The Incarnation & The Iconoclast: A Theological Framework of Hope in the Midst of Suffering & Abuse

resurrection2007.jpg

This last weekend I gave a paper at CATA’s 2018 conference in Toronto Canada. Below is just a snippet before we load the recording onto the Split Frame of Reference Podcast.

The Incarnation & The Iconoclast:

A Theological Framework of Hope in the Midst of Suffering & Abuse

Surviving chronic abuse, especially in a Christian context, can be disillusioning and disorienting—much like existing in “the room” from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. On the surface the room may seem normal, and yet if one pays attention, he or she will notice it is ill-proportioned, if not designed to gradually condition one to accept the distortion as what a room ought to be. Initially one sees that the room is off, but “near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment” but off kilter enough to “go on teasing the mind even after the deception” is unmasked.[1] If one continues probing one sees the room is not just ill-proportioned, but has several distorted, if not disturbing details. In a similar way, abuse functions to do more than injure and destroy, it seeks to remake reality and warp images and perceptions. One fighting to survive abuse finds that not only must they fend off a constant assault on one’s identity as coercive tactics are employed to ensure the abuser’s distortions are “made reality” i.e. felt in real time and space with maximal control, but the distortion may also be internalized and maintained by others as accepted reality. Both the target and Christian community will need all of its biblical and theological resources to resist this false and damaging reality if they are to live out their calling as image bearers and to borrow a phrase from a book title, “push back the dark.”[2]

Abuse becomes more complicated when intermixed with classic manipulative and abusive tactics are appeals to the example of Christ, catch-words, such as “forgiveness,” “grace,” and “submission.” The experience of abuse is also made more difficult by bizarre expectations that those experiencing various (and often prolonged) attacks just “move on,” be more “positive,” or less “selfish” from the community at large. These concepts are frequently, if not regularly, out of place and used in oversimplified ways—especially as it relates to Scripture. The result? It is implicitly or explicitly communicated that the target should not be concerned about their own self-respect, dignity, well-being or need for healing from damage done to them. Rather, it is the abusive individual’s voice that must be heard, his or her perceptions and feelings and the group’s sense of equilibrium that must be religiously guarded, at all costs as it was with the infamous cases involving Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, the Southern Baptist Convention and the past actions of Willow Creek.

In this brief presentation I will be offering a particular way of approaching abuse theologically by considering it in the framework of iconoclasm, the incarnation and the imago dei. I will simultaneously be countering some of the harmful misuses of scriptural concepts used to continue the abuse of power by offering a different theological framework or particular theology from which to understand suffering, abuse and bold resistance. As support I will be drawing from the doctrine of theosis and Christus Victor models of atonement as well as the language of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This beginning of a constructive theology will be developed around two figures: the iconoclast (one who abuses, whether structural or personal) and the incarnation, and our participation in them. This venture will involve arriving at an understanding of Christ’s and one’s own identity through narrative placement.[3] 

The Incarnation and The Iconoclast

“Let there be light.” The Anastasis icon meets us in a burst of uncreated light as the Incarnation descends down into the darkness of Hades parting the earth as though it were the Red Sea and shattering the gates of the underworld. In a moment we are caught up in the transfiguration as we see him for who he is—the Incarnation—our hope and life—yet still wrapped in the dark mystery that is God signified by the gradation of blue surrounding him. With nail pierced hands reminding us of his bloody struggle, he grabs Adam and Eve, drawing them up out of their graves towards himself to follow him in resurrection freedom. “Christ is depicted not as the victim of mortality and evil, but as the victorious Son of God, clothed in glory, who by death has conquered death, and has released those who have been held captive.” The Devil is bound and “the darkness of Hades has been filled with light.”[4]

Colossians 1:13-14 describes those who are in Christ as persons who are “rescued from the domain of darkness,” and transferred into the kingdom of the Son in whom we have redemption and forgiveness. And this is possible because the Son is the “image,” the perfect and natural icon, “of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him (vv. 15-16).” The Incarnation, the Son, who is fully God yet differentiated from the Father and Holy Spirit, is the one by whom creatures, those “other” than God, were created, are being held together in God’s ongoing creative act (Col 1:17), and through whom they are recreated. He is firstborn of creation because he is the destined Lord over creation and he is the one through whom all of creation will be brought to completion. The Incarnation lifts us up, not just out of the grave, but also up to himself to become like him. As those made in the image of God and rescued by the Incarnation we are called to be creative agents of liberation and representations of God in the world. 

The Incarnation is the basis for reconciliation (Col 1:20-23). The Incarnation, the perfect human who cried tears of blood from stress, was crushed by the weight of the cross and died. Reconciliation through a “fleshly body.” He entered into our darkness to rescue us from an “alienated and hostile mind” and “evil deeds,” bringing us hope (Col 1:21-23). And, the Incarnation chose to dwell (or tabernacle) among humans as one who stepped in on behalf of those who were marginalized and exploited by society by eating with and openly associating himself with them while calling to account those who claimed holiness yet exploited others. And he demonstrated God’s heart for humanity by becoming impoverished, humiliated, and abused. His sacrifice in the flesh and opening the gates of Hades is a call into perfect love in him. Having been lifted from the grave into resurrection life, the church is called to enter into the dark with the light of Christ, exposing and binding evil wherever we find it to set the captives free. We are called to recognize and respect the image of Christ within us as we endure unrelenting and unimaginable suffering and respect other image bearers who are as well.

The destiny of a person and humanity are wrapped up in the incarnation, the perfect and natural icon of God, the template and telos for all creation who enables us to live out our purpose to love out of a “pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”[5] Human beings were created to represent God on the earth, to be in relationship with God, the world and one another. Put differently, God gave “his face to Adam and Eve,” to us, “so that—individually and collectively—[we] may become his icon[s] within the cosmos.”[6] Individuals only truly become themselves when they can accurately see the face of Christ in their reflection. To bear the “image” of God means one has the potential to grow into the “likeness” of Christ, and ultimately be united with God.

            And what of the Iconoclast? The incarnation and the iconoclast represent two polarizing yet unequal figures: the first is creative and life giving and the other, destructive yet disconnected from the source of creative life and destined to fade with time. The Iconoclast is a figure representing a power: whether personal, institutional or mob. Functionally, they may be bullies at work, abusive individuals at home or church, oppressive systems or to a lesser extent, merely cogs or a group identity that has taken on a life of its own transcending any individual identity. In the end, the iconoclast does not value human beings as made in the image of God and in turning away from “the other,” the iconoclast turns from his or her own purpose.

            At its core, an iconoclast worships a false image of his or herself and despises the image of God in others and attempts to smash the image of Christ in others or recast that image into one of distortion. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “...for the individual who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly, and the ugly becomes beautiful. The true becomes false, and the false becomes true. The evil becomes good, and the good becomes evil.”[7]An iconoclast sets what he or she perceives as the self in the place of God, having rejected the divine image within themselves and others and in doing so puts him or herself in opposition to the Incarnation and his purposes. The abuse of power, among other things, is a pervasive form of idolatry. The abuse of one dearly loved and valued by God, and bears his image, is a life orientation that is sacrilegious at its core.

Reframing Abuse

In order to resist the iconoclast, one must be able to identify “him” or even one’s own dark shadow, that piece of the self that eludes consciousness and if recognized would lead to the understanding that one is less good than perceived. All that is not of God, must be brought to light and exposed before it can be converted. Part of one’s call as made in the image of God in the context of sin is to expose those dark corners, those ill-proportions of “the room” for what they are so that they can be offered to the Lord and then transformed. Part of this process of offering means reframing the iconoclast’s narrative, discerning it as a negation of the good and seeing oneself and the “other” as made in the image of God—as beings worth fighting and dying for, rather than a necessary sacrifice to the false self. One must see abuse not as a one-time “slip up,” nor a “sin” to be excused or left unspoken, but a pervasive pattern of idolatrous rebellion against the Incarnation and all that he stands for. With that said, we now turn to part of our corporate shadow.


[1] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 294-295.

[2] A phrase taken from the title of Elizabeth M. Altmaier’s book, Push Back the Dark: Companioning Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.

[3]Richard B. Hays, “Reading the Bible with the Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1.1 (2007). Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[4] John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, St. Vladimir’s Press, 122.

[5] 1 Timothy 1:4 NIV

[6] Daniela C Augustine, The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology, 176.

[7] MLK 7 March 1961, 427

———

This was a unique experiment for me and if I am honest, a little uncomfortable because it represents the tip of an ice berg involving tons of exegesis, nearly 25 years of conscious theological reflection wrestling with at least three realities: 1) God is immeasurably good, personal and everywhere with us, 2) the reality that evil and abuse exists, and 3) the deep desire and draw—almost like a siren’s call—to become more like Christ. These realities were highly ingrained from an early age from my reading and interpreting of copious amounts of Scripture, experiences of the Spirit forming my character confronting me with the goodness he gave me along with the bad, later reading the church fathers and interacting with Eastern Orthodoxy, and, an early experience of God the day I “accepted Jesus into my heart” that has instilled in me a conviction of his omnipresence in such a way that is intimately connected with our life and being as humans.

At the end of the day, I find this paper terribly lacking. It does not cover all of my thoughts, show any of the exegesis, does not dissect or show how I have drawn from all of my patristic sources, nor get into many of the out workings of my use the seventh ecumenical council…among other things. It is also a faint sample of what is in my mind. Until next time. ;)

-AQ