The Imago Dei: Surveying the Options

This Sunday, I will preach on Genesis 1:26-28 and what it means to be made in God’s image.

This is a rich concept and one that has gone through a number of phases. In the early church, theologians conceived of the imago Dei as an essential aspect of humanity. More recently, functional definitions of man’s dominion over the earth have been considered the norm for what makes men and women ‘image-bearers.’  Still, these are not the only views on the matter. Taking his cues from the male-female division in humanity, Karl Barth suggested a relational view of the imago Dei.

So which is it? Could it be all the above? Is there another option not yet mentioned?

Marc Cortez, professor of theology at Wheaton College, has helpfully surveyed the options in his book Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed  (see ch. 2, pp. 14-40). In what follows, I will outline his survey. Tomorrow I will consider his own covenantal proposal. 

Areas of General Consensus

Cortez begins by listing six truths about the imago Dei that most scholars/theologians affirm. (The italicized words are his).

  • To ‘image’ God means to ‘reflect’ God in creation. 
  • ‘Image’ and ‘likeness’ are largely or entirely synonymous. This view is probably the consensus today, but there might reason to make some sort of distinction (see Peter Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant).
  • The image of God includes all human persons. Image-bearing is not based on gender or the combination of both sexes.
  • Sin has affected the image in some way. After the fall, men are still ‘image-bearers,’ but their reflection is that of a carnival mirror. We distort the image we were created to represent.
  • The image in the New Testament is a Christological concept. In the NT, the language of image is usually related to redemption and new creation (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49), not creation (although, see James 3:9).
  • The image of God is teleological. In others, the image of God is not static in Genesis 1; it is moving towards an ultimate goal (telos) in Christ.
Four Views

Structural.  This has been  the most prevalent view in church history. It might be classified as the ‘classic’ definition of the Imago Dei. From Irenaeus to Aquinas, theologians have argued that mankind is (1) unique from all other creatures and (2) shares properties (e.g., rationality) with God. Because humans continue to possess rationality (though affected by sin), they must retain their status as image-bearers.  This view possesses many difficulties. Cortez lists five: (1) It lacks “exegetical support” and is therefore too susceptible to the culture’s “conception[s] of what separates humans from other animals” (19); (2) this view ignores the growing body of knowledge that we have about the cognitive capabilities of the animal kingdom; (3) this position jeopardizes infants, invalids, and the mentally challenged, because only “perfect people” qualify as fully human; (4) this perspective treats humans in “highly individualistic terms,” and fails to consider the communal and/or relational realities of humanity; (5) this view overestimates the importance of human rationality and downplays the importance of human bodily composition—we are not disembodied spirits.

Functional If the structural view focuses on what humans are (ontology), the functional view focuses on what humans do (hence, function). There are two main arguments for this view: one is exegetical, the other is cultural. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “let us make man in our image,” and immediately, he follows this statement with an explanatory clause, “let them have dominion over . . .” This exegetical argument suggests that just as God has dominion over all creation, so God has appointed mankind to be vice-regents on the earth. This exegetical argument finds support in the way that “image of God” was used in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In these other cultures, the “image of God” was a term reserved for the ruler of the nation. The argument goes that in Israel, God appointed the whole nation—not just the king—to bear the image of God, to be God’s son. The reason for this national calling is based on God’s original creation of Adam and Eve as human rulers.

To this argument—which enjoys much support today—Cortez offers a number of cautions: (1) there needs to be caution in appealing to the ancient Near East to validate this meaning of “image of God.” (2) This view “suffers from an overly narrow focus on the first chapter of Genesis in determining the meaning of the imago Dei. . . . A narrow focus on the first chapter alone . . . may cause to miss something important being expressed in the overall flow of the [biblical] narrative” (23).  Together, Cortez cautions do not militate against the functional view; he simply, and rightly, asserts that they need to find a larger framework in which to abide. The same can be said of the next position—the relational view.

Relational. Cortez lists three exegetical arguments and two theological arguments for this relational view. First, exegetical: (1) the divine plural, “let us make man in our image,” suggests a relational view, (2) the juxtaposition of “male and female” to the “image of God” in Genesis 1:26-27, and (3) the way Genesis 2 describes man’s relationship with God (vv. 8-17), with creation (vv. 15, 18-20), and with each other (vv. 21-25). These three points of exegesis are matched by two theological points: (1) as to the Trinity, since man is made in the image of a triune God, it makes most sense that relations be part of the human nature; (2) as to Christology, if Christ is the prototypical man (i.e., image of God), then his relations (with the Father, his disciples, and the church) argue for a relational anthropology. In opposition to this view are questions about the exegesis of Genesis 1-2 and the viability of reading trinitarian and Christological concepts back into the opening chapters of Genesis.

Multi-faceted. Last, many biblical scholars and theologians attempt to combine the above mentioned views in a number of different ways. Cortez observes that in general biblical scholars tend to pursue the functional route, theologians the relational. While I can think of a few exceptions to this generalization, it stands to reason that exegetes would look more narrowly at Genesis 1:26-28, thus favoring the functional view; while theologians would synthesize larger sections of Scripture, along with theological concepts of the Trinity and Christology, in order to deduce a relational view. Overall though, the multi-faceted view seems most compelling as it fits together a number of the strongest points in the previous views.

Still, the question remains—and Cortez highlights this more than my previous discussion shows—how do we unify these themes? Does Scripture itself give us a categories, metaphors, or textual specificity to help us properly conceive of man’s imago Dei? Cortez suggests the concept of covenant, and I think he is right.

Tomorrow, we’ll pick up with that suggestion and consider how humanity was created as an image-bearer for the express functional purpose of a covenant relationship.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Covenantal. This is Cortez’s own view, and I am persuaded that it is essentially correct. It is a variant of the multi-faceted approach, but it explains the various components the Imago Dei in a unified, covenantal framework.  Here are a few of its points:

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