Top 5 Most Misquoted, Misused, and Misunderstood Bible Verses

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You probably hear these adages all the time! But are you hearing them as they were intended? The Bible is not merely a collection of quotes, or one-liners, but is the telling of history. The Bible is a comprehensive story, from the beginning of the world to the end – not ending 2000 years ago or in the present, but at the end of the world at the return of Christ. The end is not unknown, but is already written. The Bible is a perfectly cohesive collection of 66 books by ~40 authors, and is divinely uniform. Despite the uniformity of the Bible, verses are all too often misinterpreted or quoted out of context. If I was to write, “You should never read a Bible verse,” and you were to quote that phrase by itself, you would severely misrepresent my intent if the next thing I said was, “You should always read an entire thought or even an entire chapter to properly understand a verse’s context.”

Unfortunately in our quote crazy, sound bite loving, tweet happy world, information now comes one line at a time. The reality is that chapter and verse markings were actually not added to the Bible until over 1500 years after its writing. The Bible was never intended to be read one verse at a time. Below are what seem to be the Top 5 most frequently misused “Bible verses,” that misquoted or taken apart from the context of the rest of the Bible, become tragically misunderstood.

5.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  Exodus 14:14

This verse comes out of the Exodus narrative in which the Israelites, who are fleeing their Egyptian oppressors, become trapped between the impending doom of Pharaoh’s approaching soldiers and the Red Sea. In their fear the Israelites began to cry out to Moses that they would have been better off had they never left Egypt. In the NIV translation, Moses responds by telling them not to fear, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” This version of the verse has been lifted and placed onto a plethora of Christian items…home decor, T-shirts, bookmarks, bumper stickers, etc. Many Christians have latched onto this verse as encouragement that as they face trials in their lives they need only to wait in their current situation and the LORD will deliver them. Oddly enough, other Bible translations like the New King James and the ESV translate the verse as “The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace,” and, “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent,” respectively. These translations indicate the verse has nothing to do with holding your ground. The Hebrew word translated here does not have an English equivalent, but means all of the things stated in those 3 translations…to be still, peaceful, and silent. Basically, Moses was not telling the paranoid Israelites to stand firm, he was telling them to remain calm. This all becomes further troubling when you read the next verse (which is never included on the Christian merchandise).

Exodus 14:15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.

Move on?! In 14:14 Moses tells the Israelites they need only be still, and in 14:15 the LORD says to Moses, “move on.” And people have gone and quoted what Moses said here. Why is that? Moses says be still. God says get moving. And people have decided to take their reassurance in the words of Moses? Really?  Clearly we know in the Exodus story that the Jews did not stand their ground on the shore of the Red Sea…they got moving.

When we read verses 14 and 15 together it becomes far more clear that what we are being told here is that our reaction to mounting trials should be two fold. First, we are to remain calm and remain steadfast in our hearts.  Know the LORD will fight for us.  But that’s only half of the message. Don’t stop there. Second, we must move in faith. Don’t stand still! God says, Get moving!!!

Still your heart. Quiet your emotions. Trust in God. Then get moving in faith. GO!

4. This too shall pass. Ecclesiastes 3:??

This is a great proverb! But…to the surprise of many…it’s not in the Bible. Historical records often attach this phrase to a fable of a powerful king who asks assembled wise men to create a ring that will give him happiness when he is sad, and keep him from taking for granted the times when he is happy. After deliberation the sages present him a simple ring bearing the words “This too shall pass.”

The great king is humbled by the simple phrase. Jewish folklore casts King Solomon as the humbled king of the fable. Still, the fact remains, this phrase does not appear in the Bible. The portion of the Bible that most closely resembles this oft quoted piece of wisdom is chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes (authored by Solomon), which says: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh…

3. Money is the root of all evil. 1 Timothy 6:10

This is a misquoting of the verse: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” In the Bible “sin” is identified as the root of all evil. Sin is any action that transgresses the mark set by God’s Holy Law. Sin is the byproduct of want. Want is bred by either fear or lack of trust in God. Lust, desire, greed, and temptation (all forms of want) stem from a lack of trust in God’s promises and a fear that God’s provision will not provide His promised perfect fullness for our lives. In the Garden of Eden we see sin first enter the world when Adam and Eve fail to trust that God has given them a perfect existence, and wanting the knowledge of God, eat the forbidden fruit. Money in and of itself is an amoral object. In the Bible Christ calls His followers to properly steward money and other resources for the furthering of the Kingdom of God. In this case, money can be used righteously. Nowhere does the Bible say it is money that is the root of evil.

It is the love of money, a sign of want and greed, that is a root of all kinds (but not all) evil.

2. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Phillipians 4:13

The famous coffee cup verse that sends us boldly and confidently forward into our day! This verse, while extremely powerful in proper context, is typically grossly distorted from the original intent in the writing of the Apostle Paul. At the time of the writing of this letter the Apostle Paul had finally reached his desired destination of Rome, but only after being taken prisoner, shipwrecked, and placed on house arrest chained to a Roman soldier. Further he was facing potential execution, and was mentally preparing himself for the not too distant reality that He would be leaving this world. Paul is not saying here that through the strengthening of Jesus Christ we can overcome all obstacles or succeed in all things. What Paul is saying is that through the strengthening of Christ we can press forward and endure through all hardships…even death. This verse does not infer that by having faith in Christ we will achieve or prosper in all we aspire to, but rather in Christ we find the sufficient comfort and support to carry on through all adversity. The preceding verse, Phillipians 4:12 provides proper context to verse 13.

Phillipians 4:12-13 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

1. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Matthew 7:1

The mother of all Biblical misrepresentations. Let us “twist not a scripture lest we be like the devil” (Paul Washer). The most frequently misused verse in the Bible is without question, Matthew 7:1. Often misstated as “Judge not.” or “Jesus said don’t judge.” The most humorous aspect of the misuse of this verse is that it invariable occurs in such a way that the person misusing the verse, in referencing it, actually declares a judgment on the person they feel is being judgmental. Hypocrisy much? Someone will say, “You’re being judgmental. Jesus said don’t judge.” And in their pronouncing a person as judgmental, they too have judged. Additionally, If you’re perceptive enough you will notice as well that Jesus Himself is passing judgment here on those who improperly judge. Clearly this interpretation of this verse doesn’t make sense.

The verse actually reads “Judge not that ye be not judged.” This verse is often swung as a gavel to bring about an immediate cessation of discussion of another person’s behavior. The incorrect understanding of the verse is that we are completely forbidden to call to attention any areas in others’ behaviors that demand correction. This is a clear misinterpretation of Christ’s teaching. The words of Christ:

John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

Matthew 7:16 “You will recognize them by their fruits…”

Luke 17:3 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.”

Matthew 18:15-17 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Clearly here, Christ says we are to judge righteously, recognize and discern good from evil by peoples’ actions, and rebuke our brothers and sisters when they sin. To rebuke a brother we must first identify that they have sinned. To identify a person’s sin, we must obviously first judge their behavior. Without the authority to judge others’ behaviors there is no permissible authority by which we could uphold governing laws, discipline children, select leaders, choose teachers and childcare providers, or discern which Bible teachers are profitable to listen to. Our selections of spouses, friends, and business partners are all based on judgments of character and ethics. Christ said, “You will know them by their fruits,” meaning we are to discern between a person who bears fruit, and a person who does not.

Leviticus 19:15 You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

To see what Jesus is actually saying when He says, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” it is helpful to read the subsequent verses:

Matthew 7:2-5 “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

We see now that Matthew 7:1 is not a warning against the judging of any action or behavior. It is a warning against self-deception, self righteousness, and hypocrisy.  If you are going to correct someone then you must expect to be held to the same standard.  If you judge with harshness, you can expect to be judged harshly.  If you judge with gentleness and good intent, your brothers and sisters are more likely to return the kindness.  Note that a speck of sawdust and a log are both of the same essence…wood. Jesus here is referring to the hypocrisy of casting judgment on another for a sin of the same essence as a sin of which you yourself are guilty. Jesus declares here that You must first overcome this sin in your own life before you will be any help to your brother. Notice in verse 5 that Christ does not prohibit us from pointing out our brother’s sin, or from assisting him in removing it.  Jesus does not command we say nothing about the speck in our brother’s eye. Jesus commands us to first address this particular issue in our own life, and then assist our brother in love.

1 Thessalonians 5:14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

Galatians 6:1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.

**For a look at another incredibly intriguing, and perhaps unrealized, modern misquotation of the Bible, see my article on Pulp Fiction and Ezekiel 25:17

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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Making Decisions that Align with God’s Will

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Time and time again we hear that we should seek God’s direction for our lives. We are told that we should seek God’s guidance in making big decisions, we should pray for the answers to life’s big questions, and we are told that we should aspire to carry out all our actions in accordance with God’s plan for our lives.

We have all been guilty at times of being overly confident in our own abilities. Our egotism has at some point given each of us over to an overinflated sense of self-assurance. Having experienced some success we become apt to believe that we can function without the guidance of the LORD. In other cases, many of us start in the right way – fervently seeking the guidance of the LORD – and as He promises, He guides our steps. As we begin to develop a level of comfort that the LORD is with us, and is smiling upon our endeavors, we sometimes then begin to seek the LORD’s guidance less, and trust more in the unfounded confidence in our own hearts. It is easy for Christians to believe that we are in alignment with God’s will and we are capable of making our own decisions. After all, we have been saved by grace, we are His chosen, and we live by the aid of the Holy Spirit. We begin to believe that our own decision making is sound, and forget that it was because of God’s good providence that our decisions were blessed to begin with. In either case it is by an overgrown sense of self-righteousness that we then cease seeking God’s guidance in all our decision making. When we begin to believe we are “good” people, and believe we operate with “good” intent, we become confident that our decision making is consequently “good.” We then become dependent on ourselves for our own guidance, and unfortunately, as has been demonstrated by thousands of years of history, self-reliance ultimately leads a person far from the LORD and, the more ambitious a person is, the more catastrophic the results can be. Jesus teaches, “No one is good except God alone (Luke 18:19).” We must not begin thinking that because we have come to know Christ that we are now “good” people capable of making righteous decisions. The truth is, we are sinners, soiled by sin, making decisions with a fractured conscience and deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Though we are justified to God through Christ, it is by Christ’s righteousness alone, and not by any good of our own (Ephesians 2:8). No person does righteously apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must remember who it is that is good – He who makes us good – and seek His advisement always.

Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Proverbs 14:12 There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.

The Bible very clearly teaches and demonstrates that those who lean on their own understanding, rather than acknowledge the LORD in all they do, will indeed eventually falter. Man is completely and fully corrupted by sin, and there is no one righteous apart from the Lord, not even one (Romans 3:11). Even those with the best of hearts and the best of intentions are sinful, and are betrayed by their own hearts. We must depend on the LORD for our provision, and we must understand that we truly succeed when we desire our lives be more of Christ and less of ourselves (John 3:30). Wisdom comes from the negation of self, and the entire reliance upon the LORD.

What must be done to know the will of God you ask?  First, have no will of your own.

When seeking direction from God we must remember that His voice may be heard in many different ways. Sometimes God’s message to us is clear as day. Sometimes God’s answers appear in black and white in the Bible. Sometimes we feel as though we are being unmistakably called to a certain action. Sometimes we receive a sign that is undeniable and rocks us to our very core. Sometimes we receive a pressing instinct that, by faith, pushes us to move. Sometimes, the unfolding circumstances around us elicit His desired reaction from us. Sometimes we have no choice, and react simply out of survival. Sometimes someone speaks a prophetic word that drives right to the heart of an issue we are dealing with. I’m sure there are countless other ways the LORD reveals himself that I am leaving out here, but I know many people who can speak of the amazing ways our LORD has revealed His will to them and changed the course of their lives. It is truly incredible when The LORD moves in these kinds of ways and manifests Himself and His will so clearly. Other times, the LORD’s will for our lives is not clear at all. Not all of God’s revelations come in an earth shaking show of fire and wind. Sometimes the LORD speaks to us in a gentle whisper. Be always prepared to hear the LORD in the event that He may speak to you in a subtle way (1 Kings19:12). Sometimes in all of our running, we fail to listen, or to be observant.

“Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Still, Many times, even while we diligently seek God’s will in our decision making, we do not see His answer. We feel we are left to make decisions on our own – relying on our own best judgment. We ask questions like, “What does God’s will for my life look like? How do I know?” And we say things like, “If God gave me a clear answer to my prayer, I never knew it.” At this point we either take decisive action on our own, or we flounder. We all know from experience that either can sometimes be to our detriment. When we pray for guidance and we feel we receive no answer it feels as if we are calling for help and there is no one on the other end of the line. In times like these it is important to remember that God always has His hand on our lives. Nothing in this world happens outside of His provision or allowance. Where we are fervently seeking the LORD, He is there. Many have heard the song that says, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” No truer words could be spoken regarding this matter. Trust that God knows the plans He has for you (Jeremiah 29:11).

Having established that we must consult the LORD in our decision making, and that the LORD determines our steps (Proverbs 16:9), how then do we know that the clear message we are receiving truly is a message from God? How can we confirm that we are not being deceived by the desires of our own hearts, but know that our decision is indeed the will of God? And, if we are not receiving a clear answer, what can we do to seek God’s will for our decisions?

1. Pray Unceasingly
Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Do not be discouraged when you do not immediately receive answers to prayer. Jesus says, “Ask, seek, knock. (Matthew 7:7),” and instructs that we ought always continue to pray without being discouraged.

Luke 18:1-8 And (Jesus) told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.

Pray with persistence. If an unrighteous judge will respond to persistent pleas, certainly our just and loving God will give His response to our continuous prayer.

2. Test Your Decision Against Scripture
Does the Bible specifically address this issue? The scripture is the infallible Word of God and is the first litmus test against which we must measure all decisions. Does your decision honor and glorify God? Does this decision further the Kingdom of God? Will this decision be helpful to your Christian brothers or sisters, or be a stumbling block to them? Is this decision being made in pursuit of godliness, or as an indulgence of worldly, temporal, material things? Will this decision bring you closer to Christ, or will it serve to distract you from your walk with the Lord? The Bible does well to define what honors God and speaks specifically to many issues we are faced with everyday.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. Proverbs 9:10 “…knowledge of the holy is understanding.”

Some people like to think of “B.I.B.L.E.” as an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Truly the word bible is simply Greek for “book.” The Bible is “The book of books.” The Bible may not be a step by step plan for living (fortunately it is more entertaining than a droning list of instructions), but it does indeed outline the principles for living righteously, coping with death, and receiving eternal salvation. The Bible’s instruction is spread across nearly 1200 chapters and over 31,000 verses so opening it up once and expecting to quickly find answers is an unrealistic expectation. It is wise to be well versed in the scripture in advance of making decisions. My best advice is to start reading your Bible now in preparation for the future. It is a certainty decisions are coming. If, however, you need answers immediately, we live in the age of Google. You can search “What does the Bible say about…,” and find verses that speak specifically to just about any topic.

3. Fast
Fasting is something that seems a taboo in our society of abundance and self-indulgence. We live a lifestyle that rarely, if ever, denies us any fundamental need.

Christ, when seeking to properly prepare himself at the beginning of His ministry first fasted 40 days. Christ’s stated expectation was also that you and I will fast.

Matthew 6:16 “Whenever you fast…” 17 “But when you fast…”

Christ does not say “if” you fast; He says “when” you fast. While fasting you will find that every time you are hungry, and every time you avoid a particular food, you are reminded of the reason why are you are fasting. You are making a sacrifice in your desire to become more closely aligned with God. This is very effective in keeping the LORD at the forefront of your mind, and making you more keenly aware of His presence. Most of us are much better at talking to God, than we are at listening to Him. It is very difficult to forget to listen to God when he is forced to the forefront of your mind in this way. There are few times when I have engaged the LORD so intimately and consistently, or been as acutely aware of God as while fasting.

4. Seek Counsel from Godly Advisers
What do the Godly people in your life, who have wisdom, experience, and a track record of Biblical living have to say? Even if you believe you have received your answer from the LORD it is still wise to seek the advice of the people you know who are qualified to give Biblical counsel. I am speaking mainly of your ministers and church elders here. Be discerning in whose advice you take, and don’t seek out someone that you think will give you the answer that you want to hear. Be open to receiving honest and unbiased advice from someone who knows the LORD. Ask your pastors. It is their responsibility to guide you. The LORD has blessed them with wisdom for this very task, and they will be happy to help as they have dedicated their lives to the very service of shepherding the Lord’s flock.

Psalm 1:1 How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked… Proverbs 11:14 Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.

5. Remain Faithfully Open to Correction
This is arguably the single most difficult thing to do. For most people it is a painstaking task to develop the humility necessary to openly receive and appreciate rebuke from others. Being that all people sin, it is very easy to respond with a “Who are you to correct me?” attitude. Many people are also quick to go directly to “Judge not lest ye be judged,” discarding any good point that could have actually been made by the person offering them reproof. Though Christ instructed that we should not judge, for we will be judged in the measure by which we judge others, the Bible does consistently instruct (across the Old and New Testaments) that we have a responsibility to teach, develop, and correct our brothers and sisters. Sometimes the one needing correcting is us. Are you open to that? Or do you really think you are perfect? Some correct out of love, and others out of contempt. The truth is, a wise man knows this does not validate or discredit the content of the criticism. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters are more graceful in lovingly rebuking us than others. Often times, graceful or not, it is hard to hear. What we must come to understand is that the intent of the person offering us correction is not important. What is important is that we receive what they have to say and examine it for truth. Are we in need of improvement in our thinking, or in our actions? Are we being honest with ourselves in our decision making, or is God speaking to us through this person? It is incredibly important that we remain faithfully open to correction. The Bible demands it.

Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. Proverbs 15:32 Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. Proverbs 27:5-6 Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

The absolute last thing that we want to be is the King who has everything, but brings destruction upon himself because he despises the wise words of a prophet (2 Chronicles 16:10), or a Pharisee who dedicates his life to the pursuit of righteousness, only to end up crucifying the Lord because He is too prideful to receive the Lord’s correction. We must swallow pride and remain humbly aware that we ourselves are not perfect.  We are far, far from it.  We must seek counsel from God, from the Bible, and from our church leaders.  We must be open to receiving correction from our brothers and sisters. This is how Godly decisions are made. Decisions made outside of these confines are decisions made in sinful self-reliance due to pride.  Being mindful of all these things, and seeking to hear the guidance of the LORD in it’s many forms will help us find the path to righteousness.  Narrow is the path that leads to righteousness (Matthew 7:14), but God assures us that if we listen to Him and follow His commands He will make us abundantly prosperous in all our endeavors (Deuteronomy 30:9).

Deuteronomy 28:1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.

 

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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A Christian Ethic for Treating Mental Illness

Research by the U. S. Burden of Disease Collaborators indicates neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States.[1]  Consequently, the “raging epidemic of mental illness,”[2] results in “psychotropic medications [being] among the most commonly prescribed of all pharmacological agents.”[3]  Pointing to the Church’s intersection with this issue, Christian psychiatrists Paul Meier and Frank Minirth say estimates indicate “pastors do more than half of all the counseling in the United States.”[4]  While proponents of psychiatry suggest “psychotropics have improved the lives of millions of individuals living with mental illness,”[5] many Christians still find themselves hesitant to throw their full support behind psychotropic medication.  In an article from Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer calls out Christians as having “a tendency to tiptoe around [mental illness] as if . . . on eggshells,”[6] and says Christians likely struggle more than their mainstream-society-peers in reaching positions on the topic.[7]  Further, complicating matters are psychiatric professionals who themselves acknowledge “significant controversy exists surrounding ethical best practices in the prescription of psychotropics.”[8]  Granted, mental illness remains a broad sweeping, debilitating, and sometimes dangerous affliction that can’t be ignored.

Christian best practices must be established for the safety and well-being of our communities.  This article will first consider reasons why some Christians are resistant to psychopharmacology. Then, the ontological nature of human beings will be considered before expressing reasons why Christians should support the field of psychopharmacology.  Finally, the paper will consider some further concerns Christians might have in fully embracing psychopharmacology, and will offer a response to those concerns.  Following this outline, this paper will argue a proper view of health recognizes human beings as whole persons and incorporates all God-given means, both spiritual and physical.  In understanding the treatment of mental illness, Christians must choose the narrow position between over-spiritualizing mental and emotional struggles, and conversely over-materializing the mind.  This paper will further contend this narrow position is the ethical high ground and falling into the ditch to either the left or right is done to the detriment of both the mentally ill and the community around them.

Reasons Christians Reject Psychopharmacology

In mental health, a tension exists that Christians must admit they are sometimes unsure how to navigate.  While some Christians are open to discussing mental illness as a physiological reality to be benefitted by psychiatry and pharmaceutical science, others believe granting too much weight to secular practices undermines the authority of Scripture.[9]  Within Christianity is a spectrum of viewpoints resistant to psychopharmacology.  A fringe element of Christians rejects medication out of hand in a convicted adherence to faith healing.  This group believes all healing should be sought through the supernatural activity of God alone.

More common are Christians who accept medical science as helpful to physical healing but view matters of the mind as spiritual and emotional rather than physical.  This group’s actions suggest the belief that symptoms of mental illness come as the result of sin, lack of faith, or other spiritual deficiencies.  Issues like depression and bipolar disorder are combatted with more sincere faith, repentance, prayer, and spiritual disciplines.  Referencing these Christians, Ed Stetzer recounts, “When I became a Christian, the initial reaction I heard regarding [mental health] issues was that if people would trust the Lord enough they would be healed.”[10]  Christians of this mindset say things like, “It is impossible for a Christian to be depressed or to need psychiatric counseling for an emotional problem,”[11] and ask, “Shouldn’t faith alone be enough to solve a Christian’s [emotional] problems.”[12]  It is also not uncommon for these Christians to conflate instances of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with demon possession or the occult.[13]

The more prevalent view among Evangelicals, however, acknowledges the physical nature of some mental health issues but finds difficulty discerning which issues are primarily spiritual, behavioral, or physical.  Knowing the field of psychiatry often diverges from the Christian worldview, many Christians are hesitant to celebrate the practice of psychiatrists.  Additionally, many in the Church expect that Christians should possess an inner strength uncommon to the world.  Emotional struggles that challenge this expectation and cause Christians to fall short of behavioral expectations often lead to a feeling of personal failure.  These factors, in combination with the historical stigmatization of mental illness, leads many afflicted Christians hide mental illness out of guilt and shame.

Robert H. Albers writes, “Ignorance concerning mental illness has historically often resulted in brutal treatment of suffering persons, of their being fettered both literally and figuratively by the chains of helplessness.”[14]  For these reasons, many Christians who are potentially afflicted choose to suffer quietly in emotional isolation.  Likening this shame and isolation to that of biblical lepers, Albers points out that “the stigmatization associated with both leprosy and mental illness elicits feelings of ‘disgrace shame’ within the afflicted as well as the affected persons,” and the net result of general insensitivity toward mental illness is “a progression of evaluative judgments by others, resulting in depersonalization, dehumanization, and finally ‘demonization’ of the one afflicted.”[15]  In these cases, it is not a misunderstanding of mental illness, but the fear of judgment that leads Christians to reject medication despite the clear acknowledgment of an issue.  Stetzer laments, “At the end of the day, part of the reason it’s difficult to acknowledge these real issues is that there can be a perception that Christians are not supposed to have these issues.  Part of our belief system is that God changes everything.”  Thus, whether Christians acknowledge mental issues may be physical, shame may still render them reluctant to embrace medication.

Ontology and the ‘Whole’ Person

The first step in determining a view toward treatment of mental illness demands clarification be given to the nature of mental illness.  This requires definition be given to the ontological status of the person.  The pertinent ontological question asks, “What is the relationship between the body and the mind?”  Two erroneous answers permeate this discussion.

There exists an errant view of human ontology that understands all matters of the mind to be purely spiritual.  This view divides human ‘parts’ into a dichotomy or trichotomy – two or three distinct substances respectively.  This view draws a hard distinction between the mind/soul and physical body.  In this mind-body dualism, souls are perceived to be distinct from, but presently existing within physical bodies.  Crudely, this view reduces humans to “entrapped souls,” or “souls on sticks,” and separates mental and spiritual aspects of the person from the physical.

terminator-2

A second errant view is naturalism, which views humans as purely physical beings.  This view rejects the existence of the soul and reduces all experiences of cognition to physical processes within the brain.  This view reduces humans to “meat computers,” and believes all mental and physical problems are corrected through physical means.

The Bible, however, does not depict humans as minds on sticks or meat computers.  In an elaborate word study, Anthony Hoekema summarizes the Bible’s ontological view of man with the phrase “psychosomatic unity.”  Man has “a physical side and a mental or spiritual side, but we must not separate these two.  The human person must be understood as an embodied soul,” and Scripture insists the human “must be seen in his or her totality, not as a composite of different parts.”[16]  Esteemed Christian ethicist Russell Moore agrees, “God created us as whole persons, with body and psyche together. . . . We don’t ‘have’ bodies or ‘have’ psyches.  We are psychosomatic whole persons, made in the image of God.”[17]

Minirth and Meier explain this understanding of the person implies the “separate dimensions of human nature interact so closely that ‘health’ on one level always impinges on ‘health’ on the other,” and “the state of our mental/emotional health affects our physical well-being, and vice/versa.”[18]  This points to a need for a holistic approach to healthcare.  Holistic healthcare “emphasize[s] the necessity for looking at the whole person, including physical condition, nutrition, emotional makeup, spiritual state, lifestyle values, and environment.”[19]  The holistic view suggests “mental problems should not be thought of as totally distinct from physical problems because neither type of problem is ever separate from the other. . . . The counselor ought not to think of spiritual and mental health as somehow totally separable.”[20] Thus, the Biblical view agrees with the psychiatric contention that physical factors are involved in functions of the mind while refusing the notion that human cognition is reduced to physical processes alone.

Reasons to Embrace Psychopharmacology

Crucial to embracing the necessity of psychopharmacology is understanding mental illness involves a “broken brain.”[21]  More technically, “schizophrenia is correlated with a chemical imbalance in the brain and causes varying degrees of abnormal behavior,” including “a basic loss of touch with reality.”[22]  Similarly, victims of clinical depression have brains with extremely low levels of neurotransmitters.[23] These physical issues are said to be virtually impossible to treat without medication.[24]  Prompt medical intervention, however, often alleviates faulty mental function, restores ordinary behavior, and makes full recovery possible for many people.[25]

Tragically, when “a psychotic person goes six months without medication to correct the dopamine imbalance in the brain, the psychosis nearly always becomes permanent and uncurable [sic].”[26]  People suffering from psychosis are also prone to extremely poor judgment, financial impulsivity, and action that brings peril to themselves and others.  Not every person suffering from mental illness suffers such severe symptoms, but Christians too frequently allow calamity to grow out of circumstances that could have been avoided with professional evaluation and treatment.

In cases of mental illness, “More often than not, more prayer and more faith are not the only remedy. [sic]”[27]  In cases of other physical ailments, like broken bones and malfunctioning organs, Christians rarely refuse medical care.  Likewise, Christians are not judged for suffering these ailments, and likewise do not feel guilt or shame because of them.  The Apostle Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is not a calling to Christians take a “grin-and-bear-it” approach to physical affliction when medical treatment is available – especially in the case that an affliction, left untreated, may increase in intensity until irreparable damage is done.  Additionally, it is flat out unethical to reject help for an affliction that could potentially threaten the emotional and physical well-being of others.  Christ himself said those who are sick are in need of a doctor (Matt 9:12).  Christians must acknowledge there is a serious difference between spiritual struggle and physical mental sickness.  While they can relate, they cannot be flattened into one or be considered the same.[28]  Mental illness must instead be viewed similarly to physical illness in cases of genuine mental illness.

Doctors Minirth and Meier caution, the Bible is fundamental to human wellness, but applying it as a “Band-aid” for every physical or mental disorder is more than a simplistic solution – it’s dangerous.”[29]  Additionally, it is not Christian to shame someone for having a birth defect or contracting a virus.  Therefore, it is unacceptable to blame a person for having a chemical imbalance.  Limiting treatment for physical mental afflictions to prayer and spiritual counsel is like telling a destitute brother to be well while offering him no blanket for warmth or bread to fill his stomach (James 2:16).  The Christian has an ethical responsibility to be concerned for fellow Christians’ physical well-being.

Regarding psychopharmacology, the ethical question becomes, “Will this course of action bring the afflicted person closer to physical and emotional wellness and better enable him to fulfill his purpose?”  This question is closely followed by a second question which asks, “Is this course of action the best and most appropriate means of reaching that end?”  If the answer to these questions is yes, then the onus is on the Christian to help his brother or sister in this way.  “People are crying out for help, and we cannot afford to be ignorant or afraid.”[30]  Christians must fight ignorance on these issues, conquer fear in addressing them, and eliminate the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness and psychopharmacology.

Remaining Concerns About Psychopharmacology

Despite acknowledging psychotropic medication as a helpful tool in whole-person health, there remain concerns for a wholesale embrace of psychopharmacology.  Many Christians fear that a locking of arms between the Church and psychiatry is a slippery slope which gives way to an increasingly materialistic view of humanity.  Increased materialism results in the elevation of medicine as the solution to all problems, and diminishes the value of faith.  Additionally, both Christians and non-Christians worry that the normalization of anti-depressants is redefining “normal” human emotional experience.  The normalization of psychopharmacology has also led to an increasing comfort with the unethical practice of abusing psychotropic drugs to exceed the limits of natural human ability.  Each of these issues feeds the exponential rise in the consumption of these substances and creates valid concern considering pharmaceuticals (especially those affecting the mind) are known to come with significant side-effects and inherent risks.

Psychotropics are among the most commonly prescribed of all pharmacological agents, and alter the emotional receptivity of the brain.  This creates a growing concern that Americans are losing a healthy understanding of what “normal” is, and are becoming increasingly confused between what qualifies as depression and mere circumstantial sadness.  There is growing concern that twenty-first century America has lost any appreciation for the importance of healthy and natural emotions like sadness and shame, and no longer values the formative and healing functions of suffering and mourning.  Increasingly, people are attempting to medicate away unwanted feelings due to a misguided expectation that they should be happy all the time and should not be bothered with feelings of sadness and guilt.  Russell Moore suggests that whether a person’s issue is ultimately chemical or circumstantial, it is important that they start with a realistic picture of what “normal” is.  The “normal” human life is not the one marketed by pop culture or the pharmaceutical industry, but the one the Bible clarifies as a “groaning” along with the persecuted creation.  If the expectation of normal life is a kind of all-the-time tranquility, people might be attempting to bypass a purposeful part of the human condition itself.[31]  An endorsement of psychopharmacology cannot allow that every feeling of sadness, guilt, anxiety, or confusion is abnormal, unhelpful, or needing medical attention.

Concern for the redefinition of what is normal to human cognition is not limited to the emotional realm.  The field known as cosmetic neuroenhancement has already begun responding to patient requests for medications to enhance cognitive-affective function for the purpose of intellectual and vocational achievement.[32]  Widespread swaths of otherwise healthy American teens have already made a common practice of abusing ADD (attention deficit disorder) drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for the purpose of enhancing cognitive function in academic pursuits.[33]  Acceptance of psychotropic medication could open the door for the cosmetic neuroenhancement industry to become a growing market within psychopharmacology in the twenty-first century.  These medications threaten the underlying assumption that the ethical goal of medicine is to restore afflicted individuals to normal function.

Ultimately more pressing, however, are concerns regarding the anxiousness of pharmaceutical companies to push medications without first having comprehensive knowledge of side effects.  Neuroscience expert Sarah J. Meller confesses, “In truth, we know very little of the working of the human mind.  Although we do know what some individual medications do to a specific receptor in the brain, the huge jump from molecular interaction to improvement in mood, cognition, and reality testing remains a mystery.”[34]  Further concerning is the reality that the present applications of many psychotropics were discovered by accident. Valium, chlorpromazine, tricyclic antidepressants, the MAOI family, and lithium were all originally intended to treat illnesses unrelated to the brain. Meller continues, “None of these medications were [sic] initially produced to treat the illness they are now treating. . . . No one had a clue as to why medications work as they do.”[35]  This demonstrates that the discovery of popular psychotropic drugs did not come from an advanced awareness of the chemical compositions needed to correct problems in the brain, but instead by testing these substances on patients and observing the results.  The history of psychopharmacology is a trail littered with drugs once thought promising but ultimately found to be dangerous.  The drugs include barbiturates, opium, and hundreds of potions and herbs now known to be more dangerous than helpful.  Even Sigmund Freud had an early optimistic obsession with cocaine. [36] “This illustrates a common experience with psychotropic medications, in which the beneficial effects are often embraced before the unintended side of effects are known.”[37]  Therefore, embracing psychopharmacology as a helpful tool in the holistic approach to whole-person health assumes certain ethical, pastoral, and personal risks.

Responding to Concerns About Psychopharmacology

When making a nuanced consideration of psychopharmacology one must be concerned to perform actions that best help individuals achieve their God-given purpose.  Consideration of psychopharmacology must first suspect the individual in question is inhibited from “normal” function, and second, that medical treatment offers potential for assisting in restoring “normal” function.  Christians believe that each person’s purpose is to glorify God by imitating Christ in becoming more perfectly human.  Noting concerns surrounding psychopharmacology, the questions that persist are, “Will psychopharmacological intervention help restore the afflicted individual to a state of mental fitness in which he can better fulfill his purpose of imitating Christ without moving him beyond the God-given abilities natural to man?” And secondarily, “Does this individual’s need outweigh the potential risks involved with employing medication?”  In some cases, symptoms of the afflicted make the answers clear.  Other cases are less obvious, and the complicated nature of these situations requires openness.  A general ethical position, however, should not be formulated based on ethical dilemmas.

When navigating most ethical issues the right path is the narrow path and ditches lie to the left and right.  Virtue always butts up against vice on both sides.  C. S. Lewis aptly instructed, “[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. . . He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.  But do not let us be fooled.  We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.”[38]  In the case of psychopharmacology, one deception leads to the over-spiritualization of mental illness and fear of physical means for assisting healing.  The other deception leads to an over-materialization of health and is overly anxious to rely on medication.  Both are misguided and fail to care for the whole person.

In The Loss of Sadness, Horwitz and Wakefield contend that the “false epidemic” of psychiatric disorders has been driven by a dramatic rise in “false positive” diagnoses.[39]  While the merit of such contentions is a subject of necessary debate, this concern cannot be the primary factor in determining the value of psychopharmacology.  Improperly practicing doctors do no more to invalidate medication’s proven ability to help mental illness than misbehaving Christians do to invalidate the transformational power of God’s grace.  The value of psychopharmacological medications themselves is not determined by the behaviors of the psychiatrists who administer them.  “Most people would agree that in many ways we are an overmedicated society,” but “just because we need to be careful in how we prescribe and administer medication does not mean we should be afraid of medical intervention entirely.”[40]

Granting the value of psychopharmacology, medication is not a cure.  Many of these medications don’t fix the problem as much as they alleviate symptoms.[41]  People who believe medication will cure mental illness, or eliminate the need to work through difficult emotions, are mistaken. Treating symptoms alone is like going to the dentist and receiving nothing more than anesthesia.  Alleviating symptoms is not the same as fixing the problem.  Russell Moore advises, “God doesn’t want [the mentally ill] to be . . . ‘comfortably numb.’  He wants [them] to be whole.”[42]  Medication is a necessary and helpful tool but is not the long-term solution to underlying causes.[43]

The Scriptures, faith community, medicine, and therapy all have a place in healing the whole person.[44]  Recovering from mental illness is a long process, and there are aspects of healing that need to be addressed alongside medication.  These include a commitment to glorifying God, understanding one’s identity in Christ, spending regular time in prayer and Scripture, looking to God for primary support, avoiding sin and temptation, drawing near to loved ones, fellowshipping with Christian community, letting go of bitterness by practicing forgiveness, serving others, exercising the gifts of the Spirit, developing a life of routine and moderation, recognizing and accepting human limitations, and practicing humility in seeking help from others.

When a person belongs to a religious community, this is often their first means of support and counsel in a time of crisis.  “Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and a host of other psychological problems are rooted in physiological problems that call for medical treatment, not simple talk therapy.”[45]  At the same time, the embrace of medication does not diminish the responsibility of the spiritual community in healing.  Returning to the parallel between the mentally ill and the leper, restoration to the faith community is as notable as the healing of the illness itself (see Matt 8:4).[46]

While the ethical position sees psychopharmacology as necessary and right in treating genuine mental illness, concerns stemming from its embrace still need to be considered.  Constant changes in the pharmaceutical industry demand Christians should continuously reevaluate and revise their views.  What is consistent, however, is the Christian calling to love one another as “whole persons” and to take ethical positions that bring healing and restoration, opposed to positions that subject God’s image bearers to suffering and to potentially injury to themselves and others.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

[1]US Burden of Disease Collaborators, “The state of US health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors” in Journal of the American Medical Association 310/6 (2013), 591-608.

[2]Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” (The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011), Retrieved November 20, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/.

[3]Laura Weiss Roberts and Shaili Jain, “Ethical Issues in Psychopharmacology” (Psychiatric Times, May 6, 2011), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/ethical-issues-psychopharmacology.

[4]Frank Minirth and Paul Meier with Kevin Kinback, Ask the Doctors:  Questions and Answers from the Minirth-Meier Clinic Broadcast (New York:  Guideposts, 1991), 188.

[5]Roberts and Jain, “Ethical Issues.”

[6]Ed Stetzer, “Mental Illness & Medication vs. Spiritual Struggles & Biblical Counseling” (Christianity Today, April 23, 2013), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/april/mental-illness-medication-vs-spiritual-struggles.html.

[7]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[8]Roberts and Jain, “Ethical Issues.”

[9]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[10]Ibid.

[11]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 183.

[12]Ibid, 44.

[13]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 201.

[14]Robert H. Albers, “Introduction” in Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012), 2.

[15]Albers, “Introduction,” 3.

[16]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 216.

[17]Russell Moore, “Is it Right for a Christian to Take Anti-Depressants” (Russellmoore.com, February 28, 2012), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.russellmoore.com/2012/02/28/is-it-right-for-a-christian-to-take-anti-depressants/.

[18]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 10.

[19]“Holistic Medicine” in Encyclopedia Americana vol. 14 (Danbury, CT:  Grolier, 1983), p. 294.

[20] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 216.

[21]Albers, “Introduction,” 7.

[22]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 120.

[23]Ibid, 184.

[24]Ibid, 121.

[25]Ibid, 122.

[26]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 193.

[27]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[28]Ibid.

[29]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 182.

[30]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[31]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[32]D. Larriviere, M. A. Williams, M. Rizzo and R. J. Bonnie, “Responding to Requests from Adult Patients for Neuroenhancements: Guidance of the Ethics, Law and Humanities Committee” in Neurology (2009), 73:1406-1412.

[33]M. Talbot, “Brain Gain: The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs” in New Yorker (April 27, 2009). 32-43.

[34]Sarah J. Meller and William H. Meller, “Conclusion: Psychopharmacology” in Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012), 229.

[35]Meller and Meller, “Conclusion,” 233.

[36]Ibid, 230.

[37]Ibid.

[38]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  HarperOne, 2001), 186.

[39]A. V. Horwitz, J. C. Wakefield, The Loss of Sadness (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007).

[40]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[41]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[42]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[43]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 184.

[44]Ibid, 182-183.

[45]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[46]Albers, “Introduction,” 3.

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The Relation of Good Works and Justification to God

A historical survey of the Church’s understanding of the relation between the doctrines of justification and sanctification

During the Reformation, intense debate centered on how and when people gain right legal standing before God.  The understanding of this doctrine, justification, directly affects the theological understanding of how (and for what purposes) a person is brought to Christ-likeness and sanctified over the course of the Christian life.  On one side of the debate, theologians contend that justification is contingent upon a person’s progress in sanctification.  People are motivated to (by the aid of grace) make efforts to grow in righteousness, and achieve righteous character through good works, so that, in achieving righteous character, people can by their own nature be justified before God.  At the other extreme, theologians make justification a legal matter in which sanctification becomes an unnecessary redundancy and an afterthought to God’s clearing of legal guilt.  In this case, Christians rest in the belief that, because God has given them pardon and made them positionally justified, the pursuit of holiness is not requisite to salvation, and sanctification depends primarily on the Spirit’s work and requires little of their own effort.  This paper will broadly survey the history and development of the doctrines of justification and sanctification by key historical theologians, surveying the theological thought of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin.  While there are many notable heirs to the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin has been chosen because he is considered by many as the most precise theologian in the Protestant tradition.  The comparison of these surveys will help to show how the Church has come to understand the doctrine of justification, and demonstrate that, while Calvin’s understandings of justification and sanctification are iconic representations of Reformation thought, they are fairly unique among historical theology.

Pre-Reformation – Augustine and Aquinas

Because it is sometimes asserted that Augustine changed theological course midway through his life, this paper will work exclusively from Augustine’s Retractions, collected and edited in his final four years.  It is common to hear Augustine referred to as the first of the Reformers (because of his doctrine of predestination), but this survey will clearly demonstrate that despite any consistencies with the Reformation tradition, Augustine’s temporal ordering and  understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification are more closely echoed by Aquinas than by Luther, Calvin, or the Protestant tradition.

A prime motive of Augustine’s work on the doctrine of justification was to address concerns raised by the teaching of his heretical contemporary Pelagius.  A vehement opponent of predestination, denier of the doctrine of depravity, and ardent moralist, Pelagian was accused by Augustine of denying the necessity of God’s grace for the performance of righteous works or the attaining of salvation. Conversely, Augustine contended that it is only when the will has received grace that man can freely will good rather than evil.  Thus, salvation can only be achieved by the grace of God.  Referring to the Pelagians, Augustine said, “They, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself; can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it,” [1] and, “The works of righteousness [man] never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain [of grace].” [2]  It was not, however, Augustine’s contention that God’s grace necessitates man’s certain response.  Saint Augustine wrote in his Retractions, “There are some persons who so defend God’s grace as to deny man’s free will, or who suppose that free will is denied when grace is defended,” [3] but it is the “free will of man [Paul] appeals to . . . when he says . . ‘We beseech you that you receive not the grace of God in vain’” (2 Cor 6:1), suggesting that God’s grace could have been in vain, but “neither was it the grace of God alone, nor was it [Paul] alone, but it was the grace of God with Paul.” [4]  Hence, upon the receiving of God’s grace, the power of decision becomes truly free with respect to all possible choices (good and evil) that the circumstance allows.  For Augustine, Man does not attain the power to will good apart from grace, and grace opens the freedom of man to will to good, but Augustine is clear in stating, “Nowhere . . . in Holy Scripture do we find such an assertion as, There is no volition but comes from God, And rightly is it not so written, because it is not true. . . . [Christ says,] ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above’ (John 19:11).  But still, when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed.” [5]  Thus, for Augustine, good works require volitional agreement between God’s grace and the will of man.

Augustine’s “view was not Pelagian because the Spirit is the effectual cause of this renewal.  Yet, in his schema, God declares believers righteous because they are, in fact, being made righteous through the holiness [gradually] imparted and infused by the Spirit.” [6]  Augustine’s further contention is that while justification precedes the justified as doers of the law, it is still the believers’ grace wrought good works that accrue to their realized justification. [7]  “It is well known that Augustine does not distinguish between justification and sanctification,” but Augustine instead “emphasizes the necessity and priority of God’s grace as an antecedent condition to a person’s justification.” [8]  For Augustine, God, in his election, determines to justify those he chooses.  God then extends grace to his chosen, allowing them to perform the meritorious works which bring them progressively (by a lifelong process) to a regenerate state, and consequently renders them finally justified before God.  Augustine corrects those who afford themselves too much credit in obtaining their salvation, saying, “You did not obtain favor by yourself so that anything should be owed to you.  Therefore, in giving the reward of immortality, God crowns his own gifts, not your merits.” [9]  Thus, for Augustine, the righteous nature which justifies the elect is not imputed, nor is justification a heavenly change in legal status. For Augustine, justification is wrought within the individual by the gift of imparted grace.  Succinctly, Augustine suggests, “Whosoever shall put his trust in [Christ] . . . shall have good works by [God’s] grace; and by them he shall be even in his body redeemed from the corruption of death . . . not temporal but eternal.” [10]  Unlike the Reformers, Augustine’s thought is colored by realism, and Augustine does not treat justification as a forensic declaration. [11]  Commenting more extensively on the means by which God works to sanctify the believer, Augustine suggests that “God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions . . . either externally by evangelical exhortations . . . the commands of the law . . . or internally, where no man has in his own control what shall enter into his thoughts.” [12]  “God acts upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him,” and “to yield or consent . . . to God’s summons is the function of our own will.”[13]  Hence, for Augustine, a person aided by God’s grace, must by his contrary free volition, become truly righteous by his own merit, before he can be declared righteous by God.  Justification thus hinges upon the precedent sanctification of the believer.

Working from the view of justification inherited from Augustine, theologians of the middle ages continued in a tradition that saw “righteousness not as a state, but as a continuous process.” [14]  Boniface explained that Medieval Christians “never suppose that we are righteous enough, but constantly beseech God to increase our merits.”[15]  “Like Augustine . . . Aquinas does not distinguish between justification and sanctification.  For Aquinas, justification is a process by which man grows in his sanctification.”[16]  Reflecting the prevailing thought of the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian language to pen the theology that would become the Roman Catholic understanding for several hundred years.  Aquinas explained justification as a movement initiated by a prime mover that is “brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other.” [17]  In this movement, man travels from the state of sin to the state of justice.   Rejecting full-scale Pelagianism, Aquinas explains the necessity of grace as follows:  “Eternal life is an end exceeding the proportion of human nature. . . . Hence man, by his natural gifts, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to eternal life; and for this, a higher force is needed.” [18]  Aquinas continues, “Without grace man cannot merit eternal life; yet he can perform works conducting to a good which is natural to man.” [19]  Thus, for Aquinas, a person can perform good acts apart from grace, but without the infusion of grace man cannot perform the quality of good works that accrue to righteousness and render him justified.

Sharing similarities with Augustine, Aquinas stated, “That which flows from free will is also of predestination,”[20] and further agreed that justification was preceded by sanctification.  Where Aquinas ventured beyond Augustine was in more clearly defining the metaphysic that prescribes to man the important role of cooperation in obtaining salvation, ascribing to man the necessity of achieving remission for sin, and carrying these efforts beyond death into purgatory.  In Aquinas model, God moves the person by his initiating grace, and correspondingly the person moves toward God and away from sin and into forgiveness.  God “so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time he moves free choice to accept the gift of grace.”[21]  This cooperative effort is clearly a synergistic work between God and man in a life-long process (and into purgatory if necessary) of moving toward justification. [22]    For Aquinas, justification (into which sanctification is collapsed) can be understood as a four-stage movement from sin to righteousness.  This process requires (1) the infusion of grace, (2) the movement of the free will directed towards God through faith, (3) the movement of the free will directed against sin, and (4) the remission, or forgiveness, of sin. [23]  By this understanding, justification is in no way the product of an imputed alien righteousness, but is the product of an infused grace that actually brings about the righteous nature of the person, whose subsequent actions and nature, qualify his justification.  Aquinas says, “Grace is given to us that we may do good and keep from sin.” [24]  For Aquinas, it is by the infusion of grace that the will is moved away from sin and toward God by faith; and the recipient of grace is ultimately declared righteous based on the person’s own merit, having achieved remission for sin and having been made righteous both in nature and deeds.

Reformation

Where the Reformation was in many ways a revival of Augustinianism, and more specifically the Augustinian doctrines of depravity, grace, and predestination, the Reformers saw themselves as providing a corrective to Augustine’s formulations of justification and sanctification.  Where Augustine explains justification as being contingent upon the life-long internal regeneration of the believer by grace, Luther argues that justification refers to a change in God’s judgment toward believers based not on the result of the individual’s internal transformation, but on a change in legal status afforded them by the external alien righteousness of Christ, and accounted to believers by faith. [25]  Rather than the temporal impartation of grace seen in the Augustinian and medieval tradition, this alien righteousness is, in a single moment, imputed to the believer via union with Christ.  “The language of imputation moves from the imagery of medicine to that of the law court.  God accepts the righteousness of Christ, which is alien to our nature proper, as our own.  Though our sins are not actually removed, they cease to be counted against us.”[26]  Further, where Augustine espoused that, “when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed,” [27]  the Reformers suggest that the justified, while not justified by their works, do necessarily grow in sanctification.

Calvin, a second-generation member of the Reformation movement, inherited the doctrine of justification by faith through grace alone, as well as the basic conviction that justification is “God’s declaration of Christ’s external righteousness upon the believer, making the internal process of [sanctification] notionally distinct from justification.” [28]  Calvin follows Luther’s lead in abandoning Augustine’s definition of justification as an internal transformation and instead sees justification as a change in status before God owed to the alien righteousness of Christ.  Calvin is particularly notable among the Reformers, however, for his broad application and heavy emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ. Calvin calls the multivalent sum of the gospel the double grace of justification and sanctification and locates the source of this double grace in the believer’s union with Christ via the Holy Spirit.    For Calvin, justification incorporates forensic and transformation images of salvation together, with no temporal gap, holding justification and sanctification as inseparable yet distinct, “not because one necessarily causes or motivates the other, but because the benefits cohere” in Christ.[29]  Thus, Calvin states, “Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. . . . He cannot be divided into pieces. . . . [Christ] bestows both of them at the same time. . . . Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works.” [30]  Thus, because Christ cannot be divided into pieces, there is no salvation without justification, and there is no salvation without sanctification.  The Christian’s legal pardon is of grace in the same way that his good works and obedience are.  Calvin says, “In this way [God] sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them . . . but he makes the prior grace [justification], which is a step to that which follows.” [31]   Unlike other Reformed thinkers, who see sanctification as subsequent to justification, and good works flowing from gratitude and gradual healing by the Spirit, Calvin does not place the elements of salvation in a temporal chain, but as united and hierarchically ordered in the aforementioned union with Christ.

Being that Calvin was an exegetical theologian, rather than a systematic theologian, “there is a sense in which Calvin did not have a sharply defined ‘theology’ of ‘union of Christ’ as a distinct doctrinal locus.” [32]  There is, however, a definite emphasis on union that runs throughout Calvin’s theology, and the terms “adoption, engrafting, and participation in Christ” are among many terms he uses to image justification.  For Calvin, there is a “distinctly communal accent to these images for salvation (incorporated into Christ means being incorporated into Christ’s communal body, the church).” [33]  Thus, union with Christ is not merely an individualistic faith relationship with the person of Christ, but the incorporation of the Christian in God’s covenant community.  Calvin emphasizes that justification belongs to God alone, but is adamant to emphasize that there is no salvation apart from sanctification.  For Calvin, salvation consists of a fourfold causality.  In this fourfold metaphysical distinction, Calvin explains (1) the efficient cause is God’s love and mercy, (2) the material cause is Christ’s work and obedience, (3) the instrumental cause is faith, the instrument by which man receives the Spirit’s illumination, and (4) the final cause is God’s divine justice for the praise of His glory.[34]   While giving justification priority (in hierarchical order) over sanctification, Calvin describes good works as an inferior cause of salvation, though salvation ultimately comes by God’s determination to save the sinner.[35]  Calvin says, “The whole value of works is derived from no other fountain than that of gratuitous acceptance. . . . Not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified. . . . Justification of works depends on the justification of the person.” [36]  Therefore, on Calvin’s account, salvation is not conditioned upon works, but does not happen without the simultaneity of works.  Salvation comes by the sovereign grace of God, in which justification and sanctification concurrently and inseparably cohere in union with Christ, and are hierarchically ordered by metaphysical distinction.

A 17th-century heir of the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin agreed with Calvin in attributing the benefits of justification and sanctification to union with Christ, and in subordinating sanctification to justification.  For Turretin, however, salvation is an unbreakable chain that he terms the catena salutis (or chain of salvation). [37]  In Turretin’s model, God’s effectual calling begins the sanctification process which brings about the faith response in the new believer.  By this faith, the believer is justified.  Turretin saw God’s effectual calling as the beginning of the Christian’s sanctification, and because justification comes by faith alone, sanctification thus begins (in part) temporally prior to justification. [38]  Where Turretin sees effectual calling as the beginning of a person’s sanctification, he sees glorification as sanctification’s conclusion.  Thus, it is Turretin’s contention that sanctification should not be included under justification, but instead under effectual calling, and also under glorification.  Consequent to justification the believer bears fruit by growing in righteousness and good works (further sanctification).  These good works are the means by which the believer continues down the path of salvation toward taking hold of final glory (sanctification in whole).   Turretin is adamant to exhort Christians to make efforts to grow in righteousness, suggesting that increasing in good works is the necessary means by which sanctification achieves its ends, glorification. [39]  In Turretin’s catena salutis, effectual calling is the means to the end, justification; justification is the means to the end, sanctification; and sanctification is the means to the end, glorification.

While not affirming that good works are necessary for justification, Turretin does clearly affirm the proposition that good works are necessary for glorification (and logically salvation).  J. V. Fesko explains that in Turretin’s model, works “are not necessary out of a need of personal merit or causality or efficiency, that is, that the believer’s good works somehow effect salvation or secure the right to salvation,” [40] but works are necessary to salvation as “the necessity of means,” or “the means and way” [41] of taking possession of the secured outcome.  Turretin precisely explains his catena salutis saying, “[Works] are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, or meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively.  They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end.”[42]  Thus, Turretin denies the role that good works play in justification but says good works are, however, the substance of sanctification, and without sanctification, the salvation chain is broken, and glorification lacks its means.  In this sense, one cannot be certain of their justification if they do not bear the consequent fruit; one cannot be certain of final glorification if they do not bear the antecedent works; and one cannot be certain of their salvation if they are not exercising the “required means and way” by which the secured reward (salvation) is possessed.[43]  A break in the chain of salvation is cause for the questioning of one’s salvation by faith.

Conclusion

Unlike his pre-Reformation predecessors, and his post-Reformation successor, Francis Turretin, Calvin resists temporally indexing the process of sanctification.  Where Augustine and Aquinas make sanctification the (temporally prior) requisite concurrent work of God and man for achieving justification, the Reformed tradition fundamentally agrees that justification takes logical precedence over sanctification.  When Richard Baxter and Jacob Arminius disturbed the priority of justification, making it contingent on sanctification, they drew the ire of their contemporaries. [44]  Calvin, like his Reformed partners, subordinates sanctification to justification, but gives unique emphasis to the duplicity of the two, seeing the dual graces as flowing simultaneously to the believer by union with Christ.  While Calvin is in some ways unique in his use of metaphysical distinctions and hesitance to assign temporal order, Calvin remains one voice in a chorus of confessionally Reformed theologians who hierarchically prioritize justification ahead of sanctification for the reasons that (1) Scripture teaches it, (2) it is the Reformed desire to protect and defend Christ’s work for sinners in their justification, and (3) this issue of the justifying work of Christ is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. [45]

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Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

[1]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 60 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), IV.

[2]Ibid., XI.vii.

[3]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LXVI.i.

[4]Ibid., LXVI.xii.

[5]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 2 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), XXXVII.liv.

[6]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology:  On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel” in International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/4 (October, 2009), 430.

[7]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, XLV.

[8]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin:  Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Bristol, CT:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprect, 2012), 106.

[9]St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10 (Fathers of the Church Patristic Series) trans. John W. Rettig (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 2000), John 1:15-18.

[10]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LVIII.

[11]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 106.

[12]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[13]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[14]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology:  An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2011), 505.

[15]Boniface, “Sermon 4.4,” in James Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:  A History of the Development of Doctrine vol. 3 (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 28.

[16]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 111.

[17]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 1.

[18]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 5.

[19]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 114, art. 5.

[20]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa of the Summa:  The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners ed. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1990), 177.

[21]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 3.

[22]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 505.

[23]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 6.

[24]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 9.

[25]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 430-431.

[26] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academics, 2013), 70.

[27]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 2, XXXVII.liv.

[28]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 431.

[29]Chuck Colson, “Calvin:  No Salvation without Sanctification” (Mere Orthodoxy:  October 25, 2013), Retrieved May 6, 2016.  https://mereorthodoxy.com/calvin-no-salvation-without-sanctification/.

[30]John Calvin, Institute, III.xvi.1.

[31]Calvin, Institutes, III.xiv.21.

[32]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 429.

[33]Ibid., 429-430.

[34]John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1995), 73.

[35]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 38.

[36]John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” in Selected Works vol. 7 trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1983), 3.128.

[37]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[38]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Eclenticae (Whitefish, MT:  Kessinger Publishing, 2009), XVII.i.11.

[39]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.ii.19.

[40]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[41]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[42]Ibid., XVII.iii.14.

[43]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[44]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 382.

[45]Ibid., 384.

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Christmas II – The Prince of Peace Who Brings Good Will To Men

This sermon was preached on December 17, 2017, at Church on the Rock in West Houston/Katy, TX. This is the second message in a three-part series on the wonder and majesty of Christmas.

Christmas I – The Broken World Longs for ‘God With Us’

This sermon was preached on December 10, 2017, at Church on the Rock in West Houston/Katy, TX. This is the first message in a three-part series on the wonder and majesty of Christmas.

Can a Calvinist Embrace the Free Will Defense?

In 1955, atheologian J. L. Mackie argued the logical problem of evil renders belief in God “positively irrational.” [1]  Mackie claimed the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence of the God of traditional theism are inconsistent with the existence of evil in the world.  Rebutting this claim, Alvin Plantinga proffered the response known as the free will defense.  Articulated in his 1977 work God, Freedom, and Evil, the free will defense is the most effective defense the theist has against the logical problem of evil.  Upon reviewing the defense, Mackie conceded the following in 1982:  “Since [the free will defense] is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not after all show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” [2]  Thirty-five years later, opponents of theism still fail to sufficiently respond to the free will defense.

 

Alvin Plantinga

While Plantinga’s work delivered a heavy blow to atheologians, his conception of human freedom also troubled reformed theologians.  The metaphysical libertarian conception of human freedom, on which the defense relies, is often conflated with Arminian theology.  Believing the defense to require the adoption of an Arminian theology, many reformed theologians consider the free will defense inconsistent with Calvinism.

Accepting the importance of the free will defense as the only conclusive rebuttal of the logical problem of evil, and acknowledging Calvinist’s concerns for the defense’s employment of libertarian freedom, ample evidence suggests a thoroughgoing Calvinist has grounds upon which to embrace the free will defense.  Further, it can be said that many historical Calvinists have held the very conception of freedom necessary to coherently adopt the free will defense into reformed theology.

The Requirement of Contrary Choice

Plantinga contends that for any moral good to exist, it is required that a creature has the ability for meaningful choice in at least one morally significant decision.  Removing the creature’s ability to choose evil simultaneously eliminates any ability the creature has for choosing good, and thus, ethical choice both good and bad are consequently lost. [3]

Calvin and Hobbes…named after theologian John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes…weighing in on determinism.

This type of meaningful choice requires a conception of freedom that grants human agents the ability for contrary choice, also referred to as libertarian freedom.  This means that in at least some actions an agent performs he could have instead refrained from performing the chosen action.  Stated another way, in at least some choices an agent could legitimately perform either A or not-A.  Therefore, to embrace the free will defense, a person holding a reformed soteriology must embrace a view of human freedom that grants agents the ability for contrary choice.  Many modern Calvinists will argue the adoption of this understanding of freedom is not possible for the reformed theologian.  This position is, however, misinformed.

Traditional Calvinism and Paradox

The historic Reformed tradition honors the simultaneously affirmed biblical truths of God’s meticulous sovereignty and human responsibility.  This is what J. I. Packer calls the “antinomy” of Scripture.  Packer writes, “God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught to us side by side in the same Bible; sometimes, indeed, in the same text.  Both are thus guaranteed us by the same divine authority; both, therefore, are true.” [4]  As Charles Spurgeon articulates, “The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. . . These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil . . . but they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God.” [5]

While convincing a Calvinist to accept the predestination of God is rarely an issue, there is considerable debate regarding the manner as to how Calvinists define human freedom and subsequent moral responsibility.  Most adherents of modern Calvinism are committed to a view of freedom called compatibilism, most notably championed by Jonathan Edwards.  Put simply, compatibilists state that “we are free when we choose to do what we want.  But it stands to reason that if we choose to do what we want, then at the moment of that choice, we are not ‘free’ to do otherwise.” [6]  Compatibilists explicitly deny this human ability for contrary choice.

freeWillHowever, Calvinist historian Richard Muller points out, that unlike Edwards, Calvinists historically saw human responsibility as requiring the same contrary choice adopted by Plantinga in the free will defense.  Muller writes, “[Historically] the Reformed deny chance . . . but affirm contingency as something that could be otherwise given that its causality is contingent and, in the cause of human choices, defined as contingency by potencies of will to more than one effect.” [7]  This ability to “will to more than one effect” is contrary choice. [8]   According to Muller, the Reformed position of the 16th and 17th centuries, whether one looks to Calvin or to Turretin or to the Westminster standards, involves a conception of human will that can choose between A or not-A. [9]  The potency of the will to multiple effects, and freedom of contrariety appears throughout reformed writings until Jonathan Edwards associates this language strictly with Arminianism in Freedom of the Will. [10]  “This shift in language and understanding between the older Reformed orthodoxy and the teachings of Edwards was identified by both proponents and opponents of his views.” [11]

Working from Turretin’s Institutio Theologiae Elenticae, Muller shows that at least one prominent Genevan professor held a freedom of “simultaneity of potencies,” such that the “otherwise” does exist as a pure potency not actualized in this world, but pushed back into the divine mind and resident in a possible world that God does not will to actualize.  For Turretin, this yields contingency defined by a multiplicity of potencies. [12]  In his own words Turretin insists, “The will of itself is so prepared that it can either elicit or suspend the act (which is the liberty of contrariety and of specification).” [13]  Turretin was not alone in Geneva.  Samuel Maresius, who studied at Geneva at the time of the Synod of Dort, agreed that indifference persists “as long as the intellect remains doubtful and uncertain where to turn itself.” [14]  Both Turretin and Maresius affirm alternativity and place free choice in the last determinate judgement of the practical intellect. Hence, these men of the 17th century Academy of Geneva, conceived of reformed theology as including contrary choice.

Upon its founding, Princeton University adopted Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology as the primary textbook for systematic theology.  Turretin’s text remained Princeton’s staple until it was replaced by the systematic theology of 19th century reformed heavyweight Charles Hodge in the 1870s.  In his Systematic Theology, Hodge follows Turretin’s lead by affirming the freedom of self-determination.  Hodge writes, “Concursus . . . contradicts the consciousness of men. . . To act freely implies that we originate our own acts.” [15]  This evidences that the two primary theological texts of orthodox Princeton both affirm, and were written by theologians who affirmed, human self-determination in contrary choice.

Further, regarding the determination of choice, many of the earliest reformed theologians build out the landscape of the earliest reformed notions of freedom.  Girolamo Zanchi (16th century Italian Calvinist) and Lucas Treclatius (16th century Dutch Calvinist) placed alternativity in both the will and the intellect and identified freedom as the free agreement of the will with the judgment of the intellect. [16]  Gulielmus Bucanus (16th century Swiss-French Calvinist) argued the will as a rational faculty and possessor of alternativity that can will, or not will the object presented to the intellect. [17]  John Wemyss (early 17th century Scottish Calvinist) advocated for an “initial act of will that induces [the] intellect to deliberate, followed by the act of freely accepting the determinate judgment.” [18]  17th century Dutch theologian Petrus van Mastricht wrote that “choice occurs according to an inward counsel that is neither intrinsically determined nor determined extrinsically by compulsion.” [19]  Dugald Stewart, Sir William Hamilton, Franco Burgersdijk, Robert Baron, Adriaan Heereboord, and Gijsbert Voetius were also members of that older Reformed tradition [20] that, according to Philip Doddridge, consisted of contrary choice, and when explicitly implicated, distanced itself from compatibilistic definitions of the will. [21]

Evidenced by their theological works, many historical Calvinists divided the activity of free choice into (1) an adjudication of intellect between multiple potentialities, and (2) a free willing upon the choice the intellect has chosen.  Like Aquinas’ account of intellect and will, the willing is free because it is a matter of rational willingness or spontaneity in following the determination of the intellect. [22]  Such assertions of intellective power of choice, two volitional liberties, and contradiction and contrariety seem to very closely resemble the self-determining power and power of choosing differently that Edwards, and compatibilists by extension, vehemently deny.  There is no shortage of early Reformed theologians who affirm a genuine inward alternativity grounded in an interchange of intellect and will.  Thus, for early Reformation theologians, in the case of judgments of the intellect it is possible that a person willing A could have likewise willed not-A.  Further, these men explain the choice in selecting A or not-A as itself belonging to the adjudication of the intellect which provides the last judgment upon which the will follows.  Muller suggests that Edwards’ predecessors have “an interaction of intellect and will that begins in an actus primus indeterminacy and yields a determination, which is also concurrently willed by God from eternity as an aspect of the possible world that he has decreed to actualize.” [23]

19th century theologian John Lafayette Girardeau (Southern Presbyterian author of The Will in its Theological Relations – a 485 page rebuttal to Edwards’ Freedom of the Will) was a confessionally Reformed theologian who insisted that elements of human willing must include the determinate choice of action, whether for one thing or another. [24]  Girardeau was a vehement opponent of Jonathan Edwards’ dismissal of contrary choice, and argued the case for mutability of will from Calvin’s Institutes and the Reformed confessions. He records that Edwards’ thesis that God’s causal determinism is compatible with human free will, “was attended by singular and apparently contradictory results.” [25]

Girardeau used the prelapsarian couple as his model in arguing that the historical church universally believed the couple had the ability of deliberate election.  He references the fourth chapter of the Westminster confession which says, “[God] created man . . . with reasonable and immortal souls . . . having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it . . . being left to liberty of their own will,” as well as the ninth chapter which states that “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will . . . mutably.”  Girardeau finds agreement in his interpretation of the Westminster Confession from William Cunningham.  Considered by many as the ablest defender of Calvinism in the first half of the 19th century, Cunningham mediated a balance between libertarians and compatibilists.  He asserted that while “nothing precludes men from holding the doctrine of philosophical necessity . . . there is nothing in the Calvinistic system of theology, or in the Westminster Confession, which requires men to hold the doctrine of philosophical necessity.” [26]  Stepping into Cunningham’s opening, Oliver Crisp points out that a reading of the Westminster Confession (chapter 10 most specifically), through the lens of contrary choice, highlights that “the Confession does not say that God determines all things in the strictest sense. . . God certainly knows all future conditionals,” but “this does not mean God determines all things in the strictest sense. . . What is more, the Confession does not deny that humans have libertarian free will in [non-salvific] choices. It denies only that humans can freely choose salvation absent prevenient divine grace.”[27]

John Girardeau made the further claim that Calvin had in mind a libertarian conception of freedom.  Calvin himself wrote, “We allow that man has choice that is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing.  We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of will and cannot coexist with it.” [28]  This alone does not conclusively demonstrate that Calvin affirmed contrary choice, but that man has “self-determination,” agent causation in morally significant acts.  In the Institutes, however, Calvin says, “We admit that man’s condition while he still remained upright was such that he could incline to either side” (2.3.10), and “Adam could have stood if he wished . . . his will was capable of being bent to one side or the other” (2.15.8).  This seems to indicate that Calvin considered Adam capable, in the power of his own determination, of choosing A or not-A prior to the fall.  If this is correct then Calvin allows for a libertarian free will for prelapsarian man – an allowance Edwards and compatibilists deny.  Further, Unitarian priest Joseph Priestley elsewhere states that in the time before Edwards, “none of the Calvinists had ever concluded that, prior to the fall, Adam had been under any necessity of sinning.” [29]

These examples find themselves in agreement with the thinking of Martin Luther as well.  Timothy George suggests that Luther “never denied that the free will retains its power in matters that do not concern salvation. . . Understood as the God-given capacity to make ordinary decisions, to carry out one’s responsibilities in the world, free will remains intact.  What it cannot do is effect its own salvation.” [30]  Luther wrote, “Free choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him. . . In relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive.” [31]  Like his Reformed successors, Luther believed that it is only when the will has been acted upon by grace that “the power of decision really become[s] free, in all events in respect to salvation.” [32]  Regarding ordinary decisions “below” or not “pertaining to salvation,” however, Luther held that man has “free choice.”

Conclusion

It should be evident from the historical survey that it was well within the breadth of the historic reformed tradition to honor both the meticulous sovereignty of God and the contrary choice of man.  Therefore, a Calvinist should feel he has full warrant to embrace the contrary choice necessary to adopt the free will defense.  The appropriation of the free will defense need not require the abandonment of Calvinism, but merely the abandonment of compatibilism and the determinism on which it depends.  In so doing, the Calvinist finds himself in good standing with the rich tradition of reformed thinkers.  In abandoning compatibilism, Calvinists lose the theologico-philosophical reconciliation between God’s sovereignty and human freedom that a system of philosophical necessity provides, but is instead allowed the embrace of the greatest defense against the argument that evil disproves God’s existence.  This exchange requires a value judgment that weighs the importance of reconciling determinism with human freedom against defending God’s existence and thwarting arguments that depict Him as unknowing, unloving, and powerless in the face of (or causally responsible for) evil.  Whether one chooses to adopt contrary choice or the free will defense, it should be clear that those Calvinists who do are well within the confines of the historic reformed tradition.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, church deacon, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

[1]J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence” in Mind, New Series, vol. 64, no. 254 (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, April 1955), 200-212.

[2]J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 154.

[3]Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

[4]J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 23-27.

[5]C. H. Spurgeon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility” (sermon 207, Royal Surrey Gardens, August 1, 1858), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0207.htm.

[6]Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory:  The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004), 80.

[7]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin on Necessity, Contingency, and Freedom of Will.  In Response to Paul Helm,” in Jonathan Edwards Studies, vol. 4/3, (2014), 272.

[8]For this study, it is important to note that libertarian freedom is not a term uniformly used by historic theologians.  Prior to recent discussion there was no uniform terminology used by theologians to refer to libertarian freedom and contrary choice.  The terms contrariety, alternativity, freedom of deliberation, simultaneity of potencies, multiplicity of potencies, contingent causality, self-determination, and determinate choice are all variations used to refer in some capacity to a freedom that involves contrary choice in at least some decisions.

[9]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice:  A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” in Jonathan Edwards Studies:  vol. 1/1 (2011), 3-22.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice,” 21.

[12]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin,” 276.

[13]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elenticae (Whitefish, MT:  Kessinger Publishing, 2009), X.iii.4.

[14]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Elenticae, X.iii.4; with Samuel Maresius, Theologiae Elenchticae Nova Synopsis, Sive Index Controversiarum Fidei ex S. Scripturis, vol. 2 (Groningen:  Joannes Nicolaus, 1646-1647), 12.

[15]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology vol. 1 (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publisher, 1981), 604.

[16]Girolamo Zanchi, De Operibus Dei Intra Spatium Sex Dierum Creatis, in Operum Theologicorum D. Hieronymi Zanchi (Heidelberg:  Stephanus Gamonetus, 1605), III.iii, col. 706; with Lucas Treclatius, Jr., Scholastica et Methodica Locorum Communium s. Theologiae Institutio Didactice & Elentice in Epitome Explicata:  in Qua, Veritas Locorum Communium, Definitionis Cuiusque, Loci per causas suas Analysi Asseritur:  Contraria Vero Argumenta, Imprimis Bellarmini, Generalium Solutionum Appendice Refutantur (London:  John Bill, 1604), 208, dist. 3.

[17]Gulielmus Bucanus, Institutiones Theologicaue, Seu Locorum Communium Christianae Religionis, ex Dei verbo, et Praestantissimorum Theologorum Orthodoxo Consensu Expositorum (Bern: Iohannes &Isaias Le Preux, 1605), Xi.2, 109.

[18]John Weemse (Wemyss), The Portraiture of the Image of God in Man, in His Creation, Restauration, and Glorification, in The Workes of Mr. John Weemse of Lathocker vol. 1 (London: T. Cotes, 1637), 98.  

[19]Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico-practica Theologia, IV.iv.10 (Sumptibus Societatis, 1715), XVII.4.

[20]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice,” 12, 20.

[21]Philip Doddridge, A Course of Lectures on the Principal Subjects in Pneumatology, Ethics, and Divinity; with References to the Most Considerable Authors on Each Subject vol. 1 (London, 1794), 50-59.

[22]Eleonore Stump, “Aquinas’s Account of Freedom:  Intellect and Will,” in The Monist 80/4 (1997), 576-597.

[23]Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin,” 285.

[24]John L. Girardeau, The Will in Its Theological Relations (Columbia, SC: W. J. Duffie and New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1891), 43-44.

[25]John L. Girardeau, The Will in Its Theological Relations, 18.

[26]William Cunningham, “Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity,” in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh:  Banner of Truth, 1989), 483.

[27]Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism:  Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 94-95.

[28]John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will:  A Defense of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice Against Pighius (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 1996), 69.

[29]Joseph Priestley, The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated; Being an Appendix to the Disquisitous Relating to Matter and Spirit (London, 1977), 157.

[30]Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2013), 76.

[31]Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, Luther and Erasmus:  Free Will and Salvation (London: Westminster, 1969), 111.

[32]Wilhelm Pauck, Luther:  Lectures on Romans (Philadelphia: WJK, 1961), 252.

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To Christian Exiles in Babylon

Part 1 of the Application of Jeremiah’s ‘Letter to the Exiles’ to Christian Living and Approaching Culture Today. Download PDF Version


Part 1: An Exposition of Jeremiah 29:4-14

In The City of God, Augustine teaches that in creation there are basically two cities: the city of God, and the city of man. The city of God is the kingdom of believers—the church, and the city of man is the world—symbolized throughout the Bible by the city of Babylon. In the book of Jeremiah, the nation of Judah is taken captive and exiled to Babylon. In Jeremiah 29:4-14, God gives specific instructions for how he desires His exiled people to engage the city of man. From a canonical biblical theology of ‘continuing exile’ , Christians can be seen as a dispersion, free from captivity, but sojourning in the world and not yet home. God’s people today are still dwelling throughout the world in the city of man. Through this lens, God’s instructions to the exiles in Babylon, in Jeremiah 29, have specific application not only to His Judean exiles, but also to His ‘elect exiles in the dispersion’ today (1 Pet 1:11). As Jeremiah’s letter calls the Judean exiles to glorify God by giving their lives to the shalom of their gentile captor; Christians should glorify God by loving their non-believing neighbors (Mark 12:31) in seeking the welfare and flourishing of the cities to which God has called them. Like the Judean exiles in Babylon, in desiring the welfare of their cities, Christians too will find shalom. The commands expressed in Jeremiah verses four through fourteen have strong and profound implications for modeling the posture of Christ’s sojourning disciples and their engagement in the present culture surrounding them.
“The Messenger Formula, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ is used more often [in Jeremiah 29] than in any other chapter of Jeremiah.” These statements are significant indicators mapping the outline of the text. To validate the application of Jeremiah 29:4-14 to the New Testament church, a verse-by-verse exposition will be performed by breaking the passage into the three sections marked by the statements, “Thus says the Lord.” First there will be a brief examination of the historicity, provenance, destination, and transmission of Jeremiah’s letter. Then the three sections will be examined under their key summarizing directives: 1) to commit, 2) to deny, and 3) to behold (in wonder and trust). These directives are applied to the three sections respectively. Within this framework there will be an expounding of God’s desired activity for the exiles in Babylon specifically. Following the exposition of the passage there will be an explanation of the biblical theology of ‘continuing exile.’ In this explanation it will be exegetically demonstrated that Jeremiah 29 is the first major pivot point for the redefinition of the geo-political identity of God’s people, and God’s first step toward expanding Israel’s spiritual borders in preparation for His salvation plan for the gentile nations. This section will further demonstrate that God’s people remain sojourners living in exile to this day. Provided the exilic continuity between the Judean exiles and the sojourning church, in tandem with the continuity of the directives of Jeremiah’s letter and the New Testament teachings of Christ; special attention will be called to the typological significance of the exiles and Babylon, and their typological fulfillment in Christ and the world. The conclusion will then follow the outline of Jeremiah’s letter again to provide application for the imitators of Christ sojourning in the world today.

Background, Verses 1-3

Immediately in verse 1 Jeremiah tells the reader that what follows is a letter written by Jeremiah, sent to the exiles in Babylon, regarding God’s directions and comfort for the people Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had taken out of Jerusalem. Further, the letter issues a warning to those Judeans resisting compliance with Yahweh’s will for their surrender to the Babylonians. To the exiles God says, “Endure!”, and to those remaining in Jerusalem God says, “Repent and link with your exiled brothers!” For decades Jeremiah had been prophesying the coming judgment of God upon His people, and this judgment has arrived in the form of Babylonian troops, here, in the year 597 B. C.

 Babylon, earlier known as Babel (Gen 11), is the typification of the city of man, the city of the secular spirit, and great tempter of men (Gen 11:4, Rev 18:3). Babylon is the worldly, wicked, godless, and assimilated city that strives after self and against God. Jeremiah then writes this letter shortly after the first exile of Judeans to give them guidance in making their way in the new land. “The design of the Prophet was at the same time twofold; for he not only intended to mitigate by comfort the sorrow of the exiles, but designed also to break down the obstinacy of his own nation.” The Jews “had set their minds on an unreasonable deliverance [wishing to] immediately break through and extricate themselves from the yoke laid on them.” Hence it made sense that the Jews should not remain amongst the dregs in Jerusalem, longing for a return to former glory, but should move forward in joining with the new calling of God upon His people. In this new work in Babylon, verse seven says the people of God will find their welfare; but in verse seventeen Jeremiah instructs that those who cling to the past, resisting to go to Babylon and work for the welfare of the wicked captors, will be destroyed. Those who felt fortunate to have remained in Jerusalem, believing the comforts of home were a benefit to them, were warned they would face a far worse fate.

 At this time, Zedekiah became the fifth king to sit on the throne of Judah in a thirty year span, and the result was an incredibly unstable time for Judah politically. As is typically the case in calamity and grieving, there are two groups present amongst the Jews: those who over-react in fear and desperation, and those who cling to false hopes for a return to prior conditions. Among this group hoping for simple resolution are tribal-minded agitators and diviners who seek to stir resistance to the new order. Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles is an open letter that Zedekiah has approved and has commissioned the king’s ambassadors, Elasah and Gemariah, to hand-deliver to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar allowed its delivery, not out of benevolence, but because the pro-Babylonian message served Nebuchadnezzar’s wishes in encouraging the Israelite assimilation in Babylon. The letter further served to discourage unrest among those who desired either segregation or an uprising.

Section 1 – “Thus says the Lord” – Commit

Verse 4
The first section marked by the phrase “Thus says the Lord,” verses four through seven, contains a list of positive “do this” commands that Yahweh gave to the Judeans in exile. The key take-away within this section is that God is calling for His people to commit. Yahweh desires the exiles to stop straddling the fence between settling in Babylon and holding out for an alternate reality. God says, “This is your reality. Commit yourselves to do these things.”

 Verse 5
In verse five, the Lord instructs the Israelites to commit to Babylon. Yahweh commands this saying, “Build houses.” More important to Yahweh than the Israelites having adequate shelter is their adoption of a settled state in Babylon. Yahweh’s desire is that the exiles will make the city their home. In the verses that follow, Yahweh will give the Israelites several tasks of service that cannot be fulfilled by a people who are resisting involvement, remaining disengaged from their surroundings. Further to this end God says, “Plant a garden.” This instruction does not immediately translate to the present, but the concept holds. In Judah, gardens were not recreational. A large majority of the population were either farmers by trade or were dependent on personal gardens for their family’s food supply. Building houses and planting gardens are no small amount of work. Gardens require work to prepare, cultivate, and sow. Gardens require a season to bear a harvest. It takes several seasons of tilling and harvesting for the soil to develop the eco-system required for reaping good produce. Thus, the building of homes, and the keeping of gardens are not small undertakings. They require much personal expenditure and investment. Building houses and planting gardens means planting roots. This means commitment. God is saying, “Plant roots here. Invest yourselves here. Make this place home.” The Israelites should expect to be in this place for an extended time, and should abandon any vain notions they have about returning home. This is a call to stop the split-minded half-heartedness. Yahweh is telling them to, “Cease straddling the two limbs of My will and your desire. Desire My will.” Yahweh is calling for their full commitment to His chosen location for them, and their full commitment to His work and plans in the city.

 Israel’s relationship to God as status-quo in Israel was not working. Yahweh desired to break the Israelites from their settled state. God’s people have grown hard and forgotten how to mourn their sin (Matt 5:4). In Judah, the Hebrews had become sunbaked, hardened ground, producing no harvest. God desired to churn the soil of the Jewish national soul for the cultivating of fruit. The Hebrew word for exile, Galah (גּוֹלָה), literally means: to uncover, expose, reveal, lay bare, or unearth. This is exactly the activity Yahweh performs in the exile. He churns the spiritual soil of the Israelite people. A. W. Tozer speaks this way about the fallow field:

 The fallow [or the unplanted] field is smug, contented, protected from the shock of the plow and the agitation of the harrow [or being broken up]. Such a field as it lies year after year, becomes a familiar landmark to the crow and the blue jay. [. . .] Safe and undisturbed, it sprawls lazily in the sunshine, the picture of sleepy contentment. But it is paying a terrible price for its tranquility; never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain. Fruit it can never know because it is afraid of the plow and the harrow. In direct opposite to this, the cultivated field has yielded itself to the adventure of living. The protecting fence has opened to admit the plow, and the plow has come as plows always come, practical, cruel, business-like and in a hurry. Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery. The field has felt the travail of change; it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but its rewards come hard upon its labors. The seed shoots up into the daylight its miracle of life, curious, exploring the new world above it. All over the field the hand of God is at work in the age-old and ever renewed service of creation. New things are born, to grow, mature, and consummate the grand prophecy latent in the seed when it entered the ground.

Tozer casts light on the glory afforded the sinner by Yahweh’s miraculous hand concluding: “Nature’s wonders follow the plow.”

The exile is God’s hand upon the plow. What lay dormant is being awakened. What formerly lay under the surface, now is exposed and confessed. God’s people will soon be prepared to receive the Seed and bear a harvest. If what can be known about God is plainly revealed in nature (Rom 1:19-20), then there is much to be learned, and committed to heart, in planting a garden. For the exiles, the gardens Yahweh has commanded they plant will be to them a daily reminder of the work Yahweh is performing in their hearts. This too will be a reminder of their small promise of Eden—their own shalom, promised them in their work of seeking the shalom of the city (Jer 29:7). Both the toil, and the fruit of the toil, are gifts from God (Eccl 3:12-13).

Verse 6
In verse six God instructs the Israelites to commit to His plan for family. The instruction to bear generations is a further call to commit to His chosen duration for their stay in Babylon. Here, Yahweh reaffirms that the Jews should not put off their normal way of life until they are able to return to Jerusalem, but should multiply in Babylon, treating the city as their home. The command to settle in for generations was to show by their commitment and “patience that they were really penitent, and that they also expected [their salvation to come] in no other way than through God’s favor alone.”
The message here is one that instructs the Jews that they should neither segregate, in a fortification mentality, nor should they assimilate to the Babylonian culture. It was not God’s purpose for the Jews to set their hearts on Chaldea, or on the Chaldeans. On the contrary, they were to keep their return in mind, knowing they live for another kingdom, and as in the land of Israel restrict marriages to those of the same religious identity.
In Ezra and Nehemiah, after the Jews return to Jerusalem, the issue of intermarriage between Israelites and Babylonians is addressed, and those Israelites who have intermarried with Babylonians are called to separate from them. “The guilty are males who are presumably attempting to ‘marry up’ to exchange their low status of ‘exiles’ for participation in aristocratic society.” This is both a selling out of their faith for worldly pursuits, and a threat to the maintenance of their minority witness in the presence of the larger Babylonian culture. “The increased consciousness of identity in a minority subculture thrown into extensive contact with other cultures [is] in such a social context, ‘purity’ [which] becomes the language of nonconformity.” Thus it is vitally important that the Hebrews maintain their ethno-religious identity. As a caveat, the story of Ruth and Boaz indicates that the foreigner who denounces her country’s idols to faithfully seek Yahweh, and the Israelite who benevolently receives the repentant foreigner, will share a God blessed union. The underlying principle is that the Jews were to be ever mindful of God’s promises for their future. By honoring God’s plan for family–fruitfully multiplying in the midst of the gentiles–the Israelites would demonstrate the better way of life. The people of God would demonstrate to their hedonistic neighbors that healthy families are the foundation of healthy society.

Verse 7
A key focal point in Jeremiah’s letter, verse seven calls the Israelites to commit to God’s will by giving their lives for the welfare of the city. Yahweh says, “Seek the shalom of the city to which I have sent you, and in the city’s shalom, you will find your shalom.” This calls for a paradigm shift in Judah’s view toward the gentiles. This verse “reflects the political realism, urging the exiles to accommodate their imperial overlord. [. . .] The well-being (shalom) of Judah is dependent upon and derivative that of Babylon. [. . .] The imperative bestows upon this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.” Here, Yahweh extends the Israelites His grace if only they will be willing to faithfully follow His direction in faith, and not reject the means by which He has instructed that they will find prosperity. This will require the Israelites to do justly, to seek justice, and to see God’s image in gentile humanity. Seeing God’s image in humanity, Yahweh desires that Israel will serve humanity, rather than attempt to establish dominion over humanity as if the gentiles are the subhuman beasts of the earth. Israel, by their relationship with Yahweh has an inherent sense of elitism. To love Babylon they will have to learn to genuinely love their neighbor. “Such a horizon prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe, sectarian existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.” In verse seven, God calls the Israelites to serve the common good, and not just the Judean good. Like instruments in a song, or as the sun and moon interact as they follow the laws of nature, God has called the Israelites to play their role in the harmony of His greater working of all things. Like the sun and moon, if the Israelites could obey their calling, God would use them to bring life to the world.

Section 2 – “Thus says the Lord”- Deny

Verse 8
The second section, cued by the statement “Thus says the Lord,” verses eight and nine contain a list of negative “deny this” commands that Yahweh gave the exiles for adherence to His will. The key take-away from this section is that God is calling His people to deny their fleshly desires, and to deny the false prophets who would tickle their ears with divinations about such hopes. Yahweh is calling His people to die to their wants, and align their hearts with His will. God says, “Do not listen to the prophets who prophesy your self-serving hopes and dreams. Deny them. I did not send them.”

Verse 9
Verses eight and nine are the direct response of Yahweh to the false prophets who were plotting to convince the Israelites to remain segregated from the Babylonians. Specifically mentioned in Jeremiah 28:3-4 is Hannaniah who was prophesying a return from exile in only two years. The desire of the false prophets and the religious leaders was that the Israelites would remain disengaged from the Babylonian culture, maintaining a strong tribalism as they held out for their return to Jerusalem. As many religious people do today, these diviners condemned the city’s culture and tried to find ways to encourage the Israelites to draw a hard line of segregation between themselves and their non-believing neighbors. The problem of the false prophets is seen earlier in chapters 23, 27, and 28 of Jeremiah. As Walter Brueggemann points out, the concern is that the Israelites, desiring an alternate outcome, are prone to chase flights of religious fancy. “The threat to the Jews is that they will be talked out of the reality of exile. [. . .] The warning of verses eight and nine is against an emotional, imaginative departure from that place. Prophetic faith is hard-nosed realism that is resistant to romantic, ideological escapism.”

Yahweh denounces the separatist stance, and the religious fortification mentality, and eliminates any false hopes for this generation’s return to their former way of life. Yahweh calls the Israelites to deny such hopes for a return to former comfort, and to deny any search for an alternative plan for prosperity. This is a call to deny false prosperity teachings. God denounces the people’s idolatry, and the people’s religion. The city lacks for neither idolatry nor religion , but demands people who adhere to the commands of Yahweh in verses four through seven. “The counsel to settle in exile (vv. 5-9) is against the popular notion that the Exile is short and temporary. The counsel to look beyond exile (vv. 10-14) is against the temptation to despair. Both affirmations from [Jeremiah] are in fact counter to prevailing opinion.” Where verse seven calls the Israelites to give themselves entirely to the will of God, verse eight calls them to deny their own self-serving wants. Yahweh calls His people to come not as fallen man comes, seeking only for themselves the fleshly good and avoiding the fleshly undesirable; but to come as Christ came, only desiring to take away the bad, and to freely give for the common good.

Section 3 – “Thus says the Lord”- Behold

Verses 10 and 11
The third and final section, cued by the statement “Thus says the Lord,” includes verses ten through fourteen, and contains God’s promises for the Jewish exiles who embrace God’s will and remain faithful through the exile. The removal of the Hebrews from Jerusalem bears no minor resemblance to Adam being excused from Eden, and such is the existence of all who live in rebellion, and have been excused from the presence of God. What follows in verses ten through fourteen is, “an assertion of the gospel: God is available in the midst of despair and will override both despair and the circumstances which generate it.” The juxtaposition present between sections 4-9 and 10-14 demonstrate how the judgment and purpose of Yahweh are held in tension. Present here are indications for a future hope through judgment. In an ancient world where a nation’s gods were judged by military might, the Israelites would need a new understanding for why Yahweh would allow the conquering of His people. Through the prophets the Israelites would come to understand that while “it was no small trial when the Jews were deprived of the land that was God’s dwelling place”, and seemingly “all hope had been cut off”, they were being led– “being chastened by God’s hand.” Beginning at Jeremiah 29:10, and expounded upon in the chapters that follow, are “some of the most wonderful promises in all of Scripture.”

 After twenty-eight chapters of doom and gloom, Jeremiah came bearing tidings of grace and glory. [. . .] He would love them ‘with an everlasting love’ (31:3) and ‘turn their mourning into gladness’ (31:13). He would make a new covenant with them (31:31) and give them ‘singleness of heart and action’ (33:29). God would even ‘cleanse them from all the sin they have committed’ (33:8). Jeremiah summarized all these blessings in one wonderful promise: ‘For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, (29:11) ‘plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
In verses ten through fourteen God invites His people to behold the wonder of His goodness if they will only trust Him and live in light of His promises. “He will give them, not the expectations of their fears, nor the expectations of their fancies, but the expectations of their faith.” In faith they should seek shalom for the city, and in faith they should seek Yahweh. In faithful execution they will find both.

Verse 12
Knowledge, service, and hospitality become wisdom, love, stewardship, and ministry when they flow from a constant acknowledgment of God’s grace. Life becomes not just a temporal striving, a chasing after wind, and a preoccupation with the here and now; but a journey of service culminating in eternal shalom, when lived in communion with God. In verse 12, when the Lord’s work in Babylon is complete, the Israelites will come to understand this, and understand that operating outside of a dependence on God’s grace will always leave them short of where they desire to be. Then they will call on no one else, and they will depend on God alone. This desire of Yahweh is not merely for the sake of Yahweh, but also for the flourishing of mankind. In this God is glorified.

Verse 13
In verse thirteen God calls the Israelites to trust Him with their whole hearts, and their whole lives. “Yahweh had seemed to the exiles to be hidden, absent, and unavailable. Judah must reorient its life in exile. [. . .] Judah must only decide to seek its future exclusively from Yahweh.” They are to seek shalom even in the chaos and disorientation of displacement. No matter where they find themselves they will come to know their highest joy is found in obedience to God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pros 1:7). When the Israelites finally settle, and when they finally stop striving after all things other than God, they will still their weary hearts, and behold the wonder of God. Then they will have hearts fully devoted to God. Then they will seek God, and they will obey Him. Then they will know fortune, and prosperity, and shalom.

Verse 14
It is evident from Jeremiah’s letter that, in his pro-Babylonian posture, he has addressed the letter to the people whom God intends to carry forth His plans for the future. “Those who remained in Jerusalem after the deportation of [597] continued to believe they were favored by God and regarded themselves as the blessed carriers of Judaism.” What is impressed upon the exiles by the promises of Jeremiah’s letter, however, is that the Judeans, defeated and humiliated by the exile, are the true people of God—the carriers of Judah’s future. It is just like Yahweh, that through the humbling of men and women, He is at work, shaping, chastening, developing, and bringing forth new life. John Bunyan put it well when he said, God’s people “in the fire of persecution [are] like Esther in the perfuming chamber”—being made “fit for the presence of the king.” “As exile is Israel’s most devastating judgment, so homecoming and restoration to the land are Israel’s deepest yearning and God’s best gift.” Just as the exile from Eden is the greatest judgment against mankind, the return of mankind to the kingdom of heaven is God’s greatest gift. Inherent in the judgment and promises of Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles is a helpful doctrine for every age. “God in a wonderful way gathers his church when scattered, to make it into one body, even though for a time he may obliterate its name and even its very appearance. Thus we see that this prophecy has not just been fulfilled once. God has often manifested the grace that is here set forth, and he still manifests it in gathering his church.”

Part 2: Christians as God’s People in Continuing Exile

 

* References are cited in the print format available for download above.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

Mad Max: A Modern Retelling of the Bible Exodus

Fall, Exodus, Sojourn, and Redemption in a Post-apocolyptic Wasteland

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***SPOILER ALERT –  This is a film analysis examining the spiritual implications of events in the movie and will give away the conclusion.***

The fourth motion picture release in a franchise known for tapping into the savior motif, director George Miller says Max’s prior “international acceptance had drawn aside the veil of reality and revealed a collective unconscious.” [1]  Channeling this universal unconscious acknowledgement that existential brokenness demands a redeemer, Mad Max: Fury Road is a post-apocalyptic (post-lapsarian) narrative packed with theological themes that pits savior figures in a good versus evil battle to free captives and redeem the suffering through a race across the desert to a land of hope.  Reading the last page first, the writers’ motives are easily discerned.

“Where must we go . . . we who wander this wasteland in search of our better selves?” – The First History Man

Drawing clear ties to broken humanity’s mere existence (as opposed to flourishing) in this fallen world, living under the shadow of the sin of history’s first man, Adam, the closing quote appears to be an esoteric conception of writer/director George Miller that likely points to the work of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and its treatment of the democratic peace theory first popularized by Immanuel Kant.  Clearly evident, beyond Fury Road’s ten time Academy Award nominated production, lies a script bold in political commentary.  While expressing a measured restraint, the dialogue remains robust in the incorporation of concepts that find their roots in the Bible and Western Christian literature.  The Road unfolds in four distinct phases, fall, exodus, sojourn, and redemption, which mirror the biblical metanarrative.

The Fall

As the movie opens the main character recounts the events which brought about the present condition. “My world is fire and blood. . . . As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken.”  Random voices relay that, “Mankind has gone rogue, terrorizing itself . . . the earth is sour . . . our bones are poisoned . . . we have become half-life.”  The setting and character development communicate that the world of Mad Max exists in the shadow of a great fall.  A post-apocalyptic war for guzzoline, aqua cola, produce, mother’s milk, and bullets rages.  The surviving human population is spiritually and intellectually barren.  Max is one of the few free residents in this wasteland where precious resources are monopolized by the tyrant, Immortan Joe.  Max was once a cop, an upholder of justice, and a person with a righteous cause.  Now Max cannot discern whether he is less crazy than anyone else.  He is haunted by visions of innocents who cry out to him for salvation.  The freedom Max possesses is rare, and a sign of the elevated stature granted him by his physical and intellectual gifts.  Like Moses, who said, “I am slow of speech and tongue . . . please send someone else” (Exod. 4:10, 13), Max is a reluctant hero of few words.  He repeatedly attempts to flee the call to save others, distancing himself from society for the sake of self-preservation.  The villain emperor, Immortan Joe, is introduced when Max is taken captive by a cohort and brought to the citadel.  In the citadel the Immortan governs a caste system that drives the oppressed population’s dependence on their overlord.  Like many historical tyrants the Immortan has used the depressed social dynamic to exalt himself as deity.  Max, in a nod to the Jewish hero type he represents, is enslaved in a dungeon and receives a systematic tattooing like the holocaust victims at Auschwitz.  Max is labeled a type O-negative “blood bag,” and likened to something subhuman as he is chained and fitted with an iron muzzle.

Those privileged to be crusading warrior pawns worship in the “cult of the V8,” an automobile worshipping religion of “chrome” seekers.  This false religion drives them to “karmakrazee” sacrifice for the conquest of their Immortan.  As the war boys martyr themselves on Fury Road, they cry out, “Witness me!”  This statement finds its etymology in the Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) word “martyr” which means witness.  The war boys cry out for recognition of their witness to “the one who grabbed the sun.”  They believe, as one war boy exclaims, “I live; I die; I live again!”  This beckons images of wicked religious extremists who see war, murder, and death as crucial expressions of spirituality.  These young warriors believe they “will be lifted up” by the hand of the Immortan as they are “awaited in Valhalla” for dying “historic on Fury Road.”  The Immortan, calling himself the “redeemer” and claiming that “by his hand the people will rise from the ashes of this world,” promises his “half-life war-boys” a future glory where they “ride with [him] eternal.”  This bears striking resemblance to the manipulating practices of historic evil dictators, as well as Satan, the deceiver and author of evil himself.  False religion serves as the tool by which young boys who seek glory become an “old man’s battle fodder.”

Furiosa, the Immortan’s imperator, comes from “the clan of many mothers.” Like Max, Furiosa is also a person of elevated status.  She is an imperator who (also like Moses) abandons her privilege to free the captives.  Furiosa, also resembling Eve, wears the results of the fall physically with a  missing arm as a memento of the brokenness, imperfection, and fragility resulting from her having been stolen from the “green land.”  Where Max is physically superior and self-centered, Furiosa is virtuous but physically impaired.  The two collaborate to represent the Exodus savior type while each of the characters and scenes bears the marks of the fallen existence.

The Exodus

The Immortan first becomes aware that an Exodus is under way when Furiosa’s tanker truck veers off route and makes a break across the desert.  The rig secretly houses the Immortan’s harem who refuse to bear future warlords, and are forsaking their former lives and risking all in search of “hope.”  Furiosa on the other hand is in pursuit of “redemption.”  The wives of Immortan Joe, the most exalted of all the women under his reign, are treated as mere chattel in a world of men’s wars.  Furiosa represents not merely the savior of this random band of people, but the savior of femininity.  Furiosa is a savior who values the “mother of all the living,” knows the equality of women in the created order, and seeks to bring about new life through love, hope, and redemption.

Infuriated by the exodus, Immortan Joe rallies the troops in full pursuit of the runaway tanker.  Like the Pharaoh of Egypt he leads his war boys in a furious chase, racing their hot rods across the desert like post-apocalyptic battle chariots.  Strapped to the grill of the war boys’ hot-rod, Max, the type O negative “blood bag,” is intravenously imparting blood to the “half-life.”  A “universal donor,” Max has blood capable of providing life for all.

In a scene resembling the parting of the Red Sea, Furiosa and the fleeing unit pass through a wavelike desert sandstorm that topples the V8 war chariots allowing Furiosa and the “breeders” to escape.  The muzzled blood bag arrives on the other side of the storm still chained to the war boy Nux.  Max and Nux are introduced to the female group for the first time as they find them cleansing themselves with water in an unwitting baptism.  The women, clothed in white and clean of the desert sand and grease, contrast their fallen surroundings as an image of purity, innocence, and freedom.  Max requests the water, and splashing it on Nux and himself, the group becomes consecrated together in this unwitting baptism.  Furiosa provides Max with a file he uses to free himself from his muzzle.  Having been set free from bondage, Max is increasingly compelled to help the group escape their pursuer and find their promised land.

As “The People Eater” approaches, the wives comment that he is “coming to count the cost.”  An accountant, he keeps a ledger and is seeking compensation for the debts accrued by the rebels.  It is the wives, however, who will soon come to learn it is they who will be counting the cost of renouncing their former existence.  Having put their hand to the plow, there will be no turning back.  The cost for the heart-hardened Immortan will also be high.  When Immortan Joe and his cohorts catch up to the rig and threaten to put an end to the wives’ exodus, the violence throws one of the pregnant wives from the rig and beneath the wheels of Immortan Joe’s vehicle.  In a moment drawing parallels to Pharaoh, the heart-hardened emperor suffers the loss of a son by the consequence of his own stubborn pride.

Sojourn

Like the biblical Exodus, the Fury Road journey transitions from the fleeing of captivity to a prolonged Sojourn towards a new land of hope and flourishing.  The Sojourn quickly becomes a desert wandering wrought with struggle, doubt, and murmuring.  One of the wives, disenfranchised with the new existence far from home, desires to return to the comforts of her former captivity.  She says, “The stupid green place.  We don’t even know where to find it.”   Another wife similarly wishes to return to her former captivity saying, “We were protected.  He gave us the high life.  What’s wrong with that?”  This wife is told, “Wring your hands!”  This is perhaps a reference to Isaiah 8:9 (MSG) which says, “Listen all of you, far and near.  Prepare for the worst and wring your hands.  Yes, prepare for the worst and wring your hands!  Plan and plot all you want – nothing will come of it.  All your talk is mere talk, empty words, because when all is said and done, the last word is Immanuel – God-With-Us.”  This suggests that this wife should not turn back in the face of trial.  Difficult as the pursuit of promised hope may be, recommitment to faithfully following the savior to the promised green land is the better way.  Again playing into the role of the Moses figure, Furiosa instructs the grumbling followers, “Out here everything hurts,” but if “you want to get through this then do what I say.”  Furiosa’s call to “follow me” will bring the company salvation through obedient faith in the savior figure’s commands.

The plot twists when the group meets the “tribe of many mothers.”  These former inhabitants of the green land have been relegated to an existence as desert nomads.  The mothers inform the seekers that the green land has been laid waste, and is now an uninhabitable land of desolation.  In this time of “already but not yet,” the group finds themselves free, the recipients of new life, but wandering from a home.

Redemption and Life through Sacrifice

The travelling band soon comes to find that the land of their future promise is actually the land from which they fled.  The former locus of their suffering will become their land of hope fulfilled.  Found hiding on the rig is the war boy, Nux, who after failing in his aspirations for “shine” through “karmakrazee” mission, has experienced a real disenfranchisement with his former calling.  Nux says he should be “McFeasting with the Immorta,” which sounds more like a drive-thru value meal than a holy communion.  This McFeasting reflects the cheapness of the empty promises of false religion.  One of the wives, in a moment of rare compassion in a brutalized wasteland, replies to Nux’s disappointment over his failure to enter the gates of Valhalla, saying, “I’d say it was your manifest destiny not to.”  It is the compassion and mercy of this wife that brings the softening of Nux’s heart.  What is seen is that this warrior is not beyond the reach of conversion, but merely a lost soul who has never experienced real love.  The wife, in an act counterintuitive to Fury Road, does not return evil with evil, but instead overcomes evil with love.


In an overtly philosophical moment, while taking inventory of the weaponry, the women discuss the guns in an oddly sexual way.  In contrast to the love and life associated with righteous sex, they refer to the guns in a phallic sense in which they shoot “antiseed.”  Juxtaposed to the organ that shoots a seed of life, the gun is an organ that shoots seeds of death.  “Plant one and watch the thing die,” one wife says.  Later, while residing amongst the clan of mothers, this theme is revisited and the message is clarified.  One of the mothers shows her collection of plant seeds from the green land.  The mother explains that she plants the seeds when she finds soil that might be capable of supporting life.  When people become seed planters, there becomes no need to kill because the harvest becomes abundant.  Where the wives had an earlier discussion about bullets being seeds of death, here a message is communicated that scattering seeds of life brings healing and chokes out evil.  Christ likewise taught that the sword brings death, but the gospel of the Kingdom is the seed of life.  In the gospel of Matthew, the sower scatters seed such that a harvest of life would be abundant.  This harvest is plentiful but the laborers are unfortunately few.  With these two scenes director George Miller clearly argues that violence is not the way to flourishing, but that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.  Prosperity is instead found in planting seeds of life.  When a person seeks the prosperity of those around her, amidst their prosperity she too shall prosper.

The road back to the citadel is fraught with strife, but even as the crew begins to suffer losses at the hands of the enemy their joy grows.  The more each gives to the group mission of redemption, the more they truly begin to live.  As they lose their lives they begin to find life.  Progressively each loses the identifying marks of the past (the muzzle, engine grease, pasty grey skin tone), and each begins to show more outward signs of their inner glow.  Their hardened expressions become warm smiles and their skin tones warm.  By the end of the movie even the pasty grey war boy is beginning to look like a full-life.

In a high-throttled fury road battle chase back to the citadel, many of the crew lose their lives.  Most notably, Nux stays behind to drive the rig as the others climb aboard the lead car.  In the climax scene, Nux lovingly sacrifices his own life for the life of his friends, flipping the rig to effectively jam the pass and disallow the pursuing enemy to give chase.  As he does this, the war boy locks eyes with the red-headed wife whose compassion overcame his evil, and he mouths the words, “Witness me.”  In this moment, the fruit of his conversion blooms.  His desire to die furiously for the false and murderous cause of Immortan Joe, is now transformed into a perfect peace in selfless sacrifice for the life of his friends.  Having been severely wounded, Furiosa simultaneously lies lifeless, losing massive amounts of blood.  In an impromptu blood transfusion, Max literally saves her by his blood.  The sacrifice of Nux, and the universal blood bag’s transfusion, crudely combine to reflect the work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus gave His life on the cross, and poured out His blood for many to provide salvation from enslavement to sin and eternal life in Him.

Arriving back at the citadel, in a moment reminiscent of Colossians 2:14, Max declares victory over evil and death, parading the dead body of Immortan Joe on the hood of his own truck.  The rulers and authorities are disarmed and put to shame.  The triumphant heroes are hoisted on a lift, ascended to the throne above, and the water stores are cut loose giving life back to the people.  His work complete, Max returns to the place from whence he came.

At the conclusion of Mad Max, the captor, oppressor, and ambassador of death is defeated.  The water of life rains down from above.  The poor and oppressed are blessed, and the captives are set free.  The ruling class is destroyed and put to shame.  A new existence is established in which the dividing walls of the social caste system are pulverized.  The resources are abundant and freely distributed, and humanity is restored to fullness of life by the affirmation of equal dignity for all.

Conclusion

Present in the midst of this high-throttle, heavy metal, shoot ‘em up is an unassuming post-fall redemption narrative laden with theological themes that portray collaborating savior types leading a chosen group in a good versus evil sojourn to redeem humanity by freeing the oppressed and bringing about a new world of flourishing.  Some of these connections may seem less than obvious. The film’s director, however, affirms that his writing samples liberally from ancient “mythologies” and religious themes, and this suffices to say that these themes are worthy of investigation.  While eschewing the inclusion of a director’s commentary, and having yet to be completely forthcoming with details about the film’s intended message, George Miller instructs, “The audience tell[s] you what your film is.” [2]  The themes of false worship, idolatry, salvation, desert wandering, promised-land, salvation by blood, and pouring forth life-giving waters are uniformly prominent in the Bible.  Given the director’s freedom to interpret the film’s meaning, I contend that Mad Max: Fury Road is a story of fall, exodus, sojourn, and redemption in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

[1]James Douglas, “For Mad Max’s George Miller, All Roads Lead to Myth and Music.” The Dissolve. May 15, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2016. https://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/1026-for-mad-maxs-george-miller-all-roads-lead-to-myth-/.

[2]“‘Mad Max’ Director George Miller: The Audience Tells You ‘What Your Film Is'” NPR. February 8, 2016. Accessed April 01, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/02/08/465989808/mad-max-director-george-miller-the-audience-tells-you-what-your-film-is.

**I would like to add that this post is not an endorsement of the graphic content or unrighteous themes of the movie, Mad Max:  Fury Road, nor is it an endorsement of the movie as a theological guide. Rather, this post is an attempt to shine the light of Biblical Truth amongst movie fans that might otherwise not hear the gospel and choose to remain in darkness, continuing to view this movie as a mere blood-fueled demolition derby across the desert.***

If you enjoyed this film analysis, you may also enjoy my other film analyses (and the ongoing dialogue) of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or Richard Linklater’s Bernie starring Jack Black.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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What is the Millennium of Revelation 20?

An examination of popular interpretations of the thousand year reign of Christ.

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The Thousand Years

Revelation 20 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit[a] and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

Referring to the wildly speculative interpretations commentators have offered for the book of Revelation, G. K. Chesterton quipped, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creatures so wild as one of his commentators.” [1]  Adding to Chesterton’s observations, “James Orr, lecturing at the end of the nineteenth century, observed that various areas of Christian doctrine had received special attention and development at different periods in the history of the church,” but suggested “the one remaining undeveloped topic of theology” which is the “peculiar interest of the modern age is eschatology.” [2]  It appears that at no point in history has the church been more theologically enamored with eschatology (the study of the “last things”) than in recent years.

Use over time of the word 'eschatology' per Google.

Use over time of the word ‘eschatology’ per Google.

In recognition of the growing fascination of the day, this post will enter the eschatological discussion by focusing on the narrow topic of the millennial reign of Christ introduced in Revelation chapter 20.  One of the most hotly debated topics in eschatology, several systems have been developed for interpreting the historical placement and theological significance of the millennium.  This post will assess the four major views for interpreting Revelation 20:1-6 (dispensational premillennialism, historical premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism).

Underlying the divergent views of the millennium are the differing hermeneutical principles employed by the interpreters.  Commentators primarily disagree on the approach to reading the book of Revelation in three main ways.  The first point of difference occurs when determining how to read prophetic Scripture in light of history.  Differing views of Scripture in light of history see prophecy as applying specifically to the past (predominantly prior to 70 A. D.), as applying to history through the ages, as applying specifically to the future, or as eclectically applying to general recurring patterns of all history past, present, and future.  Interpreters further differ when deciding whether apocalyptic literature is to be read literally or symbolically.  The symbolic approach sees Revelation as communicating information at three levels:  a visionary level (what John actually saw), a symbolic level (what the items in John’s visions connote biblically beyond the specific historical reference), and a historical level (the particular historical identification). [3]  Juxtaposed to this hermeneutical approach are those from the dispensational tradition, who, in an attempt to maintain a conservative orthodox reading of Scripture, demand that interpretations be strictly literal.   This has led commentators to further disagree as to whether John’s visions are to be read literally, in a linear chronological sequence (as an “ordered and progressive unfolding”), [4] or as multiple related recapitulations that symbolically offer kaleidoscopic depictions of the same set of events. [5]  The outcomes of the application of these underlying hermeneutical principles will be shown in the examinations of each system below.

Positions

Dispensational Premillennialism

Developed in England by John Nelson Darby, dispensational theology was popularized around the turn of the nineteenth century, and is arguably an instigating factor in the modern infatuation with eschatology.  The first tenet of dispensationalism is the belief the Bible must be interpreted literally. [6] As a clear proponent of dispensational premillennialism, Herman A. Hoyt claims, “The literal method of approach to the teaching of the pre-millennial, dispensational doctrine of the kingdom is absolutely basic.” [7]  John F. Walvoord says, “The pre-millennial interpretation offers the only literal fulfillment for the hundreds of verses of prophetic testimony.” [8]  Taking seriously the concept of progressive revelation, dispensationalists see God as revealing more truth as time progresses, and therefore see the majority of the prophesies of Revelation as taking place in the future. This literal futuristic interpretation of Revelation 20 manifests as the millennium being “more than merely a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth.”  The dispensational millennium is “the restoration of national Israel to its favored place in God’s program and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.” [9]  Being that dispensationalists (unlike non-dispensationalists) hold a strong distinction between God’s promises to ethnic Israel and to the church, in dispensationalism the millennium is the time when unfulfilled prophecies are clearly fulfilled and national Israel returns to prominence.  Saucy explains,

The unity of the historical kingdom program, however, must be interpreted in such a way as to allow for the natural understanding of all the biblical prophecies.  These promises portray a restoration of the nation of Israel to the promised land and a central position for that nation in the final period of the mediatorial kingdom.  Contrary to non-dispensationalism, the term Israel is not finally applied to all God’s people irrespective of nationality.[10]

Understanding this view depends on an appreciation of classical dispensationalism’s affirmation of “two coexisting eternal realms of salvation, one heavenly and one earthly.”  Early dispensationalists drew on a “spiritual vision model of heaven as the final destiny for Christian believers . . . by postulating two coexisting forms of ultimate salvation – one eternal in heaven for the church and one everlasting on the new earth for Israel.” [11]

Chronologically, dispensational premillennialists see Revelation 20 occurring immediately after the seven year tribulation. Unmistakably inaugurated by Christ’s second coming, the millennium will be a literal one thousand year period in which Satan is bound (Rev 20:2-3) and Christ establishes His earthly reign from the throne of David.  Dispensationalists interpret both resurrections in Revelation 20:4-6 as physical in nature. The first resurrection in verse four is limited to believers who will reign on earth with Christ during the millennium, and the second resurrection in verse 6 encompasses all non-believers who are resurrected after the millennium to face final judgment.  Dispensationalism has the positive aspects of being thoroughly biblical, conservative, and consistent.

Historical Premillennialism

Like dispensational premillennialism, historical premillennialism sees Revelation chapter 20 as chronologically following chapter 19.  In the premillennial view, following the great tribulation (which is not necessarily seven literal years), Christ ushers in the millennium by inaugurating a period of absolute peace and justice in which Satan will be bound and Christ will reign bodily on earth among men.  The historical view sees the two resurrections of Revelation 20:4-6 similarly to dispensationalism.  In the first resurrection believers will be physically resurrected to reign with Christ in the millennium, while non-believers will not be resurrected until final judgment – after the second resurrection at the end of the millennium.  While sharing these similarities with dispensationalists, the historical premillennialists take a less literal approach to apocalyptic Scripture, seeing the literal hermeneutic as misunderstanding the deeper meaning of the texts.  Historical premillennialism’s most notable modern proponent, George Eldon Ladd, exerted considerable effort in arguing against the dispensational reading saying, “The literal hermeneutic does not work. . . . Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament to find their deeper meaning. . . . I do not see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that the New Testament applies Old Testament prophecies to the New Testament church and in so doing identifies the church as spiritual Israel.” [12]  Along with amillennialism and postmillennialism, historical premillennialism rejects the dispensational separation of Israel and the New Testament Church on the grounds that numerous passages such as Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3 make clear that Paul saw the Church comprised of Jew and Gentile as God’s new covenant people and heir to the promises made to national Israel.  Ladd clarifies, “The fact is that the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.” [13]  Historical premillennialists therefore do not necessarily assert that the millennium is a literal one thousand years, nor do they interpret the millennium to be the fulfillment of a literal restoration of national Israel.  Where dispensationalism “follows the futurist method of interpretation almost exclusively, historical premillennialism . . . combines the futurist and preterist views, holding that the book necessarily had a message for John’s own age and that it represents the consummation of redemptive history.” [14]  Historical premillennialism has the benefit of the being the most natural and straightforward reading of the Bible, and aligns well with the collective New Testament mentions of resurrection, which seem to consistently refer to bodily resurrection.

Postmillennialism

Having fallen out of popularity following the great world wars of the twentieth century, postmillennialism (while not widely held today) has had significant influence at different times in the history of the church, and even “has at times been the dominant position.” [15]  While postmillennialism shares many commonalities with the other positions, in the postmillennial view “the doctrine of the millennium is based not upon Revelation 20 but upon other portions of Scripture.” [16] For the postmillennialist, the millennium is symbolic in nature, and is qualitative rather than quantitative. [17]  The most distinctive characteristics of postmillennialism are the view that the new creation began after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D., the kingdom of God is now being extended in the new earth by the preaching of the gospel, and the world is now being increasingly Christianized in anticipation of the return of Christ.  Unique to postmillennialism is the optimistic outlook regarding the conditions leading up to Christ’s return.  Where the other positions agree that conditions will worsen as the age draws to a close, postmillennialists believe that the world is becoming more Christianized, and therefore features of the kingdom of God (such as peace and justice) are increasing as Christ’s return draws closer.  Unlike the premillennialist’s view of Christ’s future earthly kingdom, the postmillennial view sees the kingdom of God primarily existing as a present reality in the hearts of believers.  The kingdom is not something to be introduced cataclysmically at a future time, but is already progressively under way. [18]   “Postmillennialism expects the vast majority of the world’s population to convert to Christ as a consequence of the Spirit-blessed proclamation of the gospel. . . . Thus, the postmillennialist’s hope-filled expectation is rooted in creational reality.” [19]  Further, as more people submit themselves to the Lord’s will, postmillennialism expects a long period of earthly peace termed the millennium. [20]   This millennium is a golden age of spiritual prosperity during the present church age, which is not a literal one thousand years, and has no clear point of beginning but arrives by degrees. [21]  At the end of the millennium there will occur an apostasy and an increase in evil, the millennium will end with the bodily return of Christ, at which point large numbers of Jews will be converted and enter the church, and Christ’s return will be immediately followed by the resurrection and judgment of all. [22]  Postmillennialism, while not commonly affirmed today, does well to keep the Spirit of optimism and drive to carry out the Great Commission at its core.

Amillennialism

endtimeschartamillennial

While amillennialism agrees with postmillennialism that the millennium is not a literal thousand-year earthly reign following Christ’s return, amillennialism holds important distinctions from the postmillennial view.  Anthony Hoekema helpfully clarifies that ‘amillennial’ is an unfortunate name for the position because the amillennialist does not assert that there is no millennium, but rather that the millennium described in Revelation 20:1-6 is a realized millennium. [23] Summarily communicating the essence of the amillennial position, Greg Beale states, “The millennium is inaugurated during the church age by God’s curtailment of Satan’s ability to deceive the nations and to annihilate the church and by the resurrection of believer’s souls to heaven to reign there with Christ.” [24]  Unlike other positions, amillennialists interpret Revelation 20:4 “as describing the present reign of the souls of deceased believers with Christ in heaven,” and understand verses 1-3 as the binding of Satan “during the entire period between the first and second comings of Christ.” [25]  Unlike the postmillennial position, amillennialism views the great tribulation, apostasy, and the Antichrist as future events, meaning that the amillennialist does not share the postmillennialist’s optimistic certainty of “a worldwide growth of righteousness that will extend to every area of society.” [26]  Additionally, amillennialism agrees with the non-dispensational views that the millennium does not necessarily include the restoration of political Israel.

In agreement with other non-dispensationalists, amillennial scholar Greg Beale says, “Literal interpreters . . . too often neglect the visionary and symbolic levels of communication by collapsing them into the referential historical level.” [27]  Expounding further the amillennial hermeneutic, Beale says the only hope for obtaining clarity is to interpret Revelation 20 “in the light of its immediate context, then in the light of the closest parallels elsewhere in the book, and finally in the light of other parallels in the NT and OT.” [28]  Amillennial interpreters arrive at their understanding of the millennium by recognizing that Revelation is written in seven sections of parallel recapitulations, each symbolically offering nuanced kaleidoscopic views of the “church and the world from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of his second.” [29]  This system of interpretation is known as recapitulation theory or progressive parallelism. [30]  Reading Revelation in such a way reveals that 20:7-10, 19:17-21, and 16:12-16 all recount the same battle.  This insight, among others, reveals that “the events of 20:1-6 (the millennium) refer to events prior in time to the last battle (Armageddon) of 19:11-21, thus indicating that the millennium itself is to be identified with the church age.” [31]  The premillennial position views 20:1-6 as immediately following 19:11-21 (in historical sequence) on the basis of the Greek word ‘kai’ (located at the beginning of 20:1) being taken to mean ‘and’ in the chronological sense.  The ESV has taken the interpretive initiative to render the ‘kai’ in Revelation 20:1 as ‘then.’  Beale, however, argues that “often in Revelation ‘kai’ functions as a transitional word simply indicating another vision and not necessarily chronological sequence. . . . Only three out of thirty-five occurrences of ‘kai’ in 19:11-21 clearly indicate sequence in historical time,while the remainder serve as visionary linking devices.” [32]

Further helpful for recognizing the relation of the millennium to the present church age is to note that in Revelation 20:2-3 Satan is said to be seized and bound for a thousand years so that he might not deceive the ‘ethne’ until the thousand years are ended.  ‘Ethne,’ in Revelation 20, is typically translated as ‘nations,’ but ‘ethne’ is more often translated as ‘gentiles’ throughout the New Testament.  The amillennial understanding of Revelation 20 becomes clear if ‘ethne’ is rendered as ‘gentiles’ rather than ‘nations.’  Such a translation then reads that Satan is bound in the church age so that the gentiles (all of the non-Israeli inhabitants of earth) will no longer be deceived by Satan.  Hoekema explains, ”In the Old Testament, . . . the people of Israel were the recipients of God’s special revelation, so that they knew God’s truth about themselves . . . and salvation,” but “the other nations of the world, did not know that truth. . . . These nations were deceived by Satan.” [33] This picture becomes clearer when Revelation 20:2-3 is held alongside the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) in which Christ commands His disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the ‘ethne.’  Again, in this passage ‘ethne’ is typically translated as ‘nations,’ but again the reference is more specifically to ‘gentiles’ (all non-Israeli inhabitants of the earth).  It is significant that Revelation 20:2 speaks to the binding of Satan because Jesus made a similar remark in Matthew 12:29.  While speaking of His coming to save those held captive by Satan, Christ asked, “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man?”  The same word – ‘deo’ – is used in both Revelation 20:2 and Matthew 12:29 to describe the binding of Satan. Hoekema again provides insight positing that “this does not imply that Satan can do no harm whatever while he is bound.  It means only what John says here:  While Satan is bound he cannot deceive the nations in such a way to keep them from learning the truth of God,” and “he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel. . . . It is precisely because the kingdom of God has come that the gospel can now be preached to all the gentiles (see Matt 13:24-30, 47-50).” [34] In similar fashion, Paul makes reference to the restraint of Satan’s attempts to deceive the world when he writes, “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time” (2 Thess 2:6).  In Revelation 20:3, John says the angel cast (‘ebalen’) Satan into the abyss.  Similar to the binding of Satan in 20:2, Jesus speaks to the casting out of Satan in John 12:31-32 saying, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out.  But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”  In this case, the verb translated ‘cast out’ is ‘ekballo,’ and is derived from the same root as the word ‘ebalen’ used to describe the casting out of Satan in Revelation 20:3. [35]  It stands to reason that what is being communicated is that the work of Christ (in the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven on earth) has dealt Satan a heavy blow, binding and casting him out of the way, so that the gospel call of Jesus Christ can be made known to unbelieving gentiles the world over.

The Amillennial interpretation attempts to do more faithful exegesis of the New Testament (being more cognizant of the original Greek and less dependent on interpretations derived from modern English Bible translations).  Amillennialism is canonically coherent, and can be seen to offer great encouragement to believers both to take the gospel to the non-believing nations, and to be confident that the kingdom will move forward even in the face of persecution.

Conclusion

When weighing the four views (and the hermeneutical principles employed by each against a canonical biblical theology) it appears that the two views that best align with the biblical metanarrative are historical premillennialism and amillennialism.  Based on the exegesis of Revelation 20 (and its corresponding cross references) the amillennial view seems to provide the most satisfactory explanation of the available evidence.  It remains, however, that eschatology is an open-handed issue which can be debated and disagreed upon, and should never be the basis for division of fellowship.  It should be readily acknowledged that Scripture underdetermines the issue of the millennium, and it cannot be expected that all people will arrive at identical conclusions.  The Christian is called to be charitable, and the millennium “is a [topic] where equally evangelical scholars who accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God should be able to disagree without the accusation ‘liberal,’ [36] or heretic.  The end of the matter is that we must always remember that all Scripture is given with the intent that Christ would be exalted; that non-believers would be brought to know Him; that believers would be encouraged to endure for the sake of being made like Him; and that, regardless of differing views of the millennium, believers would foremost remember that “the end is not an event but a person.” [37]

[1]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York:  John Lane Co., 1908), 29.

[2]Millard J. Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology:  Making Sense of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1998), 11.

[3]G. K. Beale with David H. Campbell, Revelation:  A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 421.

[4]Herman A. Hoyt, “Dispensational Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) The Meaning of the Millennium:  Four Views (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1977), 63.

[5]G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York and Evanston:  Harper & Row, 1966), 13.

[6]Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1965), 86-89.

[7]Hoyt, “Dispensational Premillennialism,” 67.

[8]John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, Ohio:  Dunham, 1959), 114.

[9]Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology, 119.

[10]Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism:  The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing, 1993), 28-29.

[11]Craig A. Blaising, “Premillennialism” in Stanley N. Gundry and Darrell L. Bock (ed.) Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing, 1999), 182-183.

[12]George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) The Meaning of the Millennium:  Four Views (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1977), 23.

[13]Ibid, 20.

[14]Ibid, 98.

[15]Ibid, 55.

[16]Ibid, 69.

[17]Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P & R Publishing, 1991), 28.

[18]James H. Snowden, The Coming of the Lord:  Will it be Premillennial? (New York:  MacMillan, 1919), 64-66.

[19]Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Postmillennialism” in Stanley N. Gundry and Darrell L. Bock (ed.) Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing, 1999), 22-23.

[20]Snowden, The Coming of the Lord, 257-63.

[21]Boettner, The Millennium, 14.

[22]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York:  Scribner, Armstrong, & Co., 1873), 3:792-800, 832.

[23]J. E. Adams, The Time is at Hand, (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 7-11.

[24] Beale, Revelation, 420.

[25]Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 174.

[26]W. J. Grier, “Christian Hope and the Millennium” (Christianity Today:  October 13, 1958), 19.

[27]Beale, Revelation, 421.

[28]Ibid, 420.

[29]Anthony A. Hoekema, “Amillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) The Meaning of the Millennium:  Four Views (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1977), 156-157.

[30]William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House, 1939), 11-64.

[31]Beale, Revelation, 422-423.

[32]Ibid, 422.

[33]Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” 161.

[34]Ibid, 162-63.

[35]Ibid, 163.

[36]Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” 20.

[37]G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York and Evanston:  Harper & Row, 1966), 13.

*Embedded eschatological timelines are not original works of my own, but have been selected based on their being the best available representations of the points this paper stresses.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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