What follows are some reflections from one Reformed pastor who does not pretend to be an authoritative voice and who expects his views to change and mature over time. As Christians reflect upon the two trees in the Garden, it’s important to be clear that this is truly an intramural issue. The two trees are addressed here to encourage conversation and reflection upon Scripture. Thesis statements are used in the hope of communicating with clarity.
Seven Theses on the Two Trees
- Covenants and “signs and seals” go hand-in-hand – We find this with Noah (rainbow), Abraham (circumcision) the Old Covenant (circumcision, Passover, and one could include its various ceremonies), and the New Covenant (Baptism & the Supper). The trees are “signs and seals” of the Covenant of Works in Eden.
- The trees do not function mechanically – Roman Catholics have taken the view that sacraments operate in a mechanical fashion, by the performance of the rite (termed ex opere operato). The Reformed view sacraments as being a sort of pledge, physically-restating the message of the covenant to strengthen the recipient, when that message is received by faith. Hence, the tree of knowledge of good and evil warned Adam that his quest for God’s wisdom (autonomy in moral matters) would bring death. But eating from that tree did not work death mechanically (Adam didn’t experience some sort of food poisoning); rather, God arrived to enact the judgment that was threatened by the tree, the “thing-signified”.
- The two trees are associated with covenant blessing and covenant curse – God declared concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die”. And the other tree was called “the tree of life”. Hence, one tree proclaims its curse-sanction (death) and the other, the blessing-sanction (life). In the Covenant of Works, obedience leads to eternal life while disobedience leads to death.
- Adam and Eve were encouraged to eat from the tree of life before the Fall – God gave them permission to eat from every tree except one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Again, the tree of life isn’t mechanical, magically bestowing eternal life and glory. Rather, it served as a pledge to them, reassuring them that their perfect obedience would bring about the blessing of eternal life. This would occur in God’s time – they possessed spiritual life, but it was not yet eternal life, glorification. In a similar fashion, the Supper reassures us that Christ’s perfect obedience will bring about this blessing in God’s time. The sacraments reassure and strengthen, which was the purpose of the tree of life, to strengthen Adam’s resolve to fulfill the Covenant of Works.
- The tree of life is about God’s countenance, not perpetuity – Eternal life is not about perpetuity of existence (the way most seem to define it). Rather, it is about dwelling in the presence of God. Even the serpent will experience perpetuity of existence. The difference between the blessing and the curse is not perpetuity but dwelling in or away from God’s blessed-Presence. Adam had spiritual life in the Garden, dwelling with God, and his exile from the Garden was truly death. So, too, Israel would experience life in the land of Canaan, but their exile would be their death. Surely, Adam’s return to the dust is connected, but this is symptomatic of his spiritual death.
- Taking from the tree of life after the Fall would not necessarily have resulted in Hell – Surely, sacraments of blessing (e.g., Baptism and the Supper) can be taken wrongly. And taking them wrongly invokes judgment (upon the reprobate) or discipline (upon the elect). Hypothetically, had they eaten from the tree of life after sinning they would have incurred some negative consequence, but we do not know what it would have been. An analogy would be when someone unworthily partakes of the Lord’s Supper unworthily (1 Cor. 11). That does not cast one instantly into Hell, though it is certainly a most grievous sin.
- Their exile from the Garden is the first act of “Church discipline” – They broke the Covenant of Works. Therefore, they are no longer privy to obtaining eternal life (pledged by the tree of life) under that covenant. As covenant-breakers, God casts them out. Is it merciful? Sure, insofar as it is merciful to keep someone from the Lord’s Supper that is an unworthy participant. But I think it is more centrally an act of judgment, an exercise of the keys of the kingdom. While we consider church discipline “merciful” (1) in keeping the unworthy from heaping up judgment by wrongly partaking of the sacraments and (2) in the goal of promoting their repentance, it is more centrally an act of “cutting off” the covenant-breaker. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Covenant-of-Works-Church, and the doors are shut and locked behind them. Their re-entrance into God’s Presence would not be according to their works (the Covenant of Works). Rather, they would only find readmission to God’s Presence through the works of the particular Seed that would crush the Serpent’s head, thus warranting Woman’s new name, Eve (“Life-Giver”). Praise God that, being ejected from the kingdom as it was manifest in Eden and constituted by the Covenant of Works, Adam and Eve were received into the Church as it was constituted by the Covenant of Grace. In other words, they began to walk by faith in God’s gracious promise (Pilgrims looking to the future), not by sight (beholding God in the Garden in Eden).