We are hungry for dignity. What Charles Taylor calls the politics of recognition—the perverse and often baffling need for each one of us to be affirmed in our uniqueness—is a hunger at the heart of so much North Atlantic hurt. Christians, cautious of these therapeutic politics, often fall back on the image of God as a sure rock on which to base our recognition of human worth. But what does it mean to image the divine? What does it actually tell us about who we are, and how we should live?
One of the places we can go to best answer this question is—perhaps surprisingly—Calvinism. Yes, you read that right. The same tradition branded as racist segregationists in the American South, South Africa, and elsewhere; as misogynists and abusers; as argumentative, ill tempered, bearded theobros. Can grounding for human dignity really come out of John Calvin and his tribe? I want to argue that in Calvin’s tribe, and particularly in his student Herman Bavinck, we find a beautiful, pluralistic, and foundational doctrine of human dignity and human diversity. This gift comes to us now at an urgent time, certainly for all Christians, but especially, perhaps, for Calvinists.
Imaging the Triune God
This doctrine begins—as Calvinists so love to—with the triune God.
The Trinity, says Bavinck in the second volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, “reveals God to us as the fullness of being, the true life, eternal beauty. In God, too, there is unity in diversity, diversity in unity.” Only a few lines later he repeats this critical insight for emphasis: in God there is “absolute unity as well as absolute diversity.” This is so, he argues, because God is triune: one God, three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit.
God’s oneness and threeness is the crux on which Christianity “stands or falls,” argues Bavinck. This proclamation is the “core of the Christian faith,” yet it remains a remarkable mystery: How is it, Christians have asked from generation to generation, that this can be true? While the metaphysical realities of God’s triunity are in many ways beyond comprehension, we can say with Christians from many times and places the words that begin the Athanasian Creed: “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.”
When we dwell on the Trinity, we learn about who we were created to be.
Were we to dwell on the profundity of the triune God or to simply marvel at the mystery and wonder of God, that would more than enough. As Fred Sanders reminds us in his recent book The Deep Things of God, “The boundless life that God lives in himself, at home, within the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds . . . is complete, inexhaustibly full, and infinitely blessed.” God is God, and God is wholly good, with or without his actions to us. Thus, the Trinity is not, and cannot be, a utilitarian dogma. We don’t dwell on the Trinity simply to know something of ourselves and our world. And yet, the Trinity does make “all the difference in the world” for everything; when we dwell on the Trinity, we learn about who we were created to be.
How can this be? For Bavinck, the answer is quite simple. God’s unity and diversity is the basis for creation’s unity and diversity. Because God is triune—which means, Bavinck reminds us, that God is united and diverse in his very nature—creation is united and diverse, for creation bears the marks of our Creator:
Everything was created with a nature of its own and rests in ordinances established by God. Sun, moon, and stars have their own unique task; plants, animals, and humans are distinct in nature. There is the most profuse diversity, and yet, in that diversity, there is also a superlative kind of unity. The foundation of both diversity and unity is in God.
In creation there is a “unity that does not destroy but rather maintains diversity, and a diversity that does not come at the expense of unity, but rather unfolds it in its riches.” While God alone is triune and his perfect unity and diversity cannot be absolutely replicated anywhere else, all of creation is patterned on it.
The pattern of unity and diversity that we see in creation, coming from the one who is unified in diversity, is particularly evident in humanity. As Bavinck puts it, “The triune being, God, is the archetype of man.” While all of creation “displays vestiges of God, only a human being is the image of God.”
Humanity as Image Bearers
Rather than looking for the singular thing—soul, intellect, relationality, rule, and so on—that sets humanity apart, as is common in theological discourse on the imago Dei, Bavinck sees the image of God as a holistic thing: a person “does not bear or have the image of God, but . . . he or she is the image of God.” There’s not just one thing we can point to that makes humanity God’s image bearer; it is the fullness of the human—and the fullness of humanity!—that is the image of God. “Nothing in a human being,” he writes, “is excluded from the image of God.”
Such an all-encompassing claim certainly envelopes many of the components of the image of God proposed by theologians (including those whom Bavinck is heavily influenced by, like Calvin and Augustine). Yes, Bavinck says: the image of God includes the soul; it includes our rational faculties; it includes our relational capacity; it includes our call to responsible dominion. But it cannot be summed up in any one of these things. We need to look bigger, to see humanity as a more fulsome, organic whole, in order to understand the image of God.
There’s not just one thing we can point to that makes humanity God’s image bearer; it is the fullness of the human—and the fullness of humanity!—that is the image of God.
The unity and diversity of the triune God is reflected analogously in humanity, both as individuals and as the whole human race, which is necessarily and purposefully bound together. What is it to be the image of God? Humanity, says Bavinck,
forms a unity of the material and spiritual world, a mirror of the universe, a connecting link, compendium, the epitome of all of nature, a microcosm, and, precisely on that account, also the image and likeness of God, his son and heir, a micro-divine-being (mikrotheos). He is the prophet who explains God and proclaims his excellencies; he is the priest who consecrates himself with all that is created to God as a holy offering; he is the king who guides and governs all things in justice and rectitude. And in all this he points to One who in a still higher and richer sense is the revelation and image of God, to him who is the only begotten of the Father, and the firstborn of all creatures. Adam, the son of God, was a type of Christ.
This lavish picture of the human being can be systematized, argues Bavinck, into four key aspects of the human person that make up the image of God: our souls, our faculties, our virtues, and our bodies. The first three aspects of this description are unsurprising, and resonant with the theologians who went before him. It is in the final aspect of the image of God—the body—where we really see Bavinck’s commitment to a holistic approach to the person. Nothing, including our bodies, can be set apart from our image bearing. His evidence for such a claim is scriptural: God himself became incarnate.
We cannot get a full picture of humanity’s image bearing, however, until we also see each other as bound up with one another. The image of God has a collective sense as well:
The image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be. It can only be somewhat unfolded in its depth and riches in a humanity counting billions of members.
Displaying a marvellous picture of God’s unity and diversity, a collective view of humanity, adorned by the gifts of many peoples and nations, is the most “telling and striking likeness of God.” Humanity was not created as an assortment of diverse individuals, argues Bavinck, but rather “every human person is an organic member of humanity as a whole.” For him, that means that we cannot just be seen as individuals (though his first understanding of the image of God makes sure we also uphold individuality); we are united together, in our diversity.
Bavinck says it best: “Every human being, while a member of the body of humanity as a whole, is at the same time a unique idea of God, with a significance and destiny that is eternal! Every human being is himself or herself an image of God, yet that image is only fully unfolded in humanity as a whole!”
Imaging God in a Pluriform World
Bavinck’s vision of the image of God—individual and collective, and beautifully holistic in both—has important implications for us as we seek to live faithfully in a pluralistic world. Anticipating the fullness of the collective image of God that includes every tribe, tongue, and nation gives us important marching orders for the here and now. If unity in diversity is the way of God’s creation and eschatological kingdom, it must be our way now too.
Easier said than done. Unity in diversity can go wrong by swinging the pendulum too far in either direction: only emphasizing unity or only emphasizing diversity.
Historically, even those who come out of this theological tradition have had difficulty actually living out this conviction. One particularly troubling aspect of neocalvinist history highlights just how destructive and sinful it can be to see only the diversity of humanity. For all the positives we can take away from Abraham Kuyper on questions of pluralism, we also must grapple with—despite his affirmations of the beauty of diversity in creation—his deeply damaging account of racial diversity within humanity, which perpetuated a racist notion of the superiority of European ancestry over African ancestry. This, alongside his concept of pillarization that championed clear separation between various spheres of society, was used by some to promote not only the separation of societal spheres but also a separation, or apartheid, of races. In a clear example of such an application, the white Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa’s report on apartheid argued—appealing to Babel—that distinctions between people are introduced by God, and thus “the church should avoid the modern tendency to erase all distinctions among peoples.” While sometimes too straight a line is drawn from Kuyper to apartheid South Africa, it is undeniable that Kuyper’s thought was influential in its development. In such a case, humanity is only seen as distinct, diverse groups to be categorized, ranked, and kept apart.
Anticipating the fullness of the collective image of God that includes every tribe, tongue, and nation gives us important marching orders for the here and now.
A strong dose of the unity of humanity in our diversity, and the multilingual, multiracial, and multinational character of the kingdom of God, actively rebukes such separations and hierarchy. Our view of one another will be profoundly wrong if we fail to grasp our deep unity with each other. We often say in ecclesial circles that Christians are members of one body, the church. The profound grace of God that unites us as this body is good, right, and true. Bavinck would also remind us that we are all members of another body: the “body of humanity.” This is yet another—common—grace of God.
The pendulum can go too far in the other direction as well, maintaining our unity so much that we lose sight of the diversity of each individual that is also the image of God. We can miss—or dismiss—the unique gifts, unique cultures, and unique tongues that we bring as individuals to the beautiful diversity of the collective image of God.
Diversity has been present in humanity from the very beginning of creation in age, gender, disposition, gifting, and more. This is good, Bavinck writes. With human sin, more diversity was occasioned. But Bavinck reminds us that God’s redemption is far and wide. Just as the scattered languages of Babel are not negated at Pentecost, but redeemed, so too with divisions of peoples and nations.
All too often, we can blur the beauty of diversity by insisting on unity, attempting to stamp out the good of pluralism for—supposedly—the sake of the kingdom. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” we cry, with good intentions (Galatians 3:28 NIV). But in doing so, we can forget that “every nation, tribe, people and language” stands before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9 NIV). Such a vision comes out prominently in what has been labelled “colourblind” theology that stresses our oneness in Christ, advocating an erasure of distinctions, especially racial distinctions. But the erasure of distinctions can span far beyond race too: we can advocate for homogeneity in dress, language, custom, cuisine, music, and so on. It is all too common, for example, to have a homogeneous view of Christian vocation: one must be a pastor or missionary to truly have a “kingdom” vocation. But this misses out—as much of the erasure of distinctions does—on the beautiful diversity of tasks God has called us to, and gifts God has equipped us with.
Bavinck’s holistic view of the image of God offers us a picture of a beautifully diverse humanity, grounded in our unity. Without the unity of humanity as a collective image of God, we lose our foundation for understanding diversity. Without diversity, we lose our sense of the richness and grandeur of the humans God has created, and in that, the grandeur of the way we as humanity are called to image God.
We have much to learn from Bavinck on this within the church. But we also have much to learn from Bavinck on this regarding how we view our non-Christian neighbours in a pluralistic world. We were created, Bavinck reminds us, to do something with the world God has given us, to steward it in his stead. As image bearers, we have the capacity for such a task, and this remains a task given not only to Christians but to all people. When we see the works of those in and out of the church, we can expect division, polarization, and sin; we are post-fall humans, after all. But we can also expect a good stewarding of the world God has given us: creating associations, institutions, and societal structures, making culture in language, custom, cuisine, art, and more. Such activity requires a diversity of giftings in individuals and, after the fall, a lavish grace of God. Both, thanks be to God, are given to us by our Creator and Sustainer.
Importantly, this does not mean acquiescing to an unmitigated plurality. Bavinck is not saying that distinctions in creed, for example, are part of the diversity of humanity we should celebrate as creational or eschatological. The good of humanity’s pluriformity has limits and, given human sin, we press those limits all too often, contorting them away from God’s original design.
But even so, God is in the business of redemption. He redeems, restores, and transforms our meagre cultural offerings, the ways we have attempted to use the diversity of our gifts, for his kingdom. And that kingdom, the prophet Isaiah reminds us, is a kingdom where we are fed by the “milk of nations” (Isaiah 60:16 NIV). A place where we might bring our literal feasts—baklava, bulgogi, biryani, and boterkoek—and these metaphorical feasts. As Richard Mouw reminds us in When the Kings Come Marching In, there are “diverse gifts and talents among humankind,” economically, politically, and culturally, that come together at the table of the Lamb.
We will come before the Lamb as embodied, whole persons who are the image of God. In this, we come before the Lamb as a people, united in our diversity. There we will feast on the gifts of many nations and be nurtured by the goods of many tribes and tongues. The corporate and individual reality of the image of God affirms both the uniqueness and embodied nature of each human being and provides a robust conception of our unity together. This is, to be sure, a reality of the kingdom. May we, by God’s grace, anticipate that table in word and deed even now.