05. The (Mixed) Story of the Eikon

This is our fifth discussion of Scot McKnight's book Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005). For the full TOC of our weekly discussions, link here.

A Mix of Good and Bad

We opened chapter 3 of Embracing Grace with the lesson of Tolstoy, who illustrates the complexity of humankind, who can be simultaneously both brilliant and bad. In my unrealistic days I used to segregate the world into the “good guys” (like me, of course, and the rest of America) and the “bad guys” (at that time, it was the communists). It is interesting that it is always “my group” that was good, like my gender, my race, my educational status, my school’s football team, my political party, my whatever. I’ve come to see that things are not so cut and dried. “We” have no monopoly on good and “they” are not so exclusively bad. I’ve since discovered the world is comprised of people who are not either all angelic or all demonic, but rather a curious and often surprising mixture of both. Each one of us is mixed. How does one account for our Jekyll and Hyde composition, our zebra-striped characters? The Story of the Eikon does this nicely. In this Story we learn that Eikons, those created in the image of God, to reflect his character and commitments in the world, are marred and cracked. The fact that we are image-bearers accounts for the good we see across the board in human beings. The fact that humanity is distant from God, and now only faintly reflects his image, accounts for much of the evil in the world. Rather than serve God’s interests, we serve our own, even, at times, at others’ expense. Hence, we have the beauty and ugliness, the glory and shame, the good and the bad of humanity.

A good dose of humble realism helps us acknowledge that the problem with the human race is not just “those bad guys” out there, but this compromising heart in here, in you and me. We are part of the problem. And we need a Savior to transform us into his image. Here’s a fitting excerpt from a book called Hope has its Reasons by Becky Pippert.

Once G. K. Chesterton was asked to contribute to a series in the London Times on the question “What is the problem in the universe?” He answered, “I am. Sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.” Such realism is often found in those who have experienced tragedy. This came home to me in a conversation with a friend who is a recovering alcoholic. He told me of the first time he went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I walked into the room,” he said, “and the first thing I sensed was there wasn’t a single person in the room who had not suffered. They had come face to face with their weakness, their inability to change without outside help. They had failed, and yet there was this sense of tremendous hope. They really believed that God could help me, and they wanted to stand by me as I sought to stop drinking. They embraced me as I was, a drunk, but they were certain that I could be changed. I felt like I was in a fellowship of the wounded, but the wounded and healed.”

I was so moved by his description that I burst out, “But Bob, that is the best description of church that I’ve ever heard!”

He smiled and continued, “Let me tell you about the times I went to church during my drinking days. The message was always very polite but firm: ‘Come back when you have your act together.’” “Then why isn’t the church like an AA meeting?” I asked.

He answered, “Because we don’t really believe that the problem rests in us. We think that the problem is ‘out there’; we are good and respectable in here. We do not admit that the rot is in us too.”

When we fail to admit this, we come across as “holier-than-thou,” which is not the impression people got from Jesus. I saw a book title this week that caught my eye: “I'm Okay -- You're Not: The Message We're Sending Unbelievers and Why We Should Stop.” That gets right to the point. The publisher’s blurb said, “the only thing better than telling someone about God's love is to let them actually experience it.” Yes! Amen. That’s performing the Gospel.

The Biblical Story

The Story of the Eikon comes in four large segments, or chapters (page 30).

(1) The Creation of the Eikon, as told in Gen 1-2;

(2) The Cracking of the Eikon, beginning in Gen 3;

(3) The Restoration of the Eikon, which is the bulk of the story, and is related in Gen 12 all the way through Rev 20, which will one day be consummated in chapter 4,

(4) The Fullness of the New Creation, as highlighted in Rev 21-22. Scot simplifies the third chapter here by focusing on its major turning point, the work of Jesus. Elsewhere in the book, however, he notes that the Old Testament is critical to a proper understanding of the story. “You tear the heart out of God’s work on earth if you skip from the Fall to the Cross,” that is, if you jump straight from Gen 3 to Romans 3 (p. 71, top).

For those who would appreciate a simple, well-written overview of the entire biblical story that follows this 4-chaptered outline, see the introduction (here) to the instructive book How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. For another "take" on the Bible's overarching story, check out this renditition by Mars Hills Church, Grandville, Michigan. I like the way this church articulates the narrative. You'll find many similarities with how Scot and I both retell the story. For more on the Bible's coherent story, see our Story page.

After Adam and Eve squandered their privileged role as God’s Eikons, God re-assigned the task to Abraham and his family (whose descendants came to be known as ancient Israel). They were to be the Blessed Blessers (see Gen 12:1-3), the Beloved Lovers, the Embraced Embracers. Over time, however the nation at large didn’t do much better than their Garden predecessors, so the role of image-bearing went mostly unfulfilled. There were exceptions here and there in a few of the Kings and the Prophets. Jesus, as Israel’s representative King, stepped into history to take on their failed assignment, actually, our failed assignment. He came to function as the personification of Israel and of the whole human race. In this capacity he was the quintessential Eikon, the clear reflection of God’s character and commitments. The apostle Paul states it unmistakably by calling Jesus “the Eikon of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Other writers assert much the same. “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God” (Heb 1:3). Even Jesus makes this point: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also… Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 4:7-9). That’s a clear reflection!

Participating in Christ's Image-bearing

If Jesus, as the world’s truest of humans, is reflecting his Father’s image better than Adam or Abraham or Israel or David ever did, how do we get in on this? Aren’t we called as humans to be Eikons of God like Jesus was? Paul tells us how. We get in on the Eikon act by merging our lives with Jesus’s life so that we take on the image-bearing traits that he has. The terminology Paul uses for this “merging” is being “in Christ.” Anyone who has joined forces with Jesus, who has embraced his grace, who has signed on to follow him through suffering to glory is “in Christ.” By being incorporated into Christ, or unified with him, we participate in his life. He took on flesh-and-blood to participate in our life (and death). We take on his life, by virtue of the Spirit, to participate in his death and life (read Romans 6 here). This mutual participation, him with us and us with him, is the mysterious new reality of Christian living. “If anyone is in Christ, new creation has begun!” (2 Cor 5:17). To see how central and indispensable this concept of being “in Christ” really is, read Ephesians 1:3 through 2:10 and note all the occurrences of “in him” and “through him” or their equivalents, like “in the Beloved.” This mutual participation via incorporation is what it’s all about.

One of the outworkings of being “in Christ” is that we can take on the image of the one who best reflects the image of God. We become Eikons of Christ who is the ultimate Eikon of God. We can, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, call this process “Eikonification.” Paul repeats this truth in several places: We “can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like Christ as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Cor 3:17-18). “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose…to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28-29). (By the way, puzzling circumstances often leave us scratching our heads, “What purpose might God have in this?” First of all, I don’t believe that every wild thing that happens is what God would desire. He has given us a large measure of freedom, which we humans have greatly abused. But, secondly, God can brilliantly work out some good effects in the midst of some bad things. And no matter what happens, we can be certain that God desires to shape us into the image of his Son.) Speaking of God’s purposing our Eikonification, here’s more. “You learned Christ! My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus. Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It's rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his likeness [his image] in you” (Ephesians 4:22-24). There’s no mistaking now what God’s will is.

Perichoresis: The Divine Trinitarian Dance

Scot tells us (p. 32) that the essence of being an image-bearer of God is not discovered as much from our distinctiveness from the non-human animal world, as from our similarities to God, what he does and who he is. On page 33 Scot introduces the Greek word "perichoresis," which is used to speak of God in three persons as a kind of community-in-one. Knowing that God is three-in-one teaches us that “God is not some faceless, all-powerful abstraction.  God is Father, Son and Spirit, existing in a passionate and joyous fellowship.  The Trinity is not three highly committed religious types sitting around some room in heaven.  The Trinity is a circle of shared life, and the life shared is full, not empty, abounding and rich and beautiful, not lonely and sad and boring” (CB Kruger).

If God, by nature, is relational, dynamic, interpersonal, and community-oriented, then what bearing might that have on our reflection of him? To reflect this kind of communal God is to live inescapably in relationship. C. S. Lewis writes, “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us” and in each of our communities. Jesus explains how the persons of the Trinity indwell one another: “You'll see that not only are we doing the same thing, we are the same—Father and Son. He is in me; I am in him” (John 10:38). See also John 14:7-20. As you read this last passage, note how we Christ-followers are mysteriously incorporated into the perichoresis. Verse 17 tells us how this happens: The Spirit of Christ dwells in us. Wow. Marvel of marvels. No wonder the Bible is all about building community. This is how we humans as Eikons were created to function.

Now we can better understand why individualism-in-the-extreme can be so disruptive of our call to reflect the communal character of God. Scot writes (p. 35): “Individualism wrecks the gospel story. Individualism preaches non-communion and the limited value of relationships…Eikons…are designed for relationship. This is what the gospel is all about.”

Further reading
If you’d like to explore further what it means to participate in the life of the Trinity, see this user-friendly paperback by Pastor and Professor Darrell Johnson (one of my favorite preachers), Experiencing the Trinity (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004). An excerpt can be found here.
This concept of participating in the trinitarian life of God is explored in quite practical ways by Tim Gombis (PhD, St. Andrews University), Assistant Professor of Bible at Cedarville University. The two lectures were delivered in chapel in October 2008. Audio versions can be found here. Below are the pdfs.