The Soteriological Question
The problem with all of this of course is sin. The futile reign of sin in the world distorts our relation with other humans, with the non-human creation, and with God. If to be human is ‘being in communion’ and sin disrupts our communion then our being as humans is fundamentally altered. I say altered because I do not believe that the image of God in humanity can ever be obliterated. If the image is ontologically constitutive of human being then a loss of the image would be a loss of humanity. A human that does not bear the image of God is no human at all. The Fall certainly negatively impacts our humanity but it cannot, however, alter the ontology of human being. So then, while we cannot speak of the image as ever being wholly obliterated in humans we can and certainly must speak of that image as being tarnished.
In light of sin then, communion depends on atonement, upon the reconciliation of relations ruined at the Fall (32). Since, in the limitedness of our humanity this is impossible, there needs to be some other way in which the image is set right in human creatures. According to the New Testament Jesus is the perfect and untarnished image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15) (33). He is this image perfectly for us in fulfillment of Gen. 1:26-27 as he redeems humankind. So then, for Paul salvation means to be made ‘like [put on] Christ’ (Eph. 4:23-24; Col. 3:10). Or, as the Lutheran theologian David Yeago puts it, salvation is the word for what it means to gather around Christ and His community (34).
For Irenaeus, human creatures are created in immaturity with the goal of maturing or journeying further into the fullness of relation with God in himself. Humans are created for a particular being. The Spirit’s peculiar office is to realize the true being of each created thing by bringing it, through Christ, into saving relation with God the Father (35). The Spirit is the perfecter of creation by bringing it to its telos and offering it back to God perfected. Western eschatology tends to see the end as a return to the beginning. Irenaeus on the other hand “has a dynamic teleological drive which conceives the end as something more than a return to the beginning,” (36).
In light of this and in light of the economy of God, salvation also then includes not just human creatures but the non-human creation as well (which of course has all sorts of implications for ecology and economic life). Since the created world is what it distinctively is by virtue of its createdness, it reflects in different ways the being of God in communion. However, human creatures, made in the image of God, reflect most directly the divine being in communion. Yet, “by virtue of its relation to both God and man, the rest of the created order, too, is brought into the relation of one and many that all this entails,” (37). Irenaeus was one of the earliest Christians to stress this. For Irenaeus, the physicality of creation is of vital import in light of God’s creating it so. Humans, as God’s “trinitarian mediators of creation”, exercise dominion over the rest of the non-human creation in order that the world might “achieve perfection through time and…return completed to its creator,” (38). Part of the benefit of the “immaturity” of creation is that it maintains a link between creation and redemption for the work of Christ and the Spirit are one. In the loving freedom of God, creation is given space to journey towards perfection in relation.
The danger here is a failure to recognize the differences between humans and the non-human world, while simultaneously respecting the proper being and status of the natural world (39) Theories of evolution have called into question, and rightly so, the model of humans as essentially mind/will and therefore essentially different from nature (dualism). However, they have at the same time, and perhaps in reaction, encouraged an identification of the human with nature. In light of a proper understanding of what it means for humans created in God’s image to have dominion both of these views of the human person must be rejected. The human person is not essentially an embodied soul nor are they identical with nature. They are rather essentially material creatures in God’s image who are given a particular distinct role amongst creation, namely, to have dominion.
To be made in the image and likeness of God is ontologically constitutive of human being. There can be no separation of the image from human creatures. A human creature lacking the image would be no human at all. To be human is to be fashioned “in our image”. To be fashioned “in our image” is to be human. If we humans are created in the image of God then the fact that we would in some way be perichoretic beings should be of little surprise. Indeed, everything in the universe is given space to be what it is and not another thing, but it is also what it uniquely is by virtue of its relation to everything else (40). A trinitarian view of creation and the imago is important as a means of being able to articulate the way things are able to be themselves in distinction from other persons and things by virtue of the relation they have with their creator and indeed with all of creation. Thus, it is only a thoroughly trinitarian understanding of the imago that allows us to avoid the modern pitfalls of an ever poisonous and alienating individualism on the one hand and an egalitarianism in which the particularity of the individual is lost on the other hand, and instead allows us to maintain a distinction-in-relation, or, an understanding of “being as communion”. To be human is to ‘be’ in relation not only with God but with all of creation. Only a trinitarian understanding of creation and the imago can secure both unity and plurality, intellect and material for trinitarian love has as much to do with respecting and constituting otherness as with unifying (41).
(32) Gunton, 217 (footnote 5).
(33) See also Grenz, 209ff.
(34) David Yeago, Apostolic Faith: Part 2 (unpublished), chapter 14.
(35) Gunton, 189.
(36) Gunton, 160 (footnote 5).
(37) Gunton, 217.
(38) Gunton, 120.
(39) Gunton, 173.
(40) Gunton, 173.
(41) Gunton, 206.