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.

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Posted by 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.


  1. Matt:
    I get the sense that there is something really important in what you (and Leithart)are talking about. I think I’m missing it completely, though…probably because I’m not clear on what the post-modern notion of the self is all about–or how that might contrast with the Christian notion, or not as the case may be.

    Anyhow, can you spell out a bit of what you mean when you say that the self can be understood only by reference to things external to itself contra being understood only with reference to itself. Who, exactly, is saying what?


  2. Matthew Lee Anderson April 9, 2008 at 9:15 pm


    I think your question goes straight to the heart of the issue. I think one point to be made is that (if I understand the situation correctly,) post-moderns reject the category of ‘being’ for human persons. They don’t really want to talk about the ‘self’ as a soul inside a body. Rather, they want to expand the concept so that the ‘self’ is viewed in its social dimensions–that is, it is ‘composed’ by its relations to the world around it.

    Does that help clarify the issue at all?


  3. […] Matthew Lee Anderson: The Postmodern Soul(?) and Augustine […]


  4. So, to continue the conversation that lies behind the excerpt from Leithart (and your critique)…some Christians are concerned that post-modern thought challenges the Christian understanding of the self by denying it its being. Leithart responds by saying that this is not a concern since the Christian conception of self is similar to the post-modern–that is, that both hold that the self is primarily understood in its relation to others (the Christian would say in relation to God while the post-modern would say in relation to the world and other humans/things, perhaps God, but not in the Christian sense of the term). Am I tracking so far?

    If so, it seems to be a very interesting proposition in deed. At first glance, it seems that there is much to explore in the idea of defining self primarily in terms of self’s relatino to God. However, to talk in terms of relations doesn’t seem to necessarily carry a critique of the parallel definition of self as being. True?


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