Into the World--Chapter Five: A Primer--The Bible's Broadest Theme

Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context

Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme

Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

The goal of this post is to understand the biblical story of the fall as it relates to the message of the cross, not to form or critique a sectarian faith perspective of the story’s origin.1 Many other books do that sort of analysis. Recall the exchange with Richard Dawkins in which Ken Miller said “I regard Genesis as a spiritual truth,” and then proceeded to give a brief rationalization for why Scripture was not written like science.2 The Discovery article described Dawkins, in response, as almost levitating “out of his seat with indignation.”3 It is time to examine a basic part of the “spiritual meaning” to be found in Genesis.

The first three chapters of the Bible are among the most famous, covering the two creation stories followed immediately by the story of “the fall.” Having created the world, the story tells us that God set Adam in charge of the Garden of Eden with only one prohibition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) In the story God brings all the animals that he has created to Adam to be named. While performing the task it becomes clear to Adam that he has no partner, and God creates Eve to be Adam’s by taking flesh from his side. According to the story, the first couple were “naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

Into this primal picture of innocence creeps a Serpent who asks Eve for clarification about the prohibition. The Serpent then contradicts God’s warning, saying, “You will not die…” (Genesis 3:4) The contradictory statement, of course, sets up a dilemma, whether to believe God or the Serpent.

To bolster his chances of winning her trust, the Serpent casts doubt on God’s motive for the prohibition. “…God knows that when you eat of [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] …you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) The story goes on to tell us that Eve saw that the tree was beautiful, had fruit that looked good to eat, and—if the Serpent was to be believed—made one wise. Thus, by casting doubt on God’s motive for the prohibition, advancing the possibility of becoming godlike by breaking it, and appealing to the tree’s desirability, the Serpent gained Eve’s trust, and through her Adam’s too.

As long as Adam and Eve could assume that any good thing should be made available to them, God is automatically suspect for keeping an apparent good from them. Armed with that assumption, the Serpent’s words are free to do their work. God does not want me to have a good thing that is clearly available; so, apparently, God does not want what is good for me. At that point disregarding God’s prohibition and trusting the Serpent makes sense.

But does the assumption make sense when questioned? Doesn’t the assumption that any good thing should be made available to me fly in the face of the fact that others have good things that I have no right to take? Isn’t being friends with other persons incompatible with a boundless prerogative to pursue self-interest? Clearly these considerations are the case; just as clearly the operating assumption, which on the face of it seemed reasonable, turns out to be false in the context of a caring, trusting relationship.

In fact, friendship can sometimes only be maintained at great personal cost. Returning to The Gospel According to John for commentary, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) On that almost tautologically true view, the greater a friendship is the greater the willingness of a friend is to make sacrifices for the friendship. Thus, friendship puts at least some limit on the pursuit of self-interest—to cite the most pertinent instance, not stealing from persons who are my friends, as Adam and Eve surely should have understood. And a person who does not understand that does not have the capacity to be a friend.

Accordingly, the story of the fall ends with a visit from God in the garden; followed by the revelation of Adam and Eve’s theft; and then this: “[God] drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed…a sword…to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) Dramatically, emphatically, friendship with God ended.

What does one make of this story? In a search for the source of an intellectual conversion to a false view of God, it certainly stands out. It would constitute a clear and decisive origin in Scripture for the false conceptual conversion, if it can be agreed that it is so. And it clearly colors all of Scripture to follow; for never again in the Bible is humankind pictured in a caring, trusting relationship with God. But does the story of the fall produce a view of God contrary to the Supreme Irony? If so, the desiderata noted at the end of the last chapter will have been met.

In fact, the basic elements of the story of the fall do form a foil to the Supreme Irony. First, whereas the Serpent brings to the fore what God will not give to humanity, the message of the cross, when we look to the most famous portion of the text of The Gospel According to John, is that there is nothing so precious that God will not give it for the sake of humanity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes…” (John 3:16)

Second, that which God withholds from humanity in the Genesis story forms the basis for the seed of doubt that the Serpent uses to call God’s words into question. By contrast, in the message of God on the cross, that which God does not spare for the sake of humanity—his Son—forms the basis of Christian faith in God.

And third, whereas Scripture tells us that believing the Serpent’s account of God lead to death, believing “the message of the cross” brings eternal life: “…so that everyone who believes…may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It surely appears to be the case that to believe the message of the cross is to believe in a view of God that foils the view that the Serpent preached to Eve in the garden.4

More interestingly, when in the Genesis story the first humans chose to act on the temptation to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they chose to put self-interest above their friendship with God as evidenced by (1) that they chose not to trust God, (2) that they chose to violate God’s prohibition, (3) that they did so rather than protect their relationship with God, and (4) that they implicitly chose to believe that God did not have their best interest in mind. By acting to pursue what they believed to be in their best interest, then, Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God; they chose self-interest over preserving their relationship with God. The image of the first humans hiding from God at the end of the story of the fall depicts their awareness of the implications of their choice.

Most interestingly, if we allow the message of the cross to be used as a commentary on the fall, by placing their perceived interests above their friendship with God, Adam and Eve became ungodly. For to be godly in Christian terms means becoming like Jesus who, in the words of an early hymn that Paul quotes, “emptied himself” in order to obediently convey divine love to humanity:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form
of God,
did not regard equality with
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking on the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the
point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

The contrast is unmistakable. Humanity takes from God with the hope of becoming like God, whereas godliness is emulated by giving. The message of the cross—the Supreme Irony as Supreme Being—corrects that error by enacting the Supreme Gift and making faith in it the crucial aspect of authentic faith. It could not be clearer: The message of the cross corrects the serpent’s message at the fall.

Moreover, this view comports with the core Christian view of God as love. For love is a transitive concept and so can only be realized in a relationship. Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God when they placed self-interest over remaining true to the relationship. In doing so they became antithetical to what it means to be godlike, as expressed by Christian Scripture.

In short, for a human being to be godlike—from the perspective of Christian faith—means to be like Jesus, and to be like Jesus means to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of one’s love for others. Hence, loving self-sacrifice for one’s friends versus self-seeking sacrifice of the trust integral to one’s relationships are the contrary views which emerge when we juxtapose the Genesis story with the message of the cross—the message that Paul calls foolishness from the side of “the world’s wisdom.”

And clearly there is much to the contrast beyond the scriptural text. For if one asks whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation when those two domains of human value come into conflict, the question tears the human psyche in two. What is humanity, at bottom, a mass of self-seeking individuals, or a mass of individuals willing to sacrifice self-interest when necessary to preserve the integrity of the web of relationships that comprises human society? If I give up what I value most, I am a fool. The question is, “Which choice will define foolishness for me?” The answer is determined by what I choose as my primary source of motivation, and that choice informs the core of Christian faith and belief.

The message of God on the cross—the Supreme Irony as Supreme Being—clearly has its foil in the story of the fall. Thus, for Christian Scripture to be understood as literature in the most basic sense, the Supreme Irony of God on the cross as a corrective to the Genesis fall must be understood. At the most basic level, the message of the cross serves as the moral complement to the story of the fall, and that complementary nexus informs the Christian Bible’s overarching message and comprises its broadest unifying theme.

That theme sets up a point of view that comports fully with Ken Miller’s view that Genesis should be regarded as a story that expresses a spiritual truth as opposed to a scientific truth. It seems reasonable that one should judge literature by the value of what it says, as opposed to what it does not say. What the Genesis story does say contributes fundamentally to understanding the Christian Bible’s core meaning. If one returns to attitudes expressed toward the Bible by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, it is clear that their remarks fail to comprehend this most basic level of scriptural meaning: “But what does that mean!?”4 It is a telling question.


1. The overview sought here can be interpreted conservatively or liberally. These posts will not touch on the question of how to integrate this overview with one's wider theological commitments. But perhaps a short comment is in order. A conservative interpretation needs no explanation. But the liberal pole, if it is to be more than a ceding of literalism to the advance of scholarship, may not be apparent. A brief quote from Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, Volume Two, will create some interpretive space: "...[Christian theology] has to say that Jesus as the Christ is related to that historical development of which he is the center, determining its beginning and its end. It begins the moment human beings start realizing their existential estrangement and raise the question of the New Being. Obviously, such a beginning cannot be determined by historical research but must be told in legendary and mythical terms..." (The University of Chicago Press, 1957) p. 100. For Tillich, then, the problem of ceding a literal interpretation to the advance of scholarship does not arise. The dynamic this sets up between faith and understanding, however, is too subtle to do more than cite here.
2. Quoted in Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 9, September 2005 (
3. Ibid.
4. Scholars now understand the interpretive methods used by New Testament writers in expositing the meaning of Jesus’ life through the lens of Jewish Scripture. For a good historical overview of the methods see Karen Armstrong’s The Bible a Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2007). My aim here is to identify the central interpretive lens, and thereby get to the core meaning of Christian faith. There is no historical reason—that I know of—to think that the first Christians imposed this interpretation on Jesus crucifixion: Its “fit” can just as well explain the interpretation.
5. Hall, ibid.

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10 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Five: A Primer--The Bible's Broadest Theme”

  1. Tracy,
    What I enjoy about this analysis is how it frames the puzzling prohibition in Eden: Don't eat from this tree. I've seen many people read this skeptically, as a kind of "set up" God puts in front of humanity. But, if I'm reading you right, we might see the Eden prohibition as symbolic of relational boundaries and the trust inherent in them. I must trust the Other to loving meet my needs rather than view the other suspiciously and TAKE what I need from them.

    Thus, the sin of Eden is selfishness: Viewing the Other suspiciously and entering into a zerosum struggle for survival with them. The Cross enacts the opposite: Trust, love and gift.

  2. James,

    I agree completely. I do want to add, however, that the simple prose of the narratives belies a sometimes astounding depth. A subscript for the following two posts is a demonstration of how much thought went into the the narrative of John: We sometimes excuse Scripture from answering tough questions on the ground that it is not trying to do that sort of thing. Against that I think that you will be surprised to see how clearly the writer of John asked and answered skeptical questions.


    Yea. To see the Eden story as a "set up" makes God into a rapacious manipulator, not a friend.

    As I see it, the story does not tell us that we are not to be curious and adventurous seekers after knowledge, but that breaking trust scuttles relational knowledge.

    BTW: One reason I am grateful to you for allowing me to post on your blog is that there are interpretive possibilities in this approach that you and your readers are much better positioned to appreciate than I am... I say this because there are points where--though the arguments have been carefully lain out--I don't see very far beyond the lines of exposition. At times hat made the writing feel more like a ride than a journey.

  3. On Genesis:
    All religions posit the fallen nature of man and the path to recover the state of sacred communion. I don't see how that makes it somehow a false view of God, just that it is a metaphor for the universal journey from childhood innocence and dependence to adult regrets over the choices and burdens of autonomy.

    I've been thinking quite a bit about what the silence to Pilate's question means strictly within the narrative of the Gospel of John and so far I have three main theories.

    Rhetorical game: Jesus leaves himself vulnerable when he declares His purpose is to bear witness to the truth. Pilate sees the opening and spins the claim by asking -"What is truth?" The spin is that Pilate expands the claim to a broader context. Instead of the truth as Jesus witnessed it, which is the literal, narrow meaning of His statement, Pilate asks about truth generally. Jesus, who realizes the question is misleading, declines to answer because the question itself is a distortion of His claim.

    Existentialism: Jesus cannot answer the question because it encompasses a contradiction between being and time, an addition or subtraction of possibilities. As the divine logos incarnate, His presence imposes that contradiction.

    Paradox of prophecy: Jesus makes his claim as witness to truth, but it has an unstated caveat. The person who is unwittingly instrumental to the plan of prophecy cannot be informed of it, lest he capriciously decides to thwart it.

  4. "spiritual truth as opposed to a scientific truth. "

    Scientific truth I get; what is "spiritual truth"? I think it is precisely these "spiritual" claims on truth that aggrevate Dawkins and prompted his outburst that you quoted.

    In a related comment, it seems to me that martyrdom is the ultimate sacrifice made in interest of preserving relationsship with God, and furthering his kingdom at great personal expense. Now-a-days, however, martyrdom is a questionable ethical enterprise. No doubt the Islamic suicide bombers are convicted of the "spiritual truth" of choices they make. This is the point Dawkins is trying to make, IMO.

    Lastly, your discover link is still broken.

  5. Just a small point... the link to the Dawkins article is at ""

  6. Step2:

    Since we can't get inside the author's mind, or Jesus' mind, or Pilate's mind, and since we can't be at the time and place of the alleged events, it is very difficult to get beyond speculation when positing possibilities such as you suggest. It wasn't part of a plan in writing this little work, but accepting the challenge of positivism (scientism) is a good way to sort through mere speculation.

    In not replying to your suggestions directly, I in no way mean to suggest that they are not worthy of a good response, but rather that they deserve a much better critique than I am prepared to give off the cuff. I do think that the real challenge in front of you is to convince the reader that you are doing more than extrapolating from assumptions.

    If you think that is the case, I'd be very interested in hearing about it in a further comment.


    Today I talked with a friend about a painting he is doing. Having engaged him rather well--I thought--about what he was up to, I ventured a bit of constructive criticism. He responded by saying, "Basically, this is just a layer." It was, in context, a way of saying "You can't do that kind of critique of my painting, because it assumes that you are seeing my intentions, when all you are seeing is my partially realized means of realizing my intentions."

    As I heard that I knew what I needed to say to you. (I had peeked at your question earlier today.) I'm trying to do something new here. I don't think that you see enough of it yet to have a good idea of what it is yet. And it would be misleading in the worst way to respond to questions that don't get at the goal I have in mind.

    Better said, "Basically, this [chapter] is just a layer."

    But I can speak a bit to Dawkin's "aggrevation" with spiritual truth claims. I think his response is multifaceted. First, he's a direct, honest man who finds that much so-called spiritual truth is bunk. Second, I think he does see a very dangerous side to fundamentalism--a side that is not hard to see, by the way. Third, I think he resents that science has to "battle" so-called spiritual truth in the schools and public square. Your comment seems to suggest the second. My guess is that the first and third play large roles too.

    But then I would suggest that there is a parallel with all true believers that plays itself out in his attitude too. He has a haughty and aggressive side. Is there a better excuse for treating others badly than thinking that "I" am right and they are wrong? But this is speculation, so see my point about speculation above to Step2.

    I am really pleased to get your questions, and am accordingly sorry to put you off, again.


  7. Tracy,

    I share your analysis of Dawkins. And, as I may have mentioned in responding to other posts, I'm very sympathetic of his position. I'm reserving judgment on his tactics for the moment, however. I feel like he is targeting those who are sitting on the fence--trying to decide if religion is a true thing, and if it is a good thing. People like me. I happen to respond well to his vehement criticism, and see his voice as one that is sorely needed. His popularity suggests that there are many who share similar sentiments, but have not spoken up for fear of offending people. I think he recognizes that a fundamentalist isn't going to be interested in what he has to say. Although that may be the target of his criticism, it is not his target audience.

    I have watched a few interviews with him on utube, and I have to say I'm much more impressed with him in writing.

  8. "I do think that the real challenge in front of you is to convince the reader that you are doing more than extrapolating from assumptions."

    I will give it the old college try. First, all interpretation of the Bible has many assumptions involved, as it is an understatement to say it is written in an elliptical style. We are in that same boat together. Second, since we are all engaged in a degree of extrapolation, the next question is how much justification we can bring to support our assumptions. The Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels to be written, has a clearly different character to it than the Synoptic Gospels. It includes stories not found in the others, does not include parables, and has a noticeable awareness of the criticisms against Christianity at the time it was written. It was also written in Greek, apparently for a Greek or cosmopolitan audience, and therefore places an emphasis on Hellenistic aspects of the ministry of Jesus. In that context, when Jesus speaks with Pilate there is an exchange between the audience and the author layered onto the text. To the audience, the question of truth is an intellectual exercise of factual comprehension, but to the author the question is one of belief in salvation. In order to make his case, the author relates how the mystery of death has been solved through faith and strongly hints that analytic knowledge (by way of Pilate's question) is an incorrect form of judgement. This approach has some problems which my earlier comment explores.

  9. Hi Step2,

    It is a common view that the Bible does not engage in "intellectual exercise[s] of factual comprehension," as you put it. Because I will be subjecting a hypothesis derived from the overview presented in this chapter to intellectual challenge, I will try to show, in the following two chapters, that the author of John certainly seemed to be writing with an eye to answering skeptical questions about his narrative.

    But I agree with your nicely phrased statement that "the author relates how the mystery of death has been solved through faith," except that perhaps you meant something more like "the sting of death"? That seems to fit your overall point better.

    But to the question of assumptions. I do think that I am avoiding assumptions fairly well by my approach. First, I began by seeking framing the most sweeping challenge skeptical challenge to the Gospel that I am aware of. No assumptions engaged there. Second, I am trying to set up Scriptures broadest theme in this and the following two chapters. That implies an openness to what one will find; not a program based on one's assumptions. I may fail to eliminate all assumptions with my approach, but I hope that the one's I employ will be used in literary criticism generally, rather than be crutches of faith. Third, in the remaining chapters of Into the World I will be testing the "answer" to Scripture's broadest theme against criticism from philosophical theology. Again, not an assumption-laden approach.

    As you can see, I have replaced the problematic historical approach with a literary and philosophical one. That does reduce the importance an role of assumptions very significantly--how significantly? Well, that's for my readers to decide.

    Your words show a compelling and sophisticated approach to reading Scripture, but I think you missed an important aspect of what I am up to. I look forward to hearing your response to my upcoming posts!


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