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Creation Account: Literal or Allegorical

May 14, 2010

May 14, 1798


Mr. Pratt—


It ascertains the Nature and Manner of Man’s fall and recovery. Any other sense would give us uncertain ideas of either. Any other sense would unsettle the mind in interpreting other scriptures. The Historical sense lays the first link of a grand chain of Prophecy.


It is conformable to the simplicity of the historical writings of Moses. It is incredible that Moses should introduce his history with a fiction calculated to puzzle. No historian ever began his history with an incredible fable without apprising the readers of it.

The allegorical sense is not consistent throughout. In fables, every actor aptly represents some natural object. Apply this rule to the account of the fall, and it will bring us to a stand.


1st Objection.—Man came perfect out of God’s hands. He wanted not an admonisher at his elbow. A law was implanted in his very nature directing him to his chief good. It is not credible that man should be left destitute of powers proper to preserve that perfection of nature in which he was created. Yet, in this narration, there is no trance of any natural law, nor of religion which reason could teach. Reason and nature appear to have had no rule in the paradisal state: all things were ordered therein miraculously and supernaturally— therefore this cannot be, they say, a history of real transaction.

That man was created with such a law and religion is taken for granted. That such a law and religion are natural to man is also taken for granted.

The objection is a strong argument against the existence of natural law and religion. Suppose Adam a learner through his senses, then this history is all consistent. Things are ordered just as we might expect them to be. Man’s perfection did not consist of a moral law, which would remove freedom of action. His natural powers, his senses, all acted necessarily and constantly; so his appetites. No other power was natural to his soul than that of taking in ideas through the senses. The soul cannot do this of itself, nor the senses for it. Therefore, God taught Adam.

Every thing was miraculous in Paradise, or Adam would have learnt no law nor religion. The Hutchinsonians enter at large into the character of Eden, as a school. We may admit the principle, without following all their deductions.

2d Objection. —The discourse of a serpent tempting and beguiling Adam and Even is inconsistent, it is said, with history. It is impossible, if taken literally; the introduction of the devil under the form of a serpent embarrasses the case still more: the text ascribes the success of the serpent to the natural subtlety of the animal; and it is contrary to our notions of God’s goodness to imagine that he would expose our unarmed and uninstructed parents to the insidious wiles of a tempter so greatly their superior in craft and power, without interposing in so unequal a conflict.

Some reply—

1.         As to serpent—

Moses relates to facts without comment or explanation. He makes the serpent the seducer, and says nothing of the latent cause.

Thus the Jews think it was really the serpent, but the devil under that name. But if so, why is he called the most subtle beast of the field? The punishment inflicted on the serpent, leaves no doubt that the serpent’s body was employed.

The common opinion is, that the devil used the serpent’s body, as the most fit instrument of his fraud. And the allusions in other passages of Scripture confirm this. Thus Rev. xii. 9; xx. 2. That old serpent, the devil. He (the devil) was a murderer from the beginning. Also Wisd. ii. 24. “By the envy of the devil, death came into the world.”

Milton supposes the serpent to pretend that he had acquired the power of speech by eating the fruit; and to argue, that if it was capable of producing such a change in him, how much more might be expected by Eve. Compare 2 Cor. xi. 3. As the serpent beguiled Eve though his subtlety.

The serpent was chose by the devil because it was mild, gentle, and perhaps specifically familiar with Adam and Eve. Probably it was a beautiful creature, and Eve thought it a superior being. Mede thinks Eve took the serpent for a wise, though fallen, angel. Bishop Burnet and Archbishop Tenison think she took it for an angel sent to provoke their decree.

Bate[i] replies that it is not necessary from the text to believe that a real serpent was concerned. The serpent is mentioned, in order to convey the idioms which its nature was better capable of conveying than any other creature.

The serpent was subtle, or rather, naked, i.e. unarmed, sly, and treacherous. It seems harmless, but is in reality poisonous. It glides along the ground, and so appears to have no meanings of attacking; but it really bites and wounds the heel.

2.         As to the alleged inconsistency with the Divine attribution— Adam and Eve were not unarmed nor uninstructed, as has been laminated. They were informed of their duty. The prohibition was positive; no power nor force was used. It was a fair trial and probation of obedience.

3d Objection.— The curse denounced against the deceiver must be restricted to a mere serpent, and must have been pronounced exclusively of all other agents, or could not possibly be just.

Some reply, that God might hereby not intend indignation against the serpent; but design to make him a monument of man’s fall and God’s displeasure against sin. This was not unjust, as inflicted upon the instrument of an enormous crime, and when in itself no actual misfortune to the serpent.

Bate replies, that this sentence is also descriptive of spiritual things in words applicable to both visible and invisible objects. The chief sense of the words, is to describe to us the devil— his employment— his delight— his manner of proceeding— his food and his punishment. If the nature of the common serpent were not such as it is, the sentence on the original serpent would be unintelligible to us. And if the devil is answered not to the sly and treacherous character of the common serpent, the sentence would be unjust.

See Ancient Universal History, 8vo edit. 1747, vol. i., 122-132. Doddridge’s Lectures, prop. exix., sec. 2, 3. Theol. Tracts, vol. vi., particularly Middleton against Sherlock, and Bate against Middledton.


The Rev. J. Newton—

There are three or four passages in the Old Testament which unbelievers are continually nibbling at. One is about Balaam’s ass speaking, and another Jonah’s whale. Now Christ confirms one, and St. Peter the other. God seems to have permitted this to exercise our faith.

God, if I may say, could not make an independent creature. He only has immutability— and this is not to be communicated to a creature.


The Rev. B. Woodd—

There is no end if we adopt the allegorical interpretation. The Swedenborgians allegorize every part of Genesis.


The Rev. John Venn—

If you would describe A FACT, it would not be possible to do it in more simple terms than those of Moses. When anything is written allegorically, the style rises with a sort of inflation. As to its being miraculous, everything was miraculous. The whole is not to be judged of by our usual ideas of what passes in life. A full answer to the second objection is, that it was a miraculous age. It seems likely that some change took place in the serpent. The sentence in part applying to the devil, and in part to the serpent, rests on the general ground of imputation. This always exercised the objections of infidels. But it runs through Scripture; e.g., the curse on Ham’s posterity. We are not perfectly competent to explain God’s method of acting. We find in Scripture a double sense given to prophecy.


The Rev. R. Cecil—

Such a question as this should be previously considered— this I have not done. But I remember a result from a former examination; it was this— Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further. It is something like the man with his hand under his cloak— “What have you under your cloak?” “I carry it there that you may not know.”

A man, in opening such a book as the Bible, has no chance of finding out anything without humility. God speaks with majesty. He asks not, “What think you of my creation?” The sober man would say— “I expect everything to be wonderful in such an account.”

There is much at the bottom of these objections which unbelievers bring forward. They strike at the root of the great doctrines of Sin and Regeneration. It has been objected, that there is the face of futility on this account. How can we conceive such a perfect Being to introduce imperfection into his own work? God meant to bring glory to himself from the whole scheme. There is great impertinence and pride in the men who toss about this account. But the poison of some scorpions is said to be the antidote to their bite. So these men are an antidote to themselves.

Who can draw the line between the allegorical and historical? Cain’s history is a true history— and it all goes on in a continuous thread of connexion with the history of the Fall. If you take away the literal sense, it is reduced to every man’s sense.

To answer these objections is much too grave a business. A sober man has something else to do than to give an answer to all the objections that ingenious men can bring forward. “Here are our documents” we say. No arguments can be brought against them resting on such a foundation! But a fool may ask more questions than a wise man can answer.


Mr. Bacon—

Though I may have made many mistakes in taking things too literally, I find, after all, that I have got from the whole the same important truths.


The Rev. Thomas Scott—

It is unphilosophical to suppose a Revelation in all things leveled to our capacity. The devil used the organs of the serpent as afterwards he used the organs of the demoniacs. No man knows how God taught Adam. But are no sin and misery in the world? Who can give a better account of their introduction? Where are we to stop, if we begin to allegorise? Some have allegorised even the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.


This is an excerpt taken from The Thought of the Evangelical Leaders, Banner of Truth Trust, Pennsylvania, 1978, pp.47-50. These are the notes edited by Josiah Pratt from the meeting of the Eclectic Society, London, May 14, 1798. 

[i] Junius Bate was an English divine of the Hutchinsonian school, of the founder of which he was an intimate friend to the day of the death of that remarkable man. One of Bate’s various publications was “An Essay towards Explaining the Third Chapter of Genesis.” Another was entitled, “The Use and Intent of Prophecy, and the history of the Fall Cleared.” This latter was occasioned by Dr. Conyers’ Middleton’s examination of Bishop Sherlock’s “Discourse on Prophecy,” published 1725.


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