An Inadequate Image: A Response to Matthew Vines

posted in: Being Human, Disability, Identity, LGBT | 2

I’ve just finished Matthew Vines’ interesting little book, which sets out to be a roundly evangelical approach to a biblical case for same sex relationships. In the sense that it seeks to be confessionally evangelical, it differs from Jeffrey John’s book making similar arguments, which I’ve reviewed here. I’ll write a more full review soon, but for the time being I wanted to raise one area of serious concern I have with the book. I appreciate Vines’ attempt to do what he’s trying to do, but I’m unconvinced that it is possible. I’ve seen something similar in Ken Wilson’s ‘A Letter to my Congregation’, but its frustrating to see that my big issue (regarding the Image of God) with Vines book is also present in Ken’s book, as I noted in my (quite lengthy!) review.

So why am I concerned with Vines’ treatment of the Image of God? For a number of reasons, but first I want to note, to ‘affirm’, what Vines is trying to so in this ninth chapter – ‘What the Image of God Teaches Us About Gay Christians’ – of his orange book. Discussions about human sexuality are so often divorced from what it means to be human, and so I am grateful that Vines’ demonstrates awareness of this, even as I am unconvinced by his process and conclusions.

Firstly, then, I think Vines (like many before him, and most likely many after him) makes a category error. An error of ontology. By assuming that there is a category to be called ‘Gay Christians’, we are set up with a faulty assumption. I would affirm, as would the vast majority of the Christian tradition, that every human being is in some way made in the Image of God (link to four excellent articles that Vines doesn’t engage with, echoing his broadly un-theological approach). I’ve addressed this in more detail in my review of Ken’s book. Such an approach assumes that sexuality is fixed, and not a spectrum (which would ignore the existence, in my mind, of people who identify as Bisexual, Trans, or those of the human race whose sexuality is a little muddier, murkier and more nuanced that ‘straight’ or ‘gay’). For more, do check out my post ‘Why Sex(uality) is Not Enough‘.

Secondly, though, I think Vines is taking a flawed and inadequate line with his discussion of the Image of God. As someone fascinated by the Image of God, and actively researching it, I was excited initially y this chapter. Vines starts well, I think, by emphasising the importance of the image, but then asks the vital but difficult question, ‘But what is it, exactly, that constitutes the image of God in each of us?” (p. 151). Vines offers a (too) brief overview of what some major theologians and biblical interpreters have said about the Image, as he asks his question, ‘Does the Image Require Heterosexuality?‘. As Michael Hannon writes in his excellent essay ‘Against Heterosexuality‘, we need to get away from these terms, unbiblical descriptions and labels. Vines does not. I think that in his discussion he utterly ignores the discussion around the importance of male/female to the Image of God. There is some, but limited and selective, discussion (and this is concerning, as well as revealing) of Barth’s view, with no mention of Richard Middleton’s work, or Robert Davison, or Christopher Roberts, and his thesis hinges on the problematic (though not without merit, as a component of the Image of God) notion of ‘Our Imprinted Need for Relationship‘. There is an inadequate discussion, and so it is hardly surprising that he comes to the conclusion he has clearly already got in mind. Do read my ‘Miscellaneous Thoughts on Marriage and the Bible‘ for some more thinking on this.

Thirdly, by taking this ‘relational’ view, Vines is unintentionally ignoring a vital element of human existence. I have argued elsewhere and in academic conferences that the Image of God consists of both our relational capacity, and our embodied nature. For a book about sex, Vines is noticeably light on a discussion of human embodiment, which is inherent to the nature of the Image of God in man, and essential for (as Genesis 1 puts it) ‘fruitfulness’ and ‘dominion’. A disembodied Adam and Eve cannot reproduce, and a disembodied Adam and Eve cannot adequately and physically represent God in the world. The God of Christianity is relational, yes, and Trinitarian theology is vital for discussion of the Image of God. Yet, radically, gracefully, thankfully, the God of Christianity is also embodied. We are Christians because of Christ, the embodied God, who took on flesh and came to die for us and show us how to live. The human body is essential to understanding the human condition.

Some asides, then, if we are to take Vines’ suggestion about the Image of God seriously.
– What about severely disabled people? Those without (in worldly terms) faculties of reason or relational capacity?
– What about the mentally ill? How can we ever be sure someone is percieving themselves and their relationship accurately?
– What about fruitfulness? The embodied Image in Male and Female has the capacity for creation, and it echoes the ultimate consumnation of creation, the eschatological marriage of Christ (The groom) and the Church (The bride).

I could continue, noting that Vines’ appears to have a lack of discussion of the Fall (which is the context for all interpretation, all human experience, and the place from which we are redeemed by Christ, the second Adam). I could observe that focusing too much on the relational aspect of God can make us supernatural and dislocated – but I have done that in my tentative paper on the Image of God in Thiselton (which is the nucelus of my MA dissertation), and in relation to the ethics of social media in another.

I will get round to reviewing Vines’ book, but I wanted to write this post because I find his conclusions here, this noting that ‘we are distorting the Image of God” (p. 162), incredibly problematic as a treatment of what it means to be human.

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