2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture I: “In the Image of the Invisible”

Lecture I Summary
Dr. Kathryn Tanner began her first lecture in the series, “Christ as Key,” by introducing her project. These six lectures are a continuation of what she began in her book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. Her intention is to demonstrate the fruitfulness of a focus upon Christ as the hinge in the exposition of major theological loci.

With that introduction, Tanner began this first lecture by articulating her thesis: A Christ-centered account of human nature moves away from looking at intrinsic human capacities and focuses instead upon what humans do not have—viz., the image of God that is the second person of the Trinity. Thus, an apophatic anthropology is descriptive of an apophatic christology. Human beings are an incomprehensible image of the Incomprehensible.

Tanner then sped through an account of the imago dei in early Christian theology. Based on the account in Genesis, she said, theologians have tried to identity the image of God in certain self-enclosed properties of human creatures that make them different from other creatures. Like many theologians today, she used Augustine as the supreme example of this. The problem with such accounts is that they end up locating the image in humans as self-enclosed beings in abstraction from their relations to others. An alternative would be to locate the image in human relations with others, but this might still lead to viewing the image as a capacity resident within humans. Tanner goes on to emphasize that the Genesis account does not say humans are actually the image of God, but that they are created in or after the image of God. We are in fact “on the way” to the image in virtue of what we are in ourselves. There is thus a teleological sense to the imago dei; there is a similarity to God yet to come.

In light the New Testament, the imago dei takes on an intra-trinitarian sense, according to Tanner. The image of God is the second person of the Trinity and is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. If we are to become the image of God, we must be conformed to the second person of the Trinity. Tanner stated that the image of God can be identified with either the second person of the Trinity (the eternal Logos) or the Word made flesh; either one does not really matter, since they each imply the other. Moreover, the image of God is trinitarian in that it involves the Holy Spirit, since it is the breath or Spirit of God which gives life to the human person in Genesis.

Here Tanner turns to the center of her argument. She brings together a non-subordinationist trinitarian theology and an apophatic theology of the incomprehensible God in order to assert that the second person of the Trinity images the first person not as the “comprehensible stand-in” for the incomprehensible God, but rather as “the very exhibition of the incomprehensible divinity of the Word in a human form or medium.” Jesus displays in his life what it means to be an incomprehensible image of an incomprehensible God. Being the “image” of God, says Tanner, does not imply a lesser form of divinity; there is no subordination between image and archetype, between second person and first person—both are incomprehensible.

When we turn to the image of God in humanity, therefore, Tanner argues that we find there can be something incomprehensible about human nature as it is shaped in relation with God that makes it like God. Like God, who is incomprehensible because God’s being is “unlimited,” humans image God by “not having a clearly delimited nature.” Humans by nature have an internal drive to transcend boundaries, to go beyond their finite limitedness. This is the “weirdly unlimited character of human nature.” Human faculties are of interest precisely because of their “excessive openness,” i.e., their attraction to formation by what exceeds their own limitedness.

In other words, according to Tanner, if humans are to be made over in God’s image, “to be radically reworked and deified as Jesus’ humanity is,” what is interesting about human nature is its “plasticity,” its openness to formation through outside influences. Becoming the image of God is an extreme case of coming to be oneself in relation to what one is not—viz., God. “All creatures are formed in relation to what they are not, but humans do this in an exaggerated way which opens them to a radical reformation from without.” Unlike other created things, when humans receive nourishment from without, they are conformed to that external reality. Human beings become God’s image rather than God becoming theirs. Humans take on the identity of Christ. According to Tanner, “men, women, children, Greek and Jew, free and slave all go into the process of reformation and come out as Christ.”

To put this another way, human beings are marked by their being “unusually impressionable.” Tanner uses a few important images: humans are like soft wax which is impressed upon by various seals; humans are like mirrors which reflect whatever they turn towards; humans are like earthen vessels which gain their character from whatever they are made to carry. In terms of faculties, humans have “plastic powers”: humans may be molded and shaped like plastic in relation to what is external. To be human is precisely not to have one fixed human nature, but to be defined by what is “alien” to humanity, what is outside oneself: this is the meaning of humanity being in the image of the Incomprehensible.

By focusing on the second person of the Trinity, we turn our attention away from capacities resident within humanity as such. Humanity is defined instead by Christ, and this is something that cannot come about through any process of self-transformation. We do not make ourselves, but we are made by God. Humans become the divine image by being identified with what they are not; that is, when humans are brought near to the second person of the Trinity—or when the second person comes near to humanity—humans come to bear the image of God, the image that is Jesus Christ. Humans become this image only by “exterior illumination”; they glow with a light that properly belongs to another. Tanner puts it more strongly by asserting that human beings are not like iron which glows with the heat of the fire; instead, “they are like wood which blazes aflame with the fire of God.” By clinging to this divine light, humans are still only at best “distant analogues of divinity.” Humans are radically inferior images of the image of God that is the second person of the Trinity. Though humanity may be soft wax in relation to the various “seals” which we seek as organizing principles in life, in relation to the divine image, we are hard, unimpressionable, and resistant.

In the final part of Tanner’s opening lecture, she articulated what she calls “degrees” of the divine image. Here she more or less recaps what she has already stated. First, the perfect, divine image of God is the second person of the Trinity. The second person simply is what it images; it is not an image by way of participation—since participation, she states, is to be formed by or joined with what one is not. Hence, the second person is a perfect and natural image.

Second, unlike the divine image, human persons image what they are not. They receive what is not their own, hence an apophatic anthropology. This human imaging occurs on two different levels: (1) First, human nature itself is the image of God, since everything created receives its being from God and thus it constitutes a kind of image. In a sense, therefore, to be created by God is to be in the image of God. But this is participation at its lowest level due to the ontological distinction between God and humanity. (2) Second, and more importantly, humans are conformed to the second person of the Trinity through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Human beings, properly speaking, are the image by virtue of their participation in God. Tanner uses an important biblical metaphor: “humanity images the divine as the branch which lives off the alien sap of the vine to which it has been engrafted.” We can speak of these two different levels as the weak and strong forms of being in the image of God, respectively. The weak form is humanity in its createdness, while the strong form is humanity in its conformity to the second person of the Trinity by the Spirit of God.

At the close of her lecture, Tanner spoke briefly about the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption in terms of the imago dei. Humanity was created originally with both the weak and strong forms of the image, but in our “immaturity,” we took the gift of the image for granted and viewed it as a capacity resident within us. In this mode of immaturity, we were not properly receiving our image from God, and so instead we found our organizing principles from other objects in the world to which we could attach our desires. Our life was a life turned away from the presence of God. In the midst of this situation, Jesus Christ came to bring human persons back to their perfect beginning. Jesus not only has the Spirit of God (as we do), but he has the Spirit as his own—that is, as his own to give. In him, the Word assumed our humanity as its own, and consequently the image of God has become proper to us in virtue of our community of nature with Christ’s humanity. Because his humanity is indeed our humanity, Christ is our sure hope that the image of God is ours as Spirit-filled creatures.

Comments on Lecture I
Dr. Tanner’s remarks demonstrate a rich engagement with patristic theology (she quoted from numerous sources which I did not mention in the summary), but they also are a superb example of a creative and constructive project that has great potential, as amply demonstrated here. Without going into too many details, here are some of my initial thoughts and questions with regard to this first lecture. These are by no means exhaustive, and they are written without a sense yet of the whole project, so different questions may need to be raised at the end.

1. What account of divine self-revelation is being advanced here? If Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible and incomprehensible God precisely in being the incomprehensible, then in what sense does Christ make God comprehensible? Or should we interpret the term incomprehensible not in terms of revelation (epistemology) but in terms of being (ontology)? In this sense, for God to be incomprehensible would simply mean that God is radically other than humanity, hence the emphasis on the ontological asymmetry between God and humanity. Is this what incomprehensibility means in Tanner’s account?

2. If the Word assumes our humanity in Jesus Christ, in what sense is Christ both the perfect image of God and also the bearer of a plastic humanity which is marked by openness to outside influence? On one hand, is Christ simply a human who is especially open to the influence of the Spirit (not unlike the Jesus of Schleiermacher)? And on the other hand, if Christ’s humanity is plastic and incomprehensible, how can we be sure that the humanity which the Word assumes is in fact our human nature? It seems as if the emphasis upon a human nature which is in fact not a human nature—hence, an apophatic anthropology: we are what we are not—would make it difficult to ensure that the assumptio carnis is in fact the assumption of human nature, and thus the assumption of our common human identity. How can we be confident that we are indeed “in Christ,” that the Word has in fact assumed “our humanity,” and that the divine image is now properly ours?

3. The end of the lecture seems to put forward an infralapsarian narrative in which humans were created with a full and sufficient form of the divine image (weak and strong) that humanity lost through ingratitude and immaturity. Whether Tanner wishes to put forward an infralapsarian theology is still, at this point, an open question. Her second lecture—with its clarification of the relation between nature and grace—significantly helps to make sense of where she was going at the end of her first lecture. I am led to wonder, though, what Jesus accomplishes beyond the repetition of his Spirit-filled existence, which is seemingly the Spirit-filled existence original to humanity. Is there an eschatological sense to the image of God? Is there any reason to posit that original humanity had a strong form of the image? And does Jesus only bring us back to our “perfect beginning”? Is our beginning actually perfect, or should we not rather see it as ordered teleologically toward Christ in light of a doctrine of election?

4. Finally, there are two aspects of her lecture which I like very much. The first is the emphasis upon receptivity and the openness of humanity to impression from without. Here I think she is on more solid ground. As I have stated myself on a number of occasions, the imago dei should be understood (on my reading) as a soteriological category, not (at least primarily) as a creational one. Tanner’s account of nature and grace in her second lecture is an attractive one, and she breaks down the sharp distinction between creational and soteriological by reading the two together with Christ as the key. While I still lean toward seeing the image in soteriological terms—hence, one in which we are formed by God into the image of Christ—Tanner’s understanding is by no means out of the question. Second, I like her appropriation of Barth’s threefold Word of God with regard to the divine image. Similar to Barth’s concentric circles, Tanner places Christ at the center as the perfect divine image, followed by the circle of humanity as the image of God, followed finally by all created things which in an ontologically weak sense bear the divine image in their very createdness. It is especially interesting, I think, for Tanner to understand human beings as the image the image. Humans, in her account, are the image of God at a second remove, not because Jesus Christ (or the second person of the Trinity) is inferior but because he is the mediator. Both of these points—the plasticity or openness of humanity and the threefold image of God—are thought-provoking and worth appropriating. I am grateful to Dr. Tanner for bringing to light these issues.


byron smith said…
Thanks for the summary - sounds like a fascinating talk. Your thoughts at the end captured many of my own reflections as I was reading (and expressed a number of my half-formed thoughts so well).
Thanks for sharing your excellent notes on the lectures. Since I'm not able to get down to Princeton, it's nice to get the real gist of Prof. Tanner's talks.