A Short Catechism Based on Richard Lints’ Book: Identity and Idolatry

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Richard Lints. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion. New Studies in Biblical Theology. 36. IVP, 2015. 

1) What do we mean when we say humans are made in the “Image of God”?

It means humans are created as divine reflectors of God (Page 22) and divine representatives of God (Page 103). Our human identity is thus rooted in what we reflect (Page 30).

2) Where is the “Image of God” primarily manifested? 

The church is the fundamental context in which the image of Christ is manifested on this side of eternity…(Page 127).

…The church is the community of God’s people who, in their fidelity to Christ and to each other, bear the imprint of Christ. In a highly democratized environment such as the present, this stands as a necessary corrective to the temptations towards forms of piety that are strikingly individualistic…Being “in Christ” bears the fruit of recognizing that all who belong to Christ are members who all belong to each other (Page 127). This simply is to claim that the church is the context for our identity, but in a time when the church sits lightly on the minds and hearts of many Christians in the West it is not a surprise that Christian identity has become so fragile (Page 166).

3) Who is the PERFECT “Image of God”?

Christ is, because Christ is the “exact representation” and that which by the invisible God has become visible (Heb. 1:5 and John 1:18)… (Page 103).

…Christ is the perfect image who suffers in our place and for our redemption (Eph. 5:25-26). As a consequence, human identity is most clearly seen in Christ, the one in whom, through whom and for whom humankind was made (1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:16) (Page 103).

4) What is idolatry? 

Idolatry is the conceptual “turning upside down” of our originally intended relationship with God (page 82).

The shape of the canonical story (think here of Scripture as a theological drama) suggests that the overriding relation of the image (humans) to the original (triune God) is that of worship, honor, completion and satisfaction, and conversely suggests the subverting of that relationship of image to original [idolatry] is that of perversion, corruption, consumption and possession (page 29).

5) When does idolatry happen?

Idolatry happens when humans look for significance and security from the created order instead of finding it in their Creator (Page 93).

[Humans are made in such a way as to yearn for something beyond themselves that will grant them significance. This yearning leads us in two different directions:

  1. Towards desiring our Creator (which is a proper worship) or,
  2. Desiring to replace our Creator with something in the created order over which we can exercise control (Page 80). [Which is, idolatry.]

6) What does idolatry create? 

Promising blessing, the idol creates bondage. Promising protection, idols create insecurity (Page 82).

The inversion produces an entirely predictable consequence – abandoning God results in an identity crisis wherein one’s safety and significance become endlessly fragile (Page 111).

7) Why is idolatry bad? 

Idolatry is prohibited on the grounds that it inverts the relationship between Creator and creature. Idolatry is that thing which most centrally threatens the security and significance of the covenantal relationship between Creator and creature, between Redeemer and redeemed, between Christ and his people. Paradoxically, the idol-maker is the theological opposite of the image bearer (Page 35).

8) How does idolatry invert the relationship between Creator and creature?

One, because creatures should not suppose that their Creator can be shaped according to their own imagination. And two, idols represent gods that do not exist (Page 109). Those who create an idol seek to possess it for their own purpose (Page 157).

Idols do not threaten YHWH since the deities they represent do not exist. But they do threaten Israel’s well-being, because Israel were those who ‘made’ the idols. Promising great blessing, idols create great addictions. As God has made humankind in his image, so idols remade the very humans who had made them. People become like their idols (Page 89). Worship fashions the worshipper into an imprint of the object worshipped (Page 94).

The central contradiction of idolatry is in the fact that God has formed humankind, God designs humans for significance, and God protects his creatures…Idolatry is the strange turning of this reality on its head, by suggesting the very objects of one’s making are the means by which one can gain significance and security (Page 97). The idol-maker ventures to make his own idol as the means to control his own significance and safety (Page 98).

9) Why are humans drawn to idolatry? 

Because humans desire to control their own destiny (Page 110), thus, we are “doxologically fragile” (Page 42). Humans are attracted to idols not on rational grounds but rather as means to gratify desires. We believe in idols because we want to, even as an alcoholic is attracted to alcohol because he wants it (Page 40).

As well, the fragility of the human heart disposes it to yearn for security on its own terms. Thus, idolatry is not in the first instance a cognitive error (believing in other gods) but a fallacy of the heart (yearning for control). (Page 85). Humans are under the illusion that other created things will satisfy their deepest longings and so we replace the Creator, with significant loss to ourselves (Page 110).

10) What is our best defense against our becoming idolaters ourselves? 

The Biblical canon strongly argues that the only defense against idolatry is God Himself. There must be a window through which he can be known, in order that a light may shine back upon the idols, unmasking them for what they are. It is only in comparison to the one true living God that the idols are manifested as mere pretenders.

The notion of a light shining or reflecting the identity of God into and against the idols is the function of the imago Dei rightly considered. The identity of God illuminates the identity of the imago Dei, which in turn illuminates the true identity of the idols. Put differently, images will reflect. The key question of the Scriptures is, what will images reflect? Will the image of God (humankind) image God?

It seems a simple question. Will the image of God find his or her identity in the reflection of God? (Pages 41-42).

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I read this book “admirably” (Now that I’m thinking of it, I don’t recall ever using that form of the word before)…

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This is exactly the sort of book I was looking for. I mean, let’s be real. Who WOULDN’T love an 875 page compendium filled with all sorts of information on not just philosophers but ALSO theologians? MMMMM. Delightful! While I’ve loved spending my time in the hallways of theology the past few years I couldn’t shake this nagging frustration I’ve had since completing my philosophy degree in undergrad: I had yet to walk through an entire “history of philosophy” text from start-to-finish. This fact was starting to haunt me. I just could not shake the shame. So I began looking for a detailed and yet fairly simple textbook – one that would make clear the overall chronology and the relations between each main philosopher within the Western tradition.  This, because I want to have a better knowledge of the overall layout, or map of philosophy. I’ll be the first to admit: I’m still not quite where I want to be, but after reading this book I could fill out the timeline with a bit more fluency than I otherwise could have.

By the time I reached the end, I was amazed that someone (anyone really) could be as well read and informed as Frame while at the same time find ways to summarize, explain and analyze the tradition so simply. Perhaps great learning + lots of reading should = easy-to-understand teaching, like a formula or something. But it rarely does, whatever that means. But Frame is a special case. The more I read this book the more I found myself admiring the author. Reading the book felt very reminiscent to what it’s like to be in a classroom with a teacher who deeply cares about his students. I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but nonetheless, on every page the writer was doing everything he could to help the reader to learn. And I did learn, a ton.

One of the little details that helped me stay on task was that the publishers included a chapter outline on every single page. For me, this was extremely helpful as I went through the information because at a quick glance I could remind myself of the big picture amidst the details: who did I just learn about, and who is on the docket next? And it’s worth mentioning: The format of the book was very easy on the eyes (I’m not sure what font they were using but it was nice). The footnotes were at the bottom of each page which makes for a smoother read as I generally like to glance at them as they show up vs. having to flip to the back. The publishers definitely made it easy to get through the material and this helped me get through the book quicker than I was expecting.

I was intrigued by Frame’s overarching theme or what you could call his “lens of analyzation,” when he sought to show how every non-Christian philosopher vacillated between rationalism and irrationalism. I found out this is in united tow with Cornelius Van Till’s own syntheses. I hadn’t run into this dialectic before as an overarching perspective and found it quite illuminating as it pertained to certain philosophers – oftentimes the applied concept felt significantly apropos (but other times, a bit stretched). Frame discusses the dynamic as the following:

“If rationalism is true, the mind should not make errors in its quest for knowledge. But it does. When it does, philosophers do not want to blame their autonomous reason (the subject of knowledge). Rather, they blame the world, the object of knowledge. The mind cannot attain perfect knowledge because the world is not perfectly knowable. So rationalism leads to irrationalism. But how do we know that the world is irrational? By our would-be-autonomous knowledge, of course. So irrationalism leads back to rationalism. Or, to shorten the discussion: Philosophers assert rationalism irrationally, for there is no adequate ground for asserting it. And philosophers assert irrationalism rationalistically, on the basis of their autonomous intellect. So, in the end, the two positions, inconsistent as they are, are based on each other and are in one sense identical.” (Page 33)

 

I appreciated looking at each philosopher through this lens. It helped me not only learn the content but also forced me to make decisions about the level of validity of each respective worldview. The book was nothing near neutral in this regard, but I didn’t mind. I was wondering if I’d learn of any new philosophers going through the book, and there were three that stuck out to me, such as:

  1. Esther Lightcap Meek (1953 – ). I hadn’t heard of her before. But Frame mentions her in his last chapter of the book: “recent christian philosophy”. Apparently she was a student of Frame in the late 1970s. She is a Professor at Geneva College near Pittsburgh and also Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Redeemer Seminary. Her work focuses on epistemology, unpacking the implications of the work of Michael Polanyi (who I also wasn’t too familiar with before reading this book). Her “ordinary view of knowledge” is interestingly, “person-centered.” Her descriptions of reality and knowledge as personal is very distinctive, and I look forward to reading her books in the near future. You can see her website here: http://www.longingtoknow.com/.
  2. Adrea Seu Peterson (1951 – ). She is a Faith & Inspiration columnist for WORLD magazine. I’ve found some of her stuff here but haven’t yet had time to read it: https://world.wng.org/authors/andr_e_seu_peterson. While Peterson is not an academic theologian or philosopher, Frame has often said that she is the “best theologian writing today” (page 537). He says, “She has a knowledge of Scripture that dwarfs that of most theologians and philosophers, and she has a nuanced understanding of every life situation she deals with. Her columns draw me into the Lord’s presence more than any other writing (outside of Scripture) that I know of.” Wow, high praise indeed. I can’t wait to dig in.
  3. Henry Jellema (1893-1982) was the founder of Calvin College’s philosophy department. While I’m very familiar with Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, I didn’t realize both of them were substantially affected by Jellema’s teaching when they were classmates. In fact, Plantinga left Harvard just so he could learn from Jellema (You can see Plantinga’s self-profile on Google books here). Apparently, this Jellema character was a teacher-phenom-par-excellence. I want to see if I can locate any of his material (even though he never wrote a book) – perhaps there is some hidden treasure lying around some library somewhere. I did find this article online which confirmed the high praise: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1447&context=gvr. Will try to find out more in the future.

Andddddd, I’ll end the post here. Let me know if you have any questions. MP