Reformation Grace in “East of Eden”
Written by Gabriel Rench on October 3, 2017
This autumn marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s pinning of the ninety-five theses. Whether you’re Lutheran or not, Luther and the Reformers’ impact on the world is undeniable, unforgettable.
Of all Luther’s works, the De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) cut to the heart of what the Reformers defended:
It is in the highest degree wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters pertaining to salvation. Indeed let me tell you, that is the hinge on which our discussion turns. . . For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent, and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent, and limits of what God can and will do in me. . . Now, if I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks, or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to Him.
(Quoted in Luther Selections, 179)
Luther shows here his foremost concern with the necessity of the bound will of the dead sinner without Christ, completely unable to please God or grasp salvation by any means of his own. Only with life in Christ comes the free will of the new, living man, able to actively choose and do good works, not as if God had merely jump-started his dead will to see what man would do, but so that God’s grace would be magnified not only in salvation, but also in every fruit of salvation. God is the author and the fountain.
This autumn also marks the 65th anniversary of East of Eden by Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck. This shining gem of American fiction is a 225,395-word retelling of the Cain and Abel narrative. Two generations of brothers repeat the conflict of Genesis four in their lives, first Adam and Charles Trask during the Civil War, and later Adam’s twin sons, Cal and Aron Trask during WWI. The same kind of question haunts every character of the novel, to the very last page: Is man’s will free or bound? Can he rule over sin if he chooses to? Is he doomed to the evil he’s born in, or is he free to part from that evil and choose to be good?
A little more than halfway through the novel, Adam, his wise Chinese housekeeper, Lee, and their winsome friend, Samuel Hamilton, gather together to discuss Genesis four (because they’re those type of friends). Upon finding a difference in translations of v. 7 where God speaks to Cain about sin, Lee researches the original Hebrew and presents his adjudication between translations with relish:
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see…Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.”
(East of Eden, John Steinbeck, p. 303)
The common understanding of East of Eden‘s Timshel is extracted mainly from what Lee says here, and rightly so. According to Lee, Timshel should produce a triumphant attitude toward life, a kind of a life-is-what-you-make-it, you-can-choose-what-you-will-be idea, which can be seen both in the fierce, unstoppable will of Kathy Ames, the novel’s main antagonist, and in today’s American “virtue” of autonomy and self-determination. Lee is right to conclude that this attitude is “a ladder to climb to the stars”: it elevates man to divinity, bestowing him with an innate power over providence, a free will.
Lee is undoubtedly pivotal in understanding Timshel in East of Eden, an understanding which by itself clearly goes against the Reformers’ biblical stand on man’s will as it pertains to sin and salvation. But Steinbeck doesn’t make it so simple.
You’ll encounter essentially two kinds of complex characters in this largest of novels: one wrestles with a strong desire to do wrong and an unshakable longing for goodness and beauty and love; another type has no discernible moral brakes. For both, the results are the same. Both kinds of characters give in to their יֵצֶר רַע (yetzer ra), inclination to evil, and never truly achieve or retain the goodness they desire or have set up for themselves. For all East of Eden characters this is frustratingly true, all but Cal Trask.
Cal is an intelligent young man, very aware of his own flaws, and very aware of why his father favors his twin over him; he tries to make himself feel better ironically by being self-deprecating. Still, Cal loves both his father and his brother, and strives to protect Aron, especially from himself.
As you reach the last few chapters of the fat novel, every character has thus far failed, but Cal has remained to the last the one and only hope for redemption; he alone has wrestled with himself more than any other character has with themselves. Yet just as his fathers before him, Cal fails. Timshel, according to Lee, doesn’t work. Wrestling with your sin doesn’t work; pulling yourself up by your bootstraps doesn’t work. Man cannot rule over sin as its master. Steinbeck’s narrative of human failure is akin to the Bible’s narrative of human failure. Yet.
And now, it’s time for the spoiler. It is only with the last word from Cal’s father, Adam, that there is truly hope. Adam Trask meets Cal’s indirect killing of his brother Aron, by breathing out a last, “Timshel.” Adam’s Timshel is different from Lee’s Timshel before it. Instead of an exhortation to a self-exalting power-grab attitude toward life, this final Timshel is pure, undeserved blessing. By introducing Aron to their wicked mother, Cal indirectly kills not only his brother, who reacted by signing up for the War, but Cal also indirectly kills his father, who has a stroke upon hearing his beloved son is dead. This is the context of Timshel, the final proof that Lee was painfully wrong: man cannot choose to be good and always fails to do so. But it is the undeserved blessing and mercy of Cal’s dying father that frees Cal. It is not self-sufficiency or self-trust, but forgiveness alone that is Cal’s freedom and redemption. East of Eden’s Timshel beautifully demonstrates that biblical idea of man’s will which the Reformers were fighting to preserve: the power of grace is the only freedom and redemption for the hopeless, wicked world. Lee’s Timshel is wrongly triumphant and, in the end, crippling for Cal. Adam’s Timshel, like Abel’s blood, points to freedom: that sufficient grace of Christ’s blood alone for sinners, that makes us now more than conquerors over sin.