The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil

[This post is a reflection on a class I took on Moral Philosophy in which we discussed Genesis 3]

Some time ago I came across a comedian attempting to mock the Genesis account of creation. He pointed out that God could have completely avoided the entire debacle with sin by simply never placing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden to begin with. While I recognize he was attempting to be snarky and get a laugh, I also think many people have asked themselves a similar line of questions. Why did God create the tree in the first place? The answer to this question is beautiful indeed.

Francis Turretin, writing in the mid 1600’s, handles this question at length in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology. He begins his discussion by asking the question of why the tree was named the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the first place? It was not named so formally, in the sense that the tree itself had some kind of awareness of knowledge. Nor was it named so effectively, in the sense that the fruit from the tree had some physical poison that would infect Adam and Eve. Rather, as Turretin claims, the tree was named so sacramentally. Like the Sacrament of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, the tree functioned as a sign and a warning to avoid the “experiential knowledge of evil equally with good.” Adam already had experiential knowledge of the good as he walked with God and enjoyed the fullness of Eden. Though the possibility of sin existed, Adam did not yet know sin experientially.

To take this one step further we need to enter into a bit of philosophy. Philosophers will often separate what they call Natural Law from Positive Law. Natural Laws are those laws that are universally true and grounded in the nature of reality. The historical Church has considered the Ten Commandments, Natural Law. Take the eighth commandment, “Do not kill,” as an example. Even if the Ten Commandments had never been recorded, by nature of humans being a part of God’s creation and made in the image of God, we are naturally aware that the eighth commandment is universally true. So it is with all ten of God’s commandments. Of course Paul explains in Romans 1:18 that in our sinful condition we, “suppress the truth.” The idea here is that sin has so corrupted our hearts and minds that we fight against our internal wiring and develop new forms of worship and morality that run counter to God’s design hardwired into us through the Natural Law.

The origin and foundation of this [natural] law… must be drawn from the right of nature itself, founded both on the nature of God, the Creator (who by his holiness must prescribe to his creatures the duties founded upon that right), and on the condition of rational creatures themselves (who, on account of their necessary dependence upon God in the genus of morals, no less than in the genus of being, are bound to perform or avoid those things which sound reason and the dictates of conscience enjoin upon them to do or avoid

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 2. Page 3.

Positive Laws on the other hand are are more like local applications that are not necessarily universally true, but are rooted in a Natural Law. An example of a Positive Law might be something like a speed limit or what side of the street we are required to drive on. The left side of the street is not of a higher morality than the right side of the street. It is simply the law that has been posited by the authorities and which is to be obeyed.

With this framework we can ask whether God’s command to refrain from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a natural law or a positive law? Turretin argues vehemently that this first of all of God’s commands was positive. In other words, it did not matter what the law was, or what tree was selected to not eat from. God could have just as easily forbid Adam from walking on sand, or climbing on rocks. The command was positive because, “it did not bind man from the nature of the thing (which was in itself indifferent), but from the mere will of God. It is also called “symbolic” because it was given for a symbol and trial of the obedience of man. For in it, as a matrix, the whole natural law was included.

Adam already lived with a deep acquaintance of the Natural Law, what would one day become the Ten Commandments. The first Natural Law is, “I am the LORD your God… You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2).” Adam knew and loved God’s natural laws because they were hardwired into his being as a human created in the image of God. But a Positive Law, one like what was given by God to Adam regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, was also required. Turretin lays out at least five reasons.

  • In order that God might declare himself to be the Lord of man, and that man might freely choose to submit to that Lordship as he obeyed a God-ordained law over something as indifferent as a tree. In other words, that Adam might truly know the Lordship of God over his life, by freely submitting to an arbitrary law.
  • That the virtue of obedience might be far more exhibited and experienced. This point looks at the virtuous side of the point listed above. Obedience to God build fruit in our life. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:3).” Adam’s obedience to this Positive Law would give even greater experiential obedience which leads to fruit.
  • To declare that God had created man with a certain measure of free will. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had the possibility of choosing sin. This will of Adam’s was an important part of his choice towards obedience and worship.
  • That through the beauty of the forbidden Adam might learn that true happiness does not consist in earthly things. Part of the serpent’s temptation was to point out the beauty of the forbidden tree. Through abstaining from that which looks beautiful, simply because God’s Word declared it forbidden, Adam was to learn that God’s Word was to be more prized above anything this world could offer.
  • To instruct Adam continually that joyful worship of God through obedience is the highest aim of humanity.

Both trees are therefore, according to Turretin, sacramental objects. The Tree of Life is a symbol of, “the immortality which would have been bestowed upon Adam if he had persevered in his first state.” The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a symbol of the death that is bestowed upon Adam if he would choose to disobey God. Quite literally, in choosing to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam chose to worship the Devil over God. Adam forsook the sacrament, and in so doing forsook the God who had covenanted with Him.

Though death followed Adam’s corruption, all was not lost. God permitted the Fall that He might have an occasion to show his mercy and his forgiveness. Christ, who is Himself the author of eternal life is truly the final Tree of Life. “In Him was life (John 1:4).” “There is salvation in no other name (Acts 4:12).” Jesus is both in the center of Paradise (Revelation 2:7), and through the Holy Spirit in the center of His Church (Ephesians 1:22), a foretaste of that Heavenly dwelling. In Jesus Christ, we ourselves eat and drink from that Tree of Life that never fails. These trees were sacraments, and therefore signs pointing towards a deeper reality, a great truth. In Christ our sacraments find their substance. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:15).”

“The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.”

John Stott. The Cross of Christ.

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