"Man revolted from his maker": Calvin on Gen. 3.1-7

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The curious decision of Adam and Eve, having been the recipients of such goodness from God, to defect from their Maker, thus spoiling the "native excellence" of both themselves and "the whole world which had been created for them," raises "many difficult questions." Chief among them, Calvin acknowledges, is "why God permitted Adam [and Eve] to be tempted, seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Two further questions lurk behind Calvin's discussion of the Fall: First, was God in some way responsible for Adam and Eve's defection (that is, did he instigate or cause their sin)? And second, does the Fall constitute a lapse in God's providential rule of his created world and its history?

Calvin's starting point in approaching these questions is the assumption that we, as creatures of God, stand "to be judged by God," not to "pass judgment on him." His goal, then, is never to vindicate God before the bar of human moral judgment. He does, however, feel it proper to represent God's character faithfully and truly in all our talk about God and his ways, and he seeks to do just that as he narrates the origin of human sin. He thus provides to us a model for God-honoring thinking and speaking about the Fall.

Faithful representation of God's character means, first and foremost, observing that God created all sentient beings -- angels, men and women, and even animals -- upright in nature. God is not the author of evil; he created all things "very good." Calvin goes to great lengths to emphasize the integrity of the created natures of all four participants in the event of the Fall: the serpent, the Devil, Adam, and Eve.

The need Calvin feels to defend the created nature of the serpent stems not only from its role in tempting Eve, but also from Scripture's description of it as "more subtle" or "crafty" than the other animals. Calvin worries, first of all, that some might conclude from this description that the serpent determined "to deceive man" by virtue of "its own malignity," and so fail to recognize that behind the serpent lay Satan, who used the serpent as his "instrument" for "effecting the destruction of man."

He worries, secondly, that some might consider "craftiness" a created flaw or vice in the snake as such, and thereby conclude that God purposefully made an evil-prone being. Thus Calvin labors to render "craftiness" not only innocuous but even virtuous: Scripture "does not so much point out a fault as attribute praise to [the serpent's] nature, because God had endued this beast with such singular skill, as rendered it acute and quick-sighted beyond all others." Proof that craftiness per se is no vice is drawn from Christ's instruction to his disciples to be as "subtle as serpents" (Matt. 10:16). The Savior, it seems, encouraged his followers to exercise the very quality which rendered the serpent an apt "instrument" of the devil; the quality as such, then, cannot be considered sinful.

But what about Satan, who through the serpent deceived God's image bearers? Satan, of course, is not explicitly named in the Fall narrative. That, and the consequent truth that Genesis provides no account of "how the tempter himself had revolted from God," has led certain "fanatical men," Calvin notes, to believe "that Satan was created evil and wicked, as he is here described." Calvin firmly insists that Satan's own wickedness cannot be traced back to God's creative activity, and is therefore unnatural, in the truest sense of the term, to the wickedest of all beings. "The principle of evil with which Satan was endued was not from nature, but from defection; because he had departed from God, the fountain of justice and of all rectitude."

What about Adam and Eve? Does the apparent ease with which they were led astray suggest that God himself, in creation or at any point prior to their actual sin, endowed human nature with some proclivity towards sin? Calvin shudders at the very thought: "It is an impious madness to ascribe to God the creation of any evil and corrupt nature; for when he had completed the world, he himself gave this testimony to all his works, that they were 'very good.'" How, then, do we explain the fact that Adam and Eve sinned? According to Calvin, Adam and Eve simply exercised their "free choice," a capacity he unreservedly attributes to them as pre-fallen divine image-bearers.

The "free choice" Adam and Eve made was, of course, an act of "contumacy against the Divine Law-Giver," and as such "it was against the will of God." But nothing happens in human history unbe(fore)knownst to God. Indeed, God is sovereign even over free human choices. There is a real sense, then, in which Adam and Eve sinned in accordance not only with God's permission, but with his express ordination. Calvin expresses this truth in no uncertain terms: "evil did not take place except by his permission." But he hastens to add, lest this truth cause confusion, that God's active permission of the Fall does not imply that Adam and Eve's sin was "pleasing to him," or that "he simply wished that the precept which he had given should be violated." Sin remains sin (that is, abhorrent to God and "against [his] will") even when it occurs in accordance with God's purpose and decree, and so even by a certain kind of necessity.

So why, again, did God permit the temptation and defection of his creatures, "seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Why has God apparently willed that which is, well, contrary to his will? In the end, Calvin offers no answer, but rather asserts that God's reasons for this, like many things, remain "to us unknown."

There is, in fact, a notable and rather obvious lack of anxiety pervading Calvin's acknowledgment that we, as creatures of God, do not know -- and should not guess at -- why God permitted humankind's defection. Scripture, after all, tells us not everything we wish to know, but everything we need to know. For Calvin, it is enough to know that proper responsibility for sin and all its attendant miseries must be laid at the doorstep of our first parents (and so, in truth, at our doorstep). It is enough to know, moreover, that God, who providentially rules all things but never creates or causes sin, does something about sin in the person and work of His Son, thereby restoring us to friendship and fellowship with him. Any attempt to rise above the God-fixed limits of our understanding of these things and view them from God's own perspective is, in the final analysis, a reenactment of Adam and Eve's initial failure to let God be God, to acknowledge our creaturely limitations, and to confidently rest in the wisdom, sovereignty, and fatherly care of our Creator.

Posted August 22, 2014 @ 9:18 AM by Aaron Denlinger

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