…then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. Gen 2-7 ESV
In the last post on image bearing, I had explained that physical and mental attributes were not indicators of the image of God. Incidentally, the view of physical attributes is often called the Substantive view and is the oldest view. Being the oldest opinion doesn’t always make it right, but as a professor once told me, “if you are going to disagree with a 2000-year-old opinion, you’d better have some very solid reasons and be ready to reconsider your own opinion objectively.” I think I have been pretty fair thus far. The other views we have left to look at have a pretty long history as well. So, I think we are on even ground so far.
Human Abilities as the Character of Image Bearing
In this section I will look at another common view on how the image of God is reflected within his creation, humans. This is the view that it is human’s ability to relate to God in various ways that presents humans as the image of God to the world. This would include things like; being able to pray to God, having a desire for God or to know God, being capable of relationship with God and his other creations, or knowing right from wrong.
If you look and think about these more ineffable qualities, I think you might start to see what the problem might be. It is the same problem that the physical attributes had. Most of these, if not all, require first the recognition of some type of cognitive ability. So, if we for example consider the ability to have relations with God and the rest of his creation, we must consider that the person needs to be capable of having a relationship. Okay ladies, we are not talking about all of your exes let’s focus on the more general population. This might exclude the unborn child, the disabled person, the elderly, or the sick that have had their cognitive abilities diminished or are absent. This sets us again into the position be being able to name any of these individuals as no longer bearing the image of God and thus, less then human. This is a dangerous position as some could justify horrible actions against such people. Given the rest of the biblical text, I just don’t see how this can be construed as viable (e.g., Gen 9:6, Exod 21:12;14).
Traveling down this dark wooded path bit farther, it would be odd to allow the killing of a man who was unable to properly pray using the argument that since he was unable to pray he no longer carried the image of God and therefore, was no longer covered under Gen 9:6 or Exod 21:12, which are the prohibitions from murdering other humans.
The Soul of Humans
Another notion along the same lines as these ineffable attributes, is the idea that a person is the image of God because they have a soul. Now, understanding the soul vs spirit – are they the same or not – gets us into another whole complex discussion. For the moment, let us just say that the considerations are balanced enough to accept that the soul and the spirit are at least tightly tied together. Nonetheless we will consider some of the complexities associated with the language. The Hebrew terms for spirit, breath, and soul are used in many places within scripture. Exclusively, they are tied to cognitive function or life in action. Notice also that the terms are not always exclusive of human action:
Gen 1:20 – נֶ֫פֶשׁ nephesh , is used to describe the creatures (living souls)
Gen 9:4 – nephesh is again used to describe the life force and relates it to blood of creatures.
Gen 6:17 – רוּחַ rauch, is used to describe all the beings with the “breath of life” within them.
Gen 7:22 – rauch, is used again to describe all who died in the flood – both animals AND humans.
Gen 1:30 – used nephesh directly in reference to animals having the “breath of life”
At the least, we can see that these terms translated through the Old Testament as breath, spirit and soul are applied to both animals and humans. However, as we know from Gen 1:27 it is only humans that were created “in the image of God”. Again, the concepts for what the soul is and how exactly it is related to the spirit (or breath) is deeper then presented here, but the basics of how it is distributed both to animals and humans remains. We are left with having to not use the terms to distinguish the image of God in either animals or humans.
Knowledge of Good and Evil
One of the last options that I had mentioned was the knowledge of the evil and good. Reading the book of Genesis chapter 1-3 makes one wonder how this got to be an idea at all. Man is created first in Chapter 1 and in further detail in chapter 2 of Genesis. Humans are already mentioned as being created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). So, gaining the knowledge of good and evil, which happened later, did not impart any image bearing, any additional image bearing, or any added quality of image bearing. So, this idea really doesn’t get us very far.
So, we are left again with a promising concept for distinguishing the image of God to be humans only that has come up a little wanting. Oh, but we are getting somewhere don’t you worry. Watch for the next post.
Why is it important:
- As in the last post, if you have a way to rationalize that certain groups or people have diminished or absent ‘images of God’ within them, it leaves open the opportunity to treat them as less than human – as less than what God intended them to be.
- On the opposite end, it allows for the lionization and idolization of people in whom one might see greater attribute – like the person who always seems to have the most prayers answered. I have met a person like this. It seemed that no request was denied this loving and gracious man. Should we consider him to have MORE of the image of God in him? I know that he would not agree to such a notion.
- The idea of a soul is reversed in its characterization as the image of God. By this I mean that I would see it more a result of having been created in the image of God without necessarily BEING the image of God. Again, it allows us to avoid such nonsense of describing someone as being soulless and thus worthy of death – hey remember that episode of STNG? It uses that very argument; you should really watch it.
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