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The Postmodern Soul(?) and Augustine

April 8th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Peter Leithart has penned some brief thoughts on the history of the 'imago dei' in Western theology and its relationship to the postmodern notion that the 'self' cannot be understood or found outside its relationship to the world and others. They are worth reading in their entirety.

He concludes:

Thus, for Calvin, man as created and man as saved are not merely two stages in the history of one subject, but two different sorts of subject: As created, man’s self is centered “in himself,” but as saved man is centered in another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is stronger – more Protestant as well as more catholic – when he insists, like Barth, that the image of God is fundamentally ecstatic, an “analogy of relationship” rather than an “analogy of being.” Bonhoeffer even employs the language of justification when he describes the original condition of Adam: The image “is not a human potential or possibility or a structure of human existence; instead it is a given relation, a relation in which human beings are set, a [passive righteousness]!” Bonhoeffer closes the gap Calvin opened between created man and saved man; both as image of God and as restored image of God, human beings find their true selves only outside themselves.

Postmodernism is a threat to Christian faith at a number of levels. But the postmodern notion of a self that is not centered in himself is not one of those threats. Far from threatening the Protestant conception of the self, postmodernism opens the possibility that the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith reveals not only the secret of salvation but unveils the mystery of human existence as such.

While Leithart's critiques of Calvin are plausible, I am less convinced that Augustine is to blame (if the word is appropriate) for the individualistic understanding the imago dei, as Leithart seems to suggest. While he certainly locates the imago dei in the soul, it is only a fully functioning soul if it is externally oriented--that is, if it looks toward the God who created it. If it ceases to do that, and looks in on itself, then it is deformed, exchanging wisdom for folly. As he writes in De Trinitate V.22, "Those who do, on being reminded, turn to the Lord from the deformity which had conformed them by worldly lusts to this world are reformed by him."

For Augustine, then, there is no gap between created man and saved man's being. We have 'being' only insofar as we are oriented around and grounded in Being--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I suspect that Augustine's concept of the 'gift' of the Holy Spirit is lurking behind the divine-human relationship--as we give ourselves to God, he gives us back ourselves.

Whether Calvin has this same anthropology is an interesting question. Given his neo-platonic tendencies and his apparent indebtedness to Augustine's understanding of the importance of the knowledge of self for the knowledge of God, I am decidedly more optimistic than Dr. Leithart that Calvin's understanding of the self is more 'ecstatic' than Dr. Leithart thinks.

Sed contra: Dr. Leithart is........Dr. Leithart. Which means I am almost certainly wrong.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.