Credited as Righteous: In Defense of Justification Sola Fide


“By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” (Anon, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, IX)

In these few, glorious sentences, a second-century Christian writer expresses amazement that God would save sinners such as we through the atonement of His Son. Echoing the awe recorded by the Apostles in Holy Scripture, this anonymous author seeks to describe that great, even sweet and unsearchable exchange of the Gospel, and his words rightly have the tone of a doxology. To doxology, from the Greek word for glory, is precisely where the Gospel should lead redeemed sinners. It is indeed the best of news that our holy God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things, stepped down into His creation through the Son in order to take upon Himself the just penalty for our sins and reconcile us to God, and He applies this redemption to us by His Spirit and guarantees that we will dwell in worshipful communion with Him forever; “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36 ESV). God’s glory is the ultimate purpose for all His works, and nowhere is God’s glory more clearly seen to fallen sons of Adam than in His free, gracious redemption of undeserving rebels such as we are (c.f. Ephesians 2:1-9).

However, because we are rebellious sinners at heart, bent toward evil, we must take special care not to let our worldly thinking steal even an iota of that glory of God in redemption by giving an occasion for our own boasting. We must be careful to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name,” lest we be as Job’s miserable comforters of whom God said, “For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Psalm 29:2, Job 42:8, respectively). When it comes to the particulars of redemption, it is all too easy for us to “[exchange] the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). God will not give His glory to another, and yet glory is the one thing that sinners want to steal from Him (c.f. Isaiah 48:11). This is the heart of all our idolatry. If our doctrines about God’s works, including His gracious work of redemption, are expressed in a way that minimizes (or fails to maximize) the eternal glorification of Himself in all His works, then we ought to question whether our doctrines speak rightly about God or are influenced by our own inclination toward idolatry. It is my argument that the Protestant formulation of how God justifies sinners by faith alone (Sola Fide) is consistent with the teaching of Scripture and does not diminish God’s eternal purpose to glorify Himself in all His works.

Defining Sola Fide—What is it not?

To understand the necessity for a precise formulation of the doctrine of justification, it is helpful to understand the traditional Roman Catholic position. How can a sinner be justified in God’s sight? The answer to this question, along with the definitions of the words, has divided Catholics and Protestants for roughly 500 years. What is the Catholic doctrine of justification against which the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide stands irreconcilable?

As to what justification is and does, the official catechism, echoing the teaching of the Council of Trent (1547 A.D.), teaches: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man,” and, “It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, from nos. 1989, 1992). So, the Catholic doctrine of justification encapsulates the sinner’s initial change in standing before God, and the various aspects of his sanctification, including his transformation into an inwardly just (righteous) individual.

As to the basis or ground of justification, the same catechism also states, “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, from no. 1992). The emphasis on Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the basis upon which men are justified is encouraging. Complicating the matter, however, this ground of justification is said to have been accomplished for all men, including both the elect and the reprobate.

How then does this universal ground of justification interact with the result of a limited number of justified sinners? In other words, how is a sinner justified before God? The same catechism elaborates, “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith,” and “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part, it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, from nos. 1992, 1993). In working together with God (synergism) toward justification, man responds to God’s grace in faith and is baptized. It should be observed that this doctrinal expression does not merely link God’s grace, faith, and baptism as necessary or inevitable elements of salvation, but it mixes them together under the biblical term “justification.” The way this doctrine is expressed will certainly influence not only how the Catholic understands the Scripture but also how he understands his own standing before God. Can man truly stand justified before God through a synergistic mixing of faith plus works as a response to God’s grace? The protest of the Protestant is that such a system steals God’s glory from salvation.

Defining Sola Fide—What is it?

Arguably one of the clearest and most concise confessional expressions of the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone was penned by the assembly of divines at Westminster Chapel in 1647: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone” (WLC 70).

As to what justification is and does, this definition explains it as an act (a judicial act) of God that results in the pardoning of sins and the accepting of these pardoned sinners as righteous in His sight. Rather than encompassing the whole of salvation (sanctification, etc.), this doctrine is very limited in scope. Justification is a one-time declaration of God resulting in a change of standing before Him. This declaration of God points most emphatically to the basis upon which it is made: Christ’s atonement.

This definition is careful to limit its description of the ground of justification to the work of Christ. It specifically details the two aspects of Christ’s work upon which justification rests: His perfect obedience and His full satisfaction of God’s righteous law. A. A. Hodge comments on this imputed righteousness: “Our sins are said to have been laid upon Christ (Isa. liii. 6, 12; Gal. iii. 13; Heb. ix; 28; 1 Pet. ii. 24), because their guilt was so charged to his account that they were justly punished in him. In like manner, Christ’s righteousness is imputed or its rewardableness is so credited to the believer that all the covenanted honours and rewards of a perfect righteousness henceforth rightly belong to him. Rom. iv. 4-8; 2 Cor. v. 19-21.”[1] Furthermore, Christ’s position as the ground of justification is exclusive, which is why the catechism’s definition explicitly denies “anything wrought in them, or done by them” (WLC 70). Christ alone is savior of sinners, and his atoning sacrifice is sufficient to save them.

As to how one is so justified before God, this Protestant definition is further distinguished from the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine. Justification is described as an “act of God’s free grace unto sinners,” and so it is a monergistic work of God on behalf of sinners. God alone is at work in justification. It is not a cooperative work between God and man. As Paul writes, “It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33b). As noted previously, justification is a judicial act of God. This means God acts as a judge, and that his act of justifying a sinner is a legal decision. Calvin writes, “Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.”[2] If there is a cooperation in justification, then, it is between God and Christ. God, the divine judge hears the intercession of Christ, and based on Christ’s righteousness, He “reckons” the sinner as righteous (just).

Justification is also described in the catechism’s definition as being “received by faith alone.” Faith is not the basis of justification, but rather the instrument that receives it. On this subject, Calvin writes, “For the reasoning is similar: namely, that faith, even though of itself it is of no worth or price, can justify us by bringing Christ, just as a pot crammed with money makes a man rich.”[3]  So the sinner is justified by faith alone, ultimately because the object of that faith is Christ, whose atoning sacrifice is sufficient to save them. God, the judge, freely pardons the sinner’s sin and imputes Christ’s righteousness to Him because of Christ’s work on his behalf.

Laying the Foundation—Sola Scriptura

Someone may object that the Roman Catholic Church has a long and rich tradition of teaching differently on the matters of justification, faith and works, etc. For the argument in defense of Sola Fide to be compelling, that is to transcend mere human preference or authority, the argument must be built on a foundation that is greater than creaturely authority. Unless we have the Creator’s word of assurance that we are saved by faith alone, as opposed to a mixture of faith and works, then we have no warrant to insist or even hold to the doctrine of Sola Fide. Without God’s word on the matter, we are left with mere assertions built upon a creaturely foundation of human authority. An essential distinction at the heart of the Reformation is that between what is by nature of God and what is by nature of His creatures. This distinction is illustrated in what is called the formal principle of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura.

While a doctrine or tradition may have a longstanding history in the church’s teaching and practice, this historical adherence is not a sufficient ground to bind men’s consciences. As Jesus taught in the great commission, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” the church of God is called by God to exhort men to obey God (Matthew 28:20). Unless justification sola fide can be firmly established from Scripture, the church cannot declare this doctrine to be from God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17). The Scriptures are breathed out by God (who is, by nature, divine), and thus are profitable for teaching, etc. The purpose of these profitable Scriptures being breathed out by God is so that the man of God would be made complete (“competent,” NIV) and equipped for every good work. If faith, repentance, baptism, and the like are all good works, then the Scriptures are sufficient for infallibly communicating these doctrines because of their nature as divine (“breathed out by God”). It is on this divinely inspired foundation of Scripture alone that a compelling, God-honoring, and conscience-binding argument for or against justification sola fide can be built.

Demonstrating Sola Fide—Old Testament Roots

Given the Protestant’s foundational principle of the sufficiency of Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, the only way to demonstrate or prove the doctrine of justification by faith alone is to turn to the Scriptures themselves. In the previously defined doctrine of justification, the Protestant position uses language that emphatically insists that justification is a judicial act of God. This contrasts with the Roman Catholic position, which uses language that stresses justification as an inward transformation. The idea of justification as a term occupying the semantic domain of a judge’s act in a courtroom is present within the word’s usage in the Scriptures. Before tackling Paul’s key New Testament argument for justification by faith alone, a look at the Old Testament usage of the Hebrew and Greek words for “justification” will help to provide the scriptural background for Paul and other New Testament writers’ usage of this term.

In his study of the doctrine of justification, James White points out that there is a link (via translation) between the Old Testament’s Hebrew and the Septuagint’s Greek word typically translated into English as “just” or “righteous.”[4] This Greek word (dikaion) used throughout the Septuagint to translate the original Hebrew (tzaddiq) is significant to explore because this is the same word that Paul uses to establish His doctrine of justification in Romans and elsewhere. Drawing on this translational link, Mark Seifrid compares the Old Testament teaching about justifying the ungodly with Paul’s argument about Abraham’s justification, “God alone justifies the ungodly—an act that he expressly forbids human beings (Exod. 23:7; Prov. 17:15; 24:24–25; Isa. 5:23; cf. Mark 2:7b: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”). Yet, as God, he acts in this very manner…”[5] Here, Seifrid refers to key examples of justification in the Old Testament that demonstrate certain patterns of use. These contextual patterns shed light on Paul’s understanding of such words as “just” and “justify.” In Exodus 23:7, God lays down the principle to not pervert justice so as not to punish the innocent, most especially by putting him to death. His reason is, “for I will not justify the wicked” (NET).  Literally, “I will not make righteous [i.e., deem righteous, justify, pronounce innocent] a guilty person.”[6] Whatever “justify” or “make righteous” may mean here, it does not make sense to mean “renewal of the inner man” as the Roman Catholic Catechism defines the doctrine of justification (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1989). In fact, the use of “justify” in this verse sounds much more like that described in the Protestant definition, that God “accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight” (WLC 70). The legal declaration of a righteous judge will reflect God’s standard by not perverting justice, because God will not accept or account a wicked person as not wicked in His sight.

Likewise, Proverbs 17:15 repeats the judicial principle laid out in Exodus 23: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” It is a perversion of justice to declare a wicked person to be just (not wicked). It is beyond the range of possibilities for this verse to teach that a man could transform a wicked person into a righteous person. This same principle is presented in Proverbs 24:24-25. In Isaiah 5:23, the prophet pronounces a woe upon those “who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” Again, it is clear that the usage of the Old Testament word for justify (or acquit) carries the meaning of a judge’s pronouncement that one is just, not the meaning of a renewal of the inner man.

But if Paul is arguing that the wicked are justified by faith, and if the meaning of “justify” carries over from the Old Testament usage, then is not God acting wickedly just as He said not to do in the aforementioned verses? Commenting on the Exodus 23:7 passage, James White writes: “God is saying He will not declare a wicked man to be righteous, for such would be a perversion of justice. God does not do this in justification by faith, either: Christ’s substitutionary death is the sole basis of his declaration.”[7] When God determined for His own glory to justify sinners, He did not simply decide to be nice and relax His moral standard (which would make Him unjust), He forged a way through the atoning blood of His own Son: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Demonstrating Sola Fide—Paul’s Case to the Romans

With this background of the Old Testament’s usage of justification, Paul’s case for justification by faith alone in Romans falls into place. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul incontrovertibly establishes that all men, both Jews and Gentiles, are sinners and therefore justly fallen under God’s condemnation. By the time he gets to 3:19-20, his case against all mankind is so solid that he concludes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20a). Again, following Old Testament precedent, “will be justified” is rightly understood “will be accounted righteous.” Because all men are sinners, and no one is truly righteous, God will not count them righteous based on their attempt to live righteously. To do so would be for God to commit injustice. But this is not good news at all. Everyone is under God’s wrath, and there is nothing that can be done about it.[8] Paul has successfully made a straight path in the wilderness, paving the way for the Good News to be proclaimed beginning in the next verses.

Now that every mouth has been shut, Paul proclaims the Gospel of justification in God’s sight by faith alone. Now, he says that God’s righteousness has been revealed, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). Paul describes this righteousness that is through faith as the revealed “righteousness of God” (3:21). Murray suggests that this righteousness revealed in Christ is to be understood as a “God-righteousness” that finds its origin in God, is pleasing to God, and is effectual to save the elect.[9] This “God-righteousness” is through faith in Jesus Christ, and it is for all who believe. Faith is the instrument, and Christ is the basis.

In verse 24, Paul comes to the high point of his presentation of the Gospel. He says that those sinners who are justified, “are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:24). First he says that God justifies by His grace. There is nothing that men have done to earn this justification, but rather justification is one of the “gracious dispensations” of God, one of His “(undeserved) gifts to men.”[10] Perhaps it seems redundant, but justification is not only by God’s grace, it is so as a gift (“justified freely,” NET). Justification is both undeserved and freely given by God. The basis upon which all this rests is Christ’s redemption and nothing else. In the following verse, Paul hones in on that redemption in Christ, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25a). Again, there is lacking any notion of mixing faith with works to participate in or cooperate with God in His accomplishment of our justification.

F. Bruce summarizes Paul’s careful use of language in verses 24 and 25 by stating, “Paul has thus pressed into service the language of the law-court (‘justified’), the slave-market (‘redemption’) and the altar (‘expiation’, ‘atoning sacrifice’) in the attempt to do justice to the fullness of  God’s gracious act in Christ.”[11]So in this incredibly short space, Paul argues for how man may be accounted righteous before God (Romans 3:24), how man has been redeemed from slavery to sin in Christ (3:24), and how man is reconciled to God through the satisfaction of God’s demands in the work of Christ (3:25). All these elements work together, according to verse 26, so that God, “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

Finally, the reader of Paul’s epistle can begin to see how it is that the same God who declares it an abomination to justify the wicked (Proverbs 17:15) can justify the one who has faith apart from any prior conformity to God’s law within the individual (“apart from works of the law,” 3:28). God forgives sins and counts righteous solely on the ground of Christ’s atonement, and this gift of God can only be received by trusting in Christ alone for what He has done. Paul illustrates this principle citing two prominent Old Testament witnesses, Abraham and David. In the case of Abraham, “[he] believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3b, citing Genesis 15:6). Considering Paul has labored for three full chapters to establish the legal context of mankind before God, it is not surprising that the language of this citation also reflects God’s judicial act of justifying Abraham apart from a basis of Abraham’s works. Paul also appeals to David’s own writing where he concludes, “‘blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin’” (Romans 4:8, citing Psalm 32:2). As he presents the principle at work in these examples, Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5 NET). In other words, if ungodly sinners are going to be declared righteous by God, then it will be through faith and not through works. Otherwise, justification would be earned and not a gift.

Defending Sola Fide—The doers of the law will be justified

Rejecting justification by faith alone, Richard White argues for the Roman Catholic position, “This faith is not opposed to good works but includes them, for it is only ‘the doers of the law who will be justified’ (Rom. 2:13).”[12] [13] According to Mr. White, Paul is laying down a principle according to which we must join good works with faith in order to be justified before God.

But how can this be Paul’s true intention here? If by this statement in 2:13, Paul is communicating justification by faith plus or involving works, then he would be setting himself up for self contradiction in later chapters, as is most clearly illustrated in 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…” (3:20a).[14] Paul is not here establishing a doctrine of justification by faith plus works, but rather teaching the Jews in his audience that simply having God’s law will not save them. This line of reasoning is echoed by F. F. Bruce, who writes, “The course of his argument goes on to indicate that, while one who was a ‘doer’ of the law would be justified, yet, since no-one does it perfectly, there is no justification that way.”[15]Walking through Paul’s flow of argument in the first chapters of Romans will further shed light on the “doers of the law” statement in Romans 2:13.

Throughout Romans 1, Paul establishes the universal sinfulness of man, explaining and appealing to “…all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18b). In chapter 2, he focuses on the Jews to demonstrate that even they are not righteous in God’s sight simply becuase they possess God’s Law.[16] The arguments of both chapters reach their climax in chapter 3:9-20, where Paul lays out a relentless succession of Old Testament quotations proving that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20).

Thus, by demonstrating that all men seeking to justify themselves are unrighteous in God’s sight, Paul prepares the way for the Gospel of justification by faith apart from works. This preparation is “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19b). James White comments on the effects of this stopping of every mouth, “As long as the mouth is left open, the gospel cannot be proclaimed, for it only has meaning for those whose mouth has been closed in utter and complete agreement with God on the matter of sin and its judgment.”[17] Quite simply, if doing the law is the standard by which man is judged, then no one will be justified. Paul lays all this out to point his audience to “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” since Christ is the only one who may truly be described as a “doer of the law” (Romans 3:22a).

Practicing Sola Fide—What difference does it make?

The single greatest practical implication of this doctrine of justification by faith alone is made explicit by Paul himself, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Because our trust is not in our own works or ability to cooperate with God, but rather in “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” we can have confidence both for this life and for that which is to come (Hebrews 12:2). Knowing that we are justified in God’s sight, not by our own works but by faith alone in Christ’s work alone for God’s glory alone, we are freed up to live our lives for God, for true faith will never remain alone. As David wrote, “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2). Truly, the Christian is blessed, and with this happy lot, he may live out his life endeavoring after new obedience, rejoicing and shouting for joy in confidence of God’s love in Christ as David concludes, “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalms 32:11).


Anon. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. Edited by Philip Schaff. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I. electronic ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, originally 1885. (accessed November 23, 2016).

Bauer, W., Arndt, W., Gingrich, F.W., and Danker, F.W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Second ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Bruce, F. F. Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Hendriksen, William. Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Baker New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1981.

Hodge, Archibald Alexander. A Commentary on The Confession of Faith. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1869.

Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Seifrid, Mark A. “Romans” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. 2007. pages 607-694.

Silva, Moisés, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. 2nd; Accordance electronic ed., version 1.3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

White, James R. The God Who Justifies. Kindle ed. Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2001.

White, Richard A. “Justification as Divine Sonship: Is ‘Faith Alone’ Justifiable?” in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Edited by Scott Hahn and Leon Suprenant. Kindle ed. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 1998. pages 94-112.

[1] Hodge, A., A Commentary on The Confession of Faith, page 251.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.3.

[3] ibid., 3.11.7.

[4] White writes: “In Hebrew,  צַרּיק, and very importantly in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which was the Bible of the New Testament church), known as the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX), δίκαὶον” (White, J., The God Who Justifies, page 92).

[5] Seifrid, “Romans”, page 623.

[6] Moises Silva, on “righteous” and “justify” in Exodus 23:7. Silva’s full comments are, “The legal aspect is esp. clear from a passage such as Exod 23:7, where God warns the Israelites not to execute ‘the innocent and the righteous’ (נָקִי וְצַדִּיק, LXX ἀθῶον καὶ δίκαιον), an admonition reinforced by the words, ‘for I will not acquit the guilty’ (‏לֹא־אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע, lit., ‘I will not make righteous [i.e., deem righteous, justify, pronounce innocent] a guilty person’; the noun רָשָׁע H8401 describes someone who has transgressed the law or is guilty of a crime; it can also refer more generally to a wicked or impious person)” (NIDNTTE, s.v. “ Δ,” 1:727).

[7] White, J., The God Who Justifies, page 77.

[8] William Hendriksen accurately summarizes the consequence of man’s position before God as a sinner in His sight: “Only one conclusion is possible therefore. His condition is one of thorough hopelessness and despair. And the law, with its demand of nothing less than moral and spiritual perfection (cf. Lev. 19:2), a state to which man, in his own power, can never attain, creates in him a dreadful, mortifying sense of sin; hence, a presentiment of doom, total and everlasting” (Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, page 125).

[9] Speaking of Paul’s first mention of this righteousness (Romans 1:17), Murray writes, “Yet it is so intimately related  to God that it is a righteousness of divine property and characterized by divine qualities. It is a ‘God-righteousness’. Because it is such, God is its author; it is a righteousness that must elicit the divine approval; it is a righteousness that meets all the demands of his justice and therefore avails before God. But the particular emphasis rests upon its divine property and is therefore contrasted not only with human unrighteousness but with human righteousness” (Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, pages 30-31).

[10] BAGD, page 877.

[11] Bruce, F. F. Romans, page 113.

[12] White, R., “Justification”, 108.

[13] Richard White provides an elaborated explanation of the meaning of justification and the relationship between works and faith in becoming justified that is helpful for better understanding the Roman Catholic perspective: “First, the gift of divine sonship which is justification is a real participation in Christ’s sonship and the life of the Trinity. Thus, we are not only declared sons and daughters of God, but are actually made such, in our very being. Second, justification is totally gratuitous. We cannot earn God’s justifying grace any more than a child can earn his birth. And finally, once the child is born, he is expected to grow in maturity, and what he does actually affects his standing in the family. This holds true for our standing in God’s family too. So through grace we not only have faith but do good works in love. This is not ‘works righteousness’ (the idea that we can earn our salvation) or justification by faith alone (the Protestant view), but ‘faith working in love’” (White, R., “Justification”, page 96, emphasis added).

[14] John Murray addresses this apparent contradiction, and provides a helpful corrective: “It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of this epistle in later chapters…The burden of this verse is that not the hearers or mere possessors of the law will be justified before God but that in terms of the law the criterion is doing, not hearing” (Murray, John, The Epistle to the Romans, page 71).

[15] Bruce, F. F. Romans, page 96.

[16] Paul seems to devote this specific line of argumentation to the Jews because of their historical and theological background as the national people of God in the Old Covenant. They were “entrusted with the oracles of God,” and were prone to “boast in the law” as though they indeed found righteousness before God through the keeping of that Law (Romans 3:2, 2:23, respectively). Paul’s use of the phrase “the Jew first and also the Greek” seems especially placed to show that not only the Gentiles, but even the Jewish people are in sin and under God’s wrath apart from Christ; this phrase is taken up by Paul in the sentences immediately preceding the “doers of the law” passage in Romans 2:13 (c.f. 2:9, 2:10).

[17] White, J., The God Who Justifies, page 48.

Written by Todd Whitford
For Dr. Stephen Anderson’s Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies
Reformed Theological Seminary
December 1, 2016


Edward Abbey Runs from Humanity, Runs from God

Environmentalism is a major force in Western society today. Inherent in the “ism” of environmentalism is a sense of ought-ness for human involvement in the world. Christianity insists that man made in God’s image is responsible for his stewardship over God’s creation. Is environmentalism compatible with Christianity? Perhaps the terms of this question are too complex and broad for a simple answer. The questions I begin to explore in this essay are more precise. Is environmental literature, in its popular expressions, compatible with a historic Christian worldview? Is popular environmental literature even consistent with its own worldview? I don’t claim to provide an infallible, absolutely conclusive answer to these questions, but I do make some specific claims about a specific, foundational work of environmental literature.


Edward Abbey Runs from Humanity, Runs from God

In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey tells the story of his time as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah. Throughout the novel, two major themes are apparent, his disdain for human culture and his disdain for God. During his sojourn in the wilderness, he regularly relates his aversion for these two realities. In fact it seems that a significant reason that he takes the position as a ranger is to try to escape both society and God. Abbey’s relationship with humanity and the question of God’s existence are both themes that the author never fully resolves in the novel; the tension present throughout the book remains at the end. It is my argument that Abbey’s time in the desert is an expression of his running from and resistance to humanity and God. In both cases, he is not successful; both humanity and God are inescapable realities with which Abbey is forced to deal one way or another.

Abbey’s Role in Literature in General

One of the great values of literature is its capacity to help connect the reader with aspects of life experience that could otherwise easily go unnoticed in the bustle of everyday life. Whether constructing a fictional story or retelling actual events, the author of any piece of literature chooses which elements he includes in his work. Literature is constructed by the author and experienced by the reader, so it has the opportunity to provide insights into both the author’s view of the world and the common experiences shared between author and reader. As one writer states, “Literature abstracts from the complex events of life (just as we do all the time every day) and can reveal patterns that are like patterns of events in the real world. Studying literature can give us sensitivity to those patterns. This sensitivity to the rhythm of life is closely connected with what the Bible calls wisdom” (Leithart 13). As Leithart puts so well, those insights a reader can gain from literature have to do with the “rhythm of life” and even “wisdom”. As I discuss humanity and God in Desert Solitaire, I will be interested in seeing what can be discovered about Abbey’s perspectives on these areas of life and to what extent this perspective of his comports with reality.

Abbey’s Role in Environmental Literature

Abbey’s emphasis on man’s relationship to the environment places his writing in the modern category of “environmental literature”. Since this genre is primarily concerned with teaching, or at least proclaiming a particular way of viewing the natural world and man’s position in it, it tends to come across as what is commonly described as “preachy”. In order to minimize the perception of inherent “preachy” voice of such a piece of literature, Abbey makes use of heavy sarcasm. However, as a work of environmental literature, Desert Solitaire embodies a concern for the morality of man’s dealing with nature and the responsibilities that he has toward nature. In dealing with these questions, environmental writers such as Abbey introduce both an important insight into the rhythm of life in the natural world and a fundamental philosophical inconsistency into their arguments. Loren Wilkinson, writing from a liberal theological perspective, makes a keen observation about environmental literature that is relevant for this discussion and also consistent with historical Christian thinking:

“But perhaps uniquely, environmental literature has the capability of revealing the inadequacy of some of its own foundations. For the more environmental literature is informed by an ethical urgency, the more it impels a recognition that “environment” is “creation” (at least this particular corner of it), and concern for its care is not consistent with a monism (whether pantheistic or naturalistic) that recognizes neither Creator nor the unique nature of the human person within creation” (Wilkinson).

Wilkinson’s insight into the fundamental incongruity of naturalistic assumptions with notions of moral imperatives regarding man and nature can be noted throughout Abbey’s work. I will provide illustrations of such inconsistencies as I argue for Abbey’s running both from human society and God.

Running from Humanity

Just another animal?

Throughout the account of Abbey’s time in the desert, he tries to distance himself as much as possible from humanity; this is the solitaire part of Desert Solitaire. To account for this intentional distancing, and to measure his success or failure in this goal, it is helpful first to note how he perceives human society. Edward Abbey is not a friend of humanity. When he speaks about humans, especially in contrast to nature, Abbey assumes a scathing, sarcastic tone. One such example comes early on as he considers whether or not to kill a snake that has taken up residence beneath the steps of his trailer: “…I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake” (Abbey, Desert 20). It is hard to tell whether he is simply being sarcastic here or if this is a moment of candor for Abbey. One would like to think that his preference of killing a man over a snake is just a snarky joke, but this hope may not be entirely justified given the recurring nature of such sentiments throughout the book. Though he vacillates over his approval or disapproval of other humans during his time in the desert, the same sense of disdain for humanity shows up on numerous occasions.

One way to account for this disdain may be seen in the following line from a letter sent to a local newspaper: “I merely wish to insist that we must stop pretending that we are somehow different from, or in some fashion superior to, the other animals on this planet” (Abbey, “Letters”). This statement is taken from a letter in which Abbey pronounces his blessing upon a potential crash of human population. He is declaring the beneficial results of such a calamity, saying that it would be good since we are really just the same as any other species of animal and a population crash would reduce our consumption of resources. For Abbey, there is supposedly no meaningful distinction between human beings and animals. We are merely one twig on the great evolutionary tree of life. However, it is worth mentioning here that such a failure to distinguish clear differences is inconsistent with Abbey’s imperatives about how humans ought to behave. Inherent in his statement is that human beings, through belief and action, have a say in whether or not we act or think as if we are on the same level as animal life. Implicitly, then, Abbey’s statement serves as an example of the principle that Wilkinson affirms.  Abbey’s end-goal is that human beings should maintain what he would consider a sustainable population size, namely 25 million, as he points out later in the letter. Regardless of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his ideal, there is a moral imperative of man in his relationship toward nature that is implied here, and that moral imperative is absolutely inconsistent with his godless worldview. A consistently naturalist worldview simply does not have the capability of providing a foundation for morality. Morality is a sort of law; it necessarily comes from a lawgiver.

Not only is there a moral ought-ness in Abbey’s stance regarding humans and nature, but there is a recognition that humans are uniquely equipped with something that sets us apart from nature. A human being can, by Abbey’s own admission, pretend to be of more value than he is. Presumably, he wouldn’t have similar complaints about any of the animal species. If one species is eating too many of another species, the predator is just doing its job, and responsibility falls on humans to correct the problem. Here is where the distinction becomes clear. Humans can reason and consider their place in relation to the world and to God, which ability is a part of what it means to be made in God’s image, whereas there is no indication that animals have such thoughts. However, to admit that there is a fundamental distinction between humans and animals leads to the conclusions that man is not merely the product of naturalistic evolutionary processes and the universe is not merely matter in motion. In other words, if humans are moral creatures, they are in essence more than super-evolved animals, and the source of that difference is the Creator God. Abbey doesn’t recognize the fallacious nature of his position on humans as being just another part of nature, but this position does serve as a foundation for other positions that he takes regarding human society throughout Desert Solitaire.


Building on his perception of human beings and their place in the world, Abbey regularly employs his sarcasm on the subject of human beings and their reliance upon technology, culture, and especially religion. At one point, he writes, “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly” (Abbey, Desert 65). Abbey has an especially sardonic tone for Christian beliefs, but more will be made of this later in the essay. Abbey never clearly delineates where he believes wilderness should begin and end, but he does insist on several occasions that automobiles should not be allowed in it. The overall mood of Desert Solitaire suggests that humanity has far too much of an impact on the world, and by extension that it should have far less of an impact. How could Abbey’s naturalist ideals be accomplished? In the “Polemics…” chapter, he presents a plan, and the foundation for that plan is the restriction of human population. He doesn’t lay out any specific numerical goals for population in Desert Solitaire, although the previously referenced letter mentions that the world population of humans should be limited to 25 million. Of course, he has his own suggestion for how humans can fix the population issue as well. If there are too many people, “we may soon have to make birth control compulsory” (Abbey, Desert 136).  But is Abbey’s lifestyle consistent with his ideals for human societies?

Except for a few short moments in the book, Abbey is disparaging toward humanity and things that are associated with human society and culture. In particular, he is against automobiles in the parks and belittles tourists for their dependence on societal conveniences (Abbey, Desert 64,65). However, Abbey himself is really not so different than those he mocks. As one man in the desert, he represents all the things of which he disapproves in others. “About once a week I put on my pants and walked up to the Indian village to buy bacon, canned beans and Argentine beef in the little store” (Abbey, Desert 248). Abbey is completely dependent upon the human society from which he is supposedly trying to escape. Whenever his food runs out, he goes to the store rather than hunting or providing his own food. He eats the bacon that comes from a farm and is distributed and sold by businessmen. On a number of occasions in the novel, Abbey feeds on canned beans. He even lives in a trailer with a petroleum-powered generator and drives a petroleum-powered truck through the park! He never fully leaves society behind, but takes it with him. In another case, he goes back to town to buy a new pair of shoes when his are worn out (Abbey, Desert 285). He still depends upon the civilizational infrastructure that must be in place to provide for all the manufactured conveniences that he requires.

Beyond the items that Abbey consumes while in the desert, the very nature of his being there is also inconsistent with his professed values. Abbey is a Park Ranger, employed by the Federal Government of the United States of America. The source of his income is a paycheck from this government. The Federal Government and its public services are paid for through tax revenues of American citizens. In other words, human society and economy together serve as the backbone that makes Abbey’s wilderness sojourn possible. In such a situation, completely dependent upon and representative of human society, Abbey expresses disapproval of the very nature of that society. As he uses money produced through the American economy to buy a can of beans produced, distributed, and sold through the American socio-economic system, and as he drives his government truck from one spot in the park to another, Abbey writes that people should keep out of the wilderness, or at least not bring their automobiles. One would think that so many inconsistencies were bad enough, but the irony goes even deeper than this.

Edward Abbey, hired by the Park Service as a Ranger of Arches National Park, and running from humanity in that park has a problem that cannot be solved by either clever argumentation or change of lifestyle; Edward Abbey is a human being. In his effectively anti-human stance, regardless of practical inconsistencies, Abbey is a part of the very community that he sees as the problem with nature. Deep in the wilderness, Abbey seems to feel the most separated from the rest of humanity. At one point, he entertains the idea that he has somehow joined the natural order of predators and prey as he kills a rabbit hopping around near his trailer:

“What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes too subtle to fathom, to my own soul. I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow. Check my hands: not a trace of blood. No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me, a stranger from another world” (Abbey, 40).

Abbey sees this experiment as a success. He has left the world of mankind and entered the natural order. He seems to relish the fact that he’s become a predator in the wild, but there is a problem. Predators kill their prey for sustenance, but Abbey kills the rabbit because he can, as an experiment. Once again, Abbey reveals that he cannot truly disconnect from his humanity. This is another example of a uniquely human ability to experiment, pretending to be something other than what he is to measure the resulting emotional response. He leaves the dead rabbit to decomposition or scavenging, and grabs a sandwich to satisfy his hunger just two paragraphs later. His failure truly to connect with nature reinforces the notion that humans are separate from nature. As much as Abbey would like to entertain the thought of being just another part of nature, he remains the very thing he seems to despise, a human being.

Running from God

What is God?

Abbey’s problems with humanity are reflected and rooted in his problem with God. There are many different variations of belief regarding the nature and existence of God. In a popular understanding, “God” can mean anything from a powerful being with any number of different qualities and attributes to a genetic condition of emotional feelings resulting from evolutionary processes. The former is represented in the numerous religions and sects that exist, the latter in naturalistic expressions such as one character from a popular Margaret Atwood novel: “God is a brain mutation, and that gene is the same one birds need for singing” (Atwood, 377). When I argue that Abbey is running from God, I’ll be referring to the Triune God of the Christian Scriptures. After all, Christianity has been very influential in the culture and life of Western society. To be clear, this God who is revealed in the Bible is characterized by certain attributes: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth” (Westminster). This is the God from whom Abbey is running in the desert.

Abbey the Atheist

As Abbey’s language concerning human society is sarcastic and disparaging, so it is with his language about God. He is agnostic at best, but much more likely atheistic. Abbey has a sarcastic sense of humor, but when God is the subject, his tone is almost always sardonic. Previously quoted, Abbey states, “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly” (Abbey, Desert 64). This is one example of how Abbey flippantly mentions God to make an ironically humorous point. Statements like this are certainly more consistent with one who “sits in the seat of scoffers” than the blessed man of Psalm 1 whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:1, 2). Abbey doesn’t here explicitly proclaim a system of atheism, but his words and tone are clear in demonstrating that he rejects the Christian God.

In another work, Abbey responds to the idea that creation is a gift of God by decrying “the constant name-dropping. Always of one name. People who go around muttering about God make me nervous. It seems to me that the word mystery, not capitalized, should suffice” (Abbey, Abbey’s 20). Abbey seems willing to admit that he does not have a definite answer for life’s big questions. Questions like, “How did we get here?”, and “What is our purpose?” naturally arise from human experience and are exacerbated by the denial of God as Creator. Abbey’s insistence that we be content to attribute nature as the product of mystery rather than the gift of God is further evidence that he does not merely question the existence of God, but outright denies it.

To Meet God or Medusa face to face

With such a perception of God, and with the previously discussed dislike for humanity, I argue that a second aspect of Abbey’s sojourn in the wilderness is a desire to escape the nagging doubts of his atheism. In other words, he is running from God. In one of the defining passages of the novel, Abbey says that he wants “to meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in [him]self” (Abbey, Desert 7). Taken at face value, one might think that Abbey is on a spiritual mission to find God in the desert. How then is it that I can say that this passage is an expression of Abbey’s desire to escape God? In large part, this conclusion derives from the stipulations that Abbey puts on how God must be found. Abbey’s approach is similar to the Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who rhetorically asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” (Emerson 1). If Abbey is “to meet God or Medusa” it will be “face to face” and on his own terms. In the same paragraph where Abbey expresses this intention to meet God, he says that he wants to see nature “as it is in itself,” even “to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence” (Abbey, Desert 7). Not unlike the quote from Emerson, this expectation of an immediate experience of God or Medusa in nature illustrates just how far Abbey is from desiring a true encounter with the Living God.

Abbey’s words indicate that he has a presupposed notion of what nature is, why we are here, and how God, if such a being exists, may be encountered. He doesn’t explicitly lay out a positive case for the answers to these big questions—and it does appear that he is searching for answers of some kind—but he reveals enough of his worldview for the reader to determine what he believes the answers are not. Whatever Abbey’s notions are about the natural world and how God may be encountered, he does not allow for the Christian belief of God’s revelation. According to the Bible, God reveals himself in creation and in Scripture. Regarding his revelation in the creation, it says that “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So [all men] are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20). By this argument, one needn’t go searching somewhere for God, because his “eternal power and divine nature” are already “clearly perceived” by all men. However, the Bible also teaches that although the natural knowledge of God is enough so that all men are “without excuse”, God has revealed himself in Scripture so that men may know him personally, and so that they may know what he requires of them. In another place, it says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). If the God of the Bible is what is meant by “God”, then he must be sought out in his inspired Scriptures and not in “immediate” experience.

Abbey insists that if God exists, then he must be accessible through “immediate” experience in nature; he assumes that an immediate experience is possible and that this experience will reveal to him nature or God as it really is. This method of experiencing God is one that Abbey has stipulated, but as previously pointed out, the sovereign and all-powerful God of the Bible is able to determine for himself how he will be experienced by his creatures. On the subject of man’s knowledge of God in creation as taught in Romans 1, Christian theologian K. Scott Oliphint writes,  “To claim to know something while thinking it to be independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is. Whatever it is, it is created and sustained by God at every moment” (Oliphint 42). Abbey professes a desire to know nature as it is in itself, or as it really is, but his language throughout Desert Solitaire reveals that he has already written off the notion that nature “is created and sustained by God.” Following the logic of Romans 1, Abbey’s presupposed nature of things as they really are, is actually an expression of how men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). In approaching his quest for an experience of nature in a way that necessitates seeing it apart from its relationship to God, as creation, Abbey is actually determined not to see things as they really are. His quest is in vain. Furthermore, his concept of what God is and how he may be experienced is evidence that he isn’t really searching for God “as [he] is in [himself]”; Abbey has a preconceived notion of how he thinks God should be, and that notion is much closer to Abbey the creature than to God, the autonomous Creator, revealed in Scripture.


In one of the didactic sections of the book, Abbey presents his view of the natural world as a sort of gospel that ought to be published. He writes that the animals “do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins” (Abbey, Desert 23). After a couple sentences describing evolutionary relationships, he writes, “We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred” (Abbey, Desert 23). Although there is no explicit mention of God here, there are certainly religious overtones. By his own language, Abbey is calling up and rejecting Christian teaching about sin and God’s provision of salvation for that sin. The implication is that the Christian Gospel of salvation from our sin by faith alone in the atoning work of Jesus Christ alone is not worth our concern and effort to proclaim to others. He is here supplanting the Christian Gospel with a new gospel of evolutionary inter-species relatedness and the naturalist worldview from which that belief springs; it would follow, then that the Christian Gospel is not true. He presents the new evolutionary gospel as something for which we are morally obliged to spread. Again, however, the reader is faced with a moral imperative to take particular action, but the worldview Abbey is promoting is an insufficient foundation for this kind of moral imperative.

There are many such passages in Desert Solitaire where Abbey mentions God or alludes to Scripture in order to somehow strengthen his arguments against Christian teaching and in favor of a naturalist view of the world along with those moral imperatives that Abbey promotes. I earlier pointed out how Abbey’s resistance to humanity is futile, ultimately because he himself is human and cannot separate himself from what it means to be a human being. Likewise, Abbey’s resistance to the God of the Scriptures is futile; he can never truly escape this God of whom it is said, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). But, again one wonders, if Abbey is convinced that his objections to the Christian faith are correct, is my argument for the futility of his anti-faith merely a matter of ipse dixit? Christian apologist, Cornelius Van Til wrote, “Arguing about God’s existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time” (Van Til). This analogy of an argument about air is consistent with the Biblical teaching that “[The Lord Jesus Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).  Like the hypothetical doubter from Van Til’s analogy, Abbey relies completely on God to deny him and belittle any notion of Him. Not only does Abbey live in God’s world, reliant upon God’s sustaining power for his own continued existence, but Abbey provides his own analogy, similar to this quote from Van Til, as he regularly mentions God and alludes to biblical passages in the expression of his unbelief in the God revealed therein.


Edward Abbey is known because of his role in environmental literature and the promotion of environmental causes. The concern that he shows for preserving and not destroying the natural world in Desert Solitaire is admirable and worthy of consideration. However, as the Wilkinson quote and my arguments demonstrate, Abbey’s worldview provides an insufficient foundation for the moral imperatives required to construct an environmental ethic. Insofar as Abbey opposes humanity as a special creation of God, he destroys any moral foundation for man to protect the natural world, even from man himself. And insofar as Abbey opposes God as Creator, he likewise destroys any moral foundation for the natural world to have any inherent value. Sadly, in pursuit of his goal to argue on behalf of nature, he chooses to attack the God of Scripture who is the only coherent foundation for any argument. Abbey has to deal with the inescapable realities of man and God, but he does so in ways that are inconsistent with the values he professes. In maintaining a devotion to these professed values, even in spite of their lack of foundation in his worldview, Abbey actually give credence to the Christian worldview that he seeks to suppress and destroy. That is to say, Edward Abbey is God’s creature, and as a man, he has been given a certain responsibility over God’s creation. Though Abbey runs from humanity and God, and though a tense unbelief remains in the end, he cannot truly escape the One “to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. James Munrow and Company, 1849. Kindle Edition.

Leithart, Peter. Brightest Heaven of Invention. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996. Print.

Oliphint, K. Scott. Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Crossway, 2013.  Kindle Edition.

Van Til, Cornelius. Why I Believe in God. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, 1996. Barlow, Jonathan ed. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <>.

“Westminster Shorter Catechism”. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Web. 2014, November 20. <>.

Wilkinson, Loren. “Pilgrims at home: The mutual challenge of christendom and environmental literature”. Christian Scholar’s Review. 32.4. (2003): 413. Web. 2014, Nov. 7. <>


Seeing the Creator in Creation – Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations”


The full text of “Contemplations” can be accessed by clicking this link.

In “Contemplation”, Anne Bradstreet illustrates the Christian understanding of the natural world as a source of divine revelation that points to its Creator. Throughout the poem, she ponders some of the beauties and curiosities of nature and then demonstrates how these various aspects serve as signs of the greater, transcendent beauty of the God who made all things. Although she accomplishes this throughout the whole of the poem, a particular stanza may be considered to highlight some of the ways that she relates nature, in this case the sun, to God:

“Art thou so full of glory that no Eye
Hath strength thy shining Rays once to behold?
And is thy splendid Throne erect so high?
As, to approach it, can no earthly mould.
How full of glory then must thy Creator be?
Who gave this bright light luster unto thee:
Admir’d, ador’d for ever be that Majesty.” (Bradstreet)

In this stanza, Bradstreet portrays the sun’s attributes as signifying attributes of God by considering the strength of the sun’s appearance, the loftiness of the sun’s position relative to the earth, and the source of the sun’s brightness.

Bradstreet begins this stanza by considering the strength of the sun’s appearance. Having first examined a great oak with its autumnal hues, her gaze is directed further upward to the “glistering Sun” which shines through the earth-toned leaves. She describes the sun in terms of its glory, that is, the shining of its rays. The shining of these glorious rays is what directs her to consider the sun in the first place. She says that it is full of this glory. If there is a direct link between the words “glory” and “rays”, then Bradstreet could well be considering this great orb as so full of this glory that it pours it out onto the earth below. Through her words and the composition of autumn imagery, the trees, leaves, and shining sun, she frames a picture of great beauty, capturing the picture that is on display for her. She notes the medium through which she perceives this picture. She beholds the scene through her eyes and notes that the eye is too weak to look directly at the sun. Such is the strength of this sight, according to Bradstreet, that even to look once is too much. As anyone peering at the sun has experienced, one must quickly turn one’s eyes away; the brightness is too intense. Even then, the image lingers as a shadow for some time. Perhaps it is this overpowering of the eye that Bradstreet has in mind when she says, “…no Eye hath strength thy shining Rays once to behold.”

In what may be seen as the second section of this stanza, Bradstreet moves from considering the sun’s appearance to its lofty position relative to earth. A “splendid Throne” is how she describes the sun’s location above her vantage point. A throne suggests the ruler who sits on it, and a ruler is one vested with power to rule over something. Bradstreet’s poetic language calls to mind the creation account where God makes the sun “…to rule over the day…” (Genesis 1:18 ESV). In using the word “splendid”, she calls to mind the previous two lines about the sun’s glory. But the greatness of the sun’s throne doesn’t merely consist in its outpouring of visible “glory”, but in its great height. It is so high, she says that “no earthly mould” can approach it. That is to say that this great sun, which is so bright that one dare not look directly at it, is situated so high that one could not hope to attain to its height. She specifically says that no earthly mould can “approach” it. In Bradstreet’s estimation, the sun is of such a high and lofty position that, try as it might, nothing of earthly origin can close the gap between them. The distance is too great. The sun is, as it were, in another realm altogether.

In the latter three lines of the stanza, Bradstreet shifts from the appearance and position of the sun to the source of its creaturely attributes. In typical Christian fashion, Bradstreet uses the inspiration of awe and wonder stirred up by some part of nature as a sort of symbol or sign that points to the God who created it. In response to the glory of which the sun is full, she asks the sun about the fullness of the Creator’s glory, and from whom he received his bright light. In response to the sun’s great height, she speaks of this Creator’s “Majesty”. She clearly distinguishes between the sun as a created object and the Creator who made the sun, gave glory and luster to it, and placed it in unapproachable heights in its splendid throne. In making this Creator-creature distinction, and in asking the question “how full of glory then must thy Creator be,” she is implying that, as awe-inspiring as the sun is, the one who is responsible for its existence must be as glorious and high and powerful to the sun as the sun is to us.

Her conclusion, then, is understandable. Rather than continuing to reverence the creation, she judges that the one who is so much greater should be “Admir’d, ador’d for ever.” The choice of these two words, “Admir’d” and “ador’d”, coupled together suggests that Bradstreet is well acquainted with the answer to the first catechism question memorized by many Protestants in the 17th Century, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster). How can one glorify one who is so much more glorious than the sun but by admiring Him? How can one enjoy one who is so much higher than even the sun on its inapproachable throne but to adore Him? And if this Creator is so great, then it is no surprise that Bradstreet, along with the Westminster divines who formulated the catechism answer, would choose to admire and adore Him “for ever”, with no end in sight.

In the form of written word, Anne Bradstreet preserves the visual experience of an autumn day, marking the appearance, height, and source of the sun’s greatness. In so doing in this section and throughout the poem, she echoes the teaching of Psalm 19, seeing in the natural world an opportunity to pay homage to the Creator.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 9:1-4 ESV)



Work Cited

“Westminster Shorter Catechism”. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Web. 2014, September 12. <>.

Shakespeare’s Portrayal of George as a Model Christian Convert in Richard III

On Facebook, I recently mentioned the importance of an article by Leland Ryken on Shakespeare as a Christian writer. I found the article incredibly helpful as I face this semester a Shakespeare professor who very vocally opposes Christianity, and seems to take much pleasure in presenting Shakespeare to his class in this professor’s own anti-Christian image. Well, after finding this article, I decided that I wanted to explore how Shakespeare treats Christian doctrines and themes in the two papers we have the opportunity to write. Below is the first paper of the semester, a preliminary essay in preparation for a more substantial research paper.

The original title was actually, “Christian Worldview and Moral Chaos”, but I like this new one better:

Shakespeare’s Portrayal of George as a Model Christian Convert in Richard III

          Shakespeare’s mid-1590s play, Richard the Third, depicts the rise of the play’s namesake to seize the throne of England, as well as his subsequent fall and death. Throughout the miserable circumstances of murders and intrigue in the play, characters routinely must deal with questions of moral judgment and are often confronted by a guilty conscience. Though Shakespeare’s Richard the Third does not present a simple moral message, i.e. that the good live happily while the evil die miserably, there is yet, like an invisible hand throughout the play, a positive affirmation of the Christian worldview regarding morality, future judgment, and redemption through Christ’s blood. This affirmation is made visible through the motif of characters’ struggling with conscience. Those characters one might consider “good” engage their conscience and ultimately heed its warnings, while those characters one might consider “bad” either ignore or suppress the working of their conscience. The positive affirmation of Christian morality, future judgment, and redemption through Christ’s blood are most clearly seen in Shakespeare’s portrayal of George, the Duke of Clarence, as he struggles with his conscience in Act 1, Scene 4.

George, Richard III’s brother and rival heir to the throne, struggles with his conscience in the events leading up to his murder. In this scene, George clearly reveals his own conviction of morality, judgment, and redemption, and this conviction is significant to determine why he responds in the way that he does when the pangs of his conscience begin. In a dream, George is faced with his own guilt for the betrayal of his father-in-law, the Duke of Warwick, and the killing of Prince Edward in battle. He dreams that he is knocked into the water and slowly drowns, his body refusing to let him die. At length, he finds that he has died and is in hell. In the darkness of hell, George finds himself face to face with those two men whom he previously betrayed. Warwick and Edward loudly proclaim how George betrayed them and pass judgment on him, which is promptly carried out by demonic minions. After this, George wakes and begins to consider the import of this dream.

The dream calls up George’s remembrance of past sins, thus acting as an instrument to reveal the guilt of his conscience. The knowledge of what he has done in the murder of Edward, confronts him in this dream as Edward’s ghost says, “Clarence is come, — false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence, / That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury; — / Seize on him! Furies, take him unto torment” (1.4.57-59). This confrontation of past sins is not unlike a judge’s verdict of guilt and punishment for a criminal. Whatever the cause of George’s dream may be, there is a recalling of specific details of which he would be keenly aware. His betrayal and his stabbing of Edward at Tewksbury are deeds that he willingly carried out and remembers. The torment ordered by Edward refers to the pains of hell that await all those who die outside of Christ. In his vulnerable, subconscious dream state, George is forced to confront both his sins and the punishment that he knows his sins deserve.

When he wakes, George’s response to his guilty conscience is one of confession and implicit repentance:

Clar.  O Brakenbury! I have done these things
That now give evidence against my soul,
For Edward’s sake; and see how he requites me.
O God! if my deep prayers cannot appease thee,
But thou wilt be aveng’d on my misdeeds,
Yet execute thy wrath on me alone:
O! spare my guiltless wife and my poor children.

It is evident from this passage that George believes the dream to be a true account of his sins as well as a prophetic message of his future, and his response is to experience a profound sense of guilt. Rather than ignoring or suppressing the guilt stirred up in his heart, George engages it and responds to it in a typically Christian fashion. He acknowledges the conviction of his conscience, confesses his sins, and prays to God for mercy. George, having committed betrayal and murder, and having nothing worldly to gain for himself through this confession and prayer, models the repentance of sin characteristic of the Christian whose heart has been changed through redemption.

The genuine repentance of George is further communicated to the audience when he pleads, albeit desperately, with the two men who have come to murder him. As he finds out from the men that they come under the command of his brother Richard’s authority, George appeals to their conscience, arguing from the divine authority that trumps even those with great power such as Richard:

I charge you, as you hope to have redemption
By Christ’s dear blood shed for our grievous sins,
That you depart and lay no hands on me;
The deed you undertake is damnable.

In the same way that George’s dream stirred up his own conscience through thoughts of future judgment, George appeals to the conscience of his soon-to-be murderers. He speaks of the damnation that will result from killing him; the torments of his dream probably still fresh on his mind. The assumed knowledge here is that the deed is damnable because it breaks God’s law. A couple lines later, George reinforces this by speaking of God hurling vengeance “upon their heads that break his law” (1.4.170). Clearly George is arguing for his own benefit, so that he will not die, but the fact that his argument is consistent with Christian moral thinking, combined with the fact of his prior repentance of his own sins, provides evidence that his appeal to Biblical teaching is genuine and from conviction.

In fact, he does not stop at the coming judgment, but appeals to the conscience of the murderers based on their hope for redemption through Christ’s blood. The incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of the God-man, Christ Jesus, to redeem his people from their sins is the central defining aspect of the Christian faith and gospel (c.f. Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:13-20). When George bases his appeal to conscience not only on the language of law and judgment, but also of Christ and redemption, he is appealing to the deepest convictions of Christian faith. So, in his plea before the murderers, George provides for them the knowledge of how heinous the deed is that they are about to commit, what the punishment is for that deed, and how the performance of that deed constitutes a rejection of the gracious love of God in Christ that is central to Christian faith.

Yet, for all this, he is stabbed and dumped in a wine cask to die. This speaks to the complexity of Shakespeare’s treatment of the moral issues that surround his characters in Richard the Third. Even though the cause of “good” ultimately conquers the cause of “evil”, Shakespeare does not present the audience with a simplistic story where good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Yet, for all the interaction of sin, redemption, living, and dying, the audience still has a sense of which characters may generally be described as “good guys” and “bad guys”. Characters and events in Shakespeare, as well as in real life situations, are not simplistic, but they still may be generally assessed. By the Christian standards Shakespeare uses, the penitent George is ultimately portrayed on the side of right. He is a “good guy” both for the repentance of his sins and for his opposition to the evil cause of Richard the Third. It is true that George’s earlier betrayal and killing actually worked in favor of Richard’s scheming, and it is true that George dies early in the play. However, George dies having repented of his earlier deeds, and he dies in opposition, albeit passive opposition, to the murderous intent of Richard’s plot. George was faced with a crisis of conscience, and he heeded the warnings of that conscience.

          Richard the Third is a long, complex play, and in it, Shakespeare does not exhibit a simplistic attitude towards “good” and “bad” characters. There are many interactions between characters, and, with perhaps the exception of Richard himself, none of them is either fully good or fully bad. Many horrible events occur throughout the course of the play, both to those that deserve punishment and those that are innocent, even to the point that the early printed editions of the play were classified as “Tragedie” instead of “History” as we might call them today. Yet, George with his heeding of conscience is portrayed generally in a positive light, as a “good guy” of sorts. The Christian convictions of sin, judgment, and redemption through Christ’s blood are also portrayed in a positive light, vicariously in and through the character and interactions of George in Act 1, Scene 4. Through all the tragic events in the play, these convictions come on hard times, but in the defeat of Richard, they are ultimately portrayed as on the side of justice and goodness.


Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. Delphi Complete Works of William Shakespeare LITE (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 2013.

The Day Without Atonement

(A pagan, ritualistic attempt to deal with sins)

In this (now past) semester, I had the opportunity to study and write about an early Japanese official writing that detailed the ritual performance called the “Great Exorcism of the Last Day of the Sixth Month.” I found the document incredibly intriguing, especially when viewed against the light of the Scripture’s teaching on how God deals with our sins. For this writing, my focus was on the various boundaries (i.e. spatial, moral, ritual) found in the text, whether implicit or explicit. There is much I’d like to consider about the implications of this piece, especially contrasting its presentation and solution of sin against the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, but for now, this is a good summary of this 10th Century A.D. document. One noteworthy observation, as the title of this post suggests, is that the sins are never really atoned, but merely transported to another, ultimately worldly location.

The Source (It is 4 pages, pgs 57-60)

(Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Ed. Shirane, Haruo. New York, NY: Coumbia UP, 2008. Pages 57-60.)

An Analysis

(Establishing and Crossing Boundaries in the Great Exorcism Rite. Whitford, Todd. 2014.)

Within the Engishiki, compiled around the first quarter of the 10th Century, a peculiar prayer ritual is presented, called the “Great Exorcism of the Last Day of the Sixth Month” (“Great Exorcism”, 56-57). This rite addresses the presence and persistence of sins committed in the realm, and prescribes certain works by which those sins are to be exorcised and purified. Throughout the rite, various boundaries or barriers are mentioned or implied, and these boundaries must be crossed in order for the sins of the people to be exorcised. There are boundaries of authority between the speaker of the ritual and those spoken to, national boundaries between “Great Yamato” and the rest of mankind, distinctions between deity and humanity, role boundaries between male and female deities, and material boundaries between heaven and earth. These boundaries are interacted with and crossed throughout the ritual, and yet in such a way that they remain firmly intact so that every year, twice a year, the ritual may be repeated and sins may be exorcised and purified from among the Japanese people.
One of the most striking observations about this rite, as given in the Colombia anthology, is the authoritative tone of the unnamed, first-person narrator. This person confidently addresses all the nobles of the court, gives an account of the authority that the emperor has received from greater deities, declares the actions that the Nakatomi must complete in order to exorcise sins, and assures all who hear of the effectiveness of this rite. Regardless of who he is, whether the emperor himself, a priest, or a shaman, the narrator leaves no question as to the presence of sin in the land as he matter-of-factly states twice in the first quarter of the document, “the various sins perpetrated and committed” (“Great Exorcism”, 57-58). The scope of sins that the speaker addresses is initially limited to those “perpetrated and committed by those who serve in the Emperor’s court,…attendants, as well as those who serve in various offices” (“Great Exorcism”, 57). This seems very limited since, presumably, those in close attendance with the emperor are not the only sinners in the realm. Following some introductory words that establish the hierarchical authority of the gods entrusted to the emperor, the scope of sins is then expanded to “the various sins perpetrated and committed by the ever-increasing people to come into existence in this land which [the emperor] is to rule…” (“Great Exorcism”, 58). At this point, all those within “Great Yamato, the Land of the Sun-Seen-on-High” presumably are within the scope of this ritual (“Great Exorcism”, 58). The reinforcement of the hierarchical order is a likely reason why the scope begins so small and then expands to the people of Japan in general. A further reinforcement of the hierarchical order is seen in the latter half of the rite when the sins are exorcised “beginning with the court of the Sovereign Grandchild” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). Implicit within this ritual is a sense of national identity and boundary, such that the exorcism of sins is only addressed in terms of the land of “Great Yamato”.
The speaker also names specific sins and categorizes them into two lists as either heavenly sins or earthly sins. These are likely representative sins, as demonstrated by the repeated lines, “many such sins as these…” (“Great Exorcism”, 58). Pondering these two lists, it is unclear what standard is used to distinguish the heavenly sins from the earthly sins, and yet the document clearly places a boundary between them as distinct categories. Most of the heavenly sins involve the destruction of crops or committing deeds that work against the regular husbandry of the land. I am puzzled, however, why defecation is listed here as a sin. This list of heavenly sins is reminiscent of the rage of Susano-O given in the Kojiki (“Kojiki”, 28). The earthly sins mostly involve death or sexual perversions with animals or close female relatives that tend toward the “death” of the basic family structure. Another way of putting it is that the earthly sins involve committing deeds that work against the regular husbandry of a family. Again, I’m puzzled as to what the three woes (insects, deities, and birds) refer, but it likely follows a similar pattern of rest of the earthly sins; the three woes probably represent some sort of defilement or dirtying of one’s flesh or fleshly relationships (“Great Exorcism”, 58).
Once these sins, whether heavenly or earthly, are committed, they “are to be exorcised, are to be purified” (“Great Exorcism”, 57). Sins are presented as having a sort of substance, or at least a lingering effect. Once “many sins such as these shall appear,” they do not simply disappear, but must be dealt with according to a particular rite of purification (“Great Exorcism”, 58). The solution to this problem of sin also demonstrates the boundaries that exist between different areas and groups. Particularly of interest is the boundary between heaven and earth and the boundaries between men, women, and deities. First, the sins are transferred onto heavenly narrow pieces of wood, and heavenly sedge reeds. The anthology editor’s introduction to the ritual fills in the missing details that these heavenly items bear the sins for the sinners across the waters and eventually into Hades (“Great Exorcism”, 57). Men, as opposed to deities, are the ones responsible for preparing these heavenly items and transferring the sins to them.
After the men have completed their part in this solemn ritual, the deities then rend the boundaries between heaven and earth, boundaries that apparently hinder the gods from doing their part in exorcising the people’s sins. First the heavenly deities, “pushing with an awesome pushing,” break through what are described as “myriad layers of heavenly clouds,” and “the heavenly rock door” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). This allows them to hear the words of the ritual and act accordingly. Next, the earthly deities must push aside “the mists of the high mountains and the mists of the low mountains” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). Having done so, they too can hear and act accordingly. The language of the document makes clear that, whatever the “heavenly rock door, heavenly clouds, and mists of the mountains” are, they block the way from earth to heaven, and they must be removed before the deities can even hear what is going on with this ritual exorcism of sins.
The borne sins are then carried away to Hades by four deities. Lady Seori carries the sins off to the sea, Lady Hayaski swallows them, the Lord of Ibukido blows them away, and Lady Hayasasura carries them off and loses them. Whether or not there is any intended communication of gender roles, it is interesting to note that three of these four sin-transporting deities are women. Furthermore, the one male deity involved in the process is the only one who does not physically handle them; whereas the three female deities physically carry them, the male deity simply blows on the sins to transport them to Hades. Intentional or not, there is an implied boundary here between the roles of male and female deities, further establishing and reinforcing a hierarchy of authority going from gods to the emperor, from the emperor to his subjects, and from male to female.
Boundaries, both material and ideological are present throughout the rite of the Great Exorcism of the Last Day of the Sixth Month. In order for sins to be expelled to Hades and lost, according to the rite, men must transfer their sins to a “sin bearer”, they must then reach out to the gods, the gods must clear a path from heaven to earth, and certain gods must physically take the sins off to be lost in Hades. In this story-ritual of how the sins of the realm are dealt with, the observer is made conscious of the various spheres of authority, and the often-invisible boundaries between these spheres are reinforced by the authority of the “eight myriad deities” (“Great Exorcism”, 57). Yet, as a result of this ritual, “each and every sin will be gone…there will be no sins left” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). According to the understanding of the one who speaks in this ritual, this exorcism of sins is only possible through a combined effort of men, the heavenly deities, and the earthly deities to cross these established boundaries.