In the Image of God (RJS)

In the Image of God (RJS) July 9, 2015

michelangelo's Adam 2The final chapter of John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate looks at the ways in which humans are distinct creatures and a special creation of God. In discussing human origins, Walton draws a distinction between evolution in the sense material continuity and gradual change with time and the mechanisms that drove this process of evolution. I made the same distinction in my recent post “How to Talk About Science and Faith.” He points out that evolution is “not inherently atheistic or deistic,” although some of the mechanisms proposed are. Evolutionary history itself “has plenty of room for the providence of God as well as the intimate involvement of God.” (p. 191)

As an ancient document Genesis has nothing to say about the science of evolution – it was not an idea in the consciousness of the author, not an idea that was relevant to the theological point of the text. The traditional interpretation that humans were a unique special creation is an interpretation consistent with scripture. Walton asks, however, if it is the only interpretation consistent with scripture. What specific claims does scripture make about human origins?

Genesis 1:26-27 tells us “God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 5:1-2 gives us the same: When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “adam” when they were created.

Psalm 8 is also significant: What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet. (v. 4-6)

Human distinctiveness isn’t material, it isn’t neurological, and has nothing to do with opposable thumbs. There are aspects of our biology that enable us to function effectively as God’s image in the world – but these traits do not define human distinctiveness or our calling as God’s image.

Walton suggests first, that human distinctiveness is spiritual.

  1. Adam and Eve are called as priests serving in sacred space. “This is presented as a role given to them by God, a role that is spiritual in nature.” (p. 192-193)
  1. Humans have a spiritual nature. What this means in terms of body and soul is a matter of some debate. But our spiritual nature is clear – “we believe that we are more than biological specimens; we are more than carbon-based life forms.” (p. 193) There is a part of us that survives the death of the body.

This is not something that can evolve; it is not possessed by those other creatures in a line of common descent. It represents a spiritual discontinuity even if one concludes that there is material continuity. It is granted by God (we don’t know how or when) as a direct special creative act of God, and it differentiates us from every other creature. (p. 193)

  1. We are created in the image of God. In fact, “the image of God is, by definition, who we are as human beings.” (p. 193) It is, Walton believes, a direct spiritually defined gift of God.

The Image of God. Walton outlines four aspects to the image of God: function, identity, substitution, and relationship.

Function. We are corporately called to function as God’s vice-regents in the world. We may have biological traits as a species that enable us to carry out this role, but the role is true of all humans no matter what there capacities, abilities, or disabilities.

Identity. Naming is an important creative act and “when God designates humankind as his image, that is what humankind becomes.” God gave us the identity of being his image and “this giving of identity is a spiritual act of special creation.” (p. 195)

Substitution. We stand in for God in the world as his substitutes, communicating important ideas about God and his kingship. This is one of the roles of the image of a king in the ancient Near Eastern culture.

We represent his presence in sacred space. His essence makes us spiritual beings and constitutes discontinuity from any other creature. Just as images were revered as divine creatures in the ancient world, we are considered to be the works of God in the truest possible sense. (p. 195)

Divine-human relationship. The term “image of God” implies a special relationship. This aspect of image is seen in Genesis 5:3 where it is said that Adam “had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth

The distinctiveness of humans is not material. It is a spiritual, relational, functional distinctiveness. This distinctiveness does not have a natural origin – the human body may be the result of evolutionary process but the spiritual human distinctiveness is a special creative work of God.

Humans are the special direct creation of God in certain ways-that is not in question. The uncertainty lies in how much of that special creation falls into the material category. (p. 197)

Is the human distinctiveness material, spiritual, or both?

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

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  • Norman

    Genesis 1:26 is a form of apocalyptic type literature which requires that one understand the contextual imagery being used. There are many clues in 2nd T literature that illuminate these statements more clearly to us. First we can go straight to Paul and the Barnabas epistle to see how they applied The image of God. Since we follow Paul then perhaps it is best to stay within the scope of his usage for the most useful and accurate Christian application.
    The Barnabas epistle applied it specifically to those in Christ as does Paul, so to take it outside their application starts to enter more speculative ideas. It’s not a term that implies all humanity but is specific to that priestly calling that Israel claimed and Paul appropriated to include faithful Gentiles.

    Now there is nothing wrong with pursuing the biological and philosophical implications of humans which often occurs in these discussions but that is not really the focus of Paul’s theological application as he applied Genesis 1:26.

    Here is the Barnabas quote. Notice his application to whom is conferred the image of God.

    Barnabas 6:11
    Forasmuch then as He renewed us in the remission of sins, He made us
    to be a new type, so that we should have the soul of children, as if
    He were recreating us.

    Barnabas 6:12
    For the scripture saith concerning us, how He saith to the Son; Let
    us make man after our image and after our likeness, and let them
    rule over the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the heaven and
    the fishes of the sea. And the Lord said when He saw the fair
    creation of us men; Increase and multiply and fill the earth.
    These words refer to the Son

  • Phil Miller

    The distinctiveness of humans is not material. It is a spiritual,
    relational, functional distinctiveness. This distinctiveness does not
    have a natural origin – the human body may be the result of evolutionary
    process but the spiritual human distinctiveness is a special creative
    work of God.

    I’ve brought up this very same point in some of these discussions. To me, it’s pretty self-evident, but I think it’s something that Christians I grew up around would have a problem with. One thing I remember hearing a lot in regards to evolution from Christians is something akin to “if we say people are just another animal, than we shouldn’t be surprised when they have no self-worth” or something to that extent. It is interesting because in most things, Christians are functionally dualist in their perspective, but in this issue, many of them resort to a non-dualist perspective that says there has to be something physically unique about the human body. I also think that perhaps the abortion issue plays into this as well. I imagine there are some who are afraid that a “demoting” of the human body will lead to people having less reservations about ending a pregnancy.

  • AHH

    It is vital to avoid locating the “image of God”, or human distinctiveness in general, in anything about our physical creatureliness. Even if you try to make it some nonphysical characteristic, like “reason” or “capacity for relationship” or “consciousness”, you end up with the logical but unacceptable conclusion that humans without those capacities (say, the elderly with severe dementia or those with severe birth defects) do not bear the image of God.

    Agreeing in large part with Walton, I think we must locate the “image of God” in God’s choice for our species to have a special relationship and responsibility to image God. So “image of God” is a role we are chosen for rather than a characteristic we possess. This seems to be what the OT scholars tell us this concept means, and as a side effect this understanding removes much needless science/faith conflict since it removes the need for humans to be a “special creation” physically.

    J. Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image is excellent and has shaped my thinking on this topic.

  • Chris Criminger

    Hey Ahhh, Richard, and all,
    Speaking of Richard’s excellent book, I bought Mark Harris book and read it and discovered that Richard’s concern about the jettison of fundamental Christian doctrines because of science was spot on. Mark Harris not only jettisons the doctrine of the fall, but he says we should discard concepts like redemption, atonement, sacrifice, and reconciliation because since evolutionary suffering is part of God’s good creation, there is no broken relationship to heal, or price to be paid (p.154).

    Harris actually makes some good points in the book but this raises the deeper issues of exactly how do science and scripture actually relate? I believe Richard’s approach is interpret the Scriptures within its own context and allow science to inform or expand your understanding of the scriptures.
    Although I agree with this approach, I still see many pitfalls when it comes to understanding who we are as icons of God.

    1. Thirty to forty years ago, Evangelicals were cautious and critical of the scientific historical critical method. Now its like the baptized Christian way to interpret scripture. Although I don’t want to take away from some of the helpful aspects of this approach, it has caused many problems as well. We adopt these methodologies uncritically at times and then wonder why our faith has lost traction and seems to be running on empty. We rarely question the assured results of science much less the assured results of the historical-critical method of the Bible.

    2. We keep approaching our humanity, anthropology, and seem to be losing exactly what it means to be uniquely human or an icon in God’s image. It seems many of the biblical scholars I appreciate the most and align with many of their conclusions still have dualistic ways of approaching issues rather than holistically; and they seem perfectly content to cut themselves off from the hermeneutical methods and approaches of let’s say patristic fathers for example.

    3. Lastly, this all reminds me of some of the postmodern moves which should lead to more modest, humble, and holistic ways of doing Christian theology. Rather than proposing constructive theologies, we seem to want to simply deconstruct everything with very little constructing. Even postmodern identity gets warped into a reaction against modernity which turns postmodernity into another culture war battle where its either us (postmoderns) or them (moderns).

    4. I have read the many and various divergent views by Evangelicals and they all seem to either want to deny science, make up their own science, use science as “the interpretive tool”, or read modern science into and out of the Bible. Although I agree with some of their biblical insights and conclusions, I sometimes think Christians ought to be more honest and say science is how we interpret reality, even the scriptures. I just “feel” and “sense” we are gravely limiting ourselves to modern philosophies and modern science (which have some giftedness to them) rather than adding the ancient tools from the whole package of 2000 years of Christianity (and not be stuck in our own time warp that newer is better and cutting edge relevance means what’s the latest modern biblical commentary or modern scientific results saying about humanity and the world at large).

  • AHH

    I didn’t phrase that as well as I could. I did not mean to say that our physicality itself was unimportant. As you say, the incarnation (not to mention the bodily resurrection) implies that there is something important in the fact that we are physical creatures (as opposed to, say, disembodied spirits).
    My point was that there is nothing in the properly understood doctrine of the “image of God” (or the incarnation for that matter) that requires some aspect of our physical creatureliness to be qualitatively unique (compared to the other creatures we are physically related to).

    I think God’s election of Israel to work through provides an analogy. Scripture is pretty clear that this was just God’s choice, and not based on any special characteristic Israel possessed. The fact that God chooses a nation or species to work through does not entail that there must be some qualitatively unique characteristic possessed by the one chosen.

  • RJS4DQ


    I found it hard at times in Harris’s book to separate his summary of other thinkers from his own opinion. He certainly “flirts” with some of the ideas you bring up and quotes thinkers who hold such views. However, it was not clear to me that this was ultimately his conclusion. The book was insightful in places and “fuzzy” in others.

    All this to say that after reading his book and trying to summarize it I was not clear exactly where he would come down on redemption, atonement, etc..

    I liked Richard’s book – and John Walton’s ideas here. Neither would do away with atonement (certainly not Walton).

  • Phil Miller

    Maybe God picked Israel because of their incompetence and He enjoys using the weak things of the world to confound the wise… I’m only somewhat joking, but I think there’s something to the idea. Deuteronomy 7:7 kind of hints at that after all.

    I could see that perhaps was waiting, in a sense, for creatures of sufficient cognitive ability to be His image bearers. But in that case, again, what makes us unique is our call, not necessarily our evolutionary advantages over other species.

  • AHH

    “The Image of God” … It seems to me we would be talking about unique human abilities such as our verbal nature, our tribal sociality, a view of history, (scripture, church, tradition) etc, which are characteristics unique to Homo sapiens individuals, supported by the physical cognitive systems of our unique anatomy.
    While it might seem that way to modern readers of translations, I think we should listen to the scholars (like Walton and Middleton) about what this meant in the original context of the Ancient Near East. And they tell us that the phrase in Genesis is NOT talking about human abilities, but rather about a unique role or function as God’s representatives or vice-regents.

    I’m not denying that characteristics of humans such as the ones you name make us unique in some sense (though in many things it is a difference in degree, not kind). One might even say that such characteristics make our species the best choice to carry out that God-given role (but we should be wary of concluding what God’s best choice is). But I maintain (I think joined by most OT scholars) that it is a theological mistake to say that such characteristics define the “image of God” that all humans bear (including those who lack these capabilities). The primary definition lies in our God-given function and God’s choice to relate to us in a special way.