In many respects, Nona Verna Harrison’s book God’s Many-Splendored Image is a helpful and hopeful work on the subject of Christian anthropology. To those who might be jaded by the often harsh and unnecessarily critical Augustinian view of post-lapsarian personhood, this text can serve as a positive respite. But it is only a respite; it is not the final word, nor is it the only word that needs to be considered. From where I stand, GMSI is a legitimate counterweight to the despairing extremes of Reformed anthropology, and there are certainly many virtues here to extol.
But a counterweight is simply that—a correction to excesses; it cannot stand on its own, not if it seeks to be biblically faithful, historically comprehensive, and fully correspondent to our common human experience. This assessment is no slam on what the book seeks to accomplish. Harrison shows us one important facet of the theological diamond, and she makes it sparkle in brilliant, emotionally satisfying ways. Still, there are other facets to consider.
In this review, I’ll offer my positive assessments of the book. Then I’ll share the helpful challenge the book has made to my own spiritual formation. And finally, I’ll conclude with my concerns about the book as a whole, with a concluding question for the author.
I was delighted to see Harrison’s references to the issue of disabilities scattered throughout the book. She speaks of “Lepers as God’s Image” (pp. 99-102); “Affirming Royal Dignity Today” (pp. 102-106); and “Maximus the Confessor’s” contributions (pp. 131-37). The author repeatedly connects the personhood of those with disabilities to the image of God while highlighting several key figures in church history who have done the same. Indeed, Harrison notes that part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that persons have “a legitimate sovereignty rooted in their very being” (p. 90). As such, care should be taken to safeguard the sovereignty even of those with disabilities, not just the population at large.
That sovereignty, however, creates a host of ethical challenges concerning the degree to which certain disabled persons—depending on their capabilities and functionality—may determine the nature and extent of their own care and participation in society. For example, declining eyesight may require the revocation of a person’s driver’s license. Increasing dementia may require the transfer of banking privileges to a responsible family member. Both of these actions we’ve had to take with my mother-in-law within the past few years. A guiding principle in such situations would be to work toward preserving both individual dignity and public safety as degrees of sovereignty are being surrendered. That’s not always an easy balance to find, but relational theology requires the effort.
Harrison puts the issue of imago Dei under the theological microscope using the lenses of early Greek sources. This approach is a welcome methodology, as nearly every non-Eastern Orthodox retrospective on theological history shreds the philosophical traditions standing behind the development of Christian doctrine (especially Plato and Aristotle). F. Leron Shults, for example, does a fair amount of shredding in his book Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality—a journey that gets laborious and overly critical at times.
Harrison, on the other hand, recognizes that all theology is contextual, so why not give our ancestors in the faith the benefit of the doubt? Examine what they were doing in their context rather than sitting in judgment of their work with what amounts to an attitude of “chronological snobbery.” For example, she can call Origen “a third-century student of Platonic philosophy” (p. 12) without listing all the obligatory caveats and warnings about how Platonism is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Kudos to her for letting the early Christians speak from where they stood. We probably would have done the same had we been in their sandals.
And it has to be said that the very fact of Origen’s Hexapla tells me he was quite advanced in his intellectual capacities. How many of us today could translate the Scriptures in to six languages at such a young age—let alone any age? I suspect Harrison takes the approach she does because of the value she places on humility. Let these early writers be who they were at the time they wrote.
I also smiled with delight when I kept bumping in to Harrison’s metaphor of human beings as “works of art” having a few tears and tarnishings on them because of sin (e.g., “God invites us to remove the dirt hiding in these facets and polish them until they show with the beauty God bestows on each of us”; p. 5). I share a similar view. I do so because the metaphor is legitimately derived from Ephesians 2:10, where Paul refers to his readers as God’s poiema, or “workmanship” (i.e., his “poetry”). It’s an uplifting image, especially in light of the metaphor he uses nine verses earlier where he tells his readers they were “dead in sin.”
I was also sympathetic to Harrison’s concern, stated various times and in myriad ways, that, “Many outside the church think Christianity teaches that human beings are inherently bad and guilty and that human freedom is dangerous and gets us in to trouble. Many inside the church fear they might be right” (p. 4). Used wrongly, human freedom can get us in to trouble, but that doesn’t mean we’re “inherently bad.” Perhaps “inherently broken ever since Genesis 3” is a better way to say it. That expression retains the glorious value of human personhood without diminishing the real problem that exists in our species.
A Challenge to My Spiritual Formation
Harrison is at her best when she shares vignettes from early monasteries and other faith communities, and then derives thoughtful applications from them for our day. The stories on pp. 58-62 were especially poignant, and I found them to be particularly challenging to my own postures and demeanors as a pastor. She writes charitably of Abba Poemen’s gentle treatment of a sinning brother, which was more likely to lead him to repentance than a severe rebuke. She also speaks of the compassionate treatment of a young pregnant girl by Bishop Ammonas. Such “wise and discreet actions moved everyone involved toward healing,” she writes (p. 61). Christ would be pleased not only with such an outcome, but the method by which they got to that outcome.
I need to hear these stories as a pastor who is sometimes called to respond to people’s sins and failures (not to mention my own). Defending God’s righteousness does not have to involve denuding people made in the image of God of their royal dignity. (Cf. Joseph, a righteous man, had in mind to put Mary away secretly so as not to subject her to public shame.) We can shame people for their past, or we can inspire them toward a better future. Those who’ve been on the receiving end of the latter approach seem to have deeper and longer lasting transformations, not to mention deep bonds with those who restored them gently (cf. Gal 6:1).
Indeed, Harrison models this latter approach herself throughout the book. Rather than “scolding” other camps for their missteps or excesses, she quietly puts the responsibility on her own shoulders by saying things like, “I am thankful to those who manifest the image of God in their character and actions, because they make it easier for me to find and know God” (p. 58). It’s a beautiful sentiment beautifully stated.
Some Issues with the Book
My two issues with GMSI were: (1) the selective nature of citations from the early church, leaving us with the impression that Augustine invented the concept of Original Sin; and (2) the lack of a sufficient hamartiology by which to account for both the biblical record and the sad state of human affairs that we’re all a part of today.
Harrison will routinely speak of humanity’s “fallen condition,” but she devotes little energy to exploring where that condition came from, and how it comes to us today—outside a brief hat tip in the direction of a misuse of human freedom. Well, we already knew that, but where did our universal impulse to misuse our freedom come from, and why does everybody, at some point, do it? Any doctrine of sin must seek to account for its ubiquity, intensity, and propensity. Harrison doesn’t really go there, except to acknowledge that sin is a sad fact of life. Period.
There is wide variegation among those who took up the issue in antiquity, even before Augustine, so, it is misleading to suggest that the Western Church, and its post-Reformation acolytes engaging in ad fontes, are to blame for people’s low self-esteem today. Jewish literature had spoken for centuries of human sin deriving from Adam (e.g., IV Ezra 3:7; Sifre Deut 323; 2 Esdras 3:10, 21-22, 26; etc.). The Psalms and the prophets also made similar connections (Ps 51:5, 10, 143:2; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9). So did the Gospels (John 1:13, 3:6, 5:42, 6:44, 8:34, 15:4-5) and the general epistles (Jas 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10, 5:12).
Then, of course, there are “The Two Adams” teachings in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Under Adam’s headship, the whole race is broken and destined for death; under Christ’s headship, many are made whole and destined for life. Add to these two central passages the existential struggle of Romans 7, and it was only natural for subsequent thinkers to synthesize the biblical (and experiential) data the way they did. Here is a sampling of nascent concepts concerning Original Sin prior to Augustine. Quite significantly, not all of them are from the Western church.
From 100 A.D. to 200 A.D.
Irenaeus: “Men cannot be saved in any other way from the ancient wound of the Serpent except by believing in Him who according to the likeness of sinful flesh was lifted up from the earth on the tree of testimony and drew all things to Himself and gave life to the dead.” (Against Heresies 4:2:8)
Irenaeus: “Just as the human race was bound to death by a virgin, it is released through a virgin, the obedience of a virgin evenly counterbalancing the disobedience of a virgin. For the sin of the first-formed was wiped out by the chastisement of the First-born, the wisdom of the Serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and we were released from the chains by which we were bound to death.” (Against Heresies 5:19)
From 200 A.D. to 300 A.D.
Cyprian: “[Since] nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace, how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.” (Letter 58, To Fidus)
From 300 A.D. to 400 A.D.
Hilary of Poiters: “[David] does not think he lives in this life, for he had said: ‘Behold I have been conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me.’ He knows that he was born of sinful origin and under the law of sin.” (Exposition of Psalm 118)
Ambrose of Milan: “Before we are born we are stained by contagion, and before seeing the light we receive the injury of our very origin, we are conceived in iniquity. [Scripture] does not say whether that of our parents or our own. [But] in sins his mother gives birth to each one. Nor does [Scripture] state here whether the mother gives birth in her own sins or whether there are already some sins in the one being born. But, consider whether both are not to be understood. The conception is not without iniquity, since the parents are not without sin, and if not even a child of one day is without sin, so much more are those days of the maternal conception not without sin. Thus, we are conceived in the sin of our parents and are born in their iniquities. But birth itself also has its own contagions, and the nature itself has not merely one contagion.” (Defense of the Prophet David 11)
Gregory Nazianzen (an Eastern Father): “Let the word of Christ persuade you of this, also, as He says that no one can enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and the Spirit. Through Him the stains of the first birth are cleansed away, through which we are conceived in iniquity and in sins have our mothers brought us forth.” (Oratio in natalem Christi.)
Basil of Caesarea (an Eastern Father): “Fasting was established in paradise by law. For Adam received the first commandment: ‘From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat.’ But, ‘you must not eat’ means fasting, and the beginning of the Law. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we should not need [forgiveness]. For it is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick. We have fallen ill through sin; we are healed by penance. But penance without fasting is vain. The accursed earth shall bring forth thorns and thistles for thee. Are you not ordained for sorrow and not for delights?…Because we did not fast we fell from paradise. Let us fast, therefore, that we may return to it.’” (Sermon 1)
John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “When Adam sinned that great sin, and condemned all the human race in common, he paid the penalties in grief.” (Letter to Olympia)
John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “Christ wept because mortality had transgressed to the point that, cast out from eternity, it loved the world of the dead. Christ wept because the Devil made mortal those who could have been immortal.” (Homily on the Resurrection of Lazarus)
John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “It is clear that it is not the sin which comes from transgression of the law, but that sin which comes from the disobedience of Adam, which has defiled all.”
In his book Against Julian, Augustine answers the charge that he invented Original Sin by seeking to: (a) show it from the Scriptures; and (b) show it from the Fathers. In light of the foregoing evidence, it is difficult to maintain the charge that Augustine was being innovative. One can say he may have been out of biblical balance at times, but he was not out of biblical bounds. To the extent that Harrison helps put us back in balance, we can all be grateful. But it must be said that the textual impulses leading to the doctrine of Original Sin don’t go away because they’re ignored or minimized. Better to wrestle with the doctrine honestly, as did Blaise Pascal:
“Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.”
If I could talk to the author directly, I would ask her, “Given the variegated hamartiology of pre-Christian and early-Christian writings, are you content to be only one, albeit an important, facet of the theological anthropology diamond?” Given the inherent humility with which she writes, I am quite certain that Harrison would say yes.
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