Fall-Redemption vs. Imago Dei

January 12, 2003



Fall-Redemption vs. Imago Dei (1/12/03)

University Congregational Church — Wichita, KS

Rev. Gary Cox

When we look back on Christian history, there have been many important theologians who have played a part in shaping the way we think about and practice our faith today. Those persons we find in the Bible—Jesus, Paul, and John, to mention just a few—obviously had a lot to do with the development of Christianity. But few theologians would argue which individual from the post-biblical era had the greatest influence on Christianity. That would be Augustine of Hippo, or St. Augustine, as he is known today.

I have every intention to examine, at some future time, some of the important Christian thinkers from our past—not only Augustine, but also Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. These names are known to practically everybody, but few understand what they said and wrote that make them such important historical figures. Today, I’m going to take just a brief look at St. Augustine, for reasons that will become obvious as we go along.

Augustine lived in northern Africa in the 4th and 5th centuries. At that time, northern Africa was an important, Latin-speaking cultural center. When we think back on the saints, we tend to picture these pious and holy men, reverently going through their lives in some sort of spirit-drenched daze, doing great deeds of mercy and kindness, while having no doubts or questions about the truth of the Christian faith.

Well, if that’s what you think about St. Augustine, you can get that image out of your mind. Christianity did not come easy to Augustine. At first he was a Manichean. Manicheans believed that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different things. One was the creating and judging God, and the other was the redeeming and loving God. That was later determined to be a heresy. Then he was a Neoplatonist, which was not so much a religion as a mystical philosophy.

All the while, he had this wrestling match going on inside of himself. There were several reasons for this ongoing tug-of-war, not the least of which was the fact Augustine liked women. He liked women a lot. He liked a lot of women a lot. There is no indication that any of his old acquaintance believed he would one day be sainted. In a book he later wrote, he revealed one of his common prayers from his younger days, which went something like this: Oh Gracious God, I pray that through my Lord Jesus Christ you redeem my fallen soul from its present state; that you lead my away from wine, women and song; and that you keep me firmly on the path of righteousness—starting tomorrow. And then, of course, he would go out and have himself a thoroughly debauched good time.

Well, he straightened himself up as time went on, and he became regarded as the greatest theologian of his time. And as I mentioned, his theology has done more to shape the modern church than any other person found outside the Bible.
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Before I move on, let me mention that Augustine was a brilliant man. He was among the first to say that we should not read the Bible literally. For him, the story of Adam and Eve was not an historical story. Likewise, he did not think God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh day. These, he said, were myths and allegories. But he found great truth in the stories. They reveal spiritual truths that can be conveyed no other way, truths that are more important than mere history.

We often hear the term “original sin.” That term is not found in the Bible. It is original to Augustine. This is a complex and convoluted story, but here’s what happened. Augustine read the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and from his reading he determined that the fruit with which the serpent tempted eve, and Eve’s temptation of Adam, had something to do with sex. And that sexual impulse, with which our friend Augustine was quite familiar, was a part of our fallen nature that we inherit from Adam and Eve. This was the original sin of humanity.

It goes far beyond sex alone. Augustine tied all of our shortcomings to the concept of original sin. But the idea is that God created Adam and Eve perfectly, and they turned away from God. This is known as “the fall.” This is the fall of humanity, when we fell out of perfection and into sin. And that original sin has been passed on through the generations.

This leads to the crux of Christian theology over the past 1500 years: fall-redemption theology. The idea is that we are helplessly fallen creatures. But there is good news. God still loves us, and we can be redeemed by God. The original sin of humanity has been overcome by God, through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Augustine is very much expounding on the thinking of Paul, when he holds that the original man—Adam—led to humanity’s fall, and the perfect God-man—Jesus—makes available God’s redemption.

This attitude about the faith—this fall-redemption theology—formed the core of the church up until the enlightenment. It was then, especially during the 19th Century, that Christian theologians began questioning the idea that humanity was fallen and in need of redemption from some spiritual power beyond themselves. They believed in God, but they questioned whether or not heaven—the Kingdom of God that Jesus kept talking about—was in some future world that lies beyond the grave, or whether the Kingdom of God was right here on earth. Could it be that when Jesus said the Kingdom of God is among us, he meant it is right here, right now?

Further, advances is scientific knowledge led many sincere Christians to question the miracle stories. Did Jesus really walk on water, defying the laws of physics? Was that story symbolic? Could it be that God does not miraculously intervene in the world, but instead gives us the knowledge and will to turn our own world into a sort of heaven? These theologians did not put much emphasis on the fall. And if there is no fall, there is no need of redemption. Humanity was—dare we say it—perfectible through its own efforts.

And then, early in the 20th Century, something happened that convinced many theologians Augustine was right, that humanity was indeed fallen: World War I. The technology and science humankind had developed that allowed for great strides forward in medicine; that allowed for human beings to live in comfort, safety and health like never before in human history; that allowed us to dream that we could perhaps use our knowledge to create a heaven on earth—humanity found a way to turn that knowledge into a destructive power that was previously unimaginable.

The Second World War proved the point even further. Even if we have the ability to make this world into something heavenly, our fallen nature will not allow it. That, according to many 20th Century theologians, is the whole point of those stories from Genesis. Adam and Eve couldn’t help but turn away from God. Consider the third and fourth people to ever live, according to the biblical story—Cain and Abel. One was a murderer, and the other a murder victim. Brother killed brother from the very beginning, and human history is a history of God’s children finding justification for killing God’s children.

So fall-redemption theology was back in style. There was a brief period when we tried to get away from Augustine’s interpretation of reality, but with the 20th Century it reappeared, and fall-redemption theology has stuck with us.

Enter a 20th century theologian named Matthew Fox. Matthew Fox was a Catholic priest who had the courage to stand up, very publicly, and say that Christianity took a radical wrong turn with St. Augustine, and has been following the wrong path ever since. This Dominican priest had the audacity to say that human beings are, by nature, good.

This, of course, was an attack on everything the church stood for. And we’re not just talking about Catholicism. The whole Protestant Reformation was built on the idea that humanity is beyond redemption without the work of God; that there is absolutely nothing we can do to place ourselves in God’s grace. In Calvin’s words, we are “totally depraved.”

So Matthew Fox managed to step on just about everybody’s toes when he said Augustine went off the beam. As you can imagine, the Vatican was just thrilled with this guy. First, he was censured by the Vatican, meaning he was not to be listened to because he was preaching and teaching heresy. In 1989 he was officially silenced by the Church. Finally, in 1995, he was dismissed by the Dominican Order.

Over the past 30 years Matthew Fox has written well over 20 books, and there is a theme that runs though each of them. That theme is called Original Blessing. Original blessing is the opposite of original sin. Original sin begins with the idea that we are fallen. Original blessing begins with another idea: that we are born in the image of God. Theologians call this imago dei, which literally means image of God. That is where our thinking should begin, maintains Fox—not with the evil within us, but with the goodness within us. He calls this theology Creation Spirituality. And like Augustine, for Fox it all comes back to the early part of Genesis. But where Augustine concentrates on the evil in the world brought about by Adam and Eve’s fall, Matthew Fox concentrates on those words that are said over and over as God is in the process of creating the universe: And God saw that it was good. With every step of creation, God sees that it is good, and after the process of creation is completed, God looks at everything that has been created and says, “It is good.”

Creation Spirituality. It is the belief that we are good because we are imago-dei—created in the image of God, who is goodness itself.

I must confess that I am torn between the thinking of Matthew Fox and the thinking of St. Augustine. I do believe that we are inherently good, because we are God’s creation, so I lean toward Fox. At the same time, I recognize, and in fairness, so does Matthew Fox, that there is something wrong with us. But I agree with Fox that it is wrong to concentrate too much on our fallenness. It is that attitude—the attitude that we are depraved and worthless in our very nature—that leads to all sorts of evil. It is that attitude that makes people ignore the problems of the world as they hope for some future heavenly perfection. I would never deny life beyond this world. It’s just that I figure what lies beyond the grave is up to God, and what lies on this side of the grave is up to us. Too many people use the excuse of our fallenness to turn away from solvable problems in the here and now.

I find some comfort in the thinking of the great Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. I’ve read many of his books, and Matthew Fox turns to him in Fox’s most recent book. Fox writes, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn tells us that we are all born with seeds of violence and with seeds of peace in us but we must water and nourish the seeds of peace if they are to grow. Furthermore, society itself has its own agenda—which is often biased in favor of seeds of violence—and so we have to work all the harder at peace development.

I like that way of thinking about human beings. We are not born totally depraved. We are born good, because we are born in the image of God, and we have the capacity within us for both good and evil. How we grow is largely determined by how we are nourished by our parents and by our culture. And ours is a frightening culture, a violent culture. Our children grow up surrounded by music that often glorifies violence and is demeaning to women. By the time a child enters high school, he or she has witnessed countless thousands of murders on television and in movies. And an 18-year-old whose seeds of violence have been nurtured from an early age can buy a gun as easily, and more legally, than a six-pack of beer.

But we are still good. We have to hang on to that thought, because we are the pinnacle of God’s creation, and if we are not good, then creation is not good, and if creation is not good, then all hope is lost.

This morning we will celebrate the ancient sacrament of communion. I love communion on so many levels. Consider the symbolism behind the elements of communion—behind the bread and wine. This is the holiest of Christian celebrations, this sacrament of communion. And look at what we use for the celebration: common elements of creation. Bread—what is simpler than bread? And juice, or wine. There is nothing especially holy about these things.

But when we look at them the right way, everything changes. The bread and wine become living symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. The everyday becomes extraordinary. The plain becomes beautiful. The mundane becomes sacred.

I can think of no better way for us to water the seeds of peace, beauty and love, than to share this ancient sacrament together.

As we begin, I remind you that at University Congregational Church, we celebrate “Open Communion,” meaning all present are welcome to partake, whether they are from a Christian faith tradition, or some other faith tradition. Our feeling is that Jesus welcomed everybody to his table, so we certainly welcome everybody to ours.


Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.