Regarding The Image

by Helen Barratt

Read: Regarding The Image (Part 1)

Defining the Image of God

The essential meaning of the image of God is that human beings have intrinsic value because we are in some way like God. Even if the similarities couldn’t be further defined, this would be of enormous significance. However, countless writers down the ages have explored this idea in more detail. Although this has largely been guided by the anthropology and theology of their own times, there are two main schools of thought.

The Functionalist Perspective

The ‘functionalist’ perspective seeks to define the image in terms of God-given human qualities that make us like our creator but distinct from animals. Iranaeus (c.130-c.200) was perhaps the first to draw a distinction between the Hebrew words tselem and demuth. He argued that God created human beings in his image and after his likeness. The ‘image’ represented mankind’s rationality and his freedom; this was retained after the Fall. In contrast, our ‘likeness’ to his Creator – his holiness and relationship with God – was lost and needs to be restored via the process of redemption.21

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) disagreed that human beings lost the likeness at the Fall but retained the image. Instead he regarded the two terms as virtually synonymous. He wrote that the image of God is found in all people as ‘man’s natural aptitude for understanding and loving God’,22 or in his intellectual capacities. Rather than the Bible, Aqinas’s logic most probably has its roots in the Greek thought of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who both called mankind’s intellect divine: the Bible says that God is love; nowhere does it say that God is intellect.23 However, Augustine (354-430) also considered intellect to be important: he taught that God’s image relates to memory, intellect and will – capacities that he implied mirrored God’s Trinitarian nature.24

The Protestant Reformation brought about a recommitment to the biblical perspective of what it means to be human. Martin Luther (1483-1546), like Irenaeus, believed that mankind had lost the image of God at the Fall, and that its restoration was the goal of salvation. However, he felt that the essence of the image was our original righteousness, the relationship Adam enjoyed with God.25 In contrast, his fellow Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564) felt that the proper seat of God’s image is in the soul26 and, although the Fall had not totally annihilated, but frightfully deformed.27 He insisted that all of mankind’s gifts had been distorted by sin, making us not just deprived, but depraved.28

Karl Barth (1886-1968) rejected the previous attempts of theologians to locate the image of God in human structures and qualities. He returned instead to Genesis 1:27 which describes mankind’s creation: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them.’ He argues that our creation as male and female, and the relational aspect of his partnership, must be central to the way we reflect God.29 Barth’s position has been paraphrased as: ‘The human person is a being whom God addresses as Thou and make answerable as I. Thus the image describes the I-Thou relationship between person and person and between a person to God.’30 At the heart of the image in Barth’s view, therefore, is love for God and love for others.

Other commentators hold that the image of God is located in different human capacities. Some understand the word ‘image’ in a very physical sense, contrasting for example our upright posture with that of other animals. For others, mankind’s moral, rational and spiritual qualities are important, whilst another group consider our dominion to be key. Yet others in this ‘functionalist’ school think it is our capacity for self-awareness that marks us out from every other creature.31

The concern about the functionalist perspective is that it runs the risk of alienating and diminishing whole groups of human beings who lack a particular capacity, such as those lacking rationality or self-consciousness after a brain injury. As the Christian writers Rae and Cox note, ‘the entire project of defining personhood terms fails because… a thing is what it is, not what it does.’32

The Species Perspective

The second school of thought – the species perspective of mankind – suggests that the image of God lies simply in our membership of homo sapiens. Certain distinctive human characteristics are demonstrated in the creation narratives and undeniably mark human beings out as different from animals, associating us with God. In the species view, however, the image of God is considered to be descriptive of human nature in its entirety. It is not linked exclusively to any one particular aspect or characteristic. We might in fact also call it a ‘wholistic’ (sic) view. This perhaps first emerges in the writings of John Calvin who was willing to grant that ‘although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind or the heart, or in the soul and in its powers, yet there was no part of man, not event the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow.33

The image of God is no more located just in our DNA than solely in our rationality

The functionalist perspective seeks to make a clear distinction between human beings and the animal kingdom in a similar way to the Old Testament authors. However, it seeks to define God’s image, and hence the essence of our humanity, based on what we can do. In contrast, the whole person species perspective pays much more attention to what we are by creation. Ethicists Rae and Cox again explain the importance of this distinction:

The image of God is not a capacity we possess or lose, but rather a part of our essence. We are, or reflect, God’s image, as opposed to possessing God’s image in terms of certain capacities. Of course, the image of God will manifest itself in certain capacities… [but] the capacities express God’s image which is a part of the human essence.34

Some argue that personhood is grounded in biological considerations, that the human genotype implies moral status.35 However, the image of God is no more located just in our DNA than solely in our rationality. As we have seen, humans are more than the sum of their parts; we are unique combinations of body, soul and mind, each known and loved by God, and called into existence by him. It is this that implies personhood – membership of the moral community, with rights and duties of a moral nature.36 Put more simply, we qualify as persons because we are human.

Some theologians rule out any reflection of the image in our physical form, largely on the basis of John 4:24 where Jesus says, ‘God is spirit.’ They argue that this suggests God himself has no physical form, so therefore our bodies cannot image him in this way. However, if we image God in our entirety, our bodies must be involved in this reflection in some way and, again, we cannot concur with the view that the body is dispensable.

In contrast to the functionalist view, the species perspective supports the Christian view of all mankind being made equal, regardless of ability: ‘rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.’37 As Nigel Cameron writes, ‘man the biological entity and man the creature must be one. The image, with all that implies, must be present wherever this species is to be found.’38 It is only this view, rather than a checklist of capacities, that allows us to authentically defend the sanctity of all human life.

Read more: Regarding The Image (Part 3-end)

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 46, 2011