Schleiermacher’s objection to the Garden of Eden

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the protestant ‘father’ of modern theology in many ways, has argued famously that Adam and Eve could not possibly have been guilty of so great a sin as would justify God’s supposed punishment of Original Sin to their progeny and the fall of creation. Adam and Eve were, after all, only like children, and not aware of any consequences by reason of their experience. They did not have the ability to responsibly make a decision of that grandeur, and thus it would be unjust in the highest for God to make them responsible for all mankind in that way. They did not have ‘informed consent’ when they ate of the forbidden tree, and thus for them the act was rather trivial. If this is so, then God entrusted the fate of mankind to two children, and moreover found them blameworthy for a decision they could not have been morally culpable for. It would seem God’s experiment in the Garden was worse than flipping a coin, since at least he would not have thought to ‘blame’ the coin, or hold the coin to be morally responsible. (Of course, whether it is even logically possible for God to ‘flip-a-coin’ in such a way that he did not have such full knowledge of the conditions under which the ‘coin-flipped’ that he would already know which way it would land and thus have entirely determined it himself, is, it seems, highly suspect at best. It would require that random events, of the type that would constitute brute-facts and violations of the principle of sufficient reason, can occur, and this I think is simply unacceptable… but that’s all an aside.)

This objection was brought up recently at a conference I was helping to run at the University of Concordia, where a member of the audience asked our guest, the auxiliary Bishop of Montreal Tom Dowd, to speak to this difficulty. Later, as people were leaving, I made it a point to catch this gentleman and have a word or two with him. That conversation inspired me to write this short response.

First, did God have the right to entrust such a monumental decision to children, or to those who, by reason of their lack of experience, were the immature equivalent of children? Was it morally responsible of God? This whole question presumes a few things that I would like to call into question. The first is whether Adam and Eve did not understand how monumental their decision was, or have the means of understanding it. It seems to me that it is plausible to believe that they did in fact have sufficient understanding of the nature of their decision. First, because although they did not know the good from the bad as of yet, they knew God directly, and God “communioned” with them in the Garden (one of the reasons Christians refer to Christ as the Garden of Eden, since in him we commune with God who walks among us, and we are at peace). This ‘communion’ certainly has a noetic quality, and it is beyond doubt that Eve and Adam at least understood that their decision represented a rejection of that communion.

But, did Adam or Eve have any idea what the full ramifications would be for their decisions, or even have the ability to form any such idea? No, I take it they could not and did not have such an idea. Doesn’t this – it might be further objected – constitute a failure on God’s part to provide Adam and Eve the means to make a decision with informed consent? First of all, the idea that one needs informed consent in the sense of exhaustive knowledge of consequences before being properly disposed to make a moral choice is suspicious for a few reasons. First, it seems clear to me that none of us have that kind of consent in any of our moral decisions, each of which effect not only ourselves but everyone else as well, since there is no such thing as a moral decision which is reserved to an individual realm (at least, not on Catholic Theology and Anthropology). Second, it seems to me impossible for a finite mind to be conscious of all the effects that any given moral decision will have on the world, if only because there seems to be an infinite number of effects. Even if there were not an infinite number of effects, could a finite mind really hold them consciously and balance them all at once? There are good psychological reasons to think that this is not possible for human beings, as it is not possible for super-computers. In any case, since this clearly doesn’t occur, it means that if this objection were valid it would be valid not only in the case of Adam and Eve, but valid in every single instance of human beings making moral decisions, each of which have grave (indeed, eternal) consequences. None of us have informed consent in this sense, and each of us has enough understanding to be morally responsible for our sins.

The argument I would make in response, then, is this: that Adam and Eve needed not exhaustive informed-consent, but sufficient informed-consent. Well, was there sufficient informed-consent? I think so. Adam and Eve, being un-fallen, grasped in their sin something which fallen man is at pains to grasp properly: that this momentous act represented the only possible way to reject God’s loving communion with them. They understood perfectly well by experience what it was they were rejecting in eating the fruit. They may not have understood cognitively the sum of effects this would bring about, but they understood in the deepest sense exactly what the act constituted for their relation to God. It must be remembered that Adam and Eve lived not only with something ‘like’ the beatific vision, but that they did not suffer from the noetic effects of the fall, which we certainly do.

What objections can be further raised? Well, somebody could say that this response represents only one possible interpretation of the central myth of fallen man. That, in other words, there are other ways of reading Genesis. To respond like this, however, would be simply to miss the point. The apologist here has no responsibility to prove (and indeed, it seems absurd to think an apologist even could prove) that their suggested way of reading Genesis is the only way which is possible. The apologist need not even prove conclusively, then, that  Adam and Eve had sufficient informed-consent, but only that it is plausible that they did (or actually, it would be satisfactory to show that it was possible that they did). In other words, if one is unconvinced by the response I have suggested, then I submit it must be because they have not accepted to read this narrative as it fits within a broader Catholic or Christian theology, by the analogy of faith. However, that doesn’t in any way provide grounds to object theologically to the Catholic or Christian theology. Indeed, to suggest that there are ways of reading the Bible which do not fit with Catholic readings of the Bible cannot in any way be turned into an argument against reading the Bible in a Catholic way.

In conclusion then, exhaustive informed-consent cannot reasonably be thought to be a constraint on moral decision making, both by reason of the fact that we experience ourselves to make moral decisions all the time without exhaustive informed-consent, and because it isn’t clear that exhaustive informed-consent is even possible for finite minds. Even if it were logically possible for finite minds to realize exhaustive informed-consent, I don’t think that would morally require God to ensure that Adam and Eve have exhaustive informed-consent. I argue, instead, that Adam and Eve must have simply had sufficient informed-consent. This they had by reason of their knowledge of communion with God, and their understanding that the sin of eating the forbidden fruit represented the only way of rejecting that communion. They did not have nor need a knowledge of all of the effects their decision would incur in order to act as morally responsible and culpable agents. God was not morally obliged to provide Adam and Eve anything more than he did provide them, and Adam and Eve’s decision was, far from trivial, understood by both of them to be momentous beyond their full understanding.

Finally, since the tone of the question deserves the reply: we are all children in God’s eyes.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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4 Responses to Schleiermacher’s objection to the Garden of Eden

  1. unklee says:


    I just wanted to compliment you on your comment on another person’s blog that I came across today. You were very gentle and respectful, and I learnt from it. (I am usually courteous, but not as gentle as you, and your example is helpful to me.)

    I didn’t know any other way to tell you than by posting here – hope that’s OK. best wishes.

  2. No problem. I’m glad that I my comment, whatever it was, was helpful to you, and I thank you for your kind words. I invite you to peruse the blog and add further comments in the future.

  3. Seraphim says:

    One issue I have always struggled with is the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin being passed on to following generations. Couldn’t God have done things in such a way that each new human that comes into existence has the same opportunity to accept or reject God that our first parents did?

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