Farris on Edwards on the Imago Dei
March 27, 2017 — 4:22

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 5 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Edwardsian Idealism, Imago Dei, and Contemporary Theology” by Joshua Farris. This is an interesting article that directly and constructively addresses one of the central theological issues raised by metaphysical idealism of the Berkeley/Edwards variety. However, I was left with some confusion about what the paper’s overall lesson was meant to be.

Farris frames the central question here as how, given Edwards’ idealism, he can understand the imago dei doctrine in a way that does not devalue the body. Edwards is said to be drawing on but ‘reconceiving’ the prior tradition of Reformed theological anthropology. This prior tradition is said to rely on substance dualism. However, at one point substance dualism is defined as “the belief that humans are soul-body units” and ‘hylomorphic dualism’ is said to be another name for this same view (85). In the present context, the difference between substance dualism, which holds that the human soul and body are separate substances somehow connected to one another, and hylomorphic dualism, which denies that the soul and body are separate substances and holds instead that a complete substance is made only by their union, is quite important. Substance dualism has often been criticized for making the body a kind of optional appendage to the human person: we would still be what we are if we were disembodied. The hylomorphic view, on the other hand, takes the union of soul and body as primary. Accordingly, even if (as on the view Farris attributes to the prior Reformed tradition) the imago dei is primarily a matter of the possession of certain mental attributes, nevertheless what possesses these attributes is a substance whose nature is to be embodied. The embodiment is not accidental, nor is it bad. The hylomorphic view provides a better explanation than the substance dualist view of the sense in which the human person may be the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth. For this reason, it matters whether Edwards is compared with substance dualism or hylomorphic dualism. Farris calls the view he is comparing Edwards against ‘substance dualism’, but recognizes no distinction between this and hylomorphic dualism.

In any event, on Farris’s interpretation of Edwards, everything is just divine ideas, and the distinctive feature of human beings which makes them the image of God is that they have ideas that represent God. This provides a straightforward sense of ‘image’—humans are in fact representations of or about God. Similarly, it provides a straightforward sense in which humans can be said to reflect God’s glory. It also provides a straightforward sense in which we can talk about the image of God being defaced but not destroyed by the Fall, and ultimately restored in the eschaton.

But I see two problems here. First, I’m again worried that this is just Spinoza. Farris recognizes this problem in note 52 (p. 103), where he writes, “One might still argue that Edwards’ unusual brand of idealism-constant creation-panentheism collapses into Spinoza’s pantheism, but the manner in which Edwards defines the substances would not reduce to pantheism because created minds retain individual properties distinguishing them from the Creator-God.” But this does not distinguish Edwards from Spinoza, for Spinoza holds that modes of God may possess modes of their own, at least in some sense. After all, even though the ball is round and the ball is a mode of God, it’s not really correct to say God is round. So Farris is getting Spinoza wrong here. Now, one could simply respond, on Edwards’ behalf, that a Christian can actually take on board large parts of Spinoza’s metaphysics of the relationship of God to finite beings, and the differences with Spinoza will be found elsewhere (perhaps in the affirmation of divine freedom in creation and divine goodness in a moral sense). It would be interesting to see that case made, but it is not made here.

The second problem is that this seems to attribute hardly any importance to the body. Despite setting this issue up as one of his key concerns, in the end all Farris says about it is that those who charge Edwardsian idealism with denigrating the body have not made a case for why this should be so (97-98). But this is a strange thing for Farris to say, since he has just given an account of the imago dei that says so little about the body, or how the mind/soul is joined to it. Perhaps the problem is supposed to be solved by giving some role to the physical in communicating the image of God to human beings, or helping us to gain deeper union with God (as suggested on p. 93), but this is not spelled out.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)