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The Meaning and Implications of the Doctrine of imago Dei: Pt. 2 of 6—Three Traditional Views
April 7, 2014 richardstevenpark

The Meaning and Implications of the Doctrine of imago Dei: Pt. 2 of 6—Three Traditional Views

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As we consider the Christian doctrine of image Dei, have a look at this short video clip of a movie which is a UK film due out in April of this year: (especially starting around 0:55). There are a couple of lines which are particularly instructive: One character says, “Every life is sacred;” and the other responds by saying, “Some are less sacred than others.” There is a tension here, since all of us would probably agree that every human life is as sacred as the next, while as the same time maintain that Mother Teresa’s is far more sacred Adolf Hitler’s—how do we reconcile these two statements? I hope to clarify some points by drawing on the Christian theological tradition in order to help explain this tension.

The early church father Irenaeus (d. ca. 200) made a distinction between “image” and “likeness,” suggesting that the former had to do with man’s freewill and reason, and the latter with communion with God. (This view happens to still be the official view of Roman Catholicism.) However, Gen. 5.3, which uses the terms interchangeably, does not support such a distinction. (See Charles Lee Feinberg, “The Image of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 129 (1972): 235-46; and Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word Books, 1987)). It is an attractive view, since it brings together two of the main traditional interpretations; but, I suggest, it is wrong. Let us unpack each of the three views traditionally held within Christian theology.

First, there is the ontological view of imago Dei (also called the substantive and structuralist view) which suggests that the image of God 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 (over non-human animals). Augustine, writing in the fifth century, contends: “We ought therefore cultivate in ourselves the faculty [rationality] through which we are superior to the beasts … For after original sin, humanity is renewed in the knowledge of God according to the image of its creator” (Confessions). Similarly, Aquinas, echoing Boethius, held the view that what defines a human “person” is that she or he has a “rational nature” which inheres in the fact of being made in the image of God. (cf. Summa Theologica, I-I, Q. 29, Art. 3, 4).

Second, the imago Dei has been understood to be functional in terms of humanity’s being tasked with the role of being responsible over the rest of God’s creation. As the famed biblical scholar David J. A. Clines writes, “Man is created not in God’s image, since God has no image of His own, but as God’s image, or rather to be God’s image, that is to deputize in the created world for the transcendent God who remains outside the world order” (David J. A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968), p. 101).  Similarly, Marc Cortez recently argued that, “the image of God is a task, something that the human person performs in creation” as a representative of God’s rulership over creation. (See his Theological Anthropology: a Guide for the Perplexed (London: T & T Clark, 2010), p. 33). That is, humans are made to image forth God. (Interestingly, Cortez goes on to combine two views—functional and relational—and connects it with yet another—covenantal, which go beyond the purposes of this post.)

In light of this comment, let us turn to the third and final view: the relational view, articulated notably by Karl Barth; cf. Church Dogmatics III/1, which considers the imago Dei of in terms of their capacity for “action and responsibility in relation to God.” Aquinas (again) also held to this view, in addition to holding to the ontological view: Aquinas saw relationality inherent in the imago Dei: for, if God is rational and we are made in God’s image, then God’s also being relational as a triune being means that we too are intrinsically relational beings (cf. Summa Theologica, I-I, Q. 29, Art. 3, 4). Similarly the theologian Charles Sherlock (drawing on Barth) points out how the plural “[l]et us make [humanity]” corresponds to the “plurality within the image of God”; in other words, “being made in the image of God . . . points to the personal relationships within which humanity lives.” (See his The Doctrine of Humanity (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 34-35.)

So what are we to make of these three conceptions of imago Dei? As I argued in the post previous to the last, there is good reason to think that we could hold to a sort of combinatorial view which coalesces the three view together, drawing on the strengths (i.e., biblically grounded aspects) of each.

Having looked at a short history and comparison of the traditional view of the doctrine of the imago Dei, I now would like to turn to consider how this important doctrine is related to another, namely, that of human nature—Is it essentially good? Or intrinsically evil? Or an admixture?—as well as a (hopefully) illustrative example of how the doctrine of imago Dei impacts Christians’ engagement with culture (specifically, political culture).