Divine and Human and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy

Divine and Human and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy
New Translations by Peter Sekirin
(Zondervan, 2000), hb., 211 pp.

I came across this book second hand and was really excited about it. According to the introduction the book contains some of the stories that Tolstoy thought were the most important he had written but they have not been very accessible in the past. Apparently, Tolstoy had gathered great stories from various cultures and reworked them. According to the translator, Tolstoy considered this book as the most important of all his works.

The Foreword states:

“The stories in the collection you hold in your hand were selected from The Sunday Reading Stories. Because this last great volume of Tolstoy’s work has been neglected for so long, most of the stories in Divine and Human are appearing in English for the first time” (12).

The prospect of uncovering “buried treasure” particularly appeals to me so I was really drawn to the book.

However, it has been a great, deep disappointment. Perhaps I should have known better, but the theology is so skewed as to make it unusable with my children. If he spoke simply to general truths (valor, faithfulness, integrity, etc.) it might be useful in spite of his overall theology. However, Tolstoy here is seeking to address the foundational issues of spirituality, sin, forgiveness, etc. In doing so he is significantly flawed. He displays a very poor understanding of atonement and forgiveness. Let me point to a few examples.

In “The Son of a Thief” a respected businessman is called upon to serve on the jury for the trial of a thief. In the end he says he cannot pass judgment on this man who is guilty because he, himself, was the son of a thief. The businessman says, “I cannot judge others. To do so is not a Christian thing, your honor. We should forgive other people and love them.” The story ends with the judge stopping and considering “whether, according to the laws of Christ, it was possible to judge others.” This is a prime example of what many today think Christianity teaches. It is terribly wrong. The gospel is not, “Surprise! God did not really mean all that stuff about hating sin and judging sin.” We need to return to Romans 3 and see that God will indeed judge all sin. The only way forgiveness could be offered is by Someone else taking the punishment. Tolstoy totally misses the need for and point of the atonement. Further, 1 Cor 5 (as one example of many) shows that we must confront, rebuke, even “judge” sin. Only when sin is rebuked can it then be forgiven.

One last example will have to suffice. “The Archangel Gabriel” is a brief (one page) story in which God teaches Gabriel universalism! Gabriel hears God blessing someone and Gabriel asks to see who this one is. God shows him the man in a temple praying before an idol. Gabriel is shocked, but God says:

“It is true that he does not understand me properly. Not one man living is capable of understanding me as I am. The wisest of the whole human race are just as far from really understanding me as this man is. I look not at his mind, but at his heart. The heart of this man searches for me, and therefore he is close to me” (35).

Again this thinking is alarmingly common today, but it is far from the biblical witness. True, the wisest of us cannot discern God on our own. But the result of this according to Paul is that we need for God to reveal himself to us through the cross (1 Cor 1:18-2:5). Those who embrace the truth of God revealed in the cross do in fact understand God in a way far beyond those who do not accept this truth- not by their own doing but by God’s gracious work.
Furthermore, Tolstoy makes the common error of suggesting that if God just looks on our hearts he will be pleased. The fact that God looks on the heart does not relieve me of awareness of sin, but worries me all the more. Only certain sins creep out into actions, but our hearts are full of wicked thoughts and desires. No, our hope is not in God “just looking on our hearts,” but in God changing our hearts (Ezekiel 36:26), in God judging our sin on Christ rather than on us (Romans 3).

So, since Tolstoy is trying to do theology and since he does is so badly, this is not a useful book. It is unorthodox and even blasphemous (the picture of God in the story with Gabriel). The one way this book might be useful (and the reason I will keep this copy) is that it represents many of the common false ideas about the gospel which are current today.

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