What of the Garden of Eden itself? What was it and why does the Genesis account place the first human in paradise rather than on a normal part of the earth?
The Thread of the Argument
A1: Was the Garden of Eden really a physical place with a geographical location that we could visit today? Perhaps the Genesis account should be interpreted purely spiritually so that we think of it purely in terms of the perfect state of existence of the first human beings. St Augustine identified these two alternatives as common opinions of his day and a third intermediate position in which a spiritual reality was founded upon a physical reality. This last position was the one that he held and St. Thomas follows him in this opinion; when interpreting something presented in scripture as an historical reality we are free to delve into the spiritual realities flowing from that account but we must not lose sight of the foundational role played by the historical account. Aquinas follows other Church Fathers in placing the Garden of Eden in the East, in the noblest places on Earth.
There are some obvious objections that Aquinas must answer. If the Garden of Eden is a physical location then why has nobody found it? Aquinas gives the rather weak answer that it is cut off from our sight by physical obstacles; by mountains and hot regions. Again, the Garden of Eden held the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; scripture tells us that these were spiritual realities, therefore the garden must itself have been spiritual. Aquinas rejects such an interpretation, insisting that they were physical trees that held a certain spiritual power.
A2: Aquinas asks the seemingly strange question of whether paradise was a place fit for human habitation. The point of the question appears to come from the alternatives proposed in the objections: as men and angels were created ordered towards beatitude, they should have been made inhabitants of the place of the blessed, the empyrean heaven beyond the fixed stars; man being a composite of body and soul implies that he should either inhabit heaven (as soul) or an earthly place where all other animals live (as body).
Aquinas answers by arguing that paradise was suited to man because it was a very nice place whose properties supported the infused supernatural power of the soul in maintaining the incorruptibility of the body. Humans were not placed in the empyrean heaven as they were not fitted for it as part of their nature (in the absence of the supernatural gift of grace); they were placed in the Garden of Eden as it was suited to both body and soul.
A3: Genesis 2:15 states that God put man into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it. This seems odd; what was there to guard it from? Similarly Genesis 3:17 suggest that man’s need to cultivate the soil was a punishment for the sin of the fall. Aquinas argues that cultivation in the Garden of Eden would have been a pleasant task free of the burden imposed after the fall; similarly, man was guarding the Garden of Eden for himself, lest he lose it by sinning.
A4: Genesis 2:15 says that God created the first man and subsequently put him in paradise. It seems rather strange that the first man was not actually created in paradise in the first place; Eve was, after all. Aquinas answers that paradise was certainly fit for human habitation, and fit for human habitation in the initial state of innocence. However, the initial state of human beings was not part of their nature but a supernatural gift of God; to create the first human in the Garden of Eden would have made it seem that the initial state of innocence was part of human nature. Having created the first man with the supernatural gift of grace given to the species, rather than the individual in particular, God created woman from the first man in the Garden of Eden having established the principle of the species.
- The account of the Garden of Eden is to be interpreted as a spiritual reality founded upon an historical reality.
- The Garden of Eden was perfectly suited to the human composite of body and rational soul in the state of innocence.
- In answer to the third & fourth objections to the first article Aquinas omits mention of the Cherubim and the flaming sword left by God to guard the Tree of Life; could he not have argued that although the Garden of Eden was a physical place, nonetheless it remains hidden to us because of these guards?