Learning from the Greatest Lie Every Told

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This entry is an excerpt from a forthcoming release from Seedbed by Dennis F. Kinlaw. We are pleased to publish a series of theological reflections collected over the span of his life of service.

Our attention turns now to chapter three of Genesis and the coming of the Creator to his creation to seek the company of his conversation partners, Adam and Eve. He has been preceded by the entrance of another character, quite alien to anything that has come before, the serpent. That he is alien to all else that is in creation is clear when we remember the words of God at the close of Genesis 1; as God looks at the results of his activities in those first days of creation, He can with satisfaction say, “Very good!” When the role of Satan and the demonic in the rest of Scripture is studied carefully, it seems clear that the demonic does not find its origin in the first chapter of scripture. A close look at the role of Jesus and the appearance of the devil in John 13 makes it clear that both Jesus and the devil come to the disciples from the world from which Jesus came and to which He is about to return. It seems fair to see the serpent in Genesis 3 as an alien who comes from the spirit world beyond time and space and now seeks to disassociate Adam and Eve from the relationship of love and trust in their Maker. The human couple have as an aspect of their creaturely existence an openness to a world beyond their own, a world from which both good and evil can come. The context for their origin and the continuing source of life up to this point has been all good. Now their safety and well being is threatened by the Tempter, who comes with his slanderous suggestion about the Creator.

The point of the serpent’s attack is very revealing. It is further evidence of the personal nature of both the Creator and the human creatures and of their relationship to each other. The serpent intends to put into the mind of Eve questions about the goodness of their Maker and his good will toward Eve and her husband. It is not a challenge against a universal and impersonal law that stands outside and over them. It is a challenge to their personal trust in the Creator, a concern of Adam and Eve’s inner spirits. It is a very personal matter, rather than one of external performance. Performance may, and did, result from such inner questioning. The tragedy is in the doubt and distrust that led to the rupture in the personal relationship of trust and affection Eve and Adam had in and for their Friend. The serpent simply accuses the God of not being for His creatures. He accuses God of withholding good from Adam and Eve.

With this beginning for the biblical account we should not be surprised when we see that the remainder of the biblical story is an effort to bring human creatures back into a relationship of personal trust and confident affection in the Creator. Distrust led to our expulsion from the Garden and the break in our relationship with the Creator. We should not be surprised when we learn that the way of trust is the way back into His presence.

The culmination of this divine effort will come with the incarnation; when we see the nature of God in Jesus, who is the second Adam; He is the one who cares more about his creatures than He does Himself. The incarnation and the Cross make that beyond question. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tells Eve that she dare not fully trust her Maker and should begin to think of her own interests because her Maker is a threat to those interests rather than their very fulfillment and security.

However, God invites his creatures into a fellowship in which each person cares more about the well-being of the others than he or she does about his or her own concerns. This is what is involved in the invitation to a walk, to a conversation, to communion and to fellowship with God. Later in the New Testament we will get a word to describe the character of this relationship. It is found in the Greek word ‘agape. Paul will give us two remarkable descriptions of this ‘agape in the Roman letter in chapter 12:9-21 and in the 13th chapter of his First Corinthian letter. Further, Paul tells us in Gal. 5:22-24 that the origin of such love does not lie in us. It comes from God. When it does occur in us, it is the fruit of God’s Spirit. His Spirit can place God’s image in human spirits if the humans will receive him. Paul assures us in Rom. 5:5 that when we open ourselves to our Creator in faith the Spirit will pour this love into our hearts. John clinches this argument by telling us in I John 4:8, 16 that such love is not just something that God does. It is actually who the triune God is!

This love is an aggressive love, but it is different in that it is love in which the lover seeks the well-being of the beloved rather than the lover’s own satisfaction. In this, it is the exact opposite of natural human love. A comparison of the difference between love as explained by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue the Symposium and the love of Christ as presented in the New Testament makes this quite obvious. For Socrates, human love grows out of a sense of need in the lover for what the one loved can do for him. It is self-oriented. The love which the New Testament describes for us found in Christ is a love where the lover loves us not for what we can do for him but for what He can do for us.

This is pictured for us in the Scriptures with the imagery that is used to describe the coming of God with his life to humanity in its need. It is the language of outflow of living breath to a perishing creature. The climax of the creative process pictures God breathing into the inert form of Adam the divine breath that makes Adam a living soul (Gen. 2:7). Ezekiel in chapter 37 pictures for us a valley full of dry bones that have no life in them. The breath of God is breathed on them, and they become a valley of living souls. The Greek word used for the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, pneuma, is a noun-form from the Greek verb to breathe, pneo. Jesus uses both the noun and the verb form in speaking about the Spirit who brings the divine life to the human heart (John 3:1-8). On the evening of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his friends and breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23). The gift of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians at Pentecost was marked by a heavenly wind (pnoes) as God breathed the life of his own Spirit into his church (Acts 2:1-4). The word which captures the relationship of God to his own is clearly that of outflow.

A second figure that the Scripture uses to reveal the nature of God’s love for his creatures is that of thirst-quenching and life-giving water. We see this in the story of Moses bringing water from the rock (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:2-13) in the wilderness wanderings of Israel. Water which Paul assures us is none other than Christ (I Cor. 10:4). Ezekiel gives us a picture of the temple of God. From that temple a river of refreshing and life-giving water flows out into the sterile places of the earth. Wherever it goes its presence brings life and fruitfulness (Eze 47). Jesus uses the figure of springs of living water to describe the nature of the Holy Spirit whom He promises to all who thirst who will come to him and drink (John 7:37-39). The closing chapter of the book of Revelation pictures for us the throne of God and of the Lamb in the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. From the throne itself a river flows that has on its banks the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit and with its leaves that are there for the healing of the nations. The curse that has marked a fallen world is now gone as God reigns in his own city in fellowship with his own creatures. The final invitation spoken in the Scriptures comes from God’s Spirit and Christ’s bride as they invite all who are thirsty to come and drink freely from the water of life (Rev. 22:17). The images that are used to describe God throughout Scripture are images of outflow in which the concern of God is not for His own interest but for the blessing of those to whom He has given life. It is this outflow of love that is being described when the New Testament uses the term ‘agape to describe God. It is that picture that the serpent is eager to destroy so that God’s human creatures will not trust him but fear him.

This presents us with an unexpected and unique metaphysics. The ultimate absolute is not an impersonal or frightful force of power but an other-oriented personal love that finds its joy in another’s well-being more than in its own. This One should be the reference for us in all matters of personal choice and conduct. He is our Source and Sustainer and should be the very center of our personal lives because He is the Center. The New Testament makes it all quite clear if we have eyes to see. Note the text in I Cor.10:24ff which we slip over so easily. Paul tells the Corinthians how they should act now that they know God. The Greek is literally more powerful even than our common English translation of “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” With some terseness Paul tells the Corinthians believers: “Let no one the of-himself seek but the of the-other.” Then he tells the Corinthians that he has put behind him what is to his own advantage and has chosen to put the well-being of others before his own. In this, he is simply imitating Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians that they need to imitate him as he imitates Christ. It seems clear, if we look at the Bible in its unity, that we should read the reference in the creation story that we were originally made in the image of this God in the light of such New Testament passages with their picture of this Christ whom Paul calls the image of God. It would seem right that we see in this picture of ‘agape both what is possible for us and what is our obligation. Into communion with this God is the invitation implicit within creation; a communion in which God’s life becomes ours as we drink of him and our life opens to him to be filled with His love, beauty and grace and overflows to others in self-giving love.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his seminal work on Gregory of Nyssa, Presence and Thought, develops for us Gregory’s understanding of the figure of the fountain in the Scriptures as a figure that pictures both God and his love. He relates it to the relationship of the lover and the loved-one in the Song of Songs. He gives us this remarkable quotation from Gregory’s commentary.

“The fountain is none other than the mouth of the Bridegroom, from which the words of eternal life gush forth, words that fill the mouth that brings them (as the Prophet says, ‘I opened my mouth and brought the spirit’). Since, then, he who wishes to drink ought to bring his mouth to the fountain, and since the Lord is himself this fountain . . . the soul that wishes to put her lips to this mouth from which Life springs forth says the following words: ‘May He kiss me with a kiss from his mouth.’”

It is into this relationship with just such love that the serpent seeks to introduce fear and distrust. It is right that the term that comes in English to describe the one whom the serpent represents is a development of the Greek word for a slanderer (diabolos). There is nothing more destructive to personal relations than distrust. The biblical story with great clarity spells out the negative consequences that resulted because Eve chose to accept the serpent’s lie and walk out of relationship with the One who is life and love.

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Dr. Dennis F. Kinlaw, founder of the Francis Asbury Society and former president of Asbury College, also taught at Asbury Theological Seminary. He served at various times as a pastor in New York, a visiting professor at Seoul Theological Seminary, and was recognized as the leading holiness preacher in the US. Dr. Kinlaw passed away in 2017.

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