Biblical Studies

Notes on the “Image of God” (Imago Dei) and the Attributes of God: “Let us make”

Notes on the Imago Dei and the Attributes of God: “Let us make”
[for complete version with Hebrew terms, see The Image of God and the Attributes of God]

Stephen T. Hague 

Table of Contents

I. Introduction and background 1

II. The three main views of the image 2

III.         The Creator/creature, Redeemer/redeemed distinctions  3

IV. The image of God in the Bible 4

V. The image of God in humans summarized 5

VI. Practical implications of the image of God 6

  1. Creativity 6
  2. Family and community (social) 6
  3. Prophetic and priestly roles 6
  4. Dominion/work/labor/leisure 7
  5. The glory of God is his image 7
  6. The apologetic value of a biblical theology of the image of God 7
  7. The impact of the fall on the image of God 7
  8. The need for redemption to realign and restore the image of God 8

VII.       Westminster Shorter Catechism and the image of God   9

VIII.      John Calvin’s comments on Jesus as the image of God:

IX. Some sources: 9

I. Introduction and background

In the beginning of the book of Genesis, Moses described the creation of humans in the “image and likeness of” God. Many attempts over the centuries have been made to understand what this means, and what bearing this might have on the rest of human life. The following are some notes to define and suggest some possible ways of expanding our understanding that collates various themes from the Old and New Testaments, and therefore these reflections are not based solely on Gen 1:26.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ Gen 1:26

Some call this phrase, “Let us make . . . ,” the “the plural of majesty” (see also Gen 1:26-28; 3:22-24; Isa 6:8). Though this is disputed, and others propose the following:

  • the angels present?
  • the Trinity?

[See The New international Dictionary of Theology (in full version), fnn. 1-2.]

II. The three main views of the image

The debate on definitions is whether/what the substantive, functional, or relational views express as intrinsic (ontological?) elements or as consequential aspects of being made in the image of God. Some argue that aspects of the relational and functional convey consequences of being made in the image of God, not the essence of the image of God itself as it is substantively constituted in humans. For the purposes of discussion, it may be helpful to distinguish consequent from intrinsic, but in reality these categories seem to overlap. Indeed, there are substantive, relational, and functional aspects of the image that interrelate and work to define image of God as it is expressed in human life. The word essence may be what clouds the debate, since to say something is strictly functional or essential, consequential or essential, or relational or substantive, may exclude other options. To state that the image of God is either essential or consequential, may exclude the possibility that being made in God’s image means we are substantively, functionally, and relationally that image. I suggest it is better to state that the image has aspects (attributes) of being relational and functional, that are substantive or intrinsic to the nature of being made in the image of God. For example, some argue a distinction between being made in the image of God and God’s command to have dominion. Nevertheless, could it not be argued that being made in the image of God may intrinsically mean having dominion (among other aspects)? To be made in God’s image is to be co-regent in royal dominion over creation. A tool made for a particular purpose may not be distinguished from its intrinsic nature as a tool: a hammer is made to hammer, that is what it is/does, though we may talk about a hammer’s diverse uses as a hammer, its “essential” nature is functional, relational, and substantive.

The image of God in humans is in substance, essence, and function related to the so-called communicable attributes of God: will, life, intelligence (rationality), knowledge, emotions, love, benevolence, compassion, power, morality, spirituality, personality, self-consciousness, self-transcendence (independence), self-determination, faithfulness, righteousness, holiness, wisdom, goodness, truth, justice, mercy. It is important to note that only God is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable” (Shorter Catechism) (in reference to all his attributes), and thus only God bears all of the attributes denoted as communicable/incommunicable in any absolute sense, and these all relate to his glory.[3]

God is not an abstraction, but his attributes are expressed in reality/history, and thus God is known through his expression of his attributes. Even though we may discuss in the abstract God’s attributes, we only can do so consistently by considering his expression of those attributes in generals and special revelation. Attributes unexpressed (functionally/relationally) are unknowable.

III.   The Creator/creature, Redeemer/redeemed distinctions

  • The fundamental differentiation of mankind from God, mankind from animals and nature enables believer to know who and what he is. The modern world (particularly materialistic science) cannot determine if man is animal, machine, angel, or devil. This is the root problem of most world religions and philosophies: failure to make the proper distinctions between God and creation. To lack an image of God theology is to lack a foundation to all theology and to life in this world as humans. “The fact that man is the image of God distinguishes him from the animal and from every other creature.”[4]
  • God’s nature: He exists, as one God, omnipotent creator, absolutely distinct from creation: personal/infinite, immanent/transcendent. Presence is absolute and immediate before the fall, absolute though mediate after. That is, God is immanent and transcendent.
  • Human nature: exists as created, one person, body and soul, image of God and sinful nature (complex nature).
    • Some scholars propose that there are bodily aspects to the image of God: classified as “theomorphism” (Von Rad). Van Leeuwen comments:

Early in the century, some scholars considered the image to refer to the human body as physically resembling God (cf. Isa 6:1, 5; Ezek 1:26; Dan 7:9-10), a form of “theomorphism” (von Rad, 145-46). Such a view is too simple. The image is properly understood as referring to the entire human, not a part or property. In recent research, Stendebach discerns two main lines of interpretation of the image. First, humankind is God’s representative upon earth, given the task of dominion over the nonhuman creation. The second model sees humankind as God’s counterpart (Gegenüber Gottes), so that a dialogical relation between God and humankind exists (Stendebach, 1051-52). Both models are valid, in that they express aspects of being “in the image of God.”[5]

    • Others, on the other hand, like J. Calvin understand the image of God as spiritual not physical: “the likeness of God extends to the whole excellence by which man’s nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures”;  right understanding, affections within bounds of reason, senses tempered by right order (Institutes, 1. 15. 3).
  • First Adam was the “crown of creation” in the image of God. The Last Adam is Jesus Christ who is The True Image (1 Cor 15:21-22).
  • Nature in humanity: each person is a unified body and soul, whereas God is one Triunity.
  • After the Fall of humanity, humans became “a glorious ruin” of divided body and soul, dividing God and humankind, etc.
  • Redemption: is the restoration of the damaged image to the perfect image of God in Christ.
  • Salvation is rooted in creation and always highlights the Creator/creation, Savior/redeemed distinctions.

IV. The image of God in the Bible

Gen 1:27  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Gen 9:6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

2 Cor 4:4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν του θεου).

Col 3:10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

1 Cor 11:7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.

The True image is Christ Jesus:

  1. holiness
  2. righteousness
  3. knowledge (cognizant) (of God, etc. is proper.
  4. will/volition
  5. love and faithfulness

In Colossians, Paul presents a theological exposition of who Christ Jesus is:

  • The image[6]  of God, not made “in the image of God” (1:15a) (contra Gnostics) (cf. 3:10).[7]
  • The firstborn over all creation, begotten of God not created, as pre-eminent over all (3:15b).

The image of God applied to Christ means his consubstantiality with the Father, Christ’s equality, essence, and identity as the Son with the Father. The word “image” in our modern “image based” society tends to connote insubstantiality (copy/fake) in this English word. Note: the ancient church called all Christian pictorial representations icons.

Creation of humanity was the creation of humans in the image of God. Redemption is the restoration, the completion of the image of God in man through the one Man Jesus Christ. The goal of our redemption is to be conformed to the image of the Son. “Redemption is the re-creation of our humanity.”[8] See also Col 3:10.

Rom 8:29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

2 Cor 3:18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

2 Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

1 Jn 3:2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

This promise in Romans 8 is intrinsic to the gospel of redemption and renewal of God’s image in us:

Rom 8:19-21 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

  • See NT: Rom 8:29 conformed to his likeness (image,  Eph 4:24; Col 3:10). Redemption is restoration to the image of God in Christ. See P. Hughes, The True Image, J. Calvin,

Reasoning backwards from Eph 4:21-24 and Col 3:10, the image of God restored is that of original true righteousness, holiness, and true knowledge of God. As Raymond notes, in discussing C.Hodge’s views, that the renewed image virtues “are not religio/ethical abstractions, but rather are indicative of right relationships with God and neighbor.”[9]

V. The image of God in humans summarized

  • The image of God is universally present in all humans at all times. It is the defining quality and nature of what it means to be human. To be human is to reflect the glory of God himself. The image of God is therefore the fundamental “contact point” between all people, since we exist as creatures and we can only know each other through the reality of being made in his image.
  • The image of God was not lost due to sin (not obliterated in the doctrine of “total depravity” which refers to moral status before God). Many begin all gospel presentations with the sinful nature of humans, so as to highlight the need for redemption. I propose this is a backwards approach, even if sometimes effective in making people sense their guilt before God. Rather, we should typically begin with creation (in God’s image) as the starting point, the place we begin to outline the history of redemption is where that story-line begins historically.
  • The image of God is not simply a relational quality between man and God (as in Barth/Brunner), but rather substantive of each person’s very nature as a human. Thus, it does not vary in degree from person to person. As noted above, the issue is whether the substantive, functional, or relational views express intrinsic (ontological) elements or convey consequential aspects.
  • However we resolve the relation between intrinsic and consequence (we might argue that the lines are not absolute), the image of God in humans enables them to have true knowledge of God, to show justice towards the neighbor, covenant-faithfulness, to be living beings in relationship (to God and to both animate and inanimate creation), to have real personality, will (choice, determination), communication (love, truth), emotion (affections of the heart), spirituality (worship of communion with God), rationality (logos, mind, knowledge, logic, hermeneutics), morality (conscience), creativity (aesthetics, work, beauty), dignity (personality), goodness (though and deed), value (intrinsic due to image of God), dominion (vice regents, ambassadors, representatives) and authority (derived). As we live for God through Jesus Christ, we come to experience the fullness of our humanity.
  • In contrast to other ANE understandings, the image of God in humans does not primarily convey attributes that stress being created in order to serve the gods, but rather as a dominion of royal co-regency with God over/in the created order. Some suggest this conveys aspects of representation/agency of God himself, in which humans must fulfill God’s purposes on the earth.
  • Importantly, humans can be dramatically distinguished from all other created material creatures, while also being clearly distinguished from the Creator. Considering all the qualities listed above, humans are not beasts, and thus contrary to the widespread assumptions of evolutionary theory, humans are not evolved from the order of beasts who do not bear the image of God.
  • Idols,[10] worshipping images of rocks and trees made in the image of man, become a travesty of cosmic magnitude, for such worship reduces humans to worshiping something even less than what they themselves possess, which is the very image of God itself.
    “To project God in man’s image is therefore a heinous form of idolatry confounding the Creator with the creaturely (Rom 1:23).”[11]
  • Understanding that all people bear God’s image (though they are lost in the darkness of sin and deception, bound to folly and destruction of all that is good), we are thus compelled to evangelize the entire human race. There are none outside the compassion of God for us to seek to reclaim with the gospel of restoration to God and the renewal of the image of God in them through becoming conformed to the true image of God in Christ.

VI.            Practical implications of the image of God

A. Creativity

The aesthetic of the creation-order is the result of the creation of humans in the image of God. The Edenic “cultural commission” was to creatively build God’s kingdom on earth. Mankind’s creative abilities and knowledge were to be applied to having dominion over the created world. In some sense humans are co-creators with God (not ex nihilo, but out of what is there in creation). The dignity of work is thus affirmed. Jesus fulfills the Edenic mandate of work and creativity (Jn 5:17).  Believing the colossal lies of Satan, Adam and Eve introduced destruction and decay, ugliness and grotesque perversions.

B.  Family and community (social)

We were made for HOME and community. Home is the place for sexuality, love, community, learning, and the foundation of the church and society. Fathering/mothering of children in the home reflects God’s creation of Adam and Eve. The home and the church community are the place for the relay of truth and the gospel through language communication and demonstration (see E. Schaeffer’s, What is a Family and other categories). Neighborly love in the home and community is to be the rule. Believing the colossal lies of Satan led to division, alienation, death, and murder.

C. Prophetic and priestly roles

At creation, sinless humankind bowed before and worshipped God. They guarded the sanctuary-garden of the Lord’s presence (see M. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, p 52-56). See Gen 2:15 – the imperative to WORK  (db() is joined with the imperative to GUARD, watch over, stand watch (rm$). The question is: what is man guarding against?  Satan?  Outside forces? To guide creation in God’s way by faithfully administering God’s imperatives?  In sum, to mediate God’s truth to God’s creation, properly interpreting and applying that truth to the created world. Believing the colossal lies of Satan, they failed in this role of conveying God’s truth. See also 1:28 – God’s imperatives to be fruitful, multiply, rule/govern. These were not options of “free”-will choice.

D. Dominion/work/labor/leisure

All creation is under Adam. The heaven’s are the Lord’s, the earth is the dominion of human hands. Work before the fall was intensive and extensive: they were keepers of the Garden. Freedom factor: before fall, after fall (Rom 8:21). Man was free within certain bounds;  outside those boundaries he was forbidden to go. What we usually call the exercise of mankind’s “free will” was really the exercise of mankind’s rebellious will in bondage to sin. The act of rebellion (eating of the tree) followed the volition of rebellion. Free and enabled to work (db() guard (rm$) the garden (2:15) involved being fruitful (three verbs involved: hrp, hbr, )lm [1:28]). This involved having dominion by ruling and governing in the garden over all creation (hdr[1:28]) (see dominion, p. 441). No indolence. Royal connotations?  Ruler of the earth under God. As the Lord tends to his creation his co-regents were to do likewise. “Fathering” and nurturing the creation. The imitation of God: love God and hate the evil one. Glorify God and enjoy him forever.. Thus they were to glorify God in all they did. Believing the colossal lies of Satan, joyous work became toil and sorrow.

E. The glory of God is his image

R.C. Newman correlates the image of God with the glory of God, and the glory of God with the moral excellence of God. As a person’s reputation is found in their image, their image is represented in whoever reflects their image. In this case, God’s image is his glory and is reflected in his creation morally.[12]

Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

2 Cor 3:18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Jn 17:4 I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.

1 Cor 6:20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

Jn 21:19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

F. The apologetic value of a biblical theology of the image of God

We have deep and true compassion for the lost and appreciation for their creativity (among other things), being made in God’s image. Man, alongside general revelation in creation, is the greatest proof and proclamation of God’s existence and nature (Ps 19; Rom 1). Every person we meet we already know to an incredible degree, since we know how they are constituted. The one primary thing that is new to us in meeting someone, and that encompasses their whole self, is their unique personhood (personality) as made in God’s image.

In terms of the image of God in those being sanctified, the fruit of the Spirit is goodness, virtue, and character, NOT “Worm Theology.” Rom 15:14, “I know that there is much good in you (full of goodness[NIV]), complete in knowledge, and competent to instruct one another.”

G.              The impact of the fall on the image of God

“Before the Fall, we saw ourselves as under God, bearing God’s image and deriving a sense of identity and coherence from God. But now we identify ourselves with creation instead of our Creator. Our whole orientation is downward toward what is less than ourselves, rather than upward toward what is greater. This change of orientation has many psychological results.” D.Keyes, Beyond Identity, p. 61.

Since the Fall, our integration point has been misdirected, misaligned, for it now is not in God himself but in idols, ourselves, and other such futile points of reference. In God, we have an infinite and personal reference point for our own identity and souls, but without a proper relationship to him, we have none that is sufficient for anything. All of the characteristics listed above to define/describe the image of God could be listed here with the deleterious impact of the fall upon them, not obliteration of them but distortion and perversion.

H. The need for redemption to realign and restore the image of God

In God, as those who are redeemed, we have an infinite and personal reference point for our own identity and souls. But, without a proper relationship to him, we have no point of reference that is sufficient for anything. All of the characteristics listed above to define/describe the image of God could be listed here with the deleterious impact of the fall upon them, not obliteration of them but distortion and perversion. This has practical significance in giving significance to all of life; it also gives us a point of reference for every concern of our lives in this world. We do have in Christ an infinite reference point to final integration for our whole being, our whole world, our whole future, our whole eternity. The word integration (often used in Mathematics) is an inadequate attempt in human language to convey the antonym of disintegration (or alienation from self, body, society). For humans, that which makes us whole, complete, full, unified in mind, heart, and character, can only come from the One who made us complete in Eden. The restoration of redemption is to wholeness and shalom, since it is a restoration to the proper relationship to God himself. Yet, how do finite creatures relate to an infinite God? Only through the Incarnate Son. Holiness and wholeness: the telos of God’s purposes. To be holy is to be WHOLE, complete, perfect, unblemished, unmarred. We will be made whole in God’s holy presence. Jesus’ healings of the un-whole and unholy pre-shadowed this new creation reality: the blind see and the lame walk!

VII. Westminster Shorter Catechism and the image of God

Q10: How did God create man?

A10: God created man male and female, after his own image,[1] in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness,[2] with dominion over the creatures.[3]

Q35:  What is sanctification?

A35:  Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,[1] whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,[2] and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.[3]

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter IV: Of Creation

  1. After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female,[4] with reasonable and immortal souls,[5] endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image;[6] having the law of God written in their hearts,[7] and power to fulfill it:[8] and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change.[9] Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God,[10] and had dominion over the creatures.[11]

VIII. John Calvin’s comments on Jesus as the image of God:

  1. Who is the image of the invisible God. He mounts up higher in discoursing as to the glory of Christ. He calls him the image of the invisible God, meaning by this, that it is in him alone that God, who is otherwise invisible, is manifested to us, in accordance with what is said in John 1:18,

— No man hath ever seen God: the only begotten Son, who is in

the bosom of the Father, hath himself manifested him to us.

I am well aware in what manner the ancients were accustomed to explain this; for having a contest to maintain with Arians, they insist upon the equality of the Son with the Father, and his ( ) identity of essence, F42 while in the mean time they make no mention of what is the chief point — in what manner the Father makes himself known to us in Christ. As to Chrysostom’s laying the whole stress of his defense on the term image, by contending that the creature cannot be said to be the image of the Creator, it is excessively weak; nay more, it is set aside by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:7, whose words are — The man is the IMAGE and glory of God. That, therefore, we may not receive anything but what is solid, let us take notice, that the term image is not made use of in reference to essence, but has a reference to us; for Christ is called the image of God on this ground — that he makes God in a manner visible to us. At the same time, we gather also from this his ( ) identity of essence, for Christ would not truly represent God, if he were not the essential Word of God, inasmuch as the question here is not as to those things which by communication are suitable also to creatures, but the question is as to the perfect wisdom, goodness, righteousness, and power of God, for the representing of which no creature were competent. We shall have, therefore, in this term, a powerful weapon in opposition to the Arians, but, notwithstanding, we must begin with that reference that I have mentioned; we must not insist upon the essence alone. The sum is this — that God in himself, that is, in his naked majesty, is invisible, and that not to the eyes of the body merely, but also to the understandings of men, and that he is revealed to us in Christ alone, that we may behold him as in a mirror. For in Christ he shews us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol.[13]

 IX. Some sources

  • H.Baker, In The Image of God.
  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation, pp. 22-23. Christ is the True Image (same as P. Hughes in The True Image).
  • Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 498-517.
  • Keyes, Beyond Identity, “Identity Lost,” pp, 32-40.
  • Raymond, A New Systematic Theology, pp. 425-429.
  • E. Hughes, The True Image (passim).
  • Newman, “Some Perspectives on the Image of God in Man from Biblical Theology.”
  • Sherlock, The Doctrine of Humanity, pp. 29-48, 49-91.
  • Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 202-210.
  • Middlemann, Proexistence.
  • Keyes’ lectures on work
  • Marshall, Heaven is not My Home.
  • Macaulay and J. Barrs, Being Human.
  • A.Schaeffer, Art and the Bible.

[1] The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis.

[2] Van Leeuwen¸ “Form, Image,” NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 643-648.

[3] Note: there has been much debate about the usefulness of the categories incommunicable/communicable/ (or absolute/relative, transcendent/immanent, negative/positive, moral/natural, immanent (intransitive)/emanent(transitive), because they are only absolute when in reference to God and apply only analogously to humans: “no attribute of God is completely communicable, and there is no attribute of God that completely incommunicable” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 156).

[4] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 206.

[5] Van Leeuwen¸ “Form, Image,” NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 643-648.

[6] ei)kw/n  eikwn€ei)/kw,  e)/oika I. a likeness, image, portrait, Hdt., Aesch. 2. an image in a mirror, Eur., Plat. II. a semblance, phantom, Eur., Plat., etc. an image in the mind, id=Plat. III. a similitude, simile, Ar., Plat. (Liddell and Scot Lerxicon).

[7] See Hughes, The True Image, pp. 3-65. See also Erickson’s critique of Barth’s and Brunner’s existential interpretation of the image of God (Christian Theology, pp. 495-517); Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Man the Image of God; Newman, Robert C. “Some Perspectives on the Image of God in Man From Biblical Theology,” Research Report # 21, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, Hatfield, PA, 1984.

[8] Hughes, The True Image, p. 27.

[9] Raymond, Systematic Theology, p. 428.

[10] See words related to idols and other forms of “representation” (from NIDOTTE): µl,x&, (statue, model, image, H7512);  ha,r“m’ ( mar’eh), appearance (H5260); tynIb]T’ ( tabnît), model or design for something built (H9322); hn:WmT] ( temûnâ), form (H9454)  and ls,P&,, hn:WmT], lm,s&, [H6166], tynIb]T’; lylia‘ (Nothing, H496); µyliWLGI (images, idols, H1658);  hr:vea} (wooden cult-object, pole, goddess, H895); lm,s&, (image, H6166); bx;[; (god-image, H6773); ls,P&, (cultic image, statue of a god, H7181; lysiP;, cultic image, statue of a god, H7178; ls’P;, carve, hew out of stone, dress, H7180);  µl,x&, (statue, model, image, H7512);  rm,T&o (scarecrow, H9473);  µypir:T] (figurines, mask, H9572).

[11] C.F.H. Henry, “Image of God,” The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 546.

[12] Newman, “Some Perspectives,” pp. 15-17.

[13] Calvin, Ephesians, The Ages Digital Library, Books for the Ages, Ages Software, Albany, OR.

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Church, parachurch, or why church at all?

Church, parachurch, or why church at all?

Stephen T. Hague, Aug 2017 (read/print pdf file: Church and parachurch)

Questions: What means did Christ establish

church10

  • for the proclamation and preservation of the
  • gospel in biblical history?
  • for properly organized and structured worship, reception of the Word of God, and the accountability of discipline and discipleship through offices of authority?
  • for properly administering to the needs of the fellowship of believers?

Answer: The visible church of those who profess faith in Christ and live in obedience to his commands. This was true for OT Israel living under a theocracy and monarchy, the same as it is for the NT visible church today. In the OT, the visible church was characterized by the Priests’ administration of the sanctuary worship and application of the Word of God, the Elders and Prophets’ ministry of proclaiming and teaching the Word of God revealed and written, and by the kings’ service of administrating justice by upholding the law of God and defending the nation. In the NT, the visible church is characterized by the (priestly) administration of the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, the exposition of the Word (prophetic), and the upholding of the law and protecting the people of God through the administration of discipline properly applied to preserve, protect, and restore by the elders. Further protection and service is provided by the ministry of the Deacons. It is often said that the church is a “human institution,” but that is not what it is: it is God’s divinely appointed means to accomplish his work of redemption through Christ of his people and his world. (Acts 2:47; 1 Pet 2:9-10; 1 Cor 1:2; Col 1:24)

A serious question then is, why do so many people today abandon the visible church, and membership in the fellowship, for alternatives (such as “para-churches”)? Some will answer that they do not need the local church, since they are already members of the universal and invisible church. Perhaps they have been deeply scarred in a local church, or they had some very bad experiences there at some point, or they were in a church that was not orthodox, and they left never to return to a visible and established congregation. In all of these cases, it is easy to understand the rationale and justification for leaving a particularly bad situation.[1] The question is, nevertheless, whether it is wise to exclude oneself altogether from membership in the visible church (or to attach to alternative organizations). The local church is the place where our Lord’s Table is celebrated regularly, and where his death and resurrection are remembered and celebrated every Sunday, and where the Word of Scripture is taught consistently and fully, and where structures for training in righteousness (discipleship) are in place, and where the people of God are held accountable to Christ and to one another by one another, and where elders and deacons are called to serve these ends.

Do people often leave the visible church planning to find a better alternative, one of the many more glamorous alternatives (such as “para-churches”), because they sincerely believe the church failed them, and is failing in its mission, because it has so many problems, because there are so many sinners there not living in obedience (2 Cor 11:2-3)? With such claims, the question is do they really believe it will be easier to do the work of the Kingdom outside of Christ’s ordained means and visible institution (to use imperfect sinners living under grace), while working with different sinners in different contexts and structures that do not align fully with a biblical model or precedent?

What does Christ command us to do in the visible church? To remember him. To celebrate his Table of remembrance, to establish proper structure of authority, to obey his commands with accountability, to have his word dwell in us richly, to pray together. How is this possible? The best way, perhaps the only way, to experience the blessings of membership in his universal, “invisible” church is to be a member of his visible church. Indeed, I think it would be difficult to rightly claim membership in the universal church unless we are committed to real people in a real locale in a real and visible church under the real authority of elders and deacons given by Christ to serve the mission of the advancement of the gospel and the Kingdom through the visible body of Christ. In this way, our presence and service in the visible church is evidence (yet, not proof of salvation or a proposal of works-righteousness here) of our membership in the universal church. In this way, our membership in a local body of believers is the acknowledgement that we cannot do this alone, nor would we ever want to. It is also an acknowledgment that we do not create organizations that would supplant or replace the mission given to the church. Our belonging is comparable to the marriage of Christ and the Church, as we are in “subjection” to one another in love; this is only possible if we are actually and visibly committed to one another. Love cannot be expressed fully in isolation from the whole body; it is given in the context of the visible church as the practical place to be a light set on a hill (Rom 12:5; Eph 4:25). We have a unity and a bond of peace before the watching world (Eph 4:3; 5:21-32).

Nevertheless, there are some who say that membership in a local visible church is unnecessary. Actually, I would suggest that the term “invisible” (or universal) church is meaningless without a visible representation on the earth. Otherwise, it is nothing but some abstraction, a concept. So, this is sometimes people’s logic, “Oh, I belong to the invisible church that is universal, and which is by the way unseen (since invisible), and so it is unnecessary that I join a local congregation.” If this be the case, then it must be presumed your church is inactive and non-existent to anyone’s observation from the outside. And, for those who do not abandon the local visible church with such reasoning, it can lead to the rationalization to create something “new,” an alternative to Christ’s institution, to make the Kingdom hope more appealing and exciting, or just more glamorous than our boring edifices and structures and services, or to provide a more biblical alternative to what was seen as mostly dead church traditions or outright unbelief within the majority of denominations.  Yet, scripture teaches that we are to be members of the visible body, interdependent on one another (Rom 13:5; Eph 4:25; 1 Cor 12:12-27).

The so-called “para-church” organizations that proliferated during the later sixties and seventies, and continue today, often were seen as ways to address the perceived failures, lacks, and omissions of the visible church. Indeed, in many cases they were a response to the failed project of the Liberal and mainline churches that for a generation had largely abandoned the gospel. Succumbing to the unbelief of a purely socially oriented gospel, rejecting much of historic Christian doctrine, they bore the fruits of such theology in catastrophic spiritual (and physical) death around the world. In this context it not surprising that “para” organizations developed to seek to redress this state of affairs, but they typically went outside the organized and visible church and became “alongside,” an alternative. Offering what appeared to be exciting new opportunities to serve the Kingdom and the gospel of Jesus, they created focused ministries to the many and various needs of the world, such as evangelism, discipleship, worship, and serving the poor and oppressed. These para-church organizations have done a tremendous amount of good in the world, but too often the cost to our ecclesiology, and the strength of the believing visible church, has not been acknowledged. Since these organizations are not churches, having no official establishment of biblical structures and patterns and protections of the church, they have been subject to the many cultural and social forces prevailing in the broader culture. They have also been subject to all the same trials every organization of humans struggles with, yet doing so without biblical restraints (and training) on doctrine, authority, and morality. They so often supplant the Christ-given visible church’s responsibilities, and forsake proper structures for those of the business model or non-profit models, and in many cases a very-much-for-profit model.  Because they usually lack proper biblical officers, authorial checks and balances, such organizations are governed by strong personalities who can generate tremendous capital and interest around the causes of the organization, sometimes, and much too often, creating a sub-culture prone to the cult-of-the-personality, or sectarian style structures and strategies, and in some cases cultic, or cult-styled, local and national leadership teams. I claim no expertise on these organizations, but my observation over the years is that the most of them focus on the youth and young adults, and often at the local level they are led by the theologically untrained and immature. This being the case, the larger they become, the more insidiously authoritarian they become in order to control the inevitable chaos. To varying degrees they must compete with one another, in strictly business fashion, vying to appeal to the diverse interests of the young in the hopes of gaining new members by offering a product more satisfying than the other alternatives to the youthful yearnings and aspirations of those they recruit. In sum, I hope that this brief reflection on church and para-church organizations stimulates some reflection on the question of what is the church and how we understand those organizations that are not churches and yet which often supplant the church, Christ’s established and authorial means to fulfill his work. The visible church is Christ’s institution called to the Great Commission, to convey the gospel of the Scripture to the world, to train in righteousness, to disciple the nations, to properly celebrate the Lord’s Table, to baptize, and to guard all these things through biblical discipline.

Now, we must also consider that it is possible for the visible building (belonging to a “visible” church) on the street corner can be just as invisible to the neighbors as the so-called invisible church without a building, but that is another matter regarding the (oxymoronic) “dead church.” In this latter case, it is oxymoronic to think that a true church living in obedience to Christ could possibly be dead since they are energized by the Living Christ and his word of the Gospel and the hope of the gospel. If they are truly alive in Christ, and living in love and grace together, the neighbors will know. A visible church that is invisible to all around it has a spiritual problem, even if it is still present as a visible church. We would not say it is not part of the visible church,  only that it is seriously failing in its calling and mission.

In this sense, the visible church and each member is Christ’s “letter to the world” (2 Cor 3:2). As Francis Schaeffer was known to say, in regards to Jesus’ words on love, that the world will know that the Father has sent the Son on the basis of the love they have for one another. This we know will never be perfect, but that is no excuse for our sin, nor our attempts to replace Christ’s institution with something else; it is a recognition that we must live under grace and discipline together as apprentices of the Servant of servants who is teaching us to love God with a perfect love, as we learn to forgive one another with our presently imperfect love. As his disciples we seek to do his will, but we are still in training with much to learn. As someone else put it, we are learning the impossible task (impossible to us on our own) of loving as God loves and to love what God loves. I conclude that the best place, and most difficult, to do this is in the place Christ Jesus himself instituted, and that is his visible church (Eph 1:22-23; 2:16; 4:2-6, 12-13; Col 1:18; 2:19; 3:15). The practicality of this should be evident; the best place to love and serve, using our differing gifts, is in the context of our families and in the family of believers, the visible church. In this way, Christ’s church is to be as a light set on a hill, the salt of the earth (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 7:7; Eph 4:7-8, 12).


“We cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church.” J.K.A.Smith, You Are What You Love¸p. 178

“There is one body and one Spirit . . .” Ephesians 4:6

The visible church of Christ, is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered, according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things of necessity are requisite the same.

Article XIX, The Thirty Nine Articles

The church “hath always three notes or marks whereby it is known:  pure and sound doctrine, the sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline.”  E.S.C. Gibson, The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, p. 495.

“The congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.”
Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, pp. 222-223.


The Confession of Faith, Glasgow:  Francis Orr and Sons, 1856.

Ch XXV Of the church

  1. The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.
  2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel, (not confined to one nation, as before under the law,) consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house of the family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

III. Unto this catholic church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world;  and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

  1. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less pure in them.
  2. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth to worship God according to his will.
  3. There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalted himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.

Ch X Of Church Censures

The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath herein appointed a government in the hand of church-officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

  1. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue of whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word of censures; and to open it unto censures, as occasion shall require.

III.  Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren;  for deterring of others from like offences;  for purging out that leaven which might infect the whole lump;  for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel;  and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

  1. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season, and by excommunication from the church, according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.

Below are some summary notes, typically succinct, from a much beloved seminary professor I had way back in time. They remind me of how important and necessary the organization and structure of the visible church really is.


R.Dunzweiler, ST notes for Systematic Theology IV (at BTS)

What is the Church?

In its broadest sense the Church may be defined as follows:

  • the people of God of all ages, from Adam to the last person who will be savingly united to Christ and the benefits of His redemption;
  • all those saved by grace through faith on the ground of Christ’s atoning work;
  • all those whom God has foreknow, predestinated, called, justified, and sanctified;
  • all those who have been born of God, who have become members of God’s redemptive family, who are indwelt by the Spirit of God;
  • the whole body of professing believers in God’s salvation, manifested in local gatherings with their officers and ministers, and carrying out the functions of ministry of the word, right administration of the ordinances, and proper exercise of discipline.

Categorization of the functions of the Church

  1. The prophetic function
  • Preaching
  • Teaching
  • Counseling
  • Reaching out in evangelistic and missionary activity
  • Attempting to influence our society and culture

2. The worship function

  • Assembling for worship
  • Conducting worship services
  • Conducting form ceremonies
  • Administering the ordinances/sacraments
  • Corporate prayer

3. The fellowship function

  • Sharing the understanding of Scripture
  • Sharing Christian experience
  • Sharing hospitality
  • Sharing leisure-time activities
  • Sharing of special social occasions

4. The stewardship function

  • Stewardship of human resources

The scriptural pattern of local church government is:

1. Rulership and oversight and superintendence by bishops-elders-pastors

(1) Bishops-elders-pastors who rule
(2) Bishops-elders-pastors who rule and labor in the Word and teaching

2. Administration of temporal matters by deacons

God has given us this pattern in Scripture, and nowhere do we find a blanket allowance for the institution of some other form or pattern that we might think is better. To the contrary, we find that this pattern has been given to us in order that we may know how to conduct ourselves in the church (I Timothy 3:15).

3. Stewardship of material resources

(1)     Money

(2)     Physical Property

5. The discipline function

6. The civil responsibility function

[1] There are some difficult cases, nevertheless, as in the underground church in Communist China, and Muslim countries, where open church membership with your name on an official roster, can be a dangerous and unwise practice. This is not what I am addressing, since typically these believers associate closely with a local body of believers, though in secret.

On the many who claim to be prophets today, and dreamers of dreams

Jeremiah in Sistene ChapelFor one who teaches biblical hermeneutics, I am cautious to pull a text like this into our contemporary context, since it is from the end of the pre-exilic context of ancient Judah when Jeremiah wrote dire warnings against them for their idolatries and against the scores of people who then claimed to be prophets sent from God. Nevertheless, can we not ask if there is any similarity with our own generation in regards to the countless claims from people of God revealing, speaking, giving further revelation, visions, and prophecies, so many of which have been widely shown as both false and often misleading? (An example that “there is nothing new under the sun.”)

(left)Jeremiah by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel) 

Does not the principle stand that for anyone to claim a revelation or prophecy from God, and who did not actually receive such (but only imagined or hoped to have received such), they would most certainly be considered a false prophet. In biblical terms, that is. Even if they prophesied something concrete, in a predictive fashion, that happens to occur, and it did not come directly from God, it still makes them a false prophet. Yet, consider the many thousands of people today claiming prophecies, dreams, visions, etc., who have made themselves a laughing-stock with their oftentimes outrageous and patently false claims. At best they are mostly ignored, but at worst they frequently manage to point people away from the actual canon of revelation in the Old and New Testaments to themselves and their seemingly benign imaginings. Many people have even started movements and organizations on the basis of such spurious revelations, but even if they have many followers it does not make them a prophet from God.

In sum, take heed from Jeremiah to all who claim, “The Lord said to me” or “The Lord gave me this dream  . . . or vision.” And, to all who listen to these many self-proclaimed prophets of our times, take heed lest you too are taken captive by all sorts of vanity and delusions that may appear marvelous, but are nothing more than “the visions of their[the prophets’] own minds.”

Jeremiah 23

16 Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

   25 “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ 26 “How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart, 27 who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal? 28“The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain?” declares the LORD. 29“Is not My word like fire?” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock? 30“Therefore behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who steal My words from each other. 31“Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32“Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the LORD, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the LORD.

The Wise Fool in Shakespeare and in Life and in Scripture

Historically, plays and entertainment in various cultures have had the figure of a jester, clown, or fool. William Shakespeare’s plays sometimes redesigned this character where he made the fool a central figure of the story, and not just a jester. Influenced by the Bible, Shakespeare played on the biblical notions of the wise man; his fools are often “the wise” who have prophetic revelations for the main characters of the plays that are often themselves shown to be the true proper fools. His fool is often the only one who is not afraid to speak the truth, providing commentary on both the story and the other characters. One of the most fascinating examples is found in King Lear, a play that explores with the ideas of reality, folly, magisterial delusions of kings, and what is wise and what is foolish. He can see through the duplicities and falsehoods before everyone else, and he also stays by Lear’s side and does not abandon him to his madness.
Shakespeare’s fools take some getting used to by the audience, since at first glance they posture as a clown or buffoon, but with closer examination their lines convey some of the wittiest and most logical reasoning in the plays. Besides often giving comic relief in light of tragic circumstances or tragic character flaws in the main characters, the fool often gives us wisdom, playing on the biblical theme of “the wisdom of God is folly/foolishness to the world.
Not all of Shakespeare’s fool follow the same pattern, since some are simpler, and even some darker, than others and give less insight.[1]

One of my favorite fool-dialogues and descriptions is from the Twelfth Night where Viola gives us her definition of the fool, and also the longer selection below where they dialogue wittily and very humorously:

VIOLA

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man’s art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.

A dialogue from the Twelfth Night below gives us a good example:

Clown

Wit, an’t be thy will, put me into good fooling!
Those wits, that think they have thee, do very oft
prove fools; and I, that am sure I lack thee, may
pass for a wise man: for what says Quinapalus?[a made-up philosopher][2]
‘Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.’

The original fuller text alongside a modern rendition from “no-fear shakespeare”[1]  
Original Text 

Enter OLIVIA with MALVOLIO

OLIVIA

Take the fool away.

Modern Text

Enter OLIVIA with MALVOLIO

OLIVIA

Get that fool out of here.

FOOL

Do you not hear, fellows? Take away the lady.

FOOL

Didn’t you hear her, guys? Get the lady out of here.

OLIVIA

Go to, you’re a dry fool. I’ll no more of you. Besides, you grow dishonest.

OLIVIA

Oh, go away, you’re a boring fool. I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore. Besides, you’ve gotten unreliable.

FOOL

Two faults, madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend. For give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry. Bid the dishonest man mend himself. If he mend, he is no longer dishonest. If he cannot, let the botcher mend him. Anything that’s mended is but patched. Virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with virtue. If that this simple syllogism will serve, so. If it will not, what remedy? As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty’s a flower. The lady bade take away the fool. Therefore, I say again, take her away.

FOOL

Madam, those are two character flaws that a little booze and some common sense can fix. If you hand a drink to a sober fool, he won’t be thirsty anymore. If you tell a bad man to mend his wicked ways, and he does, he won’t be bad anymore. If he cannot, let the tailor mend him. Anything that’s mended is only patched up. A good person who does something wrong is only patched up with sin. And a sinner who does something good is only patched up with goodness. If this logic works, that’s great. If not, what can you do about it? Since the only real betrayed husband in the world is the one deserted by Lady Luck—because we’re all married to her—beauty is a flower. The lady gave orders to take away the fool, so I’m telling you again, take her away.

OLIVIA

Sir, I bade them take away you.

OLIVIA

I told them to take you away.

FOOL

Misprision in the highest degree! Lady, Cucullus non facit monachum—that’s as much to say as I wear not motley in my brain. Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool.

FOOL

Oh, what a big mistake! Madam, you can’t judge a book by its cover. I mean, I may look like a fool, but my mind’s sharp. Please let me prove you’re a fool.

OLIVIA

Can you do it?

OLIVIA

Can you do that?

FOOL

Dexterously, good madonna.

FOOL

Easily, madam.

OLIVIA

Make your proof.

OLIVIA

Then go ahead and prove it.

FOOL

I must catechise you for it, madonna. Good my mouse of virtue, answer me.

FOOL

I’ll have to ask you some questions, madam. Please answer, my good little student.

OLIVIA

Well, sir, for want of other idleness, I’ll bide your proof.

OLIVIA

I’m listening to you only because I’ve got nothing better to do.

FOOL

Good madonna, why mournest thou?

FOOL

My dear madam, why are you in mourning?

OLIVIA

Good fool, for my brother’s death.

OLIVIA

My dear fool, because my brother died.

FOOL

I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

FOOL

I think his soul’s in hell, my lady.

OLIVIA

I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

OLIVIA

I know his soul’s in heaven, fool.

FOOL

The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

FOOL

Then you’re a fool for being sad that your brother’s soul is in heaven. Take away this fool, gentlemen.

OLIVIA

What think you of this fool, Malvolio? Doth he not mend?

OLIVIA

What do you think of this fool, Malvolio? Isn’t he getting funnier?

MALVOLIO

Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him. Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.

MALVOLIO

Yes, and he’ll keep getting funnier till he dies. Old age always makes people act funny—even wise people, but fools more than anybody.

FOOL

God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing your folly! Sir Toby will be sworn that I am no fox, but he will not pass his word for two pence that you are no fool.

FOOL

I hope you go senile soon, sir, so you can become a more foolish fool! Sir Toby would bet a fortune that I’m not smart, but he wouldn’t bet two cents that you’re not a fool.

OLIVIA

How say you to that, Malvolio?

OLIVIA

What do you say to that, Malvolio?

MALVOLIO

I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal.

I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that

MALVOLIO

I’m surprised you enjoy the company of this stupid troublemaker. The other day I saw him defeated in a

has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged. I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of fools no better than the fools’ zanies. battle of wits by an ordinary jester with no more brains than a rock. Look at him, he’s at a loss for words already. Unless he’s got somebody laughing at him, he can’t think of anything to say. I swear, anyone smart who laughs at these courts jesters is nothing but a jester’s apprentice.  
OLIVIA

Oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon-bullets. There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail. Nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove.

OLIVIA

Malvolio, your vanity is damaging your good taste. If you were generous, innocent, and good-natured, you wouldn’t get so upset by what the fool says. You’d think of his wisecracks as harmless little firecrackers, not hurtful bullets. A court jester isn’t really criticizing people, even if he does nothing but make fun of them all day long. And a wise person doesn’t make fun of people, even if all he does is criticize them.

 
FOOL

Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou speakest well of fools!

FOOL

You speak so highly of fools! I hope the god of deception rewards you by making you a wonderful liar.

 

[1] From http://nfs.sparknotes.com/twelfthnight/page_38.html accesses 8/18/2015.


Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

1 Cor 3 18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours,”

1 Cor 1 18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19 For it is written,
“I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE,
AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.”

20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  26For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29so that no man may boast before God. 30But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.”

[1] There have been many things written on Shakespeare’s fools: one example available for free is See Frederick B. Warde, The Fools of Shakespeare: An Interpretation of Their Wit, Wisdom and Personalities (London: McBride, Nast, and Company), 1915.

[2] Possibly means something in Latin (Opalus is Opal, Quin to negate, “without”).

Don’t Be Naive: or, “judge a righteous judgment”

foolsdance“Thou shalt judge . . . . a righteous judgment”

Rom 16:17-18 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18 For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

διχοστασίας      divisions
σκάνδαλα          obstacles
χρηστολογίας    smooth talk
εὐλογίας           flattery
ἐξαπατῶσιν       deceive
ἀκάκων             naïve

Warnings against those who use smooth talk (rhetoric) and false logic to bring dissensions and digressions from the truth abound in scripture. For those who claim that we “must not judge” things (what others say, believe, or do), we see in this passage a strong exhortation to “keep your eye” on things contrary to the teaching you have learned. More than that, we are to turn away from them! We often think of this perhaps just in terms of smooth talking salesmen, or some such, but in this case we can understand this as anyone who persuasively in words, print, or other means presents ideas that are not true (true: in accordance with Scripture) so that we might believe in them. Many terrible ideas are being published in beautiful books and beautiful words, and many a hip preacher and teacher can get the crowds shouting on their feet for ideas that will in the end bring down the house (being built on sand). Oftentimes, the ideas will seem a bit novel, but not so apparently diverting from orthodoxy that they are obviously departing from the truth. The seriousness of falling prey to such subtly false rhetoric is a matter of disobedience or obedience to Christ. It is in this sense a matter of life and death, the necessity of having biblical discernment and assessment of people’s logic (thinking/reasonings) and their rhetoric in communicating. This necessity of discerning flattery and deceptions of many kinds requires true wisdom from God, to have skillful discernment and assessment, so that we can clearly distinguish (judge) truth from falsehood, righteousness from unrighteousness, good from evil, etc. Naïve, fools listen to the songs of folly and foolishness, dancing their tune, and this is the epitome of unreason and irrationality. Logic and rhetoric therefore have as their primary concerns the very Truth: what is true to reality not imaginations, what is right, and to what is true to the character of God and all who represent him. We would be wise to listen to the words of wisdom here in Paul, and thus walking with the wise (Prov 13:20) we might become “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

On Jesus Calling by Sarah Young [The New Mystic]

On Jesus Calling by the Sarah Young [The New Mystic][1]

Since the very popular author Sarah Young has now published her own Jesus Calling Devotional Bible, I think it is even more pressing that we address her hugely successful devotional book published some years previously, called Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. In this earlier devotional publication she claims that its content came to her by direct dictation from Jesus. My concerns with this devotional are not with its content per se; it is her claims of direct communication from Jesus (which seems comparable to the increasingly common New Age channeling practitioners who also claim to receive messages, even sometimes from Jesus). If Young had not put this in the form of direct revelation from Christ to her (and presumably to all believers), but rather as Christian reflections to encourage and teach others, it would not be so problematic. In fact, I would find it a bit more acceptable if she had only claimed that this was a literary and imaginative work for devotional encouragement, but that is not the case. Most seriously, as with all claims of direct messages from God, in Jesus Calling Young’s claim of direct (dictation)[2] revelation would logically necessitate some kind of divine inspiration, and thus infallibility, and thus inerrancy (as the logic goes). Although Young denies inerrancy for these “messages from God,” I do not see how anyone can accept her claims without attributing to her works unwarranted authority.

Young’s mystical orientation puts her in company with many other, similar Christian mystics, “listeners” who have “visualizations” and experiences of losing “all sense of time.” Young’s theology may be otherwise orthodox, as far as I know.  As several reviewers have noted, however, the theology of Young’s devotional is thin. Indeed, the most common theme seems to be simply “Don’t worry, trust me,” in the traditional, pietistic motif of “let go and let God,” or, “cease striving.” Further to that thin theme, there is the central mystical thought of “empty yourself and your mind” that I find very unsatisfying as a model for the Christian life in a fallen world. Indeed, the biblical model is to be filled with the Word, so that his word dwells in us for fullness of life.

The message Young conveys in this devotional of dictations is that scripture was not sufficient for her, and need not be for us. As she writes, “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more” (xii).  And, since God has given her a deeper peace from “personal messages” directly from Jesus, we too are encouraged to get solace and peace with this fresh new word from Christ himself to her. She offers to her readers that “more” she yearned for, but it is a further word, not the scripture. The fundamental doctrines of the Protestant faith include the sufficiency of scripture and the cessation of divine revelation with the closing of the canon.  Any claims of something “more” beyond that have historically been rejected as usurpations, and thus unauthoritative. Also, by adding biblical scriptures to the bottom of her revelations, Young gives further unjustified authority to the words she claims come directly from Christ.

Works such as this one undoubtedly indicate a spiritual hunger for more teaching that “speaks to the heart and soul” in our times, and perhaps particularly in Reformed circles that tend sometimes to especially emphasize the mind and thoroughgoing theology. Yet, in response to that suggestion, I propose that any downplaying of the “heart and soul,” and the human need to be ministered to there, is entirely out of accord with our history of Protestant, Reformation piety. Just consider, for example, Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections.” I do think there is a widespread hunger for something more in this area. Indeed, there may be something of a famine in our times, but I think it is the meat of the Word through the Spirit that alone produces a true “experience” of God and his presence (this is not to say we do not read other books to learn, grow, and get encouragement, etc., but that we do not consider them in any way as further revelation).

In sum, since our experiences are such unreliable guides for piety, we must depend on the scripture alone as our authoritative rule and guide for life and faith. Sola scriptura was about both the authority of the Scripture and its sufficiency. Indeed, I believe that we do not need to “yearn” for anything more than sola scriptura. Jesus is calling, but he never calls us to go beyond scripture.

Stephen Hague

[1] Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

[2] On dictation notions of inspiration, ironically, no Evangelical theory that I know of seriously entertains inspiration of biblical revelation in the terms she describes that her messages are received by dictation.

Is the PostModern (PoMo) Emerging and Missional Emergent Movement now passé?

untitledAt the grassroots level, this Postmodern movement was fueled by much dislike of uncool fundamentalism and its “culture” (or lack thereof). This reactionary component, and their seeming lack of positive direction and definition, has been particularly defining of the movement itself. The question still remains, nevertheless, where were we supposed to be emerging from and where to? But now the question is, is the emerging movement itself  actually in retreat today? As a reactionary movement against what was “before,” once it too becomes post, or “before,” does it too then not become passé?

One of “emergings” key spokesmen once suggested that the theologizing of prior centuries was only for prior centuries and was not as deep and profound as what is happening today in the emerging movement (see “some quotes” below). The uninspiring, ho-hum, aspect of this is that the mainline church and its neo-orthodoxy previously had lived long in the universe of the “journey” not the “destination,” seeking “questions,” not “answers,” living in “tension” not “resolution.” They spoke eloquently in paradoxical terms of “concealment as an aspect of revelation,” and in the “affirmation of doubt” and “silence,” of “engaging” not dogmatizing or “getting it all down” (whatever that means). Propositionalism became a pejorative term applied to those who have too much certitude in what they believe. Objectivism was rejected as the idol of those who believe Truth is absolute and absolutely true. Within this, there was a call for hermeneutical agnosticism in regards to the biblical text. While this has the virtue of claiming humility, it just might lead to pride in doubts about what can be known of the text. While emergers rightly emphasized contextual mission as the mission of the church of God, they fail to remind us that mission has always been the mission of the church, despite its many failings, and I can think of no theologian who ever denied that mission. In regards to all of these characteristics, this now aging movement may well be seeing a glimmer of a new emerging from this hermeneutical agnosticism. In what I have observed (my entirely unscientific impression), there seems to be a greater longing for certitude and a theological house built on solid rock, not sand. Being “post” everything may have been found wanting.

Indeed, the “post” nature of the emerging movement was one of its most puzzling features. Emergers have been said to be “post-modern,” “post-liberal,” “post-evangelical,” “post-doctrinal,” “post-Bible-study-piety,” “post-systematic theology,” and “post-conservative.” I think “post-rational,” “post-linear,” and “post-historical” could be added to this list (see Scott Mcknight’s article, “The Future or Fad: A Look at the Emerging Church Movement.”) In fact, even though Mcknight says this “post” is not “better” but “after,” this reactionary characteristic describes at least a drift away from what preceded, regardless of internal assessments of what they are now post. Even if this shift was not intentional or always conscious, it is professedly a drift away from traditional evangelicalism, conservatism, doctrinalism, sytematics, traditional Bible-Study, and personal piety, etc. I would agree that it may also have represented a drift away from the old liberalism (“post liberal”), but only in so far as it is aligned with Neo-orthodoxy. Neo-orthodoxy, though a reaction against the old liberalism, simply refashioned the Modernists’ (Historical-Critical) rejection of scripture itself as the only revealed Word of God, divinely inspired, inerrant, as propositional revelation, and translated this view into a Neo-orthodox version riddled with dialectical tensions. In this regard, I propose that it was always in danger of becoming post-orthodox. Indeed, as with most fads, thankfully, it seems to be coming into a “post-emerging” phase, as already noted, and as a fad that relished being “post” (as in “better than what preceded”), it is now surpassed by a hunger for reality of a truly biblical theology and living.

In reference to the emerger’s (and PoMo’s) original rejection of “Modernism,” I suggest that the traditional use of this term “modern” has been abused in the discussion, since in theology and hermeneutics it referred to the classic formulations of the early Historical-Critical scholars (now often called “liberal”), and in reference to history it would take us back nearly to the Renaissance and not to twentieth century Evangelicalism (the well-bred whipping-boy of Neo-Modern PoMos). Indeed, the early modern period begins in the Middle Ages. Perhaps on this point, the Neo-modernists could do better at informing us illiterate modern masses precisely what part of this vast history they reject and accept, rather than characterizing certain isolated aspects of modern Evangelicalism and pejoratively calling them “Modernist” in order to tar and feather them for future reference in the history books of the post-post-post-modernist era. Which raises another question, do we ever finally arrive at what is “post post”? Are we yet, and forever then, truly prepost? Also, I suggest that it would be vain to suggested that this search for something “post” everything is a continuation of the principle of ecclesia reformata est semper reformando (a reformed church is always reforming), since this principle is about remaining faithful to the orthodox “traditions of the apostles” handed down to us.

Another prevalent aspect of emerging was their proposed dichotomies for framing a new perspective on orthodoxy. I culled the following examples from the emerging-church literature. I have not listed any dichotomy that I have not observed at some point in the literature on “emerging.” These are not my “stereotypes” of this movement, but the explicit assertions made by those either seeking to explain or advocate emerging (my comments are in parenthesis):

  • emerging is about ecclesiology not about epistemology (I suggest that this is patently false, since discussions and assertions about epistemology litter the emerging terrain)
  • emerging is missional in contrast to pre-emerging Christendom (this is historically inaccurate, since the church, when it has been acting biblically, has always been truly missional)
  • emerging is missional not theologically defined (this is a contradiction in terms, since all truly biblical, missional activity must be theologically rooted and motivated)
  • emerging is formational not informational (this is doubly a contradiction in terms, since formation cannot emerge without information, and indeed spiritual formation has always depended upon sound theological “information”)
  • emerging is about God as “being right” not about people being right or wrong (this is naïve, since such disjunctive affirmations remove human, theological responsibility before God)
  • emerging is pro-Jesus not creedal, systematic, or logical (this is semantic mysticism, and the old “no creeds but Jesus” idea is essentially creedal)
  • emerging is relational not rational (ditto)
  • emerging is pro-church not doctrinally unified (this rejects the principle of the purity of the visible church, and to be pro-church necessitates being pro-doctrine, though imperfectly)
  • emerging is a community not denominational or ecclesiastical (this collapses the visible and the invisible church, and diminishes the communities created by denominations and churches)
  • emerging is about micro-narratives not about meta-narratives (this makes true “cross-cultural” communication essentially and practically impossible, since our “micro-narratives” have true significance only in so far as they correspond to the meta-narrative of the gospel of redemption)
  • emerging is more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy (this false disjunction suggests that living is prior to believing. Yet, since our living is motivated by our Lord, how do we practice what we do not doctrinally affirm?)
  • emerging is about being post-everything but it is really post-little. I suggest that the Emergent-Emerging-Village did not equal a revolution or reformation but a fun playing-field in which “traditional” cultural, theological, and philosophical borderlines were understood as in motion. Indeed, some in the emerging movement even tried to push out traditional Christian moral boundaries. Since blogs have been one of the primary mediums for the emerging discussions, it is difficult to identify all of its diverse shifts with confidence(oops!). Ironically, the driving engine of much of the emerging moment seemed to be Neo-Modernism which is strangely akin to Neo-orthodoxy, one of the many versions of twentieth century heterodoxy (even though not all emergers share PoMo denials of “absolute truth”). Neo-modernism presents the other straw-man of the Transcendental Great Other who is a god mostly unknowable. Indeed, this god lives in the great cloud of unknowing, and is the dialectical tension inhering in all of modern life. This transcendent god, or Transcendence as God, is mostly silent. Nevertheless, we sometimes get a glimpse in the Bible, in a sunset, or in human culture and traditions, all of which are somehow, inexplicably, relative to collective interpretation by the PoMo community. This deistic formulation strangles prayer and basic Bible study, in my view, as it did in the Mainline of my lost youth. And, as it has in the West as a whole. And this is why it contained within it the seeds of its own undoing.

In its rejection of pietism, Neo-orthodoxy loathed piety, since its impersonal god makes no distinctions between the warmth and zeal that true knowledge of God in Christ engenders and the excesses of nineteenth century revivalism. Similarly, many in the emerging movement seemed to dislike pietism. Most strangely, the emerging and PoMo movements both seem to simultaneously disdain pietism and also what is pejoratively called “old Princeton” (Scottish Common Sense Realism), or rationalism. Nevertheless, the frequent PoMo denigration of the Princeton theologians for their rationalism has not considered the history of their piety.[1] These Princeton theologians, condemned in PoMo judgment, had heart-religion on fire for God. Their heart-religion was not unbridled, subjective emotionalism. Nor was their academic work intellectual, rationalistic gamesmanship. Rather, their academic labors fueled their passion for the gospel of Christ. Indeed, I think it is unsustainable that the Princeton theologians advanced rationalism, but rather they believed in rationality as a God-given gift. They also understood the significance of the battle for Truth, and they believed that theological formulation, expression, and creeds mattered as a matter of life and death. I do not mean to romanticize these Old-Bygone-Theologizers, but mention them as an example that highlights the many false dichotomies and straw-men the PoMos’ love to burn, leaving nothing but ashes in their historical stead.

The ennui of many people today is the ethos of apathy, and worse. Many are adrift in a world that offers them gods fashioned according to their likes and dislikes, their styles and manner of being cool, their personal preferences and i-pod gods for nameless blog-religion. In this context, I have been concerned that this new emerging “reformation” would not lead to a new orthodoxy and orthopraxy of building community, but to a new religion of Neo-modernist transcendentalism and isolationalism. It is therefore my hope that in the seminary/church world the gospel of Christ is not subsumed by the popular “Totally Other” transcendental god of Barthian Neo-orthodoxy and Neo-modernist mysticism. God revealed himself in the sanctuary of Israel as absolutely immanent and absolutely transcendent (without any contradiction or paradox), and this is his consistent revelation through to the end of the Revelation of John. Indeed, in Christ, these complimentary attributes of God become most evident in the incarnation: God Almighty is personally, knowably, present with us. Thus, we can confidently(oops!) proclaim to this adrift generation, desperate for an answer to their ennui, that God is not Totally Other, but has clearly spoken in His Son. His Son is the incarnate Word of God whose word is the seed of the Kingdom of God now here in our midst. The revealed word of God is scripture now here in our hands, and it is the only final, and absolute authority for the people of the Son of God.

The frequent immodesty of “evangelical” PoMo theology, that often rejects previous theologizing, denies that their emperor wears no clothes. That is, their accusations that Modernists are guilty of “cognitive idolatry” may come home to roost, since their new found pride in “humble theology” invokes a self-loathing of their own Evangelicalism. This self-loathing is pervasive, along with its distaste for “fundamentalism” and its cultural separatism. Ironically, justified fears of cultural accommodation run deep in the Neo-modernist movement, but with a brilliant naiveté that if we just admit our presuppositions then we become neutral and objective. If asserting with certitude that we have received what has been passed on to us from the apostles of Christ is idolatry, then surely confident ranting against confidence in the scripture would qualify as cognitive idolatry. It is time that those who are refashioning orthodoxy admit that their own presuppositions are not just about contextualizing the gospel of Jesus, but rather about neutralizing the power of the gospel unto salvation to all who believe.

If asserting that we must be faithful to the scripture is cognitive idolatry, then it is time the Neo-modernists come clean and confess to their own lack of faith and need for prayer. It is time they own up to their own “cultural conditioning” by modernist, naturalist unbelief, and foreswear calling it recontextualization. As one of the philosophical leaders of the PoMo evangelicals likes to say, “Objectivity has been greatly overrated,” I would like to say that this is an overly objective, modernist assertion within his own framework. There is absolutely nothing new in calls to formulate the gospel clearly to each new generation, but the underlying assertion that our formulations are only social constructs “imbedded in particular cultures” is something new. And, this new thing is a departure from the perspective of the apostles on their gospel, in my view.

These are just some of the reasons why I believe that the Post-Modern Emerging movement has come to its end, and has become passé, since the people of God hunger for much more substance in their relationship with Christ the King, our ever-present Savior, than such philosophies could provide. He has called us out of darkness into his glorious light (1 Peter 2:9), and his people need to be encouraged in that absolute truth to live before the nations in true faith and loving obedience.

[1]For example, in Andrew Hoffecker’s Piety and the Princeton Theologians: Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981).

Some quotes about “rejecting” prior theologizing below from Scott Mcknight’s blogsite:

http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=821 “Many of the leaders and thinkers of the emerging movement were nurtured theologically on books like those of Donald Bloesch, Millard Erickson,Wayne Grudem, or even older lights like Berkhof. Emerging leaders know this stuff — and often have moved beyond it or have rejected it.” “What you won’t find in these new discussions is the return to dog-eared discussions like whether or not human nature is tripartite or something else. The issues are bigger, the questions are deeper, and the scope of the discussion wider. When they ask about eschatology, they don’t ask about the rapture, they inquire into what history is, how God relates to history, what the goal of history is. When they ask about Scripture, they don’t begin with inerrancy and inspiration but (like Vanhoozer) how the drama of doctrine is meant to be played out using the script of God as its text.” “Which also means the answers will be bigger and deeper and wider. Perhaps I’ve misstated: this kind of theology might not be pursuing the “answer” but probing the question — theologizing, exploring, pondering, and wondering.”

In contrast to this, read 1 Corinthians 15:3 (NASB95): For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . .

More thoughts and quotes on Neo-Modernism (a.k.a PoMo)

“The only cure for postmodernism is the incurable illness of romanticism.” (Postmodernism for Beginners by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt)

Post modernism sends the contradictory message that though we are all one community, our individual cultures (“readings” of reality) make true “cross-cultural” communication essentially and practically impossible. That is, if meaning is relative to the individual within his or her community, or that meaning is relative to the community itself, then truly cross-cultural communication is not possible.

LeoPurdue’s comments on postmodernism are worth further reflection (from Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, pp. 278-279):

“The losses to human thinking and understanding, should the post modern agenda be fully implemented, would be enormous. Perhaps the most debilitating one is dispensing with any affirmation as true in any sense of the word. Postmodernists in religion are quick to deny this and reject the claim that they advocate nihilism. But one is hard pressed to see their arguments as anything but nihilistic, similar to the anti-Kantian view expressed by Schopenhauer in his understanding of blind will: there is no meaning whatsoever that may be claimed and attested as objectively and representationally true. For Schopenhauer, the human will seeks to represent the world experienced through the senses in orderly forms through which knowledge may be obtained that is objectively true.(1) Yet we simply construct our world through self-interest with intent to realize immediate goals that inevitably become conflicting and contradictory. Try as they must, humans cannot escape or abolish this will in the attempt to know what is objectively true. Ideas are nothing more than the epiphenomena of a blind and irrational will that expresses itself through self-constructed ideas and actions based on self-interest.”

“If the postmodernists and their intellectual predecessors, including the philosophers of the New Academy, the Romanticists, and possibly even Schopenhauer, are correct, then the interpreter, located in multidimensional contexts, determines meaning. Thus, there is no objective reality, and all assertions are ideological construals of self-interest. Nothing may be affirmed as true whether theological or ethical. There is no basis on which behavior may be judged as ethical or unethical. Yet if we abandon ethics, do we not allow marginals to continue in the squalor of degrading, humanity-denying subsistence or fail to oppose authoritarian regimes in their pillaging, destroying, and controlling, without so much as uttering even a whispered protest?”

“The most significant concern I have with postmodernism is that it is astendentious as the ideologies of texts and interpreters that it strongly criticizes. While no text or interpreter is capable of transcending self-interest, the biased character of much postmodernism is clear. Thus, the criticisms postmodernists raise about texts and interpreters, especially historical critics, are just as partisan, if not more so, since they operate with the deception that their approach transcends ideology. Historical critics may be suffering from self-delusion in attempting to interpret the text as “objectively” as possible, but at least they make the effort. Postmodernists do not. They choose, rather, to reify their own political, social, sexual, and theological affirmations in every text that is interpreted without any accountability to critical scrutiny. They have attempted to construct an approach to biblical interpretation that is ‘beyond criticism.'”

(1)Schopenhauer, Die Welt ale Wille undVorstellung