I’ll be the first to admit that I am not very familiar with Islam. I do my best to resist and counter stereotypes against the Muslim faith that reduce it to the actions and beliefs that occur at its fringe. That said, I was fascinated to read about the meeting between Aaron Taylor, a Christian missionary with a fundamentalist-Pentecostal background, and Khalid Kelly, a self-professed Jihadist.

Taylor recounts the tale of how his cooperation with a documentary producer Stephen Marshall (Holy Wars) led him to a meeting with the young and radical Muslim, an Other whom most Americans––especially Christians––is taught to view with great fear and even contempt. This was an enemy of both Taylor’s country and his faith.

Oddly enough, Alone With a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War (Foghorn Publishers, 2009), is not all that much about the conversation between the Christian missionary and the vehemently anti-Western, Irish-Catholic convert to Islam. Rather, it is about a major shift in Taylor’s faith and the practice of his Christianity. This is a book about Jesus and empire. Alone narrates Taylor’s crumbling American-Christian worldview in the wake of his meeting with Khalid. I very much appreciate that Taylor was moved by Khalid’s challenges to his American-Christianity and allowed himself to remain open, which created room for change within himself. Taylor writes:

“We tend not to listen to people who support terrorists, but I think that may be our most profound weakness. Because if you actually sit down and listen to them, like I chose to do with Khalid, you will hear an anger and frustration with America and the Western world that isn’t emerging from a vacuum.” (169).

Anyone who has disagreed sharply with friends, let alone strangers, knows how rare and difficult it is to concede our certanties and reconsider what we believe. When those disagreements are over the sacred American treasures of democracy, Capitalism, Christianity, and Westernism as a whole, such disagreements have a lot more at stake. When I speak of Taylor’s crumbling American-Christian worldview, I mean the kind of American-exceptionalist-Jesus-is-gonna-whoop-some-non-Republican-ass-hoorah-Capitalist-Zionism kind of worldview that prevails in much of dominant Christianity in the United States.

Taylor’s debate with Khalid about democracy and freedom and how Christianity and Islam
interact with such notions––as well as what it means for Christians to want a “godly government”––left Taylor at a loss. He recalls:

“Khalid had presented an authentic challenge to my faith and I knew that if there was to be any victory at all, like the victory that was prophesied, then I would have to get to the bottom of the issue. Khalid’s charge was simple. Jesus didn’t leave the world with a comprehensive social system, economic system, political system, or any other kind of system to regulate society. At least Muhammad attempted to solve the world’s problems…” (18)

Alone With a Jihadist is Taylor’s impassioned journey toward rediscovering Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus as a citizen of the world. I resonate a lot with Taylor’s journey, as it was only six years ago that I underwent my own transformation as a result of seeking Jesus apart from the religious context I received him in. Our formerly fundamentalist Pentecostal emerges in the echoes of folks like Wink, Yoder, Ellul and Claiborne. Taylor meets a radical Jesus who chooses non-violence, who teaches love for enemies, who challenges and frustrates the powers, and who undermines our very notions of power itself.

As Taylor unfolded his newly discovered understanding of Jesus and how it radically reoriented his theological and political imagination, I couldn’t help but think how anarchic his theology was sounding. Because of the stigma that “anarchism” drags behind it, I wondered if it was even on Taylor’s radar. I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised to see him affirm anarchism’s basic
critiques of “power over” and the idea of “self-legitimizing power.” I never thought I’d see the day when a Pentecostal missionary would quote both Chomsky and Thoreau and draw connections between following Jesus and anarchism.

Taylor’s book has a lot to offer when it comes to who Jesus is and what following Jesus looks like apart from empire. However, it curiously lacks the intelligent and engaging Muslim-Christian dialogue I hoped to find and learn from. While I enjoyed what Taylor had to offer, if you are at all familiar with the above list of anti-imperialist Christian thinkers, Taylor’s content will not be new to you. However, as election season closes in the U.S., his vision for how one follows Jesus in North America is a refreshing alternative from the “biblical values” that I’m definitely sick of hearing about.

“It’s been well over a year now since my debate with Khalid and I’ve finally reached the conclusion of the matter. No Jesus didn’t leave the world with a socio-political system to solve its problems. What He gave us instead was the cross. At the cross, Jesus taught humanity that it’s better to suffer injustice than to be the cause of it, it’s better to relinquish power than to pursue power, and perhaps most importantly, it’s better to die than to kill. By rejecting earthly power, Jesus introduced to the world a model for a new kind of human being––the model of the powerless prophet.” (193)


What do you think? Have you read Alone With a Jihadist? What are your thoughts on its vision for Christianity? Do you think it fairly represents the Muslim faith?


I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

I entered into this blog series on the image of God with a loose idea of how I wanted to reconstruct the image of God into a model. I was working with an embodiment model of the image of God that would offer greater inclusivity and instill an ethic of mutuality and care for one another that I find absent from traditional models of the imago Dei. It’s been difficult for me to approach this concluding post because I’ve been rethinking all of this stuff constantly. Because I want this blog to be a place where I can try things on, I’ll share my current and incomplete thoughts on the Genesis 1 language of the image of God.

It doesn’t matter. 

I’ve been going back and forth on whether the notion of humans created in the image of God even matters or holds meaning for us. Here is why. Given the many other places in the Hebrew scriptures that encourage care for neighbor, justice for the poor, radical hospitality, and a concern and care for all life, building an ethic of equality and care from Genesis 1 has not radically or even fundamentally changed our Christian practice toward others. Our image of God theologies have been predominantly used in two ways. The first way has been to establish human superiority over nature and others, and the second has been to establish the grounds for determining what it means to be human. An anthropocentrism and superiority-complex––appropriated by white, European Christians––has been built into what it means to be human. Additionally, one would think that if Christianity truly values what it terms the “image of God” within every individual, the Christian tradition would not be so littered with war, colonization, slavery, oppression and bigotry. What I’m saying is that if Christians need Genesis 1 to tell them that all are equal and beautiful and deserving of love and inclusion, then we have big problems.

On this assessment, I agree wholeheartedly with those who claim that we place far too much emphasis on the image of God given the relative silence on it in the rest of the biblical text. Beyond that, the emphasis that Christians have placed on it has not produced a consistently Christian ethic of inclusion and honor for God’s image bearers. I think that this is partly a result of the conflation between God’s image and superiority.

Whatever Christianity has said about the image of God inhabiting all, it has not made a difference.

It makes everything matter

Despite the differences between all of the previously explored models for the image of God and the positive developments that have emerged as a result, they all share a similar presupposition about God, humanity, and the whole of life: God is outside of, above, and apart from the world. This highly transcendent model of God as being distinctly over and above the creation has been emulated and emblazoned in patriarchy for millennia.

Jay McDaniel proposes that

“God is not ‘One-over-many” but rather “One-embracing-many” and “One-within-many” and “One-between-many.’ The many whom God embraces include other living beings whose ways of living may be strange by human standards yet beautiful by divine standards.” [1]

With this reframing of our understanding of God, the Divine exists within and at the center of all relationships, and power becomes democratized, rather than channeled through religious systems. The image of God, in this framework, is our empowerment to continuously incarnate God in every action and relationship. The image of God has nothing to do with exclusive capacities, with human superiority, hierarchically-based relationship, or with some type of royal function. The “One-within-many” and “One-between-many” is the God we see throughout the biblical narrative, leading up to the “One-embracing-many” that we see in Jesus.

If God is wildly present within and between us, everything matters because God is present in it all. It then reflects poorly for us to assert power over and above others in an attempt to image a God who dwells in and among creation and not above it. The whole image of God theology of Christianity’s past has presumed this hierarchical ordering of all things, with God on top. If God is wildly present among, within and between us, the image of God then becomes that with which we see that every common bush, beetle and birch tree is afire with God. 

What thoughts do you have? Can the image of God be redeemed within the traditional framework of God over and above? Do you think that image of God theology has a place within the tradition, or has it exhausted its usefulness?

Jay McDaniel, “A Process Approach to Ecology,” in Handbook of Process Theology, eds. Jay McDaniel and Donna Bowman (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 227.

I’ve been writing lately about the image of God and some of the dominant theological interpretations and approaches to understanding what it means to be human. In doing so, I’ve explored the substantive/structuralist view and the relational view, and am ready to dedicate some time to the royal-functional view of the image of God. While not as popular and flashy as the relational view is among theologians and faith communities, this view is prominent among biblical scholars. Here is the short and sweet version of this model: human persons reflect the divine (God’s image) in as much as they serve as God’s representatives, or viceroys, on earth. Scholars who favor this view tend to do so based on the depiction of God as creator in the opening scenes of the Hebrew Bible. This God speaks creation into being from outside it, necessarily exercising power and authority over it. For humans to be created in the image of this God would mean that power and authority is transferred to them to extend over the creation on God’s behalf. Humans essentially become middle management, overseeing the earth and non-human life, but reporting to and answering to God.

This model is heavily reliant upon the divine injunction to “have dominion” delivered in Genesis 1:28, and other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature and culture for further clues to its meaning. Biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton presents one of the fundamental arguments of this position:

“We are on firmer ground with the wealth of comparative studies of Israel and the ancient Near East that cite” Mesopotamian and Egyptian documents “in which kings (and sometimes priests) were designated the image and likeness of a particular god . . . a designation that served to describe their function (analogous to that of a cult image) of representing the deity in question and of mediating divine blessing to the earthly realm”[1]. So based on what is known of ANE culture and its influences and similarities found in the Hebrew Bible, many understand the image of God to parallel a religious symbol of colonization; the transcendent/far-off deity is represented by an image/statue that functions as a reminder of the deity and its divine rule over that territory.

The syntax of the Hebrew in 1:26, Middleton says, “points to ‘rule’ as the purpose, not simply the consequence or result of the imago Dei.”[2] That humanity extends dominion and rule over non-human life and the earth is the reason for creation in the divine image, instead of simply a role adopted by humanity because of their association with God. God designed humans specifically to exercise divine rule over creation. For Middleton, “the human vocation as imago Dei in God’s world thus corresponds in important respects to Israel’s vocation as a ‘royal priesthood’ among the nations (Exodus 19:6) . . . confirmed by the ancient Near Eastern background of the image”[3].

While this interpretations represents solid biblical scholarship and is likely the closest to what is meant by the notion of humans being created in the image of God, there are objections raised by several scholars. Let’s say this model, however, is in fact the best interpretation of Genesis 1:26-28 and the imago Dei, how important or meaningful is it given the relative silence on the matter throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible? Claus Westermann is one who objects to this reading based on his contention that the royal-functional view, drawing from ANE culture, does not make sense in the context of Genesis 1. “Representation in this context is concerned with an individual in relation to a community. But this is not possible in the case of ‘man.’ ‘Man’ is not an individual, but a species . . . This could only make sense if ‘man’ (i.e. humankind) were to represent God before the rest of creation.”[4] That is, if God and creation were in sharp contrast and isolation from one another. Terence Fretheim elaborates on Westermann: “If the royal language has been democratized,” he writes, “then the royal links that may be present have been subverted and nonhierarchical perspectives prevail.”[5] That is, if the image of God is within all persons, it does not quite correspond to the ANE tradition of a king or priest singularly representing the deity; the power has been transferred to all.

Fretheim takes his objection a step further, though, and states that the text is “monarchical” at the very least, possibly even “antimonarchical,” and that the employment of such monarchical language by scholars has “contributed to an emphasis, perhaps subtly so, on divine power and control in the interpretation of Genesis 1, which in turn could negatively shape what it means to be in the image of God.”[6] This is a crucial objection to the text, and one that will continue to be absent from the radar of biblical scholars or theologians not attuned to feminist and post-colonial criticism.

For sake of space, I will wait until the next post to explore this critique in more depth, as well as try to construct a new model for interpreting the imago Dei.

Are you familiar with this interpretation of the image of God? How has it shaped the trajectory of your faith? What do you think about the objections raised to the functional model? What are your own critiques of this way of interpretation?


1. J Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 26-27.

2. Ibid., 53.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 153.

5. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 47.

6. Ibid., 55.

The following post is a review of Kester Brewin’s book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, and How They Can Save Us, available in paperback and e-book format.

In the 7th grade I carefully crafted a handful of pirate’s licenses for myself and some friends. Crudely designed in Microsoft Paint, these licenses permitted us to speak like pirates and to do all things pirate related. They featured a prominent skull and crossbones, the permissions granted us as pirates, as well as our pirate names. I was Peg Leg Pete. Very official. I’m not entirely sure what sparked our interest in pirates (full disclosure: it could very well have been a song by The Aquabats). For us, this was a way to be weird and have our own club. We joked about rum and parrots and booty and pillaging. That is what pirates were to us. They were mean and nasty men with a penchant for robbery, violence, treasure and growing ratty beards. This idea of pirates as fearsome dregs of society is reinforced through the stories told about them.

In Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us, Kester Brewin examines our cultural fascination with pirates alongside their counter-cultural history, while peering into both the psychological and the theological. Brewin offers a divergent image of the pirate, and traces the legacy of piracy into the 21st century. The pirate and the skulls and crossbones have become a tame, cute, and often ironic cultural symbol that has been neutered of its radical and anti-imperialist sentiments. Brewin aims to recast these symbols and what they stand for in light of the injustice, social and economic inequality, oppression and corporate greed that inhabit our realities and beg for ‘unblocking’ and a cleared path for all. Brewin juxtaposes the spirit of piracy alongside ways in which our world is increasingly becoming privatized, manipulated and ‘blocked’ by systems of power. Everything from media to the government, the earth and its resources, and even religion falls victim to such blocking. The work of ‘unblocking’––creating a space for free movement, unhindered by systems of power––is the work of pirate activity, and Brewin shows that this is also the work of Jesus. Within this paradigm, the term mutiny serves as a new metaphor for rebellion, counter-culture, anti-consumerism, non-conformity, and the challenge of the status quo as functions of Jesus followers.

Pirates date back to long before the Atlantic pirates and ol’ Jack Sparrow. Brewin shows that since as early as second century CE pirates have stood up against the powerful, citing opposition to the Roman Empire’s attempts at extending their sovereignty to include the prior unowned and un-ownable oceans.

Rome went to war against pirates because pirates were threatening their claim to ownership, not just of the natural resources in the lands that they had dominated, but of the routes by which these resources could be moved, and thus transferred into riches. Pirates thus stood for the Romans not as simply a nuisance, committing petty theft on the seas, but as a threat to the values and principles that underpinned their empire. It was they who wrote into their laws that pirates were hostis humanis generis – the ‘enemies of all mankind.’

“Pirates were the antithesis of everything that Rome worked for: respect for authority, hard work, ordered trade and deference to a divinely appointed elite. From early history we see the designation ‘pirate’ going beyond robbery to suggest a wider menace that could undermine the values of empire.”

This wider understanding of piracy––interference contextualized inside of unjust systems of power and ownership––is the paradigm by which mutiny can save us. But who is the us in this equation? Here is where Brewin’s redemption of the pirate mystique differs from our cultural hand-me-down understanding of pirates: pirate interference is to unblock power are for the common good rather than interference for the sake of robbery and greed. The latter understanding reinforces the imperial designation of the pirate as a threat to order, civility, and peace; it is demonizing of those who hurl a challenge to power. “It wasn’t their thievery that was so heinous, so unutterably villainous, but their self-determination and refusal to be governed.” It was their refusal to play by the rules of empire. The us invites us to reflect on our power and act for the common good, partnering with and transferring power to the marginalized, voiceless, and powerless. The pirate manipulates and exposes the tools of the powerful for the sake of those without power. This is an act that is truly threatening, and one we see employed by Jesus throughout Gospels.

“This, then, is what we can take ‘pirate’ to mean: one who emerges to defend the commons wherever homes, cultures or economies become ‘blocked’ by the rich. Be it land that is being enclosed, or monopolies that are excluding and censoring, or wealth that has been hoarded, blockages to what should be shared freely and equitably create the conditions in which pirates will be found.”

It is through this lens that Jesus can be cast in the same vein as the pirate.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Brewin comments that this scene from Luke 4, in which Jesus quotes from Isaiah, is a “classic pirate text, full of unblocking and the breaking of oppressive practices.” The message of Jesus, he goes on to say, “is not centered around time spent in dedicated worship and contemplation in the temple, but about social justice and release from captivity.” How does this transform the way we understand and interpret Jesus vis-a-vis social structures and empire? How does this change the way we imitate Jesus, or the way we inhabit the Christian faith?

Throughout Mutiny!, Brewin stokes the radical imagination with story and commentary, and invites us to reassess our relationships with each other, our own selves, our work, our leisure, our faith traditions, and ultimately, to the structures of empire. Brewin offers a creative and exciting new invitation into liberation theology. His “dark reading” of the prodigal son alone is worth the price of the book. To be sure, he pulls no punches while calling into question the theology and systems of power that have led to blockages in the radical movement that Jesus inspired, but he manages to balance playfulness and critique in a manner that is both accessible and challenging.

If you’ve read Mutiny!, what were your reactions? How has it influenced or changed your thinking?

Visit Kester Brewin’s website:


Listen to Kester Brewin on the upcoming Homebrewed Christianity Live Podcast on October 25.

I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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.

Over the past few months I have done a bit of research to explore what is meant and believed when Christians talk about the imago Dei. Generally, the image of God is applied to all human persons. That is, each human person is said to be made/created in God’s image. This sentiment is often used to add high value to human life. There is ethical mileage in this concept; if you and I are created in the image of God then there is a unique, divine something within us that makes us special and makes our lives important. This concept also implies respect. To recognize that each human individual bears some sort of mysterious likeness to God demands that you hold a certain level of respect, honor, and kinship for that other person. However, the Christian tradition has not been the most consistent in this interpretation.

This understanding of the imago Dei is formally referred to as the substantialist or structuralist model. Within the scope of this model, the image of God refers to something that is inherent to the human person and to no other species. The first creation story in Genesis 1 saves the creation of human persons for last, implying the superiority of the species. It is at this point that humans are said to be created in the “image of God,” a distinction absent from the rest of the creation. Because this qualifier is put on the primordial man and woman only, the Christian tradition has thus assumed that the image of God lies in the space between human and animal. In other words, the image of God is that which humans possess but animals and non-human life do not. Additionally, others sought to locate the image of God in human capacities that correspond to divine capacities. This approach attempted to proclaim how humans are like God rather than how they are different from animals. Historically, these lines of thinking have come to identify the image of God in such things as rationality, will, morality, and the soul.

J. Richard Middleton writes in The Liberating Image,

Most patristic, medieval, and modern interpreters typically asked not an exegetical, but a speculative, question: In what way are humans like God and unlike animals? Although various candidates were suggested for the content of the image, David Cairns can comment that, as a bare minimum, ‘in all the Christian writers up to Aquinas we find the image of God conceived as man’s power of reason.’ This notion of the rational, substantial soul mirroring its divine archetype––which is part of the pervasive influence of Platonism on Christian theology––is nuanced or supplemented in the Latin West by notions such as conscience, spirituality, immortality, freedom, and personhood and by Augustine’s famous proposal of various intrapsychic trinitarian structures (particularly memory, intellect, and will), which correspond to the triune nature of God (20-21).

So for the majority of Christian history, the image of God has been believed to correspond to one’s ability to reason. This rationality was credited to the soul, that mysterious and immaterial feature of humanity that bears a likeness to God. Rather than anything physical, the image of God is related to purely immaterial qualities. This approach to understanding the image of God not only makes statements about what it means to be created in the image of God, but about what it means to be human, as well as making statements about who and/or what God is. God is rational and moral, therefore humanity is rational and moral. It assumes an archetype and standard for being considered a human person based upon rationality and upon intellect and ability as essential qualities inherent in humans but not in animals.

This view is still widely popular in Christianity. One of my first encounters with a thoughtful explanation of the image of God was in Rob Bell’s Sex God (Zondervan, 2007). In the third chapter, “Angels and Animals,” he comparatively explores the nature of animals and the nature of humans.

The temptation is to ignore your conscience or sense of higher purpose, sacrificing what it means to be human. Which leads a person to act much like … an animal. Are we just the sum of our urges? Think about some of the phrases that get thrown around: party animal, we attacked each other, she’s a tiger, basic instinct. They’re all an acknowledgement of the primal, base nature of the person’s behavior (52).

A little while later, Bell asserts,

An angel is a being with a spirit but without a body. When we deny the spiritual dimension to our existence, we end up living like animals. And when we deny the physical, sexual dimension to our existence, we end up living like angels. And both ways are destructive, because God made us human (58).

Is this really how we want to go about this? Setting humanity in contradiction and competition with non-human life? Animal bad, human good, God better. One of the many problems with this model is that it devalues non-human life and negates any responsibility and ethic surrounding a care for our environment and ecosystems, privileging only the human species.

This model of interpretation operates on a scale. On the left end of this scale are animals. On the other end of the scale is God. In the middle, between the two, are humans. In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal claimed that humans “are neither angel nor beast.” Theoretically, if one were to truly inhabit and maximize their rationality and their spirituality, they may slide more toward the right as they become more like God. But what do we do when a biologically human person fails to exhibit the qualities said to make someone human? Say one’s rational capacity is not as developed as another’s and one does not possess the ability to consistently think critically and abstractly and falling below the archetype/standard of human personhood. Within this model, those people would be considered less human. The problem with a model such as this is that it essentializes particular characteristics that humans possess and creates a theology surrounding them. Therefore anyone who falls outside of the assumed norm is an outsider. Practically speaking, this model that locates the imago Dei within rationality/intellect/morality/will necessarily excludes persons with cognitive disabilities. On this scale, because rationality is the determining factor of humanity, persons with disabilities would be considered less than fully human. Many reject this model based on this downfall. Essentializing what it means to be human excludes those whom you are blind to and privileges the experience of the powerful and dominant community.

But wait, there is more! Because the structuralist/substantialist model assumes a particular interpretation of what it means to be human––in this case, historically decided by white European men––difference from the norm meant deviation from being fully human. This led to a logic of domination that enabled white Christians to enslave Africans and to exploit and kill “savage” Native Americans. The logic says, ‘If white male is fully human and most like God, then people of color are necessarily unlike God and unlike us.’ This is imperialism and it is wrong. Christianity must reject this kind of thinking at all costs. Additionally, the supremacy of rationality and reason within the human person was (and is) used to establish a supremacy of male over female, as women are accused of and derided for being more emotional and intuitive rather than rational. If you consider our scale above, this would move women closer to the side of the animal.

There is a lot of information in this post, so here is a recap of key points.

  1. Substantialist/structuralist view says that image of God separates humans from animals. It locates the imago Dei in the assumed differences between humans and animals––namely rationality, will, intellect, morality, self-reflection.
  2. Biology has less to do with being human in the image of God than does one’s mental capacity.
  3. God is ultimately a rational and moral being. Because the Bible says humans are created in God’s image, rationality + will + intellect + morality + self-reflection = human person
  4. This creates an essentialized view of humanity that makes anyone who falls outside of this understanding less human.
  5. Anyone who is less human is subject to those who are more human. Historically, the earth, animals, women, and people of color have been understood as less than human, leaving white males at the top of a hierarchical power structure because they are the most like God.

Thoughts? Did I get something wrong or misrepresent something? How have you been taught to understand the image of God? How does that relate to the way you view non-human life? Should Christians consider non-human life in our theological frameworks? How does this historically dominant view hold up to today’s scientific understanding of life? What implications does this model have on gender and sexual identity?

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.