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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.

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.

Theology
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?

Exegesis
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?

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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?

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?