By Samuel M. Frost, Th.D.
Having pointed out the contradiction in R. C. Sproul’s book, The Holiness of God, wherein he defines “death” as having a “full sense” so that “spiritual death” took place “in the day” Adam ate, but not “death in the full sense” (this is called having cake and eating it, too), we now focus on Geerhardus Vos, who also makes a serious blunder with regard to Adam’s sin.
Vos, a stalwart of Reformed theology, and the “father of biblical theology” within that camp, is a must read for those interested in the developments of Liberalism and Fundamentalism that arose in the 1920’s and 30’s. Even though he wrote at the turn of the century, Vos saw the incoming danger of “critical” scholarship originating out of Germany. I had as required reading his marvelous book, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1959), while earning my M.A. at Whitefield Seminary.
With that being said, concerning Genesis 2-3, Vos is aware of the ramifications of taking the phrase in Gn 2.17, “in the day”, literally. He wrote that “returning to the dust is represented as a curse” (48). Correct. Death is not “the natural lot” of Adam. Correct, again. Death is not a natural thing, but a divinely imposed punishment. All very good theology and exegesis.
This ends when he states, “Finally the stressing of the phrase “in the day” in 2:17, is not only uncalled for, but, in view of the sequel of the narrative, impossible. As a threat of immediate, premature death the words have not been fulfilled, and that God subsequently mitigated or modified the curse, there is nothing whatever to suggest” (48-49). In other words, since Adam did not “return to dust” that day when he ate, then “in that day” should not be “stressed”.
Vos feels the tension here when he further wrote, “what kind of form of death” is meant? He admits of “several aspects of death” but “the answer is not easy to give” (50). Indeed. Bodily death “seems necessary” if one were simply following the bare text. Correct. But, the Dutch theologian cannot let it go there: “a deeper conception of death seems to be hinted at” (50). Although he does not use the phrase, “spiritual death”, he speaks of an “internal sense” of death (50). Man is “separated from God” in the form of “expulsion from the garden” (51). This is, then, a death. And, it must be added, this happened “in the day” he transgressed.
One can see the glaring issue here. If, on one hand, we should not “stress” the phrase “in the day”, so that with Vos, Adam “began to die” (50), and on the other hand stress the fact that Adam did “die” in the “deeper sense” when exiled from the Garden “in the day” he sinned, then we can see that Vos has muddied the exegetical waters here. Without “adding” to the story another “sense” of death (exile), Vos would have simply been saying that the “principle of death” (49) entered into Adam and the rest of his children in the day he ate, but the phrase, “in the day”, should not be stressed to mean “immediate” death. This is the view of many other theologians. However, Vos doesn’t stop there and does bring in another sense of death that did, indeed, happen “that day”: exile, or separation from God; what goes under the phrase, “spiritual death.” The point is, if we need not “stress” the literal meaning of “in the day”, then why “stress” it so as to have Adam “spiritually die” in the day he ate? Vos “stresses” it, and wishes not to “stress” it. He “stresses” it for “spiritual death”, and de-stresses it for “bodily death.” Non-sequitor.
In his work, Reformed Dogmatics (Lexham Press, 2020, reprint from 1910), Vos is even more explicit. When Adam transgressed he cut himself off, “in a way incomprehensible to us, from the supply of life by the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit departed from him” (260). Here he is speaking of “spiritual death” (260). “Bodily death is everywhere presented as a consequence of spiritual death” (236). In this section, Vos is arguing against the other giant, Charles Hodge – an argument I won’t get involved with here. The material in both Dogmatics and Biblical Theology are profound in terms of the minutiae of material discussions from abstract, philosophical and theological concerns. It has been my contention that such discussions can be continued without referring to “spiritual death” as a “necessary” idea for exegesis or explanation of Gn 2-3. In this, I remain on solidly Reformed grounds.
For Sproul, who basically brings in Vos’ idea of of “folds” of death (this from Augustine, from Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenistic, Jewish Philosopher extraordinaire). It is not necessary, for “the wage of sin is death” – not “spiritual death is the cause of death” (as Vos has it as a “consequence”). Adam transgressed the command of God. The command of God carried with it a threat of capital punishment: a return to the dust, or “bodily death”. This, as stated in the law, is presented as a “consequence”, barring no unforeseen circumstances, or undue “mitigating” issues. We know in Moses’ law (who authored Genesis, too) that God’s law allowed for “mitigating circumstances” – as all proper law does. Yes, Adam did transgress. He could have by this received death “in the day” he sinned. However, God asks his wife what happened, too. From this, the Judge receives truthful information about this “serpent” who “deceived” Eve (not Adam); tricked her, got her to do something she thought was “good”, when instead, it was “evil.” That’s what “deception” is. We could plea, “I was entrapped”. God does not lower the boom on the Man and Woman, but when he speaks to the serpent, His words are quite forceful in delivery: “Because you did this!” Yes. Satan did “do this”. Remove him from the Garden scene, the law would not have been broken, for Eve was even prepared not to touch the fruit! Can’t eat it, if you don’t touch it, so best not to even touch it. Good thinking. Calvin agreed. Thus, God, due to the mitigating circumstances of Satan’s crafty scheme against a totally unsuspecting newly wedded couple (after all, God made this creature, too), does not kill Adam that day. He lets him live with the very same Spirit/Breath of Life with which (who) he was made. Far from Vos’ entirely invalid inference that the Holy Spirit “departed him” (nowhere presented in this text), Adam was shown mercy; the mercy of the court.
Yes, sin did enter in through the transgression of Adam (not Eve). And death entered through sin (Romans 5.12). We find that Adam’s two boys, Cain and Abel, encountered both of these powers, or principles. “Sin” is first mentioned in Genesis 4.7. Murder follows. Death. Abel dies before Adam does. O’ Adam, what have you done? Cain was not “spiritually dead” either. He sinned against God, who was having a discussion with him before the murder, and after. Far from it, God protects Cain from vengeance of his siblings! Doesn’t sound like an atheist to me. Sounds like a rebel. Sound like one who “fled from the presence of God” (4.16). With Abel, man is either submitted to God, and does what he requires, or man is not submitted to God, and often sins and rebels based on his own reasoning “from his heart”. If we sin, there is a forgiving God. If we go on sinning, not acknowledging God, and finally coming to the place of the dust without faith in God, we are ‘dead in sin.’ This is how God set it up in the beginning, taking in the full consequences of man’s sin, yet also providing a way for his redemption at the same time: faith in a God who forgives. When Jesus of Nazareth appears on the scene, God manifests his constant love for the world in him, the love that He had from the beginning. God didn’t start loving the world when Jesus was born! He has always loved the world, and always planned on redeeming the world from sinners and wickedness. By divine grace, God imposed death on mankind, the Great Equalizer from which there is no escape. At once, in all religions and philosophies, Death is the main topic. Turn on the news and you will see Death. Read the history books and there Death makes its stand. Turn to a religious book, whether it be Siddhartha, Q’ran, the Vedas, or Anton LaVey. Death is there. Yet, with the specter of Death facing all mankind, there is another voice: ‘Listen to Me! I can redeem you from Death!’ This season of Lent, when we contemplate the dust of the earth (Ash Wednesday) and the Resurrection of Life (Easter Sunday), we spend forty days (the number of repentance from dead works) so that we can arrive to the Promised Inheritance of a New Creation, a New Genesis that awaits the saints on earth and in heaven. No more Russia, or Ukraine. No more Iraq and NATO. No more Death, or Sin. Creation in its full array without taint of Death. Pure Utopia, with Christ as King, and all the Nations in Him as willing, glad, eager followers of every jot and tittle of his word in perfect, harmonious, free obedience without the slightest hint of doubt or resignation. Dear children….think on these things.