One of the most fearsome phrases in all of Holy Scripture is this:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field..."(Gen. 3:1).
The reference here is to the subtle schemes of Satan himself. This "craftiness" of which Moses speaks, is, in this case, a perverted brilliance, a distorted genius, and its aim is to manipulate circumstances to ensure that people will always harbor and nurture their inbred and inveterate rebellion against the holy triune God who made them. I wonder how many of us read the account of the serpent's temptation and man's subsequent fall into sin in Genesis 3 and think to ourselves, "I would have resisted that!" To think such things is a part of Satan's craftiness, and it is proof that the subtlety of the enemy is alive and well on planet Earth.
Satan's subtlety was alive and well when the Son of God walked the earth. When the scribes and pharisees sought to capture Jesus, instead of barging through the crowds and taking hold of him, they tried to trap him with crafty questions that would turn the crowds against him. But Jesus perceived their craftiness (Luke 20:16ff.) and would answer their questions with wisdom that can only come from above. Or, in his most autobiographical epistle, when Paul was forced to defend his own apostolate against the sophistry of the intruding false teachers, he said to the Corinthian church, "But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ," (2 Cor. 11:3). The scribes and pharisees fell prey to Satan's craftiness, as did many in the Corinthian church. In the former case, this led to hostility to the Messiah; in the latter case, Paul's fear is that those who had confessed Christ would be led into the wilderness of temptation and wind up devoting themselves to something other than the One who had saved them. It all began with the craftiness of the devil.
My suspicion is that we have yet fully to grasp, and thus to guard ourselves from, the craftiness of Satan's elusive schemes. C.S. Lewis, because of his literary brilliance, was able to capture its reality in Screwtape's letters to Wormwood. Os Guiness, a sociological savant, masterfully mined the cultural connotations of that craftiness in The Gravedigger Files. Aside from these, most of the craftiness that comes from the pit is inadvertently picked up and set out in various and sundry philosophers and cultural critics. In such contexts, these insights remain foreign and homeless until excised and transplanted into their proper, Christian context that alone can account for them.
One of the reasons, I suspect, that Satan and his legion rejoice in the current mass acceptability of homosexual behavior (just to use a contemporary hot-button issue) is not only because of its obvious affront to God and His creation, but also because Christian opposition to such behavior (which is good, proper and biblical) can have within it a deep-seated and deadly potential for producing pride, and for suppressing the more subtle sins that helped to nurture the aberrant behavior in the first place. Before opposing such things, as we must do, the question of "craftiness" should occupy our minds. "Is there something more subtle, and thus more deadly, going on," we could ask, "in the mass acceptability of this sin, to which our collective behavior might have (partly) contributed?" That question might lead us to this one, "Could I say to a homosexual, with respect to marriage, 'Be ye imitators of me'"? In other words, has the Christian church modeled the reality of Christian marriage, and a Christian family, in a way that shows, not simply tells, a watching world that what we have to offer is the only meaningful way to be in an intimate relationship? The craftiness and subtlety that Satan has managed to foist upon Christians and their view of the family is deep and wide, and the now mass acceptability of homosexual behavior is only the tip of the submerged and likely unseen frosty mountain of ice that has been building, bit by bit, for years and years to support it. This, of course, has massive apologetic implications for all of us, as individuals, and for the church.
But the subtlety and craftiness that is the most pernicious, most insidious, most pervasive, most subtle and sly of all can be summed up in Hamlet's words to Ophelia, "God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another." The face that God has given to man is "image of God." That image, due to the fall, must be renewed in the image of Christ. The one face that we are required to have is the face of Christ. To be image means that we are dependent on Him for all things. It does not mean we are dependent on Him for most things, or for the primary things, or for the things that are too hard for us, or for the things that we can't get ourselves. Any "thing" that is not so dependent is, by definition not image; it is presumed to be original, in and of itself independent. And such things are reserved only for the Original Himself, not for man.
Of the things that Satan has convinced us are original to us, none is more subtly destructive and pervasive than a presumed independence of our own reasoning faculty. This is why Satan's words were so very subtle, and so very deadly, "Has God said?" This may appear to be an initially innocuous question. But when it is followed up by a bold assertion -- "You will not die!" -- then it begs to call into question the Word of God itself. What options did Adam and Eve have before them? They were not questioning whether or not God had spoken to them; they were good evangelicals and affirmed God's Word to be just that. Instead, Satan convinced them that they were the final arbiters of what God had said. In other words, Satan subtly and craftily moved them from a trust in God's Word, to a trust in their own, supposedly independent, minds to ferret out what was meant to be believed by them. That was, to vastly understate, the wrong way to think.
The "other face" that man has craftily crafted for himself ever since the fall is not the face that God made, but a face that feigns an (presumed) autonomous reasoning faculty. This feigned face has infected the church in vast quantities, and for centuries. For example, why is it that so much of the church has insisted on the fact that man's will must be independent of God's control? It's not simply because, as the late Davey Jones would put it, "I want to be free." That is part of the problem. But the primary problem has been that our minds simply cannot grasp a situation in which the triune God is in complete control, on the one hand, and we are responsible for what we choose, on the other. If God is in complete control of my choices, we think to ourselves, then God is the one responsible for those choices. So, the "goddess of freedom," as John Owen rightly called it, has its roots in the greater goddess of an assumed independent reasoning faculty. The only way we can "make sense" of God's choice of His own people, so goes the Molinist doctrine, for example, is if God's choice has its foundation in God foreseeing what we, independently of His control, might choose. Once God "knows" what we will do (a knowledge, we should note, he could not have without our independent choices) and has all the votes tallied, then He is able to choose whomever He will (as long as "whomever He will" has its foundation in those who will, independently, choose Him). This view has the burden of so twisting Paul's discussion (and anticipation of this very problem) in Romans 9, that the text becomes disfigured beyond recognition. And the disfigured face of Romans 9, instead of its pure and pristine beauty, becomes the face that too many want to don. But this is, to put it mildly, an extreme makeover of disastrous proportions. And the craftiness of Satan is seen in the all-too-typical response to that most probing of questions, "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" The response? "I am he who will not believe what my mind cannot grasp, that's who!"
Or consider the (again, right and proper) tirade against the cultural myth of man's evolution. Could it be, if we were to ask the "crafty" question, that many Christians have assumed the same autonomy that science craves, and thus have given over so much presumed independence that we have lost the ground on which to plead for the authority of God's Word in this discussion? Once we pretend to stand on the ground of science - be that ground the empirical evidence, rational law, or any combination of the two - at what point do we then argue that, after all, it is God's Word on which we are dependent in order to know a fact for what it is? Do we think we can affirm science in its autonomous enterprise and then protest in those circumstances where it conflicts with our view of what Scripture teaches? Isn't this a classic "bait and switch" of authorities?
Because God is merciful to all, there are great and magnificent discoveries made by science. The ability of the human mind, even after the fall, is one of the subtleties that Satan uses to convince us of its utter independence. But, even with great and magnificent discoveries, unless we maintain that any fact discovered, and any law applied, can only have its meaning, source and sustainability in the triune God who has spoken, and who made and controls it, we will loan out so much capital that it becomes impossible, humanly speaking, to ever get back to a zero sum. We will be perpetually in debt. Is it any wonder, then, when Christians grant science its autonomous facts and its independent laws, which are thought to be known independently of God and His Word, that all we receive is a scoff and a dismissive wave of the hand when we try to jump the chasm from autonomy to get back to the authority of Scripture?
The craftiness and subtlety of Satan is not always visible to the naked eye. It hides beneath the surface, like a snake under a rock, remaining cool and aloof from the searing heat of the battle. But it's there, under the rock, and its danger is even more deadly because of its stealth. Or, to use Hamlet's analogy, the "other face" that we have made is not the one that is visible on the surface. That's only a mask. The face that we have made is disfigured and a horror to behold. But that in no way hinders its presence and powers. It sneaks, sometimes unnoticed, into the center of the fray, and with a friendly grin dismisses God from the room. This is what a presumed autonomous reason brings forth.
Until the church, en masse, recognizes this disfigured and maladroit face, and tears it off in repentance, turning to Christ and His Word, Satan's craftiness will be ever-marching forward, pretending, as he convinces us, that the real battle is right before our very eyes.
Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).