No theologian has so informed my understanding of the nature of humanity than the late Reformed theologian Meredith Kline (1922-2007). The genius of Kline’s vision of humanity is that he does not start where so many other modern theologians start: with humanity in a state of sin. Kline rather looks to the creation accounts of Genesis, where God saw the works of his hands—humanity chiefly—as “very good.” It is from here that he builds a positive vision of humanity’s nature and purpose as God intended in the beginning. In this post we will explore the basic contours of Kline’s robustly argued doctrine of humanity by looking at two of his most relevant works, Images of the Spirit (IS) and Kingdom Prologue (KP).
Kline attempts to construct a biblical understanding of humanity as the “image of God” in light of what he terms the “Glory-Spirit.” The Glory-Spirit is any physical appearance of God in creation, called a “theophany” (literally, “appearance of God”). Throughout the Old Testament, the Glory-Spirit is the theophanic presence of God often associated with clouds, a blinding effulgence of light, and, significantly for Kline’s overall synthesis, an image of God enthroned in Sovereign power (IS 17-8). From God’s throne, his ruling might is radiated outward in a dazzling light, what the biblical authors term God’s “glory” (IS 27). The Glory-Spirit is thus a physical manifestation of God’s sovereign rule over the created cosmos specifically. Further, Genesis 1 tells us that humanity was created in the “image of God” precisely so that they could rule over the works of God’s hands. In this way, humanity reflects, or “images” God’s sovereign rule in the created realms much like the theophanic Glory-Spirit manifests God’s sovereign rule. This leads Kline to see the human race as an image of God’s Glory-Spirit in particular: humanity is the theophany of God par excellence. In other words, every single human being is a theophany of Almighty God. This is what is meant by “image of God” (IS 30).
To image God in creation in this manner is to share in God’s sovereign rule and glorifying power. It is as Kline argues to be a race of “King-Priests” (KP 66). This is what Kline calls the “formal image,” that part of human identity that is simply what they are: they image God, who rules and glorifies. However, Kline believes we can also say for what humanity is; we can say what humanity is to do in this role. This is what Kline terms the “ethical image,” and it is chiefly expressed in imitating what God does, just as humanity images who God is (KP 67). For Kline, their Royal-Priestly mandate is expressed most clearly in a few short words in Genesis 2:15. There, we are told that God places humanity in the Garden “to work and to keep it.”
The first office is the Kingly one, and its work is associated with what Kline calls the “cultural mandate.” By this, Kline means that all human labor is directed towards the cultivation of the earth in service to the building of human culture to the glory of God (KP 68-9). This is what is meant by the first part of humanity’s mandate in Genesis 2:15, “to work.” In this work, we imitate the Creator God:
Man was commissioned to enter into and carry forward the work of God, furthering God’s ultimate purpose of glorifying himself by developing the kingdom city as a reflector of the divine glory… God’s work was creative, sustaining, governing; so too, on a creaturely level was man’s. God’s original works of absolute origination found analogues in man’s constructive and inventive activities, in his artistic creativity, and in his procreative functioning (KP 74-5).
All human art, architecture, polity, and science, even the human family (collectively, “culture”) are products of this process, a sharing with God in the creative act. By their increasing knowledge of this world, they bring it into subjection to themselves and to God by organizing it into a cultural form, a “city of God” (KP 75-6). Over this city they are to rule as “vassal kings” under the Sovereign God.
Humanity’s chief purpose in building this monument of human culture, this royal city, is so that they can present it unblemished back to God for him to glorify. This is their Priestly task, what Kline calls the “cultic mandate.” Kline summarizes it this way, “a vassal-king is a tributary to the great king, and when the great king is the Lord God, the payment of tribute is a cultic act, a priestly dedication of holy offerings” (KP 88). What humanity offers God is fundamentally the world they cultivate itself (KP 85). Because the goal of their royal labor is to present their cultivating work to God, their royal office is seen as ancillary to their priestly one (KP 87-8). Moreover, in the process of cultivating and offering, they are “to keep” the earth (the second verb in humanity’s mandate as recorded in Genesis 2:15). This verb comes from the Hebrew verb shamar, which in most other contexts is translated “to guard.” It is in this use chiefly that the verb is applied to the work of the Israelite priests in maintaining the sanctity of the tabernacle courts, by which connection Kline sees its uniquely “priestly” orientation (KP 85-6). Humanity is to maintain the holiness of his royal cultural project throughout, keeping our work blameless and guarding it against outside forces which might defile it, so that we can offer it as holy to God.
The entire creation narrative is built around the climax of Sabbath: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done” (Genesis 2:3). Like God, humanity works so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor in Sabbath enthronement, or “rest.” In this, we also imitate God: “[Humanity’s] history was to correspond to the course of God’s creation working as a movement from work begun to work consummated” (KP 78). The consummation of our work is its glorification, a transformation of human culture into “divine culture, the metaculture beyond human culture” (KP 99) This final installment of human labor, cultivated and offered, is fundamentally an act of God:
Glorification, by which man enters this Sabbath realm of glory, is as much a supernatural act of God as the original act of man’s creation. Man’s own historical cultural enterprise could take him only so far toward gaining a maximal creaturely mastery of the world. Only by an eschatological injection of divine creative power does man move past the days of his cultural working and come to the Sabbath enthronement in which his dominion over the world, under God, is perfected (KP 98).
With glorified culture and bodies, humanity truly becomes King-Priests over all creation, resting with God in eternal Sabbath over the joyous completion of their creative labor (KP 98-9).
This is the foundation upon which Kline builds his vision of humanity in its current state. In failing to exercise their royal-judicial office from God over Satan when he appeared in the garden, humanity abdicated their cultic mandate to guard God’s earthly sanctuary (KP 87, 121f.). Having been exiled from the Garden (their “keeping” task transferred to the cherubim), their royal labor is now subject to the curse of frustration. That human culture which humanity still manages to produce is now subject to rust, decay, plague, and worst of all, a brutalization of culture itself in the “creation” of technology for warfare and destruction. What they have to “offer” God now is only their broken world, where all things are sad shadows of their intended glory. God does not however leave the human race in this state. Moreover, he does not even give up on his original purpose for them; human culture and cult will still be glorified by God in the end and humanity will still share in God’s Sabbath rest. In Christ, humanity as theophany is recreated anew and through Christ humanity enters into glorified rest. Indeed, it is the unique language of “glory” when applied to the saving work of Jesus Christ that Kline (IS 28-32) sees the greatest vindication of his vision of humanity in the beginning:
to observe how Scripture portrays [redemption-recreation] as a process wherein the Glory-Son fashions the new man in his own Glory-likeness is surely to find biblical confirmation of the interpretation of the original creation as a making of man in the likeness of the Glory-Spirit (IS 24).
Thus in Christ, humanity is refashioned anew to be theophanies of God, physical manifestations of God’s sovereign and glorifying rule over creation. Such was humanity’s trajectory in the beginning, and such will that course be completed by the creative grace of the “second man” Jesus Christ.
This lightening fast tour of Kline’s doctrine of humanity provides us with only a glimpse of his larger synthesis by focusing on its salient points. Even with this cursory glance, the strengths of his system should be evident. His vision of humanity builds a positive and substantive foundation for the inherent dignity of the human person as a theophanic manifestation of Almighty God. In this framework, human labor finds its purpose and worth, the hope for glorified rest finds its basis and trajectory, and the nature of Christ’s recreative victory becomes full and clear. Meredith Kline’s doctrine of humanity has much to offer us, as we even now cultivate the earth and present our offerings to God to the glory of his name.
Click here to read the next part in the series, on Karl Barth and the doctrine of Reconciliation.