However, the union with God enjoyed by Adam was not to remain static. Going back to Aquinas’ Summa we encounter an expectation that man was to grow in his union with God. Williams writes that in his Secunda Pars, Aquinas grounds man’s union with God in the very structure of human persons. Williams explains, “The human person is described not only as by nature oriented towards God, but as constituted for continual growth towards God. Glory is thus in a sense the intended (though by no means inevitable) outcome of nature” (A.N. Williams, “Mystical Theology Redux,” Modern Theology 13.1 (January 1997): 67). Calvin also points in this direction, commenting on Genesis 3:19, “Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright” (Calvin, Commentary on Genesis). Also,
Paul makes an antithesis between this living soul and the quickening spirit which Christ confers upon the faithful (1 Corinthians 15:45) for no other purpose than to teach us that the state of man was not perfected in the person of Adam; but it is a peculiar benefit conferred by Christ, that we may be renewed to a life which is celestial, whereas before the fall of Adams man’s life was only earthly, seeing it had no firm and settled constancy (Calvin, Commentary on Genesis).
Calvin contends that man’s union with God was limited to a degree by his lack of inherent righteousness and by Adam’s creatureliness. Canlis articulates how this presupposition plays itself out in Calvin’s theology, “Christ’s mediation of all creation, to Calvin’s purpose, destabilizes all the old views that humanity (and creation, for that matter) is complete in se. It is always fundamentally oriented outside itself, needing another to be complete” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 73). Man was created for union with God, but this union is limited by man being creature. Calvin’s comments on 2 Peter 1:4 are helpful in fully understanding his position, “we shall be partakers of divine and blessed immortality and glory, so as to be as it were one with God as far as our capacities will allow” (John Calvin, Commentary on Second Epistle of Peter). We can reasonable summarize Calvin’s thoughts as follows: Adam experienced a sweet union with God as far his “earthliness” allowed. Had Adam withstood his testing, his capacity for partaking in the divine nature and for union with God would have been amplified, thus guaranteeing the eternality of this union and man’s life. He would have inherited immortality of soul and body and enjoyed deeper communion with his Maker. Berkhoff strikes a similar note, describing Adam’s condition as one of “relative perfection”. He explains,
This does not mean that he had already reached the highest state of excellence of which he was susceptible. It is generally assumed that he was destined to reach a higher degree of perfection in the way of obedience…His condition was a preliminary and temporary one, which would either lead on to greater perfection and glory or terminate in the fall (Loius Berkhoff, Systematic Theology, 209).
One could say that man’s condition was perfect as a circle is perfect; but held out to man was the possibility of a deeper perfection, as a sphere is more perfect than the two dimensional images. Vos writes in the same vein, “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment” (Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. by James T. Dennison Jr.,73). Reflecting on this higher life held out to Adam as reward for obedience, Vos explains that it would be a highly religious life “characterized by the most intimate connection with God” (Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, edited by James T. Dennison Jr., 75). Within the framework of the covenant of creation (or covenant of works [i]), man was promised eternal life – an inviolable, permanent, and qualitatively richer life based on a deeper union with God made possible by an elevation of man’s nature. Had the first man remained faithful to his covenantal duties, namely perfect obedience to God’s command, this promised life would have been his. Forfeiture of this life, both in its quantitative and qualitative dimensions, was the curse guaranteed to Adam if he broke God’s command. Michael Horton explains that the familiar pattern of promise and fulfillment is found not only after the fall, but in creation itself. He writes, “Human identity was not finished at creation but was to be perfected by fulfilling the trial of the original covenant, winning the right to eat from the tree of everlasting life and blessedness” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, 386). Having thus completed his work in faithfulness, man would be confirmed in righteousness and allowed to enter the Sabbath Rest of God, following, as image bearers, the pattern set before them by their Creator of work followed by rest. Calvin uses quite explicit sacramental language in his discussions of the tree of life[ii], describing it as a visible sign, an “attestation of his grace by external symbol” (Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, comment on Gen.2:9). Direct connections can be made between this tree and man’s union with God. The chief function of the sacraments centers on our union with Second Person of the Godhead. If Christian baptism is the initiation of this union, and the Supper is given for the nurturing and growth of this union, it stands to reason that the tree of life as a sacrament was intended to foster man’s union with God. If our understanding of the tree of life as a sacrament is correct, we can conclude that had Adam partaken of its fruit the union he enjoyed with God would have been deepened in some profound way (or it would continue to have been solidified as he continued to partake of it). Man would have been elevated, his life passing from a merely terrestrial existence to include celestial aspects as well. He would experience, as Vos states it, “transformation and supernaturalization [iii]”(Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, 74). This is quite similar to the language we find in the Orthodox teachings of theosis. Donald Fairbairn writes,
…by theosis the Orthodox mean the process of acquiring godly characteristics, gaining immortality and incorruptibility, and experiencing communion with God…gaining these blessings was the task which God set before humanity at creation, the task which through the fall humanity lost the capacity to achieve, and the task which the incarnation and work of Christ have made possible once again (Donald Fairbairn, “Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy,” Themelios 23.3(1998): 42).
We will return to the concept of theosis and weigh it more thoroughly in the third section of this paper below. We can conclude this section by affirming that man was made for union with God, experienced this communion unencumbered by sin prior to the fall. While this union was to be cherished, Adam stood to gain a deeper union with God upon successful completion of his covenantal duties. Had he not failed to keep covenant, he would have been confirmed in righteousness and been granted the right to eat of the tree of life. This confirmation would have meant the consummation of creation’s God given telos. Man’s capacity for union with God and participation in the divine nature would have been expanded as his nature would have been elevated [iv]. Needless to say, the first Adam failed to realize this potential. He chose life separated from his Maker and forfeited not only the blessings held out to him in the covenant but even the degree of union he enjoyed during his probation. It was a catastrophic choice. We now turn our attention to God’s plan to redeem and move his creation to its appointed goal in the unique person of Jesus Christ.
Notes [i] The assertion that the covenant of creation was in fact a covenant based on works is highly contested. For a good discussion of the works based nature of this covenant see Michael Horton’s God of Promise (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 83-104. I think it is proper to acknowledge God’s act of covenanting with man was gracious in that God did not owe man this relationship or the blessings contained in it. However, as sin had not yet entered the picture, I prefer a more nuanced definition of grace as God’s unmerited kindness to us despite our sin (our demerit). Moreover, even though we can speak of the graciousness of the covenant, the terms of the covenant were devoid of grace, built strictly upon law. There were no provisions for forgiveness, etc. [ii] Horton, and Vos and Kline with him, differ slightly from Calvin in their understanding of the role the tree of life had in the garden arrangement. Calvin suggests that Adam partook of the tree of life regularly prior to his fall. He writes, “The promise, which gave him hope of eternal life as long as he should eat of the tree of life” (Institutes, 2.1.4). On the other hand, Vos, Kline and Horton each argue that Adam had not yet earned the right to eat of the tree. They contend that eating from the tree of life was a right that Adam would earn for his faithful covenant keeping. Vos writes, “It appears from Genesis 3:22, that man before his fall had not eaten of it…the use of the tree was reserved for the future, quite in agreement with the eschatological significance attribute to it later. The tree was associated with the higher, the unchangeable, the eternal life to be secured by obedience throughout his probation. Anticipating the result by a present enjoyment of the fruit would have been out of keeping with its sacramental character. After man should have been made sure of the attainment of the highest life, the tree would appropriately have been the sacramental means for communication the highest life” (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975, 28). The debate cannot be settled simply to examining the early chapter of Genesis. Genesis 3:22 -23 can be taken to mean that it would not be good for man to reach out and take of the tree of life for the first time now that he has sinned or that it would not be good for man to continue taking of the tree now that he has fallen. Jesus’ words in Revelation 2:7 are helpful, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Based on this passage it seems best to conclude that the right to eat of the tree of life is reserved for those who conquer (or “overcome” in the NASB). Had Adam overcome, he would have been granted the right to partake of its fruits. Clearly he did not overcome. [iii] Vos is careful to mitigate against any ‘magical’ view of the tree of life. As with the Supper and Baptism, there is a union between the sign and the thing signified, here eternal life in union with God, but these blessings are given by God, not by virtue of some magical property in the sacrament. [iv] This in no way is meant to insinuate that had Adam passed the Garden test and eaten of the tree of life that he would have ceased to be human or that he would have become something other than human. Quite the contrary, the result is that we become more human, for as Millard Erickson explains, “We experience full humanity only when we are properly related to God” (Christian theology, 2nd ed., Electronic ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998, 534).