The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth

Images of Christ's Threefold Office in The Lord of the Rings

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Philip Ryken
Hansen Lectureship
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , November
     2017.
     150 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830853724.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings is the printed version of a series of three lectures delivered by Philip Ryken, President of Wheaton College, upon the establishment of the Hansen Lectureship Series. The book is a compilation of Ryken’s three lectures regarding the prophetic, sacerdotal, and kingly functions of the characters in the J.R.R. Tolkein’s trilogy, and includes responses from academics familiar with Ryken and Tolkein.

Ryken’s first section, “The Prophetic Ministry of Gandalf the Grey,” delineates the similarities between Gandalf and Christ in terms of their prophetic function in society. First, Ryken establishes the history of the threefold offices of Christ by hearkening back to Eusebius—who first described the munus triplex—and proceeds to note that prophecy is the first form of leadership in the Old Testament. This is the strongest part of Ryken’s argument for the significance of Christ’s threefold office in The Lord of the Rings, as he effectively demonstrates that Gandalf fulfills the prophetic duty by giving wisdom to influence the decisions of others, leading groups such as the Fellowship through danger, seeing the future, and providing people with information and instruction sothat they can complete their quests. Ryken gives several examples of Gandalf performing these actions, even when they are ill received—such as by Denethor and a hypnotized Theodin. Ryken also notes that Gandalf, like Christ, rejects the temptation of power by refusing to take the One Ring when Frodo offers it. Gandalf also respects the freedom of the individual to choose, and does not coerce as Saruman does.

The next lecture in the series, “Frodo, Sam, and the Priesthood of All Believers,” is a more-problematic argument. Ryken appeals to Martin Luther’s philosophy that all people are called to be priests—not just the formally anointed—and as such argues that every character in The Lord of the Rings may rightly be considered a priest. Frodo as priest, according to Ryken, carries the One Ring and experiences his own Passion in the fires of Mount Doom. The other hobbits, Ryken notes, also sacrifice to bring successful conclusion to the quest. Ryken does not supply a sufficient definition of priest that differentiates the priestly office from that of any other member of the church. Without this clarity, it is difficult to ascertain what the hobbits do that we should consider ¨priestly,¨ other than function in a community and fight in the face of danger. The lack of specific connection between the good deeds of the hobbits and the duties of a priest complicate this section of the argument.

Ryken’s third lecture, “The Coronation of Aragorn son of Arathorn,” explores the duties of a king in relation to Christ’s fulfillment of this office. On the surface, this relationship is obvious—both rise from humble beginnings, reject false opportunities for power, miraculously heal others, and pass through a death/rebirth cycle to achieve their apotheosis. There is even marriage between the parties—Christ to his church, and Aragorn to Arwen. These connections are easily made by anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings and is familiar with Christianity. The function of Aragorn as king in comparison to Christ as king is somewhat lacking, as Aragorn is not officially king until the end of The Lord of the Rings. A deeper analysis into the ways that Christ fulfills his kingly function and how that is reflected in Aragorn would enhance the argument for this section.

In all three lectures, Ryken concludes with a section on the applicability of his analysis to everyday life. For Ryken, everyday life involves being a college president and running a school, so the parallels that he draws are to his personal situation. This becomes a platform from which Ryken attempts to motivate his audience—presumably Wheaton College students, parents, instructors, and alumni. These statements are then followed by a response from scholars associated with Wheaton College, who affirm Ryken’s position. The first of these, written by Sandra Richter, Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, gives useful additions from the Old Testament to clarify the prophetic office. If Ryken were to find response writers who could do more to extend and support the arguments of the main lectures, the responses would be more useful.

Overall, Ryken’s analysis of the threefold offices of Christ as they appear in The Lord of the Rings has validity, and is strong with regard to Gandalf as prophet. More in-depth definition of the duties of priest and king would help to draw out the comparison between the other two offices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charmaine Cordero is a graduate student in English Literature at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019

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