Sunday, 21 October 2007

Human, all too human

One of the issues that I have been wrestling with over the last few years as a consequence of my teaching on the doctrine of humanity and my study in Athanasius is the relationship between human beings generally in the image of God and Jesus Christ as the image of God.

The Issue
In Genesis, in making humanity, God says:

Genesis 1:26-27 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
This passage, as people generally know, has had a significant effect on Christian thinking about what the Bible teaches about what it means to be human. And it is common among Evangelicals to try and understand ‘image’ as something self-contained, something humans have as a completed thing at the point of creation (the big contenders being reason, the ability to enter into relationships, or dominion as to what the image is that we had). It is then either lost or impaired when Adam breaks the command.

But when we get to the NT we find that Christ is also described as the image of God:

2 Corinthians 4:4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Colossians 1:15-16 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him.

Hebrews 1:3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

This then creates an issue. Is Christ the image of God simply because he became a man, and took on the image of God in the Incarnation? (Calvin's view, below) This seems difficult to square with the context of how it is used in the verses above, where ‘image’ is being used in a context that suggests Christ’s divinity.

Or is it that there are two images? We are the image in one way (human), and Christ is the image another way (divine)? This seems to multiply images needlessly (not a good idea, in light of the prohibition on making images—small joke there…). It also suggests that the Lord Jesus is two images of God, one as man and one as the Son of God. That seems a bit clumsy.

A further issue is that ‘image’ is used as a salvation category in the NT. It is one of the ways in which the Bible speaks of what it means for us to be saved:

Romans 8:29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;
Now, normally, Evangelicals understand verses like this in terms of moral transformation—we become godly. However, something more seems on view in passages like the following:

1 Corinthians 15:47-49 The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.

In the argument of 1 Corinthians 15 this issue of the bearing the image of the man from heaven cannot be simply an ethical similarity. It is more ontological, It is part of the logic that moves us to the very next verse:

1 Corinthians 15:50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

It is a statement that the resurrection is more than resuscitation, it is a transformation. A transformation of the human from an earthy human made from soil to a heavenly human who is a life giving spirit.

In terms of the general approach to anthropology that sees ‘image’ as something finished at creation and self-contained this strand of eschatology in 1 Cor 15 seems a bit out of place. It seems almost as though we aren’t going to be really human in the End.

However, one of the things I’ve noticed is that a number of the early church fathers understood image quite differently. At first I thought it was just Athanasius, but then I discovered it in Irenaeus so I thought it was just Eastern. But now I’ve seen it in Tertullian (along with Augustine often considered to have founded Western Christianity, which Evangelicalism descends from) as well.

From Tertullian’s work Against Praxeus (Praxeus was an early teacher of Sabellianism or Monarchical Modalism—the idea that ‘Father’ ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ are not three Persons who exist simultaneously but three roles or names or modes of God’s activity):

In the following text also He distinguishes among the Persons: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him.” Why say “image of God?” Why not “His own image” merely, if He was only one who was the Maker, and if there was not also One in whose image He made man? But there was One in whose image God was making man, that is to say, Christ’s image, who, being one day about to become Man (more surely and more truly so), had already caused the man to be called His image, who was then going to be formed of clay—the image and similitude of the true and perfect Man.Against Praxeus XII

The idea here envisages a more open-ended content to the statement ‘let us make man in our image’. Whereas the first view above sees that statement as being fulfilled when Adam is created, this view doesn’t see that God has really made humanity into the image of God until Christ’s death and resurrection. That is, image of God looks forward all the way to our union with Christ by the Spirit. It is something that is brought about by the work of Christ, not simply when God fashions Adam from the dust and breathes into him.

An Evaluation:
I find this idea very attractive, far more so than its alternative, for the following reasons:

o It is more inherently Trinitarian (as Tertullian brings out in the quote above), understanding Image of God in terms of how it is used in the NT—to designate the second member of the Godhead, rather than a more monistic sense of ‘like the divine nature’ which the first view tends towards.

o It is more inherently Christ-centred—drawing a strong link between humanity’s image and Christ’s Image, and making the latter the grounds for the former. Human beings are those creatures God made to be transformed by being united to his Son.

o It also unites who Christ is and what he’s done more fully. Our being conformed to the image of Christ arises out of who he is as the Image of the Father. ‘Image making’ is part of his work, because Image is part of who he is.

o It better captures the strand of teaching in the Bible that indicates that humanity’s final state will be more glorious than Adam’s was in the beginning. The picture in the final chapters of Revelation, 1 John’s statement that we will be like God, Peter’s statement that we are to be sharers in the divine nature, the motif that Christ has become head of creation, the statement that at the End ‘God will be all in all’ and 1 Cor 15’s picture of a spiritual body that is not ‘flesh and blood’ all point to redemption doing something more than undo sin and return us to creation. It suggests that Eden has nothing on what’s in store. A view of the Image that is likewise open-ended, where Adam’s humanity is the start and not the final word seems to mesh with this strand of the Bible’s teaching on salvation and eschatology. I certainly prefer it to Calvin’s approach which seems to suggest that redemption is basically designed to restore the image we had in Adam:

But our definition of the image seems not to be complete until it appears more clearly what the faculties are in which man excels, and in which he is to be regarded as a mirror of the divine glory. This, however, cannot be better known than from the remedy provided for the corruption of nature. It cannot be doubted that when Adam lost his first estate he became alienated from God. Wherefore, although we grant that the image of God was not utterly effaced and destroyed in him, it was, however, so corrupted, that any thing which remains is fearful deformity; and, therefore, our deliverance begins with that renovation which we obtain from Christ, who is, therefore, called the second Adam, because he restores us to true and substantial integrity.Institutes 1.XIV.4

While I like this approach because it also seeks to understand what Image is in light of Christ—we understand the Image from its restoration, if one reads Book 1, chapter 14 of the Institutes, I think one will get the impression that Calvin doesn’t carry that project through in a thorough going fashion. He takes a few short cuts to get to his view that image is the rational soul and our moral likeness to God and that Christ restores it after sin’s ravages.

This identification of Image with a Platonic rational soul (and Calvin is quite clear in 1.XIV.6 that Plato had something worth saying about the soul) leads him to classify angels as being in the image of God too (without any Scriptural warrant). The only place he sees salvation as possibly taking us higher than where we began, he sees becoming like the angels, rather than being conformed to the Son of God as our destiny:

But it cannot be denied that the angels also were created in the likeness of God, since, as Christ declares (Mt. 22:30), our highest perfection will consist in being like them.Institutes 1.XIV.2

In short, I think the view of Athanasius (et. al.) captures the Bible’s teaching much better than the more Augustinian/Calvin view that dominates Evangelicalism—and it makes sense of parts of the Bible that I think tend to be passed over a bit (those things I highlighted above).

The main problems with it seem to be:
1. That it suggests that Christ’s role as mediator precedes sin. Either it means that Christ would have been Incarnate even if sin hadn’t occurred (a view that Irenaeus seems to imply, if not state outright)—which as Calvin points out is to go beyond Scripture as the only Christ we are given is he who came to deal with sin. Or it means a more supralapsarian position—that salvation was decreed ‘first’ and is the reason and cause for sin being ordained by God. This also, in my view, falls under Calvin’s prohibition—it seeks to enter into God’s predestining will at a point where God has not disclosed it.

That suggests that this is a bit of a problem for the 'Athanasius' view that needs to be watched, and is going to continually encourage people to start to speculate on things there is no revelation about. However, Col 1: makes it clear that creation exists for Christ:
Colossians 1:16 all things have been created through Him and for Him.
So there is something very fitting about Christ being the head of creation, and the bridegroom of the Church—such relationships mesh well with the fact that creation was made for him.

2. Calvin clearly rejects the idea in the Institutes:

There is more plausibility in the imagination of those who interpret that Adam was created in the image of God, because it was conformable to Christ, who is the only image of God; but not even for this is there any solid foundation.Institutes 1.XIV.3

In characteristic style, he doesn’t trouble with anything so trivial as a reason for rejecting this non-Augustinian view of a good chunk of the early church. Despite my great respect for Calvin, an assertion without evidence is hard to accept.

3. 'Let us make man in our Image' couldn’t have meant ‘let us make man to become like Christ’ to its original readers. This doesn’t seem that strong to me. If God’s words here are a form of prophecy, then they couldn’t be clearly understood until they had been fulfilled—that’s just part of the nature of much of Biblical prophecy.

All in all, these don’t seem sufficient to prefer the more classical reason/dominion/relationship understanding.

I think we were made in the Image because God made this universe for his Son, and made us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. Being conformed to the image of Christ is both the fulfillment of our creation and the overturning of sin’s attempt to destroy God’s good creation.

Why is There Anything At All?

One of the great moves forward in my understanding of God as a result of my studies at Moore was grasping that God's works are an expression of who he is. I came to College with a view that I think many Evangelicals have, one where all of God's acts are understood basically just against God's will. God does what he does because he chooses to, and that's really all you can say.

The problem with this is that it makes God's actions very impersonal. God's actions tell you something about his power, because he is able to do what he does. But the actions don't really reveal anything of who God is, they don't express his nature. In a sense God hides behind his actions - we see what he does, we never know how much of him is really in those things he does. And so there's a bit of a gap between who God is and what God does. And I think I've observed a number of places in Christian thought where one can see this gulf lurking.

One of the things that happened at College was the beginning of a process that has continued with my Trinitarian studies where I have begun to see that God does what he does because of who he is. He doesn't make the world and give life to all living just because he is omnipotent and chooses to. He is Life, all life is an overflow, or expression, of his nature as Life. He enlightens every human being, not just because he has power in the abstract, but because he is the Light.

Hence, when we come to God saving us through his Son, it is not just the case that God could and made a choice. (You can see the old problem get raised when people ask the question, but if God can do anything why couldn't he just forgive people without Jesus dying? It is playing God's power off against his nature. He doesn't just do things, he does things in a way that is fitting for his nature. And it is fitting for the Father to forgive through his Son.)

No, God saves because he is, at his heart, Saviour. He is the God who saves. It's not just what he's done, it is who he is. When God saves us, it isn't an act of abstract power by an arbitrary will at arms length from the eternal God's own interior life. God's saving work is grounded in God's very nature.

Now, different theologians have stated these ideas with varying degrees of clarity, qualification, and thoughtfulness. But I think the prize for sheer boldness has to go to Irenaeus. Completely ignoring any issue of imposing necessity upon God, and removing any freedom from God's actions, Irenaeus answers the question as to why God made the world:

For inasmuch as He [Christ Jesus] had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain. Against Heresies 3.22.3

Why is there anything at all? So there would be something for Christ to save. If there wasn't anything to save he wouldn't have had a reason for his eternal existence. Christ Jesus is that much of a Saviour.

Plus several hundred points for grasping how much the Lord Jesus' salvation is grounded in his nature as the Saviour, Irenaeus.

Minus several thousand for making creation necessary for God.

That's actually not too bad a score for theologians...

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Gnosticism and Speaking of God

Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies spends a fair bit of space detailing the intricacies of various Gnostic theologies. His stated reason is that just to describe these views rebuts them for most people, they are that outlandish.

He’s got a point, reading Apocryphon and some summaries of a few other Gnostic works reminded me of a mix of the most bizarre elements of Mormonism and Scientology.

However, for the person whose mind takes paths less travelled I could imagine that Gnosticism would offer something substantial. These aren’t the writings of idiots. They are thoughtful and evocative attempts to explain everything from God down and shed light on human experience of life. They have the ability to capture the imagination and stimulate religious feelings (apparently there exists a body of Gnostic poetry that is in places quite moving).

It reminds me again that evaluations such as deep and shallow, thoughtful and sentimental, evocative and prosaic, creative and pedestrian can only be, at best, penultimate.

It is never good for talk about God to be shallow, sentimental, prosaic or pedestrian. No matter what the content of such speech is, that kind of form denies the reality of God. But I’m not sure that the answer is to try and be deep, thoughtful, evocative, and creative—as though the answer is found just in pursuing the opposite set of qualities. One can be deep etc. and still offer something false in root and branch. Shallow truth is better than deep error when serving the Church. (I’m not sure it works quite the same way in Academia, but that’s a thought for another post.)

But ultimately, the real answer is to be found in aiming to have what you say reflect who God is in both its form and its content. It is not a silver bullet, there’s no magic mechanical three step plan there that stops you from becoming inane or error-filled. But God doesn’t submit himself to human control. If we are given the grace to speak rightly of God, then that is his gift. While God is free to give such a gift to whoever he wants, there is a regular call to humility. And in a sense aiming to have what you say reflect who God is is just another way of saying, speak with humility. True humility is the basis for knowledge of God. Humility and faith are interwoven.

James 4:6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Scriptural Interpretation

One of the more disturbing features of Gnosticism for me (out of quite a large menu to choose from) is its approach to characters in the Biblical Scriptures. Because it identifies this world as in some way bad, Gnosticism regularly reverses the value judgements on things in the Bible. So the creator of the world is bad, and as he is the god of the OT, then most of morality and actions of god in the OT is similarly problematic. Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a good thing, eating from the tree of life a bad thing. In the Apocryphon of John, the character of Jesus claims that he was the one who enticed Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit for their salvation. Some Gnostic groups considered Cain to be a good guy, and even that the snake in the Garden was an agent for the true God.

The thing that’s provocative about this is that the climate of ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ has a very similar outcome. It begins with the observation that the biblical writers had an agenda, and so wrote the accounts in such a way as to lead the reader to take on the account’s view of the events that it narrates. Then it suggests that this serves the interests of the powerful—those who wrote the text. At this point it goes quintessentially Australian and backs the underdog, reinterpreting the text in favour of the marginalised figures—the silent women, the silent Canaanites, the silent Judas and the like. It makes them the hero of the story and so unmasks the immoral stance of the author.

This doesn’t mean that contemporary heremeneutics are Gnostic. Rather, it suggests the point that Peter makes in his epistle:

2 Peter 3:15-16 just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

The point is that interpretation is a moral issue. Words must be interpreted, even as they seek to interpret the world to the hearer or reader. It is not uncommon to hear the argument at present that issue X (whatever is being contested) ‘is not a question about the authority of Scripture/being an Evangelical/being a Christian (etc) but is simply a question about interpretation.’ It’s sentimental, and it’s nonsense. Words are used to communicate, so interpretation is a moral issue because it involves the way you treat another person—the person who spoke or wrote.

And when the words are Scripture, then questions of interpretation are automatically questions about the authority of Scripture, or of what it means to be someone who lives in the light of Scripture. The Gnostics showed their rebellion against God by their attempt to deny that he made the world, despite the fact that it presented itself as an attempt to preserve God’s goodness. In a similar way, we can reject someone and what they are saying just as much by beating our chests about how seriously we are treating their words as by openly spurning their words. We have to interpret, but in interpreting the word, we are judged by that word. Our fundamental orientation to the word is made manifest.

Part of the reason for this is the nature of Scripture. It is an intrinsically moral word—it is a word that makes absolute demands upon its hearer. This is why the word of God can be so hard to understand, why it often seems that understanding it involves so much work. It is not because it is obscure, it is because one cannot truly hear this kind of word in a detached or dispassionate way. Form and content have to come together. The way we listen has to reflect the nature of the word that is being spoken. And the word that is being spoken is unlike any other word we could hear, it is the word that created the world, that sets the boundaries for life, that judges, that sheds the light of Christ in our hearts. This word demands more of us then any word we could speak to each other, just to hear it properly.

James 1:21-22 21 Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.

Gnosticism and the Problem of Evil

I have been increasingly thinking for a while now that the obsession with evil and suffering in the world—and the increasing tendency of atheists to raise the problem of evil and suffering as an argument against God’s existence-is a very modern phenomena. I have tended to think that it reflects just how comfortable contemporary western life is. Only people who have gotten to the point where they think that life really should be easy, safe, and free of any real problems would be so thrown by the existence of these features of life. Western complaints of suffering in the world feels like the complaints of an over-indulged young twenties adult ‘Who’ll just die because the boss won’t let me listen to the radio while serving customers.’

However, Gnosticism is nothing if it’s not an attempt to try and solve the problem of the existence of evil. So, while I still think there’s something in the ‘Get over yourself’ response to contemporary histrionics about the existence of suffering and evil, it does seem as though people began asking the question soon after the gospel was proclaimed. This suggests that the problem may be more basic to human responses to the knowledge of God than I had thought.

Unfortunately, like all attempts to find an answer Gnosticism is problematic. Ultimately the Bible doesn’t explain where evil comes from or how it began. It is a mystery—one of those things God hasn’t revealed, that we don’t have the resources to discover without revelation.

Gnosticism’s solution has the problem that it turns us into victims, rather than criminals. Evil and suffering exists because of the moral irregularities of beings further up the ontological tree (the Demi-Urge who made the world and is the god of the OT and his mother, Sophia). We aren’t responsible, and neither is God.

The problem is two-fold. We don’t see ourselves correctly and so don’t see that forgiveness really is at the heart of the solution to the human condition.

But arguably just as bad is that this desire to keep God’s hands clean can only be done by distancing him from the world in which evil and suffering exist. Gnosticism is a fairly strong example—it preserves God’s utter purity by putting multiple ontological layers of beings between God and the world and having the world alien to God’s love (an excellent insight by my supervisor—Gnosticism’s difference with Christianity is that Gnosticism makes the world alien to the love of God). But the desire to absolve God of the problem of evil regularly involves reducing his Lordship over the world, and involvement with it.

The Bible is less squeamish, and more robust. God makes no apologies for the existence of evil and suffering, is regularly pictured as using them for his good purposes, and is unequivocal that he is good and righteous. The book of Job makes it clear that God is not interested in coming down to our level and giving us the evidence we need to pass judgement on him—that he sees even our desire to answer the problem of evil as itself part of the problem of evil. God is God. He is to be worshipped, glorified, thanked, and served. He’s not to be vindicated or condemned. You don’t judge the Judge, even to declare him righteous.


Submitted my first paper and talked it over with my supervisor yesterday. It was on Gnosticism and whether ‘Gnosticism’ is the name of a coherent alternative to Christianity. It was not an area I would have picked out for myself, but I’m glad I looked into it a bit more—I had gotten the impression that Gnosticism was a movement that began outside of the Christian Church, and it now seems fairly clear that that wasn’t the case. Gnosticism began as a heresy and continued as such for most (if not all) of its existence.

One of the real benefits was taking the time to read what is generally thought to be the most influential Gnostic text: The Apocryphon of John, a post-resurrection conversation between the apostle John and Jesus, where Jesus settles John’s uncertainties by engaging in a series of long soliloquies that unpack a Gnostic understanding of the beginning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, as well as the nature of salvation. Several things struck me as a consequence of the research.