Previous article in this series: March 15, 2018, p. 282.
“After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”
In the previous article we considered the doctrine of the image of God and, in particular, the way this doctrine is traditionally understood within the Protestant Reformed Churches. The perspective taken by the PRC makes a key theological distinction between the material image of God—true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness—and the uniquely human capacity to bear this image in a formal sense. Readers will recall the metaphor of a wedding ring used to illustrate this distinction, in which the wedding band represents the capacity of humans to hold and display the precious diamond that represents the actual image of God. In this second article I plan to build on this metaphor by considering the properties of a diamond, and how they point toward a more complete understanding of what it means for people to bear the image of God. The key properties we will consider are the organic composition of a diamond and its fashioning as a many-faceted jewel, both of which serve to deepen our appreciation for the corporate nature of the image of God in His elect people.
The etymology of the word “organic” and the route to its current usage make for an interesting study in the development of language. A quick check in an online dictionary will yield up to fourteen different uses of the word as an adjective, all of which can be traced back to a Greek root word that few of us would readily connect with our modern understanding of the term (organon, meaning “instrument of work” or “tool”). Today the word “organic” very likely conjures up a variety of definitions for readers of this article, the most prominent of which is simply “natural.” We live in a world where the term ‘organic’ has become a desirable characteristic for food and other consumer products that are produced by ‘natural’ means, free of industrial fertilizers, pesticides or preservatives. For those readers who are familiar with the natural sciences, the term brings up thoughts of a certain discipline of chemistry involving the study of carbon atoms. This relationship is in turn a reflection of the fact that biological life is based on carbon chemistry, which makes up the core of nearly all biological molecules including DNA, proteins, and carbohydrates. In this sense, anything that is ‘organic’ is a product of life, which until very recently was recognized by nearly everyone to be a highly ordered function of divine creation. As such we speak of God’s living creatures as “organisms,” each one an intricately wrought collection of functional tissues—that is, “organs”—which carry out the work of a body. And so, we come full circle to the Greek root.
Within this linguistic framework it is the chemical composition of diamonds that earns them the designation of being ‘organic’ compounds. As I noted in the previous article, diamonds are in fact composed of pure carbon, with the constituent atoms arrayed in a specific three-dimensional pattern to produce a clear, crystalline material. This specific pattern of many carbon atoms is uniquely fit to serve as a jewel because it is transparent despite its high capacity to bend and disperse—or refract—light. These properties are what make a properly cut diamond sparkle as light passes through it. As such, we can rightly say that the organic nature and geometric cut of a diamond are absolutely essential to its distinctive properties. A different array of carbon atoms or the addition of impurities would render a diamond useless as a jewel, because it would destroy the properties that make a diamond beautiful to display. In a similar sense, the cut of a diamond is essential to maximizing its beauty, because the geometric arrangement of its many faces ensures the best refraction and dispersion of light. Anyone who has seen a ‘diamond in the rough’ knows exactly what this means! It may be a real diamond, but it is not especially beautiful until it has been fashioned correctly.
Bearing in mind the limitations of any metaphor, we can say something similar about the doctrine of the image of God. Like the diamond in a wedding ring, it is organic in nature and finds maximal beauty by its fashioning into a gem of many facets.
When theologians use the word ‘organic,’ it is important to discern carefully what they mean and the motivation behind their use of the term. It recently has become popular to talk about “organic theology” as an alternative to “systematic theology,” by which term the authors often intend to subvert the unity and inerrancy of Scripture to allow for “doctrines [that] can grow and mature, or evolve over time” to accommodate current movements in the church and society.1 This is certainly not the intent of historically Reformed writers who most often utilized the term to explain the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in, through, and by humanity to accomplish the will of our triune God. For instance, it is common to read of the Spirit’s work of inspiration as being ‘organic’ in nature, by which the authors intend to acknowledge the role of lively human instruments in this divine work ().2 In this sense the proper theological concepts underlying the term organic include both an instrumental and a biological component that are faithful to the original meaning of the word and its relationship to living creatures.
It is this twofold sense of the word ‘organic’—instrumental and biological—that is compelling when one considers the doctrine of the image of God. This viewpoint can be observed in the writing of Dutch reformer Abraham Kuyper who is—to my knowledge—unique in his application of the term to the doctrine of the image of God. It should be said at the outset that the underlying premise that Kuyper espouses is overtly aimed at a very wide definition of the image of God in humanity, which he placed under the broader category of common grace.3 He very clearly indicates that his concept of the image applies to every single human, irrespective of his or her status in the divine plan of double predestination. Let me be clear that I am not espousing Kuyper’s position on common grace or the image of God in this article. Rather, the interest of this article is to examine the concept of an ‘organic’ view of the image of God in its breadth and fullness displayed in the diverse body of Christ that we call the church.
So what is this ‘organic’ view of the image of God? Let us start with Kuyper’s own words.
For good reason, therefore, we pose the question whether the creation of man in God’s image does not have a significance vastly greater than what has been acknowledged up until now in individual terms. The answer lies in the simple observation that the image of God is certainly much too rich a concept to be realized in one single person. In looking at parents and children we can sometimes see the facial features and character traits of the parents to be spread out over the several children in varying proportions but always in such a way that none displays them in their fullness. How much more do we not have to confess that the image of Eternal Being, if we may so put it, is much too full and rich to be reproduced in one individual.4
The basic premise of Kuyper’s statement is striking because it provides us with a better understanding of how the image of our infinite God can be represented in finite humans. It should be sufficiently obvious that no single human person, with the exception of our Lord Jesus Christ, could completely represent the infinite attributes of God. Because He was equally divine and human, having two perfectly complete but separate natures, Christ could be the “express image”—or precise replica—of the divine substance in human form (Heb. 1:3). This way of displaying the image of God is quantitatively impossible for creatures, both individually and collectively. No matter how many believers display the image of God, they cannot approach the infinite perfection of attributes belonging to God.
But Kuyper is not speaking in a quantitative, that is, “measurable” sense in his development of an organic image. Note the illustration of family resemblance that he uses to make his point. Oftentimes a child bears some resemblance to his or her parents but is not exactly like either of them. At the same time, however, when we look at a family of several siblings we can observe many of the parents’ features—or qualities—that collectively represent the parents’ appearance rather well, though not completely. All of the children in the family share equally in their genetic heritage, but each in his or her own way reflects the image of the parents in a qualitative sense.
An important point that we must be careful to acknowledge is that God’s image is fully present in every redeemed child of God renewed in Christ. This means that when we speak of the ‘organic’ image of God being the collective display of His glory in the members of Christ’s body, we do not mean that the image found in any individual believer is partial or incomplete or lesser than that found in another believer. All redeemed children of God bear the image equally and fully, yet in a unique way. The illustration of family resemblance that Kuyper uses is faithful to this truth because children in a family share equally in their heritage. None of them is essentially more or less of their parents in terms of genetic inheritance, since all of the children are organically related to their parents in the same way. At the same time, however, each child displays the image of his parents in a different and unique way.
When we move from this illustration back to our consideration of the material image of God in believers—that is, true knowledge, righteousness and holiness—it becomes easier to understand how the image of God is better captured in the entire body of Christ rather than in individual believers. Because the formal aspects that make believers capable of being image bearers differ from one believer to another, the way that the image of God shines through them emphasizes God’s attributes in a unique and different way for each believer. Though this collective image falls short of the infinite attributes of God, it still allows for observers of the church of Christ more completely to grasp the breadth and fullness of God’s image in His people.
Consider for one moment the diversity of natural and spiritual gifts given corporately to the church (). There are gifts of learning and teaching, of ministry and service, all of which can be put to use building up the body and thus glorifying God in Christ. No one person bears all these gifts, and even if someone did, they would be of little use without other human objects upon which they could be exercised. The beauty and strength of the church is its corporate nature, a body with many members who are necessary to the functioning of the whole organism. When this organism is filled with the Spirit and functions as intended by God, it reflects His image in a way that is impossible for any single believer to do alone. So too a diamond. When given many facets that are arrayed in an orderly and precise fashion, it radiantly displays light far better than an unshapen lump of crystalline carbon dug out of the earth. Facets to the diamond are not just important, they are crucial to its purpose as a gemstone!
This truth also has some incredibly important implications from a biological point of view. Foremost amongst these important implications is the necessity of diversity in the body of Christ. And though this diversity does not seek its definition in modern secular ideals of ethnicity and gender, we ought not shy away from recognizing that diversity in the church is in more than just spiritual gifts or natural abilities. The passage that introduces this article points to that truth in its presentation of the multitude of glorified, elect believers before the throne of God. The central theme here is the unified purpose of a body containing diverse individuals. Arrayed in identical white robes earned for them by the Lamb, they raised their voices together to declare a singular message of worship to the Redeemer and His Son. Perhaps missing from our initial reading of the passage, however, is John’s statement that this multitude of people spoke their praise in the widest variety of languages he could describe. In a representation of all humankind, these believers brought glory and honor to God in words that surely sounded very different, though they carried the same message of praise.
It is worth asking why John was inspired by God through a vision—not just words—to describe the redeemed saints before the throne in heaven (). It appears from the written words that John was amazed by the sheer diversity of the people he saw, which was probably all the more striking given the relatively limited cultural experience he would have had. Although the Roman empire in the Mediterranean world was fairly diverse in an ethnic sense, it is doubtful that John would have recognized people from other contemporary cultures such as those from China, Scandinavia, or North America. We can be sure, however, that when John described the multitude as encompassing “all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues,” he meant exactly that.
This diversity of glorified, elect believers has its source in God’s design of His biological creation. Like the microbes, plants and animals that adorn His creation, God saw fit to create in humanity the capacity for a great diversity that would emerge in time from Adam and Eve. The very fact that God created them male and female—both in His image—is a testament to God’s intention that His people grow into a multitude of diverse people (). The creation of complementary genders that can only reproduce sexually is a design mechanism that ensures and reinforces genetic diversity in the creation. So too was the wisdom in God’s direction to Old Testament Israel that they not reproduce with close family members like the heathen nations around them ( ). Though they could not have understood the reasons for those prohibitions at the time, we know with great clarity today that such practices necessarily increase the risk of genetic disorders and an overall loss of health within a population of individuals. Marriages and reproduction outside of close family bonds, on the other hand, promote greater genetic variation and increase the likelihood of health in a growing population.
The extent of human biological diversity, which we see in the many ethnicities of our modern world, is the result of God’s providential guidance of genetic change through history.5 When John peered forward in time to see what the entire body of Christ looked like, he saw the complete, organic result of this guidance. In that vast multitude were men and women, Jewish people and Gentiles of every kind—all of whom praised God with the particular form given to them by their Creator. In them the diamond of God’s image sparkled brightly because it had many facets carved into it by the One who implanted the image in that multitude.
Do you love God’s saints in India, or Germany, or Singapore, or Nambia, or the Philippines—or anywhere else in this world? Do you pray for them as fellow members of the body of Christ, and fellow heirs of the promises made to Abraham? Do not look at the differences in our ethnicities, cultures, and national histories as a barrier to the worship of Jehovah, but as a means He has used to enrich the presentation of His image to the world around us. Together with them we bear the image of the One True God who has created us, redeemed us, and made us suitable settings for His precious jewel.
2 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol I, ed. John Bolt; trans, John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 388-389. Ronald Hanko, Doctrine According to Godliness (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), 18-19. Homer Hoeksema, In The Beginning God. 2nd ed. (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2015), 14-18.
3 Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace, vol. II, ch. 83, 623-627.
4 James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 177-78.
5 One example of how divine providence guided the diversification of humanity is implied by the events at the Tower of Babel. In this context God intentionally separated a unified group of people into distinct groups by a confusion of their languages, which resulted in their scattering over the face of the earth (). This geographic separation almost certainly is what promoted the natural genetic diversification of each unit into a distinct ethnic population.