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Downton Abbey and the Flaw of Reformed Theology

Published on:
December 19, 2019
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4 min.
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Whenever I think of Downton Abbey, I hear that iconic orchestral melody of the opening credits. The instruments somehow contrast and complement each other at the same time—silky, flowing strings and hard, sharp piano—preparing the viewers for the misadventures of the Crawley family. But fans of the show tuned in for more than the stories of Lord and Lady Grantham and their daughters. At the end of the opening theme, the title screen paralleled the distinction in the music. A bright blue, cloud-filled sky sits on top of the stark, black lower half. 

Even with its multifaceted nuances, the “image of God” shares a foundation with the Downton Abbey plot. Both, at their core, are about social power dynamics.

Both the music and the title screen highlighted the two worlds residing in one grand estate. While the Crawleys went about their life, Anna, Mr. Bates, Mr. Carson, Thomas Barrow, and all the other house servants had their own swirling torrents of intrigue and laughs. And, for the most part, the storylines of the house lords and those of the servants did not converge. This was the true genius of the show. Two separate worlds and two separate stories with only the great house in common.

How do we understand the image of God?

Ask the majority of church-goers what the “image of God” is and you’ll likely get a jumbled, vague response about general morality. That’s because while the “image of God” sounds simple, it’s not necessarily simple, and it’s also not something our churches have spent much time explaining. But even with its multifaceted nuances, the “image of God” shares a foundation with the Downton Abbey plot. Both, at their core, are about social power dynamics.

You’ve heard it said that we are all God’s image bearers. We might, however, find a more helpful place to start by saying that we are all supposed to be God’s image bearers. In Genesis 1 we read that Adam and Eve were created to rule over the animals as God’s representative rulers. And God provided them with his determination of good and evil—everything is good except eating from a particular tree. Then, in Genesis 3, one of the animals gave God’s emissaries a conflicting philosophy—everything is good including eating from that particular tree. And the ones who were supposed to image God instead imaged the animal they were supposed to have authority over. When they subscribed to his authority it placed them in subjection to the animal. To this day, that animal still reigns over humankind and we all, by our inherited nature, image him.

But what exactly is the “image of the animal” that we all naturally represent? Well, an unexpected, often overlooked star of Downton Abbey gives us the answer—the staircase. Not the opulent one reserved for the Crawleys. The simple staircase between the upstairs authorities and the downstairs servants. In the show, the downstairs servants yearn to ascend the social staircase to live as equals with the lords upstairs. Conversely, the upstairs authorities do everything in their power to maintain their position and avoid descending into equal status with the servants. This is the “image of the animal”—a yearning to ascend the staircase and associate with the powerful upstairs authorities or a disdain at the idea of being affiliated with the lowly.

What, then, is the “image of God”? 
The opposite desire.

Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God awaited the arrival of the man who would rule over the Genesis 3 animal. The scriptures prophesied this ruler’s mighty reign. Psalm 2:6–9, Daniel 7:13–14, Isaiah 40:10, and many others paint a picture of a mighty warrior who would dominate their adversaries. The people of God were looking for someone who belonged upstairs. When Jesus arrived, they didn’t recognize their king.

The upstairs authorities (scribes and Pharisees) assumed their king would join them at the top of the staircase. But when Jesus appeared as God’s perfect image, he aligned himself with the downstairs servants (lepers, prostitutes, paralytics, thieves, and tax collectors). Whereas the “image of the animal” desires and pursues association only with the upstairs authorities, the “image of God” desires and pursues association with the powerless servants at the bottom of the social staircase. 

Whereas the “image of the animal” desires and pursues association only with the upstairs authorities, the “image of God” desires and pursues association with the powerless servants at the bottom of the social staircase.

Jesus descended the staircase. 

The Blind Eye of Reformed Theology

The Reformation was a beautiful gift of God. It dealt with numerous heresies that blinded many Christians from seeing the truth about God. But for all of it’s doctrinal benefits, reformed theology can prevent many of the saints from imaging Jesus by blinding them to their position on the staircase.

Reformed theology teaches the doctrine of total depravity. This doctrine gives upstairs authorities and downstairs servants the same status regarding righteousness. And rightly so. Righteousness is about citizenship. One is either a citizen of this world’s kingdoms, or of God’s kingdom. Neither those upstairs nor downstairs are natural born citizens of God’s kingdom. All may swear fealty to his representative ruler—Jesus—to receive citizenship. This is the gospel. But not the whole gospel.

The Old Testament story of God’s people, and the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ involve two primary components—citizenship in a kingdom, and authority in that kingdom. Citizenship is gained by swearing fealty to a kingdom’s ruler (faith). Authority is gained by accurately representing the philosophy of that kingdom’s ruler (image). The deficiency of reformed theology is that it does not help us distinguish between these two concepts. Its emphasis is all citizenship and little authority. 

It’s not uncommon for the upstairs authorities of this nation to be taught on Sundays that they are represented fully by the oppressed people Paul wrote to. When this happens, the haves are blinded to their real-life position on the staircase—a position that provides them the honor of descending to the have-nots: the powerless and the marginalized, the vulnerable and the suffering who are already citizens of the kingdom of God and those who need to be invited into citizenship in God’s kingdom. 

Imaging God means seeking to descend the Downton Abbey staircase.

Turning a blind eye to the staircase cripples the upstairs authorities from imaging Jesus. It keeps them at the top of this present kingdom’s staircase with the Pharisees. But where was Jesus? At the bottom of the staircase bringing about the kingdom of God where the first will be last and the last will be first.

If a citizen of God’s kingdom must image the philosophy of Jesus, the ruler of the kingdom, to gain authority, and Jesus’s philosophy includes a social staircase utilized to bring his kingdom, then a theology that denies the staircase’s existence will never allow its adherents to accurately image Jesus. Without recognizing the staircase and following Jesus down it, the Crawleys miss out on being a part of God’s work building his kingdom. 

Spiritual citizenship does not do the work of creating a kingdom of God on earth, authority—imaging God—must accompany it. And imaging God means seeking to descend the Downton Abbey staircase.

M.L. Pate
M.L. Pate received his Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2018. He and Elizabeth, his wife, live in Queens, NY where he works as a freelance illustrator. You can follow him @The_Hugest_Dude on Twitter.

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