The Image of God #2: In our culture reality is malleable so I am who I want to be

In April I delivered a talk on the image of God to the Acts 29 Europe conference in Rome. In part one we saw that we are defined by realities outside of ourselves, especially our relationship to God. Here’s part two.

I’m defined by realities outside of myself, especially my relationship to God. To be human is to be in the image of God, defined by God. But this shifts radically with the Enlightenment. Instead of a call to ‘know thyself’ in relation to God, we have a call to know oneself independently of God. Alexander Pope says: ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.’ Francis Quarles, another early Enlightenment thinker, said, ‘There is none that can read God aright unless he first spell Man.’[1] The order has been switched. Knowledge of self comes first. God is defined in relation to us. So Enlightenment theology (most famously in Friedrich Schleiermacher) becomes the study of human spiritual experience.

These two trajectories have created a stark tension in contemporary culture. Modern science says man is the product of our sub-subconscious (Freudian psychology) or our genes (evolutionary theory) or our society (sociology). We are nothing more than advanced animals. Yet the same time the legacy of a Christian worldview means human beings are still seen as special, creative, rational. For some unspecified reason, people have ‘human rights’. This tension is pulling in opposite directions and so the fabric of our humanity is fraying at the edges of life. The unborn child and the unproductive elderly are having their rights taken away. The baby in the womb is not a person, but a foetus.

But let me highlight two ways in which our generation has gone even further – one this post and one in a future post.

1. In our culture reality is malleable (I am who I want to be)

The idea that our desires should confirm to reality has been turned on its head. We’re the generation which thinks reality should be shaped to match our desires. We’re the generation of self-expression, self-fulfilment, and increasingly self-definition and self-creation. I am who I want to be. One of the first people to point this out was C. S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man way back in 1943. Lewis takes as his starting point a recently published school textbook. The textbook describes a famous incident in which the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge heard a man describe a waterfall as ‘sublime’. The authors of the textbook comment: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall … Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really … I have sublime feelings.’ C. S. Lewis comments:

Until quite modern times … all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.

You can say that something was beautiful or ugly, terrifying or comforting, right or wrong. Until recently the purpose of education, argues Lewis, has been to teach people the right responses to objective realities – even if people disagreed on what a right response was.

But in modern times feelings are self-validating. We can’t talk about whether they are an appropriate response to reality. No-one can judge my feelings. In contrast Lewis says:

Because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).

‘To say that a shoe fits,’ says Lewis, ‘is to speak not only of shoes but of feet.’ In other words, to speak of feelings is to speak not only of feelings, but also of the realities which evoke those feelings. My anger is right is it is a response to an objective injustice. It is wrong if it merely reflects my selfishness or pride. It is not self-validating.

So Chaz Bono, the child of Sonny and Cher, says: ‘Gender is between your ears and not between your legs.’[2] In other words, it’s what I choose to make it, not what is objectively the case. Chaz was born ‘Chastity’, but is now known as a ‘transgender male’. Gender is becoming self-determining. I found a critique of the McHugh article (which was circulated in the email) from a transgender-Catholic group. The article says, ‘He assumes that transsexuals seek to change their gender … instead of conform their body to their mind or soul.’[3] That’s very revealing: gender is being defined in the mind and they’ll change their bodies to match their self-perception.)

This is riddled with inconsistencies. At the same time that Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic gold medallist, was lauded for appearing as the woman Caitlyn Jenner on the front cover of Vanity Fair, the civil-rights activist Rachel Dolezal was heavily criticised for posing as black when she has white parents. You can’t pretend to be black when in fact you’re white. But you can pretend to be a woman when in fact you’re a man. This is a confused culture!

[1] Francis Quarles, Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man, 1638, i, 1.1.

[2] Cited in Jesse Bering, ‘The Third Gender,’ Scientific American, Oct 1 2012, Accessed March 24, 2016.



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The Image of God #1: We are defined in relation to reality

In April I delivered a talk on the image of God to the Acts 29 Europe conference in Rome. Each week for the next five weeks I’m going to post an extended and expanded version of that talk. In the first part we see that we are defined in relation to reality – a claim that would have been seen as obvious to most generations except, as we shall see, our own.

Many years ago I worked in the second-hand department of a large bookshop in Oxford. Every time my colleagues bought a book they would pencil in the amount they’d paid for it in a code based on the phrase ‘know thyself’. K=1, N=2 and so on. So a book with ‘KN’ pencilled in the back had been bought for £12.

The phrase ‘know thyself’ goes back in the lost past of Western philosophy. It’s been used in different ways over the centuries, but common to them all is the idea of having an objective perspective on yourself. It’s been often used to ridicule the proud whose self-perception has lost touch with reality.

I want to suggest that we live in an age that, in its pride, is losing touch with reality.

What ‘know thyself’ encapsulates is the belief throughout the ages – Christian and non-Christian – that wisdom is to understand yourself in relation to reality outside of yourself. There are many variations on what people think that reality is. But the common assumption is that we live well when we confirm to reality – when our expectations are realistic, when our responses are appropriate, when our desires are evaluated.

In Christian theology this finds expression, for example, in John Calvin’s famous dictum: ‘Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.’[1] In other words, to ‘know thyself’ you need to understand that you’re made in the image of God, defined by the reality of God.

In Genesis 1 God says, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.’ How is it then that we are like God? After all, we’re not spirits; we’re not omnipotent. The clue is in the plural pronoun: ‘Let us’. We’re made in the image of the relational, trinitarian God. Our identity is found in relationships:

  • to God (‘God created mankind in his own image’)
  • to other people (‘male and female he created them’)
  • to creation (‘so that they may rule over … all the creatures’)

So Tim Chester is the husband of Helen, the father of Katie and Hannah, a member of Grace Church, Boroughbridge, and a child of God. That matrix of relationships makes me unique. It’s true of nobody else. But it’s an identity that ties me to others. I don’t ‘find’ myself if I leave my wife for a new lover. I lose myself. I become less human.

Our gender is a sign of this. ‘Male and female he created them.’ In other words, each of us is born with sexual organs that show we’re made for self-giving union with another, to be completed by another. It’s encoded in our physical bodies. And this is a sign that we’re made for self-giving union with God. Marriage is a sign of this and contented singleness testifies to the reality beyond the sign. So at stake in the complementarity of the sexes is nothing less than the meaning of life. At stake in right sexual conduct is the revelation of our true goal, union with God. Christopher West says, ‘God gave us sexual desire … as the fuel of a rocket that is meant to launch us into the stars and beyond.’[2]

So I’m defined by realities outside of myself, especially my relationship to God. To be human is to be in the image of God, defined by God.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.2.

[2] Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II’s Sexual Revolution, West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, Rev. Ed., 2009, Kindle Location 1001.

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The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 112 – Jacob the prototype of Israel

Reading: Hosea 11:12-12:6

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from and £1.99 from I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

In today’s passage God rebukes both Israel (also called Ephraim) and Judah for pretending loyalty to him while living deep in deceit and idolatry. In seeking national prosperity while disregarding him, they are striving for the unattainable; pursuing the wind (1; cf. Eccles. 2:11). This is seen in their deceitful foreign policy. Instead of depending on God they are receiving help from Assyria, while at the same time trying to buy the support of Assyria’s enemy, Egypt (1). So Hosea reminds them of their roots in three incidents from the life of Jacob (3-4) – not in chronological order:

(i) At birth Jacob grasped his brother’s heel, an action which turned out to be prophetic of his attitude to life. So he was chosen despite weakness of character.

(ii) At Peniel Jacob humbled himself, begged for God’s favour and was renamed Israel.

(iii) At Bethel Jacob was overwhelmed by God’s grace. As a runaway from Esau (and God), God ‘found him … and talked with him there’.

Hosea is showing that Jacob the man is a kind of prototype of Israel the nation. Like Jacob, they have nothing to commend themselves (cf. Deut. 32:9-12). Israel was born when Jacob finally abandoned his own agenda (deliverance from Esau) and his own resources, and clung in desperation to God. Peniel was where they received the name ‘Israel’ and the eating custom associated with it (Gen. 32:32). No Israelite was intended to forget his roots. Israel’s tragedy, however, was that she always inclined to be Jacob and use God for her own ends.

This is the paradox at the heart of the nation’s life. They are both Jacob and Israel, and God is both their Saviour striving to bless them and their enemy fighting against them (Is.63: 9-10). Jacob has passed his unsavoury characteristics to his descendants. But if they turn from their Jacob-like duplicity and self-sufficiency, God will deliver them as he did Jacob (6). He is still the God of Bethel, the God of power and graciousness and the LORD is his name of renown (5), his covenant name (Exod. 3:14). And because God does not change, the descendants of Jacob are not destroyed (Mal. 3:6).

Closing thought
The continuing use of the name Jacob as well as Israel throughout the OT can be compared to that of Simon in the NT (compare John1:42 with Luke 22:31). What can we as Christians learn from this?

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When does sin disqualify someone from leadership?

No church leader is perfect. So all church leaders sin. So when does sin disqualify someone from leadership?

I suggest two things need to be borne in mind.

First, the attitude of the leader (or potential leader) to their sin. The key thing is a person responds with faith and repentance. This is more important than some notional scale of sin. Do they repent of their sin? Do they believe the gospel promise’s of forgiveness, justification and reconciliation? If, for example, they don’t believe themselves justified in God’s sight then they are likely to become hesitant in their preaching and pastoral work for fear of their own exposure.

The problem (from a pastoral perspective) is that faith and repentance are not binary for Christians. It’s not that we either have faith or we don’t have faith. ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,’ is our constant cry. There is every possibility that a person can be believing and repentant, and at the same time unbelieving and unrepentant – or at least moving between those two states. So there is a need for wisdom.

It is possible for a person to respond to exposed sin with faith and repentance in a ‘textbook’ way. That could be a good sign. But it could also be a bad sign! They could be doing what they needs to do or ought to do to be regain their position in the community. They could even be responding to their sin in the ‘right’ way with motives that are self-righteous. Even confession can be a form of self-righteousness! So it is sometimes helpful to move the language away from forensic categories to affective categories (or at least to ensure the latter are included). So the issue is not just what they do or even what they believe. The issue is also what they love. Without this affective dimension mere assent might be confused with faith. As Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me more than these?’

Second, it is important to distinguish between the seriousness of a particular sin from a divine and human perspective.

From a divine perspective what counts is not the gravity of the sin (as measured by human beings). Matthew 5 tells us that lust in the heart is equivalent in God’s sight to adultery. (Indeed sometimes the only difference between the person who lusts and the person who commits adultery is cowardice.) What counts before God is faith and repentance. Indeed a lack of faith is God’s definition of sin.

From a human perspective some sins are worse than others in the sense of the impact they have on others. With Matthew 5 in mind, I would rather some hated me in their heart than murdered me! So, while in terms of justification and sanctification we should treat all sins alike, in some situations we can and should take into account the gravity of sin measured in its impact on others. This is particularly the case when assessing leaders. 1 Timothy 3 says an elder should be an example to believers and of good reputation with unbelievers.

1 Timothy 5:20 suggests that leaders need a public process of reproof (and, by extension, repentance). Clearly this cannot mean every sin must be publicly disowned. I think it refers to sins that, if they came to light, would confuse the flock and harm the church’s wider reputation. Consider an elder who commits an act of sexual immorality of which he is then repentant. Let’s suppose this is hushed up and he is quietly stood down for a time before being re-instated. What happens if this comes to wider attention at some point in the future? Christians in the congregation are confused and unbelievers have their prejudices confirmed. But if his repentance is public then the message of the gospel is affirmed and illustrated to all. Plus there is no fear of future exposure.

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