Risk in the Garden

418px-tree_of_knowledgeWe spend  a lot of time here thinking about the early Genesis stories.  I find them endlessly fascinating.  Last week I wrote about the encounter between Eve and the Serpent in the Garden and what we Christians commonly refer to as “the Fall”.

This week I want to offer another perspective, from John Sanders book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence,(1998, InterVarsity Press). It’s a facinating book. Some will find it disconcerting or even troubling. But for others what Sander’s writes will be very helpful. It’s a serious book, but one does not need to be a scholar to understand it.

I’ll insert my disclaimer here, I have not finished Sander’s book yet. In the first part of the book Sanders presents the biblical evidence for his belief in a God who risks. I have read this part and his comments on Genesis are what I want to share with you today.

Providence, for Sanders, is “the way God has chosen to relate to us and provide for our well-being.” (11).  God could be a God who controls everything. God could create a world where nothing happens that God does not control. Where whatever happens is God’s will. This is a very common viewpoint.

Sanders, among others, suggests that God chooses another way. God chooses to be a different kind of God. Sanders says that God is not as interested in power and control as God is in community and true relationship.  In this model God “enters into genuine give-and-take relations with his creatures.”

The portrait of God developed here is one according to which God sovereignly wills to have human persons become collaborators with him in achieving the divine project of mutual relations of love. Such an understanding of the divine-human relationship may be called “relational theism”. By this I mean any model of the divine-human relationship that includes genuine give-and-take relations between God and humans such that there is receptivity and a degree of contingency in God. In give-and-take relationships God receives and does not merely give. (12)

With that background let’s think about the early chapters of Genesis.

God has given all creatures the space, the freedom, and the ability to be truly different from God. God is God and the rest of us are not. We are what we are, humans. Image bearers of God but not gods.  At the same time God has provided boundaries for us. Within the boundaries we have all that we need. The boundaries provide a safe and good place for us. To be outside the boundaries is not a good place for humans. Humans are not created to live apart from God but rather to live trusting and honoring God.  God establishes this relationship of trust and care and provides all we need to thrive.  Sanders writes, “God sovereignly places humans in an environment for their good and expects them to respond appropriately.” 

God expects us to respond appropriately but does not coerce us or force us.  Here is the divine risk. By giving us real freedom, we could decide against trusting and obeying God. Certainly, as Sanders points out, God has stacked the deck in his favor. It really doesn’t make any sense for humans not to trust God. We have been abundantly cared for.

“God leaves enough space for trust to develop, but this also allows space for doubt.” (47)

With the rejection of the divine wisdom, the implausible possibility occurred. There was not good reason to reject God’s blessing and provision. There was every reason in the world to trust the wisdom of the Creator for the well-being of the creature. There is never a good reason to sin, only rationalizations. When God inquires of the humans why they have done this, they respond with lame excuses. After all,what reason could possibly be given for rejecting divine grace? Sin is fundamentally irrational; there is no cause for it given the goodness of God’s creation. In light of this Paul Fiddes suggests that human sin was “something strange to God” in that it was not planed. Now God has to adjust his project in response to this horrible turn of events. (47-48)

Sander’s approach moves us away from the trickster God  concept. This idea that God puts that tree in the garden to tempt us, like candy in front of a kid. Why would  God allow us to fall into sin?  If everything is under God’s control then it seems that God sets us up to fail.

In Sander’s reading, God sets us up to be truly distinct creatures, truly free to make our own decisions. But God also gives us every reason to trust, every reason to be all that we were created to be.  God sets us up to flourish, to grow, to love.

People have spent alot of time wondering why when Adam and Eve, who have been told they will die if they eat the fruit, don’t die. Sanders suggests, as did my friend last week, that God’s grace prevails. God changes God’s mind. God does not give up on us. There are consequences yes, severe ones. But God continues to take care of Adam and Eve and all the rest of us. God remains committed to to us in spite of the stupid choices we make.

The idea that Adam and Eve’s choice was unexpected was a new way of thinking about this story for me. But it opens up some dimensions of the story that I find helpful. I don’t this this reading limits God’s majesty or glory. God is still the creator of all that is. But it is a way of understanding how this all powerful God decides to be and can be in real relationship with creation.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


For those of you who have an interest in campus ministry, the Presbyterian Bloggers Unite site has posts by a variety of folks (including me) on the topic.

2 thoughts on “Risk in the Garden

  1. Hi Nancy,

    I think you offer a Grace filled God to your readers… A message that needs to be spoken over and over and meet as many people as possible.

    Now as far as the text is concerned I usually use the NIV and in there it just says die, no time constraints… I don’t know what the greek says, but I’m left to interpret that God still kept his promise, that Adam and Eve did indeed die, in the flesh… Which is more to show His Grace and the beauty and mercy of God.

    Words like yours are so important… keep writing. keep teaching. I appreciate what you are doing here!!!!

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