As the fountainhead of the story of the Bible, some of the most complicated questions in theology are densely clustered in the first few chapters of Genesis. After hearing the story as a kid in Sunday School, one of the first ones you end up asking is, “Why would God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden? I mean, given that it could derail the whole project so quickly, why put it there at all? What’s the point? What reasons could God possibly have?”
Leave it to Turretin to tackle the issue with his usual, rigorous clarity, to come up with, not one, but five reasons for planting the tree in the middle of the Garden. Before laying out his answer, though, it’s important to set a bit of background.
First, you need to know that Turretin treats the question in his section dealing with human nature in its originally constituted state. That makes a big difference when it comes to a couple of his reasons. See, earlier on in this topic he points out that when you’re dealing with questions of anthropology in theology, you need to recognize there are four states you need to think about (Vol. 1, Top. 8, Qu. 1.I-II). There’s:
(a) human nature as God originally made it
(b) human nature after we made a mess of it through sin
(c) human nature after God has regenerated it as it goes through the process of sanctification
(d) human nature once God has ultimately perfected and glorified it in the future
Much confusion results when theologians don’t distinguish these states in their discussions of human nature and they end up heatedly talking past each other.
Second, you have to know that, along with all the other Reformed dogmaticians of his time, Turretin considered Adam to be entered into a covenant of nature or works, with God. Strictly speaking, it’s a covenant only by God’s condescension. God isn’t an equal party, being an infinite creator, and is only under obligation according to his own Word. All the same, Adam was given a law with curses attached for disobedience and blessings by way of reward for obedience. For more on this, see here.
From there, we can move on to discuss the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In his section on the topic (Vol. 1, Top. 8, Qu. 4), he quickly dispenses with the idea that we can know what kind of fruit tree it was. Instead, we must discover why it got its name. Turretin’s suggestion is that the tree’s name revealed its nature as both a sacramental tree as well as pointing ahead to its experiential reality. In other words, by eating of it, Adam and Eve would know by experience what it means to know the good of obedience and the evil of disobedience.
This command to not eat of the Tree was what we might call a “positive” law in that eating the fruit wasn’t inherently good or evil, but only became so by the command of God. It’s wrong “because God said so.” Still, it symbolically represented the whole of the natural law and became a test, a trial, where the obedience of Adam would be “explored.” Would he cling to God’s own word in love and obedience, or prefer his own will by heeding the voice of the tempter? (Incidentally, for those puzzled by the reference, yes, classic Reformed theology had a robust, creational doctrine of natural law).
Making Things Explicit
So then, now we are prepared to hear Turretin’s five reasons that God placed the Tree in the Garden as an explicitly, “exploratory” command, on top of Adam’s natural obligations:
- In order that God, who had granted the dominion of all things to man, might declare himself to be the Lord of man and man might understand himself to be a servant bound to obey and adhere to him. Although the natural law had already clearly declared that, yet because someone might think the natural law to be a property of nature and not a law, he wished therefore (by a peculiar law about a think absolutely indifferent) to declare this more clearly. Thus on the one hand, the dominion of God might appear…on the other, the duty of man.
- That sin might be made the more conspicuous by that external symbol and the evil of the concealed ulcer be dragged to the light (or the virtue of the obedience be far more clearly exhibited). For the virtue of obedience would have been the more illustrious as the evil was because forbidden of God…
- To declare that man was created by him with free will; for if he had been without it, he would not have imposed such a law upon him.
- That by interdicting the fruit of a beautiful tree, he might teach that his happiness does not consist in the enjoyment of earthly things; otherwise God would not have wished to prevent his using it.
- To teach that God alone and his service must be sought before all things as the highest good and that we should acquiesce in it alone.
Now, many might seek to add further reasons to Turretin’s here. Indeed, one of the most interesting and compelling suggestions is that the Tree was ultimately to be a gift to Adam after passing his test (his probationary period, if you will) and entering into the blessings of obedience. All the same, at this stage in the narrative, Turretin’s answers are instructive for us.
First, it’s helpful to realize Turretin doesn’t limit himself to one reason. Oftentimes we consider and discard answers in theology because we presume there must be only one correct answer to any situation and neglect the fact that multiple answers or multiple dimensions to a single answer might be true. We shouldn’t be hasty or reductionistic, especially when dealing with the purposes of God.
Also, it’s worth mentioning how well this account comports with Paul’s illustrative retelling his/Adam’s/Israel’s situation in Romans 7 when it comes to the entrance of the Law:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13)
I would be surprised if Turretin wasn’t explicitly engaged in some intertextual interpretation here.
Finally, if we could sum up all these reasons into one basic thought, it’s that God wanted to make things explicit. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil clarified humanity’s relationship with God, set expectations, held out promises and threats, and instructed Adam in what his truest and deepest good was. God is not arbitrary, cruel, or unclear. He declares his law explicitly for the good of his creatures. Unfortunately, we very explicitly botched it.
Thankfully, he declares his gospel by an even clearer word: Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria