The image of God and relationship

Over the past few posts (here, here and here) I have tried to lay some groundwork for navigating how Christianity has historically interpreted and understood what it means to be human. The starting point for this conversation centers around the text of Genesis 1, primarily verses 26-28, holding the larger literary block of Genesis 1-11 in purview. If humanity is created in some kind of image/likeness of God,  the text is saying something about both God and about humanity.

Here I would like to explore the second dominant interpretation of the imago dei, the relational view. Popularized in the 20th century, this view is probably the most popular, and it is sometimes emphasized alone or explained in conjunction with the substantialist/structuralist view that I examined in the previous post. The two primary beliefs in this view are 1. The “let us” in Genesis 1:26 is a reference to the trinitarian, and thus communal/relational nature of God, and 2. the creation of humanity in both male and female forms implies a relationality that constitutes wholeness for the human species. In this view, the image of God is more about being something than it is about having something. Karl Barth was influential in establishing a connection between the creation of humanity as male and female and the relationship between sexes as saying something about what it means to bear the image of God. On the other hand, Phyllis Trible has noted how the creation of humanity in male and female reflects the transgendered nature of God as opposed to associating God with the male gender, which has historically been the default model for God.This just gives you a glimpse into the ambiguity of the text and range of interpretation in light of the Bible’s disinterest with defining what it means by claiming that humanity was created in the image of God.

In order to evaluate this view it is helpful to separate it into two spheres: theology and exegesis, or, what this means for our beliefs about God and creation and whether this is a good interpretation of the text.

Theologically speaking, the relational view of the imago dei is beautiful. It builds community and relationship into a theological anthropology. In other words, relationship and community are essential parts of what makes us human. When we are living in isolation, alienation, and apart from some sort of community, we are not experiencing the fullness of what it means to be human. Said another way, when we exclude others from community and relationship we are not valuing their humanity. The ethic implied here is one of inclusion, harmony, peace, and diversity. We mirror God most closely when we participate in love for others and allow ourselves to be loved by others and peacefully relate with them.

The relational view of the imago dei gets to this point by making a statement about who God is based on Genesis 1:26. “Let us make humankind in our image” is understood to imply the communal nature of God. If God is essentially communal in nature, then imitating God and attempting to carve our own lives in God’s likeness means emphasizing human community.

Douglas John Hall offers helpful insight into this view:

We do not possess any thing that could be called imago Dei. We are obligated––by our own tradition––to think verbally about all this. We image God, that is to say, if and when we and as we stand in a positive (responsive) relationship with God. 1

The whole intention of the relational conception of the image of God is to position the human creature responsibly in relation to the other creatures; not to demonstrate that this creature is higher, or more complex, or worthier, but // to designate a specific function of this creature––a very positive function––in relation to the others. 2

Positively, the relational view tempers the biblical injunction for humans to rule and have dominion over the earth and its creatures. Loving relationship and harmony rather than hierarchy and power characterize the connections that humans extend to all of life. But how does it stack up exegetically?

The relational view of the imago Dei has been criticized by scholars for presenting a Christianized interpretation of Genesis 1 that does not allow the Hebrew text to be what it is. Put differently, the Jewish community that produced Genesis did not have a trinitarian view of God, so it is improper to project one onto Genesis 1. Rather, many believe that the “Let us” statement refers to some sort of divine council that included YHWH as its head. This assumption is in stride with what we know about ancient Near Eastern religious milieu, of which Judaism was a part of and shared some traditions and influences with. The relational view invents a meaning for the text that is not in keeping with the historical context of the passage. That’s an exegetical no-no.

As far as a connection between the distinction of male and female and the image of God, scholars note that the words used for male and female are biological rather than social.

Okay, so what now
So far I’ve ruled out the structuralist and the relational views of the image of God. The relational view, while flawed, presents a better direction than the structuralist view. So if the image of God is not some inherent quality that sets us apart from non-human life, and if it is not a relational/communal bent toward each other and the rest of life, what does it mean? Some questions I’ve wrestled with lately in approaching the Bible are do hermeneutics––how we get inside of and understand a text––become a matter of which interpretation does the least violence to a text? Or which hermeneutic provides the most inclusive (or least exclusive) reading? The most redemptive (as pointing to Christ) reading? In my treatment of Genesis 1:26-28, I have ruled out the structuralist view on the grounds that it is an exclusionary position in that it discounts the humanity of many persons based on a narrow view of what it means to be human. Presently, the relational view of the image of God has been ruled out based on doing violence to a text––steamrolling its historical context for a meaning that fits nicely with Christian doctrine.

So, deconstruction has been simple, but actually constructing a positive and inclusive view of what it means theologically to be human while remaining faithful to the text is tricky. This presents a new problem: When the text and scholarship provide no avenues for an inclusive and egalitarian reading, how do we respond to it? These are questions for another time, but relevant to this discussion and on my mind, so feel free to engage them if you will.

The next post in this series will look at the functional view of the imago dei, one which I think remains faithful the text, but fails theologically. Tricky!

How do you understand the image of God and how has it helped you relate to others and to creation? Does being created in the image of God change how you view yourself, others? What or who, if anything, is not created in the image of God?


1. Douglass John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 107.

2. Ibid., 106-7.


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