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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?

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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.

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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.

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

The late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut made some observations about the shapes that popular stories would create should they be crafted into a computer graphic. Standing at a blackboard, he draws X and Y axes and indicates that the Y-axis (the “G-I” axis) moves upward from ill fortune to good fortune, and the X-axis (the “B-E” axis) moves left to right, from beginning to end, naturally. With this simple template for inputting the shape of stories and clever strokes of chalk that follow plot lines up and down along the axes, Vonnegut categorizes and deconstructs the most popular stories in Western culture, labeling them as drab, uninspired and boring. Vonnegut then contemplates whether the chart he has devised can evaluate literature based on the shape of the story, and begins his experiment with Hamlet. As he retells the story, Vonnegut points out that although Hamlet is an excellent piece of literature, it shares the same essential story shape as the fairy tale Cinderella, with similar plot line peaks and plummets. “But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece,” says Vonnegut. “It’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” For Vonnegut, to tell the truth about persons and about humanity in the form of story is art of great consequence. 

Thinking theologically about human persons from the perspective of the Christian tradition directs our attention to stories found in the biblical text. The question we then ask is, “Do the stories found within the biblical text reveal truths about human persons by which we can make theological claims?” Specifically, this discussion revolves around just one story, found in the opening verses of the Bible. What does it mean for human persons to be both intentionally created by and created in God’s image? For the limited space such an idea occupies in the biblical writings, there has been an awful lot said and written about this subject across the centuries. By limited space, I mean that it is explicitly mentioned only three times––Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1 and 9:6––and twice in passing in the Second Testament, in 1 Corinthians 11:7 (with a patriarchal twist that blends the two creation accounts) and James 3:9 [There are also deuterocanonical reference to the image of God: Wisdom of Solomon 2:23, Sirach 17:3 and 2 Esdras 8:44].

For reference, here are the three Genesis passages that explicitly reference humanity’s creation in the image of God, or God’s likeness.

Genesis 1:26-27

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 5:1-2

“This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.”

Genesis 9:6

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”

Of these three, the Genesis 1 text is by far the most cited, and is typically used to declare the presence or existence of something inherently special about humans that is not possessed by any other species or living creature. This notion of human specialness as the bearers of God’s nebulous image is generally linked with Genesis 1:28, in which the first humans are instructed to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Being made in the image of God, therefore, means that humans rightfully exercise an authority over all things non-human. These ideas serve as the fundamental beliefs about humanity, and lay the foundation for a Christian anthropology that attempts to answer the question, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”

So as we begin thinking theologically about human persons within the Christian tradition our attention is directed toward a story. Many who study the Bible classify this particular story––and all the stories found in the first 11 chapters of Genesis––as myth. So for the creation story to be a myth simply means that it is a story that makes an attempt at explaining how things came to be. Every culture has such a story. Myths, like stories, function to communicate basic realities of the human condition or life experiences, or communicate lessons and morals. They attempt to capture something universal about life. When these stories can transcend the community and context in which they were created they have achieved something special. Stories are told, and find longevity, for the fact that they imaginatively capture something that continues to be true for each generation and inspires some kind of reorientation that grounds the hearer in the fundamental reality the story/myth describes. Stories take on a reality of their own, and shape values, lives and beliefs in powerful ways. I’m curious whether our particular origins story from Genesis 1 has lost its power to communicate something about the nature of humanity, non-human life, and the relationships between species and the earth. That is, does Genesis 1:26-28 tell the truth about humanity, in a way that Vonnegut claims is so rarely accomplished? What might it mean for humans to be made in the image of God in the twenty-first century? Is this an idea that still tells a particular truth and proves to be helpful and inspiring? Is it something that needs to be nuanced or re-imagined? Or is this a concept that we must move past and refuse to make theological claims upon?

Over the next few posts I’m going to explore some of the different ways that some have interpreted the imago Dei throughout the Christian tradition, and put these interpretive models to the test. Personally, I think that our understanding of the imago Dei needs to be reoriented and have its scope widened in order for us to make viable theological claims. How we understand the imago Dei does not only determine how we understand the purpose and nature of human persons, but also how we interpret and understand the character and identity of God, and how we then come to understand our relationship and responsibility to the earth and all its inhabitants. The next few posts will attempt to work toward an egalitarian, inclusive, and ecologically oriented method for understanding the imago Dei. 

What are your initial thoughts on this endeavor? Is the imago Dei something central and vital to theological discourse? Is it expendable? How do you understand the concept of the image of God?