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Monday, March 23, 2015

Testing, Testing …

What happened in the garden of Eden — and the resulting fall of mankind and the subjection of creation to the futility that we observe daily — has been the subject of near-endless discussion over the centuries. Much speculation is on record as to the motives of God in the test presented to Adam and Eve.

And that’s what it is: speculation. We may have all kinds of ideas why God did what he did, but in scripture we do not find the answer spelled out for us. Wise men are careful not to draw conclusions that go beyond the available evidence.

Stacking the Deck

Of course, like Guy Rex Rodgers, one can always opt to stack the deck by supplying a short list of possible motives, each of which makes God look bad:
“The story of Eden raises many questions. Why does God place a forbidden tree in the middle of the garden? Why does God allow an embodiment of evil to tempt and deceive the human inhabitants of the garden? Why does God not intervene until after rebellion has occurred? What was the original purpose of creating humans? How did Eden change God’s purpose?

Traditional theological interpretations provide three different answers.

1)    God created perfect people in a perfect world, fully expecting them to remain perfect for all eternity.
2)    God created perfect people in a perfect world, for the pleasure of causing them to degenerate into objects of wrath.
3)    God created perfect people in an imperfect world so that they could choose between perfection and imperfection.”
You note that all three scenarios he presents ascribe motives or thought processes to God that might be deemed just a little uncharitable. They are also far from exhaustive and misrepresent the conclusions of many theologians.

I disagree with all three.

Analyzing “Traditional” Interpretations

In the first scenario, the opening clause is true: God certainly created perfect people in a perfect world. Where the statement fails is in assessing God’s motive. When the Lord Jesus taught that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge and that the hairs of our heads are all numbered, he was either employing hyperbole or describing a God with such a vast, all-encompassing knowledge of his creation and the heart of man that he could not possibly have failed to anticipate mankind’s moral failure. That supposition does not track.

In the second scenario, again it is the motive ascribed to God that is implausible. When Rodgers talks about God creating for the “pleasure of causing [perfect people] to degenerate into objects of wrath”, he is caricaturing John Calvin. I’m no fan of Calvin, but he knew enough scripture that I doubt even he would argue that God takes pleasure in the death of the wicked, though it is an inference many draw from five-point Calvinism. But it is not a satisfying answer to anyone who knows Christ as presented in the New Testament.

In the third scenario, Rodgers says there are theologians that believe God created perfect humans in an imperfect world. We can stop right there. God looked upon his six days’ worth of creation and saw that it was “very good”, after which he rested. So we can lay aside any notion of imperfection in creation prior to the Fall as a factor in man’s choice between obedience and rebellion.

Not one of these answers works for me. Perhaps they are straw men, and Mr. Rodgers intends to dispense with them later.

The Motives of God

In every case, Rodgers — and, if he has done his homework, the theologians whose positions he represents — ascribe motives to God that are not spelled out in his Word or are flatly denied by it.

Now I won’t presume to keep company with the great theological minds of history, but I do have reservations about assuming we know what God is thinking other than when he specifically reveals himself to us. So as to God’s motives when he tested mankind in Eden, I’ll pass on the sort of characterizations in which Mr. Rodgers engages.

But there are other tests in scripture. Even if we cannot clearly grasp all the purposes of God in testing his creatures and even his saints by examining some of these, at least we can get a very clear picture of  how things might be different if he did not.

Another Historical Test

One such situation presents itself in Jeremiah 35. God says to Jeremiah:
“Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak with them and bring them to the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers; then offer them wine to drink.”
Now there are all sorts of arguments among believers about the wisdom of drinking alcohol even in moderation, but most agree that scripture nowhere explicitly forbids it. To offer a drink to the average Jew in a residential chamber of the temple was not outrageous. However, the Rechabites were different.

God knew full well that the sons of Rechab didn’t drink. At all. Ever. They had committed themselves to obeying the instructions of their ancestor Jonadab to avoid wine entirely. In fact, it is probably fair to say that God chose them for this test specifically because of their commitment. And if we believe in a sovereign God, it’s not even outside the realm of possibility that it was God who put the thought of a binding vow of temperance into the mind of Jonadab years before, in anticipation of this exact situation.

It was a test, plain and simple. There’s no other way to look at it.

A Recipe for Failure

And it’s a test that the Rechabites might easily have failed. They were called into a section of the temple near the chambers of the officials, and into the quarters of a reputed man of God, where they were offered wine by God’s foremost prophet of the day. If there was ever a time when breaking a vow or dispensing with a custom of long standing might be conveniently rationalized on the grounds that God was obviously inviting them to do so, this would have been the time. If there was ever a moment for peer pressure to do its work, this was it. But there is no suggestion that they faltered at all. Instead, they answered:
“We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine, neither you nor your sons forever …’ ”
I’ll skip to the end of the story, because there’s a fair bit of judgment pronounced on the citizens of Judah in the chapter’s 19 verses. But not on the Rechabites. God says to them:
“Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me.”
That’s a pretty impressive commendation, and solid evidence that whatever God’s motives were in testing the sons of Rechab, they passed with flying colours.

Why Test the Rechabites?

Now I have voiced my concerns over speculations about the Divine mind, but I think we can at least draw a few tentative conclusions from the outcome of God’s test:

1.    Given the results, it might be reasonable to suggest that God did not test the Rechabites so they would fail, he tested them so they would succeed. Of course an omniscient God had to know the outcome of the test, but it is clear that the rest of the world and even the angels in heaven (human obedience does matter to angels) could not possible know it until the test actually took place. Foreknowledge and the action foreseen are two separate events.

2.    If God had not tested the Rechabites and if they had not passed the test, he would not have been able to use them as an example to the stubborn and disobedient population of Judah.

3.    If the Rechabites had not passed the test, Judah could have legitimately complained that “Nobody’s perfect. Nobody else keeps their promises, so why should we be blamed for not keeping ours?” As it was, their excuses were effectively preempted by the faithful behavior of their fellow citizens. Stopping the mouths of the wicked is something we find elsewhere in God’s agenda.

4.    If God had not tested the Rechabites, they would have had no idea of the extent of their own commitment to the principle of obedience.

5.    If God had not tested the Rechabites, they would have had no reward.

6.    If God had not tested the Rechabites, there would be nothing in scripture about the Rechabites, and they would have provided no example for our edification

Given what we can learn from one tiny, apparently insignificant Old Testament example of testing, it seems to me that efforts to reduce the motivations of God in the Garden of Eden to one, two or three cartoonish characterizations may be a bit simplistic.

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