There’s a common misnomer applied to Adam and Eve regarding their pre-Fall nature, and you’ve probably heard it before. The statement is that before the Fall, Adam and Eve were “perfect”. Now, before you sharpen your heretic-probing pitchforks I’m not stating that Adam and Eve were created sinful or anything other than “good” (as God Himself proclaimed). What I am saying is that by their very nature of being created in a state of innocence they weren’t perfect. Here are two reasons why Adam and Eve were never perfect.
Posse Peccare, Posse Non Peccare
Those two Latin phrases (able to sin, able not to sin) (1), were the designations that Augustine used to explain the state of Adam and Eve during their probation in the Garden. He also stated that after the Fall Adam and his posterity became “Non Posse Non Peccare” (not able to not sin, or only able to sin) (2) and that those who are born again are “Posse Non Peccare” (able to not sin) (3), and when they enter into glory become “Non Posse Peccare” (Not able/not possible to sin) (4).
Each of these statements contains deep theological avenues that could be discussed in hundreds of blog posts and even then the surface would only have been scratched. But the point I’m making here is that the four distinguishable states of man show that human nature is, by design, capable of change and something changeable is, by nature, imperfect.
This can be illustrated through Gregory Nazianzen’s argument about the eternal Divinity of the Son. In his Third Theological Oration (Oration 29) Gregory states the following about the Divine superlatives, “…all which are clearly spoken of the Son, with all the other passages of the same force, none of which is an afterthought, or added later to the Son or the Spirit, any more than to the Father Himself. For Their Perfection is not affected by additions” (Emphasis added) (5).
God is perfect because there is no need for any change in His Being, Essence, attributes, decrees, or Persons because God and His perfections are one (Mal 3:6, Num 23:19, Psalm 102:25-27, 1 Sam 15:29, Rev 22:13 and so on). If God’s nature was able to change via addition, subtraction, infusion or otherwise, it would be an imperfect nature. Change, for better or worse, proves imperfections in the object changed.
While Gregory was speaking about the Son’s preexistence and what it means that Christ is the image of the unseen God (6), his teachings regarding perfection can be applied, albeit negatively, to the human nature. We changed for the worse in Adam’s failure (1 Cor 15:22), and then require another ontological change to be made right with God (John 3:3). Even if Adam had perfectly followed God’s command he still would have undergone a change. He would have been made unable to sin and would’ve continued in that state to this day. To be human is to change. To be God is to be God (Ex 3:14). He’s perfect, Adam and Eve were not, and this is evident due to their natural ability to change.
Creator, Creature, and Covenant
To further show that Adam and Eve weren’t perfect we’re going to look at some good old covenant theology. When Adam was in the Garden he entered into a covenant with God. Genesis 2:15-17 tells us that “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (ESV).
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains how this relates to Adam and Eve’s imperfection, “The distance between God and the creature is so great that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of Covenant” (7). Adam and Eve needed a revelation from God as to their purpose in the world, which was to tend and exert dominion over it (Gen 1:16-17). And God had to impart knowledge of His moral character through giving the Law regarding their probation. These revelations from God shows us the Creator-creature distinction. We need the Lord to sustain us in every way, we are totally dependent on Him. The Covenant of Works was divinely revealed and showed the possible outcomes for Adam and his descendants, death or life.
That alone reiterates the point about Adam’s ability to change based on his obedience to the covenant, but it also shows us something more. It shows us that Adam is God’s inferior even while he was sinless. A key aspect of covenant theology is that the covenants mirror the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of a suzerain treaty. These treaties had two parties, one greater and one lesser. The greater would pledge conditional rewards to the lesser if they kept the promises of the covenant (9). Since God initiated the Covenant of Works and determined the rewards of faithfulness or breach, He is clearly the Greater in the covenant relationship.
Perfection is found in God alone (Rom 11:33-36) and He depends on nothing outside of Himself (1 Tim 6:16). If Adam and Eve were perfect, they would have had to be self-existent or self-sustaining. Since Adam was not an equal party to God in the Covenant of Works we must conclude that while Adam and Eve were innocent and without sin pre-Fall, they were not perfect as God is perfect. God had to condescend and sovereignly administer the Covenant of Works to Adam because Adam would have no idea of what God required of him otherwise. (Romans 7:7-9). And, as Thomas Boston put it, “A creature, as a creature, must acknowledge the Creator’s will as its supreme law; for as it cannot exist without him, so it must not be but for him, and according to his will; yet no law obliges, until it is revealed” (10).
Adam and Eve were never perfect, but they were created sinless. This isn’t a semantic issue. If we claim that Adam and Eve were perfect, we commit a double offense. First, we elevate man to a position that will never be ours. Only Christ can say “…Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Second, we lower God and undermine His absolute uniqueness and authority.
Adam and Eve were created sinless, not perfect. But, because of Adam’s failure to keep God’s Law, we’re born sinful and need the God-man to redeem us. We rely on God for everything regarding our life and salvation. Our very nature makes us dependent on the One True God. And honestly, there’s no better place to be.
1 – “When, sunk in the darkest depths of ignorance, man lives according to the flesh undisturbed by any struggle of reason or conscience, this is his first state.” – 118. The Four Stages of the Christian’s Life, and the Four Corresponding Stages of the Church’s History.
2 – “Afterwards, when through the law has come the knowledge of sin, and the Spirit of God has not yet interposed His aid, man, striving to live according to the law, is thwarted in his efforts and falls into conscious sin, and so, being overcome of sin, becomes its slave” – Ibid
3 – “This is the third state of a man of good hope; and he who by steadfast piety advances in this course, shall attain at last to peace, that peace which, after this life is over, shall be perfected in the repose of the spirit, and finally in the resurrection of the body.” – Ibid
4 – “Then again, as for what he says, “For I have kept His ways, and have not turned aside from His commandments, nor will I depart from them;” Job 23:11-12 he has kept God’s ways who does not so turn aside as to forsake them, but makes progress by running his course therein; although, weak as he is, he sometimes stumbles or falls, onward, however, he still goes, sinning less and less until he reaches the perfect state in which he will sin no more.” On Perfection and Righteousness Chapter 11.27
5 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29.17
6 – Thomas, Gabrielle. The Image of God in the Theology of Gregory of Nazianzus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 42-43
7 – The Westminster Confession of Faith 1646, 7.1
8 – Ibid 7.2
9 – Hobbs, T. Raymond. Reflections on Honor, Shame, and Covenant Relations. Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (1997): 501–3.
10 – Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State, 6