Knowledge falsely so-called

In my last post I began with the picture of Adam’s (and through him, of mankind’s) intended role in God’s creation of sacred space, as suggested in various writings by J H Walton, G K Beale, J R Middleton and, in an excursus to Walton’s new book, N T Wright. This was my abridgement of Wright’s treatment:

This leads me to my proposal: that just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purposes to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, were to be taken forward… If they failed, they would bring the whole purpose for the wider creation, including all those other nonchosen hominids, down with then… Not that death, the decay and dissolution of plants, animals and hominds, wasn’t a reality already; but you, Adam and Eve, are chosen to be the people through whom God’s life-giving reflection will be imaged into the world…

Now if one accepts the divine origin of Genesis, and that this interpretation is broadly correct, then it is actually the underpinning idea of the Bible’s whole teaching on the Kingdom of God, both in this world and the world to come, as well as “in the beginning”. It defines Israel’s role in the Old Testament. And it also defines the Church’s role in the New – in other words, it describes our own vocation as Christians. And it describes the culmination of all things when Christ returns, for that is when God’s original plan for creation is to be finally completed. It is therefore of eternal significance.

This impact upon how we see ourselves, in relation to the world as it is now, is what I want to deal with today.

In general terms, one can detect in Genesis, and in the biblical passages leaning on it, a threefold pattern for the fulfilment of God’s creative work through mankind. Richard Middleton is right to remind us that a fundamental aspect of this is the simple business of living ones practical daily life in relationship to God. So to rule and subdue the earth has a lot to do with the simple business of bringing land under cultivation and engaging in related human activities: civilization was central to God’s project. We could include all arts and sciences under this. We see this reflected in eschatological prophecies to Israel, in which the age to come is represented by each man “dwelling under his own vine, and under his own fig tree”. We also see it in the prominence given in the New Testament to living quite ordinary lives, but in right relationship.

Yet integral to this is a second aspect. In order to bring an increase of God’s physical and spiritual order to the world, God’s moral order needed to be instilled in human hearts. This is especially the case in the “Wright Scenario” above, in which Adam was to spread God’s ways through a new ministry to a pre-existing, but spiritually and morally untutored, humanity. Moses later spoke, of course, to an Israel already corrupted by sin, but still the basis of their relationship to God was his torah, the teaching which would make them wise under God for their role for the world. In both cases – humanity before the Fall, and Israel after the Fall – such ethical wisdom was not available to people apart from the tutelage of God (Deut 4.7-8). Once again, in the same way the gospel, though based on grace and forgiveness, reinterprets and expands the ethical requirements of the Old Testament as essential teaching for the redeemed (Matt 5.17-20). We are savedfrom sin and death, yes, but for the service of the Kingdom of God.

The third aspect is harder to envisage, because it is irreducibly supernatural. Remember that without sin, Adam and Eve would have lived forever, because of their access to the tree of life. It could be suggested that physical death would still have occurred, though the examples of Enoch and Elijah do not make this inevitable. But even if physical death had remained for Adam’s sinless descendants, one can envisage that, dwelling in Eden’s divine reality, humanity would have undergone some kind of transition to the spiritual existence seen in the resurrection of Christ, without the radical separation from the living that death now brings.

We know this because it was intended that Adam and Eve should, somehow, bring the whole creation to such a state with them. As Walton writes, humanity’s work was to complete what was still lacking in creation, in its capacity as the authorised image of God. Romans 8.18ff is about the “tohu” (vanity) to which God subjected a groaning creation because sin delayed the implementation of this transformation. And we know that in Christ the cosmos will be finally recreated in this way.

Needless to say, I have great difficulty imagining just how even a sinless human race after Adam might have achieved such a thing. Presumably it could only be through God’s gift, perhaps bringing the physical universe into conformity with a transformed humanity, or in some other way. But it is clear that, like the other two aspects, what was needed on man’s part would be the two very special things that relationship with God offered in the garden: eternal life, lost by the expulsion from Eden and the tree of life; and wisdom, marred by the sin of illicitly eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

One of the insights from John Walton (though it was first introduced in his older NIV Application Commentary on Genesis rather than the new book) is that the core element of the first sin, apart from the act of disobedience itself, was the attempt to gain what was in God’s gift, without reference to him. The “tree of life” was freely accessible to Adam and Eve, and whether it is a mythical metaphor or was a physical provision represents the truth that to be in communion with God is eternal life.

But Walton makes a solid case that the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is an ancient idiom meaning “the tree of wisdom”, and indeed it was because Eve saw that it would make her wise that she was tempted to take what had been forbidden. Did they actually gain God’s wisdom by eating the fruit? The testimony of the story, and of teaching on wisdom throughout the Bible, is that they did not: they acquired only a semblance of wisdom, which was why God had forbidden the fruit in the first place. As Proverbs stresses, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – only in relationship with God can true wisdom (for the task given to mankind) be gained. It had been the Lord’s intention, without doubt, to endow them them with such wisdom (beyond price, in the words of Proverbs) in his own time and his own way: wisdom must grow in an orderly way, as even human educators know.

This is the root of Paul’s denigration of human wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1-2, which is not a condemnation of any particular system, Greek or otherwise, but of all wisdom not gained through knowledge of God, wisdom’s only source. Romans 1, Paul’s exposition of sin and God’s wrath, is a commentary on the early chapters of Genesis, but particularly of the Eden story. Human decline starts with the disregard of God, with the claim to wisdom (the degenerate wisdom taken from the tree) leading to idolatry. Somewhat to our surprise, it is in just punishment of this that God gives all men over to moral sin – this defacement of nature is itself, in Paul’s teaching, the “just punishment of their perversion [of the true worship of God]. Sexual perversion is the paradigmatic example Paul gives, but it is paralleled by every human evil:

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.

All these arise from “a depraved mind”, note, which is as much asto say “from the damage caused to our reason by the false ‘wisdom’ produced at the Fall”. Incidentally, Paul immediately goes on to disparage equally all of us who pass judgement on others, because we are all tarred by the same brush. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that this is not incompatible either with Paul’s teaching these things to be evil, nor his condemnation of those who approve of them in others. It is sinful not to disapprove, and grieve over, evil.

The upshot is this: that the Fall is, in essence, about the radical failure of human wisdom by man’s seizure of autonomy through the archetype, Adam. This affects both his ability to live practically as God intended (name your poison here, from pollution to poverty) and his moral compass apart from the instruction of God. It must inevitably affect our science as well as our religion, and our judicial and political systems as well as our personal behaviour.

The counterbalance to that is that “Kingdom logic” means that although personal forgiveness and salvation are the beginnings of the gospel, Christianity’s core purpose is the renewal of relationship with the only true source of wisdom, God. As in Eden, that may be seen as threefold.

Firstly it means to live practically here and now as custodians of creation, guided by God’s wisdom through Scripture and the Spirit, as well as the indispensible human faculties of intelligence and common sense, and modelling them to the rest of mankind.

Secondly it means sitting humbly at God’s feet to learn his moral torah, as given through the prophets and apostles and Christ himself and interpreted by the Spirit of Christ in the believer’s heart; and once more both modelling it and proclaiming it boldly for the rest of mankind. After all, to do the reverse and aim to update the teaching of God by academic or popular vote (as seems to have been the trend over the last half-century) is no more or less than to affirm that the serpent was right, and that man can judge his own wisdom apart from God. It is to deny any need for repentance, except on God’s part.

Thirdly, it means hastening the coming of God’s spiritual kingdom through the parousia of Christ, as it is written in 2 Peter 3.12. Peter makes it clear in context that this is achieved through living in a godly way by the wisdom of the coming age, and by implication through testifying to that wisdom amongst those who have not yet found it because they do not know God. That, after all, was the way in which Adam and Eve would have done the job. The key to understanding the present and the future aright lies in the past, in the revelation of God which is the only counterbalance to human folly. As Peter wrote:

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking [“the sincere mind”]. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles.

I find that to be a viewpoint rarely expressed now. But it’s right there, in Genesis 1-3.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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