God and Man (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.3)

Four thousand years ago, almost everyone everywhere in the world believed that there were many gods and goddesses. The belief in more than one god or goddess is called polytheism, a word which comes from the Greek words poly, meaning “many,” and theoi, which means “gods.” The people of both Egypt and Mesopotamia were polytheists. Almost all the gods and goddesses they worshipped were either forces of nature like thunder and fire or certain objects in nature like rivers and seas.

The people knew they depended on nature for their survival. If rain did not come to water their crops, they would die. If too much rain came and caused a flood, it might destroy their crops and their homes and perhaps even take their lives. Even small changes in weather, a summer that was just a little hotter or a winter that was just a little colder than usual, could cause major problems. To keep the forces of nature on their side, the people of the ancient world offered worship and sacrifices to them.

The people of Mesopotamia built their cities around temples dedicated to certain gods and developed elaborate rituals to worship these gods. They told myths about the things the gods had done. One of those myths, the Enuma Elish, tells the story of the creation of humans by the gods. According to that myth, the god Marduk created human beings to be the slaves of the gods. The gods were tired of doing all of the hard work of planting crops, taking care of them, and harvesting them. So they created people to do all of the work instead of them. This myth tells us a lot about what the Mesopotamians thought of themselves and their gods. They saw human life as very difficult and filled with hard work. Unlike the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians did not believe in immortality, so even after death there was no happiness. The Mesopotamians saw their gods as slave-masters. The gods took care of humans only if humans kept making the gods happy. If humans did not serve the gods or if they annoyed the gods, the gods might destroy them.

In about 1750 BC, however, a man named Abraham was born. Abraham was the first person to believe in a very different set of ideas about God and about humans. Abraham was a monotheist. This means he believed in only one God. According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Abraham was born in Ur, a city-state in Mesopotamia. From there, his family moved to Haran, a village in the northern part of Mesopotamia. It was at Haran that Abraham’s God appeared to him and told him to take his family and everything he owned and leave Mesopotamia.

Abraham’s God made a covenant, or special agreement, with him. If Abraham would move away from Mesopotamia and go to another place, called Canaan, God would give Abraham many children and grandchildren. His God told him that he would give Abraham as many grandchildren as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand in the desert. He would have so many grandchildren he would not be able to count all of them! Abraham was very happy about this. He was old and had no children. This was a problem because he was also very rich. If he died without children, his servants would be the ones to inherit all the things he owned. So, Abraham took his whole family, his servants, his animals, and all of the things he owned and moved to Canaan, a place very far away from his home.

Later, Abraham’s God rewarded Abraham by giving him a son. Abraham named his son Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob and Jacob later had 12 sons. These sons would later have many children of their own. Eventually, the descendants of Abraham numbered in the millions. Today, there are still millions of people who are the descendants of Abraham. He is considered the patriarch, or founder and father, of the Jewish people. His ideas and his special relationship with God are also important to Christians and Muslims. In total, about half of the people in the world belong to a religion that comes from Abraham and his ideas.

The way that Abraham thought about God, about the world, and about humans was unique for his time and had a major effect on the way we think about these things today. One of Abraham’s original ideas has already been mentioned. This is the idea of monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. Whereas other ancient people believed that there were many gods who represented different forces in nature, Abraham believed that there was only one God who had created all of nature.

This different view of God also made Abraham and his descendants view the world in a different way. Because other ancient people believed the world was filled with many different gods, they saw nature as chaotic. They believed, for example, that the sky god might fight against the earth god and cause thunder and lightning to strike the earth or not allow rain to fall to the ground. Maybe the fire god would go to war with the tree gods and burn them all down. If there is only one God who created all of nature and who controls it, however, then nature can be seen as good and orderly. If there is a flood or a forest fire, it is not because the gods are at war with each other but because the one God allowed it to happen for a good reason.

In addition to these different views of God and nature Abraham and his descendants also had a unique view of human beings. You have already read that the Mesopotamians believed that humans had been made by the gods to be slaves. Abraham, on the other hand, believed that God had made human beings to be his children. According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God created humans “in his image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that all humans, no matter if they are rich or poor, men or women, strong or weak, were created to be like God – to think, to love, and to be creative. The result of this idea is that Abraham and his descendants believed all human beings were special and that each human being is valuable. As we will see later, in the Bible there is a lot of focus on taking care of people that are poor and weak and on the idea that all human beings deserve to be treated well no matter who they are.

Abraham’s unique ideas were shocking at the time. Most ancient people would have laughed at the idea that there is only one God or the idea that this God cares about a poor person as much as he cares about a rich person. The ideas about God, nature, and human beings that began with Abraham took some time to become popular, but when they did they forever changed the world.


Review Questions

 1. Where was Abraham from originally?

2. Where did God tell Abraham to move?

3. Why do you think God told Abraham to move away from the place where he was born and go somewhere else? Explain in a paragraph. (Hint: Think about how different Abraham’s beliefs were from other people at his time.)


Vocabulary Words

 Covenant – a special agreement between two people in which each person promises to do something for the other

Monotheism – the belief that there is only one God

Patriarch – founder and father of a group

Polytheism – the belief that there is more than one god; from the Greek poly (many) and theoi (gods)

Review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

Among the noise of the various competing postmodernist approaches to literary theory, from neo-Marxism to feminism to deconstructionism, it often seems that the traditional Christian worldview and its accompanying approach to the production, interpretation, and understanding of literature have been buried in the morass. What Sayers gives us in this book, however, is a resurrected Christian literary theory. While the Christian worldview has certainly been eclipsed since the Renaissance, Sayers proves that it is not (or is no longer) dead. On the contrary, as Sayers shows us, the Christian approach to literature remains quite relevant and is, perhaps, the only truly complete and ultimately compelling approach.

Sayers begins her book with the thesis that the Imago Dei, the image of God in man, is creativity. As she points out, at the very point in the Book of Genesis at which God proclaims his desire to create a creature in his own image, the reader has been shown nothing about this God aside from his creative faculty. It is, therefore, this creative faculty which the author of Genesis wishes to emphasize, both in God and in his image, man.

From this, Sayers proceeds on the understanding that as man’s creative faculty is his defining and divine feature, this creative faculty must therefore reflect the Creator in whose image it has been created. Man’s creative faculty, therefore, is, as is its Creator, Trinitarian and Incarnational. She then delves deeply and at length into an allegory in which the Father is the Idea behind the art, the Son is the Energy present within it, and the Holy Spirit is the Power, or impact, of the art upon the one who perceives it.

From this, this develops a fascinating and compelling understanding of literature, and of man’s artistic and creative instincts more generally. Just as God has set us free, she says, we must set our own artistic creations free. This freedom, of course, allows for the existence of evil, as each thing inevitably gives rise to its opposite by virtue of its very existence. This evil, however, must, as in the story of salvation as found in the Christian Faith, be redeemed through free, full, and pure experience. This, for Sayers, is the story that underlies all art.

Any departure from this scheme of things is, to use the accompanying theological terminology, a heresy. A story that is driven too strongly by one element of the Idea-Energy-Power Trinity and which lacks others represents a flaw in the Trinitarian nature of its creator.

At last, Sayers concludes by drawing her net wider. She extends her gaze beyond the realm of literature and the arts and encourages us to exercise our God-given creative in each of our individual vocations, whether that be in the creation of good stories or in something else altogether. It is the task of man, says Sayers, to realize the divine image within him through applying his creative faculty in every realm of human life.

Imago Dei and Creativity

How then can he [man] be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It i observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, p. 22

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 


69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, http://www.piousfabrications.com/2013/04/aquinass-uncomfortable-synthesis.html (accessed 20 April 2013).

Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.


62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.