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Imago Dei: Human Dignity in Ecumenical Perspective

Thomas Albert Howard, ed.
Published by The Catholic University of America Press in 2013

Image, Identity, and the Forming of the Augustinian Soul

Matthew Drever
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology

Jesse Couenhoven
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

A Philosophical Anthropology of the Cross: The Cruciform Self

Brian Gregor
Published by Indiana University Press in 2013

God, Freedom, and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture

Ron Highfield
Published by IVP Academic in 2013

John W. Wright is Professor of Theology and Christian Scripture at Point Loma Nazarene University.


We live in a world assembled to overcome the instabilities arising out of World War II. The dominant post-War narrative has understood the “Good War” as an ideological battle between democracy and totalitarianism.1 In the West, the narrative expanded to enfold the Cold War. The language of human dignity, freedom, and human rights emerged in the West to bind societies to a moderate liberalism to stand opposed to “fascism” and “communism” – now linked as one thing named “totalitarianism.” In the United States, post-War liberal elite enjoined mainline Protestant thinkers to re-forge an “American Enlightenment.”2 Theologically liberal Protestant denominations proclaimed a gospel of human dignity, rights, freedom, and autonomy. The elite invited mainline Protestant intellectuals to support the American liberal democratic regime against the totalitarian threats of fascism, fundamentalism, and Catholicism from within and communism from without.3 The Protestant elite correlated the Christian language of the image of God to the liberal language of a human freedom, dignity, and rights to strengthen the unity of the United States that the secular elite feared could fragment.

The pragmatic liberals that bought mainline Protestant influence undercut mainline Protestantism’s long-term ecclesial institutional vitality. We live within the resultant intellectual, institutional, and political void. As Joseph Bottum has argued:

We cannot explore the moral, social, and intellectual culture of any moment in American history without recognizing the central role played by Protestant Christianity—especially, in our time, the impact of the catastrophic decline of the Mainline Protestant churches that had once been central institutions in public life.4

Scientism, evolutionary theory, bio-technology, post-humanist atheism, anti-realistic pragmatism, preventative war and terrorism, and neo-liberal capitalism have strained the very language of human nature and dignity that supported the development of the language of human nature, dignity, and rights in the West during the Cold War era.

Perhaps we should receive these five books as part of a twofold intervention: to renew a moderate liberal “Christian” conceptual core of “human dignity” and “freedom” in order to restore a theological humanism for the United States; and to retrieve the historic Christian teaching of God’s creation of humans to the image of God in response to the intellectual challenges of post-humanism.

For God and/or Country: The Image of God and/or Human Dignity

Thomas Howard places his edited volume, Imago Dei: Human Dignity in an Ecumenical Perspective within a Cold War context: “The years following World War II witnessed much discussion about and reflection on the idea of human dignity” (1). Three essays and a response address “human dignity” from within the Eastern Orthodox (John Behr), Roman Catholic (F. Russell Hittinger), and American evangelical Protestant (C. Ben Mitchell) traditions. Howard assigned the essays to explore two deeper ends: to see the ecumenical potential of such a question for Christian unity, and “to address how their tradition encourages (or might discourage?) an inviting and compelling public language about the scope and meaning of human dignity” (7; italics in original). The word “public” works to form “an extra-political, secular, meta-topical space.”5 In other words, the book asks if various branches of the Christian tradition might provide a political and legal basis for “human dignity” within a secular liberal democratic society that has already disqualified particular theological language from its discourse.

As the respondent Gilbert Meilander noticed, the experiment produced largely negative results. All respondents shifted the language from “human dignity” to “the image of God.” This disappointed Meilander who expresses his regret in the Kantian language of moral obligation: “We owe each other, our fellow citizens, an honest articulation of the considerations that move us to think as we do” (119). The political subtext of the issue emerges: Notice how the “we” are “fellow citizens” of the United States, not the “terrorists” water boarded by governmental agencies or migrant children trying to escape war and poverty in other lands.

Perhaps, however, the reticence of the three major essays to translate the biblical language of “image of God” into secular language recognizes that an appeal to the public already has rigged the discourse. The essays by Behr and Hittinger certainly contest the philosophical anthropology that one finds emerging out of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. Behr returns to the early church’s explication of the image of God to adopt a profoundly Christological and eschatological approach to the human: “The truth of the human being is [found] … in the future stature to which we are called, the stature of humanity that Christ alone has manifested in this world” (31). For Behr, the problem of the Western world is not “that a post-Christian world will be posthuman, but it may well lose its aspirations to become human” (37).6

Hittinger probes a recent strand in Catholic social teaching that resists the reduction of the image of God to the dignity of the autonomous and free individual. Recent Catholic social teaching on the image of God protects individuals and groups from the state. Hittinger argues, “In its deepest pattern, Catholic social doctrine was a defense of the individual in society, but chiefly a defense of societies against the state’s ambition to exercise a monopoly on fraternity” (41; italics in original). Thus Hittinger argues, “An adequate anthropology must include, without confusion or reduction, the two memberships – the individual as human person, and as a member of social orders. Both are manifest in the economies of creation and redemption” (77).

Behr’s Christological and Hittinger’s ecclesiological concerns disappear in Mitchell’s Baptist essay. Mitchell bases his “creational anthropology” (109) on the biblical account of God creating humans according to the image of God (Genesis 1). The Bible thus provides a foundational, universal anthropology of the individual human that connects “to the broader intellectual patrimony of the West” (109). Mitchell seeks both to de-Christianize the “image of God” through a concept of human rights and dignity and simultaneously to re-sacralize it as “the Western genesis of human dignity presumes an abiding value vested in human beings by a loving Creator” (111). One senses another attempt to provide a secular theological basis to shore up the eroding philosophical and political dissolution of the Cold War consensus. Now, however, Mitchell’s American evangelical biblicism replaces the 1950s mainline American Protestants’ attempts to support American liberal democracy amid forces of its own intellectual, economic, and political implosion.7 Meilander correctly suspects “Mitchell’s specifically biblical language … may have the greatest public purchase” (120).

Of the essays, it seems to me that Behr’s response, though disqualified from the public sphere, nonetheless has deep scriptural, historical, and philosophical warrant. Behr describes a human “nature” that is neither an essentialized modernist “thing” nor a postmodern, deconstructed “no thing.” Both the modernist self and its postmodern annulment of the self may result in the arbitrary exclusion of some human beings from the category of “the human.” The modernist excises those who do not fit their pre-existing criteria of autonomous, rational, free individuals. For postmodernists, no category “human” exists outside the pragmatic constrains of social conventions – different constellations of power can and do always and everywhere re-draw what is human. Behr places human nature and dignity outside an autonomous self in our eternal end, seen in the resurrection of Jesus. No one can take it from us: we participate in our own dignity through our creation by the eternal Word, the image of God. Nor can we say our self is something that we possess: human dignity still stands ahead of us to ever deepening or decreasing participation. We receive human nature as a gift from God, not from the state – both our own and others. Neither modern, nor postmodern, we find our human dignity “in between.”

Augustine: The Image of God and the Human Between

Augustine has stood as hero or villain as the source for modern anthropology and theology. Careful historical scholarship has eroded the caricature behind this adoration/scorn.8 Matthew Drever continues to dissolve such a caricature of Augustine and the modern self. He delves into Augustine’s understanding on the nature, formation, and end of the human soul in his revised University of Chicago dissertation, Image, Identity, and the Forming of the Augustinian Soul. Drever produces a wonderfully nuanced, delicate piece of historical-theological scholarship.

Drever provides a careful reading of the mature Augustinian text to engage “contemporary theological and philosophical problems associated with post-Enlightenment conceptions of the human being and critiques of religion” (1). Augustine appears as a non-modern, deeply Christological and Platonic thinker. Drever shows how, for Augustine, the human being lives in between the nothing of its creation and the fullness of the image of God in the eternal Son made human in Jesus Christ.9

Drever focuses his explication of Augustine on De Genesi ad litteram and De Trinitate. All creation exists inscribed by its Christological form. All creation bears the imprint of the personal, eternal Word through Whom all things were created. The creature then lives as a response to God’s call to participate in its own nature as given by and in the Word. Humans, however, bear a special intimacy to the Triune God as God creates us to the image of God. For Augustine,

The image of God is not some “thing,” part, or faculty imprinted onto an already existing soul; rather, it characterizes how the soul forms its basic identity out of its existence…. The soul exists in a type of reflective immediacy in which its identity is given to it from that which the soul is not (i.e., God). This leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the soul becomes most itself when it is least its own. (24)

The stability of the soul is outside itself in the immutable Triune God through the Word. Yet the soul simultaneously becomes itself in its historical existence through its own embodied experience. Sin enters if the soul turns to creation from itself as it is in God. One cannot reduce human beings to their material existence; nonetheless the body lives “as part of the human person’s unique status within God’s creation” (33). The human does not “have” a relationship with God as if between two “things” – one the soul; the other, God. The human being is “primordially relational. … The imago dei is a being-with, a being-toward, a being always accompanied by another” (39, 40).

Augustine ensures “the between” nature of the human through radicalizing the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to creatio de nihilo – God creates humans not merely “out of” nothing, but also “from” nothing. Augustine names the distinction between God and creation as the difference between the simplicity and immutability of God and the mutability of creation. Augustine qualifies the use of the word “substance” to describe God for it implies the possibility of change. Creation, then, has substance, not to mark an unchanging essence, but to show its mutability arising from its origin “from nothing”: “De nihilo does not offer a positive account of origin at a substantive level, and it cannot without falling into contradiction and dualism” (70-71). For Augustine, humans develop historically because of their substance: “Human substantia takes on the fragile, malleable, and dynamic character Augustine associates with the ex (de) nihilo origin of humans” (75). Because the image of God is the eternal Word of God, Augustine depicts “the sustaining core of human substantia not as a monotone, nonresponsive being but as a responsive movement of love and praise toward God. Indeed, the most oft-recurring description of created substantia in this context is ‘praise’” (75).

In the remaining three chapters of the book, Drever effectively shows how Augustine’s understanding of creation frames how Augustine describes human salvation through Jesus Christ. The soul, caught between the nothing from which it originated and the image of God to which God created it, requires formation toward its divine image. Physical objects turn the soul from the image of God toward creation as its image rather than the image of God:

Humans require an aid that both purifies them and leads them beyond mistaken images of God. For Augustine, this dilemma resolves into the call for faith in the incarnate Christ. Faith in Christ grounds a true knowledge of God and is a means of becoming purified. (100)

Augustine’s therapeutic doctrine of salvation becomes clear. Christ is the medicine to heal our sin-diminished in-souled body:

The flesh of Christ draws together the inner (spiritual) and outer (physical) dimensions of human life that need healing. The images we form of the crucified and resurrected Christ help conduct this healing in a manner that incorporates the entire human person while reorienting human vision toward, and training human attention for, the future (eschatological) reality of its fulfillment. The suffering Christ (visible) stands for the death of the soul (invisible) and body (visible), but in a manner that opens beyond suffering to the resurrected Christ (visible-invisible) and ultimately to the invisible God. This reveals true human healing as a movement that incorporates without reducing the physical into the spiritual and the temporal into the eternal while purifying humans from sin (impiety) and reforming their intellectual and volitional dimensions. (105-106)

Christ mediates the soul’s return to God. As fully human, Christ serves as an example (exemplum) of virtue; as the eternal Word, Christ is the sacrament (sacramentum) of grace on our behalf. As sacrament, the outward sign of an inward grace, Christ frees humans from sin and makes just and enlivens the soul; as example, Christ grants us the practices that humans need to approach our bodily death and resurrection well. We receive both as the Spirit grafts us into the Body of Christ which intensifies our contemplation and participation in God. Through Christ in the church, humans participate in the image of God to which God created us and for which God has redeemed us.

Drever applies the overlapping structure of the soul’s creation de nihilo and its restoration in Christ to provide a stunning reading of De Trinitate, Books 10-14. He shows how Augustine’s supposed psychological model for the Trinity serves as speculative spiritual exercise to move the soul to its just end in God through Christ. Augustine does not try to make propositional claims about the self’s certainty to itself. No self-certainty within the soul itself ever could exist. The soul must instead open itself to the image of God to acknowledge one’s own creation from nothing. “Si fallor sum [‘If I err, I am’] is not finally the call of the lost, or hidden, self back to its own transparency and certainty in the face of radical skepticism but rather the call to the lost and sinful soul from the Word incarnate in Christ back to God (idipsum)” (131). Augustine’s speculative spiritual exercise moves the soul to find its stability in worship:

The stability of the human person is found not in self-reflection but rather in the movement of love from God to creation and back to God…. The proper response to such certainty, to receiving one’s place within creation, cannot be self-assertion, which is pride. Rather, one should acknowledge one’s status as creature and refer power and goodness to the creator; that is, one should praise God. (141)

Such an attainment of the divine image requires wisdom amid human sin and self-deception – and thus it requires Christ, the Wisdom of God. As Drever notes, the unity of the two natures of Christ moves Christ as example into a sacrament as the human moves from knowledge to wisdom. Jesus atones for humanity because as truly human and truly divine in the unity of one person, Jesus IS the atonement, the at-one-ment of humanity and God. Wisdom belongs to an act of the soul (faith in Christ), given by God alone in Christ, so that the person may return to the divine image according to which God created her. One moves through the crucified Christ to Christ, the image of God. Always “between,” the human finds its true image as it loses itself in its eternal flourishing in God. Human dignity lies not in itself, but in God, from Whom, through Whom, and to Whom, the human, like all things, exists.

Drever’s careful explication of the Augustinian image of God and the human being reveals Augustine as neither modern nor postmodern, but nonetheless profoundly helpful to give us a language of human nature and dignity. The image of God does not exist as a specific “thing” nor as a void in its dialectical destruction as it moves toward death. Humans live to the image of God, found in the mystery of the eternally Triune God. The teleology that all humans experience finds its end not in the human self, but in God. Drever’s exposition of Augustine on the soul deeply resonates with Behr’s essay – perhaps finding a commonality in Augustine as exhibiting the unity of the Christian East and West. Even though the autonomous and free self dissipates, human dignity is not lost. Human nature remains in the image of God, the crucified and raised Jesus Christ, to which God creates us ever anew. Drever’s careful historical work on Augustine places human “nature” in the between. He shows how a careful return to the sources of the great intellectual tradition of the church provides profound, truthful resources to respond to the modern/postmodern debates concerning the human subject. Drever’s Augustine preserves human dignity without falling into either an anthropocentric humanism or a post-human pragmatics.

Original Sin and Human Dignity

The American Enlightenment’s emphasis on human dignity exhibited through the celebration of the autonomous self never accorded well with the Augustinian notion of original sin. If human dignity required the freedom of individuals, how could the autonomous individual bear responsibility for sin not its own? A second book on Augustine, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustian Theology, continues the contemporary retrieval of Augustine. If Drever engaged Augustine regarding human nature, Jesse Couenhoven uses the tools of analytic philosophy to defend the center of Augustine’s understanding of original sin against ethical objections arising from the responsible self. Couenhoven tends to reduce Augustine’s teaching to distinct propositions within an underlying ethical pragmatism. He seeks to show “an Augustinian view of human agency is ultimately more humane than the alternatives, which burden the very individuals they claim to comprehend as free” (12). Augustine would find such a justification perplexing, to say the least. As Drever shows, Augustine would never find “humaneness” per se as the criterion for moral judgment. Human nature only finds its true end in its deification as seen in Jesus Christ. Humaneness in and of itself names sin – the human being curved into itself from its origin and end in God.

Couenhoven’s work divides into two parts. The first part is an analytic summary and ordering of Augustine’s teachings on original sin. The second part argues for what Couenhoven calls an “Augustinian compatibalism” – a type of “virtue theory of responsibility” (11). Couenhoven orders Augustine’s teaching on original sin into five interrelated, but distinct areas: 1) the primal sin – an issue that has engaged evangelicals recently; 2) human solidarity with the primal sin; 3) inherited sin, the “common guilt and a constitutional fault of disordered desire and ignorance” (23); 4) the penalty that accompanies primal and inherited sin; and finally, 5) how sin and its penalty transmits itself across time. Couenhoven argues that the third area, inherited sin, provides the conceptual center of the doctrine of original sin – “a condition of disordered desire, a misrelation to self and to God into which all human beings are born” (37).

Couenhoven defends Augustine’s doctrine of original sin through a very non-Augustinian concept, responsibility. Like a good student of Reinhold Neibuhr, Couenhoven argues that “it is essential to have a theory of responsibility that clarifies how it can be appropriate to hold persons responsible for involuntary, inherited sins” (109). Couenhoven thus formulates a doctrine of original sin compatible with the Cold War understanding of human dignity and rights: “what does it mean to be a responsible agent?” (109). He seeks “a theologically informed compatibilism that reforms common conceptions of culpability and responsibility” (115). He names, following Susan Wood, such responsibility “deep responsibility.” Deep responsibility links human agency to attributability: “We are responsible not only for what we choose to do but also for who we are” (129). Everyday language supports his position. To limit ethical responsibility to our free volition narrows the language of responsibility too much. We regularly hold persons responsible for positions and actions that we can attribute to their environment rather than “personal choice.” For instance, we hold children of racist parents and society morally culpable for their own racism, even though we know they did not necessarily “choose” it. Couenhoven’s “Augustinian compatibilism” seeks to use the pragmatic language of moral blame and praise as a type of non-metaphysical “natural law.”

Responsibility and freedom thus work on two different tracks: “It is common to assign praise and blame to people for behaviors that are under some degree of compulsion or are accidental in ways that make it hard – and perhaps unfair – to call them free” (175). Of course, such an observation assumes that original sin has itself not colored such attributions! In an Augustinian world, pragmatic considerations of praise and blame themselves reflect the twisting of human judgment. One never could trust how human beings morally assess actions in and of themselves as a moral proof. Nonetheless, Couenhoven argues that “we can be responsible without being free because we are active in, and personally own, our character and other mental and emotional states even if we have not endorsed them, and even if we lack voluntary control over them … they are me, and I am them” (187). While Augustine would agree with Couenhoven that “there is no deeper self behind this self” (187), Augustine’s conception of the image of God, absent from Couenhoven, does argue that a “deeper self” does beckon us forward to the self, the image of God, in front of our self. Couenhoven’s pragmatic self is neither transcendental nor between. It just is. As it is, it is responsible for the praise and blame it receives.

Couenhoven’s conceptual work allows him to revise an Augustinian doctrine, not of original sin, but original sins:

All human beings who have reached even a primitive level of self-consciousness discover not only a world plagued with evil in various ways but also that not all is well within themselves, disordered beliefs and loves having preceded and informed their most basic cognitive, affective, and volitional powers and thus their actions…. Though we do not choose to be so, we find ourselves full of blameworthy beliefs and disordered loves, and therefore improperly related to the persons and world around us. (208)

Ultimately, Couenhoven owns such a teaching because he thinks it has empirical reality on its side. But Couenhoven also hopes it is “attractive on moral grounds because it provides a significant basis for mutual respect, humble solidarity with others, and gracious fairness in our attitudes toward and treatment of one another” (222). We might find a humane unity within our common moral fallibalism that would help us all get along in the diversity of a liberal culture. The Cold War mainline Protestant agenda raises its head again. The same pragmatic liberalism that reigned during the Cold War made a teaching of original sin difficult. The same pragmatic liberalism now finds “original sin” both “humane” and “attractive.” Times have deeply changed! An argument for a common human dignity comes in a pragmatic anthropology of original sins, rather than the rational determination of the autonomous open mind. The thinness of Couenhoven’s doctrine of God and near absence of Christology signals his underlying quest to fill in the Protestant center for the post-Cold War world. His attempt to translate thin theological convictions into the public square in order to support the American state repeats the failed mainline Protestant project of the 1950s.

The Rending of the Self: Gesturing toward the Between

Couenhoven presents a pragmatic, non-autonomous, sin-full self through the intersection of Christian anthropology and analytic philosophy. Brian Gregor, in A Philosophical Anthropology of the Cross: The Cruciform Self, engages a parallel task. Gregor presents a continuously dialectically constructed/deconstructed self as a “theology of the cross” – a different form of the same Protestant (anti)metaphysics seen in Couenhoven. Gregor asks in the book,

What does the cross of Christ – as both a historical event and a figure of Christian discourse – mean for thinking about the human being and what it means to become a self?… How does the cross affect the continuity of selfhood? How does it change the way we think about human capability and responsibility? (2)

Couenhoven began with Augustine to revise and define a distantly related version of Augustine’s theology of original sin. Gregor adopts a thematic approach with interlocutors largely embedded in the Lutheran tradition: Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer name his heroes. Gregor’s program harkens back to that engaged by Drever. Given postmodernity’s deconstruction of the autonomous self to preserve the “open-mindedness” of liberal democracies against “totalitarianism,” how does one speak of a self without a self? Whereas Drever accessed the non-modern metaphysics of Augustine, Gregor uses the post-metaphysical dialectics embedded within postmodern continental thought. He provides a self that never is, but is always becoming through a dialectical movement between the ever, in-coming “outside” that wounds the self from “within” even as it constructs the self. He calls such understanding of the self a “theology of the cross.” This contrasts to a modernist, autonomous substantial self that he calls a “theology of glory.”

At first sight, the first part of Gregor’s text seems like an apologetic program of translating contemporary postmodern theory back into the Lutheran anti-scholasticism from which it came. Indeed, much of the first part of the work does so. The modern, autonomous, free self translates into the sinful self, the self curved into itself. The cross becomes the unsettling moment that deconstructs the self to create it always anew in terms of Paul Tillich’s “new being”: “When the cross destroys the substance of the sinner, this is … a soteriological destruction of self-willful efforts to establish one’s own subsistence before God. … The life of the new being is ‘soteriologically de-substantial’” (50). Yet Gregor complicates such a reductive reading. He pushes his program toward an Augustinian position as described by Drever: “Because of the hope of one’s own resurrection depends on the particular historical resurrection of Christ, it is not an inherent or innate attribute of our nature. It is an eschatological possibility” (52). Gregor appeals to Bonhoeffer’s realistic Christology to provide an end for the human cruciform self to another end rather than “solely in its movement toward death: “What if the Logos is Jesus Christ? … If this story is true, then this is where the human being finds its point of unity and the answer to the anthropological question” (100). The human self finds its end in the Word of God outside its self. The possibility of the truthfulness of the story of the crucified and raised Christ keeps the cruciform self open. I wonder, though. Can the anti-realism of Gregor’s philosophical commitments sustain a realistic claim about Jesus Christ? Or does this claim about Jesus provide a fideistic exception to the coherence of his thought?

We can see the tension as Gregor attempts to overcome a gap between the textual figure of the cross and the reality of the historically crucified and raised Christ. He uses Bonhoeffer’s distinction between the ultimate and the penultimate to overcome this tension. The ultimate comes in “the proclamation of the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Christ” (113). The ultimate disrupts the system that moves only back and forth within immanence in the history of the self. The ultimate does not, however, destroy all that came before: the penultimate. The penultimate provides the context for the ultimate to appear: “The ultimate makes itself known in the penultimate, which is the ontological structure of human being in the world” (114). Gregor uses Bonhoeffer’s distinction to establish a historicized version of the Augustinian “between.” The “between” for Gregor, however, is not between the soul and its image that is the eternal Word of God seen in Jesus. The “between” is a temporal void in history, the possibility of a gap that could come, as proclaimed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus mean that historical processes never can fully enclose the self into the immanent flow of history. The death and resurrection of Jesus provide warrant for the self to remain open, waiting for a fulfillment that has come already, but not fully.

Gregor thus re-constitutes a Christian anthropology of the “open mind” or “open self” with its dignity always outside itself in what is ahead of it. It thus fulfills the same function within a moderate liberalism. It, like a modern autonomous, free self, remains open in its own self-determination. The cruciform self, however, remains open by “nature,” not by rational self-determination. It never “is.” It must constantly seal itself to prepare for the in-coming disruption necessary for its own, constant becoming. Christian theology serves to sustain a liberal notion of the open mind for liberal democracies against totalitarianism, even though we must now name the modern self as “sinful.”

In such a translation, we find the language of the “moderate liberalism” of mainline American Protestant culture similar to that which we found in Couenhoven. The cruciform self does not exist in and of itself. History constantly makes it and destroys it. Even though it is never autonomous in its own self-determination, the ultimate renders it both capable and responsible even in its penultimacy: “the category of the penultimate allows us to retrieve and affirm human capability and self-understanding after they have undergone the destructio of the cross” (120; italics in original). We must acknowledge the legitimacy of the accusations of our obligations and responsibilities against us in order to hear our justification by grace alone:

We can only hear the ultimate word of justification after we have traversed the penultimate – after we have been confronted by the face of the other…. We need to be accused by the law, to recognize our guilt and responsibility as infinite and unbearable, in order that we can recognize the costliness (and liberating power) of grace. (154-155)

The self remains contained in responsibility, but open to the ultimate – the crucified and raised Christ who withdraws in his giving as the person awaits, like waiting on Godot, for the ultimate to appear in faith and hope.

Gregor, however, again complicates such a reading “by considering Christ’s resurrection and its ontologically transformative potency” so that “the promise of the resurrection allows the world to be the world and the self to be fully human” (176). Bonhoeffer’s realistic Christology pushes Gregor against the limits of a theology confined to human consciousness:

If Christ has not already and actually risen in bodily form, then … Christ can only be there for me as a symbol, image, idea, example, or some other semantic figure. As such he can only be there for me insofar as he enters my horizon of understanding. But if Christ is risen as living flesh and blood, then philosophical hermeneutics is confronted with another that transcends self-understanding. (186)

The bodily resurrection of Jesus preserves philosophical anthropology against itself by rendering the cruciform self penultimate rather than ultimate. The self must always remain open to that which is outside itself. The resurrection of Jesus raises and perfects philosophy to an end that it cannot demand, but must receive as a gift: “The promise of resurrection follows the logic of the gift: it is unconditional. … By recognizing itself as penultimate, the world is free to flourish as the world, and the cruciform self is free to flourish as a human being” (198).

Gregor strains within the phenomenological tradition to give a post-metaphysical account of the human living toward her true end in the resurrected Christ, the image of God. Whether Bonhoeffer’s Christological realism can work as a transcendent condition to keep open the dialectic of the simultaneous affirmation and negation of the self seems doubtful to me. The anti-realism of philosophies confined to human consciousness strike Gregor hard. It seems to me that his project dissolves into a fideism without a participatory metaphysics of creation and redemption like Augustine provides. Gregor’s text works best as it moves toward a type of historical “between” for the self in which the human being hovers between nothing and the image of God. When Gregor falls back into a dialectic of self-immolation by the other, merely trapped in the immanence of the historical flow, he produces a self that remains itself while simultaneously open to the future – the language of the Cold War open mind that called upon the support of mainline American Protestants. Without the image of God that is the eternal Word of the Father, the only “between” of the self is the eternal now of the present as it awaits the future in order to become.

Two Cities: Human Dignity in the Cold War Era or Human Dignity in Jesus Christ

A fifth and final book, Ron Highfield’s God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Self in a Me-Centered Culture, addresses American emerging adults who have accepted the polemic that the Christian God strives against human freedom and dignity. His book “makes one central point: God is not a threat to our freedom and dignity but their source and support” (14). Given sociological trends among emergent adults and the rise of the “nones,”10 we should welcome Highfield’s book. He calls his work “more meditation than dissertation, designed to inspire love as much as to instruct the mind” (14) – a very Augustinian aim. Highfield identifies human freedom and dignity as qualities that have their origin and end in the Triune God. While the liberal democratic state forms “me-centered” selves that lose their dignity and freedom to their own fragmentation, the God witnessed to in Jesus Christ sustains humans in their full dignity and honor as human beings loved by God now and forever.

The book criticizes anchoring human dignity and freedom in the modern autonomous self. He writes, “we are taught that our self-worth and happiness depend on reconstructing ourselves according to our desires” (17). Highfield summarizes the work of Charles Taylor to give a clear genealogical account of the rise of the modern self and its practical outcome:

While our contemporaries look within themselves for moral sources and authority to guide them toward fullness, Christianity points to the transcendent God, who is Lord and Judge. Hence, God may appear to them as a threat to their dignity, which they identify with autonomy. (37)

He faces the challenge head on: “Our first challenge, then, will be to show how the modern self’s aspirations fall short of our highest hopes for respect, fullness and dignity. Next, we need to explain how the Christian view of these values fulfills them in a way that secular thought does not” (38).

This Augustinian two-cities approach bears great fruit. Accessible to students and the general reader, Highfield shows how the modernist self produces caricatures of the Triune God in order to push people away from God. He names the underlying issues behind the theological malaise of contemporary emerging adults as they move toward post-Protestantism:

The majority of our contemporaries reflexively defend the modern understanding of these values as self-evident and nonnegotiable. Since they hold these ideals as foundational they tend to view God as irrelevant to them. Those who suspect that modern values are threatened by the idea of God will adopt an attitude of defiance or subservience toward God. Others attempt to live in indifference or forgetfulness of God. Each of these three attitudinal stances projects a certain image of God, which proves to be at variance with the image of God portrayed in the Christian faith. (39; italics in original)

Highfield leads his reader into the historical Christian understanding of God and all things related to God. He works “to show that the view of God, freedom and dignity brought to light in Jesus Christ addresses the pain and paradox of the human condition and secures the hope that we will experience our true greatness and inherit our promised glory” (113). In short chapters he gently leads the reader into the orthodox Christian non-competitive and thus non-dialectical understanding of the relationship between God and the world. He explains: “The image of God revealed in Jesus Christ differs radically from the egocentric God of Prometheus or of Milton’s Satan. The way Jesus related to his Father in the Spirit reveals an inner Trinitarian relation of self-giving, receiving, returning and sharing” (150).

Human dignity and freedom find their fullest expression in participating in the image of God. Highfield takes the language arising from the Cold War’s humanism and raises and perfects it in light of the image of God seen in Jesus Christ. Whereas his book does not have the full metaphysical depth and precision as that read by Drever in Augustine, it bears a deep family resemblance. Highfield presents the self as the image of God as not something possessed, but as that which lies ahead of us in Christ:

The Christian hope envisions a state in which we attain freedom to become fully our true selves. We were created to image the character of God and to reflect his glory to all creation. Through Christ and in the Spirit, God empowers us to overcome the “other” so that we become truly free, that is, we become in our actions and existence what we are in our true being. (190)

We do not find human freedom and dignity in our self but in God: “God bestows on us the same dignity that God bestows on himself, for God loves us no less that God loves himself” (203; italics in original). As in Behr and in Drever’s reading of Augustine, Highfield argues that we find the full dignity of the human being outside our self in God. He states: “No higher dignity can be imagined or conceived. Hence there are no grounds to envy God or resent God’s status” (203-204). God does not stand as our competitor within the same realm of Being. God does not move into a relationship with us dialectically by moving to us and then from us as we assert our freedom and dignity as an autonomous self or as a self constantly deconstructed by the other. In simple and beautiful language, Highfield reminds the reader in deeply contemporary and Augustinian language, “even though we were by nature nothing, by deeds sinners and by affections enemies, God loved us. There is and can be no higher dignity. It is beyond our wildest imagination, transcending all our conceptual powers” (206). Given its accessibility and readability, Highfield’s book represents the most important book in this review essay for the readers of Christian Scholar’s Review and their students.


Perhaps Highfield’s non-biblicist, profoundly evangelical performance points toward an ecumenical consensus that Thomas Albert Howard sought. The faith once delivered to the saints can account for human dignity and freedom as the beginning and end as we live “between” the nothingness of our nature and the fullness of dignity and honor conferred upon us through participation in the Triune Love made visible in the image of God, Jesus Christ. Human nature always lies ahead of and behind us in the fullness of the image of God, Jesus Christ. We receive this dignity and honor in our very existence even as it becomes received as a gift in redemption through Christ as we receive the gift of our existence – and the existence of all things. The witness of the great Christian Tradition calls the church together to visible unity, even amid its contemporary, fragmented, sinful state of visible disunity.

Perhaps here also is why we can hear the liberal democratic, Cold War notion of human dignity and freedom as both worthy of preservation while at the same time an ideological ploy to sustain the coercive power of the state. Classical liberal democratic political theory can no longer give a coherent account for the autonomous yet open self. We see this in the contradictions in contemporary legal issues: Corporations and avatars become persons, while fetuses, unlawful combatants, and the poor who live without property rights are not. The Cold War anchorage in an autonomous but open self remains a poor simulacrum that signs beyond itself. We sense its importance in its inadequacy to describe human freedom and dignity in terms of “human rights” that it holds so dear. It is why a non-Christologically inscribed theory of natural law for human dignity and honor as human rights will ultimately undercut the witness of the church.11 The liberal democratic politics of the Western European nation-state cannot give us the depth of description of the reality humans experience as we live in the “between” of human “nature.” Human dignity and freedom come as we live from the image of God, through the image of God, and to the image of God as made visible in Jesus Christ.

Cite this article
John W. Wright, “Human Dignity and the Image of God—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:1 , 67-82


  1. “The Allies cause has been dressed up in lots of clothes—the People’s War, the war to liberate Europe, the war against Fascism and Racism. But these different intellectual frameworks arise out of a political coalition mobilized to prosecute the war, one that in its different ways also constructed the peace.” James Heartfield, An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War (Winchester, UK/Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2012), 471.
  2. See George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
  3. For an account of how the language of the “open-mind” served to differentiate the United States from communist and authoritarian regimes through higher educational reform and the social sciences, see Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
  4. Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America (New York: Image, 2014), Kindle edition, loc. 128-131.
  5. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 196.
  6. Behr’s work particularly develops out of his engagement with Irenaeus. See John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); see also his reflective mediations on the subject with icons, Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013).
  7. Bottum persuasively interprets this evangelical commitment to natural law: “As the Mainline Protestant churches went into catastrophic decline, however, a hole opened at the center of American public life, and into that vacuum were pulled two groups that had always before stood on the outside looking in: Catholics and Evangelicals.” Anxious Age, loc. 2632.
  8. The literature has become expansive. For an introduction, see Robert Dodaro and George Lawless, eds., Augustine and his Critics: Essays in Honor of Gerald Bonner (London and New York: Routledge, 2000). See also Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity, Radical Orthodoxy Series (London and New York: Routledge, 2003) and Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  9. For a contemporary philosophical defense of the notion of “the between,” see Williams Desmond, The William Desmond Reader, ed. Christopher Ben Simpson (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012).
  10. See Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). For the rise of the “nones,” see Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).
  11. See Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, ”Human Dignity and Human Justice in Theological Perspective” in The Grandeur of Reason: Religion, Tradition and Universalism, eds. Peter M. Candler and Conor Cunningham (London: SCM Press, 2010), 118-134.

John W. Wright

Point Loma Nazarene University
John Wright is Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Point Loma Nazarene University.