On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg.jpg

Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

J.R.R. Tolkien on the death of Osama Bin Laden

‘It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity! It was Pity that stayed his hand, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”’

– J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Taming of Sméagol’, in The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 601.

Forsyth and Barth on Judgement

In the current of my work on my ‘christology chapter’ for my thesis, I have been struck afresh just how much Forsyth anticipates some of Barth’s best moments, and how both of them have an important word to speak into the renewed debate on penal substitution. Of course, many of Barth’s greatest words are in the small print. This, of course, ought be no suprise: it is the small print that makes up the bulk of his Dogmatics it seems. (On that, is someone able to confirm, or otherwise, for me that Barth once said that the reason that he wrote so much was in order to ‘get the Enlightenent out of my system’?).

One thing (among many) that I love in both Forsyth and Barth is their relentless insistence that neither the divine-human reconciliation, nor its attendent judgement is the work of a third party. The issue here is the primacy and triumph of God’s grace – God’s grace. All satisfaction of the Father flows from God’s grace and love; it does not procure it. As Forsyth insisted, ‘Procured grace is a contradiction in terms. The atonement did not procure grace, it flowed from grace’. Forsyth contends that the judgement work of the Cross is not the work of a ‘pardon-broker’ – God does not hire someone else to do his dirty work! – but is the summit work of the gracious God whose grace is ‘unbought and unpurchaseable’. Here’s the same tune in Barth’s wee print. It just grips my heart and sends me a singing:

Jesus Christ, in His solidarity with “human nature which has sinned could pay the penalty of sin” (Heid. Catech. Qu. 16), and at the same time, in the power of His divinity, could “bear the burden of the wrath of God in His humanity” (17). Without any diminution of His divine majesty, in the exercise of the divine majesty of His love He could enter into this “likeness of sinful flesh” to bear, in the same majesty, the judgment of divine wrath without annihilation, to be and to reveal Himself supremely as divine majesty even in His humiliation, to rise from the dead as conqueror of the judgment to which He had subjected Himself, the first fruits of all who were to follow in His steps. He could drink the cup which had to be drunk. Because He was God Himself, He could subject Himself to the severity of God. And because He was God Himself He did not have to succumb to the severity of God. God had to be severe to be true to Himself in His encounter with man, and thus to be true also to man. God’s wrath had to be revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. But only God could carry through this necessary revelation of His righteousness without involving an end of all things. Only God Himself could bear the wrath of God. Only God’s mercy was capable of bearing the pain to which the creature existing in opposition to Him is subject. Only God’s mercy could so feel this pain as to take it into the very heart of His being. And only God’s mercy was strong enough not to be annihilated by this pain. And this that could happen only by the divine mercy is just what did happen on the cross of Golgotha: that double proof of omnipotence in which God did not abate the demands of His righteousness but showed Himself equal to His own wrath; on the one hand by submitting to it and on the other by not being consumed by it. In virtue of this omnipotence God’s mercy could be at one and the same time the deepest and sincerest pity and inflexible and impassible divine strength. He could yield to His own inexorable righteousness and by this very surrender maintain Himself as God. He could reveal Himself at once as the One who as the servant of all bore the punishment of death which we had deserved, and the One who as the Lord of all took from death its power and for ever vanquished and destroyed it. In this twofold sense God’s righteousness triumphed in the death of Jesus Christ. (Church Dogmatics II/1, 400)

Goodwin on God’s mercy

My next few posts will be some thoughts from Thomas Goodwin (1600 – 1679). Goodwin was a co-pastor with John Owen at a time of severe persecution of the Puritans. His courageous refusal to comply with the Church of England after the issuance of the Act of Uniformity is one of the many reasons that he was so admired by Forsyth.

‘The mercies of [God’s] nature, thus joined with the declarations of his gracious willingness to shew mercy to us men, is now become a just and meet ground and object for a sinner’s faith.’ The Object And Acts Of Justifying Faith

‘God’s shewing, or his actual exercising of mercy, dependeth upon an act of his will, and is not a mere, sole, single effect of his nature. For if it were solely and act of his nature, it would have been, and would still be necessary, for him to shew mercy on the devils … so some revelation or manifestation of his good will (at least indefinite to mankind) is necessary to our faith, and not merely the knowledge of the mercy in his nature.’ The Object And Acts Of Justifying Faith

‘All our faith for forgiveness may at any time be readily and finally resolved into the mercies of God, as the ultimum objectum in quod, as the ultimate object or foundation.’ The Object And Acts Of Justifying Faith


‘How much more precious a thing to us is the mercy of God than the love of God. If the love of God is unspeakable, what must His mercy be? If the love of God is precious to us, what must His grace be?’ P. T. Forsyth, ‘Majesty and Mercy.’ Christian World Pulpit 79 (17 May 1911): 305.