The following essay “Eden – No Entry” is taken from my recent study book “The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross,” which will be available on the website soon for free download. The aim of the essay is to show how the Gospel and the Cross is the key to finding our way back to a true understanding of the knowledge of reality. C S Lewis wrote “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (From “The weight of glory.”)
“Eden – No Entry!”
“Jesus took the tree of death so you could have the tree of life” (Tim Keller)
“I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge – there is one world of reality.” (Professor John Polkinghorne theoretical physicist and theologian.)
In the study book “The Gospel and the centrality of the Cross – the preaching of the Cross as the power and wisdom of God – with observations on the exercise of power and knowledge in contemporary culture,” I explore the meaning of God’s power and wisdom in 1Cor chapters 1-3. In these chapters we see that they are essentially relational in their action and purpose, exemplified in the incarnation – “God with us” in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection to reconcile us to God.
We also see that they are in dramatic contrast to the way the world generally understands and exercises power and wisdom.
But this leads us to some critical questions:
- Does this emphasis mean that we can therefore ignore or dismiss all human wisdom and learning?
- Does this lead us to an anti-intellectual fundamentalism?
- Does this justify a retreat from engagement with the ideas and ideological fashions of our times?
- Does this emphasis on God’s power in contrast to worldly power mean we can retreat from any involvement in political action or worldly power structures?
The answer to these questions must be an emphatic No! But they are a temptation for us. Christians in the past have at times retreated in these ways. That retreat is a strategic error for it leaves the field of ideas, intellectual and cultural influence, and political power to those who ignore or reject God’s wisdom. We must engage but not be seduced into playing only by the prevailing or dominant philosophical or ideological rules! We must insist on respect for our presuppositions that reality includes the transcendent and God as creator and upholder of all that is. (Colossians 1:15-17)
All this raises the further question of what is the role of reason in our engagement.
If we look at Paul’s example in the NT, we see not retreat but vigorous engagement. Paul did not live in a modern democracy and so his political options were limited but he could and did work on the power of ideas shaped by the Gospel and urged the Church to live out a new set of values in their communities. In Acts 17: 16-34 we have a clear example of Paul’s evangelism engaging the culture and ideas of the Greco /Roman culture of Athens. He goes to the common place for the discussion of ideas, the Areopagus on Mars Hill, and debates with the philosophers and rhetoricians quoting their own poets to them as he argues from their acknowledgement of the “Unknown God” to whom they have erected a statue in the Agora.
The result of this example of engagement is described in vv 32 -34: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”
Another example of such engagement occurs when Paul was in Ephesus. He hired a lecture hall belonging to a man called Tyrannus and lectured there daily for two years. Rhetoricians’ putting forward their ideas was a common practice in cities influenced by the Greek culture of the first century. Acts 19:10 says it was such an effective strategy that “…all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) heard the word of the Lord.”
Also when Paul arrived in a new city the first place he attended was the Synagogue where he entered into discussions with the Jews of the Dispersion. The phrase that is used in Acts to describe these encounters is “ He reasoned with the Jews”, the Greek word used in the text is that from which we get the word ‘dialogue’, or it can also be translated as ‘reasoned with’ or ‘to debate’.
Paul is a wise and gifted apologist who connects with the culture in which he finds himself, whether it be Jews of the diaspora or Greek intellectuals. He is not afraid to use reason and debate, and his strategies involved cultural adaption. He says in 1Cor 9: 22 “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Having observed that Paul is unafraid to use reason and dialogue in his encounter with ideas opposed to or different to the Gospel he also knows the limits of human reason. In Romans 11: 33-36 he quotes a hymn of praise composed of a number of Biblical phrases to emphasise this:
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?”
Reason alone will not bring us all the way to God we also need divine revelation because, like all our human faculties, our reason is limited and imperfect.
By “Divine Revelation” Christians mean two things:
- God’s specific revelation of Himself in Christ and God’s Word. We receive this by hearing or reading God’s Word and reading or hearing the Gospel. (See John 1: 1-18)
- God’s general revelation of himself and aspects of his nature in creation. We describe it as “general” because it is nonspecific. In our fallen state, we can easily distort or misread it or, worse, make nature the object of our worship as in Paganism and Pantheism. (See Romans 1:18-32) (In the case of a person’s commitment to “Scientific Materialism” or “Naturalism” they generally exclude any notion of the transcendent from their investigations of nature and trust in the self-sufficiency of human reason. This leads to an inevitable reductionism in their understanding of reality.)
Christians also believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts that brings true understanding and awareness of God to us as we observe and experience creation. The Holy Spirit brings understanding and conviction as we ‘hear’ the Gospel. (2 Cor. 4:6. John 1:6-9)
In relation to knowledge and our purpose, the limits of our reason mean that our capacity to develop a comprehensive knowledge from nature and reason alone is limited and often leads us to a narrow and reductionist view of reality that rejects the transcendent. This approach to epistemology and ontology locks us out of the answers to the vital questions of meaning, morality, values and our ultimate purpose.
The Judeo/Christian foundation story in Genesis and in particular chapters 1-3 remind us of why the wisdom and power of God in the Cross is necessary to regaining access to a true, and eventually comprehensive, knowledge and wisdom.
The story in Genesis 2:9 tells us that in the centre of the Garden of Eden was “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The man and the woman are placed by God in the garden to tend it and enjoy it in fellowship with God. In 3:1-13 they are told they could eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the story, the essence of the temptation and the great lie presented to humanity was that by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would become “like God”, even though God had told them their act of disobedience and independence would cause their death! But “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband.” Here is the Judeo/Christian theological explanation of our constant quest for autonomy, to live without God through our own quest for knowledge, wisdom and power. This is the explanation of secular modernity’s story of slowly unhooking the quest for knowledge and meaning from the transcendent. The Genesis story continues but doesn’t end well. Adam and Eve are ejected from the garden and all it represents in terms of intimacy and fellowship with God. Their ejection is described in a dramatic way in Genesis 3:23-24. God banishes them from the Garden of Eden and “…..placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”
The way back to the Garden is now blocked by a “flashing sword”, a graphic symbol of the denial of access! In other words the way back to fellowship and intimacy with God, the way back to life as it was meant to be, must now be by another way. The way back to true wisdom, to a comprehensive knowledge and understanding, to a comprehensive or “unified field of knowledge”, [i] one that includes not only our physical world but the larger reality of the meaning and purpose of our lives and the source of values, right and wrong, good and evil must be by another way, another gate! The way through autonomous reason, nature and the material and physical world alone will not take us there.
Now it is important not to misunderstand this point. The discoveries and mastery of a great deal of our physical world that modern science has delivered has to be celebrated, enjoyed and encouraged. Every time when we hear of another new medical breakthrough to overcome disease or enhance physical life we should rejoice at the creative ability God has given us. He has given us the freedom and capacity to discover true knowledge about our world, especially in the physical and material world. But we cannot find a “comprehensive knowledge” by human reason alone. We must come to the tree of knowledge now by another way. We need Revelation. This may sound strange to those raised in the mental framework of secular modernity, a framework that has forgotten or rejected the Christian heritage and learning of Western culture.
The new way, the gate of entry that God has provided back to ‘the Garden’ and the trees of Knowledge and Life is through the Wisdom and Power of the Cross. This is how we must find our way back to God, to true freedom and life, to the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. This “way” back to the trees of Life and Knowledge is by another “tree”, the Cross, the tree on which Christ died. The NT. says that “He bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sins and live for righteousness, by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24. See also Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Gal 3:13)
Picking up the symbolism and imagery of Genesis 1-3 was natural for the NT Christians with their Jewish background. And so the Cross, as the “Cursed tree” in Jewish law (Deut 21:23 Gal 3:13), becomes a graphic biblical image to explain what must be embraced if we are to find the way back to the “tree of life”, to fellowship with God and the answer to our disobedience and rejection of God’s authority that shut us out of “the Garden” and all it represents. Our act of trust in Christ and his death on the Cross is the act of obedience that opens, as it were, the gate back into the garden. As C S Lewis expresses it in a memorable phrase: “…in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adams dance backward, and returns.” (From “The Problem of Pain”)
This brings our reconciliation with God and the way back to true wisdom and knowledge, the proper use of knowledge, and the power of creativity God gave us at creation to “tend the garden”, to care for it and to unfold its amazing complexity, beauty and potential.
The NT closes with the book of Revelation and in the last Chapter 22:1-5 there is a rich symbolic picture of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. In the centre of the picture is the tree of life, whose leaves it is said “are for the healing of the nations”, a time when division, violence and war will be redeemed and all our human folly and will to oppressive power shall be healed. It will be a time when we again will “see God’s face”, our intimacy with Him fully restored. This is the goal of God’s Wisdom and Power, but it is only achieved for us fallen people by hearing, understanding and receiving the Revelation of the preaching of the Cross. That is why it is the Church’s primary task.
[i] “A unified field of knowledge” (or ‘Unified field theory’) is a term that is used in physics to explain the attempt to describe all the relationships between the fundamental forces and elementary particles in terms of a theoretical framework. ( Michio Kaku the theoretical physicist more humorously described it as a “An attempt to seek an equation an inch long that would allow us to read the mind of God!”)