Common Grace, 1.27

Common Grace, 1.27 December 10, 2019

This post is part of a series walking through the first volume of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace.

You’ll notice (both of you who are following these) that we’re going a bit more slowly through this section of common grace. That’s because I think these chapters are both interesting and important, and worth working through more fully. I might be wrong, but who cares? It’s not like we’ve got a deadline or time limit or whatever.

Just what does “the knowledge of good and evil” mean? Most people assume some version of Milton’s phrasing, that Adam shall the good they lost and the evil they gained. That is, they will know by experience rather than merely intellectually what good and evil means. This is often equated with the difference between the intellectual knowledge of what it means to be drunk and actually being drunk. Both are kinds of knowledge, but one of them involves first-hand experience.

Kuyper has two objections to this appraoch, even if on one level there is truth to it (experience is certainly some kind of factor here). First, Genesis says that this knowledge makes Adam and Eve like God, so it can’t be experiential. God doesn’t know the experience of evil. Second, man did possess experiential knowledge of the good prior to the Fall–he was good.

So somehting else must be at play here. Specifically, we see elsewhere in Scripture where “knowing” means something like “choosing.” And by “choosing” is meant the even broad sense of “judging” or “determining” good and evil. We ought to understand that what Adam and Eve were doing in “knowing” good and evil were trying to set themselves up as the God of morality.

“The probationary command of the tree of knowledge confronted Adam with the question that matters here: ‘Will you want to know’–that is, assess for yourself–‘what is good or evil, orwill you leave that evaluation to God and obey blindly? Adam did not follow blindly but decided to evaluate for himself, and came to a conclusion opposite God’s conclusion, and as independent evaluator of good and evil, he place himself over against God and through this he fell away from God. He wanted to stand beside God as a second god, just as Satan had suggested. God and man thus would both independently and sovereignly evaluate what was good and what was evil, and this unlocked all depths of sin. Thus we see exactly how it was this arbitrary probationary command of the tree of knowledge that became the effective means to bring man to the decision whether he wanted to leave to God the knowledge, that is, the assessment of good and evil, or to take it to himself.” (240)

Man thus competed with God for the right to define good and evil. Once this happened, as Kuyper has already said, the conscience comes to life in man’s soul. The intellected identified the greatest good and put the will to work in opposition to what God had commanded, and the conscience springs to life for the first time and acts in judgment based on God’s prior revealed Word.

We’ve seen this definition of conscience before from Kuyper, and I’m not completely sold on it. Oh, I agree that it’s the judgment of a part of us in favor of God and against ourselves. But what I’m not sold on is the idea that it didn’t exist prior to the Fall. Using Kuyper’s own definition, why couldn’t the conscience have existed and simply declared man “not guilty” prio to the entrace of sin? We can imagine a nation where juries always find people ‘not guilty’, but such a verdict doesn’t negate the existence of the jury itself. In the same way it may be that the consicence was in operation prior to the Fall (and may have worked in the Incarnate Christ as well), but simply regularly returned the ‘not guilty’ verdict of a conscience at peace with itself and God.

That’s perhaps a quibble, but one I find interesting. It’s also an aside in this chapter. The main point is that the knowledge of good and evil is not so much an intellectual vs. an experiential knowledge, but rather the attempt by man to claim the right to define good and evil as if he were God. Which will lead us to the question of punishment in the next chapter.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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