Commonplace Book #119

…human beings enjoy a dignity and value that no other creatures possess.  Too often we have arrogantly distorted this uniqueness into an unbridled license to trample and destroy the rest of creation.  Actually, the biblical text explicitly commands people to “work it and take care of” the rest of creation (Gen. 2:15 NIV).  But the truth remains–and it is fundamental to the whole project of civilization–that human beings possess a unique dignity and worth.

But what exactly does it mean to be created in the image of God?  There have been two major ways that Christians through the ages have understood the imago Dei: a substantial and a relational understanding.  Those in the substantial tradition (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) identify some essential capacity or faculty (e.g., our reason that makes rational thought possible or our will that enables us to choose freely) that distinguishes persons sharply from the rest of creation.  People in this tradition tend to put less emphasis on the way that the fall has damaged the imago Dei in sinful persons.

Those in the relational tradition (e.g. Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth) understand the imago Dei by analogy with a mirror that reflects some object.  The imago Dei, then, is not something inherent in persons, but rather the imago Dei is the relationship with God, which exists when one obeys God.  Through one’s right relationship with God, one truly reflects God’s will and thus bears God’s image.  In this view, sin largely or completely destroys the imago Dei in fallen people.  

Ronald Sider, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, 52-53

2 thoughts on “Commonplace Book #119

  1. What is fascinating to me about this topic is that both of these views imply that individuals with profound mental disabilities are somehow *not* made in the image of God. Or, at minimum, they are somehow “less than” image-bearers who have the capacity to reason or obey. More recent research on the ancient Near East suggests that “image of God” has to kinship language. Catherine McDowell has great material on this. Michael Horton also talks about the kinship/covenant aspect of the image of God. As an aside, Aquinas and the Reformers did great with the material they had available to them at that time. So I am definitely not faulting them. I am faulting us, however, for not incorporating better research into our theology. It is pastorally irresponsible. Think about the mom and dad sitting in the pew who have a child with a profound disability that prevents the child from reasoning or obeying/disobeying. What do they think when they hear a sermon telling them to be made in the image of God is to have the capacity to reason or to obey? I do not think being made in the image of God entails less than our ability to reason or obey. But it is certainly a lot more than that.


  2. While I am not going to swim The Tiber over this dispute, it seems to me that Aquinas is correct here. After all, man in his fallen state still has a general knowledge of good and evil through Natural Law. (Although this knowledge can be distorted.) He still has mannish qualities of cognition and abstract thinking which separate him from the most highly developed animal. In short, he bears God’s image.

    It is possible to affirm the above without subsequently becoming Pelagian. I wonder if Calvin, Luther, and Barth simply feared trespassing on Divine Grace in assuming the relational approach?

    By the way, I wish Dr. Sider had not included the gratuitous introductory remark about care of creation. We already get ample environmental posturing.


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