Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Imago Dei ~ in the image of God

It is difficult even for professional theologians to quantify how God’s image is expressed in human being, particularly as separate from the rest of creation.  Ray Dunning, as an example, does not support to the idea that the imago dei is a collection of created characteristics that differentiate human being from the lower orders of creation; rather, Dunning suggests that the “ontic” qualities [real or factually existing] such as freedom, rationality, capacity for self-transcendence and immortality do not necessarily speak of an “essential orientation towards the Divine.”[1]  Instead, Dunning posits, that the imago is an irreducible quality or essence within the very substance of human being, in relation to standing with God.[2]  To explain this further, Dunning employs the metaphor of a mirror, with human being as the mirror to God’s glory.  When a mirror, human being, is properly oriented to its subject, God, the image is reflected within the mirror; when the mirror is improperly related to its subject, the image is not reflected.[3]  The mirror exists solely to reflect the image of its subject.  Through this metaphor, Dunning asserts that the primary function of human being is the reflection of the glory of God to the rest of creation.  This allegory also takes into account both the Fall and the subsequent sinfulness of human being.  A human being who is not properly oriented towards God will not reflect his image to creation; a human being who is in proper position before God will.  Thus the imago dei, according to Dunning, exists within every human but is not expressed by every human; it is an essence within human being that has been present since the beginning and is the result of divine purpose.       

Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis present the imago dei as the apex of the created order, the crescendo to God’s creative activity;[4] and they state that “the most important matter in Christian anthropology concerns the meaning of the proposition that God created the human person in his own image and likeness.”[5]  Those belonging to the human race are different and separate from the rest of creation because in making human being, God endowed each with “special dignity and honor.”[6]  This distinct standing comes by “by virtue of [the] ontological status as [bearing] God’s image,” because “the person is divinely entrusted with the special function of dominion-having.”[7]  Therefore, a primary facet of the imago, according to Demarest and Lewis, is the authority given to human being in relation to creation.  Demarest and Lewis suggest another key component of the imago dei is relationship; the premise for this is the fact that God created male and female because it was not good for man to be alone.  Demarest and Lewis refer to the Triune nature of God, through the Father, Son, and Spirit in continual, perfect relationship with each other, as the basis for this presumption.[8]  However, the most significant characteristic which evidences the imago dei, Demarest and Lewis propose, is not only that a human being resembles God in a metaphysical, intellectual, moral, emotional, volitional, and relational sense, but that human being is the only creature created as having a soul.[9]  Demarest and Lewis find the creation narrative in Genesis 2 to be most telling on this point.  Scripture speaks of God breathing life into Adam, which is assumed to represent the origin of the human soul.    

This assumption, however, leads to what theologians call “traducianism,” which refers to a quasi-Augustinian theory that only Adam was given a soul by God, and therefore every soul after is an offspring of the original, implanted only in male.  However, when examining the Hebrew text of Genesis 2, one finds that the adjective ay-yîm; [of life/living/alive] has 85 occurrences in the Old Testament.  Most often it carries with it the meaning of being alive or living; however, it is also used to refer to running or flowing water [which is highlights why Jesus refers to himself as the “living water” in the exchange with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well – harkening all the way back to the creation narrative!].[10]  These usages negate the possibility that this word speaks of the human soul, as in all other occurrences it refers to an existential state of being alive.  Thus we look at the word niš-ma [breath/spirit] which is definitively more specialized, occurring only four times total in the Old Testament.  Of the four times it is used specifically, once it refers to the breath of life in humans, once to the breath of God, once as the spirit of human, and once to the breath of life in every living thing.[11]  The extremely small number of times this particular word is used, with a different object each time, means that we cannot normalize it’s usage to reference the human soul, as each time it occurs, it refers to something different.  Thus we cannot prove with the text that the breath that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils is the originating soul from which all others were derived.  Which means that even in the creation narrative we cannot find reason to separate out male and female into hierarchical categories.  Because
God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
This is why so many find the imago dei as one of the most redeeming qualities in scripture.  It gives women equal standing with men because they each carry within themselves the very image of the God who created them.  It is why Paul could assert to the Galatians that

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.[13]

In the imago dei, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all men and women, all races, all humans are ontological and existentially equal.

With all the nuanced minutia of differences in the theologies of Lewis/Demarest and Dunning, the common theme is that the imago dei is the apex of creation, expressing itself in the human soul.  That humans are created in the image of God is paramount to understanding what it means to be human.  This theology, and one’s orientation thereto, directly influences many critical issues in the world today.  Abortion, the willful destruction of human life, marketed as the elimination of a cluster of microscopic cells becomes bearable, if human being is not ontologically different from virus-causing microbes.  Slavery, particularly sex slavery involving young children, is conceivable if human being is not separate from chattel.  When the truth that every human being is made in the image of Almighty God becomes obscured or is forgotten, these issues are tolerable, even palatable in pursuit of a nihilist utopia.  Thus the doctrine of imago dei is paramount for the care of people, the very created beings for whom God sent and sacrificed his only Son. 

Want to know where we've been in this series?  Click the links below for more. 

[1] Dunning, H. Ray.  Grace, Faith, and Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1988. Page 154.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., page 155.
[4] Demarest, Bruce and Gordon Lewis.  Integrated Theology: Knowing the Ultimate Reality of the Living God. vols 1 & 2.  Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1987. Volume 2, page 123.
[5] Ibid., page 124.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., page 135.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., page 134.
[10]  Accessed 12/11/13 at 09:30 MST
[11] Breath of life in humans: Genesis 2:7 | Breath of God: Isaiah 30:33 | Spirit of human: Proverbs 20:27 | Breath of life in every living thing: Genesis 7:22  -- Hebrew found at: Accessed on 12/11/13 at 09:48 MST


  1. A comment on my social media wall, from a friend and fellow blogger, Jason Laurie of "School of Fish" "I think it should be noted that philosophy will always fall short in the determination of something that is one-of-a-kind. The Imago Dei is completely unique and just like the Trinity it is impossible to accurately and sufficiently give it an explanation. The best we can do is describe it from the negative (i.e. what it is not). It is not the look of mankind and as you noted in your post, the bible precludes it from being a male only thing. Gen 2 is didactic poetry and the of scriptures do not intend to accurately describe the function of the Imago Dei, it is simply discussing the relationship of God and man (ie. Let US make MAN and WOMAN in OUR image). I think this leave some credence to Demarest and Lewis' philosophy as well as shows the relationship of the Trinity to the created. In other words, no one knows the full scope of the Imago Dei and frankly I am okay with that."

  2. Thanks for reading, Jason! I agree wholeheartedly that philosophy (or biology or theology or anything for that matter) will always fall short when trying to explain the mysteries of the Divine. But as people endowed with intellect and reason, trying to know a reasoning and intelligent Creator, we must go as far as our finite minds can; stretching toward the unattainable until we come to the point where we cannot explain anymore individually; so that it varies from person to person – certainly Lewis & Demarest could far outpace me with their knowledge, and I my children, but as we mature we must continue to deepen our understanding. Thus we turn to philosophy or theology or biology (etc…) to help us know more fully and more profoundly the glorious and mysterious God whom we love and serve. And when we have exhausted our intellectual resources we must, as you put, be okay with the fact that there are mysteries we will never understand. But I, as you I’m sure, hesitate to allow certain matters of the Divine to go unengaged simply because they are mysteries; else any time we come across a challenging bit of theology, we could simply throw our hands in the air, crying, “mystery,” and not have to examine or explain anything. I know you agree that this makes for an extremely shallow faith and an anemic apologetic.

    There, or course, are those who think of Genesis 1 -3 as didactic poetry, and others who consider it that dirty word in evangelical circles: liturgical. The more I read, the more I lean towards the second; but I can see the reasons for the first as well; either way, as you have mentioned before, it is not a scientific treatise on the creation event and should not be treated as such. Sadly, though, the pervasive and out-spoken contingent of teachers in the American west does treat Genesis this way. And as such, we find a post-fall hierarchy that has been institutionalized to the point that it is taken as dogmatic truth, to the detriment of half of the body of Christ. Unfortunately, when conversing with this contingent, the references to liturgy or didactic poetry fall on deaf ears. Thus, we must turn to the text and allow the words to speak for themselves, as I have attempted to do above. I realize there are many (both in popular and academic circles) who disagree with me; but there are many who do not. So, as you have said, I’m okay with that!

    And I heartily agree that the Imago Dei is not the look of humankind; it is, you point out, so very much more than that! But I do think that, at least for the Imago Dei and the Trinity, we can assert in the positive some of the characteristics that we find in scripture because God used the language of humans to communicate to human minds something about Himself. We must do so with an open mind and spirit. We are just like the ancient Hebrews who thought they had the whole messiah thing pegged, having read all the scriptures but getting almost all of it wrong because they were coming from the only place they could: human understanding. As no one can know the mind of God, we must do our best to understand the mysteries of God (the Trinity, the Imago Dei, the reign of the returning Christ) with the caveat that we see only through a mirror dimly (if even that!) and will one day, God willing, understand more fully and beautifully what this all means. We find in the scriptures Hebrews who were attune to God and who recognized Jesus as Messiah during the incarnation and shortly after his death and resurrection, so there is hope for any of us who might be getting it wrong. Yet because God gave us His revelation, we must continue to prayerfully, humbly, carefully, and communally try to understand what we are able through the grace of Christ Jesus and the instruction of the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks again for reading and for commenting. It’s great to have these virtual discussions!