The Creation and Fall of Humanity (Blogging the Belgic: Article 14)
Every day, the news is filled with the wonderful achievements of humans - solving medical mysteries, showing great care and compassion for people in need, athletic marvels, and brave and heroic efforts - as well as the horrors that humans do to each other and the world. We see glimpses of greatness but also flashes of depravity. Why is that the case? Article 14 of the Belgic Confession helps us to understand why this is the case, as it is because humans are made as wonderful creatures but these wonderful creatures have greatly fallen from the way that God intended.
Article 12 of the Belgic Confession noted that God created all creatures, with that article focusing more on the angels. Here in Article 14, attention turns to the creation of humans. It notes: “We believe that God created human beings from the dust of the earth and made and formed them in his image and likeness—good, just, and holy; able by their will to conform in all things to the will of God.” This statement tells us a number of things. First, humans were created differently other creatures - there is both a special act of creation (from the ground, not being spoken into existence like other parts of creation) and also a special status that humans have, as we are made in the image of God. This is why we inherently see human life as of more value than other elements of creation; it is not that other parts of creation have no value, but if choosing between saving a human life and saving something else, we choose humans (especially if it is a bug!).
But what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Theologians have discussed that for centuries, and there are many ways that one could go with that, but the Belgic Confession highlights that there is a special element of human agency that seems to come from being made in the image of God as well as a special moral status. Humans are “good,” as all creature are (see Genesis 1), but there was also a sense in which humans were righteous and holy. One finds this idea from places like Ephesians 4:24, which refer to the renewing of humans in the image of Christ, bringing us back to the status that we should have. But what I just said assumes that humans are no longer this way, which the confession then goes on to explain.
“But when they were in honor they did not understand it and did not recognize their excellence. But they subjected themselves willingly to sin and consequently to death and the curse, lending their ear to the word of the devil. For they transgressed the commandment of life, which they had received, and by their sin they separated themselves from God, who was their true life, having corrupted their entire nature. So they made themselves guilty and subject to physical and spiritual death, having become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all their ways. They lost all their excellent gifts which they had received from God, and retained none of them except for small traces which are enough to make them inexcusable.” While I do not love the reality that the confession describes here, I do love the way it is stated and the elements that it highlights regarding the fall of Adam and Eve and, with them, all humanity. The confession notes that the issue is that they did not recognize who they were and “their excellence,” as they listened to the words of the devil and thus, by their own free will, brought themselves under the power and curse of sin. What a great way to think of sin - it is at the root forgetting who God is and who he has made us! That results are that we lose God, who is “our true life,” and now we are corrupt, “wicked, perverse, and corrupt.” Then there is something interesting: it says that we lose all our “excellent” gifts. Does that mean we are not in the image of God because of sin? Absolutely not, as it does note that we have “small traces” of these things; we still are in the image of God but are not able to avoid this sin and now corrupt. We are guilty and subject to death because we sin.
Another thing that I appreciate about the Confession is that it does not leave the biblical evidence for its beliefs in the footnotes (like other confessions) but gives the verses within the text. We see that here, as it then goes on to say why this is the case from the Bible, quoting passages like John 1:5 (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”) to show the darkness that now resides in humans and verses like John 6:44 (“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day”) to show that humans can’t overcome this sin themselves. Romans 8:7 (“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”) and 1 Corinthians 2:14 (“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”) further show the complete inability for humans to understand and accept God’s truths, and Philippians 2:13 (“for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”) and John 15:5 (“for apart from me you can do nothing”) show the need for God to work in us. Because of the fall into sin, humans are not able to obey God’s law nor direct themselves to God.
Some would ask if it is then fair for God to punish humans, as we cannot obey God's law. We can affirm that it is because we have seen these Scriptures and know that this is how God works, but there is also a sense in which we know it is fair because of the way this article started, that humans in creation were “able by their will to conform in all things to the will of God.” The problem is that humans now cannot, but this is because of the action of the first humans that is then passed along to us and our being.
I realize this article, while at first seeming like it might be good news really, is more of bad news. Like the nightly news (or online news outlets if that is the way you read things), we need to know about the bad but not let it overshadow the good. People often complain that the news is all the bad stuff, but good stuff does creep in (just like in sinful humans). There does seem to be a negative theme in this article, but there is a positive note in that we cannot do things apart from Christ, something that implies that things can change because of Christ. It will still take a couple of articles to get there, but this foreshadows the hope of the atonement, found in the death of Jesus Christ. We were holy, now we are broken, but in Christ we are once again becoming righteous and holy, with a righteousness and holiness not based in our own strength but which comes through Jesus. Let’s celebrate and remember that.
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