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. <>


God’s Providence through Dark Means in Shakespeare’s Richard III

A note about this essay. In preparatory research for this essay, I came across some contemporary writers (such as Drs. Leland Ryken, Peter Leithart, and William Tate for example) who have attempted to do justice to the Christian themes and influences of Shakespeare’s writing. This essay is an attempt to add my pebble to the great path men such as these have laid down and trod upon. In an environment saturated with atrociously bad scholarship, as the current Shakespeare scene is, such men should be read and commended. It is my hope that some of their qualities have rubbed off on my writing, and that curious readers will gain some encouragement or benefit from reading this essay.


God’s Providence through Richard III’s Dark Means

“Of whom tedious it is to me to write this tragedious history, except that I remember that good it is to write and put in remembrance the punishment of sinners, to the end that others may eschew to fall into like danger” (Fabyan 113). So writes Robert Fabyan, a contemporary of Richard III, of the namesake of Shakespeare’s play. The days in which Richard III takes place are dark and dangerous for those in the English court. In the end, as twilight falls on the War of Roses and dawn rises upon the Tudor dynasty, Richard III, the great instigator and human agent of this dynastic shift in the English monarchy finds himself in the most dangerous position of all. Through the dark, despicable deeds of the play, Shakespeare tells the story of how this man brings chaos to the court and, much to his chagrin, falls prey to that same chaos in the end. Yet God’s hand of Providence is present behind all these events with apparent intentionality, directing both people and events toward a particular end. There are many aspects of Richard III that one could consider to illustrate the theme of Providence, but two examples are the deformity of Richard’s body and his sacrilegious mock-piety before the citizens.

Providence Defined

Providence is an immanently Christian concept to be distinguished from the impersonal capriciousness of the old Pagan Fate. The Christian doctrine of Providence is inextricably tied to the nature of the God whose acts the term describes. Summarizing about a century of Reformation preaching in English and Scottish churches, the Westminster Assembly of Divines gathered to compose a Confession of Faith in 1643. Regarding Providence, the Assembly wrote, “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 18). Therefore, according to this expression of Christian faith, Providence is not merely a theoretical explanation of creation’s origin or mover of auspicious events that occur in time; this God is the Creator who acts in time, but he also governs “all his creatures” and “all their actions” to accomplish his own purposes; purposes that all work “to his own glory.”

A significant aspect of the biblical theme of God’s Providence, particularly relevant to Shakespeare’s Richard III, is that God is at work accomplishing his will in even the darkest of circumstances. In fact, it is in the transition from disorder to order that God’s life-giving power is most apparent to a world that by nature cannot see God. In and of themselves, all things tend ultimately toward chaos. The central example of God accomplishing his purposes through dark means is the central message of the Christian Gospel. “For in [the Lord Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (ESV, Colossians 1:19, 20). This ultimate example of God creating order out of moral chaos is reflected, in a small scale in Richard III with the establishment of a peace through Richmond’s conquering of Richard III in Act 5, Scene 5.

Providence in Richard’s Deformity? A Christian Reading

One of the defining characteristics of Richard III is his physical deformity. In the opening monologue of the play, Richard himself says that he has been “…cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time” (Richard III 1.1.21-22). Following the theme of Divine Providence in the play, what Richard credits to nature having cheated him is an expression of God’s will in his creation. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the appearance of Richard and how this appearance relates to Richard as a character and moral agent is complicated. The audience encounters a certain tension regarding how to view Richard’s deformity. Does the deformity act as a portent of God’s wrathful intention toward him? Is it merely a dramatic visual cue of Richard’s evil heart building upon historical record? Does it serve primarily to build Richard’s character as a sort of embodiment of vice? Or does the answer lie somewhere else entirely?

One may be tempted to see the hand of Providence in Richard’s physical deformity as a factor that causes or in some way facilitates Richard’s vicious plots. To this end, Catherine Williams cites a scholarly tradition linking contemporary “theological and moral lessons” to Richard’s physical condition; she states that a contemporary audience would have “understood Richard as the ‘vehicle for the doctrine that villainy in the soul was predicated by a correspondent deformity in the body'” (Williams). While this may have been the case with some or many, perhaps it would be better to consider physical deformity in light of the Reformation-era Christian context in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed. I argue that there are not theological or moral lessons at play in Richard’s deformity. There is a sort of dramatic symbolism in Richard’s physical appearance, but from a Christian worldview, there is no ground for linking “villainy in the soul” with “a correspondent deformity in the body.” Those with a biblical Christian worldview would be aware of the Bible’s teachings against such notions. Some biblical examples will help to dispel the misunderstanding of theological lessons in physical deformities.

On the subject of physical marks or disfigurement being signs or portents, the biblical precedent seems to be that such things can happen to both those upon whom God shows favor as well as those upon whom he is bringing wrath. The Apostle Paul gave an example to the Corinthians of how God had given him a thorn in the flesh “to keep [him] from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Job, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” was given “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” to demonstrate his persevering faith (Job 1:1, 2:7). There is the example of Cain who received a mark from God after murdering his brother, Abel. However, even this mark is explained to have been given “lest any who found him should attack him” to avenge Abel’s death (Genesis 4:15). There simply aren’t Christian grounds to conclude that a physical deformity is given by God to signify “villainy in the soul”, and so insofar as a Christian audience is enlightened by the Christian worldview, it would not make this connection as the Williams citation argues.

Indeed, Christians of any era would affirm that God’s hand of Providence was behind the disfigurement of Richard, but not for the simplistic cause-and-effect reasoning that we might initially think.  I earlier cited the Christian confession that God governs “all his creatures…and all their actions.” Certainly Richard qualifies as one of God’s creatures, and so God, who “knitted [Richard] together in [his] mother’s womb,” had intentional purpose in causing Richard to be deformed, however great or small the deformity (Psalm 139:13).

Shortly after defining Providence, the Westminster Larger Catechism takes up the Christian teaching on human suffering in this life. It states that, because of our fall in Adam, “we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 27). This catechism answer, relying on biblical teaching about post-fall humanity, observes that every man is responsible for his own sin and answers for that sin both in the miseries of this life and, in the absence of a redeemer, the punishment for sin after death. So in this understanding of the Scriptures, even as God is seen to execute his decrees in Providence, every man is liable to the miseries we experience in life. A Christian understanding of Providence would affirm God’s intentional Providence in every aspect of existence but would not allow the conclusion that there is necessarily some sort of “theological and moral” connection between God’s decree of Richard’s physical deformity and Richard’s subsequent moral chaos as Williams’ quote suggests. One can but conclude that all things, even deformities, somehow serve “to [God’s] own glory” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 18). Insofar as one is consistent with a biblical worldview, as church-going, Reformation-era Londoners would have known, these “theological and moral lessons” would not be immediately apparent.

The Dramatic Symbolism of Richard’s Deformity

However, just because there are not theological or moral lessons in Richard’s deformity, it does not mean that there is not some purpose for which Shakespeare would both include and emphasize it in his play. Richard III is not a theological treatise; it is a theatrical drama. Insofar as it serves this theatrical function, both the visual and rhetorical portrayal of Richard as deformed in fact serve to amplify the audience’s perception of his inner, moral deformity and that these horrible events that are happening are part of a Divine decree. Richard’s outward deformity serves as a sort of visual, dramatic symbol of his immoral character. The function is that of dramatic symbolism, not theological teaching.

In Shakespeare’s early dramatic environment, not heavily reliant upon sets and props, the bodies of actors, how they are decked, their appearance, their voices, etc., are at the center of the audience’s attention. Whereas plays are, by their very nature, heavily visual, all of that vision is focused on the individuals on the stage when scenery is absent. So, the appearance of Richard, however his deformity was originally pulled off, would be very important to the play’s director and very striking to the audience. Even amid the very large cast of Richard III, the malformed Richard would be easily distinguishable.

On the subject of the visual effect on the audience of Richard’s deformity, Williams writes, “The theatre employs the powerfully affective device of the actor’s body beneath the character’s theatrical body, and this overlapping presentation complicates the dramatic fiction’s descriptions of the character the actor personates” (Williams).  It is always significant to recognize that the actor has the great power to give life to the character written on the page. The actor for Richard would have, in fact, been pretending to be deformed, and his pretending would have been done in such a way that a crowd of people from a considerable distance could tell that he was deformed. Such a performance would demand a sort of symbolic exaggeration, and such symbolism stirs the imagination to consider the implications of what is symbolized. As time progresses in the play, this visually striking deformed figure performing heinous acts suggests a causal connection between the visual portrayal of Richard and the actions he is performing. Clearly Shakespeare was intentional in his choice to make Richard’s appearance as striking as Richard’s actions. This intentionality, symbolized in that visual image of deformed Richard, reveals Shakespeare’s “providential” hand in the events of the play, and further reveals an intentionality in the events which are portrayed in the performance. There is a connection between God’s Providence and Richard’s deformity in Richard III, but it is symbolic rather than theological and moral.

As a playwright, Shakespeare “providentially” directs all the elements that he writes into his own play. In the rhetoric that he gives Richard, he includes the deformity as a significant factor in Richard’s bad character. In Henry VI, Part III, Richard says of himself, “Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it” (III Henry VI 5.6.79-80). Along the same line of reasoning, in the opening monologue of Richard III, he adds:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (Richard III 1.1.30-33)

Here the audience sees a glimpse into what drives Richard’s murderous heart. Whereas deformity can work dramatically as a visual cue for Richard’s inner state, rhetorically, it also serves to fuel his corrupt sinful nature, already bent on obtaining power at any cost.

So Providence can be seen to be at work through Richard’s deformity in a way that symbolically combines God’s decree with Richard’s own evil heart, but not in as simplistic a relationship as an audience might be comfortable with. But if God is providentially at work in the events of the play, the picture is further complicated by the depths of chaos and evil to which Richard stoops.

Providence in Richard’s Sacrilege – Hastening His Ascent

Shakespeare’s Richard is the sort of villain we all love to hate. He is evil and he knows it. He seems to love being evil, and if that were not enough, his physical body is twisted to match his wicked soul. Shakespeare portrays the moral chaos of Richard as bringing an end to the longstanding War of Roses between the York and Lancaster houses which lasted from 1455 to Richard III’s death in 1485.  He is, indeed “a scourge whom God uses in a measure-for-measure fashion to punish members of both Houses for not only their inner, sinful disorders (passion’s overthrow of reason) but their shattering of civil harmony as well” (Hunt 13). Such a view of English history is reminiscent of Israel’s period of kings, as the Jewish monarchs seemed to compete with their predecessors to exceed in wickedness, only to bring God’s judgment on the nation through either foreign kings or internal conspiracies. A key element of this political aspect of Richard III is the establishment of the Tudor house under Henry VII, or Richmond, as he is called in the play. A key scene that reveals God’s providential guidance, even through Richard’s evil deeds, is Act 3, Scene 7, when he wins public support by appearing to align himself with the Church.

After much scheming and killing, Richard has Buckingham attempt to stir up the citizens to support Richard as their new king. Unsuccessful in moving the people, Buckingham returns to Richard and devises a plan to gain Richard power and support through appearing devout and disinterested in being ruler. Buckingham says to Richard, “And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, / And stand between two churchmen, good my lord: / For on that ground I’ll make a holy descant” (Richard III 3.7.48-50). Richard obeys and the mock display of Christian piety wins him the support of the mayor and citizens. Now the question comes to mind, how can such an act of sacrilege be seen as the work of Providence pursuant to a positive end?

Richard’s mock piety hastens his ascension to the throne. After many years of battling between the houses of York and Lancaster, Richard, in his few years, has multiplied the chaos in the court by killing off rivals to the throne. In an environment where any surviving son is a potential heir to the throne, Richard is attempting to create a sort of vacuum of power with himself situated as the only rightful man to fill the space. Vacuum or no, an English king without some consent of England’s citizens is not likely to be king for long. Encouraged by Buckingham, Richard’s plan to garner the favor of the citizens is to do so by aligning himself with God through the Church. The Church is a symbol of stability. Royal houses and kingdoms alike rise and fall, but “[God’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). The trick works and the citizens and leaders who previously, “like dumb statues or breathing stones, / Star’d each on other, and look’d deadly pale,” now respond by declaring Richard King with their “Amen” (Richard III 3.7.27-28, 3.7.246). So, in what is essentially a public relations campaign, Richard successfully turns the tide of public opinion in his favor by seeming to ally himself with God.

Providence in Richard’s Sacrilege – Hastening His Demise

Even as it hastens his ascent, Richard’s mock piety, an act of scoffing defiance against God, also hastens his demise. Any passage of time, it could be argued, brings one closer to one’s ultimate end. However, in Richard’s case, it is not the mere passage of time, but how he uses that time to engage in more and more evil that suggests a special intention of Providence. Oftentimes in the Bible, God gives men plenty of opportunity either to repent or indulge further in their sins before he brings a swift hand of justice down upon them. Like the ancient Pharaoh, whose stubborn disobedience to God’s command brought God’s plagues upon his nation, Richard seems also to be digging himself a deeper and deeper hole of guilt before God.

Yet even in the biblical account of Pharaoh, there is explicit mention of Providential decree, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 14:4). Pharaoh’s deliberate resistance to God’s commands is paired with God’s providential actions in the events taking place. Although there is no explicit language of such divine intentionality in Richard’s case (Shakespeare does not have the same didactic purpose as the writer of Exodus), Richard himself does bring God’s attention to events into the picture when he mocks reluctance to ascend to England’s throne: “For God doth know, and you may partly see, / How far I am from the desire of this” (Richard III 3.7.240-241). Whether or not Richard truly believes what he says about God here, he is the one that makes the move to invoke God’s blessing, if only in outward ceremony. This scene is still fresh in one’s mind when, two scenes later, Richard emerges “in pomp, crowned” as King (Richard III 4.2.1). However, having hastened his ascension to the throne, Richard has deepened his guilt even to embrace blasphemy as he brings the God of Providence into the picture. With such an affront to the Divine, it would seem that Richard’s demise is assured from this point on. “And I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD”.

Drawing It All Together

Richard III presents a mostly historic tale of how the 30 year War of Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster is brought to an end by the conspiracies of Richard III, and order is restored in the establishment of the House of Tudor through Richmond, King Henry VII. Richard is a strong, chaotic force in the already chaotic setting of civil war in England, and God providentially uses even his chaos to restore order to the nation. The existing disorder of the War of Roses, the scourge of Richard III with all the chaos that he brings into the picture, and the idyllic establishment of the House of Tudor all seem to point to undercurrents of Christian thought about God’s ultimate act of ordaining order from chaos through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  But, for Shakespeare, all is not yet right in the world just because Richard III is gone. In the concluding scene, Richmond acknowledges the potential for future strife and prays that God would disallow it when he says, “Let them not live to taste this land’s increase / That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace” (Richard III 5.5.38-39). The conclusion is rosy, yes, but there are still thorns on the stem. The mood of the play’s conclusion expresses a desire that looks forward to the time when every knee will bow before the King of Kings and order is ultimately established forever.


Works Cited

Fabyan, Robert. “From The New Chronicles of England and France (1516) – Richard III.” Richard III (Norton Critical Editions). Ed. Cartelli, Thomas. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 113-116. Print.

Hunt, Maurice. “Ordering Disorder in ‘Richard III’.” South Central Review. 6.4. (1989): 11-29. Web. 2014, October 31. < >.

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

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

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

Williams, Katherine Schaap. “Performing Disability and Theorizing Deformity”. Shakespeare and Theory: Special Issue II. Spec. issue of English Studies. 94.7. (2013): 757-772. Web. 2014, November 11. < >.


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.