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]

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]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.

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.

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

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

The Bible’s Most Confusing Passages – Judges 19 – The Levite and His Concubine

This is the first post in a series of discussions on what I perceive to be the the most confusing passages in Scripture.  I will post an abridged version of the passage.  Then l will link an example of an interpretation I believe to be misguided, and then offer my interpretation in response in an attempt to accurately unpack the Scripture’s intent.

Judges 19

A Levite and His Concubine

In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back. . . . when the girl’s father saw him, he came with joy to meet him. And his father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay . . . 10 He rose up and departed and arrived opposite [Jerusalem]. . . . [He said,] “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel, but we will pass on to Gibeah.” . . .15 And he went in and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night.

16 And behold, an old man . . .was sojourning in Gibeah. . . . 17 And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the open square of the city. And the old man said, “Where are you going? And where do you come from?”18 And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to the house of the Lord, but no one has taken me into his house. . . . 20 And the old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” . . .22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. . . . 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

27 And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, . . .28  and the man rose up and went away to his home. 29 And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day;consider it, take counsel, and speak.”

Here is a link to a self-proclaimed feminist interpretation whose thesis is “conflict between males is solved by the sacrifice of females,” which I believe misrepresents the significance of the events. Here is another, whose thesis is “when men are wicked, women suffer” that doesn’t truly get to the heart of the text.  (***NOTE: I am not insensitive to the concerns of these authors, but I find their interpretations fall short of pointing all glory to Christ, and extending the greater hope and healing that is found only in Him.***)

Here is what I believe the text is actually communicating…

In the days of the Judges great wickedness persisted because moral relativism (“everyone did what was right in their own eyes”) prevailed, and “the people had no king to lead them.”  Unlike the interpretation linked above, in the story of the Levite and his concubine, it becomes evident that the Levite is not the evil antagonist, but a righteous man.  The Levite shows himself merciful and patient toward his unfaithful covenant partner.  The author of Judges communicates that the Levite is long-suffering and slow to anger in waiting 4 months for the woman to return.  When she does not return he sets out to allure her home.  Under Torah Law the punishment for the concubine’s unfaithfulness is death, but in love and mercy the Levite sets out to speak lovingly to her and implore her to return.  Further, the Levite is proven noble in that he is looked upon, not with disdain but with respect, by the woman’s father.  In ancient Israelite society, a concubine was not necessarily a sex slave, but a woman from a lower social class who enters into a covenant relationship for the promise of provision and a better life.  While concubines did not have the same status as wives, they were to be well treated (Exodus 21:7-10), provided for as family, and this particular Levite is specifically designated as this concubine’s “husband” (Judges 19:3, 20:4).  This woman’s father is referred to as the man’s “father-in-law” (Judges 19:9).

The concubine is not the protagonist of the story, but the perpetrator of offense who’s unfaithfulness has led the Levite into this dilemma.  Having been convinced to return home with the Levite, the concubine and her partner begin traveling back to their home in Ephraim.  However, because the woman’s father has delayed them they are forced to lodge in Gibeah.  Gibeah is a city of fellow Israelites, and the Levite shows himself further righteous by rejecting the easier option of stopping short of Gibeah, but instead chooses to honor the Law’s command that he not take the company of the Gentiles.  The couple instead presses on to a city of fellow Israelites who, as God’s people, are expected to take care of them.  Rather than graciously host the Levite and his concubine, these Israelites of Gilbeah demand to have sex with the Levite, and ultimately take the concubine and rape and kill her.  It is the concubine’s rebellion against her covenant caretaker (and distant venturing from the couple’s home) that has landed the two of them in this wicked place. It is by the concubine’s sin that she finds herself in the horrific circumstances in which she pays the horrible consequence of her unfaithfulness.  While the Levite is a righteous man, he will not go out to endure the consequence of the unfaithful concubine’s action.  It is not for the faithful Levite to suffer in the place of the unfaithful concubine.  The Levite is not to be her Savior. In this case, the righteous does not die in the place of the unrighteous.

In anguish and disgust with the wickedness of the men of Gilbeah, the Levite divides the dead concubine into twelve pieces and sends them to the twelve tribes of Israel so that his anger, grief, and disgust will be known throughout the entire land.  The author’s intent is to communicate the vileness and lawlessness of the Israelites in this time, and their desperate need for the direction of a king.  Further, like the Levite’s rebellious partner, all men (you and I) have been unfaithful to our Covenant Creator in heaven.  While rape is horrific and condemnable, and everyone should be disturbed and angered by the horrible fate of the concubine,the story is not recorded to detail the mistreatment of women in patriarchal societies, or to detail the brokenness of the Levite.  The events are recorded to depict the atrocious depth of the consequences of breaking a covenant, and to demonstrate that no ordinary man can die in the place of the covenant breaker.  Genesis 15:10 and 17 demonstrate the ancient practice of making covenants by dividing an animal.  Then both parties passed between the severed carcass. This symbolized the seriousness of their intentions in that the divided carcasses represented what would happen to them if they were not faithful to their oath.  This is symbolized in the fate of the concubine.

Fortunately as Christ followers, we are not a people without a king; we have a King and his name is Jesus.  He has shown us the Way, and has shown us what is right.  We have not been left to fend for ourselves, each doing whatever is right in our own eyes.  Jesus, like the Levite, has sought out His bride (the Church), implored us to return, and forgiven us.  Where the Levite failed to die for his unfaithful partner, Jesus did step outside the camp to brutally suffer in our place.  Christ, the fully righteous Son of God, stepped out in our stead to take the punishment that we deserved; to suffer once, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us back to God.  This concubine does not represent women who suffer at the hands of men, but she represents all mankind rebelling against God in a fallen world.  We are the concubine (the covenant partner of poor estate and lower standing), welcomed into the provision of God, loved as family, but rebelling against our Covenant Creator, and running back to our former life.  We must cease the unfaithfulness and rebellion and return home to our righteous and loving Caretaker.  He is merciful and faithful to forgive, and He is calling us to turn from our folly, to leave the land of the wicked (which places us in peril and holds our destruction), and to return home with Him.  He has already died at the hands of vile lawless men so that (if we will stand under His protection) we will not have to suffer the fate of the covenant breaker.

If you enjoyed this discussion of difficult Scripture, you might also enjoy my other post about the Top 5 Most Misquoted, Misused, and Misunderstood Bible Verses.

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