What’s riding on the image of God?

A few days ago I introduced some thoughts I’ve been exploring around the concept of the imago Dei. I’ve done a lot of research on this topic over the past three months and the more time I spend reflecting on it the more I come to realize how much theological thought hinges upon it.

To give you an idea about how much rides on what is expressed and inferred from Genesis 1:26-28, let’s make a little list.

1. In my previous post I talked about Genesis 1 being categorized as myth. This classification either frightens you and sets up a slalom course down a slippery slope, or it opens up a broader horizon for engaging the biblical text. For a while now, scholars have viewed the first eleven chapters of Genesis not as history, but pre-history. Rather than seeing the biblical creation story as a revealed account of beginnings, it has been observed to parallel and reflect influences of other ancient Near Eastern stories of beginnings. Here is a blog post from Pete Enns that talks more about this. http://biologos.org/blog/genesis-1-and-a-babylonian-creation-story/

2. If the creation narratives in Genesis are myth, then how should they be interpreted and integrated with the Christian faith? This brings into question the notion of biblical authority. When the Bible is viewed as a historical document its consistency and intent are not muddied: what it says happened actually happened. When words such as myth (or other literary genres) are thrown into the mix it presents a challenge to interpretation; context, culture, history, and judiciousness are required in order to grasp the meaning and importance of the text, and static interpretive methods fail. This raises the question, “How do myths and ancient stories that are not historically true fit into our understanding of the Bible and faith?” The concept of biblical authority is one that progressive/liberal Christians like myself have a difficult time articulating. My mainline protestant friends simply say, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” The issue then, as it relates to our topic, becomes one of deciding how to take a mythological story seriously.

3. Because Genesis 1 is used to support Creationism and the belief that God created the world in six days, this passage is an ideological battleground between science and religion. If Christianity were to concede that Genesis 1 is mythological in nature and that the universe may not have been created in six, twenty-four hour days, then the atheists and gays and China will destroy the United States and make everyone join Al Qaeda. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. Actually, it’s only speculation. But seriously, I don’t intend to mitigate the importance of the Bible for anyone reading this. I think that the Bible is indeed important and valuable, but not in a manner that requires it to be truly historical and always factual.

4. So if God did not create the universe as detailed in Genesis 1, are humans actually created in the image of God? The idea that humanity is created in the image of God (and everything else is not), despite its sparse biblical support, has been hugely influential in Western history and theological reflection. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The notion of humanity ‘in the image of God’ plays no primary role in the Old Testament articulations of humanity; it does not constitute a major theological datum for Israel’s reflection on the topic.”[1] This is important because I find that the notion of being created in the image of God is an important sentiment regardless of where one falls on the theological spectrum. It is deeply valued by both conservative and liberal Christians. For example, is it honest to affirm evolution (as opposed to the biblical idea of creation), yet still maintain that human persons are created in the imago Dei?

5. Metaphorical language is embedded in the idea that humans are created in the image of God. I’ve written elsewhere about the ways in which metaphors are woven into our theological statements, and here reveals another example. When Genesis 1 states that God created male and female in God’s image, the text is using metaphor. Christians do not take from it that God is a gendered, physical being. Christianity has assumed it to mean something else, something non-physical and immaterial. That Christianity assumed the image of God to mean something spiritual rather than physical emerged via the influence of Greek dualism which draws a sharp distinction between what is physical and what is spiritual; the spiritual constitutes what is good and pure, and the physical represents what is weak and at odds with the spiritual. This has governed how Christianity has historically interpreted what it means to be created in the image of God: the imago Dei represents something invisible, spiritual, and essential to the human person.

6. Also entwined in this discussion about the image of God is the ways in which Christianity views non-human life. Because the image of God embedded in the human person is often related to the concept of dominion over animals and the earth, Christianity has often viewed the natural world as unimportant because it is physical rather than spiritual. Nature has often been deemed the backdrop of human history. Humanity is seen as distinctly separate from nature as opposed to something intricately related to and involved with it. The intellectual shift brought on by the Enlightenment further cemented this thinking in the West, viewing nature as something to be controlled and manipulated by humanity. According to Francis Bacon, the natural world was handed over to humanity by “divine bequest,” which gives humans the right to “establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race.” Thus, it becomes humanity’s duty to flex its muscle over the non-human world. This way of thinking deeply influenced Christianity and was used to justify colonialism and the misuse and abuse of non-human life and the earth.

You can see by this short list that there is a lot of theological thought and implications rooted in the Genesis 1 text. Theology is a tricky endeavor because of all the interrelated parts involved in any single concept.

What did I leave out of my list that you think is important to mention in relation to the text?

In the next post I will jump into the first of the major interpretations of the image of God, known as the substantialist model.

___________________

Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 452.

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