This essay follows one that I wrote recently where I advocated an interest in typology as an approach to reading scripture. In that essay, I defined types as being not exactly what we think of when we think of allegory, as the term allegory has been relegated to an analysis of fiction. However, if God is writing reality as a story, things that really happen have allegorical meaning. Many of these events of spiritual meaning have been bound together in the bible, but in fact I allege that reality itself could have allegorical meaning. With this essay, I would like to take some of the same mindset, that of looking for pattern and spiritual meaning, and apply it to Christ himself.
I am going to make some statements about Christ’s place in the Trinity. In doing so, there will be many occasions for discriminating readers to raise all sorts of red flags about what I am saying. So, I would like to state categorically that the things I am saying should be looked at as merely a different perspective that should be able to be integrated into the orthodox understanding of Trinity. I’m simply not going to address the standard language that was formulated long ago or the concepts that such language represents. My intention is not to contradict anything. Theology should have as its aim to know God. As theological formulas are developed, many will be complementary with those that already exist. Many will be exclusive of others, contradictory as such, requiring an either/or mindset in order to discriminate what one will accept or reject for inclusion in their systematic understanding of theology. Sometimes, though, it’s just best to look at things from a different perspective. One could compare to a group of physicists sitting together and commenting, “hey, General Relativity just isn’t predicting the motions of these protons properly. Huh. Well, let’s try Quantum Mechanics.” “Relativity” as it were is still accurate and valid for helping God’s children understand him on its scale and in its element, but Quantum Mechanics does as well for those who are asking different questions and have different concerns. So, with that said, I will begin and hope that I won’t be burned at the stake.
Unlike many, I have always connected the number two with the Trinity. Naturally there are three persons, but whenever I look at the number two in scripture, things come up that make me think of the Son and the Holy Spirit distinctly. Let’s take a look at the number two as it has struck me in scripture.
And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.Exodus 25:18
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.Deuteronomy 17:6
And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.Zechariah 4:3
And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.Mark 6:7
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.Luke 10:1
And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.Revelation 11:3
Now this is by absolutely no means an exhaustive list of the occurrences of the number two that could be typologically or thematically significant. If one delves deeply into all of the occurrences of the number, the result will be fairly intense, however, and many of the results can be linked to the themes that I will talk about here. In addition to these verses, even the duality of male and female can be linked to the number two, which many have linked to the Trinity, seeing male and female to be representative of persons of the Trinity as well as the duality of God and man. This is interesting, since one of the persons of the Trinity is in fact God and man. But first, it should be noted that the number two is fairly closely linked to the number three. In our Exodus verse above there is mention of two or three witnesses. There are a number of things in the bible that are two and a half cubits in dimension. Two and a half seems to be of some significance as well.
With this in mind, one can also see from the verses above that the number two seems to be related to proclamation, testimony, evangelism, and support. Concerning support, the two olive trees fill Zechariah’s lamp with oil (fueling its light), the tabernacle is supported by pairs of tent poles, etc. But it seems that when God is proclaiming something, he does things in twos or pairs. I personally have a tendency to link the number two with the two persons of the Trinity, the Son and the Spirit, who proclaim and make known the invisible and incomprehensible God, the Father.
Now the Holy Spirit will not be neglected here, but it will be discussed incidentally. I’d like to devote a specific paragraph to the Son, however. For me, the cornerstone verses that describe Christ pertain to declaring God:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.Colossians 1:15
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.2 Corinthians 4:4
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.Hebrews 1:3-4
Definitely there is no doubt that the core of the Christian religion is that Christ is the Son of God. Confusion seems to creep into our thoughts when we try to grasp what that means, however. Definitely a son comes from his Father, and by declaring Jesus as God’s Son there is a declaration that Christ comes from God. This seems to be both patently obvious as well as being general enough to conclude that this can’t be the extent of Christ’s relationship to the Father, but should merely be considered one facet of it. Also, inherent to sonship is the idea that a son is his father’s heir. The understanding of Christ as Son as heir links his sonship to his kingship. Christ is lord of all. This is certainly an important advancement upon the initial observation that he comes from God, but early in Christian history this fact was actually overplayed by the Arians, who saw Christ as a creature, something of a super angel, assigned by God to be the lord of all, the king of angels and men. While Christ does have the role of king of the universe, the Nicene fathers rejected this role as the extent of Christ’s divinity and sonship. Unfortunately, in their rebuttal, they relied on precepts of Aristotelian classification that had been circulating around the ancient world via Porphyry’s promulgation of Aristotle within the neoplatonic school. Terms such as essence, substance, energy, appearance began to dominate the language to derive very precise formulations, but a certain sense of what the terms actually communicate was lost. So now, to this day, Christians sit together and scratch their heads and ask each other what terms like ‘one essence in three substances’ or ‘one substance in three persons’ actually mean.
Now I am not out to disqualify any of these formulations and statements that have stood for thousands of years. I do not aim to call them inaccurate. I just reached a point where I had to stand back from it all and come up with ways to explain things that actually have relatable meaning for me and for those I talk to. When I did that, I looked to the scriptures and came to the three scriptures before the previous paragraph that describe with stark precision how Christ actually relates to God the Father: Christ is God’s image. And this leads us to the language of John.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.John 1:18
This verse begins to link the idea of Paul’s verses about Christ being the image of God to the idea that the Trinity is two who make known the one. John actually states this very precisely at the beginning of his Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:1
Now the Word here is in Greek λόγος, which has a very storied history among the Greek philosophers outside of Christianity. Originating as a philosophical term with Heraclitus, over the centuries the term was also used in connection with Plato’s demiurge, as an emanation from Plotinus’ “the One,” as well as in Nag Hamadi gnosticism, where platonism and neoplatonism were combined. These various pagan understandings seem to have heavily influenced Philo, thereby introducing even more confusion to the term. However, the Greek term λόγος, in my view should not be so closely connected to the various meanings that it acquired in pagan philosophy, but rather should be understood as a Greek calc of the Hebrew word דָּבָר (davar), which is the term used in the phrase “Word of the Lord” in the Old Testament.
Essentially, these words λόγος and דָּבָר are more generalized versions of what we understand a word to be. I say more generalized because in modern English we understand a word to be specifically something spoken or written, a verbal utterance. However, a word is more fundamentally a representation of a thing. It doesn’t just have to be a spoken or written bit of language. So for example, if I want you to think of a pen, I don’t have to actually show you a pen. I can just say, “pen,” and you will get a picture of a pen in your mind. It may not look exactly like the picture of the pen that I have in my mind, but I have with my mouth and lungs created a sound that represents the thing that I am thinking of and I have sent it to you, and you have turned that audial representation of the thing into a picture of a pen in your mind. Interestingly, the pictures of the pens that we have in our minds are not in fact pens, but they are also words! They are representations of pens that exist in our minds as pictures created by thought.
So for all this description, the fundamental takeaway is that in the bible, a word is a representation of a thing, whether a picture, a sound, or a set of written characters. Incidentally, there are those verses on page two that describe Christ as the image of God and the representation of God. So along with the verses that specifically claim that Christ is God’s image or representation, his title as Word of God contributes to the same idea that Christ proclaims God. While not exactly identical, this idea of Christ as the image of God dovetails nicely with his title as Son of God, since a son, as heir, has authority in the father’s family as his representative.
I really do think that thinking of Christ as God’s image deserves a more central place in theological thinking than I have generally found in reading. Essentially what I am describing is the Imago Dei christology that exists in certain theological circles, but is far from mainstream among today’s conservatives. Imago Dei is Latin for “image of God.” Normally in theology it is an anthropological term rather than a christological term, meaning it is associated with us as humans, and is normally associated with God’s creating man in his image at the beginning of Genesis. Reformers tend to stress the contrast between man as originally created in the image of God but now fallen, no longer an image of God. Synergists and post-millennial types tend to focus on man being an image of God struggling to perfect that image which has been tarnished by sin. Occasionally throughout history there have been writings about Christ as the image of God as well, however. Irenaeus comes to mind. This thinking invariably relates to the verses I listed in the middle of page two. It’s these types of lines of thought that I would like to devote the remainder of this essay to giving my take on.
I think it’s important to have an understanding of exactly how being the image of God plays out. It’s fairly common in theology to understand Christ as the image of God due to displaying the power of God. God defines nature and what is natural, so the miracles that Christ performed, violating what we understand to be natural, indicate that he has the power of God. What Christ did, just because he was able to do these supernatural things, indicates that he is of God and has the power of God. Further, what Jesus said indicates that he represents God. Jesus advocated love, and God is love, for only infinite love can create a universe of complete harmony to exist in perfection forever. Now we are in a world where love exists only partially, but even our world, as massive as it is, and teetering for thousands of years, balanced perfectly between love and chaos, still requires the existence of God as we know him to exist in order for such a state to be possible. Nevertheless, Christ’s words of love, and in this world where love is sometimes hard to come by, forgiveness for a lack of love, definitely indicate that the personality and nature of Christ represent the nature and attributes of God the Father. I think these things are fairly evident and widespread in Christian thought.
However, I opened this essay with a sentence about typology. One thing that has occurred to me is that the stories of the Old Testament contain types that reveal the truths of our faith, with the most widely understood types being in fact types of Christ hidden in the Old Testament because the apostles explained several of these types in order to show how the scriptures point to Christ as the Messiah. Now if these Old Testament types are types of Christ, could it be beneficial to think of Christ as a type of the God Father? Remember, in Hebrews 1:3 Christ is “the exact imprint of his nature”. The Greek here is χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως, literally “character of the hypostasis” or “character of the substance” of God the Father. Since substance is a term not well understood, one might translate the phrase as “the character of the reality of the Father.” Interestingly, the Greek word for character is actually derived from a die for casting characters of letters or pictures onto metal sheets for the purposes of creating works of art and writing. Essentially what I am saying is that the character we are talking about here is like that of a typewriter slamming a character into an ink ribbon against a piece of paper in order to create a letter. The word for character is intimately related to what we understand as a type. So if all the Old Testament contains a series of types of Christ, we may also understand Christ as a type of God, the Father.
If we accept this understanding, then not only is Christ the representation or expression of God through his displays of power and words of divine wisdom, but also in the things that he did forming pictures of God. For example, Christ fed the multitudes. God the Father sustains us. Christ healed the sick. God makes us whole. Christ raised the dead. God gives life. Not only do Christ’s words represent God and his power represent God, but also the character of the things that he did in the Gospels represent God typologically.
Take for example the story of Peter walking on water. Water is a fairly commonly understood type in the scriptures. By its nature, water is the material upon which all of creation is based. It is a material that cleans and purifies us as well as sustains us by quenching our thirst, being essential to the functioning of our bodies and in fact of all living things. On the other hand, though, water drowns us if it goes down the wrong pipe, and it isolates us from one another when there are large bodies of water between us and where we are going. It provides food in the form of fish as well as dangers in the form of storms, sharks and dangerous creatures, and jagged reefs. There are many great stories about water in the scriptures, from the flood that drowned the wicked of the earth while the last of the righteous made it through, to the parting of the Red Sea, where the armies of the pharaoh perished while God’s people were preserved by divine miracle. This only scratches the surface of the significance of waters in scripture. Many of these stories are rather easy to identify with baptism. For a moment we are submerged under the water, simultaneously drowning and being purified, to be raised pure and victorious above the waters.
In the story of Peter walking on water, there is a boat and a shore, which seems to highlight the isolating powers of water. There was Jesus in a place where no man should be. So long as he kept his eyes on Jesus he was able to get where he wanted to go, but when he became distracted, he started to sink. Not to worry, though, because Jesus reaches down to save him from the depths. Similarly, in our lives (which are our true baptisms) we need to keep our attention focused on God in order not to sink into the depths of life. When we get distracted, though, God, through his Holy Spirit and our meditations on Christ, pulls us from the quagmire so we can continue our journey to its victorious end: being with God.
This story has very few words in it. It’s not merely about Jesus saying things that God says. Jesus actually participates in the story as an image of God just as Peter participates in the story as an image of God’s faithful. Now if we accept that just as many stories in the bible are types of Christ, so is Christ a type of God the Father, then we can analyze everything that Christ does in the scriptures as representing God. This poses a very interesting situation, however, as the New Testament tells us that the most significant thing that Christ ever did was to be whipped and spit on and be crucified as a traitor to Israel and then be resurrected on the third day. If Christ is the image of the Father, if he is a type (or THE type) of the Father so to speak, then what does this tell us about the Father?
If Christ suffered and died, how can we translate this into being a message of the God the Father? Well, let’s take a look at suffering. In Greek, the primary word used to indicate suffering is πάθος, a noun related to the verb πάσχω. In its essential and primitive meaning, the word actually means the experience of something beyond one’s control, perhaps by surprise, or to be overcome by something. Originally, one could suffer something good as well as something bad. By the time the New Testament was written, in that vernacular, it usually means just to experience something bad or unpleasant. However, after the New Testament was written, the scholars revived a lot of elements of older forms of Greek, so when the fathers wrote in Greek, they usually referred to suffering as meaning being affected by some external, uncontrolled experience, or by emotions that were beyond one’s control. I mention this because over the ages the doctrine of divine impassibility developed in the church. In fact, in Anglicanism, the opening article of the 39 Articles of Faith states:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions;
What is meant here is that God is not affected by anything outside himself that he has no control over. His love and grace are permanently within him and his interaction with us. There is no way we can do something that will force him to be overcome with such anger that he will no longer love and forgive. According to this understanding, the doctrine of divine impassibility is a very important and absolutely true doctrine. However, when discussed in layman’s English, the doctrine is often simply described as, “God doesn’t suffer.” In fact, many of the fathers spoke this way as well because of the dual meanings of the word. Even Arius, the arch heretic, stated that the root of his denial of the Trinity was that the Son obviously suffers, but he could not accept the idea of a suffering God.
Well, in modern English, to suffer is simply to experience something unpleasant. Now we know from countless verses in scripture, usually not distinguishing between Father and Son, that God experiences many unpleasant things. Entire chapters, even books, of scripture are devoted to God’s prophets proclaiming the misery that humanity, even God’s chosen people, cause God to experience. Further, in relation to what I have been trying to describe about Christ in the above paragraphs, quintessential to Christ as the Son of the Father is his being the Word of, or image of, God. Well, Christ suffered and died on the cross. In my understanding, this suffering that Christ experienced, hated and spit on and treated as a criminal by humanity, is the expression of the suffering that God the Father experiences. So in a modern English sense, I think it is often overlooked, yet quite important, to say that God (the Father and Son), suffers.
So in contemplating the suffering of God, the Father, we observe that he is infinitely compassionate. He is also omnipotent and omnipresent, being everywhere at all times, in fact causing all reality. So God has been in every place where every murder, rape, theft, and lie has ever been committed. Being infinitely compassionate, God grieves infinitely over every little lie that has been told in human history, just as he is infinitely grieved by every murder or betrayal. That’s a lot of grief. That’s a lot of suffering. Christ’s death expresses that within history, in one man. Further, we, as humans, have the Holy Spirit in us, and when we are lied to, stolen from, murdered, and raped, the part of us that is grieved is the sensitive, caring, compassionate part. So in fact the suffering of God has been taking place all throughout history via the suffering of the Holy Spirit in our hearts every time the righteous are persecuted and suffer. This leads me to a verse that has often struck me with its significance:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,Hebrews 2:10-11
This leads us to a critical link with the historical concept of the Imago Dei. Not only was man created in the image of God and existed so before his fall, but even in the fallen world, when a righteous man with a compassionate heart witnesses a rape, and his heart bleeds in grief, he expresses the suffering of the Holy Spirit, and he expresses the suffering of God. Man as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, when he grieves, allows the Holy Spirit to be one of God’s two witnesses, two lamp stands, to his nature. So in a sense, even fallen man is an image of God in certain ways. This is the anthropology of the Imago Dei concept. Christ’s suffering on the cross is the christology of the Imago Dei concept. Man, Christ, the Holy Spirit all have a certain unity in expressing the divine. The verse from Hebrews above approaches the perfection of Christ from a sort of reversed process. Yes, we are to be as righteous as possible and as compassionate as possible, which will involve quite a bit of suffering, so that we can become images of Christ, who is the image of God. However, the verse in Hebrews says that Christ was perfected by the crucifixion so that he would be the image of God, which he had to be, because WE are images of God when we are righteous and compassionate and when we suffer.
Prioritizing Christ as the image of God actually expands our understanding of the atonement. Now these observations are not meant to contradict or replace Substitutionary Atonement, Satisfaction Atonement, Ransom Atonement, Christus Victor, or any of the descriptions of atonement that have gone before. They are merely meant to offer perspective on the great mystery of Christianity.
The earliest records of atonement in scripture involve the sacrifice, or offering, of an animal. This offering always involved the death of the animal. Now death in a biblical sense was not strictly related to the cessation of bodily functions. It is more a general concept of loss – of not being around. Now the ancients in the bible were usually pastoralists who depended on their animals for survival. The animal to be sacrificed was always to be the best one – the perfect one. So whenever the ancients sinned, they sacrificed an animal, which expresses that when we sin, something living and feeling, that we depend on for survival, that is perfect and has done us no wrong, suffers and is lost to us. This living thing that is lost to us is God. This living thing that suffers is God. When we “offer” this to God, we acknowledge the truth of this. Sacrificing an animal when we sin is an acknowledgement. When we present Christ as our sacrifice, we “offer” an acknowledgement of this same truth. When we sin, we offer the suffering and loss of the perfect image of God. For God, this is enough. This is our propitiation in our relationship with God. When he receives this offering, we are atoned for by God’s forgiveness and grace.
Seen in this regard, atonement involves acknowledgement of the truth. We can’t really have a relationship with God if we don’t know him. Throughout the various religions of the world, God is described without any trace of this suffering. In Islam, it is absent. So God apparently is not pained by all the evil of this world. So he must not be infinitely compassionate. Other religions, such as the Mesoamerican religion of the Aztecs and Incas, say that God is in fact horrified by our actions, yet there is no real atonement. The old ones, as it were, will rise up and destroy everything just like in the movie Cabin in the Woods. Only in Christianity do we have an infinitely compassionate God who, we know through his image, hurts when we sin, yet who forgives and loves all if we only acknowledge him by offering his image to him.
We also know that God overcomes this suffering because his image resurrects. Now concerning the Father, it is important to understand that his suffering does not involve actual damage or have any chance of doing real harm. It is only suffering in the sense that the horrible things of this world, including the horrible things that we do, are unpleasant to him. They cause him anguish. Yet this anguish is merely a moment, such as Christ’s day of crucifixion or three days in the grave. However, as Christ rose on the third day, so do the Father and the Holy Spirit have victory over suffering and anguish.
As mentioned above, offering Christ as a sacrifice to God is an acknowledgement that Christ, including his death and resurrection, is the image of God, who informs us of who God is. It is this acknowledgement that establishes our relationship with God and satisfies him, making our relationship with him proper, and therefore serves as propitiation.
All this basically constitutes what could be thought of as an atonement theory. I’d therefore like to state that I personally see value in several of the various atonement theories out there. I particularly see value in the substitutionary atonement theory prevalent in Protestantism. I hold that theory in such high regard because it works on so many occasions. Most people who are being called by the Holy Spirit, and who are really likely to be affected by evangelism, normally have a sense of guilt laid on them by the Spirit. The notion that one deserves wrath from a just God is very real for such people, and the idea that this wrath is taken care of by Jesus dying in our place is a source of utmost relief. However, for others, who might not be so far on a journey to come to God, this explanation can be problematic. Substitutionary atonement is rather “Trinity light” as it were. Many people think of a good and giving Christ, suffering in our stead, but a mean old God the Father who must shunt his wrath somewhere, anywhere, if not at the guilty party, then at his innocent Son. For such types, talking to them about atonement from another perspective often helps. It rarely results in a conversion, but can plant a seed that the Spirit may use at a later time.
Therefore, in my opinion, substitutionary atonement is a valuable understanding of atonement that rightfully deserves a place of primacy in theology and evangelism, but it can be profitable to understand and discuss other dimensions of atonement in Christian ministry. So with this essay I have basically taken my emphasis on symbolism, allegory, and typology to look at Christ as the image of God, not only in terms of his words and the power of his deeds, but also in terms of the typological meaning of Christ’s time on earth. One result of this has been to see the crucifixion and resurrection in a new light as the representation within history of the suffering and victory of God the Father as well as the Holy Spirit in the world and our hearts. This allows for the potential of a new theory of atonement, in which we are atoned for by presenting God’s true image to him and allowing a relationship to occur.