Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dignity and Depravity

Perhaps I should have begun this whole discussion on imago Dei with the creator-creature distinction that we discussed recently because the chasm between us and God truly is immense—far beyond anything that a contemporary American Evangelical is prone to admit; and recognizing this distinction gives us aim to say with the Psalmist,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
The son of man that you care for him? 
Yet you have created him,
[For a little while] lower than the heaven[ly host], 
And crowned him with glory and honor.

(Psalm 8.1-8)

 Nonetheless the discussion is begun and creator-creature came late into the fray. But today we’re handling a different distinction that must be made: dignity and depravity.

Introductory Thoughts on Interrelationship

We were created with dignity in the image of God.

We were also depraved (those of us who now believe).

Our depravity means that every action and thought, word and deed, activity and passivity was tainted with wickedness, rebellion, and lack of the glory which is due to God. It does not mean that we are as bad as we could be, but that we can never do anything to merit the favor of God. It does not mean that we could do nothing ‘good’ (or ‘better’ is more appropriate), but rather that anything ‘good’ which was done had been done with improper motive. Some Calvinists may be uncomfortable with my last statement, but it is true that good, compassion, care, assistance, responsibility, etc. are always preferable to evil, indifference, neglect, destruction, and irresponsibility—even in the lives of unbelievers.

In other words: just because they aren’t a Christian does not mean that they should be excused from basic morality. They are after all made in the image of God, endued with responsibility, relationship, character—existing as representatives of God to a created heaven and earth.

Stated positively: wisdom can still guide the unregenerate into making a good choice or choosing the better the path, with all consequences and benefits that it entails even though it will not grant them access into heaven’s courts.

A brief application: this means that we can legislate morality in good conscience with God’s revealed will. Hence, Natural Law ethics.

Essence and Economy… not the answer

The apparent starting point for those familiar with discourse on the TriUne relationship of the Godhead is a distinction between essence and economy or ‘Being’ and ‘Acting’. In fact, that’s where my mind first ran to thinking: “We are made imago Dei—that’s essence. But we act in depravity—that’s economy.” Unfortunately it isn’t the answer. We believe that we sin because we are sinners rather than we are sinners because we sin. What’s more the language in Scripture concerning the wickedness of man is often one of essence; think for example of the parable/proverb: Out of the heart the mouth speaks—or—if the source of a fount is sick, then its outpour will be—or—a bad tree bears bad fruit. These are all statements of essence: your being affects your actions. So, you are made to be in the image of God… AND you are depraved. Dignity and Depravity is the being.

Difference of Plane…not the sufficient answer

Next we might think; well maybe they just affect different planes or dimensions. Maybe they are both ‘essential’ but one is the essence of being made and the other is the essence of…what? That’s the problem. Perhaps they do affect different planes so that they do not contradict; the problem is unearthing the categories to which each belongs. We could return to our creator-creature distinction to try to find our answer, but it doesn’t yield much result since that is primarily a discussion of dissimilarity… what is not like God. I suppose our categories might be morality (1) and representation (2), wherein our morality is evil-tainted and our representation is dignified. So we near the answer, but leaving it at difference of plane is insufficient; we must go one step further.

The Yeast is the Answer

Jesus on several occasions explains things with a bread analogy: just a little bit of yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. And I believe this is our answer, both theologically and philosophically. The mixture is the mixture with or without the yeast: in fact the yeast culture is foreign to the batch, it is something that is added, but once added it becomes a part of the whole batch in such a way that you cannot distinguish between the was and the is. In the same way you cannot distinguish between the is and the does. The whole of the batch has been tainted by yeast and colors it, even uniting itself to the very being of the dough. It changes what the dough does, and it changes what the dough is, but it does so, not by removing something that was but by adding something, and by transforming its essence to something ‘same-but-other.’ The falleness and depravity of man is not a matter of losing the dignity which God has placed within humanity, but rather it is a matter of transforming the dignity into something other.

C.S. Lewis explains that the greater a thing is the more capacity it has both for good or for evil. A rock can fulfill good purposes or evil purposes, but we would never fear a rock ruling an empire with an iron fist. Even a tsunami can kill and destroy, but we do not blame a tsunami for doing it maliciously as if it was premeditated, having a mind and moral compass. We can be upset at animal or pleased with it too, but we wouldn’t give it authority to write our obituary. The greater the essence of something, the greater capacity it has for good or for evil.

So when the crown of creation has been transformed with wickedness, it no longer ceases to represent God to the created orders; rather it does so with treacherous effect: the character of God it maligns and construes into grotesque caricatures, the sovereignty it uses to dominate and enslave—subjecting others to its self-gratifying will, the relationship it is intended to picture it rips and destroys—pointing fingers and casting blame, seeking others to disseminate its hatred.

It is only the grace of God the Holy Spirit restraining the yeast of depravity within us that recalls us to remembrance thence from whence we came and draws to mind a reminiscence of the character of God, the rule of justice, and the harmonious self-giving relationship of our Triune God.

Still any action will never merit God’s favor, but any action toward the good source will fight against the active cultures wreaking havoc on our being.

You, unbeliever, are both dignified and depraved.

You, believer, are dignified, were depraved, and have been remade imago Christi.


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