Does It Matter that Jesus Christ Was Born of a Virgin?

In the Nicene Creed, one of the few documents adhered to by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike, we find this statement: “We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ…who…was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  Likewise, the Apostles’ Creed, also accepted by the same three major branches of the Church of Jesus Christ, affirms, “I believe…in Jesus Christ (God’s) only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”  In this, the Creeds affirm only what is explicitly stated in the first chapter of both the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke, namely, that Mary, the betrothed wife of Joseph, a poor carpenter of Nazareth in Galilee, when she conceived the Lord Jesus Christ in her womb, was a virgin, and the conception was nothing short of a miracle.  Luke tells us that,

In the sixth month (of Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist) the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin (Gk. παρθένος) betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin (lit., since I do not know a man)?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  And the angel departed from her. —Luke 1.26-38

Very shortly after Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Mary, she left her home in Nazareth to visit her kinswoman (likely an aunt or older cousin) Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk. 1.5-26,36), and stayed with her for three months.  As Elizabeth’s due date approached, Mary returned home (Lk. 1.39-56), and by this time it was quite likely that her own pregnancy was showing.  Joseph, her betrothed husband noticed this, and he knew that he was not the father of her child, from which fact he deduced that she had been unfaithful to him.  She might have told him about Gabriel’s appearance and announcement, but her testimony could not be corroborated if she had, and Joseph could not have been ignorant about how babies are conceived.  Then as the Apostle Matthew wrote,

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin (Gk. παρθένος) shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (quoted from Is. 7.14)

(which means, God with us.)  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus. —Matthew 1.18-25

Under the Old Testament Law, a woman was required to remain a virgin until she was married (this is still an expectation of Christian women, as fornication, or sexual intercourse outside monogamous heterosexual marriage, is still classified as a sin against God).  If an Israelite man were to marry a woman, and if he “did not find in her evidence of virginity” (e.g., blood does not spill when the hymen is broken), and her parents were unable to produce “the evidence of her virginity” (i.e., the soiled bedsheets from her wedding night) before “the elders of the city in the gate”, then she was to be stoned to death, “because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house.” (Dt. 22.13-21)

Had he pressed his rights, Mary would have been stoned to death.  But “Joseph, being a just man (not to mention gracious and compassionate) and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Had he gone through with this, Mary’s life and that of her child would have been hard, and no just and upright man would have her as wife, but the two of them would still live.  But another angel (or possibly Gabriel once more; Matthew does not identify the angel by name) appeared to him in a dream and confirmed that Mary had not been unfaithful to him, that the child in her womb had been miraculously conceived and would somehow “save his people from their sins,” and asked him to continue with the betrothal and marry her.

This would have been a burden on Joseph, as marrying a pregnant woman tacitly meant that he was accepting the responsibility of fathering her child, for presumably no angel appeared to anyone else in Nazareth to clarify that the Lord Jesus had been conceived miraculously, without his earthly parents having had sexual intercourse.  It meant that he would be accepting the public shame for having treated a daughter of Israel dishonorably, and this would have had social repercussions, likely including the loss of business in his carpentry trade.  Nevertheless, Joseph did wed Mary, and they abstained from sexual intercourse until after Jesus was born.1

Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Virgin Birth

But why, then, was it necessary for the Lord Jesus to be born of a virgin?  Two complementary answers can be found in Scripture, the first of which is: To fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  In Matthew 1.23, the Apostle explicitly states, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” and then he quoted Isaiah 7.14, which states, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

One of the most common objections to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7.14 is that the Hebrew word commonly translated “virgin” in this passage is almah, which means “young woman”, rather than bethulah, the more common Hebrew word for “virgin”, for almah can be used also to refer to a young mother and does not specifically denote virginity.

For reference, the word almah appears seven times in the Old Testament.  The first of these appears in Genesis 24, where Abraham is sending his oldest servant to the city of Nahor in Mesopotamia, from which Abraham had emigrated with his father and nephew many years before (Gen. 11.31), in order to seek a bride for his son Isaac among his kindred.  In v. 14, the servant prays to the Lord, saying, “Let the young woman (Heb. naarah; also in vv. 16,28,55,57,61) to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”  Then Rebekah, who would become Isaac’s wife at the end of the chapter, came out and replied exactly as the servant had asked the Lord that she should reply.  In vv. 42-44, where he was relating this to her father and brother, he said, “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, behold, I am standing by the spring of water.  Let the virgin (Heb. almah) who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’” etc.  Given Middle Eastern cultural standards, especially of prominent men like Abraham, the servant would certainly not be seeking a wife for his master’s son who was not a virgin.  And in any case, Scripture confirms that Rebekah was a virgin, saying, “The young woman (Heb. naarah) was very attractive in appearance, a maiden (Heb. bethulah) whom no man had known.” (v. 16)

The second appearance of the word almah occurs in Exodus 2.1-10, where Moses’ mother set him in an ark of bulrushes in the Nile River, from which Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out.  Moses’ sister Miriam then went up to Pharaoh’s daughter and asked if she should summon a Hebrew woman to serve as a wetnurse for Moses.  “And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go.’  So the girl (i.e., Miriam; Heb. almah) went and called the child’s mother.” (v. 8)  Given that Moses at the time was a three-month-old infant, and that their brother Aaron was only three years older than he (Ex. 7.7), Miriam was, in all likelihood, somewhere between five and ten years old and was hardly expected to be anything but a virgin.

The word almah next appears in Psalm 68, in which David is singing of God routing His enemies.  About two-thirds of the way through, David writes,

Your (victory) procession is seen, O God,
the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
the singers in front, the musicians last,
between them virgins (Heb. almah) playing tambourines. (vv. 24-25)

There are only three examples of women playing tambourines in celebrations like this in the Old Testament.  The first was in Exodus 15.20-21, where Miriam led the women of Israel in playing tambourines, singing, and dancing, after the Lord had destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the midst of the sea.  Miriam by this time was in her late eighties and was no longer a virgin (unless she had never married; Scripture does not indicate one way or the other), and the Hebrew word used here for “women”, nashim, is commonly used in the Old Testament of women generally and is not restricted to virgins or even to young women.  The second was in Judges 11.34-40, when Jephthah’s only daughter came out of his house upon his return, after the Lord had given him victory over the Ammonites, after he had made his horrific vow to offer up whomever or whatever came out of his door upon his return: “Then Jephthah came home at Mizpah.  And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances.  She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” (v. 34)  And after he had grieved his vow and told her what he had promised to the Lord, she agreed that he had to follow through on it, asking only for two months to spend with her companions and bewail her virginity (Heb. bethulim).  In the third, women (Heb. nashim) were recounted singing, dancing, and playing the tambourine (I Sam. 18.6-7).  Elsewhere, prophets are mentioned playing the tambourine (along with other musical instruments; I Sam. 10.5), but most often when tambourines are mentioned in the Old Testament, no mention is made of who is playing them.  Thus, there is no cultural reason that almah in Psalm 68.25 must be restricted to unmarried women (i.e., virgins).

The fourth instance in which the word almah occurs is in the words of Agur in Proverbs 30, in which he writes, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin (Heb. almah).” (vv. 18-19)  Although in this context, almah could certainly mean “young woman”, it has greater meaning if “virgin” is intended.

The fifth and sixth occurrences are found in the Song of Solomon.  In Song 1.2-3, the Bride says, “For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore, virgins (Heb. almah) love you.”  Likewise, the Beloved says in Song 6.8 after having praised the Bride’s beauty, “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins (Heb. almah) without number.”  It would be highly improper, even in the erotic Song of Solomon, for the almah to include young married women among those who would aspire to be loved by (and thus wedded to) the Bride’s Beloved or whom the Beloved might consider adding to his harem.  Thus, in both of these passages, almah must mean “virgin”.

In Isaiah 7, the Lord through the prophet is assuring the wicked King Ahaz of Judah that the Lord will not permit the allied kings of Israel and Syria to conquer Jerusalem, although they were besieging it.  Indeed, He promised, “Within sixty-five years Ephraim (i.e., the northern kingdom of Israel) will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.” (v. 8)  Then Isaiah invited Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign that He would accomplish what He promised, but Ahaz refused, saying, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.”  Then Isaiah replied,

Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin (Heb. almah) shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. (vv. 10-17)

At the Lord’s instruction, Isaiah had brought his young son Shear-jashub (whose name means, “a remnant shall return”) with him when he came to Ahaz, as a physical illustration of the prophecy.  To be sure, Shear-jashub was not the fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, for neither was he born of a virgin, nor was he God manifested in the flesh—Immanuel, God with us.  But he was a sign that pointed to that future reality that had to wait more than seven hundred years for its fulfillment.

The Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 was a promise of deliverance from the Lord.  Temporally, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy in delivering Jerusalem from the besieging Israelite and Syrian armies.  But ultimately He fulfilled the prophecy in delivering His people from sin and death in the sacrificial death of Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, just as Isaiah had foretold.

Now some still charge Matthew with mistranslating almah as παρθένος, in order to find an Old Testament passage to corroborate his teaching that the mother of Jesus was a virgin.  However, Matthew did not translate this passage at all.  To be sure, the Church Father Papias claimed, “Matthew put together the oracles (of the Lord) in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”2  English New Testament scholar John W. Wenham similarly opined, “My own undogmatic view is that Matthew was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, between A.D. 33 and 42; Mark in about 44, followed shortly thereafter by a Greek translation of Matthew.”3  However, no texts of Matthew’s Gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic have been found, and other New Testament scholars have noted that Matthew does not read like a translation from these languages.  Regardless of how he might have written the Gospel account bearing his name, he did not translate Isaiah 7.14 out of the original Hebrew.  The text of Matthew 1.23 in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament matches the text in Isaiah 7.14 in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) word-for-word, and the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy Jewish scholars (according to tradition; hence its name) at Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC), thus predating Christ’s birth by more than two hundred years.

Jesus Christ Had No Human Sire

It might seem overly obvious, but its profundity is not always understood: Jesus of Nazareth had no human sire; no man’s Y-chromosome was part of His physical makeup.

In the context of His excoriating criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He commanded, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (v. 9)  Now in this, He was criticizing them for accepting the usage of pretentious titles, not forbidding anyone from addressing their earthly fathers by that title.  But at the same time, it is profoundly true in His case that He does have only one Father, who is in heaven.  Accordingly, we nowhere see Him in Scripture addressing or even referring to Joseph as His father.  To be sure, the Gospel writers refer to Him as Joseph’s son, but only to connect Him with His descent from David, and even then they do so only with qualification.  Matthew writes, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt. 1.16), rather than, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the father of Jesus, who is called Christ.”  Likewise, Luke writes, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli.” (Lk. 3.23; emphasis added)  The men and women of Nazareth thought Him to be Joseph’s son (Mt. 13.55, Lk. 4.22), but they either were not aware of His virgin birth or did not believe it if they were.  And what is most striking is that when Mary said upon finding Him sitting in the Temple after He had been missing for several days, “Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress,”4 He answered, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house (or about my Father’s business)?” (Lk. 2.48-49)  To be sure, Joseph functioned as Jesus’ father as He was growing up, but he was not actually His father.

In ancient mythologies, there were copious examples of gods coming to Earth in various forms and impregnating women.  But this was certainly not the case with the conception of the Lord Jesus.  As Gabriel told Mary, after she had asked how it could be that she could conceive a son when she was a virgin, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 2.35)  Again, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me.’” (Heb. 10.5; quoted from Ps. 40.6 LXX)  This body was created supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in the same manner in which the body of Adam was created supernaturally from the dust of the earth and the body of Eve was created supernaturally from the rib of Adam (Gen. 2.7,21-22).  And in this supernaturally created body, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was Himself God, the eternal Son of God, was made flesh (Jn. 1.14).  “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2.6-7)

Now as it is written, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15.21-22)  And again, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5.12,19)  Yet despite the fact that all we who are born in Adam sin and therefore die, that we all were conceived in sin and born in iniquity (Ps. 51.5), Jesus Christ alone, out of all humanity, was born without sin (Heb. 4.15, I Pet. 2.22, I Jn. 3.5).  He was “born of woman” (Gal. 4.4), the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the Serpent (Gen. 3.15, Heb. 2.14), but He was begotten by no man.  Now both Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s prohibition of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3.6).  Yet it was Adam’s sin alone that was imputed to his posterity, for Scripture does not say, “As in Eve all die,” nor yet even, “By Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” but, “As in Adam all die,” and, “By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”  Thus, by being born of woman, He shares in Adam’s nature, but because He was begotten by no man, He does not share in Adam’s Original Sin.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ was conceived before Joseph and Mary had been married.  Thus, at the time He was conceived, had Mary engaged in sexual intercourse with a man, she would have been defiled by sexual immorality and adultery, regardless of whether she had been a willing participant or not.  In Genesis 34, we read how a prince of the Hivites either seduced or raped Dinah, the only daughter of the Patriarch Jacob named in Scripture, and afterward, “Jacob heard that (this prince) had defiled (Heb. tame) his daughter Dinah.” (v. 5; also vv. 13,27).  Similarly, the Prophet Ezekiel referred to the commission of the sin of adultery as a man “defiling (Heb. tame) his neighbor’s wife” (Ezek. 18.6,11,15, 22.11, 33.26).  The Angel Gabriel said that the Lord Jesus “will be called holy—the Son of God” (Lk. 1.35); but it would have been far less than holy—not to mention radically out of God’s character—had He been born of a defiled woman, to have been “born of sexual immorality” (as the scribes and Pharisees may have insinuated when they said this in Jn. 8.41).  Thus, to deny that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, as the Scriptures teach, is tantamount to blaspheming the character of God.

Consequently, because He was born of a virgin, the Lord Jesus alone was suited to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1.29).  For the lambs used in the Old Testament sacrifice were required to be “a male without blemish” (Ex. 12.5, Lev. 1.10, 22.19-25).  “But it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats (or lambs, for that matter) to take away sins” (Heb. 10.4), for they do not share in our human nature.  Only man ought to die to pay the penalty for his sin, but no one begotten by man can pay the penalty for man’s sin, because not one of them is “without blemish,” that is, without sin.  So then, Christ alone, because He was born of woman but begotten by God (Jn. 3.16) and not man, and thus sharing our nature but not our sin, is eminently suited to be the sacrifice that bears the wrath of God poured out in just penalty for the sin of the entire human race.  “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’ (quoted from Gen. 2.7); the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.” (I Cor. 15.45-47)

Controversy over the Virgin Birth in Early 20th Century American Presbyterianism

In the 1920s, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth figured somewhat prominently in the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  The Theological Liberalism that had come to dominate the Protestant Church in Europe in the Nineteenth Century came to American shores in the decades following the Civil War, and its influence was soon being felt at the seminaries of the Mainline Protestant denominations.  In 1876, the PCUSA’s Union Theological Seminary in New York called as its Chair of Hebrew and Cognate Languages a young Presbyterian pastor named Charles Augustus Briggs.  Briggs, who had been educated at the University of Virginia, Union, and the University of Berlin, quickly became controversial for championing the Literary/Historical Critical Method.  Upon his appointment to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union on January 20, 1891, he delivered an inaugural address in which he declared, “We find there are errors of transmission.  There is nothing divine in the text—in its letters, words, or clauses. … I shall venture to affirm that, so far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they were not in the original text is sheer assumption, upon which no mind can rest with certainty.”5  Then he proceeded to belligerently deny Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that Isaiah wrote all of the book attributed to him, and that Biblical prophecy was a genuine prediction of the future.  Subsequently, he was brought up on charges of heresy before the PCUSA General Assembly that year, which vetoed Union’s appointment of him to the Biblical Theology Chair.6  The following year, the General Assembly, meeting in Portland, Oregon, issued what has become known as the Portland Deliverance of 1892, which stated,

The General Assembly would remind all under its care that it is a fundamental doctrine that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired and infallible Word of God.  Our Church holds that the inspired Word, as it came from God, is without error.  The assertion of the contrary cannot but shake the confidence of the people in the sacred Books.  All who enter office in our Church solemnly profess to receive them as the only infallible rule of faith and practice.  If they change their belief on this point, Christian honor demands that they should withdraw from our ministry.  They have no right to use the pulpit or the chair of the professor for the dissemination of their errors until they are dealt with by the slow process of discipline.  But if any do so act, their Presbyteries should speedily interpose, and deal with them for violation of ordination vows.7

In October the same year, Union rescinded the General Assembly’s right to veto its faculty appointments, although it professed continued fidelity to the PCUSA.  Then in 1893, Briggs was brought before the General Assembly again, which overwhelmingly voted to suspend him from the ministry “for propagating ‘views, doctrines, and teachings’ contrary to the doctrine of Holy Scripture and standards of the church and in violation of his ordination vows.”8  Union subsequently disaffiliated from the PCUSA, although it still continued supplying graduates to fill Presbyterian pulpits.9

Despite the resolution of the Briggs heresy trial and the withdrawal of Union Theological Seminary, Theological Liberalism continued to plague the PCUSA, and the trouble only grew worse.  Soon, not only were the reliability and authority of the Bible being openly criticized, but many primary doctrines as well, including the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Although Briggs believed the Biblical accounts of the Virgin Birth,10 some of his students did not.  In 1910, a case came before the General Assembly in which three graduates of Union Seminary had been ordained to the ministry, despite having refused to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Because the PCUSA Book of Order allowed candidates to state scruples (or take exception) to the Westminster Standards, and because New York Presbytery accepted the men’s scruples against being required to affirm the Virgin Birth (as stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 22), the Assembly dismissed the complaint and drafted and approved a Doctrinal Deliverance consisting of the following five articles, with which all candidates for the ministry would henceforth be required to affirm:

1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.  Our Confession says (Chapter I, Section 10): “The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.”

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  The Shorter Catechism states, Question 22: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”

3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that Christ offered up “himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God.”  The Scripture saith Christ “once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit.”  (Cf. the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 25)

4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, concerning our Lord Jesus, that “on the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession.” (Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VIII, Section 4)

5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme Standard of our faith, that the Lord Jesus showed his power and love by working mighty miracles.  This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.  “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:35).  These great wonders were signs of the divine power of our Lord, making changes in the order of nature.  They were equally examples, to his Church, of charity and good-will toward all mankind.

These five articles of faith are essential and necessary.  Others are equally so…

Resolved, That, reaffirming the advice of the Adopting Act of 1729, all the Presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate for the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function, unless he declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of the Confession.11

The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1916.12  Then on May 21, 1922, Theologically Liberal Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, in the pulpit of New York’s First Presbyterian Church, during his candidacy to become the church’s next senior pastor, in which he criticized the PCUSA for “shutting the doors of Christian fellowship” against those who held a different “point of view” of the doctrines enumerated in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Regarding the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, in his sermon

Fosdick allowed that many devout Christians believed that the virgin birth was an historical event, that “it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into the world except by a special biological miracle.”  But, he argued, many others within the evangelical churches accepted another point of view.  These Christians held that “those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in His birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.”

He addressed the rest of the doctrines in the Deliverance similarly.13  Fosdick’s sermon set off a firestorm of controversy in the PCUSA.  Naturally, a complaint on the subject came before the General Assembly the next year.  Although many commissioners (including all but one of those serving on the Bills and Overtures Committee that first argued the case) wanted to take no action, since New York Presbytery was already investigating the complaint, the 1923 Assembly voted by 55% to reaffirm the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 and “to take such action…as will require the preaching and teaching of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrines taught in the Confession of Faith.”14

Following the decision of the 1923 General Assembly, a committee of eleven Theological Liberals in the PCUSA drafted their own declaration, entitled, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, more popularly known as The Auburn Affirmation,15 written in six articles, which took special aim at the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  The first article of the Affirmation attacked the first article of the Deliverance, denying the Doctrine of the Inerrancy of Scripture:

There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were kept “from error.”  The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion; and it is significant that this assertion is not to be found in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or in any of the great Reformation confessions.  The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.  We hold that the General Assembly of 1923, in asserting that “the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error,” spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith.  We hold rather to the words of the Confession of Faith, that the Scriptures “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life” (Conf. I.ii).16

Likewise, the fourth article in The Auburn Affirmation explicitly rejected any attempt to identify any specific teaching—especially those in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910—as “an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards”:

The General Assembly of 1923 expressed the opinion concerning five doctrinal statements that each one “is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards.”  On the constitutional grounds which we have before described, we are opposed to any attempt to elevate these five doctrinal statements, or any of them, to the position of test for ordination or for good standing in our church.

Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We all hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.  Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.17

The committee that drafted The Auburn Affirmation began seeking signatures in November 1923.  By May 5, 1924, when the second printing was produced, they had collected 1293 signatures.  Naturally, a complaint against the Affirmation was brought before the 1924 General Assembly, as were a complaint against two Union Seminary graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained the year before, despite their having denied the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and a complaint that Fosdick should be removed from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of New York City.  But the Assembly voted to take no action against any of the three complaints and, in fact, invited Fosdick to join the PCUSA.18  However, as church historian George Marsden has pointed out, the invitation the Assembly extended to Fosdick was “in effect an invitation for him to let himself be tried for heresy.  This move, in fact, ensured Fosdick’s resignation from his New York pulpit.”19

Despite the tepid response of the 1924 General Assembly, matters came to a head at the General Assembly the following year.  Complaints against the ordination policies of New York Presbytery—and the two Union graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained despite their denial of the Virgin Birth—were brought before the Assembly again.  The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) ruled, “that inasmuch as these two could not affirm their belief in the virgin birth, a doctrine repeatedly affirmed by previous assemblies, the presbytery should have deferred their licensing.  As such, (the PJC) returned the matter to the presbytery for appropriate action.”  In response, Henry Sloane Coffin, pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, read a prepared statement at the invitation of the Assembly Moderator, saying, “The sixteen commissioners of the Presbytery of New York, on behalf of the said Presbytery, respectfully declare that the Presbytery of New York will stand firmly upon the constitution of the Church, reaffirmed in the reunions of 1870 and 1906, which forbids the Assembly to change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry, without submitting such amendment to the Presbyteries for concurrent action.”  By “change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry,” Coffin clearly meant the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Fearing a denominational schism, Moderator Charles Erdman proposed “that a Commission of Fifteen members be appointed to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for unrest, and to report to the next General Assembly, to the end that the purity, peace, unity and progress of the Church may be assured.”  The Assembly passed the proposal unanimously.20  The Commission Erdman appointed presented an interim report the following year and a final report to the 1927 General Assembly, both of which were heavily influenced by The Auburn Affirmation.  The final report, which was approved by the Assembly, stated,

(I)t seems quite clear…that, granting for the moment the authority of the General Assembly, acting in any capacity, to declare broadly that an article is essential and necessary, it would be required to quote the exact language of the article as it appears in the Confession of Faith.  It could not paraphrase the language nor use other terms than those employed within the Constitution, much less could it erect into essential and necessary articles doctrines which are only derived as inferences from the statements of the Confession.21

In effect, the Doctrinal Deliverance approved by the 1910 PCUSA General Assembly, and reaffirmed by the 1916 and 1923 Assemblies, was rendered null and void by the 1927 Assembly, with no authority to prevent candidates for pastorates and professorships in the denomination who disagreed with any of its articles from being ordained and installed.  In 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (formed in 1958 by a merger of the PCUSA with the United Presbyterian Church in North America) abandoned all pretense of doctrinal conformity when it replaced the Westminster Standards with a Book of Confessions and removed its requirement that all officers in the denomination should promise to “sincerely receive and adopt the (Westminster) Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”.  After 1967, officers in the UPCUSA (or the Presbyterian Church (USA) since the 1983 merger of the (Northern) UPCUSA with the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States) are asked to do no more than to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and (to) be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God”.22  Today, the PC(USA) thinks nothing of ordaining officers who do not believe the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Four denominations have resulted from divisions in Mainline American Presbyterianism since the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the 1920s.  Of these, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires officers to strictly adhere to the Westminster Standards.  While most presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America allow candidates for office to declare a few more scruples than most presbyteries in the OPC, they also require officers to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, which more generally ensures that unbelief masquerading as unique interpretations cannot be used as justification for scruples against doctrines such as the Virgin Birth.  And the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians both have a document enumerating essential tenets with which all officers in the denomination must affirm without exception, and which tenets include the Virgin Birth.23

Is the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth Essential to Christianity?

In 1906, the great Presbyterian theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary was asked to answer the question, “Is the doctrine of the supernatural birth of Jesus essential to Christianity?”24  To put this question another way, “Would Christianity be substantially different if the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth were removed from the Bible?”  Dr. Warfield answered that it depends entirely on what “Christianity” means.  The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America determined for itself in 1927 that the Virgin Birth is not truly essential, and its present-day successor, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has not determined any differently.  But then again, the “Christianity” that is preached and taught from the majority of PC(USA) pulpits and seminary classroom podiums today is a far cry from the Christianity that the Bible proclaims.

The Christianity that the Bible proclaims is supernatural, revelational, and redemptive.  Christianity is supernatural, in that it comes from God and not from man (Mt. 16.15-17, 21.24-27, Gal. 1.15-16).  Christianity is revelational, in that it is God revealing Himself to men and women—through His creation of the physical world around us and in the moral nature of man (Ps. 19.1-6, Rom. 1.19-20, 2.14-15); through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which come from Him alone and not from the men who wrote them down (II Tim. 3.15-17, II Pet. 1.19-21); through His supernatural intervention in the natural world by way of miracles (Mk. 2.10-12, Jn. 5.36, 12.37-38, Acts 2.22); and chiefly through the incarnation of His eternal Son in the man Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1.9,14,18, 3.31-36).  And Christianity is redemptive, in that it is God, through the ministrations of Jesus Christ, redeeming lost men and women from bondage to sin and death and reconciling them to Himself (Lk. 19.10, Jn. 12.32, II Cor. 5.18-21).

Now the Gospel accounts teach that Jesus Christ performed many miracles when He walked the Earth, as attested to by many who witnessed them (Mt. 4.23-25, Jn. 3.2, Jn. 6.10-14, Acts 2.22); that He was raised bodily from the dead and appeared afterward to many eyewitnesses (Mt. 28.9-10,16-20, Lk. 24.13-51, Jn. 20.11-23,26-29, 21.4-23, I Cor. 15.3-8); and that He ascended bodily into heaven in the presence of His disciples (Acts 1.6-11).  And the Gospel accounts also teach that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb of a young woman from Nazareth in Galilee who had never had sexual intercourse with a man.  If one believes the supernatural accounts attested to by the eyewitnesses, then one should not have a problem believing that the God behind the miracles, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is also capable of creating a zygote in the womb of a virgin.  Yet the same men who objected in The Auburn Affirmation to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Incarnation…of our Lord Jesus Christ,” meaning efforts to commit the PCUSA to the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, also objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the (bodily) Resurrection and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power (i.e., the “mighty miracles”) of our Lord Jesus Christ.”25  And although they claimed, “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the (Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910) as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion,” they fully intended to persuade the denomination to open the office of teaching elder to men (and later women) who disbelieved the supernatural basis for Christianity, in their denial that God has ever intervened supernaturally in human history.

Likewise, it is the accounts recorded in Scripture that teach us that the Lord Jesus Christ was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.  Yet The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they likewise objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible,” by which they meant the “assertion…that the writers (of the Scriptures) were kept ‘from error.’”  And further, they believed that, “The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.”  Thus, it stands to reason, that if the Scriptures can and do err, that if Matthew and Luke in particular were not supernaturally kept from error, despite having been “inspired of God,” then their claim that Mary was a virgin when the Lord Jesus was conceived in her womb might also be in error, and that “all who hold most earnestly to the great fact and doctrine” of “the Incarnation” and yet who disbelieve in the “particular theory” of the Virgin Birth, “are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”

But what is overlooked here is the question that, if the Bible does, in fact, err, then in what meaningful sense can the Bible be considered to have been “inspired of God”?  Is not God omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and omnipotent?  If so, then He lacks not for knowledge, wisdom, or veracity—or for the capability of ensuring that the Bible communicated exactly what He wanted it to, if He did, in fact, inspire it.  And it says something derogatory about the character of God, if we confess that yes, He is omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and eminently capable of ensuring that the Bible communicates exactly what He wants it to, and yet that that same Bible contains errors.  Why, then, would He want it to err?  Furthermore, it takes an enormous amount of hubris to claim to be a Christian and then to turn around and claim that the Bible which the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ inspired contains errors, and then to use that claim as justification to disbelieve what the Bible teaches, including what it teaches about the Virgin Birth.  So again, not only does the “Christianity” that the Auburn Affirmationists want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural, it also denies that Christianity is revelational.

Finally, Scripture teaches that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2.1), and this applies to all men and women.  “For we have charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ (quoted from Ps. 14.1-3, 53.1-3)  ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ (quoted from Ps. 5.9)  ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ (quoted from Ps. 140.3)  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ (quoted from Ps. 10.7 LXX)  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ (quoted from Prov. 1.16, Is. 59.7-8)  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (quoted from Ps. 36.1)” (Rom. 3.9-18)  Moreover, the penalty that we deserve for our sin is the wrath and fury of God, and death (Rom. 2.7, 6.23).

And worse than this, there is nothing whatsoever that we can do that will appease the wrath of God poured out justly on us for our wickedness.  The Law of God requires that we “must be perfect, as (our) heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5.48), and He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1.13).  “The Judge of all the earth (must) do what is just” (Gen. 18.25), and what each of us has done deserves death.  “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21.8)  And if we think that we might escape His judgment because we have not committed any of these sins, we must remember that He counts hatred as murder, lust and divorce as adultery, and He requires us to fulfill everything we say we will do, to not retaliate against anyone who injures or maligns us, and to love our enemies.  “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5.21-48)  We have nothing to offer the Lord in exchange to recompense for our sins against Him.

For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
and our sins testify against us;

for our transgressions are with us,
and we know our iniquities:

transgressing, and denying the LORD,
and turning back from following our God,

speaking oppression and revolt,
conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.

Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands afar off;

for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
and uprightness cannot enter.

Truth is lacking,
and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. —Is. 59.12-15

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64.6)  We have no righteousness of our own that we can use to atone for even the smallest of our sins (Phil. 3.9).  As the Psalmist confessed, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130.3)

This is the human condition, and we must grapple with it and understand it, before we can begin to appreciate the atonement that Jesus Christ has made on our behalf.  God is the potter, and every man, woman, and child is a vessel made by Him for one kind of use or the other—either a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction,” or a “vessel of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9.21-23).  But the vessels of mercy are no less guilty, no less sinful than the vessels of wrath, and therefore deserve the same fate.  In order to be used as vessels of mercy, they must first be washed clean, and they cannot wash themselves.

In the Old Testament, God provided His people with animal sacrifices—bulls, sheep, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons, all without spot or blemish—to offer up in atonement for their sins (Lev. 1-7, 16).  But these only “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 8.5,10.1), pointing to a better, more perfect sacrifice that could actually accomplish what the Old Testament sacrifices could not, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)

Thus it was that “Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.5-8)  “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53.5-6, I Pet. 2.24-25)  He drank to the bitter dregs the cup of His Father’s judgment and wrath, poured out for the sins of the world (Ps. 75.8, Is. 51.17,22), just as He said He would (Mt. 20.22-23, 26.39,42,44, Mk. 10.38,39, 14.36,39, Lk. 22.42, Jn. 18.11).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.  Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
—Hebrews 9.11-15

Christ made an atonement for sinful men and women when He died on Calvary’s tree, substituting Himself for the penalty richly deserved by filthy, unclean, wicked sinners like you and me.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor. 5.21)  And then God raised Him from the dead in glorious demonstration of His victory over sin and death.  “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2.17)

And this is the Gospel: That Christ died on the Cross to bear the sins of many, making propitiation for the sins of all those whom God has chosen from before the beginning of the world, that whosoever believes in Him and trusts in His perfect, holy, sinless life, in His perfect atoning death on the Cross, and in His life-giving bodily resurrection from the dead will themselves be raised from the dead into a glorious new life when He returns at the end of human history to judge the living and the dead.

Yet again, all who endorsed The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they further objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Atonement (and) the Resurrection…of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  They thus denied the centrality of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Bodily Resurrection from the Dead of our Lord Jesus Christ in His Gospel.  Thus, not only does the “Christianity” that they want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural and revelational, it also denies that Christianity is redemptive in their rendering as optional the doctrines that are at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Birth is supernatural—it comes from God and not from man.  The Virgin Birth is revelational—through it the Son of God was made flesh and manifested among us.  And the Virgin Birth is redemptive—through it came the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world.  Therefore, the answer unequivocally is: Yes, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth is absolutely essential to Christianity.


Footnotes

1     The Roman Catholic Church holds that Mary continued in a state of perpetual virginity even after the birth of the Lord Jesus, finding greater significance in her virginal motherhood than that which Scripture ascribes to it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], 499-501,505-507).  In point of fact, apart from the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Scripture does not refer to Mary’s virginity at all.  Moreover, by saying that Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth to a son” (Mt. 1.25, emphasis added), Matthew implies that Joseph did, in fact, have sexual relations with his wife after Jesus’ birth (although presumably not until after the forty days of her menstrual uncleanness had elapsed, as specified in Lev. 12; compare Lk. 2.22-24); after all, Joseph’s marriage to Mary would not be much of a marriage if he could never engage in sexual intercourse with his wife, especially when marriage is consummated by sexual intercourse.   And Scripture contradicts Rome’s doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity by referring to the Lord Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters (Mt. 12.46-50, 13.53-58, Mk. 3.31-35, 6.1-6, Lk. 8.19-21).  Rome counters this by claiming, “Against this doctrine is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.  The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary.  In fact, James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’  They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 500)  However, this interpretation is forced, as the natural understanding of “brothers and sisters” are other children born of his parents, not children of “the other Mary”, whose familial relation with the Lord Jesus is pure conjecture on the part of Rome and is nowhere established in Scripture.  Moreover, in three of these passages, Jesus’ unnamed brothers are referenced alongside His mother, who is not named.  “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mt. 12.48-50, Mk. 3.33-35, Lk. 8.21)  The context of these passages does not suggest that these “brothers” are cousins, but rather the biological sons of Joseph and Mary, and thus Jesus’ half-brothers.

2     Papias, Fragment VI, in Alexander Roberts, D.D., James Donaldson, LL.D., and A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D., eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (Christian Literature Publishing, 1885; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 155.

3     John W. Wenham, “Christ’s View of Scripture” in Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 449, n. 3.

4     This is the only instance in Scripture where Mary is recorded as referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father.

5     Charles Augustus Briggs, D.D., The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), pp. 31,35.

6     Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 23.

7     Quoted in Christopher K. Lensch, “Presbyterianism in America, The Nineteeth Century: The Formative Years” in WRS Journal 13:2 (August 2006), p. 8; online at https://www.wrs.edu/assets/docs/Journals/2006b/Lensch-Presbyterianism_America_19th_Century.pdf, accessed 16 Dec 2020.

8     Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

9     Paul Matzko, “Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs” (The Association of Religion Data Archives); online at https://www.thearda.com/timeline/events/event_252.asp; accessed 16 Dec 2020.

10   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

11   “The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910”, online at https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html; accessed 16 Dec 2020.  See also George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), p. 117; Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

12   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

13   Ibid., pp. 9-10.

14   Ibid., pp. 74-75.

15   The Auburn Affirmation received that name, not because it was drafted at Auburn Theological Seminary, but because its chief architect, Robert Hastings Nichols, was a professor at the school (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

16   Robert Hastings Nichols, et al, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1924), Article I; online at https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/auburntext.html; accessed 18 Dec 2020.

17   Ibid., Article IV.

18   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 100,125-126.

19   Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 181.

20   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 151-152.

21   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 158-161.

22   Book of Order 2019-2021, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2019) §W-4.4003.c.  It is especially telling that the PC(USA) moved its ordination vows in the early 2000s from the Form of Government section of its Book of Order to the Directory for Worship, as if ordination vows were not something inherent to the government of the church but merely formalities of ordination worship services.

23   Although the ECO does this by reiterating that “He is born of the virgin Mary” (ECO Essential Tenets I.B), the same phrasing used in the Apostles’ Creed, the EPC Essentials of Our Faith Article 2 declares, “Jesus Christ, the living Word, became flesh through His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and His virgin birth.”

24   Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Supernatural Birth of Jesus” in Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge, eds., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. III: Christology and Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1932; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 447-458.

25   Similarly, in the year before my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, disaffiliated from the PC(USA) and affiliated with the EPC, a gentleman on the staff of the church who had graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was seeking ordination in the PC(USA), so he might receive a call as an Associate Pastor at the church, and in his statement of faith, he said he believed in the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And one of the minister members of the presbytery with which Colonial was affiliated objected to this statement, saying that if he believed this, then he could not vote for him.

A Delicious Paradise: The World of Man Before the Fall

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth (Gen. 2.8,15-16); putting the creatures under his dominion (Gen. 1.28), and ordaining marriage for his help (Gen. 2.18, Mt. 19.3-9, Eph. 5.31); affording him communion with himself (Gen. 1.26-29, 3.8); instituting the Sabbath (Gen. 2.3, Ex. 20.11); entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience (Gen. 2.16-17, Gal. 3.12, Rom. 10.5), of which the tree of life was a pledge (Gen. 2.9, 3.22-24); and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death (Gen. 2.17, Jas. 2.10). —Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20

The Garden of God: The Habitation of Man Before the Fall

In prehistoric times, the Lord God planted a garden that He intended to be the first abode of humankind.  Of the events of these days we have no firsthand records, and the most reliable were written by Moses, the prophet of the Lord, many thousands of years after the fact, in the Book commonly called Genesis.

Moses says that God planted this garden “in Eden, in the east.” (Gen. 2.8)  A few verses later he gives another clue as to its location, when he writes,

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.  The name of the first is the Pishon.  It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is the Gihon.  It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.  And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.  And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Gen. 2.10-14)

Of these four rivers, we know for certain of only two—the Tigris1 and the Euphrates.  The text states that the Pishon “flowed around the whole land of Havilah.”  In the Table of Nations, Havilah was identified both as a son of Cush (Gen. 10.7), a son of Ham, and of Joktan (Gen. 10.29), a descendant of Shem, and Genesis later records that the descendants of Ishmael “settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria.” (Gen. 25.18)  Calvin opines that Havilah

is here taken for a region adjoining Persia.  For subsequently, in the twenty-fifth chapter, Moses relates, that the Ishmaelites dwelt from Havila unto Shur, which is contiguous to Egpyt, and through which the road lies unto Assyria.  Havila, as one boundary, is opposed to Shur as another, and this boundary Moses places near Egypt, and through which road lies into Assyria.  Whence it follows, that Havila (the other boundary) extends toward Susia and Persia. … Every thing which Moses asserts respecting gold and precious stones is most applicable to this district.2

Similarly unknown to us, the text states that the Gihon “flowed around the whole land of Cush.”  As noted above, the Table of Nations identifies Cush as a son of Ham (Gen. 10.6), one of the three sons of Noah, and Cush has traditionally been identified as Ethiopia,3 which gave rise to some of the ancients that the Gihon was to be identified with the Nile.  Calvin references the fact that “all interpreters translate this word Ethiopia,” and then further elucidates, explaining,

but the country of the Midianites and the conterminous country of Arabia, are included under the same name by Moses; for which reason, his wife is elsewhere called an Ethiopian woman.4  Moreover, since the lower course of the Euphrates tends toward that region, I do not see why it should be deemed absurd, that it there receives the name Gihon.  And thus the simple meaning of Moses is, that the garden of which Adam was the possessor was well watered, the channel of a river passing that way, which was afterwards divided into four heads.5

Based on the fact that the antediluvian river flowing out of Eden dividing into four was once the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and that the modern-day headwaters of those two rivers are found in what is today eastern Turkey, then it is likely that Eden was also located there.  However, the garden, the river that issued therefrom, and the divergence of said river into the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, as well as (possibly) the Pishon and Gihon Rivers themselves, have disappeared from the face of the earth, likely as the result of the Great Deluge that devastated the antediluvian world and nearly made the human race extinct in the days of Noah.  Calvin, however, does not agree with this assessment, writing,

From this difficulty (that the Tigris and the Euphrates do not have a single source), some would free themselves by saying, that the surface of the globe may have been changed by the deluge; and therefore, they imagine it might have happened that the courses of the rivers were disturbed and changed, and their springs transferred elsewhere; a solution which appears to me to be by no means to be accepted.  For although I acknowledge that the earth, from the time that it was accursed, became reduced from its native beauty to a state of wretched defilement, and to a garb of mourning, and afterwards was further laid waste in many places by the deluge; still, I assert, it was the same earth which had been created in the beginning.  Add to this, that Moses (in my judgment) accommodated his topography to the capacity of his age.  Yet nothing is accomplished, unless we find that place where the place where the Tigris and Euphrates proceed from one river.  Observe, first, that no mention is made of a spring or fountain, but only that it is said, there was one river.  But the four heads I understand to mean, both the beginnings from which the rivers are produced, and the mouths by which they discharge themselves into the sea.  Now the Euphrates was formerly joined by confluence with the Tigris, that it might justly be said, one river was divided into four heads; especially if what is manifest to all conceded, that Moses does not speak acutely, nor in a philosophical manner, but popularly, so that every one least informed may understand him.  Thus, in the first chapter, he called the sun and moon two great luminaries; not because the moon exceeded other planets in magnitude, but because, to common observation, it seemed greater.  Add further, that he seems to remove all doubt when he says, that the river had four heads, because it was divided from that place.  What does this mean, except that the channels were divided, out of one confluent stream, either above or below Paradise?6

However, we know from nature that an enormous amount of water eroding over an area for even a short span of time can effect tremendous geologic and geographic changes, and the amount of water washing over the Middle East in the Noachian Deluge has not been matched—let alone exceeded—in the millennia since its occurrence.  Therefore, it is extremely likely that the topography of the lands following the Great Deluge was significantly altered from what it had been before.

Moreover, there is a theological significance of the one river flowing out of Eden and then dividing into four, that is subverted if misinterpreted to mean that one or more of the referenced rivers did not originate in the river issuing from the garden but merely flowed into either that river or one of its distributaries.  The garden in Eden is the garden of God (Ezek 28.13).  As Geerhardus Vos points out,

The garden is “the garden of God”, not in the first instance an abode for man as such, but specifically a place of reception of man into fellowship with God in God’s own dwelling-place. … The correctness of this is verified by the recurrence of this piece of symbolism in eschatological form at the end of history, where there can be no doubt concerning the principle of paradise being the habitation of God, where He dwells in order to make man dwell with Himself.7

Vos here refers to the vision of John recorded in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation.  Here, John writes, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Rev. 21.3)  And again, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Rev. 22.1-2)  The one river is likewise presented in Genesis as flowing out of Eden—out from the presence of God, who dwells there—and then divides into four distributaries that water all the lands.  This symbolism loses its theological meaning, however, if the effluence of the four rivers is misinterpreted to mean (in whole or in part) a confluence.

The final thing to note about the first habitation of humanity is the presence of the trees.  Certainly, the Trees of Life and of the Knowledge of Good and Evil are specifically mentioned, but these have special theological significance that will be discussed later.  However, it is the trees—all the trees of the Garden—that give the Garden its paradisaical character, physically speaking. (Obviously, it was the presence of God in the Garden that gave it its paradisaical character, spiritually speaking.)  “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden…  And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen. 2.8-9)  Indeed, as the Lord elsewhere told the man, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit.  You shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Gen. 1.29-30, emphasis added)  As Matthew Henry waxed eloquently about the trees of Eden,

(The garden) had all the best and choicest trees in common with the rest of the ground.  It was beautiful and adorned with every tree that, for its height or breadth, its make or colour, its leaf or flower, was pleasant to the sight and charmed the eye; it was replenished and enriched with every tree that yielded fruit grateful to the taste and useful to the body, and so good for food.  God, as a tender Father, consulted not only Adam’s profit, but his pleasure; for there is a pleasure consistent with innocency, nay, there is a true and transcendent pleasure in innocency.  God delights in the prosperity of his servants, and would have them easy; it is owing to themselves if they be uneasy.  When Providence puts us into an Eden of plenty and pleasure, we ought to serve him with joyfulness and gladness of heart, in the abundance of the good things he gives us.”8

In later passages of Scripture, the trees in the Garden of God became the standard of majesty and beauty against which the majesty and beauty of earthly kingdoms were compared.  For example, Ezekiel, in prophesying against the Egyptian Pharaoh, wrote,

Whom are you like in your greatness?
Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade,
and of towering height,
its top among the clouds. …

The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
neither were the plane trees like its branches;
no tree in the garden of God was its equal in beauty.
I made it beautiful in the mass of its branches,
And all the trees in Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God. (Ezek. 31.2-9; see also Is. 53.3, Ezek. 28.13, Joel 2.3)

The Regulation of Man in the Garden of God: The Covenant of Life

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.27)

When God created the first man, Adam, He created him in His own image.  Just as the Lord Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15), so too was Adam, save that the divine nature of God was not joined with the human nature of Adam, as it was with the Lord Jesus.  And even as the Lord Jesus was “made like his brothers (i.e., us) in every respect” (Heb. 2.17), except “without sin” (Heb. 4.15), so too was Adam.  Like the Lord Jesus, Adam was created by God in the state of what theologians call Original Righteousness,9 and in him was not to be found any taint of sin, that is, his heart was not naturally inclined toward rebellion against God.  He was not created above the possibility of falling into sin and thus losing his condition of Original Righteousness, as Genesis 3 makes only all too clear, but in his original condition as constituted by God at his creation, he was not naturally disposed toward sin, as we are, and as he afterward became.

Nevertheless, although not predisposed to sin, Adam’s life in the Garden of God still had to be regulated, in order to ensure that he fulfilled the purposes for which his Creator had made him, and God issued this regulation in the form of a covenant.  O. Palmer Robertson, in his text on the covenants in Scripture, defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”10  Although no blood was shed in the establishment of this particular covenant, as there was in each successive administrative establishment of the Covenant of Redemption, it was a “life-and-death bond” sovereignly established and administered by God,11 with a specific condition—namely, the prohibition of eating the fruit from one particular tree—with the threatened consequence of death, to be executed on the same day as the violation of this covenant.

Now, the first thing to be noticed is that the word covenant (Heb. berith; Gk. διαθήκη) does not appear in Genesis until 6.18, where the Lord announces to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you.”  However, the absence of the term does not mean that God did not establish a covenant with unfallen man in the Garden.  As Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out,

All the elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to relate them to one another, and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name.  In the case under consideration two parties are named, a condition is laid down, a promise of reward for obedience is clearly implied, and a penalty for transgression is threatened.12

The second thing to be noticed is that theologians are not agreed as to what this covenant should be called.  The Westminster divines alternately called it the “Covenant of Works”13 and the “Covenant of Life”.14  Old Princeton preeminent theologian Charles Hodge followed the Westminster divines in their use of both terms, writing, “That covenant (with Adam) is sometimes called a covenant of life, because life was promised as the reward of obedience.  Sometimes it is called the covenant of works, because works were the condition on which that promise was suspended, and because it is thus distinguished from the new covenant which promises life on condition of faith.”  However, the name of the chapter in which this quote appears, as well as in the subheadings and the rest of the text of the chapter, Hodge exclusively used the name “Covenant of Works”.15  Berkhof mentions that it has been referred to “as the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, the Edenic covenant, and the covenant of works.”  However, the nomenclature “Covenant of Nature” gradually fell out of use, as it was “apt to give the impression that this covenant was simply a part of the natural relationship in which man stood to God.”  Berkhof objected to calling it the Covenant of Life or the Edenic Covenant, because both names “might also be applied to the covenant of grace.”  And because of his argued unsuitability for the first three names, he preferred the name “Covenant of Works”.16  Vos, who labored at Princeton Seminary two generations after Hodge, also used this nomenclature, although he did not discuss the reason, other than to say that this was the name commonly given to it, and he neither mentioned any other name for it nor disputed it.17  Robertson objected to the name “Covenant of Works”, especially as contrasted with the “Covenant of Grace”, as the nomenclature “suggests that grace was not operative in the covenant of works,” and “that works have no place in the covenant of grace.”  Instead, he stated a preference for the names “Covenant of Creation” and “Covenant of Redemption”, respectively.18

Although I agree with Robertson’s objections to the terms “Covenant of Works” and “Covenant of Grace” and concur with his adoption of “Covenant of Redemption” for the latter, I disagree with his identification of God’s covenant with unfallen man with the Covenant of Creation.  In Jeremiah 33.19-26, the Lord references His “covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth,” and in Hosea 2.18 His “covenant…with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground.”  This context is much broader than the covenant God established with man in the Garden before the Fall, although the latter is undeniably an integral part—indeed, the chief part—of the former.  After all, the consequence of man’s violation of the terms of the first covenant had catastrophic ramifications for the greater Creation, which, on account of man’s sin, “was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8.20-21)  But the covenant in the Garden was specifically with man, not the whole Creation, signified and sealed by the Tree of Life, of which man in the Garden was free to eat, and conditioned by the prohibition against man partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—a prohibition that did not extend to birds or beasts.  The covenant in the Garden was intended to regulate the life of man, which was graciously given him under the terms of the covenant, whereas the Covenant of Redemption intends to restore to man the life he had in the Garden, and further to confirm him therein, just as he would have been confirmed, had he complied with the Lord’s injunction.  For had Adam remembered the Lord’s commandment during the serpent’s temptation, and not listened to the voice of his wife, who enjoined him to eat the fruit with her, instead gently rebuking her and reminding her of the Lord’s provision for their every need, reminding her of His trustworthiness and questioning the trustworthiness of the serpent’s doubt-sowing words—for unlike her, he was not deceived (I Tim. 2.14)—our race would have been confirmed in the life of Original Righteousness, having come to the knowledge of good and evil by learning obedience, just as the Lord Jesus had (Phil. 2.8, Heb. 5.8; see also Mt. 4.1-11, Lk. 4.1-13).  Hence, the appropriate name for this covenant is the Covenant of Life.

As previously stated, the Covenant of Life was instituted to regulate man’s life in the Garden of God.  Specifically, we see three broad areas of man’s life that the Covenant regulated, namely: labor, worship, and marriage.

Labor

God did not create man to no purpose, but gave him meaningful work to do under the Covenant of Life.  Specifically, he “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Gen. 2.15)  So, contrary to the popular adage, the “world’s oldest profession” is that of gardener or farmer.  The negative and burdensome connotations often associated with labor today were completely absent from man’s life in the Garden; warnings against indolence (e.g., II Thess. 3.10-12) were completely unnecessary.  The ground was not cursed, nor did it yield thorns and thistles as a reward for man’s labor, for these were a result of the Fall (Gen. 3.17-19).  To the contrary, as Calvin wrote, “This labour, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness.”19  Likewise, Robertson notes, “Labor is to be seen as a principal means by which man’s enjoyment of the creation is assured. … Labor belongs integrally to the role of man made in God’s image.”20

More broadly, man’s work was not simply to have stewardship over the Garden alone, but over the whole earth.  “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1.28)  To be sure, the subjugation of and dominion over the earth was not intended to be an oppressive government or an abuse of the earth’s resources, as the rule and dominion of man is wont to be, this side of Eden.  Rather, it was to be a benevolent lordship, to the creation’s benefit, just as God’s Lordship is likewise benevolent to man, whom He made in His image.

Worship

On the cusp of their entrance into the Promised Land, Moses told the children of Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Dt. 8.3; quoted by the Lord Jesus in Mt. 4.4, Lk. 4.4)  This was no less true of man under the Covenant of Life than it is of man under the Covenant of Redemption.  Adam did not live by the fruit of his labor in the Garden of God alone, but by his fellowship in worship of the God who created him out of the dust of the ground.

On the day on which man violated the Covenant of Life, he “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Gen. 3.8)  From this we may infer that it was at this time of the day, after man’s labor for the day was complete, that the Lord was accustomed to commune with him.  But more than this, God Himself had set a pattern, whereby for six days He had toiled in the creation of the world, and on the seventh He rested (Gen. 1.3-2.2).  And further, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Gen. 2.3)  And it was to this specific pattern that He referred, when He gave the children of Israel the Fourth Commandment, that is, to labor six days and rest on the seventh, keeping the seventh day holy (Ex. 20.8-11).  Thus, in addition to meeting with man at each day’s end, it follows that God expected him to rest from his labor one day out of every seven, and to spend that holy day in communion with Him.

Marriage

In the first chapter of Genesis, one finds a common refrain, wherein God has just created something according to His design, and then the text says, “And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1.4,10,12,18,21,25)  And then, once His Creation was complete, with the creation of man and woman, the text says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1.31)  The whole of His Creation was not merely “good” (Heb. tob), but “very good” (Heb. tob meod).  As Calvin wrote of this, “On each of the days, simple approbation was given.  But now, after the workmanship of the world was complete in all its parts, and had received, if I may so speak, the last finishing touch, he pronounces it perfectly good; that we may know that there is in the symmetry of God’s works the highest perfection, to which nothing can be added.”21

Yet prior to this final pronouncement, there was something of His Creation that God said was not good, namely: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.’” (Gen. 2.18)  Now we know from Genesis 1.26-31 that God created mankind male and female, which was essential for the fulfillment of the blessing and commandment that He gave there, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.  However, from the narration in Genesis 2 detailing the specific creation of mankind, we know that He created man first, and then after an unspecified amount of time (which, if the “days” of Creation in Gen. 1 were literal twenty-four hour periods, would have had to have been no more than a matter of hours, for man and woman were both created on the Sixth Day) He created woman.  Thus, at the point in the narration when God made this pronouncement that man’s solitary existence was “not good”, Adam had no frame of reference to know that God intended to create others like him.

Then the Lord brought to Adam “every bird of the heavens” that He had created on the Fifth Day, and “every beast of the field” that He had created on the Sixth Day, in order to see what Adam would name them, and ostensibly to select a helper fit for him.  “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”  The motions of going through this “selection process” were solely for Adam’s benefit, for God knew from before He began His work in Creation that no animal could fulfill the role of Adam’s helpmate, and He had already planned to create a woman to be the “helper fit for him.”  So, as the Lord brought the birds and beasts to him, Adam could see that they came in pairs—male and female, as God had created them—whereas He had as yet created no female to correspond to Adam, and Adam could thus see and understand his own need for a mate.

Once Adam understood this, God put him into a deep sleep, during which He removed one of his ribs, closing up the place from which He took it with flesh, and then proceeded to transform Adam’s rib into a woman, in His last work of Creation.  In remarking on this text, Matthew Henry wrote,

The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.  Adam lost a rib, and without any diminution to his strength or comeliness; but in lieu thereof he had a help meet for him, which abundantly made up his loss: what God takes away from his people he will, one way or other, restore with advantage.22

Although woman is “the (physically) weaker vessel” (I Pet. 3.7), she is the helpmate fit for man, corresponding to his nature.  She is neither his superior nor his inferior, but is his intellectual equal, and yet is temperamentally different from him, with a different perspective than his, owing to the unique way in which God created her, as opposed to how He had created man.  These differences were ordained by God at Creation and are to be respected and celebrated.

Then the Scriptures state that after God transformed Adam’s rib into a woman, He “brought her to the man.”  Logically, given that Adam was sleeping during this act of creation, and that the woman was formed from his side, it follows that God created her lying next to him, cradled by his body as he slept.  And when they had awoken, Adam would immediately have known what God had done, and from where He had taken the woman He had formed for him.  Thus, in the first recorded poetry spoken by man in the Scripture, Adam said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman (Heb. ishshah),
because she was taken out of Man (Heb. ish).” (Gen. 2.23)

Following this, Moses declared, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2.24)  Make no mistake: God created woman to be the mate of man in a lifelong covenant of monogamous marriage, for the purpose of producing and raising children, which is the meaning of the man and his wife quite literally “becoming one flesh.”  Had man not fallen into sin, man and woman would have been happy and content with this arrangement.  The discontent that leads couples to separate or divorce, or for a person to take multiple spouses, to commit homosexuality, or to commit a plethora of other forms of adultery and fornication, finds its root in the sinful heart of man after the Fall, perverting the good and positive desires God planted in the heart of man before the Fall, which he uses for selfish and self-seeking reasons, and not for the purpose of glorifying God, the purpose for which He created man in the beginning.

This is not to say, however, that an individual woman’s worth is found only in her identity as her husband’s wife, as if Angela Golden should be loved and cherished solely because she is the wife of Loren Golden.  To be sure, I am joyfully obligated to love and cherish her for that very reason, but she is an individual created by God for His purposes, with thoughts and ideas of her own that have merit, and as I am called to love her as Christ loves the Church (Eph. 5.25-33, I Pet. 3.7), it is my privilege to encourage her to find ways and opportunities to employ the gifts with which our Heavenly Father has richly endowed her in ways that redound to His glory.

Finally, Moses remarked that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2.25)  The physical nudity of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall symbolized the spiritual reality that they had nothing to hide—no unworthy thoughts, desires, or memories of actions of which to be ashamed.  They were naked spiritually as well as physically, transparent with one another and with God in a way in which we, with all our sinful baggage this side of Eden, cannot be.  And this free conscience, allowing for the deepest intimacy without a sense of shame, is perhaps the greatest loss we suffered in the Fall, for its loss utterly disrupted our unimpeded communion with God, making us unfit to stand in His presence.

The Test of Man’s Covenantal Faith: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

As previously stated, Adam was created in the state of Original Righteousness, free from the taint of, and inclination or bent toward, sin.  He was disposed toward fulfilling his covenantal responsibilities—working and keeping the Garden of God, and exercising dominion over it and over the birds and beasts that dwelt there; resting every seventh day and enjoying regular communion with God; and loving, cherishing, and cleaving to his wife.  After all, these activities redounded to his own benefit, and he knew that God was providing for his every need.

Yet there was one thing that God had forbidden him, namely, the fruit from one particular tree, which was given the unusual name of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.23  “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.16-17)

The first thing to observe is that God Himself planted the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of His Garden—the same Garden in which He placed man (Gen. 2.8,15, 3.3).  It was not planted in the periphery of the Garden, but in its very midst, so Adam could not easily avoid it in his daily tasks of caring for the Garden.  It might be suggested, then, that the very presence of this Tree was temptation staring Adam in the face every day.  He likely could see the birds and beasts partaking of its fruit with no consequence, but it was denied to him.  One might ask why God might tempt him like that, why He did not forbear from planting it in the same Garden in which He intended to place the man whom He had created.  But “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (Jas. 1.13-15)

The bare fact of the Tree’s presence in the midst of the Garden was, in and of itself, insufficient to tempt man to disobey his Creator’s injunction.  True, there was God’s threat of death on the day on which he partook of its fruit, but more than this, man was without sin when he dwelt in the Garden.  Sin perverts the good desires implanted in man’s heart at Creation and makes him desire that which is denied him, and Adam and his wife were free from its debilitating influence before the Fall.  They were content to obey God’s solitary injunction and freely partake of the fruit of every tree in the Garden except this one—until the day when the serpent sowed doubt and discontent in the woman’s heart (Gen. 3.1-3)—and one must not underestimate the power of godliness when found in combination with contentment.  “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (I Tim. 6.6-8)  Adam and his wife possessed this power, and it was recharged every evening and every seventh day, as they found their rest in Him.  “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Heb. 4.9-11)

The second thing to observe is that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil had no intrinsic properties that could endow those who partook of it with knowledge of any kind, let alone the specific knowledge of good and evil.  To be sure, the serpent insinuated that it did, when he said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3.5)  Likewise, the woman believed that the fruit somehow did possess some kind of intrinsic properties to convey the knowledge that its name suggested, for she saw “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3.6).  Yet when they did partake of the fruit, and “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3.7), having come to the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3.22), it was not anything intrinsic to the fruit that brought them this knowledge, but the sudden realization that they had violated God’s solitary injunction in the act of eating the forbidden fruit, which act was evil, whereas to have kept God’s commandment would have been good.

The prohibition of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a test of man’s faith in God, quite similar to the Lord’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and the son of God’s covenantal promise, which Moses expressly stated was a test of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 22.1 ff).  Frequently theologians and other Bible scholars refer to this prohibition as a test of man’s obedience.  As Calvin writes, “Moses now teaches, that man was a governor of the world, with this exception, that he should, nevertheless, be subject to God.  A law is imposed upon him in token of his subjection; for it would have made no difference to God, if he had eaten indiscriminately of any fruit he pleased.  Therefore, the prohibition of one tree was a test of obedience.”24  Similarly Westminster, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works (Gen. 2.16-17, Hos. 6.7, Gal. 3.12), wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity (Gen. 3.22, Rom. 5.12-20, 10.5), upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (Gen. 2.17, Gal. 3.10).”25  And likewise Berkhof, “The promise in the covenant of works was not unconditional.  The condition was that of implicit and perfect obedience.  The divine law can demand nothing less than that, and the positive command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, relating as it did, to a thing indifferent in itself, was clearly a test of pure obedience in the absolute sense of the word.”26  However, what this viewpoint overlooks is that what was on trial was not man’s obedience, but his faith.  Would man, when the veracity and trustworthiness of God’s Word was challenged, continue to put his trust in Him, or would he compromise his faith in God to the challenger?  To be sure, man’s faith has to work itself out in obedience to God’s command, but to focus on man’s obedience as the point of his probation is to miss the point entirely.  “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16.7)  Does Adam truly trust God?

Those who believe Adam’s probation to have been a test of his obedience are not wholly off-base, because faith is validated in outward works of obedience, as a public demonstration of trust in what one believes.  After all, it matters not that a man believes a particular bridge is structurally sound and capable of taking him to where he wants to go, until he demonstrates trust in what he believes by physically crossing it.  Likewise, Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15.6, Rom. 4.3, Gal. 3.6)  Yet it was not until the Lord tested his faith, by asking him to demonstrate his trust in His promises by sacrificing his beloved son Isaac, the son of God’s covenant promise to him, that his faith was validated (Gen. 22.12, Heb. 11.17-19, Jas. 2.21-23).  As Paul emphasized, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2.10)  And again, “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2.14)  The works we do are not approved, however, unless they are done from a motive of faith.

So it was with Adam.  He communed with God every evening and every seventh day, and he experienced God’s blessing in the fulfillment of his every need—a suitable environment that met his physical needs, meaningful labor, a mate corresponding to his sexual needs and his needs for human companionship and assistance in his labor, and above all else His own presence to fulfill his deepest spiritual need.  As a witness of every blessing, a recipient of every good and perfect gift, and whose every need was abundantly fulfilled, Adam had every reason to trust and obey God.  And left to his own devices, he would have blissfully continued in this existence, but without an opportunity to exercise his faith through trust in God’s Word in the face of opposition to His Word.

Enter the serpent.  Physically, a serpent was present, but it was not a mere animal that tempted Eve—especially not an animal lacking vocal chords and the ability to form human words with the shape of its mouth.  Rather, as Scripture elsewhere makes plain, this serpent was the tool of the principal demonic spirit known as Satan (literally, the Adversary) or the Devil (literally, the Accuser; II Cor. 11.3-15, Rev. 12.9, 20.2).  Just as the Lord gave Satan access to Job, in order to try his faith (Job 1.6-12, 2.1-6), He allowed Satan access to Adam and his wife.

The tempter’s first tack was to sow doubt in God’s Word.  He asked Eve, believing her to be more susceptible than her husband to his insidious words, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  This was an exaggeration, but it implied that the prohibition of the one tree was somehow unreasonable, and Eve’s reply indicated that she believed it was: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’.” (Gen. 3.1-3)  God had prohibited the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil but said nothing about touching it.  Moreover, she shortened the penalty to, “lest you die,” whereas God has expressly stated, “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.17)  The Hebrew idiom translated as “surely die” is a repetition of the word “die”, indicating the certainty of the threatened punishment for violating the solitary injunction.  Thus, Eve’s omission of the repeated word constitutes a lessening on her part of the severity of God’s threat.  Now Scripture recounts that God gave this prohibition to Adam when He placed him in the Garden, before He created her, and so she may have learned of the prohibition solely from him.  However, given that God communed with both of them every evening and every seventh day, it seems unlikely, given how she worded her response to the serpent’s question, that the subject of the prohibition had not come up during any of those times.  Yet despite what God might have told her during these times, she may have continued to harbor doubts as to the reasonableness of the prohibition.

Then seeing Eve’s susceptibility to the implication in his question, the tempter outright contradicted God’s Word: “You will not surely die.” (Gen. 3.4)  On one hand, it would seem that Satan was correct in saying this, for neither Adam nor Eve died that day after eating the fruit.  Interpreters generally attempt to explain the seeming disparity between the expressly prescribed punishment in one or both of two ways: First is that what was envisioned in the penalty was a spiritual death, rather than a physical death, for Scripture elsewhere says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. … But God, … even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2.1-7; see also Rom. 7.7-25)  The second way is to say that on the day on which Adam and his wife ate the forbidden fruit, they became mortal, subject to death, as emphasized in God’s curse and the account of Adam’s death and the subsequent accounts of the deaths of his posterity (Gen. 3.19, 5.5,8,11,14,17,20,27,31, 9.29), excepting godly Enoch only (Gen. 5.21-24, Heb. 11.5).  Now it is true that man died spiritually on the day that he partook of the forbidden fruit, but this hardly does justice to the severity of the penalty of “you shall surely die”; nothing less than Adam’s physical death is envisioned here.  It is also true that man became mortal on that day, but this also falls short of the specified execution date: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (emphasis added)  The only reason that Adam and Eve were not summarily executed on the same day as their rebellion, in fulfillment of God’s Word, was that God provided and accepted a substituted sacrifice in their place and clothed them with its skin as a garment (Gen. 3.21).  However, this is getting into the Covenant of Redemption and will be discussed at greater length in a future post.

Finally the tempter told Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3.5)  This was a half-truth.  The words themselves were correct: their eyes were opened (Gen. 3.7), and they did become like God in knowing good and evil (Gen. 3.22).  But this knowledge, gained by violating the Lord’s commandment, did not benefit them in the slightest.  They became the recipients of God’s curse, they were expelled from paradise, and eventually they died (Gen. 3.16-24, 5.5), and all Creation was subjected to God’s curse along with them (Gen. 3.17-18, Rom. 8.20-22).  Eve thought “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3.6), but seeking “to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1.22), opening a floodgate of iniquity, “and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1.27)  “For as in Adam all die.” (I Cor. 15.22)  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5.12), “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5.19).

One will notice that Adam alone is afforded the blame for the Fall, not Eve, who was deceived (Gen. 3.13), nor yet the two of them together.  Adam “was with her” (Gen. 3.6) during the temptation, witness to the transaction between his wife and the serpent, but whereas “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”, “Adam was not deceived” (I Tim. 2.14).  He knew the command of the Lord, and the serpent’s words did not beguile him, as they did her.  He should have stood firm, reminded his wife of the Lord’s provision for their every need, reminded her of the solitary injunction against eating the fruit from this particular tree, and challenged her reasoning for believing the serpent’s word above that of their Creator.  Yet he did not.  He “listened to the voice of (his) wife” (Gen. 3.17); he let her persuade him to eat the fruit against his better judgment.  As the head of his wife (Gen. 3.16, I Cor. 11.3, Eph. 5.23), Adam was responsible for her and for her conduct, as well as for their progeny and their conduct.  Thus, because of Adam’s sin, and Adam’s alone, all of humanity was made a race of fallen, mortal sinners, justly deserving God’s condemnation.

The last thing to observe with respect to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is that had Adam refrained from eating of its fruit and kept his wife from doing the same, he and his wife would have come to the knowledge of good and evil without losing their Original Righteousness.  It is good to obey the Lord and to refute the testimony of those who speak against His Word, and it is evil to listen to the voice of those who speak against God’s Word and follow according to theirs.  Had Adam overcome Satan in the Garden, as the Lord Jesus did in the desert, he and Eve would have learned this lesson by their faith worked out through obedience to the Word of the Lord, and thus come to a righteous knowledge of good and evil, qualitatively superior to the knowledge of the same that they gained by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree.  And that makes their acquisition of this knowledge by the means they employed in the Garden all the more ironic.

The Sign and Seal of the Covenant of Life: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was planted in the midst of the Garden of God (Gen. 2.9), but unlike the other named Tree, there was no prohibition against man eating its fruit before the Fall.  Thus, when God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2.16), He included the Tree of Life in the scope of His permission.

The Tree of Life was a fitting symbol of the Covenant of Life, inasmuch as it signified and sealed the covenant blessings to man, in particular the blessing of everlasting life.  Thus, when man violated the Covenant by partaking of the fruit from the forbidden Tree, he forfeited all right to partake of the Tree of Life, and the Lord had to take steps to prevent him from doing so ever again.  “‘Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden … He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3.22-24, emphasis added)

The implication of the Lord’s statement, that by eating of the Tree of Life man would “live forever”, was that man was endowed with everlasting life at his creation, that it was his to lose, and that only by partaking of the proscribed Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Berkhof takes this a step further, observing that although Scripture nowhere states before the Fall that man had been given the gift of conditional immortality, “it is clearly implied in the alternative of death as the result of disobedience.  The clear implication of the threatened punishment is that in the case of obedience death would not enter, and this can only mean that life would continue.”27

Moreover, what we have in Christ’s work in Redemption is a reversal of the curse that God laid down on our race and all of Creation at the Fall, a restoration to us of the life man had in the Garden before the Fall, and our confirmation in that life, to ensure that we can never lose it again.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility (i.e., at Eden; see Gen. 3.16-19), not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8.19-21, emphasis added)

Again, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem that will come when Christ returns victorious at the end of human history, “The dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”  This is what man had in the Garden of God.  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.3-4)  And if this were not enough, there is in the new Jerusalem “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city,” just as there was in the Garden of God the river that flowed out from the presence of God there to water all the lands.  “Also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.  The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22.1-2)

Finally, the Lord Jesus announced His purpose when He said, “I came that (my sheep) may have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn. 10.10)  If this were not clear enough, He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3.16)  Likewise, He said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (Jn. 11.25-26)  And as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Then comes the end, when (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’” (I Cor. 15.24-27)  Death will be destroyed.  Everlasting life, found abundantly in Christ, will be restored, just as it was in the Garden of God before the Fall.

Sadly, not all Christians believe that God created man in the Garden with conditional immortality, or that the penalty involved in violating the terms of the Covenant of Life was nothing less than the physical death of man on the day he violated those terms.  In particular, well-known Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis, for whom I have a great deal of respect, and whose books I enjoy immensely (even if I strongly disagree with some of what he says), apparently believed that God had created Adam to be physically mortal.  In his first work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis created not one, but three races of unfallen beings (or hnau) on the fictional planet Malacandra (Mars, as it had been powerfully shaped in the popular imagination of the first half of the Twentieth Century)—the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi.  Also on Malacandra was a dangerous species of aquatic predator called the hnéraki, against which the hrossa, in particular, would band together to hunt, just as the hnéraki hunted them.  But even beyond the occasional death of a hross by a hnakra, the hrossa had a natural lifespan of “about 80 Martian years, or 160 earth years.”28  However,

except for some few whom the hnakra gets, no one dies before his time.  All live out the full span allotted to their kind, and a death with them is as predictable as a birth with us. … (Those who are near death are sent) off, to receive the last counsel of Oyarsa, to die, and to be by him “unbodied.”  The corpses, as corpses, will exist only for a few minutes: there are no coffins in Malacandra, no sextons, churchyards, or undertakers.  The valley is solemn at their departure, but I see no signs of passionate grief.  They do not doubt their (spiritual) immortality, and friends of the same generation are not torn apart.  You leave the world, as you entered it, with the “men of your own year.”  Death is not preceded by dread nor followed by corruption.29

Thus, in the microcosm of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, “A world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not (God’s) way.”30  Of course, Out of the Silent Planet is a work of fiction—and speculative fiction at that.  An author might write something in a work of fiction that he does not believe to be true and would not hold to it if challenged.  However, Lewis has a much larger body of non-fiction works, where what he says can reasonably be expected to represent what he believed.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis includes a chapter on the Fall of Man, in which he discusses, among other things, what he believed about Adam’s origin before the Fall.  At the beginning of this chapter he writes, “Christianity asserts that God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of their goodness; that one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil.”31

So far, so good.  As a Calvinist, I might challenge his definition of free will, and his gloss leaves unexplained why a good creature of God’s should desire to avail himself of the possibility of evil, but such issues have been debated by Christians for most of Church history, and the Church has been divided along these fault lines for centuries.  The point is, Lewis believed, as do I, that God made man upright, morally good, but with the possibility of falling into sin and disobedience.

However, Lewis did not believe that God literally made man from “dust from the ground” (Gen. 2.7), nor woman from the rib of man (Gen. 2.21-22), as Scripture states.  “If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection.”32  Now on the face of it, Lewis might be saying, “If this is what you believe, I am not going to argue with you,” without committing to the doctrine of theistic evolution.  However, just a few pages later, he expanded on this, more clearly stating that he believed in theistic evolution:

What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know; but if it is legitimate to guess, I offer the following picture—a “myth” in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale.

For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself.  He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated.  The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity.  But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends.  Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me”, which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past. …

Judged by his artefacts, or perhaps even by his language, this blessed creature was, no doubt, a savage.  All that experience and practice can teach he had still to learn: if he chipped flints, he doubtless chipped them clumsily enough.  He may have been utterly incapable of expressing in conceptual form his Paradisal experience. … I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised.  Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow-spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.

We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.  But sooner or later they fell.  Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as “accidents” (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.33

Lewis was enamored by the notion of Christianity as the “true myth”, a notion he shared with his good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien,34 and he clearly regarded the early accounts in Genesis among the “myths in Holy Scripture”, for which he had “the deepest respect.”  He believed “the story in Genesis is a story (full of the deepest suggestion) about a magic apple of knowledge,” that pointed to a more pedestrian reality, as outlined above.  Yet he expressed disappointment that, in developing the doctrine of the Fall, the early Church Fathers regarded the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “simply and solely (as) a pledge of obedience,” devoid of any mythical significance.35

When taken together, Lewis’ claims in Out of the Silent Planet and The Problem of Pain show that he believed that God created man mortal, albeit positively good and in right standing and relationship with Him, which condition was lost when he fell into sin, but nevertheless mortal, destined to die eventually.  To be perfectly fair to Lewis, there is one passage of Scripture that seems to lend credence to this line of thought, where the Lord through the prophet Isaiah announces,

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,

and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. (Is. 65.17-20, emphasis added)

Immediately we are reminded of John’s parallel words near the end of the Apocalypse:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.1-2, emphasis added)

Rather than saying, “No more shall there be in it…an old man who does not fill out his days,” that “the young man shall die a hundred years old,” the Apocalypse says that in the New Jerusalem, “death shall be no more.”  How, then, are these two seemingly contradictory passages to be reconciled?  Is Lewis correct in teaching that God never intended to make man’s body immortal, but only his soul?  Is Christ’s work in redeeming man, restoring him to the original condition he enjoyed in the Garden of God, limited to a restoration of full spiritual life only, wherein he is once again in a right relationship with his Creator, the source of his life, but in which physical death is inevitable, albeit without its sting?  If Lewis interprets the Scriptures correctly, this would be the condition in which man in the Garden of God found himself.

However, Paul writes,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (I Cor. 15.20-26)

Paul in this passage (which begins with verse 12) is addressing the resurrection of the dead and likening it to Christ’s.  Just as Christ was raised from the dead, we who are found in Him will likewise be raised from the dead; in the manner in which Christ was raised, we, too, will be raised.  As he elsewhere said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.5)  Then Paul goes on to discuss the resurrection body.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. … Behold!  I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15.42-55; citations from Is. 25.8, Hos. 13.14)

Christ, having died, was raised immortal and imperishable.  “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (Rom. 6.9)  Likewise, when we who are found in Him are raised from the dead at His Second Coming, we will be raised immortal and imperishable, no longer subject to death either.

So, too, then, was man before the Fall immortal and imperishable, contingent upon his fulfillment of the terms of the Covenant of Life.  But man sinned, and in his sin, the imperishable put on the perishable, and the immortal put on mortality.  Yet the imperishable and immortal Christ without sin put on the perishable and the mortal, in order to reverse this curse and restore man to the imperishable, immortal nature he enjoyed before the Fall.

Man as a creature of God was created with a body as well as a soul, and that body God declared to be “very good” (Gen. 1.31).  The souls of those who have died in Christ have returned to God who gave them, there to await the resurrection from the dead, while their bodies suffer corruption in the ground (Eccl. 12.7, Rev. 6.9-11).  Yet a disembodied soul is less than a man, incomplete without a body.  Although “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Cor. 5.8, Phil. 1.23), it is not God’s design that man should be a disembodied spirit like an angel, but that man should live with Him forevermore in a body suited to that purpose, as he was originally fashioned in Eden.

So then, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” (Is. 65.20)  “Death shall be no more.” (Rev. 21.4)  “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Ps. 90.9-10)36  As Calvin comments on this passage in Isaiah, “But Christ comes to repair our strength, and to restore and preserve our original condition.”37  Likewise as Henry comments,

Believers through Christ shall be satisfied with life, though it be ever so short on earth. … As for old men, it is promised that they shall fill their days with the fruits of righteousness, which they shall still bring forth in old age, to show that the Lord is upright, and then it is a good old age.  An old man who is good, and wise, and useful, may truly be said to have filled his days.  Old men who have their hearts upon the world have never filled their days, never have enough of this world, but would still continue longer in it.  But that man dies old, and…full of days, who, with Simeon, having seen God’s salvation, desires now to depart in peace.38

But, “for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” (Is. 65.20)  Again, as Henry comments,

Unbelievers shall be unsatisfied and unhappy in life, though it be ever so long.  The sinner, though he live to a hundred years old, shall be accursed.  His living so long shall be no token to him of the divine favour or blessing, nor shall it be any shelter to him from the divine wrath and curse.  The sentence he lies under will certainly be executed, and his long life is but a long reprieve; nay, it is itself a curse to him, for the longer he lives the more wrath he treasures up against the day of wrath and the more he sins he will have to answer for.  So that the matter is not great whether our lives on earth be long or short, but whether we live the lives of saints or the lives of sinners.39

As stated, the Tree of Life signified and sealed the promise of the Covenant of Life—namely, everlasting life—to man before the Fall.  By this we must not suppose that the fruit of the Tree of Life was somehow endowed with mystical power to bless whomever partook of it with eternal life, much to Lewis’ disappointment, nor yet that the fruit possessed natural properties that would have enabled man to live forever, if he continued partaking of it, as Hodge suggests.40  Neither should we presume with Vos, based on the Lord’s statement in Genesis 3.22, “that man before his fall had not eaten it,”41 nor yet that there was a second injunction, albeit temporary, against eating of the Tree of Life also, the privilege to do so contingent upon man fulfilling the terms of the Covenant.  Rather, as Calvin observes, God

gave the tree of life its name, not because it could confer on man that life with which he had been previously endued, but in order that it might be a symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God.  For we know it to be by no means unusual that God should give to us the attestation of his grace by external symbols.  He does not indeed transfer his power into outward signs; but by them he stretches out his hand to us, because, without assistance, we cannot ascend to him.  He intended, therefore, that man, as often as he tasted the fruit of that tree, should remember whence he received his life, in order that he might acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by the kindness of God alone; and that life is not (as they commonly speak) an intrinsic good, but proceeds from God.42

The significance of the Tree of Life is sacramental, functioning in the life of the Garden of God under the Covenant of Life in much the same way as the Lord’s Supper functions in the life of the Church under the Covenant of Redemption.  God terminated man’s access to the Tree of Life after the Fall, not because its fruit would literally enable him to “live forever” (Gen. 3.22) in his fallen, sinful condition, but because in his sin, man had broken the Covenant of Life and forfeited its promise, and for him to continue partaking of the sign and seal of the broken Covenant would be to eat the fruit “in an unworthy manner,” to be “guilty of profaning” the Lord of the Covenant, who was represented in the Tree of Life, bringing “judgment on himself.” (I Cor. 11.27-29).

The Once and Future Covenant of Life

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  God has done it, so that people fear before him.  That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Eccl. 3.14-15)

Although man in his sin has abrogated the Covenant of Life and forfeited its blessings and promise, he has not—nor indeed could not have—destroyed the Covenant of Life, for God is the author of the Covenant of Life, and “whatever God does endures forever.”  That which has been, namely, the Covenant of Life, is that which is to be, for although God drove man from the Garden, He now seeks him, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19.10; see also Ezek. 34.11-16, Lk. 15).  God seeks fallen man in order to redeem him and to restore him to the Covenant of Life.

Moreover, the Covenant of Life has been fulfilled: The covenantal faith that was lacking in the first Adam, leading to the Fall, has been found in the second Adam, who continued to put His faith in God, when the veracity of God’s Word was challenged.  The second Adam truly trusted God, demonstrating and validating His covenantal faith in outward works of obedience: He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.7-8)  He was the ultimate substituted sacrifice that God provided and accepted in the place of the first Adam, and the source of our shame—our spiritual nakedness—is covered by His righteousness as a garment that is infinitely more durable than the garments of skin with which God clothed the first Adam and his wife (Job 29.14, Is. 61.10, Rom. 13.14, Gal. 3.27, Eph. 4.24, Phil. 3.9, Col. 3.10).

Further, it is of no accident that the Cross on which the Lord Jesus was hung is sometimes in Scripture referred to as a tree (Acts 5.30, 13.29, I Pet. 2.24), for Paul, referencing Deuteronomy 21.22-23, writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal. 3.13)  Nor is it a coincidence that the Lord Jesus, in His Bread of Life Discourse, said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn. 6.53-56)  So then, taken together, the image of the Cross as a Tree and the image of the body and blood of Christ hung thereupon as “true food and…true drink” form a powerful image of the Crucified Savior as the Tree of Life, signifying and sealing to those of us in the Covenant of Redemption the promise of the Covenant of Life, with His body and blood represented in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 26.26-28, Mk. 14.22-24, Lk. 22.19-20, I Cor. 11.24-26).

Finally, in the Resurrection, in the new earth and the new Jerusalem, we see the restoration of everything man lost in Eden. The foundations of the city walls are “adorned with every kind of jewel,” the city gates are fashioned from pearl, and the city streets are “pure gold” (Rev. 21.18-21), reminiscent of what the Prophet Ezekiel wrote, “You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering.” (Ezek. 28.13)  The presence of God fills the city, obviating the need for a temple, and providing all the light the city needs (Rev. 21.22-25).  The throne of God will be established in the city, where all His servants shall worship Him (Rev. 22.3-4), and from His throne flows “the river of the water of life,” just as it did in Eden. Along the banks of this river grows “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.  The leaves of the tree (are) for the healing of the nations. … Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev. 22.1-2,14)

Sin will be abolished, and we who are found in Christ will be transformed into His likeness and His glory, that we may be found fit to dwell in the new Jerusalem, for “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21.27)  Marriage between man and woman will be no more, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22.30, Mk. 12.25, Lk. 20.34-36).  However, the greater reality to which marriage in this world imperfectly points, the marriage of Christ and His Church, of God and His people, will be consummated (Is. 54.5-8, 61.10, Ezek. 16.6-14, Hos. 2.14-20, II Cor. 11.2, Eph. 5.22-33, Rev. 19.6-9, 21.2,9-11, 22.17), for the things in this world “serve (as) a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8.5, 10.1), and “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (I Cor. 13.10).

And gone will be the specter of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We will have been raised incorruptible, and sin will have no more dominion over us (Rom. 6.14, I Cor. 15.42-44).  “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” Jer. 31.34)  And as we shall all know the Lord, enjoying intimate fellowship with Him, and as no evil thing can enter the new paradise of God, there will be no tempter to try our faith.  We will know the difference between good and evil, and like the Lord, we will “know how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Is. 7.15)

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8.18)

Come, Lord Jesus, as you have promised (Rev. 3.11, 22.7,12,20), quickly come!


Footnotes

1    The Hebrew name of the referenced river is Hiddekel, which the Septuagint translates as Tígris.

2    John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Volume First, trans. Rev. John King, M.A., in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. I (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 123-124.

3    Indeed, the Septuagint translates the name Cush in Gen. 2.13 into Greek as Αἰθιοπίας.

4    Numbers 12.1; compare Exodus 2.15-22.

5    Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 124.

6    Ibid., pp. 119-120.

7    Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; reprinted Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, 1992), pp. 27-28.

8    Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. I: Genesis to Deuteronomy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), p. 13, emphasis original.

9    For examples of Reformed teaching on Original Righteousness, see Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), Book I, Chapter 15; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (1872-1873; Reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 99-102; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; reprinted 1993), pp. 202 ff.

10   O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), pp. 4-15.  In his research, Robertson focused on the primary covenants in Scripture—God’s covenant with Adam before the Fall, His covenant with Adam after the Fall, His covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David, and His new covenant in Christ’s blood—with additional studies of the covenants implemented in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures surrounding Israel.

11   Ibid., p. 67.

12   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 213.

13   Westminster Confession of Faith VII.2, XIX.1,6; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 30.

14   Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 12; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20.

15   Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 117-122.

16   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 211.

17   Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 23.

18   Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 55-57.

19   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 125.

20   Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 80-81.

21   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 100.

22   Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. I, p. 16, emphasis original.

23   Vos notes, “The phrase (in Hebrew) is not ‘knowledge of the good and the evil’.  It reads, literally translated: ‘knowledge of good-and-evil’, i.e., of good and evil correlated, mutually conditioned conceptions.” (Biblical Theology, p. 31)

24   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, pp. 125-126.

25   Westminster Confession of Faith VII.2.

26   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 216.

27   Ibid., p. 213.

28   C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938; reprinted New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 156.

29   Ibid., p. 159.

30   Ibid., p. 100.

31   Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; reprinted New York: Harper Collins, 1996, 2000), p. 63.

32   Ibid., p. 67.

33   Ibid., pp. 71-75.

34   Justin Taylor, “85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien convinces C. S. Lewis that Christ Is the True Myth” (The Gospel Coalition, Sept. 20, 2016).

35   Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 66.

36   As an aside, it is curious that Moses, to whom Psalm 90 is attributed, and whom Scripture recounts to have lived to the age of 120 years (Dt. 34.7), whose father lived to the age of 137 years (Ex. 6.20), and whose successor lived to the age of 110 years (Josh. 24.29), should state that “the years of (man’s) life are (only) seventy or…eighty.”

37   Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Volume Fourth, trans. Rev. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. VIII, p. 400.

38   Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. IV, p. 305, emphasis original.

39   Ibid.

40   Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 125.

41   Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 28.

42   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, pp. 116-117.

What keeps the ECO and the PCA from becoming one?

The ordination of women (please note that the linked post has been completely rewritten and expanded) is perhaps the greatest difference between the ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but it is not the only difference.

Confessional Standards

The ECO has adopted the entire Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions as its confessional standard, whereas the PCA recognizes only the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its confessional standard.  The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery (or Session) the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”

Similar to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and unlike either the PC(USA) or the PCA, the ECO has adopted an “Essential Tenets” document, and it asks its officers to affirm, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?”  The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document makes a distinction between “Doctrinal Progressives”, “Doctrinal Restorationists”, and “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition”.  It says, “Doctrinal Progressives understand the church’s confessional and theological tradition as an evolutionary development of doctrine in which the church’s expression of the gospel becomes richer in each succeeding age. In this view, contemporary theology and new confessions of faith are more developed, better expressed, fuller apprehensions of truth than the faith of previous centuries. Our way is the way.”  It is clear that the ECO is here referring to theological liberals in the PC(USA).  The “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document also says, “Doctrinal Restorationists understand the church’s theological and confessional tradition as a series of missteps leading to imperfect understanding and inadequate articulation of the gospel. In this view, a particular moment in the church’s confessional and theological tradition, such as … the seventeenth century Westminster standards, is the pure faith of a theological golden age. Their way is the way.”  It is fairly clear that the ECO is here referring to the PCA and other Reformed denominations (such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church) that use only the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard and require their officers to take ordination vows similar to the PCA vow quoted above regarding the Westminster Standards without much room (if any) for expressing disagreement with the Westminster Standards.  In contrast, the “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document states, “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. Voices from throughout the church’s life contribute to the interchange – ancient voices that articulate the enduring rule of faith, sixteenth and seventeenth century voices that shape the Reformed tradition, and twentieth century voices that proclaim the church’s faith in challenging contexts. The confessions in the Book of Confessions were not arbitrarily included, but were selected to give faithful voice to the whole communion of saints.”  In a nutshell, the ECO is defining two extremes—the “Doctrinal Progressives” and the “Doctrinal Restorationists”—and then charts what it perceives is a middle path between the two extremes, saying that the Reformed understanding of the Confessions is this; that is, “Our way is the Reformed way.”  The PCA, I am reasonably sure, takes exception to the ECO’s definitions and its adoption of the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, making them a point of contention between the two denominations.

The Scriptures

Another major difference between the ECO and the PCA is in how it perceives the Scriptures.  The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?”  By “as originally given”, the PCA means the original autographs as penned by the prophets and apostles, and the PCA requires its officers to believe that these autographs were so inspired by the Holy Spirit as to be without error, and by implication that our modern translations are trustworthy and reliable to the extent that they accurately deliver the message of the inerrant autographs.

The ECO requires its ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the unique witness to Jesus Christ and the authority for Christian faith and life?”  The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document further expands on this vow, stating,

The clearest declaration of God’s glory is found in His Word, both incarnate and written. The Son eternally proceeds from the Father as His Word, the full expression of the Father’s nature, and since in the incarnation the Word became flesh all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are offered to His disciples. The written Word grants us those treasures, proclaims the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and graciously teaches all that is necessary for faith and life. We glorify God by recognizing and receiving His authoritative self-revelation, both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son. We affirm that the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed the virgin Mary also inspired the writing and preservation of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit testifies to the authority of God’s Word and illumines our hearts and minds so that we might receive both the Scriptures and Christ Himself aright.

Remember that the ECO requires its officers to “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and (to) be guided by them in (their) life and ministry”, thus making the statement quoted here about “the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as the Word of God an extension of the ordination vow regarding the Scriptures themselves.

To be sure, the ECO vows do not preclude officers from believing the doctrine of inerrancy as required by PCA officers, but neither do they require them, as do the PCA vows.  Notice also that the ECO “Essential Tenets” document declares that the Scriptures are “infallible”; it does not say that they (or the autographs) are “inerrant”.  To the casual observer, this might seem like splitting hairs; after all, don’t the two terms mean that the Bible is not mistaken in what it says?

The difference is perhaps best spelled out in Positions 1 and 2 of a survey taken by the Presbyterian Panel in the summer and fall of 1979, the results of which were published in “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”.  Position 1 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is without error in all it teaches in matters of science and history, as well as in matters of theology.”  This position is essentially the doctrine required of officers in the PCA ordination vows.  Position 2 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals and reflecting their personalities, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is trustworthy in all it teaches in matters of theology and ethics, but not necessarily in matters of science and history.” (emphasis added)  The word “infallible” has been typically employed to say that the teachings of the Old and New Testament Scriptures regarding theology and ethics, though not necessarily of science and history, are exactly as intended by God, whereas the word “inerrant” has been typically employed to say that the actual words of Scripture are exactly as intended by God, and therefore everything on which the Scriptures speak, including matters of science and history and not just of theology and ethics, are exactly as God intended.  Now, the immediate problem in saying that the Scriptures are inerrant in this sense is that there are minor contradictions in the Scriptures themselves, such as numerical discrepancies in the historical books (e.g., did David slay seven hundred Syrian charioteers under the command of Shobach, as in II Sam. 10.18, or seven thousand, as in I Chron. 19.18).  For this reason, those who hold to Biblical inerrancy (as I do) hold that only the autographs were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were thus without errors, and that the later copies and translations of the same Scriptures are inerrant only insofar as they accurately reproduce the message of the autographs.

Now, even beyond this issue, there is a further stumbling block to many, in that some of what Scripture says is, to put it mildly, rather amazing—some would say incredible.  For example, all the patriarchs in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives by contemporary standards—Abraham lived to be 175 years old (Gen. 25.7), Isaac lived to be 180 years old (Gen. 35.28), Jacob lived to be 147 years old (Gen. 47.28), Joseph lived to be 110 years old (Gen. 50.22), and Abraham’s ancestors in Genesis 5.1-32, 9.29, 11.10-32 lived even longer still, with Methuselah living longest, dying at the age of 969 years (Gen. 5.27).  For this reason, some will say that whereas the teachings of Scripture regarding theology and ethics are 100% reliable, the teachings regarding science and history might not be (after all, people don’t live more than 120 years at the most).  The ECO ordination vows regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture allow ordained officers to take this position, whereas the corresponding PCA ordination vows do not.

In addition to the issue of the ordination of women, the differences in confessional standards and the requirements of officers regarding their beliefs about the reliability of the Scriptures are matters of serious contention between the ECO and the PCA and are the basic reason why these two denominations won’t “become one” anytime in the foreseeable future.