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The Meaning and Implications of the Doctrine of imago Dei: Pt. 3 of 6—Human Nature
April 8, 2014 richardstevenpark

The Meaning and Implications of the Doctrine of imago Dei: Pt. 3 of 6—Human Nature

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The Christian doctrine of imago Dei has certain implications for a Christian view of human nature which in turn inflects how we view what would be a proper Christian engagement with (among other thing) modes of political governance. In this blog I trace briefly two generally opposing viewpoints on human nature, and consider the potential implications of these views in the realm of politics.

While some Reformed traditions, especially Lutheranism, tend to view the imago Dei as having been so deeply marred that it is practically stripped out of humanity altogether, Roman Catholic views tend toward a more optimistic stance. From the Lutheran Formula of Concord (which is a 16th century official statement of Lutheran doctrine), we read:

“Owing to original sin, there is “an entire want or lack of . . . God’s image, according to which man was originally created in truth, holiness, and righteousness”; “original sin … is not only this entire absence of all good in spiritual, divine things, but … also a deep, wicked, horrible, fathomless, inscrutable, and unspeakable corruption” (Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, I.10-11).

By contrast, the Catechism of the Catholic Church paints a much more optimistic picture:

“The divine image is present in every [hu]man[, and i]t shines forth… By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things…. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. . . . By virtue of his soul and . . . intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding manifestation of the divine image’” (Pt. 3, Sec. 1, Ch. 1, Art. 1, §1701-05).

Without coming to a position on the matter ourselves, let us take a step back, and ask the prior questions: Why does it matter whether we take a more Reformed or Catholic view (or something else)? In what areas of Christian theology, ministry, or cultural engagement might it matter?

Some areas of Christian life and doctrine which are affected by our view of human nature include:

(1)  Soteriology, or view of salvation: Are humans (as the Roman Catholic view tends to hold) free-willed beings such that their role in salvation are more robust than say a Calvinistic or Luther soteriology which hold to a much dimmer view of human depravity and free will?

(2)  For apologetics and evangelism: How should we evangelise the unbeliever? What should we assume about her nature so as to tailor the presentation of the gospel to offer it most effectively?

(3)  For politics: What kind of government best restrains evil and promotes good (cf. Rom. 13.1-7).

To illustrate further the importance of holding a proper Christian view of human nature, consider the following quote from Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971) whom, as you may know, authored the so-called Serenity Prayer. (He also happens to be Pres. Obama’s “favorite philosopher.”)

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” (Niebuhr, The Children of Light and Darkness (NY: Scribner’s, 1944), p. ix).

For Niebuhr, while humanity’s tendency toward sin makes democracy (arguably) the most equitable mode of governance, because of this tendency democracy is also the most needed mode since the alternatives are either authoritarianism (where one person’s sin rules all) or anarchy (where everyone’s sin rules and disorder ensues). To note, Niebuhr was generally quite pessimistic, or as he would put it a “Christian realist”, about sin and human nature. Sin featured largely in his theological anthropology. (One wonders how much of this outlook was in response to the World Wars.) Of course, the opposite danger is over-optimism. But, I might add that there is a danger in holding an overly pessimistic view of human nature and imago Dei such that we are discouraged from engaging redemptively in society.

In short, as I often like to say, our theology drives our theories. It’s true that our theories can and should also come to bear on our theology: e.g., the natural scientific in evolutionary biology may inform the way we think about the doctrine of original sin, Gen. 1-3, etc. But it’s also the case that what we believe about fundamental matters – such as human nature and the imago Dei—deeply affect how we engage with the world around us, including the realm of politics. Other areas and issues that are affected and informed by our theology include everything from genetically modified foods and affirmative action to global poverty, immigration, homelessness, human rights, and inhuman trafficking.

It is important to realize just how much of the rest of our views of life and doctrine depend on our view of human nature and the imago Dei – such that we ought to take seriously to study and sharpening of our views of humanity’s being made in the image of God.

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