We shall make an end to-day of our last text in the third chapter of Genesis, the thirteenth verse.
Two questions there were; first, what this serpent was indeed; and secondly, what Eve supposed him to be.
I told you of resemblances that were no true stories; I made good this story to be no feigned resemblance.
For first, it was a serpent here that could speak, and hold conference with Eve a good while together; and then it was a serpent that could dispute and give her divers reasons, such as they were, against the precept that God had given her before.
Which makes it clear that it would be none of thee natural and brute serpent, this, as Julian the apostate said it was, who would needs take it for no other, and thereupon both rejected this story and blasphemed all the Holy Scriptures besides, that depend upon it. But, as St. Cyril, that was in his time the Patriarch of Alexandria, told him, there was never any man before him so unreasonable as to think or say it was the unreasonable serpent itself; for could that creature, that had no language at all, confer with Eve in her own language, as this serpent did? Or from whence should he take knowledge what commandment God had laid upon her, as this serpent likewise did, before she had told him of it? Never let Julian, never let any of his disciples, trouble [236/237] themselves about the brute serpent; Moses here meant another; and for some other person, that had assumed upon him that shape only, did Eve take him.
She took him to be, as he was, one of those spirits that had been in heaven; and though now fallen down from his first station, yet having once been there, was likely enough to know more than she did, which tempted her to her curiosity, and that curiosity undid her.
For the better understanding whereof; we are to reflect here (1.) upon the form wherein he appeared;
(2.) Then upon himself;
(3.) And next upon the woman, who says now she was beguiled by him. Three heads whereof this sermon will be made.
But before we begin to preach, I am to invite you all to pray, as for God's grace and blessing upon us now, so that now and always ye would make your daily supplications and prayers for the good estate of Christ's Catholic Church, and for the peace and welfare of all Christian kings and princes.
More especially for the distressed estate &c.
Pater Noster, &c.
That we may apprehend this Scripture right, we are to reflect first, upon the formal wherein this seducing spirit was permitted to appear. And somewhat we began to say of it before; now we go on.
It is said here at the beginning of this chapter, that the serpent was subtle, the subtlest of all the other beasts of the field which God hath made. And this we will suppose that both the evil spirit knew, who therefore meant to make his use of it; and that Eve knew it besides, who for that very reason was taken with a high opinion of this spirit's wisdom, and conceived him to be no other than a very subtle and sagacious spirit at least, that had gotten that form of a subtle and a wise serpent upon him, above all others making choice of that.
Then this likewise we must suppose, that in his own proper likeness he could not any way either confer with her, [237/238] or appear to her at all; for then there had been no proportion between them, without which there is not any intercourse of action or passion in any thing. A general and ex-perienced law that, which God hath ordained to all things; and therefore things invisible and removed from our senses, must be one way or other made to be sensible to us, before we can have any conversing with them. Which is so true, that all the Scripture over, we shall not find any of these created spirits, whether good or bad, appearing and present-ing themselves to men, but in some bodily figure or other. Therefore the woman at Endor, when Saul came to her and desired her to let him have a sight of the devil, that he might the better confer with him, though she had leave to fetch him up, yet in his own likeness to do it, it was beyond her skill and her permission both. For this is one of the devil's chains, whereof St. Jude speaks when he says the devil and his angels are bound up and reserved in everlasting chains of darkness, there to remain unto the judgment of time great day, and never to appear in their own likeness till then; and then they shall see him soon enough that have been so desirous to see him before; but as yet he shall never be seen as he is, nor lie, nor any spirit of them all. And it is no way improbable to say, that Eve here knew as much.
Thirdly, this she might well know besides; that as they came not in their own likeness, so the likeness they came in was less or more a resemblance of their own condition, and a token of what nature and quality they had in them. In which respect we shall never read again, unless it be in a legend, that God ever suffered a good and a bad spirit, a noble and an ignoble one, to appear and come to men after one and the same manner; but good Angels always in the likeness of men, and in that likeness wherein man was at first created, without any deformities of sin or age upon him, when he was yet in a state of perfection and beauty, the better to express the state and condition that those glorious Angels now have; bad angels either appearing in no human figure at all, or else with those marks of malice and impurity upon them, as might best also express their own malicious property and condition with it. Indeed it is no great wonder now, if since the fall of man, this seducing spirit comes other- [238/239] whiles to them that will entertain him, in the likeness of seducing and wicked men, in a human shape now; but before the fall there was no such permission given him, for because fallen into the state of imperfection and wickedness himself, which as yet man was not, the state of man's perfection and integrity was not yet for him. Afterwards it might well be, for one falling star may well enough resemble another; but he being withal a subtle and a wily spirit, there was nothing more agreeable for him to assume now, nor, as we see it proved too, more likely to win the woman's great opinion of his wisdom, and to take her in his snare, than to take this shape of the subtle and wily serpent, which he knew that she also knew to be then the wisest and the subtlest creature of the field. Since the curse that went here upon the devil and him together, the case may be altered, but then it was so.
All which put together, renders this text to be somewhat the cleaner, and not altogether so improbable even to very natural reason and sense itself as some men, that never yet sat down to weigh and consider it well, have imagined it to be.
But if we add the sense that all the other Scriptures have given it, as we have great reason, and the greatest of the world to believe what they say in all things, so we shall have the greatest authority of the world that can be given us for this particular.
The authority of the Prophets, and Apostles, and of Christ Himself, who whenever they have occasion to speak of the first coming in of sin and death into the world, they reflect all upon this story; and from the form and figure of a serpent, that the devil was permitted to take upon him here at the beginning, they gave him his name and express his nature by it ever after. I need not trouble you with many
places. St. Paul, where he tells us of the serpent that beguiled Eve, he calls that serpent the devil, and says he is afraid of him still, lest he should by his under-agents be as busy with any of us, as he was with her, and get away from us either the truth of our religion or the sincerity of our life.
And hence it is, that as sin is called the poison of serpents, in the Psalms; so they that are poisoned with it are called a generation of serpents, in the Gospel; and he that poisons [239/240] them, a piercing and a biting serpent, in the Prophets; a scorpion and a stinging serpent, a dragon and the old serpent, in St. John. And so we have done with his form, that here he assumed, or was permitted to assume upon himself.
II. The next point is, what Eve took him to be, and the excellency of that wit and sagacity that she conceived to be in him; for both by his appearing to her, first in this manner as he did, and that by telling her such strange news out of heaven, as well concerning God there, from Whose presence he was lately departed, therefore knew His mind better than she did, as concerning herself here, whom out of his special care and regard towards her, as he made her believe, he was now come to save and preserve for ever; such an opinion he had by this time bred in her that she took him to be no less than a spirit of some extraordinary wisdom and knowledge at the least; likely enough to help her to more skill and to bring her into a better estate than God had formerly provided for her. But this undid her, when she laid aside God's own word and listened after another.
It undoes all the world, this; and has been, as it was here at first, this conceited opinion of getting more help by others than we are ever like to do by God Himself, the greatest cause of the greatest mischief and errors in the world.
For from hence carne in all the old idolatry and corruptions of the world, when having man's persons in admiration, as St. Jude speaks, because of some advantage that they looked for from them, they served them better and trusted them more, both alive and dead, than they did the God of heaven and earth, Whom they knew all had made them all to another purpose. But advantage and interest, wherein they were deceived too as well as Eve was here, carried it them, and so does it still.
Else, how comes the new-founded idolatry to be exalted and continued in the world so much as it is? nisi quia inde acquisito nobis, as Demetrius and the craftsmen said of that spirit which they called their Diana, but that they promise themselves more by it, more indulgence for his life and more security for the next than ever they can hope to receive at God's hands, if they should keep themselves so precisely to his express word which he hath enjoined them?
[240/241] The devil told Eve that it might be all that God said was not true, and she believed him; they do little less that say more is true than God ever revealed to us, and credit a lying spirit that speaks traditions and revelations to them of their own making, more than they do all that Moses and the Prophets have said besides.
This made St. Paul to say that the mystery of iniquity began thus to work even in his time; and he meant no other mystery but the bringing in of new devices in religion, and giving ear to seducing spirits, which he calls there the doctrines of devils, reflecting upon this story where the devil preached to Eve another manner of doctrine than God had ever taught her. But such doctrines never come alone; the Apostle says they used to bring a train after them, and so they do, the train of all manner of sins and iniquities, wher-ever they are; which was the fruit that it brought forth here, besides all other mischiefs and miseries of the world that followed it after; as such miseries, unless it be in most places better heeded and better restrained than we see yet it is, are like to follow it still.
I will say no more in this point, but that we ought so heedfully to admit and entertain a tempter, when at any time those evil spirits come to us to corrupt either our life or religion, as that God's eternal word and commandment be ever in our eye; without which fixed pole-star to guide us, we shall be carried we know not whither; but Eve was carried here to her ruin.
And so I come to the third point, and the last; that this tempter, this serpentine devil, beguiled her.
III. There is a guile in every sin of the world: I shall show you both what it is, and what it was here; for guile is nothing else but a piece of the devil's sophistry to deceive us with a false syllogism, the premises whereof being both counterfeit, needs must the conclusion be altogether errone-ous. It argues for a seeming good, and ends in a real evil; pretending to pleasure us, it either bereaves us of that good we hoped for, or brings upon us that evil which we never expected. Such a deceit there is, and such another practical syllogism do we all make, in every sin we commit. For as the root is, so are the branches; and from this root and [241/242] practice here at the beginning came the offspring of sin ever since.
There are in every action and so in every sin, two things whereof it consists; the choice of our end, and the means to attain that end. If either of these be wrong, there is a sin committed; and in both of them is this practical sophistry to be seen, which the schools call a fallacy, and we the deceit or guile of sin.
These two they are, either when an evil end is presented to us in the counterfeit of a good, and so we find ourselves deceived in the event; or else when we use such means as be neither lawful nor sufficient to attain our end, and so we find ourselves deceived in the premises; being both so masked and covered over with a seeming advantage, that they appear to us in a likeness far otherwise than they are.
And with both these sorts of guile was she here deceived. So are we all.
I. First, in the end, by making it seem a thing desirable and above all other ends to aim at, this, that she might have her own will, and do what she list; for then she should be like unto God himself, and be an independent; no power in heaven and earth should control her, a bait laid to take her and gilded ever with Eritis sicut dii, which seems to be one of the most desirable things of the world. This deceived her first.
Then in the means, next, by persuading her that if the end b good and desirable, as it did but seem to be neither, she might then take her liberty again, and make use of any means whatsoever to compass it; though it were the breach of God's severe commandment to the contrary, not to stand upon it, or regard ever a precept of them all, but to venture, and put him to it whether that which he had said were true or no, or the danger so great as he had made it. For either it was not so certain as it might seem to be, or else that iniquity which might he in the action would be counter--vailed abundantly, both with the end and advantage that should be gotten by it, for she should be made what she would, and with the content and delight that she should find in it besides, for it was a pleasant thing to look upon, and some contentment there is to do that which we are forbidden, for then we have our will, and there is no lord over us for the while.
[242/243] This being then the devil's method to tempt us to sin, in this his first act we may behold, as in a glass, the art that he still uses to corrupt the world, and to bring it to utter destruction, All his method is nothing else but guile, he presents all things fair and pleasant to the view; and if there be any evil in them, that he hides with his mantle, and suffers not any sin to appear before us in its own ugly and deformed shape that it has of itself, for so every one would fly from it, but presents works of vice and darkness as objects of beauty and delight; and when he plots our ruin and ever-lasting undoing, he bears us in hand that all aims at our contentment and felicity.
It behoves us to be jealous and suspicious of him, though we see him not all our life long. For he will neither let us see him, nor our sins, in their own likeness, as they are, no more now than he did here at first.
In all which that the disguise may be pulled off, and the guile that lies under it be seen the better, let us consider and look upon them both again.
The end, first, Eritis sicut dii, you shall do what you will and depend upon nobody for your actions; the height and glory of which end so strongly possessed her aspiring fancy that the means to attain that end, whether it were good or bad, she little regarded, but that end must now be only prosecuted and had. And as one that always looks upward in his walk, and sees not the danger that lies in the path wherein he goes, till he falls into a pit, so was it here; nothing regarded but the state and glory of what was pro-posed, in what condition she should be then. Eritis sicut dii, was the state, and morte moriemini was the pit.
Ero similis Altissimo, says the devil; the great leviathan himself bit at that bait and was taken with it. So are the lesser creatures after him; Capitur, sed capit; it deceives them, it undoes them all that meddle with it. And this by his own experience he knew well enough, that had tried it and found it to be so already.
This sets him at work for others; and he gets men to pro-pose ends to themselves of being at more liberty and great-ness than they are, that which they are out of God's ordering they may fall into his and come into the disorder and ruin [243/244] which he fell into himself. For the truth is, there are no such disorderly, no such miserable persons in the world, nor nearer akin to the devil, thou those are that suffer them-selves to be cheated by him, as she here did; out of God's awe and service, which is perfect freedom, to take his, the devil's livery of liberty and independency upon them, which is perfect slavery, a perpetual servitude both to his lusts and their own.
Which made Luther to wish, and truly not much amiss, as he was once preaching upon this text, and considering the mischiefs that this desire and practice of liberty had brought into the world, Si mihi nunc optio daretur, 'If I might have my mind,' nollem mihi dari, nollem ullis uspiam hominibus dari hanc arbitrii libertatem, 'I would neither have any freedom of my will myself; and I would that neither Eve nor any of her posterity had ever had it.' For he saw such ill use made of it by all manner of persons, both in matters of religion and in the affairs of the world, that he judged them only the happiest who lead least to do with it. And this made him write his book De servo arbitrio; not that men had no free-will at all, but that he knew not how to use it to a right end, without suffering the devil to abuse it, and divert it to a wrong; for God He had bounded it with a law, and liberty will be lawless, will have no bounds to keep it in, nor inclosures to limit it.
It is a ranging and an inconsiderate will that most men have, of a temper so strangely miswrought by this first corruption, that every one must do now what is right in his own eyes, or else there shall be neither any king in Israel nor any God upon the earth. Eritis sicut dii will not yet be got out of them, till morte morieris comes; but then it will be found what conference they have had with this wicked spirit, and that the serpent it was, whoever they are, that beguiled them all.
This is the lawless end and purpose that was here aimed at, wherein the first part of the devil's guile appeared; for it was no true desirable end at all, it was the ground of all pride and disorder, and she persisted in it besides.
2. But then secondly, say the end had been allowable and [244/245] the event good, yet if the means to attain that end be not good and allowable besides, there is another guile committed; and so it was here. Where the devil persuades her that to compass her end she might do any thing, make bold with God's severe commandment, and all; and seeing there was no other means left to do it, to venture upon that.
Wherein the fallacy lies, either in that false rule that some evil may be done in case of assurance, or hope, that some good shall come of it; or in that groundless suggestion that men are made to be more afraid of God's commandments than they need to be, and that the danger of transgressing them is not so great nor so perilous as the world is borne in hand withal it is.
Two cases here first brought and suggested by the devil, whereof the world, this flesh and blood of Eve to which they are both plausible, and that would fain have it so, hath made but an ill use ever since; for they do but deceive and beguile themselves in them both.
I ask, first, what evil may not this produce; if any evil may be done or permitted, that any good may come of it, as she here thought there would? Extend it further to any case. It is not lawful in any act of our life, not lawful in religion itself to do any evil act whatsoever, either to maintain the one or to preserve the other, not to preserve the world itself. For all the world is not worth one sin; and it is no paradox to say it. For sin takes life, the life of man and the life of religion, and all, the soul of them both; and what would not a man give for his life? not only skin for skin, and all that he has, but all the world besides if he had it, all should go, which, if it were worth more he would not then so easily part withal. But for matters of life, first, they that do any evil to maintain it, if they come to lose it by that evil, it is but an evil bargain they make for it; though they say it is to keep themselves from starving, yet if it be the for-bidden fruit, under which term all manner of sin was here presented, there must be no meddling with it.
For was it lawful for them in the wilderness to run back again into the bondage of Egypt that they might keep them- selves from starving? It was one of the devil's suggestions that, and St. Paul wishes us to take notice what success it [245/246] had, when God grew so angry with them for it, that in the same wilderness He destroyed them all.
Then for matters of religion, to preserve that, or for the avoiding of a greater evil, to prevent that. Was it lawful for Aaron to take the peoples ear-rings, and to allow them a fond idolatrous religion of their neighbours, that he might keep them in some order, and save himself from stoning? It is the same case with them at this day, or very near it, that say for their excuse; they must of necessity give way to the madness of their people, and permit them somewhat to busy themselves withal, or else there would be no religion at all, nor no living among them. Which 'somewhat,' if we instance but in two cases, that of images, which was Aaron's case, in setting them up to be openly adored; that of prostitutions, which was Lot's case, in setting those houses open, to be publicly and allow-ably frequented: which they say they do to keep up the people's devotion by the one, and to avoid a worse mischief by the other, both these. There is never a person of religion and judgment among them, but they know well enough there is an open breach o£ God's indispensable commandments in them both; which is more than Aaron or Lot did, having no other argument to excuse it but what the serpent here be-guiled Eve withal; that the danger in these matters is not so great, nor the venturing upon a transgression in this kind so evil, but that it may be licensed and allowed well enough to procure a greater good; though the truth be, that in all ages there has nothing more procured the wrath of God to come down upon the children of disobedience, which is the Apostle's own expression, than these two sins of spiritual and carnal luxury; excuse them, they that do so, as long as they will, the Prophets said ever that the rest of the world suffers for them. But when the master of the politics shall come in with his rapine and spoil, his treachery and his murder, even of them that are never so innocent, of kings and princes, and all, if they stand in his way, as the Florentine secretary', and somebody else does, from whom they had it all that have lately put all this in practice; and when all this, as evil as it is, begins to he made an allowable and a needful means for the procuring of that end which they call the general good of a [246/247] state, for my part I am apt to believe that since this beguiler here hath so generally corrupted the world, the world that began here and is now grown so old with sin, will shortly be at an end.
And then what manner of persons ought we to be, in the actions of our life and religion both? to be wary of any evil that may assail either, and to practise that only which we shall be sure will be pleasing to God in them both; for evil men and seducers, saith St. Paul, shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.
I could go on to other instances, but by these you may take the measure of many a number more, wherein this deceiver makes the world believe that they shall never be called to an account for their sins. It is either he, or, as St. James says of them that go to hear sermons and are never the better for them; it is themselves beguiling their own souls with it, which is the worst deceit of all. But whether it be he, or they, or both, as indeed both it is, here is a judge Who, as He came to enquire of this woman here about it at first, so will He do ere long of all her posterity after her; which neither one excuse nor other will serve the turn, but judgement will follow upon them that follow this serpent and his seducers, a doom to misery and pain, whereof this that was first given upon all the three transgressors here in the next verses, was but an earnest and a type of what should come hereafter;- but upon them that have gotten their heels out of his snares, and break their peace with one God and Christ, blessed for ever, Who came into the world to deliver us from these snares, and to break the serpent's head in pieces,--to them a doom of everlasting joy and happiness, whereof this paradise here before was an earnest, and that in His eternal kingdom of glory, whereunto God of His mercy bring us all to Whom belongeth all holiness, honour, and power, now and for evermore. Amen.