"The point of the 'fall' narrative in Genesis is to point to the human desire for autonomy from God. To 'know good and evil' is to become the determiner of good and evil; it is to decide for oneself what is right and wrong and not submit to any external law" (p. 25).
How do we begin discussing the fall of humanity? What do we focus on when it comes to how sin entered the human sphere? Was there sin before human sin?
The quote above is from Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian. He lived in the latter half of the 1800's and early 1900's. His magnum opus is Reformed Dogmatics, a four-volume systematic theology originally published between 1895 and 1901. Bavinck covers theology proper, God and creation, sin and salvation, and the church. The draw to his work is that he presents his own reflections while pitting them against other established traditions, such as Roman Catholicism and liberalism. For his work being over 100 years old, it is remarkably relevant.
We will begin our time with Bavinck in his third volume, Sin and Salvation in Christ, focusing on the origin of sin. Many modern Christians may think rightly of sin as the reason for there being a need for substitution to bear the weight of God's wrath in order to be right with him. But where did sin come from? Was Adam and Eve's sin the very first sin? Were they even real people? Was the fall of humanity a real event? Thinking about such things expands our view of sin.
Bavinck writes, "The Christian church has always insisted on the historical character of the fall" (p. 26). The historicity of Scripture is paramount for many reasons. In the case of the fall, it is the event that triggered death in an otherwise perfect environment. The apostle Paul wrote that sin and death entered the world through one man, the historical Adam (Romans 5:12). There was no death or decay before the sin of Adam and Eve. Therefore, the fall is not just an event that each of us repeat over and over again, representing the overall problem of evil in the hearts of men. The fall was a real event that took place in time and space with cosmic consequences.
A historical fall also helps clarify the root of sin in humanity. Some argue that sin is the remnant of animalistic intuitions, a holdover of a less enlightened time. Should this be true, "all notions of good and evil, the possibility of a moral life, vanish behind the physical and chemical processes" (p. 27). Sin is essentially classified as ignorance; the goal of combatting sin is enlightenment. This is Buddhism, not Christianity. Biblical Christianity teaches that the goal of combatting sin is Christlikeness. The historicity of the fall matters deeply to a Christian worldview.
We also are barred from directly attributing the origin of sin to God. When we believe that sin comes from God, "sin is made eternal, inferred from physical matter, necessary not accidental, seen not as the antithesis of good but as a lower grade of the good; this view makes God the author of sin" (pp. 27-28). Here we must address the issue of the will of God. Theologians often speak of the "two wills of God." In reality, all theologians believe that God only has one will, but he reveals part and conceals part (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29). Speaking of two wills in God helps us interpret the origin of sin.
The two wills of God can be classified as revealed and concealed. Two other helpful classifications are the sovereign and the moral wills of God. God permits murder to happen (this is his sovereign will; why he permits it to happen is often concealed from us) while he commands that murder is a sin (this is his moral will; he has revealed in Scripture that murder breaks his law). With this distinction in mind, God can permit the fall of humanity to happen while judging it as sinful and not be the author of sin.
Bavinck continues, "We must be satisfied with the straightforward account of Scripture: humanity was created good and by its own volition, at a given time in the beginning, fell from that state and plunged into sinful alienation from God, who incorporates sin into his purposes, even as something that had to be there though it ought not to be there" (p. 28).
The actual origin of sin into the cosmos is perhaps not as clearly described as we might like, but Scripture does clearly indicate that our first parents had a critical role in its origin on earth. The end result of each day of creation was good, as indicated by God's own words. The final piece, humanity, was very good. Even as good as creation was in the beginning, the world would continue to "develop in accordance with the laws God had set for it" (p. 28). Humanity would multiply and have dominion, creating culture and stewarding the world everywhere they would go.
Bavinck concludes, "Sin ruined the entire creation, converting its righteousness into guilt, its holiness into impurity, its glory into shame, its blessedness into misery, its harmony into disorder, and its light into darkness" (p. 29). The origin of sin is perhaps partly mysterious, but the historicity of the fall is critical to having a biblical worldview.
Why do you think some belief systems, even some that are labeled Christian, try to argue against the origin of sin as described here?
Did God's purposes for creation change because sin entered the world?
Sound off in the comments below!