to students, scholars, and libraries as a valuable and insightful addition.