Christian Doctrine (10)

Image - John Calvin

Created in the image of God for fellowship with God and neighbor

Summary notes for Chapter 10, “Who Are We? The Doctrine of Human Beings” in Shirley S. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 192-211.

It’s harder to say “who we are” than we might think; once we get involved in that enterprise, we generally find that we tend to focus on some aspects of our multi-dimensional reality more than others, or we run into contradictions, and ultimately, we don’t understand ourselves very well. The human sciences, which are helpful in this regard, don’t have all the answers, either; for one thing they offer a fragmented understanding of the human person; for another, they focus on humanity in the absence of God; it is the task of theology to offer an integrated view of the human person, in light of the reality of God.

As usual, Guthrie reviews some answers that have been given to the question of what is distinctively “in the image of God” about humanity – most often, answers that rely on existing philosophical perspectives at one time or another, but that don’t take scripture as their point of origin. These include human
reason, rationality (not it, for some of the same reasons he’s discussed all along);
the soul, which from a Biblical perspective is not the critical element; “the breath of life” is something we share with animals, and the Bible doesn’t support the view that we have a non-divine body and a divine soul; rather, human beings are always “embodied souls” or “besouled bodies,” a unity of both;
moral capacity, which some of the confessions also pull out as distinctively human, but Guthrie points out that “it is the temptation of Satan and rebellion against God to desire to be good andknow the good for ourselves” (196) as opposed to relying on God’s righteousness (ouch);
power, domination – as in, “will-to-power,” the ability to dominate other creatures.

All of the above are suggestions drawn from an analysis of fallen humanity. (So, we might say, there is a methodological error involved.) If we try to extract a Biblical view, we would begin with looking at Jesus: truly human, and truly an example of humanity in God’s image. From Jesus’ life and example, we would notice that he “lived completely for God and in thankful obedience to God, and completely for fellow human beings and for their good” (198). Even Jesus wasn’t human in splendid isolation, but in relationship with God and other people. This relational understanding of humanity is reinforced by Hebrew scriptural tradition, that has humanity made in the image of God “male and female,” namely, made for relationships with others outside of ourselves. “It is a humanity that uses whatever intellectual, spiritual, moral, or physical powers we possess in and for the sake of fellowship with God and fellow human beings” (199)

That human beings are “creatures made in the image of God” implies, first, that human beings are totally dependent on God – human fellowship with God is not egalitarian – but this dependence is not humiliating, because it is not dependence on a domineering or self-serving other, but on someone who knows and seeks our good. Dependence on God is not coercive or grounds for resentment, but liberating and grounds for gratitude.

Being dependent on God doesn’t make the human relationship with God one of passively waiting for benefits to fall from the sky, and doesn’t put the entire emphasis on those benefits. Humans are partners in God’s work “in and for the world,” however we might want to characterize that work. That is, human beings have a purpose, and that purpose primarily involves service to God and one another; significantly, service to God through service to one another.

Guthrie analyzes what human life in community is really supposed by mean by rejecting some conclusions about it based, again, on the “male and female” condition of creation in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). So, humanity’s being made “male and female” doesn’t mean that God must have gender or gendered qualities, or that people have to get married to be fully human, or even necessarily be heterosexual to be fully human, or that only heterosexual relationships are human ones, or that any particular gender arrangement said to be inscribed in the “orders of creation” is the paradigm for humanity, or even that the paradigmatic human relationship is an individual one. Rather, according to Guthrie, “male and female” primarily signifies that human beings are created for relatedness across lines of difference, for “togetherness-in-difference,” (204). [Which reminds me that what Guthrie is taking here as a paradigm for difference is also a form of similarity; as Gayle Rubin observed unforgettably in her classic essay “The Traffic in Women,” men and women are more similar to each other than either gender is to kangaroos, for instance, or coconuts.]

Guthrie includes a discussion of elemental forms of human life together, which he labels “seeing and being seen,” “speaking and listening,” and “helping and being helped.” These are perhaps different ways of identifying what is elemental and essential about human relationships as recognition, communication, and cooperation [which, it seems to me, have been more identified by western philosophy than they have by the Bible, not to say that Guthrie is falling into the same trap here that he pointed out earlier in the chapter in rejecting proposed meanings for “image of God.” Still, the whole discussion seemed to come less out of left field once the underlying context for this discussion, which seems to be that of western philosophy, came into focus.] One vital point he makes in his discussion of helping and being helped is that being helped is something everyone needs; we all have blind spots, areas of deficiency, things to learn, and all of this from people we may assume only have needs; everyone also has strengths and things to offer in relationships.

Finally, none of this is to be read as a retreat from “individuality,” the uniqueness of the individual human person. People aren’t created to merge their individuality in God or some other human being, but rather to put their unique qualities at the service of God and their neighbors.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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