Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Naturalness Part 3: The Sinful Nature and the Image of God

In the Christian view of humanity we find a striking confirmation of the idea that naturalness does not equal goodness - if Christianity is correct (which I believe it is), then there is a striking disconnect between how we are and how we ought to be.

Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, there's been a long debate throughout history over whether humans are by nature good or by nature bad and what the moral and political consequences are because of that. In Chinese philosophy, this was indeed one of the central debates. In the 19th century there was a wide optimism about humanity and its progress towards a bright future - the idea that man was basically good was widely shared. But then came the World Wars and that faith was shaken to its core. Even now, you have people who fall on either side of the question of whether we are good or bad by nature.

In the Christian view, however, we have a unique answer to this question. On this view, the answer is not an unequivocal yes or no but a more nuanced one - to the question "Is humanity by nature good or is it bad?", the Christian can answer yes in one way and no in another. On the Christian view, we were created by a good, perfect God who created us fully good - good in nature (4) and by nature (5). Indeed, we were created in God's image - we were created male and female to express the fullness of God's character. But then came the Fall and that image was corrupted yet never destroyed. Since then we are fully good by nature (5) - who we really are and what we are to be and become and what is really central and important to us and about us is fully good and found in our reflection in ourselves of God's own character. So we are by nature (5) good because we were created by a good God in his own image. But we also possess a sinful nature - from birth (or, better, conception) we are inclined to rule over ourselves rather than let God reign in us; we prefer to form ourselves in our own miscast, distorted image rather than let ourselves be who we truly are as creatures made in God's image. This is the very heart of the doctrine of original sin - we are all tainted by sin from the moment we begin to exist. Though we call some people innocent, all of us already stand guilty and polluted. In 'nature' talk, to have a sinful nature, I believe, means, at the very least, that we have a sinful nature (4) - we are naturally (4) sinful which in turn leads us to be naturally (3) sinful.

So as made in the image of God, we are fully good, but as we are by birth and by choice, we are, as the theologians say, totally depraved. So in one sense we are by nature good and in another we are bad - why, in effect, we are at once both capable of the greatest acts of heroism and mercy and yet also of the greatest acts of foolishness and cruelty. This is why the work of God is to fix the problem of sin - and fixing it by eradicating it. God eradicates sin not merely by eradicating it from the divine ledgerbooks for the Day of Judgment, as it were, but also by eradicating it from our actions in the world. And not merely by eradicating it from our actions in the world but also be eradicating it at the source - in our very persons by healing us and repairing the broken image of our Creator in us. We are perfectly designed works that have become broken and malfunctioning and it is the work of God to repair those of us who assent to it so that we may become whole as we always were meant to be.


matthew said...

The discussion concerning the Imago Dei is an interesting one indeed. It seems that in order to fully understand the paradox of our being, one might attempt to further unpack the essence of this image - that is, we are created to be more than simple nature or essence, but as a being in the likeness and image of the Triune God.
Often missed throughout much of the recent discussion of the Imago Dei is this relational aspect. For creation stems from the work of the Godhead--the overflowing of their eternal love such that creation is the work of the Father Son and Spirit. I might question whether humanity is the expression of the "fullness" of God's character, as I am not sure this is what it means to be in the image and likeness of the Godhead.
Colossians 2.9 reads, "For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form," and before this Paul wrote that, "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. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven." (Colossians 1:16-20).
Thus, the question then of goodness stems directly from the primal image in which we discuss in relation to creation. By this I mean that creation is indeed good, but to directly correlate this goodness to you and I might be a leap over the chasm created through sin. Good it be that apart from Christ, the human remains in a state of the absence of good? Augustine referred to this as privatio (the privation of good) - such that goodness is from creation whereas the essence of bad is the absence of this goodness - the direct result from the fall. This absence then leaves humanity in a state of not being able to live in the goodness of the original creative act apart from being in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Thus, the question comes back to the essence of the Imago Dei - as it is my opinion that the reality founding creation is one of a relational essence - we were created in the image of a relational Godhead who exists in eternal relationality. Thus, sin is the breach of this relationality such that our being as you stated, is more "inclined to rule over ourselves rather than let God reign in us; we prefer to form ourselves in our own miscast." This, would be in my estimation the outcome of our sin nature, the breaking of our relationship with God through the turning inward so to choose self over against Saviour.

Thank you for wading through the ramblings of my own mind's eye!

Matt Farlow

Ian said...

Hey Matt, thanks for the great comment! I tottally agree that using the word "fullness" was probably a mistake and that the Image involves far more than I've said. As for Augustine's discussion, I think everything I've said here is compatible, if not directly complementary to his views (my whole discussion of original sin and our corruption owes a lot to him) once we properly distinguish spheres of goodness and badness and kinds of natures - that is, we are good in design (designed to be in relationship with God) but bad in fact/practice (living and being in broken relationship).

heyfarlow said...

To go even further, I would ask, in being good by design, but bad in practice/fact, what then determines goodness? Could one practice goodness without being in relation to God? The question remains, what are the results of sin? Total depravity in that the imago dei is completely destroyed/erased? Or might this depravity be as stated earlier, a breach in our relationship with the Creator?
The question remains as to depth of taint from sin - is this a taint that makes one a non-being because of their non-relational living with the Godhead, or is one who is living and being in a broken relationship simply blind to the fullness of life that comes through a relationship with the Godhead?

Again, thanks for the profound thoughts!


Ian said...

Great questions, Matt. I don't have all the answers, of course, but they're pretty interesting to think about.
"To go even further, I would ask, in being good by design, but bad in practice/fact, what then determines goodness? " The answer to this question is going to depend on what is meant by 'determines goodness'. If by this we are asking what makes something good or bad, the answer is going to further depend on what that something is - is it an action, an artifact, a person, an animal, an institution, something else? On the other hand, if we are asking what causally produces goodness that is in turn going to depend on specifics of the kind of goodness and the kind of thing in question.
This sort of interpretation probably would go along with the next question, "Could one practice goodness without being in relation to God?" This is an interesting question which, again, is going to have differing answers perhaps depending on what is meant by 'being in relation to God'. If this is understood in the widest possible sense, then the answer is probably trivially no since nothing isn't in relation to God - if it exists, its trivially in relation to God. That, of course, doesn't have any implications for what kind of relation something has to God. If by it is understood, instead, something like 'having a perfect, full human relationship with God' then the answer might be more tricky. In this case, the answer's going to depend on whether we mean 'practice goodness' in wider or narrower senses. So, for instance, someone with a broken, fallen relationship with God might save a drowning child without really thinking. In a narrow sense, focusing on the external act itself, goodness has been practiced. On the other hand, in the widest possible sense, this person is still acting from a malfunctioning personal nature and broken relationship so the agent in this case is not acting in accordance with perfect goodness - his person and relationships are disordered.
"The question remains, what are the results of sin? Total depravity in that the imago dei is completely destroyed/erased? Or might this depravity be as stated earlier, a breach in our relationship with the Creator?"
I don't think total depravity entails destruction of the image - I think of it more like a breaking or malfunction - the design and function are still there but serious repair is needed. And this malfunctioning involves a broken relationship with God.
The depth and nature of sin's taint is an interesting topic that I think deserves a lot more attention (and I know I still need to learn much more here - I'm sure something of what I've said is probably not quite right).