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Imago Dei, Human Rights, Social Justice, and Godly Fellowship
April 2, 2014 richardstevenpark

Imago Dei, Human Rights, Social Justice, and Godly Fellowship

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The doctrine of the image of God (imago Dei) has been impressing potent ideas in my mind recently. It is a doctrine which has been understood differently throughout Christian as well as Jewish traditions. In what follows, I briefly trace some of the reflections of major early Christian thinkers on this subject, and close by offering a consideration of some of the implications which flow from our discussion on this central Christian doctrine. (In the coming weeks, I plan to post a series of blogs centering on this crucially important doctrine of the Christian faith.) I begin, though, with some remarks from the Jewish tradition.*

Jewish commentators and thinkers have been generally reluctant to interpret Gen. 1-26-27 as linking humanity directly with God, lest they be taken to making an idolatrous move. The early Christian thinkers, however, were much less wary. For example, Tertullian and Origen take imago Dei as referring to the “form of God,” and comment on humanity’s “dignity” which accords with “the image of God” (respectively). St. Augustine famously drew out the attributes of human rationality and relationality in the doctrine of imago Dei. And Lactantius reflected on the political rights and responsibilities which are inherent in this rich and multifaceted doctrine.

More recently, Christian theologians and biblical scholars such as the late Claus Westermann (d. 2000) and the late James Barr (d. 2006) along with the contemporary Walter Brueggemann have suggested that the notion of imago Dei has more to do with the role that human are to fulfill with regard to ruling over the rest of creation as God’s “deputy.”

In brief, there are three main ways that the notion of the image of God is taken within the Christian tradition: First, imago Dei is understood to be functional in terms of humanity’s being tasked with the role of being responsible over the rest of God’s creation. Second, there is the ontological view of the imago Dei which suggests that it has something to do with some attribute or characteristic – usually taken to be intellect, free-will, or both – in the nature of humanity which confers a certain dignity in humanity. Lastly, there is the relational view (articulated notably by Karl Barth) which considers the imago Dei of human persons in terms of their capacity for “action and responsibility in relation to God.” As with many theological topics, I suppose the truth lies somewhere in the nexus among these various views.

Given this tri-partite understanding of the imago Dei, there are several crucial implications which follow for evangelical Christianity’s recent engagement with social justice and human rights as well as everyday Christian fellowship: First, the imago Dei can serve as a motivation to engage in social justice organizations and movements since the ones to whom we minister when doing so can be understood to have an infinite worth – as C. S. Lewis commented, humans are not mere mortals. Secondly, the imago Dei can serve as a basis for grounding the universal equality and dignity found in every human person, as articulated recently in the legal and political discourse of “human rights.” Lastly, the imago Dei can serve as a reminder for the importance of Christian fellowship: if we are indeed made in the image of God, any and every instance of fellowship is an opportunity to encounter Emmanuel – God with us.

It my next post, I want to suggest that this (sometimes abstruse) theological concept may lead us into a better witness to non-believers and into a deeper community with believers.

* Much of this post draws on Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), Ch. 14; and Christiaan Mostert’s contribution to:  http://www.ncca.org.au/files/Departments/Faith_and_Unity/Anthropology_Study.pdf.

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