Part 3 of a series by Dr. Ronn Johnson
My thanks to many of you who have emailed me about Parts 1 and 2. Some have expressed concern about going down the road of challenging historic Christianity on this issue of the Big Story of the Bible. I agree that this should always be a concern, especially for those of us who want to adhere to what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” Theologians should never try to be creative. I like Lewis’ words on the matter: “If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for creativeness, even in a modified or metaphorical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own, but borrowed, and becoming a clean mirror that is filled with a face that is not ours. Applied to literature, an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody some reflection of eternal beauty and wisdom” (“Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections).
So I write Part 3 of What Is the Bible’s Big Story trying not to be creative, and I hope you can read along in that spirit. If I am being creative, I feel I am closer to a child asking why someone in a parade is under-dressed, and why others seem not to notice. I admit to asking questions about a very complex theological system placed in front of me by my evangelical fathers, and about a system with which I have participated for many years. I am not claiming to know what the Big Story of the Bible is. My aim is more timid than that for now. I am still in the process of asking questions, as in “Why are we saying this…when the Bible seems to say that?”
In my last post I proposed that popular evangelicalism’s Big Story of the Bible carried, in effect, a Sin Paid For plotline since its climax involved Christ’s substitutionary payment for human sin. There are many subplots to this narrative, of course, but payment is the main (and indispensable) theme that arches over this reading of Scripture. Without Christ’s death, all humans would be properly consigned to hell because of God’s requirement for the payment of sin. That’s the parade that is going by in front of us. So let’s begin asking questions.
I closed with a long list of ideas which I sense to be the building blocks, or bricks, which make up the Sin Paid For wall. I asked you to determine whether each brick should be kept or thrown out, using the simple question “Does the Bible teach this, or is this happening in the Bible?” to help guide the decision. The goal, of course, is to reconstruct the Big Story wall using bricks which belong, or ideas that show up in the biblical narrative. In other words, the goal isn’t to tear down the wall and build some other wall totally contrary to the first wall. It’s to start building a composite wall that includes the Sin Paid For bricks along with other bricks that the Bible teaches to make a more complete “Big Story of the Bible” wall.
(In case you think I’ve actually gotten that far in my own thinking, I have not. My own Big Story wall is yet incomplete, which keeps my interest in my own posts going forward. This is a work in progress. I have some idea how my completed wall will look, but I am fascinated by the prospect of discovering and understanding bricks which so far have escaped my attention.)
For each brick I will give my opinion on whether it should go or stay, or whether it needs some reshaping. I will often struggle in deciding how much detail to get into when looking at a particular brick, since some bricks are the result of centuries of theological history and debate. In such cases it would be imprudent or rash to just toss a brick aside as “unbiblical.” We owe each other some reasoning, sometimes some very careful reasoning, in dealing with bricks that we are used to seeing. But because I’m left holding this pen, you only get my views here. I would love to dialogue by email if you find the time.
Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden: From the little we know about the story of Adam and Eve, this point seems clear. Adam was told to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17) and he did (3:6). This was an act of disobedience. I’m in favor of keeping this brick.
Adam’s sin resulted in the punishment of hell for all humanity: The exact nature of Adam’s threatened punishment (“you shall surely die,” 2:17) seems rather clear on the face of it, not least because God chose to use a word which turns out to be the most common way of describing physical death throughout the OT (mot, appearing 827 times). It is repeated by Eve in 3:3 and by the serpent in 3:4, and from everything said in the story we would suspect that God was threatening Adam with physical death if he ate from the tree. Mot describes Adam’s physical death in 5:5 as well as each individual who is reported to die throughout Genesis 5. So I think it is safest to say that God kept his death-promise to Adam in the sense that Adam eventually died. That is easy enough. What we do not know is what would have happened if Adam had not disobeyed.
(I’m not much interested in that question, having gotten my fill of the subject while writing my master’s thesis at Dallas Seminary on Calvin’s view of Adam’s original state. But in case you are wondering, Augustine thought it was possible that, as a being created from dust, Adam was destined to die a natural death no matter what happened in Genesis 3, and that Adam’s sin only made his life more miserable while waiting for the inevitable. Calvin later agreed in principle with Augustine’s suspicion, admitting that we simply don’t know what would have happened if Adam had walked away from the tree.)
So this much we know: Adam disobeyed, and he later died. God kept his promise. Maybe God’s means of keeping this promise was as simple as keeping Adam away from the tree of life (3:22, “lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”). Scripture never ties human death in principle to Adam’s tree-sin until Paul does so in Romans (5:12, 15, 17, 21; 8:10), and no writer in either testament will ever make the claim that Adam’s sin resulted in the punishment of hell for all humanity. I think what has happened is that over time the phrase “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) has been interpreted as referring to spiritual death, and so to hell. But this triangulation is unwarranted, or it at least has no place in the story of Scripture as it is presented. So I think this brick, as worded, needs to be tossed aside. If people go to hell they apparently go for some other reason than because of what Adam did in the Garden. We’ll keep an eye out for that brick later. Mike Heiser’s series disputing that Romans 5:12 teaches that Adam’s guilt was transferred to us may be of interest to readers on this point, for he argues that we are all guilty before God because of what we do (sin), not because Adam sinned. As Rom 5:12 clearly teaches (what the text itself actually says), it was death that passed to all humankind because of Adam, not Adamic guilt. God’s wrath on anyone is due to their own sin. But more on wrath below.
Adam’s sin resulted in the corruption of a perfect creation: After Adam sinned God cursed the “ground” (adamah, Gen 3:17), a word that carries general meaning for dirt or earth. It denotes the whole world in Genesis 6:1 (“men began to multiply on the face of the adamah”) so our suspicion is that what happened in the Garden was indicative of what happened worldwide. Humans now toiled through thorns and thistles. But now to the question of whether the pre-fall creation was “perfect.” After creation God said that he thought that his work was “very good” (tov meod, 1:31), which indicates that he was very pleased. It was very good. It may not necessarily mean that everything was perfect, however. Did mosquitos bite? Did plants that Adam ate “die” in his stomach? These kinds of questions are often multiplied, and it is not long before we realize that we do not know how to delimit God’s definition of “very good.” In almost the same breath God admitted that Adam’s lack of a mate was “not good” (2:18). Paul will much later speak of the present painful state of creation (Rom 8:21), but he never tries to offer an opinion about the state of the creation before Adam’s sin. Does the Bible’s description of the final consummation connect back to a pre-fall Eden? It may hint at it, or allusions are made, but I don’t find the Bible as actually saying that explicitly. And I don’t sense that our Big Story depends upon it. God may have created an imperfect but “very good” earth to start with, and “perfection” (whatever that is) may come finally, and only, at the end, where mosquitos do not bite and the Vikings win every Sunday.
Adam’s guilt is the primary cause of God’s wrath on humanity: This hearkens back to Mike’s series on Rom 5:12 as well, but my goal here is to explain how I’m thinking about this brick. I was on a denominational licensure board awhile back, assigned to question the young man who wanted to become ordained in the ministry. I soon began to suspect that whenever our candidate did not have a clear biblical answer to one of our questions he would quote our denominational handbook. I didn’t like that, so I decided to stir the pot. “What is the cause of God’s wrath upon humanity?” I asked. “Why is God angry with us?” This was not a trick question on my part, but I knew the answer would take some thought. I will never forget how polished and precise the answer came: “In union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice, alienated from God, and under his wrath.” The heads of my fellow board members began to nod halfway through his answer, as though they were watching the flight of a field goal which they could tell was on-target. The reason that I can still quote the candidate’s answer was because he had just quoted, verbatim, our handbook. I was looking right at it on page sixty-nine. So I then did a very bad thing. “Where do you find this taught in the Bible?” The pause was only long enough for the chairman of the committee to look my way with furrowed brow. “I believe he answered the question very well. Let’s move on.”
So that’s the background to this brick. It’s a test question on the way to getting ordained. But I think it is fair to start with a simple word search. Does the word “Adam” ever appear in the same verse as “wrath” or “anger,” whether in speaking of God or anyone else? Statistical inquiries have limited value, but remember our test: Can the parts of our Story be found in the Bible? Out of the gate we could assume that if God’s wrath was due to Adam it would somewhere be said that God’s wrath was somehow related to what Adam did, or what role we have in relation to Adam. It would not be hard to say this. Yet our search results come back empty (my program displays “There are no verses in the current range of the text which fit the current search entry”). On my own, without using a concordance, I am not aware of any argument in Scripture that Adam’s guilt is the primary cause of God’s wrath on humanity. Paul did say that Adam’s sin caused our “condemnation” (katakrima, Romans 5:16), but this is in reference to being condemned to physically die (5:12, 15, 17, 21), or to have a “body of death” (7:24; cp. 8:1). There will be plenty of fuel for God’s anger in Scripture, of course, and we will deal with those bricks when we come across them. But this brick can be tossed aside as simply untrue. God is not angry with us because of Adam or our relationship to him.
(By the way, as my wife Susan was reading through the list of bricks at the end of Part 2 she predicted that the practice of setting bricks aside without replacing them would be uncomfortable. I agreed, but felt that this negative job of clearing the wall had to be done before the positive attempt of rebuilding it. I think it would get confusing to do both jobs at the same time. I hope you are ok with this approach.)
Human beings since Adam are naturally and totally sinful: There may be no more common theorem in Christian theology than man’s sinfulness. It is the basis for many other Christian doctrines, especially those having to do with salvation. But I have been bothered by this brick for some time. What is at stake with this brick is its precise wording. No one doubts that humans can be remarkably evil. We cannot get through the news without hearing stories of deliberate, unprovoked wickedness and cruelty. But the question here concerns the words “naturally” and “totally.” Are we naturally evil in the sense that we “sin by nature,” much as we breathe by nature and back away from curve balls by nature? If we were to settle this question biblically, we would need to find the place in Scripture where this particular question is both posed and settled in context with such ideas as “naturally” and “totally.”
Space does not afford a full doctrine of human depravity, of course, so I can only offer my quick opinion here. When the subject of man’s sinfulness occurs, the biblical writer quickly and unequivocally finds weakness and sinfulness to be our present lot. We easily sin. So I would say the Bible (following the pattern set out by Job and the Psalmists, for example) presents a pessimistic anthropology in that it does not believe that humans have the ability to be consistently good or moral or ethical for long stretches (Job 5:7; 15:14-16; 22:5; 28:12-13; 33:12; 35:2; Pss 39:4-6; 51:5; 70:5; 73:22; 78:39; 94:11; 103:14; 109:22; 119:176; 144:3-4). But these same writers also claim that humans can be very good and very moral at times, even very faithful to the god they choose to worship (e.g., the entire basis of Job’s story is the fact that he was considered “blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil,” Job 1:1; cp. Ps 40:1, 4, 8). So why the back-and-forth? Traditional Judaism has a quick answer: That’s the way we actually are. We are both good and evil at the same time in the sense that, assuming normal mental health, any human at any time has the choice to do good or to do evil. It sounds just like Genesis 3:5 has happened in that we have the knowledge (and ability) of good and evil at our fingertips.
Think of it this way. If we were naturally evil, would we know we are evil or even what evil is? Does a fish know it is wet? I have conducted many funerals as a pastor, and I am still waiting for anyone to praise the dead person’s evilness. Just the opposite, in fact: it appears that we know what good and evil are, and we want to be good while we end up being (at times) very evil. I find that all biblical passages which set out (in context) to talk about man’s sinfulness agrees with this basic point. We do not have to sin. We choose to. And that is what makes evil so evil. In my opinion the Reformed tradition comes to its view of human depravity (as it is specifically worded on this brick) as the result of reading lengthily developed conclusions backwards into such texts as Romans 3:10-18 (“There is none righteous, no not one”) to then frame out the idea that mankind is naturally and totally sinful. It serves their purpose to say this because it sets up their later understanding of grace and salvation. But I do not believe this tradition is found while reading the Bible left-to-right, watching the stories of Scripture unfold. I think we will be able to replace this brick when we discover that man’s behavioral depravity (however it is defined) is not the problem that Christ came to solve, nor a problem that even involves itself in the story of human salvation.
God’s holiness demands moral perfection from human beings: I am part of a weekly Bible study with about a dozen friends, and this week we will be coming to Christ’s plea that we be “perfect, just as our heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). By now you have learned to think behind such English words as “perfect,” asking yourself either what Jesus meant by this in his Aramaic (the spoken language of the Sermon), or what Matthew meant by this in his Hebrew (most scholars think that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew, though we have no textual evidence for that), or how the Greek-reading person would have later understood it (our only surviving copies of Matthew are in Greek). I don’t think we have to go through all those complications, but let’s look at some.
1) Neither Jesus nor Matthew was teasing his audience, telling them to be teleios while knowing they would fail. He was asking them to be complete or mature (the most tangible meaning of teleios in the Greek NT) in respect to loving the unlovable, their enemies (5:43-47). This is hard to do, maybe one of the hardest things a person can do who is truly suffering under the cruelty of another. But that is what God, Jesus’ Father, is like, and the point that Jesus was trying to make. (We will start our Bible study by listening to a ten-minute reading of one of C. S. Lewis’ finest essays, “The Trouble with X.” It has to do with this very point about God being forgiving. I recommend it to you.)
2) If listening to Jesus while being familiar with the OT, we would have connected Jesus’ request of perfection to the OT requirement to be tamim (often translated as “blameless,” Deut 18:13). Numerous OT people were considered, or considered themselves to be, tamim (Abraham, Gen 17:1; David, 2 Sam 22:24; Ps 18:23; Job, Job 1:1) and it was even the goal for the average Yahwist to be tamim (Ps 37:37; Prov 13:6). What is missing from every occurrence of tamim is any hint of perfection in the sense of moral sinlessness. Being righteous or upright before God was a million miles away from any sense of behavioral perfection.
3) Considering the biblical story in its larger scope, do we ever hear that moral perfection is demanded by God? I know this has been drummed into our heads since Sunday School, but I’m frankly left scratching my head when I start looking for this idea in the Bible. It’s a rumor, and a terrible one. Old Testament writers celebrate Torah without fearing that it sets out an impossible goal (Deut 10:12-13; 30:11-20; Psalm 119), and NT writers agree (Rom 13:8-10; 1Pet 3:8-12; James 1:25; Titus 3:5). Most importantly, Israel knew Yahweh as a deity who was both righteous/just and forgiving at the same time—a very unique combination (“Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful,” Ps. 116:5; cp. 36:5-6, 10; 37:21; 85:10; 89:14; 103:17; 112:4; 145:7-9, 17; Prov 12:10; 21:21; Isa 57:1; Dan 4:27; 9:18; Jer 10:24; Hos 2:19; 10:12; Mic 6:8). So, very importantly, this turns out to be a character issue regarding what kind of God we have, which is why this brick must be thrown as far away as possible. To say that God’s holiness demands sinless perfection on the part of humans is to do almost irreparable harm to the Big Story of the Bible. If that is offensive to your interpretation of the Story, I ask that you wait for biblical definitions of “holiness” and “righteous.” It will encourage you to enjoy God’s holiness and righteousness even while being imperfect.
I will continue looking at these bricks after Easter. He is Risen!
If you would like to respond to this post, I welcome your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will certainly reply.