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Know Your Faith by Nels F. S. Ferré


Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1959. Copyright 1959 by Nels F.S. Ferré. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 3: To Mature Manhood


Our age is man-centered. We are sure of man, but we are not sure of God. Because doubt and despair come more easily than faith, we reinterpret the classical affirmations of faith in terms of man. That, indeed, is what "existentialism" is all about. To some this man-centeredness seems the nadir of faith. We have gone about as low as we can go. Tillich, however, in his Lowell Lectures, has pointed out that the kind of science and the kind of philosophy that made man an object, a thing, was even lower.

Existentialism, even nihilistic existentialism, is at least the affirmation that man is free to choose. All roads may equally lead to nothing, as Sartre claims, but at least man is free to throw himself into the pursuit of his choice. At least, as Hesse maintains, every man is a road unto himself. There is some hope at least in the Chinese poet who cried that out of nowhere nothing answered yes!

But the full standard for man is Christ. Christ is the fullness of God in the fullness of man in the fullness of time. He is God as universal, unconditional Love, the reality of eternity fulfilling created time. He is the Godman in whom are joined the nature of God as entire Love and the nature of man as made for that Love. He is God convincingly present in one of us, showing us his heart in the Cross and his arm in the Resurrection.

If we look at man in the light of Christ, how does he appear? If the God who came in Christ created the world, creation is good. To deny this is to deny Christ. On the other hand, when we look at the merciless ravages of nature or at the bestiality, even of religiously educated man -- especially as we have seen him in this century --it is impossible to maintain that creation is merely good. It is also somehow terrifyingly evil.

This fact gives ground for the historic doctrine of "the fall" of man. In the history of man as anthropology shows it, however, there is no such fall. But if God is the creator of man and nature, in some way man has "fallen" from his origin. The least that can be said is that evil nature and sinful man are not God’s intention in creation.

Therefore, no discussion of the Christian understanding of man can be right if it so glories in the goodness of creation as to obscure the reality of "the fall," or so grovels in the depravity of "the fall" as to deny the goodness of creation. This double fact concerning man sets the problem of our discussion on this topic.

I

First, we must ask if man is good or bad. This question can have no easy answer. The answer depends upon the meaning of the question. From the point of view of creation, man is good. God cannot make a bad world or a bad man. The Bible says that God saw everything that he had made and that it was good. The God who created man is the same God who came in Christ to save him. How can such a God be guilty of an evil creation? God has all possible power and wisdom. Creation suffers from no defect. Therefore, if we start with God the creator, man is essentially good.

He is essentially good because he is from God. The origin of man is perfect. The source out of which he was made is flawless. Besides, if God is the one to and through whom all things are ultimately related, man’s chief reference is good. Man’s present nature is primarily related to God. Therefore by main reference man is essentially good.

Besides, man’s destiny is to be made for God. God made him for himself. When he created, the perfect, allwise and all-loving God created man for a perfect destiny. Anything short of such an affirmation would be a denial of the reality and nature of God as seen in Christ. Man in the light of Christ is consequently essentially good. This way of looking at man is ultimate. There can therefore be no dispute about the fact that man is essentially good. Such is the view of man from the point of view of creation, reference, and destiny.

Nevertheless, looked at the opposite way, at his actual nature, while similarly in the light of Christ, man is undeniably bad. Man, we remember, is made to be all good, as God his Father is. Jesus bids us to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect. The perfection Jesus enjoins is a maturity of love that is universal and indiscriminate. God lets his sun shine on the just and the unjust and we likewise are required to love all people alike. Man appears continually to be selling God short. He falls prey to fears and becomes guilty of accepting anxieties. But perfect love casts out fear, we know, and we are bid to be anxious in nothing, but in everything to be thankful. Being honest with ourselves and unsentimental about others, can we say that in these respects we are predominantly good?

With regard to others, we are told to prefer them in honor and never to measure ourselves by them. As a matter of fact, we are created to be continuously and unexceptionally outgoing in our acceptance of others and in every needful self-involvement in their lives. Who dares to say that, measured by this standard, he is more good than bad?

Who knows his deepest motives and hidden drives enough to say that he has been delivered from self-regard and knows his life to flow like a fountain, full and free, in mature good will to others? And knowing that nothing is impossible for God, if we trust him, who can look at his own life as not only free from distortions but also as a living miracle of world-shaking power for good? Who dares to take literally the biblical promise that greater works of faith than Christ’s shall be done because Christ has gone to his Father? When we measure the best of men by Christ’s standard, then, not even to mention the full, gross, common sinfulness of man generally, how can we claim even for a moment that man is basically good?

Thus we seem to be up against the fact that either our faith is wrong or our observation of man in the light of it is incorrect. We could conclude that the Christian faith taken at its own best is idealistic and unrealistic, that it is in fact, escapist. Or on the other hand we could conclude that man is not really bad, not really sinful in the Christian sense of being "curved in on himself." But neither choice will do.

We have, then, to find a possible solution of this seemingly impossible dilemma. The Christian faith has its own problems, but it is easier to accept these problems than to deny the central light Christ sheds on existence.

God made man good. This is his essential nature. Man’s fallen nature is not his real nature, but only the actual condition of his nature. He is in alien territory but he is still a citizen of heaven. What does this mean?

First of all, we must view all things, especially man, in the light of God. Seen thus, earthly existence is only a small segment of God’s preparatory work. If we make this time-space world central to our existence, there is no answer to our dilemma in terms of an adequate faith. The length of time God takes to prepare for free life staggers us. His molding man from "the dust of the ground" is a cosmic process of millions of years. Incomparably long is the time he took to prepare for the coming of life on this planet.

By contrast our little lives here on earth are but a brief bit in his rearing. Decision before God, not the false assumption that our time-space existence is all there is or the only place for choice, makes life important. Unimaginably beyond our lives on earth, God works his way of fostering his children.

God has given man a unique capacity to know and to respond to him. He created him in his own image for eternal life. God offered man the knowledge of good and evil. But such knowledge can be received only by the taking. It comes through the making of choices and the discovering of consequences. By the freedom to make real choices involving good and evil, God let man become real. He did not want puppets. God, being no paternalist, created a world of real risk. On the other hand, in order that man might not be self-sufficient, he left him hollow at the center.

Man, therefore, risks falling either in or out, so to speak, in an attempt either to become secure by filling in his own emptiness or to find safety by leaning on others. Not only is man made precarious within his own nature; he finds precariousness in nature. Hence his insecurity and anxiety.

Consequently, man works to make himself safe. He tries to remake himself by self-improvement. He struggles to conform to what others believe or want. He labors to lay aside means of security, whether in terms of working competence or in terms of cash savings. He invests in friendships, in "connections."

The fact that God also made this world dependable enough for man to plan and to achieve, to sow and to reap, to study and to grow, gives the false hope that he can escape from this hollowness at the center of his being. No planning, doing, or saving can make man secure. Threatened by this God-made insecurity, man sins in his attempt to be self-sufficient and self-important.

What is true for the individual is also true for the group. Groups, too, are threatened by collective insecurity and commit social sin by striving to become collectively self-sufficient and self-important. Although God created us insecure and thus gave the occasion for our sinning, God never causes sin; sin cannot be caused; but he knew at the creation of the world that man would become himself only through his finding in freedom the difference between good and evil.

The very hollowness of man’s center, however, God meant for himself. Only when God is truly the center of man’s life, can man escape the insecurity that tempts him to curve in on himself, or to lean on others as means to his own safety, and to be faithless toward God.

When God the eternal Spirit fills man’s central hollowness, on the contrary, man accepts himself, finds true community, and lives in peace and power with God. Thus man’s essential goodness is his potential goodness. His sin is holding God off. The more he knows God, the greater the sin.

If freedom is to be real and God’s good freely chosen, man needs this experience. He needs to be alienated from God. To say so is not to make light of sin, but to honor God’s way of working. The more and the sooner God is accepted as central, however, the better. It is God’s will and man’s destiny that God become thus central. Therefore, although man is under the dominion of sin, he is even more made for God. The way nature works is to show man that although he can plan and grow in personal responsibility and in community, there is no permanent or sufficient fulfillment except in relation to God, in whom is man’s true life.

Man is made for the Love God is. This Love is man’s essential nature. Therefore, although in his immaturity man finds sin easier than love, nevertheless, in the light of God’s long-distance plans for man, he is essentially good.

II

The nature of man is best lighted up by a discussion of what it means that man was created in the image of God. This subject has been the occasion for fierce dispute in modern theology. Such sharp disagreement is understandable, since the subject involves man’s central relation to God, and since, as we have seen, man’s very nature is determined by his relation to God. Emil Brunner has never tired of saying that man can know himself only when he knows God in his Word; and Peter Taylor Forsyth drives home the same fact when he makes the central perspective for the understanding of man not the world, but the Word.

One long and sturdy strand of historic thought has it that the image of God in man is reason. Man is a rational animal, a morally responsible creature, because he can think, reflect, evaluate, decide. Man alone, therefore, this position holds, can be like God. In this respect he is unique. As a rational creature, the great amphibian transcending time, man bears the stamp of God’s image. The Early Church Fathers usually supported this position. It has, so to speak, been the main line on the subject.

The question we must ask ourselves, however, is this: what view of God is implied if God’s image in man is reason? Is God centrally a thinker? Is God like Rodin’s famous statue, a static figure contemplating the world? Greek philosophy, in large part, would shout its muted amen (reflective thought shouts only silently and inwardly!). Plato’s perfect forms are statically immovable and Aristotle’s unmoved mover is unmoved. The passively perfect gives rise to the actively imperfect, seeking the beauty of abiding rest in the undifferentiated unity of the One. Pythagoras’ forms underlie even the music of the spheres. Christian thought has been Circe-ed by the endless ocean of unmoved rest beneath the troubled waves on the surface.

Or thought can have its impersonal logic and its history of development as the key to all reality, as in Hegel. Modern mathematicians like Sir James Jeans can find in God, the Thinker, the final explanation of the starry heavens and of man’s life; and a modern philosopher like Alfred North Whitehead can find God to be the vision of the whole and of what can be, and the mediating thought between them, as he contemplates or "envisages" the possible beauty of the harmonies among the worlds of flux.

But the Christian who starts with Christ, with the Cross, with God as Love, knows that whatever truth there may be in the image of God as reason, it cannot be the full and final truth. It cannot be the "extreme center" where all aspects of truth find their delimitation and fulfillment.

Others, like Professor Mowinckel of the University of Oslo, find the image of God to be the Old Testament version of it in the Eighth Psalm: "What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God . . . thou hast put all things under his feet." In other words, the image is specifically developed by Professor Mowinckel in connection with the Eighth Psalm as man’s power over creation. In view of man’s nearly insatiable drive for power, or as Joseph Haroutunian puts it, man’s "Lust for Power," it is easy to believe that this is man’s central image.

But what does this do to our view of God? It is no longer Christian. It is pagan. It presents God as basically power in nature. A dictator! But, said Bernard of Clairvaux, "love has no lord!" Great Jewish scholars like President Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City are fighting a valiant battle to show that such a view of God is not even the heart of the Old Testament. There is, of course, some truth in this position of the image of God as man’s power over creation, but certainly not the truth that fulfills.

Some theologians, notably Reinhold Niebuhr, interpret the image of God in man as man’s capacity for creative self-transcendence. This view is distinguished with great seriousness from rationalism. A good deal of the power of the main-line view was in reality reason as the capacity to transcend our actual situation. But Niebuhr puts more emphasis on decision. In his view man sees an ideal in the abstract. He can see this with "a perfection" that is lost as soon as he must make decisions among the ambiguities of existence, not least of which is the ambiguity of his own sinfulness.

In one period, Niebuhr stressed the morality of the individual as over against the immorality of society. He has outgrown this position, for the most part, but he still analyzes the operation of the image of God in man as the contrast between the original righteousness of man before he acts (the act of creative self-transcendence, what he calls "perfection before the act"), and the "fallen" state of man within the ambiguities of our sinful world.

There is, however, no such perfection. Actual man cannot even see perfection. Man’s vision is tainted by his sinfulness as a total being. Yet there undeniably is in this position, too, a truth in the fact of man’s creative self-transcendence.

Again we ask, what does this position do to our view of God? Is God then supremely Creator? Is God first of all Creativity? The Christian answer is positive: God creates because he loves; he does not love because he creates. Therefore, however important the truth involved in the defining of the image of God in man as creative self-transcendence, it cannot constitute the main make-up of the image.

Another important position in today’s thought is that of Emil Brunner, who defines the image of God in man as his answerability to God. While man, according to Brunner, no longer possesses original righteousness, he cannot escape the fact that he is responsible to God for his life. No matter where man may be or what he may do, he is in fact so related to God that he cannot escape feeling guilty before God, either in his conscious mind or in the torments and imaginations of the unconscious.

We ask a similar question of this position: What conception of God does this point of view entail? Is God mainly Judge? The Christian knows better. God judges, but he is far more Savior and Father. He judges in order to save. The Bible even says that God sent his Son not to judge but to save.

In fairness to Brunner it must be said that the original image that man possessed before the "fall" was not answerability; only the form of the original image now remains as man’s answerability to God. We know of no such historic "fall," however, and with this admission Brunner and the others agree. Therefore it is better to make the image central to man’s essential relation to God. Its working can be obscured, thwarted by sin, but its nature is part of God’s goodness in creation that must not be denied by "the fall."

The truth of Brunner’s position is powerful. It is connected with God’s whole use of law, of guilt, and of grace, but Brunner’s interpretation does not arrive at the determinative nature of the image of God in man.

Others like Karl Barth and Anders Nygren have maintained that the image has been totally destroyed. There is no part of it left in man. The fall was entire, involving the whole man. There is nothing of God in man. Such denial is the most radical in Christian history.

With Karl Barth the emphasis is on the complete sovereignty of God. Man is, even by nature, in no position to help the least bit toward his own salvation. All is by grace and faith. In Nygren there is extreme sensitivity to what he takes to be the disastrous heresy of mysticism, namely that there is a bit of God in every man that makes him restless apart from his right relation to God.

Both Barth and Nygren are afraid of mixing the categories of God and man. Both are also afraid of thinking of God in terms of substance, as some "stuff" that can be in man, or some structure that can organize man. Barth now is willing to speak of the image of God in man as God’s call to man. I think Nygren would not object to such a statement of the case. As a matter of fact, Barth and Brunner likewise have come closer to each other, as David Cairns points out in The Image of God in Modern Theology.

An outright repudiation of the image of God in man would really amount to a denial that there is a natural relation between God and man. Indeed, both Barth and Nygren are woefully weak on the point of God’s presence in creation; they even stammer on his positive use of creation. Their denial that God is "stuff" is, of course, sound, as is their insistence on the sovereignty of God’s grace. If only they could see more fully how this grace works in creation and in man: offering man free acceptance on God’s part and letting him use his freedom to find God!

On this important question of the image of God in man, is there a clear word from God? One fact is obvious and beyond all dispute: the God of the Christian revelation is centrally Love, the God of the Cross and the Resurrection. Simply put, the fact is, God is faithful.

God being Love, his image must be man’s capacity for love. Man is centrally made for love, for God’s love and for man’s. The true image includes the truth of all partial images. Love, for instance, has within it the reality of reason, fulfilling the insight of the first position we considered. How can love be high and free without the power to know, to reflect, to evaluate, and in the light of this process to choose? Man is not essentially an animal. Even in the respect that he has reason he is unique in every developed sense of the meaning of terms.

Man also has been given power over nature, our second position. His is the world to use. God has put all things under his feet. He enjoys creative transcendence over time, a fearful position to be in. This is a sacred place in which to be put. God also holds man accountable. He is not only under law, but under the Lordship of the inescapable God. And man’s chief relation to God is not in terms of some bit of God in man, but in terms of God’s coming to man, his calling man.

There is truth in all these positions, but they never fall into essential relationship until man is understood as created for love by the God who is Love. The image of God in man is man’s need for love. The image of God in man as centrally man’s being made for God’s love gives context and total meaning to all other aspects of the image. Hunger is not food, but it does characterize man’s relation to nature. Hunger for God is no bit of God in man, but it determines his very being. Man’s emptiness is for God’s filling.

No individual and no community can be right until they are rightly related to God. No individual and no community can be real until they are made real in relation to God. The reflection of God’s love in man’s need for love indicates the reality of God as Love. Christ as the revelation of God’s love fulfillingly present in man is God’s right relation to man and man’s right relation to God.

Therefore we can include still one more view as to the image of God in man. Gustaf Wingren in Skapelsen och Lagen (Creation and Law) says that the New Testament calls Christ himself the image of God. The Letter to the Colossians does that exactly. Christ as the realization of God’s presence in man as fulfilling love, giving man "mature manhood," is in fact the revelation of the true image, the filling of the image in a concrete man. The image of God’s love is fulfilled only by the actual presence of God’s love.

Christ as the image, therefore, is the reconciliation of the image of God with conscience. To this crucial topic for understanding man, namely the infilling of the image of God in conscience, we now turn.

III

The image of God is the means whereby we adjust to God; the conscience, "what we know together," is the way we adjust to men. God is infinite and perfect Love. Man is finite, made for love. The image is absolute; the conscience is relative. Man himself lives in the conflict of the perfect and the sinful, the unconditional and the conditional.

The only right way we can adjust to God is his way! With respect to God, there is no compromising one whit. God’s love is totalitarian in its demand on us. It means full acceptance of him and his way, and complete openness to all men and concern for them. It involves self-acceptance as part of the community of God. We accept ourselves, but only as members of the fellowship, totally to be used for God and for the needs of the community.

God and the mature Christian community, on their part, are totally concerned with each self for his maximum good and development in the good. God asks totally of us what is good within his will for all. The image reflects this reality of our basic relation to God and the demands this relation puts on us.

Conscience is a means for our adjustment to man. It is the concrete rightness we feel in the light of our background, total schooling, and experience. We learn that certain things are right from our parents, mostly informally by the way they live and by the way they share their experience in the ordinary course of life. We learn in school that certain things are right. Many other ideas of right and wrong we pick up or have ingrained in us from life’s experience in general and from the way our communities think and act.

The conscience, therefore, varies markedly from person to person and from culture to culture. What some do to God’s glory would for others be a mockery of him. Conscience is mostly set by the prevailing religion; not by the religion professed, but by the religion lived. Conscience reflects largely the status quo.

Between the perfect image and its demand on man’s conscience there is thus not only a wide gap, but a hurtful conflict. Sinning against their conscience, men are hurt. Such sinning against the conscience is what is generally meant by sin.

But by sinning more deeply and constantly against the image, men are even more deeply hurt. As long as they do not know what the image involves, men are no more than uneasy and vaguely anxious because of this inner conflict. While they then have specific guilt feelings with respect to their conscience, they have only unspecific anxiety with regard to their image of God.

Before they know the better law of God’s will, men have a far less keen understanding of what is wrong with them and consequently are far less hurt. When they encounter the better law that interprets the image, the nature of sin bursts upon them and their conflict multiplies. Sin now becomes far more terrifying.

With Christ’s coming, the image of God in man became filled by being fulfilled. Conscience received its intended content. With Christ’s coming, conscience obtained its perfect standard. Christ showed man the perfect will of God by demonstrating the perfect nature of God and the mature nature of man. Christ showed man his right relation to God.

God reduced in Christ the laws of the Old Testament decalogue to two: love to God and love to man, universal and entire. This concentration of the ten into two commands had already been accomplished by Judaism; Jesus himself had been brought up reciting them daily.

But in Jesus these two laws became demonstrated in life as well as explicated in meaning. In Jesus, too, the law of perfect love became, beyond every command, the Gospel of God’s grace. The law of love became fulfilled in the life of Love.

From now on, men must not strive to fulfill this law as law, but, rather, to accept God’s life freely as a gift. This new gift of life turns the conscience from an enemy, representing a law impossible to keep, to the correcting friend who enables man to become fulfilled within a new relation to God that itself is the very power for the life of love.

Thus in Christ the full nature of the image is made clear, conscience is fulfilled, and man is given the power to live the law, no longer as law, but as the life of love. Thus right is real and uncompromisingly maintained even while it is left behind as no longer an enemy or a primary relation to God and man. The amazing freedom of life fulfilled by love takes its place.

But actual man lives in conflict between law and love, between conscience and image. Few find the reality and the power of the Gospel of Christ in this life. Most people get clogged in the attempt to satisfy their conscience by right conduct, and find no rest. Acquiescence in the status quo is almost always the essence of sin. It is choosing conscience rather than image.

Conformity to sinful society is nonconformity to God. And in the light of the full standard of Christ our communities are deeply sinful. Original sin consists in the partaking of this societal heritage that shields our misgivings almost as they arise. We protect ourselves by devious and ingenious rationalizations in the guise of the wisdom of the ages. We try to quiet the protest of the arguments of our socially oriented conscience.

For this reason Kierkegaard is right in saying that man’s characteristic relation to God is sin. We repress in our subconscious our unwon battles on the conscious side. But such repression does not deliver us from conflict, for God never loses and never lets go. Therefore, our unwon battles continue at a level below our consciousness. Deep down we hate God who threatens our compromises.

Thus we live by fear of God on the conscious level and in anxiety toward God on the subconscious level. Our relation to God becomes characterized by guilt. Such guilt results in physical illness and mental malady. One woman who could not be cured by doctors was cured quickly after she came to know that her suffering was caused by basic dishonesty in regard to her income tax!

But above all we feel wrong toward God. Because this is the case, either we try to throw ourselves into some religious faith and activity that will persuade us that we are pleasing God, or we grow to resent what we call religion, even to hate the highest form of it. Or else the depth spirit in us, the demonic self we are, robs us of our convictions or produces in us spiritual restlessness or its opposite, spiritlessness. We forfeit the free and fulfilled life for which we are made.

We are made for God, for his love and for man’s. When Love’s community is real, life becomes satisfying in new dimensions. We become free to live. We become free for creative community. We become free to be ourselves, as persons and as community.

But nothing can bring about this freedom in the full sense, except our becoming right with God. Our fears and anxieties must lose their importance by being focused in our main relation: our fear and anxiety before God.

Only forgiveness by God can make man free. Only forgiveness can fulfill man. Only forgiveness can put man in the relation to God and man where he can find increasingly his true nature and grow in it. Therefore, no study of man can be more than a description of man’s plight and possibility until it include the prescription by God for man. We now turn to this prescription under the heading of sin and salvation.

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