Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, (“hath God said” in KJV) ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” – Genesis 3:1
I think that we are all not only aware, but in many cases painfully aware, of the continued academic, technical, and intellectual difficulties that we face when we make an affirmation of the inerrancy of Holy Scripture. I trust that we have not been bathed in obscurantism to a degree that makes us ignorant of the avalanche of criticism that has been directed toward the church’s classic position over the last two hundred years. And I hope that we recognize that much of that criticism may not be lightly dismissed. To do so, of course, would not be wise.
I think we are aware that it is our duty and the urgent need of the Christian community of our day, not to rest merely on the splendid statements of our fathers in defense of the authority of Scripture. Surely our generation is called to face the new issues that have been raised in academic circles. What I am saying simply is this: that there exist problems of an academic and intellectual nature with respect to the confessions that we are so bold to make. But that’s not what I am concerned to focus our attention on this morning.
For in addition to these questions of an intellectual nature, which at times indeed may be excruciating, there are other facets to this question that must never be overlooked. There is an emotional dimension. There is a psychological dimension. There is a theological, or perhaps what we may call a religious dimension that touches the heart of this issue.
As you recall a few months ago, I had the privilege in behalf of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy to be involved in dialogue with a group of very respected theologians and biblical scholars in this country. It was a behind-closed-door session of question and discussion, clarification of our position, vis-à-vis theirs. The discussions went for an intense period of seven hours. And at no time during that discussion did it become one of vituperative or vitriolic exchange. It was a sanguine atmosphere and the discussion was carried on in the spirit of cordiality. But it was intensely academic in nature, and I believe that we were all weary at the end of it. What I recall was that after the discussions were over and we were moving to the parking lot, one of the elder statesmen of the other group who has been a friend and colleague of mine for years came up to me, not in a paternalistic way, but in a genuine fatherly gesture. He put his arm around me and said, “R.C., why do you get so exercised over this question? Why are you devoting so much of your time to the question of biblical inerrancy? Why can’t we leave that aside and move on the real issues of reaching the fallen people of this generation?”
I’m sure that this man’s primary concern was precisely that we get on with the business of the work of the church and of Christ and not be paralyzed by internal disputes and debates about matters like these. He was expressing genuine concern over my particular career as a teacher. And he was almost weeping as he raised that question.
As I stepped out of the academic and intellectual atmosphere that had characterized the previous hours and looked at him, I answered his question as emotionally as he asked it. And I said, “I can’t help it. Scriptures are my life. I am not a second generation Christian. I came to Jesus Christ from the streets, and that’s what brought me into the kingdom of God, the words from this Book. I love it. The contents, the message broke through the recalcitrance of my pagan heart and brought me into the kingdom of God and showed me the loveliness and sweetness of Christ.”
And then in a statement of perhaps characteristic belligerence, I said to him, “No one will ever take this Book from me.” And I had to admit candidly that I am somewhat prejudiced and emotionally involved in this question. I raised this point with him. “I understand,” I said, “the difficulties that criticism has raised, and I know that many feel that as a matter of intellectual integrity they must set aside this doctrine, that they cannot cling to it merely for emotional or sentimental reasons. I must agree with the integrity of that.” But I said to him, “What I would like to see when that happens, is that our Christian brothers and scholars who have abandoned this point lay it down with tears. And I haven’t seen that.”
I would think that if we came to the conclusion that this point of the faith of our fathers indicates an error of our tradition, and that we must abandon inerrancy, that if we did, in fact, come to that conclusion, that we would do it with tears, rather than in the attitude or spirit we have seen in some circles. I don’t see this in evangelical circles, but in some circles there seems to be a certain delight and glee in finding difficulties in the text of Scripture. At that point it becomes religious, moral, and I think that we are facing the problem not only of the academic but the problem of enormous pressure to conform to contemporary drifts of opinion. Many have said quite candidly, “It is not expedient for us to take such a stand in this day and age.”
Again another candid and private conversation I had with a pastor for whom I have great respect and love. He said, “R.C., I am not a scholar. I am not an academician. I am not a trained and skilled apologist. I am a pastor and my concerns are pastoral in nature. Now, R.C., in my heart I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but I simply cannot defend it. I do not have the tools, the erudition necessary in this sophisticated era to make a good defense. And so I prefer not to stand for the doctrine.” It was only a few months later that this pastor was asked in a public situation, “Do you, sir, affirm the inerrancy of Scripture?” and his response publicly was, “I do not.”
Now it’s possible that the man changed his mind in the intervening months between our private conversation and his public statement. But I am also recognizing the real possibility that the intimidation that he was experiencing was more than he could bear in his humanity. And who of us has not had to face that kind of pressure? Who of us has not succumbed to it at one point or another in our lives? We have sinned and do sin, my brothers and sisters, and we must be careful in this concern that we not give the idea that we are the ones who maintain a pristine purity of Christian life and obedience, while others have easily and quickly capitulated and negotiated the faith of Jesus Christ. We all have participated at one time or another in such capitulation.
We are often put to the test, and the test of our faith is very infrequently couched in terms of strict theological affirmation such as, “Do you believe in God?” We all confess that we believe in God, but the point at which we negotiate is a different question. “Do you believe God?” That’s the issue. And that’s where the point of testing is focused in our day. Now the idea of a test at the point of believing God is nothing new. And it’s not an experience that we are facing as a first generation of the tested, but rather to God that is the test of fidelity.
Let me say it another way. The two greatest tests in the history of mankind focus the term of the test precisely on the point of whether or not the ones being tested believed God. I am referring, of course, to the test of our original parents in paradise and the test of our Redeemer in the wilderness. And I would like to direct your attention in the time that is remaining to an examination again of the terms and the circumstances and the outcome of those two critically important moments of test.
Let’s look at the third chapter of Genesis. It begins with three words that appear to be innocuous in the text, but which the late E. J. Young throws into bold relief in his commentary as having interesting and significant import. Those three words are, “Now the serpent … ” E. J. Young rhapsodizes on the significance of those three words as they introduce the third chapter of Genesis. Everything that has preceded those three words is a majestic statement of God’s acts of creation. Everything is so positive and so lovely and so good and so true about God and his created order, until that note of dissonance is introduced into biblical history.
“Now the serpent … ” It sort of suggests that something sinister and negative is about to be unfolded. And the words continue, “Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the other of the wild beasts of the field that God had created.” This draws attention to the subtlety or craftiness of the creature being introduced. We read that this subtle serpent comes and speaks to the woman and asks what appears to be at the outset a harmless question, a request for information.
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees in the garden’?” The question again in the ancient version is, “Hath God said, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees in the garden’?” It’s a very, very interesting question. You might wonder why the serpent raised the question in the first place. Was he just saying in “Columbo” fashion, “There’s just one thing that I’m not quite sure about; do you mind if I ask you a personal question? Let’s see if I have it right here. Did God say that you shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden? Is that what he said? Just wanted to get the record straight.” Perhaps Adam and Eve were to assume that the serpent was doing a job of recording the facts for posterity.
I don’t think that’s what it was about here. But before I suggest what it was about, let me indicate another alternative. Do you think that the serpent did not know what God had said? Do you think that the serpent was ignorant of the terms of the probationary test that God had put before his creatures? I think the serpent knew very well what God had said. But listen to the subtlety of the question. “Hath God said, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden’?” What’s the suggestion there? Satan knew very well that was not the case. They say, “No. In fact, God said we could eat freely of all the trees of the garden, but one. And that one, of course, he said if we touched, we would surely die.”
Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre in the twentieth century has made it a matter of evangelistic zeal to maintain that unless man is utterly and completely autonomous, he is not, in fact, free. Sartre gives one of the most fascinating and clever arguments against the existence of God I have ever read. Traditionally we have argued, if there is man, and we have to explain and account for his creation, then there must be a God. Sartre turns that around; he says, “If man is, God cannot be. Because intrinsic to our notion of humanity is the concept of human subjectivity and freedom. And if there is a God to whom we are ultimately accountable and responsible, a God who has sovereignty over us, then we do not have autonomy. If we do not have autonomy, we do not have freedom. If we do not have freedom, we do not have subjectivity. If we do not have subjectivity, we do not have humanity.” Ergo. “Since we do have these things, there is no God.”
The point is very subtle; unless you are utterly and completely free you are not free at all, and Satan is raising that very point here. “Hath God said, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden’?” Every one of us has encountered this question of freedom in our own lives, particularly those of us who are parents. My daughter comes and asks, “Daddy, can I go to this rock concert in Pittsburgh on Friday night?” I say, “I’m sorry, honey, I have to say, ‘No.’” And what do you suppose her response is? “You never let me do anything!” Put that one restriction there and the natural reaction is, “I’m not free at all.” Unless I can have total freedom, absolute autonomy, I’m not really free; and that’s the subtlety of the serpent that is being repeated again and again and again, even down to this very day.
But the test shifts from matters of subtlety to a direct contradiction and denial of what God in fact had said. Now the serpent leaves his “Columbo” methodology, becomes very straightforward, and says, “You shall not die, but you shall be as gods.” I say that because so frequently I have heard it said that the initial slogan of humanism was the famous statement from Protagoras: Homo neusura—Man, the measure. Man is the measure of all things. No, my friends, the irony of history is that humanism’s slogan does not begin with Protagoras; it begins with the serpent in Genesis who said, “You shall be as gods.” An irony of ironies: the father of humanism was not even human.
Now it becomes a test of whom to believe. God says, “You’ll die.” The serpent says, “You will not die.” Today some have said that’s all right; they contradict but contradiction is the hallmark of truth. We say contradiction is the hallmark of the lie. Imagine the theory that contradiction is the hallmark of truth in this situation. Adam and Eve are wrestling with the dialectic. “God says, ‘You will die,’ whatever that means. This one says “we will not die.”
“Now that’s a contradiction,” says Adam. “And contradiction’s a hallmark of truth, so this serpent must be the ambassador of the truth. And if God is the truth, then this must be God’s ambassador who is now abrogating and setting aside the earlier prohibition. So let’s go to the tree. It looks sweet; it’s delightful; let’s help ourselves.” The issue in the Fall was the issue of believing God’s Word.
Now let’s go to the New Testament to the new Adam, and to the work that he performs immediately following his baptism. We read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was driven (or led) by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Now, before we consider the content of the test of Jesus, let’s take a moment to examine the scenario in terms of the differences between the temptation of the second Adam and the conditions under which the first Adam received his test.
The first Adam was subjected to a test of righteousness and obedience in the midst of a lush garden, a garden that provided for him all of the resources and benefits that he required to sustain his bodily needs. In fact, if I understand the test correctly, he was in a gourmet’s paradise. Whatever he wanted to eat was there, readily available to him.
But the circumstance and the context of the test of Jesus was that of a fast. Not a three-day fast, but a forty-day fast during which Jesus ate nothing.
Jesus is not in paradise, but he was driven into the wilderness, outside the camp into the outer darkness into that desert place, which to be sure in one sense is the traditional meeting place between God and his people; yet at the same time, it symbolizes that threatening, ominous state of fear and solitude. Solitude is quite significant for our consideration, because the test that is given to Adam and Eve is given to them in the context of a supportive community, indeed the most supportive community that God has ever instituted, namely that of marriage. When Adam underwent a test, he had at least the support of a helpmate that was suitable for him, who stood next to him, shoulder to shoulder. And as the evil one came to seduce them, to cause them to negotiate and compromise their loyalty and devotion to God, they had each other for mutual consolation and support. But Jesus was alone.
Again I take you back to the original account of creation where in every aspect of creation, after God does his work, he pronounces a benediction: “That’s good.” And yet the first malediction of biblical history comes when God sees something that is not good.
It is not good that man should be alone. God understands the anguish that is involved with one who is sentenced to solitude. Kierkegaard is eloquent on this point when he discusses the problem of existential solitude, pointing out that one of the worst punitive measures we can enact against a criminal is to place him in a situation of solitary confinement. Yes, indeed, there are moments when we crave our privacy, and even Jesus at times sought the respite of solitude, but how many of us could stand it for day after day after day? And then have to face temptation when we are alone.
But when we as Christians come together and sing together and work together, I feel a sense of encouragement welling up, a challenge to stand firm where I might, if left to myself, be quite willing to compromise my faith. And most of the sins of which we are most deeply ashamed are done in secret, things we would keep from the scrutiny and the knowledge of the community. There is a sense in which solitude gives us a certain freedom to do things that we might not do publicly.
This is not the sense in which Jesus is saying, “OK. I’ve just come out of the Jordan River and here publicly John the Baptist has sung the Agnus Dei. He has declared me to be the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. He said such marvelous things: that he is not worthy to untie my shoe laces. And now I’m being put to the test in front of the public.” In that situation it would be difficult for Jesus to compromise. But now, it’s off in the wilderness, by himself, no wife, no support system, utterly alone, no one there to offer restraints in terms of public opinion, and along comes that same serpent. And the point is not so much the contrast, but the similarity.
But … the issue is precisely the same. I have heard sermons on this many, many times, and I hear the text frequently read like this, “If you are the Son of God, change these stones into bread.” The preacher focuses on the agony and anguish of Jesus’ hunger, which, indeed, must have been great, but I think the point is in the beginning of this thing. “If you are the Son of God, change the stones into bread.” Jesus is not confronted with the statement by Satan, “Jesus, since you are the Son of God, go ahead and change the stones into bread,” or “Because you are the Son of God, go ahead and change the stones into bread.” But he says, “If you are the Son of God.”
Ah, there’s that subtlety again. What were the last words, as far as we know from the biblical record, that Jesus had heard from the mouth of God? When he came up out of the Jordan River after his baptism, the heavens opened and the dove descended and a voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son.” God had declared it. He had made an utterance to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth was his son. Now I suspect that if God, in this day, in this room, opened up the heavens and spoke to us directly and immediately, not through the medium of human authorship of the Scriptures or anything like that, but directly and immediately, and said, “This Book is the inerrant Word of God,” the debates would be over.
But it wasn’t over with Christ, because Satan came and said, “If you are the Son of God.” I wonder. I don’t want to be a heretic here and maybe wander to the rim of heresy to even ask the question, but I wonder if during that ordeal that Jesus suffered, the thought may have come into his mind, “If I am the Son of God, why am I going through this hunger? I am happy to do it, Lord, I’ll hold out to the end, and I won’t play with the stones; I won’t eat; I won’t break the fast. I’ll do all those things, but this seems to be a very strange way for the Son of God to have to live.” But that’s the way Satan comes on. “If you are the Son of God.” He is suddenly suggesting that maybe what God said at Jesus’ baptism was not altogether true.
But Jesus responded quite differently from Adam and Eve. He said, “Satan, it is written.” (I think it has been demonstrated once and for all that this has the force of a technical formula, by which the biblical authors are referring to sacred Scripture.) “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.’ Satan, the Bible says that I am not to live merely by bread. Now I am hungry. I would love to have a piece of bread. There is nothing I would like better than a piece of bread. but I don’t live by bread alone, and you’ve forgotten that it is my duty to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Our doctrine of inspiration confesses that the words of Scripture proceed ultimately from the mouth of God. We grant the mediation of human authorship and all the qualifications that are made, but we are speaking in terms of inspiration of the origin of this Word, as having been breathed out by God. And it is my duty, says the Lord, to live by that Word. Now let’s look at Luke’s version of the temptation rather than Matthew’s—the progression is different. (It’s one of those problems we have to deal with.) “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours’” (Luke 4:5–7).
The devil is saying: “I know the Father has promised you a blessing, if you go through your humiliation. You probably have some idea that exultation is at the end of the road, that all glory and power and dominion will be yours. But you have to go the via dolorosa, and this would make it so much easier, so much more expedient for you, since the end is the same. What difference does it make what means we use to get there? I can give you the same thing that God can give you: the kingdom. I can give you a kingdom here and all you have to do is genuflect ever so slightly. Bow one knee, that’s all; we are out here in the wilderness and nobody’s going to see you. John the Baptist will never know it. The multitudes who are to hear your sermon on the mount will have no report of it. Just one slight action of homage and it’s yours.”
And Jesus said, “That sounds so easy. But there’s something you have overlooked. You’ll have to excuse me, Satan, if I tend to be a bit rigid on this point, but it is written, it is written. You see, Satan, it says here, ‘you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
And Satan says, “That’s all right, you can still serve him. I’m not asking you to quit serving God; I am just asking you momentarily to give me a little homage. Why can’t you serve us both? Oh, I guess I didn’t read that text right, did I? ‘Him only shall you serve.’”
“Satan, I can’t serve two masters, and what you’ve asked me to do is to choose this day whom I will serve, and the choice is clear. I go by what is written.”
Satan responds, “But that was written so long ago. Is it really relevant to this live situation in which you are finding yourself today? Come on, certainly, Jesus, you have been a victim of the errors of your day and you are restricted by your human knowledge and living on the basis of Midrashic tradition and the like; certainly we don’t have to enforce that ancient prohibition that wasn’t written by Moses in the first place.”
Now very shortly Satan began to get the idea that this tactic was not working, so his subtlety became even more intense. “And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” (v. 9). For you see, Satan perceived that Jesus was a very religious man. So he took him out of that isolated circumstance of the wilderness, out of the arena of profanity, and brought him into the temple’s dominion itself. Indeed, to the pinnacle of the temple. It was comfortable, his Father’s house. And then Satan says again, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written … OK, Jesus, you have come after me all the time with this ‘It-is-written’ stuff, so let me give it back to you. I read the Bible too. I know what it says. Now look.” Now it becomes a question of hermeneutics. “It is written,” says Satan, “‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (vv. 10, 11).
Jesus said, “I know what’s in that Book. But does it not also say, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’? And, Satan, we must not set Scripture against Scripture.”
What’s Jesus saying here? He is saying that the Scripture prohibits us from putting God to a test of fidelity. “God has said as you have pointed out, Satan, that he will give his angels charge over me. Now at the present time I can look all around the temple and I can go back to the wilderness and look behind every bush, and I have to confess I haven’t seen an angel in the whole forty days I have been here. I know that God says that he will give his angels charge, and I haven’t seen any. So you want me really to see if God meant what he said. You want me to see if God’s Word is trustworthy for this particular life situation I am in. You want me to jump off the temple and see if the angels catch me in their arms. Well, you see, there is something that you don’t understand, Satan. What’s going on here is not a test of God, but God is testing me.”
Some have interpreted this text to suggest that Jesus is saying that Satan is inappropriate in testing Jesus, as touching his divine nature. And this is cryptically a confession of Jesus’ deity by Jesus himself, saying, “You should not tempt the Lord your God, and since you are here tempting, or testing me, you are doing something that is quite diabolical which is your nature, namely: to suggest that I as the Lord God incarnate, may be tempted.” I don’t think that is the point at all in the context. Remember that this test is being done to Christ as the second Adam. Jesus is representing man. I don’t want to divide the two natures obviously, but I think that we can safely distinguish them at times, and here Jesus is saying, “I have no right touching my humanity, as one undergoing a test, as the second Adam, to turn that test around and throw it in God’s lap. Why should God be put to the test? Has not the whole redemptive history demonstrated again and again that our God is a God of truth? Our God never violates his covenant. Our God never breaks his Word. The question of loyalty is not one that we can raise about God. The question that history raises is the loyalty of man. I am the one who is to be tested, not the Father. So go away, with your distorted applications of Scripture.”
And we read that, “Satan departed from him until he could find a more opportune or convenient moment.”
I want to conclude with one more contrast between them. Jesus believed God’s Word indicating that he was the Son of God. Jesus believed God that angels would be given charge over him. Now we read in the Scriptures in Matthew’s account that as soon as Satan departed, what happened? The angels appeared and embraced Jesus. They nourished his broken, mutilated physical body that had gone through this struggle and trial. I suggest that Jesus’ physical appearance by the end of that forty days must have resembled that of a Mahatma Gandhi after a hunger strike. He must have experienced the ravages of the lack of food on his frame, and the angels came and embraced him and nourished him and applauded his triumph.
What happened when the tempter left the original Adam? There we read that the serpent left, and “God came back into the garden.” Before, when our parents heard the voice, they walked in the cool of the evening. They were delighted and their souls were thrilled. They couldn’t wait to go up and speak and have direct and intimate fellowship with God, but after their test, God came into their presence, and they fled and hid. They were naked; they were aware of their nakedness. They were ashamed. They were embarrassed to be in the presence of God because they had denied God.
Do you remember Peter standing outside of the judgment hall where his test came? Even after he had been warned as to what was at hand and prepared for it, when the test came, not by the princes of the church or the accrediting educational institutions … but some washerwoman came up and said, “Do you know the man?” not only did Peter say, “I don’t know the man,” but he began to swear he didn’t know him.
And just as Jesus was being led from one of the places of judgment, as they were escorting him under arrest, the Scriptures tell us, “His eyes fell upon Peter.” He didn’t say anything. He just looked at him. That was the most painful moment of Peter’s life, when he looked into the eyes of Christ, who even at that moment was going to deliver himself to the forces of hell rather than betray his Father. And Jesus looked at him and knew that Peter had failed the test.
“Do you believe God?” This must never be seen as a purely academic question. This is a matter that touches our faith in Jesus Christ. Faith, not in the sense of assent, but faith in the sense of fidelity. Do we live, or do we not live by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God?
I am weak, and you are weak. We are all too susceptible to subtle pressures and temptations to compromise on this point. But it is a real test. And it requires in our lives nothing less than a dependence on the grace of God from moment to moment and a clear recognition that we understand that our feet are of clay and that our frames are of dust and that we must cling tenaciously to that grace that God has given us. If left to ourselves, there would be no perseverance. And not only do we need the grace of God, but part of that grace and its outworking in this world is the support of the Christian brotherhood, the fellowship of the church, the communion of the saints. We are told again and again in Scripture, “Encourage one another.” What we need in this hour is not simply knowledge and erudition, but I am convinced what we need is moral courage. And so I ask you to encourage me and to encourage each other and to encourage the church and even the world that God’s Word is true.
Adapted from R.C. Sproul’s chapter entitled “Hath God Said? Genesis 3:1” in the book Can We Trust the Bible? Earl D. Radmacher, ed. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1979.