Calvin, Self-Loathing, and the Image of God

I’m currently reading T. F. Torrance’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2001), and I’m coming to the conclusion that I was wrong about Calvin.

You see, I’ve been frustrated with the way the neo-Calvinists love to baste us in a strange self-loathing in their emphasis on the total depravity of humanity. For years, when I bring this up, I’ve been told that Calvinism as we have it today goes much further in many respects than Calvin ever did, and that he probably wouldn’t roll with those guys if he were still here. Total depravity in Calvin’s mind, I’ve been told, refers to the fact that all humans are fallen and in need of grace, rather than some notion that everything we do is inherently evil and sick. So in spite of my frustration with Calvinism, I’ve held out hope for Calvin. I even asked for his massive commentary set for a birthday gift, complete with his Institutes. I want to like Calvin so bad, and I really thought that his thought was different than I feared it was.

I was wrong, apparently.

Here’s an excerpt from Calvin’s Doctrine of Man. I think I’m with him this far.

Because grace implies a total judgment on man, it also implies a total judgment on his possession of the imago dei. It is an inescapable inference from the revelation of grace that Christ is our righteousness, and wisdom, and imago dei, that fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God. He is therefore alienated from himself, and is totally corrupted or perverted. If there is anything left of the image of God in him it is a “fearful deformity.” – p. 86-87

Calvin starts with the concept of grace, and from that he figures that we were in need of saving. This is fine; Paul does the same thing, starting from the cross and deducing that if we were saved, we must have needed saving. Paul also says pretty clearly that Christ is our righteousness, and I’m totally fine with that: we are righteous before God because we identify with Christ (or rather, because Christ identifies himself with us). I’m also okay with saying that Christ is our wisdom, though I’m more prone to identify wisdom with the Holy Spirit. I’m also okay with saying that Christ is the true image of God. What I’m not so sure about is saying that “fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God.”

Here’s another quote, picking up where the last one left off. Tell me if you think he takes it a bit too far.

There can be no doubt, therefore, in the mind of Calvin, that from the point of view of salvation in Christ faith must speak of fallen man in total terms. By the single word of our Lord that we must be born again, he says, “our whole nature is condemned.” “In our nature there is nothing but perversity.” “Our whole nature is so vitiated that we can do nothing but sin.” “The soul of man is totally perverted and corrupted.” Even the natural virtues and the natural goodness of men must be regarded as “wholly iniquity”. Calvin can even say of fallen men: “Their proper nourishment is sin and there is not so much as one drop of goodness to be found in them, and, to be short, as the body receives its sustenance from meat and drink, so also men have no other substance in them than sin: all is corrupted.” “There is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man, for he is a creature in whom the image of God has been effaced.” Again, speaking of man after the fall Calvin says: “And truly, it was a sad and horrible spectacle that he in whom recently the image of God was shining should lie hidden under fetid skins to cover his own disgrace, and that there should be more comeliness in a dead animal than in a living man.” “It is true that our Lord created us after His own image and likeness, but that was wholly defaced and wiped out in us by the sin of Adam. We are accursed, we are by nature shut out from all hope of life.” – p. 87-88

Calvin identifies the image of God as being the relationship between God and humanity. If this is the case, then I suppose there’s a logic in all of this. I’m much more inclined to think of the image of God as being a vocation, duty, or command. We represent God on earth. Image is stewardship, which is the responsibility to represent, and therefore resemble, the One who has charged us with this task. The imago dei is not so much that we resemble God, as it is that we’re made to resemble God. Not in the sense of being forced to do so, but in the sense of being created for this purpose. This is our telos, the inherent goal of human existence, included in us from our very creation and grown into as we grow in Christ-likeness. If this is what the imago dei or image of God is, then I’m willing to grant that it may be a “fearful deformity” in most of us, but it can never be separated from us or extinguished within us. In fact, it is the very obviousness of the image of God in us that makes our deformity of it so fearful: it’s still there, and it’s clear what we’re supposed to be, which makes our deviance from it so grotesque. Seeing a D student write a D paper is a shame, but it’s expected; seeing an A student write a D paper is tragic. Seeing someone get into petty crime is sad, but seeing the child of a spiritual leader or politician or chief of police is tragic. The tragic nature of the Fall is not that we’re bad to the core, it’s that we’re “very good”, even still, and we go against that goodness.

What bothers me about Calvin, aside from the fact that it appears that the neo-Calvinists aren’t exaggerating his views as much as I had hoped, is that he polarizes things so much. Everything is in absolutes with him. It’s not simply that we’re fallen, it’s that everything is as bad as it could possibly be. It’s not just that Christ redeems us, but that everything even remotely good in us is Christ and our only role on this earth is to give God glory for doing everything else for us because we’re so thoroughly evil that even our natural goodness is actually evil.

I find this kind of talk to be disrespectful toward God, and his creation. It implies that, rather than redeeming humanity, God decided to just do it all himself. Remember when you tried to help your dad with a chore or task when you were a little kid, and your “helping” just created more work for him? Sometimes, he’d get frustrated and just do it himself; but when he was being a really great dad, he’d take his time and show you how to do it right. And then watch while you screwed it up a dozen times. Calvin’s God is the one that just decides to do it himself.

There’s a logic in this, too. See, in Calvin’s view the imago dei, the image of God, is something that God sees, not something that anyone else does. In Calvin’s view of the imago dei, God created human beings in order to bring himself glory: we’re the mirror that he can admire himself in. Actually. So when we failed to reflect him well, and showed up in the mirror being dirty and bleeding from the effects of sin, God pushes us out of the mirror and incarnates his Son to take our place, so that he can continue to see his own glory in the world.

If that was his purpose, of course he would get frustrated with our failure and just do it himself! Now, if he actually desired to have creatures who not only resemble him, but would grow up into his image in the sense that they would come to be like him and represent him (that is, help him with his work), then he would be the other kind of dad, taking the time and effort to help us get it right, no matter how much he might get dirty and hurt along with us.

So I get Calvin now. I can even appreciate that our views on the depravity and perversity of humanity are pretty close. I can even get his sense of our utter grossness, when I think about it. But when it comes to why that’s important, and how it relates to our created purpose, we couldn’t be further apart.

Now I gotta figure out what I’m going to do with this 22-volume commentary set…

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Noah First Impressions: You Should See It

I saw Noah a few nights ago, and my thoughts are still percolating. In a good way. I had a friend who said he’d seen it four days ago and was still angry; it’s been two days for me, and I’m still excited, and can’t get my thoughts straight enough for a full review. I don’t know where to begin for that, honestly, so I’ll begin by giving my first impressions and answer some of the issues and controversy.

1. The Medium of Film

I used to be a purist – that guy who always sees the movie version of his favourite novels, and then picks apart all of the “inaccuracies.” What I wanted was for someone to make the movie that plays in my head when I read; oddly enough, nobody ever seems to get it quite right! This happens for two reasons: first, because nobody can read my mind (and nobody makes a movie just for me), and second, because a movie just isn’t a book. I’ll give examples from Tolkien movies to help make my point.

First, purists (and I say this with fondness, as a former purist myself), often the biggest reason that the movie is wrong is YOU. We all read a story in a unique way, and imagine the characters and events slightly differently, and there’s no way that a filmmaker could make your version of the story even if they wanted to. This is bad for much-beloved modern classics like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but it’s much, much worse for a millennia-old religious text like the Bible. We form entire communities around certain readings of the text (and have schisms over them!), so when something doesn’t seem right with the text it might be insulting or appear to be an attack on our very group identity. I’ve seen and heard about many reviews of Noah that implied just that, including this one shared by my angry friend: “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” The only way I can see that making any sense is because certain expectations were not met; personally, I found it to be the most honest depiction of that text that I’ve ever seen, and would apply the quote above to all of the watered-down (no pun intended) flannel-graph versions I’ve been told all my life. The version of the text that Evangelical Christians were expecting to see couldn’t have been made by these people: the writers of Noah were both (from what I can tell) from Jewish backgrounds, and they read the story differently. They’re not inside our Evangelical heads, and they don’t have to be – they have more claim to this story than we do.

Second, the medium of film requires different things to stay interesting than a book does. For most book adaptations, the text of the book is simply far too long for a movie, which is why we end up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It’s also why purists tend to be upset about movie adaptations the most: things are missing in the movie, sometimes multiple characters are collapsed into one, sometimes they’re missing altogether. It took me years to admit it, but a Fellowship of the Ring movie with Tom Bombadil in it would have been at least an hour too long, and dead boring. Tom Bombadil worked in the book, but it was too much of an aside to waste screen time on it, and Peter Jackson was smart to cut it.

The problem with recent film adaptations is the opposite though: the book is much smaller than a full movie treatment would make it, so the filmmaker has space to flesh out the story with what some people think are inaccurate additions. In The Hobbit, for example, we see three films made out of a single, relatively short book, and full of additions. The additions, however, were taking from Tolkien’s appendices and other books set in Middle Earth. It may seem like a money-grab to have Legolas in a Hobbit movie (he wasn’t in that book), but it makes perfect sense given who his character is, and while Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and created Legolas for his later books, the film was made in hindsight and can incorporate him. Knowing what we know about who Legolas is, it would have been very odd for him not to be in the film! A very similar argument can be made forĀ Noah: many Christians appear to be upset about the additions, such as the Watchers (rock monsters) and a magic-wielding Methuselah, but we need to be aware that Genesis is not the only ancient text written about this story. Genesis is a very short and bare-bones description of events – the Bible equivalent of a montage – and needs to be fleshed out in order to make a good film; the best way to be true to the text is to flesh it out using the other ancient texts that were written to do exactly that.

All that to say that the writers of Noah did an incredible job of remaining true to the source material – they just used the supplemental material to make it a richer film. Purists will never be satisfied with a film version of their book, and Evangelical Christians are purists with the conviction of hundreds of years of doctrine behind them! Sorry folks, if you’re a purist on this film, you’re really missing out!

2. Themes

For a movie about a global flood, Noah was surprisingly deep…

Seriously though, the depth of this film was absolutely incredible. As I said above, the text in Genesis is pretty bare-bones, but the thematic depth of the Genesis text is incredibly deep. Genesis 1-11 is arguably the most theologically and thematically dense text in the Bible, which also means that it’s probably the most thematically dense text ever written. I found that the film not only faithfully presented the themes of the text, but it enriched them.

I had the privilege of watching Noah with Old Testament scholar Dr. Lissa Wray Beal, who noted afterward that she prefers to read the text because she’s able to read it on a very deep level, but it’s written in such a way that there are many levels that it can be read on; she felt like the film submerged the audience to a deeper level, but lacked the layers that are present in the text. Simply put, though, not everyone reads the text as well as Lissa! I’ve never read the Noah text at this level of depth before, but I certainly will now, and it’s because the film took me there. What would it be like to sit inside the ark and hear the screams of the last humans slowly drowning outside? Suddenly Noah’s drunkenness at the end of his narrative makes perfect sense, and the flannel-graph images of happy animals on a boat seems sacrilegious. I was so impressed with how they portrayed the themes that are in the text.

When I say that they enriched the themes that are in the text, I don’t mean to say that they somehow made the Bible better. The Bible doesn’t need to be “improved upon”, and that’s not what I mean. But the task of adapting an old text into a new film is not just to present the old text, but to do so in a way that makes that text speak to today’s audience. In my opinion, they nailed it.

a) Environmental Themes and Dominion

Genesis is about creation and re-creation, and the theme of environmentalism is definitely present in the original text, but their portrayal of the world Noah lives in makes that theme pop out at us and convict us. It’s wonderfully prophetic.

Adam & Eve weren’t just the first humans, they were the first gardeners. One of the core themes of this film is the different interpretations of what the word “dominion” means. Noah is a steward of the earth, a protector of “the innocent” (animals), and sees his role of stewardship and his exercise of dominion to be simply doing what God commands him and respecting everything that God has made. Tubal-Cain, Noah’s foil (and ours!), sees dominion as ownership and rights, and uses the notion to justify depleting the earth of all of its resources. Both Noah and Tubal-Cain take their theology from Genesis, and Tubal-Cain directly quotes Genesis at times (but then again, so did Satan when he tempted Jesus!). I don’t doubt that this makes a lot of conservative Christians uncomfortable, as it sounds quite similar to Calvin’s take: “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of men” (Commentary on Psalm 8, quoted in T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man, 23). We’ve used this kind of theology to justify things like the industrial revolution and nearly every environmental compromise since. We’ve come a long way from being gardeners.

So have the humans in Noah. The world Noah lives in is already post-apocalyptic: the human race developed an industrial society, exploited the earth’s resources until every tree is cut down and every mine is depleted, and have reverted to a pre-industrial society by necessity. There are ruins on the landscape: old metal pipes from industrial sites, mechanical parts, welder’s masks. It puts the entire destruction of the earth in a new perspective: God is not destroying a good world because of bad people, he’s finishing off the already dead world that those bad people have killed. This perspective is not only fascinating (and I don’t think it’s in any way untrue to the text), but it makes the story connect to us very closely by taking a theme that’s implied in a millennia-old text and pushing it in our faces. Absolutely brilliant.

b) Creation, and Growing Up

Another central theme of this film is coming of age. This is crucial, so watch for it. Dr. Wray Beal pointed this out at coffee afterward, and we all agreed that it was central. There are several scenes showing a coming-of-age ritual, and this forms the skeleton of the film, which is ultimately about the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. Have we grown up enough to handle the responsibility that God has granted us? What does it mean to “be a man” if not this?

The rest of creation is depicted as having come of age, of having developed to maturity. This may be one of the more controversial elements for some Christians: there’s a breathtakingly beautiful time-lapse depiction of the creation of the world, from nothingness to the universe to the earth to a single cell in the ocean to mammals on land. It’s a stop-motion view of evolution, and it is absolutely beautiful. Even if you’re a creationist, please enjoy the beauty of this scene, and note what it implies: all of the rest of creation has developed into a state of harmony, and harmony implies maturity. Humanity is created special (as beings of light, very similar to the depiction of the angels), but doesn’t find this harmony, and the film is about wrestling with the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. This lack of maturity is shown in how humanity has developed into an industrial society, and then regressed to a very brutish state of survival of the fittest, all within ten generations (though at 700-900 years per generation, it’s a long time!).

c) The Fall, Human Depravity, and the Silence of God

One of the things that struck me the most is how different Noah and Tubal-Cain are from each other, and yet how similar they are. They both quote Genesis (which of course wasn’t written, but the theology of both is on a level), they both acknowledge that they are made in God’s image (though I don’t know if Noah says it outright, but Tubal-Cain says it repeatedly), and they both acknowledge that they’re more or less the same. And they both cry out to God, and get no apparent answer. How realistic.

I can definitely relate, and I think we all can. For that reason, I was very impressed with the silence of God through most of the movie. I think that we Christians would love to see more theophany, especially us Evangelical Christians, for whom God’s nearness and personal interaction with us is a central tenet. But God having an audible voice, or the presence of more miracles, would have cheesed it up and made it more difficult to relate to the film, even if it would have made us feel better. We shouldn’t feel better: this is a dark film about human sinfulness and grim justice. God’s presence is felt, but not heard, and only seen out of the corner of Noah’s eye. When we see God, we see him in Noah, and in Methuselah: in their faith, in their obedience, and even in Noah’s grief and turmoil. I’ve heard that some Christians were upset with how God was portrayed, but I think anything more direct would have been almost blasphemous, and certainly would have ruined the tension, turmoil, and questioning tone that makes the film one that we can relate to.

3. Conclusion: see it.

I’ve already written 3x more than I intended tonight, and it’s late, and a full treatment of this film would take a book or course in itself, so I’ll simply say “Go see it.” See it with eyes of faith. See it as a learning experience (because unless you want to read the hundreds of chapters of the books of Enoch, you probably won’t see the other elements of this story anywhere else, and they’re worth seeing!). See it as a work of art from a master filmmaker, with great performances from a stellar cast. See it as a fun movie, with action scenes and rock monsters and depression and joy and everything in between. But please, don’t let your expectations or purist tendencies ruin it for you.