One of the classic debates medievals and later theological types liked to kick around was, “What as the first sin of Adam?” Not what the particulars of it were, mind you–they all read Genesis 3 closely–but the essence, so to speak. What drew Adam and Eve toward violating God’s command? Was it primarily lust and desire? Or sloth?
In his question devoted to the subject (Institutes, Vol 1. Top. 9, Q. 6), Turretin notes that among the various options forwarded, two stand out as the most popular. The first is pride, an opinion favored mostly by Roman Catholics; second is unbelief, which is the typically Protestant option. Being archetypically Protestant, Turretin opts for the latter. For Turretin, the general apostasy and turning away from God that led to Adam violating God’s covenant command about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an “incredulity” and contempt towards God’s word.
Of course, Turretin knows that the act of sin, and particularly the first sin, is quite complicated. Parsing out the various moments, acts, components, and so forth reveals various dimensions which definitely joined pride to unbelief. Nonetheless, Turretin thinks that when we sink down to the roots of the act, it’s caught up tightly in the faculties that judge falsity and truth, error and unbelief.
He then gives a number of, well, numbered reasons for thinking we ought to give priority of the root of unbelief.
- First, looking at the first attack point of temptation shows us where the origin of sin lies. What did the serpent first challenge? The integrity, reliability, and goodness of God’s word (“Did God really say?”, “You will not surely die”). This precedes his temptation to pride (“you shall be as gods.”)
- Second, “pride could not have place in man except on the positing of unbelief.” In other words, you can’t think too highly of yourself unless you’ve already stopped believing in God’s word of threat against disobedience.
- Third, the Bible points to sin as seduction and its roots in Satan’s cunning and deceptions (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14; Gen. 3:1).
- Fourth, only unbelief would have made him think that it is virtuous or a good thing to not be dependent on God for your good in all things. The desire for independence and autonomy from our good Creator is folly.
- Fifth, Turretin points out, if Satan first tempted Adam to sin, well, either he believed him or he didn’t. If he did, then unbelief follows. If he didn’t, well, explain how he ended choosing sin in the first place?
Okay, but where does that unbelief come from?
But unbelief could not have place in man, unless first by thoughtlessness he had ceased from a consideration of God’s prohibition and of his truth and goodness. If he had always seriously directed his mind to it…he could never have been moved from his faith and listened to the tempter. Hence, therefore, unbelief or distrust flowed first. By this man did not have the faith in the word of God which he was bound to have, but shook it off at first by doubting and presently by denying; not seriously believing that the fruit was forbidden him or that he should die. Again, note the credulity by which he began to listen to the words of the Devil…believing that God envied him the fruit and that he would be like God and omniscient. Thus he made an erroneous judgment by which he determined that the object presented by the Devil was good for him. Hence presently his appetite and his inclination of concupiscence and its motions influenced the will to the eating of the fruit. At length, the external action followed. This inconsideration may well be called the beginning or first stage of sin.
There’s a few brief points worth making here.
First, I think the logical priority of unbelief makes sense according to Turretin’s schema. That said, we need to be careful here and remember that he’s speaking of Adam according a prefall state. The relation between the will and the intellect is a bit more complicated now that things have been disordered through sin.
This bit of theology is worth reflecting on for its practical value. Turretin says that Adam could have only fallen into sin through thoughtlessness. By not constantly meditating on the reality of God’s word, his command and his promises, he was tempted to doubt, then unbelief. No wonder the Scriptures constantly remind us to keep God’s word on our minds at all times, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Distance creates distrust.
And that’s at the heart of most temptation to sin, right? Distrust in the goodness of God? Distrust that his commands and prohibitions flow from his good character? Disbelief that whatever sin we’re actually drawn towards is actually bad for us and that God wants to keep us from those things that would hurt us?
Finally, unsurprising, then, that salvation is caught up with the restoration of faith by the Holy Spirit. Faith is the opposite of unbelief. By faith we trust God’s promises, are restored to proper relationship to God through union with Christ, and receive the Holy Spirit who even reconciles us to trust, not only God’s promises, but God’s law as well (Rom. 8:7).
So, to sum up: pride goes before the fall, but unbelief goes before pride. Be constantly meditating on his word day and night, praying that God would increase your faith.
Soli Deo Gloria