Monday, April 29, 2013

The Imago Dei and Human Dignity

"The concept of an 'image and likeness' plays a critical role in historic Christianity's view of humankind. The Bible reveals that all human beings are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27, NIV) and, though marred by sin, all people—believer and nonbeliever, male and female alike—reflect the image of God. This foundational biblical teaching launches the Christian view that each individual possesses inherent dignity, moral worth, and genuine value. The imago Dei (Latin: the image of God) lays the foundation for the sanctity of human life. It is this image that makes human life unrepeatable and worthy of respect." ~ Kenneth R. Samples, "Ethical Alternatives on Life and Death"

In my previous post I wrote about the Gosnell murder trial but took a little bit of a different approach. I did not discuss the Gosnell case in great detail, nor did I talk much about how the major media organizations have avoided covering the case. There are many good articles already written from this perspective (check out The Aquila Report for a good number). Instead, I asked the question, "Why or how can someone think aborting a child or murdering the newly-born child can be acceptable?" I talked briefly about how we cannot really know what would cause someone like Gosnesll (or any other abortionist) to murder a child, but we can look at the context and motivations in which those gruesome actions are taken. Then, finally, I argued that the context for abortions and infanticide is the philosophical move away from inherent value in humans (i.e. because we are made in the image of God) to functionalism. After a brief discussion of functionalism, I made the assertion that we could make abortion illegal, but no progress will be made in relieving the demand for abortions until culture starts seeing humans as made in the image of God and inherently deserving of "unalienable rights" which have been "endowed by their Creator." Now, do not get me wrong. I do hope and pray that one day abortion will be illegal (though, to be honest, I am not very optimistic), but a fundamental change in how humans are viewed is needed to lessen the demand for abortion. We need to see the inherent dignity and value in humans simply because they are made in the image of God. Any other definitions will exclude a class, race, or development stage from the category of "persons" and open the door for any number of atrocities (indeed, this has happened many times in human history). I did not, however, talk about the doctrine of the image of God (the imago Dei, in Latin) itself, and that is the subject of today's post.

Before we get into what it means for humans to be made in the image of God, it is worth making a couple of general statements about this doctrine. First, it is worthy of note that the terms "image" and "likeness" used in Ge. 1:26, et al do not indicate separate ideas or distinct ways in which man was created. They are used synonymously, not additively, and when used together or separately, they suggest that God was the archetype and man the ectype. There are several reasons for holding they are synonymous: 1) there is no waw (the Hebrew conjunction translated "and") between the terms indicating they are not two different things; 2) Ge. 1:27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Co. 11:7; Col. 3:10; and Js. 3:9 all employ only one of the two terms to discuss man bearing God's image, which suggests that either sufficiently expresses the quality; and 3) Ge. 5:3 uses both terms but reverses the order and prepositions, again showing synonymous usage. Second, it is also worth of note that Ge. 1:26 suggests that humans do not simply "bear" or "have" the image of God but are the image of God. It is not something that was added to an otherwise complete humanity or something which applies to only part of man. It constitutes his very being. This also means it is something which may have been marred or damaged in Adam's fall but has not been lost or removed in total (cf. Ge. 9:6; Js. 3:9).

So, what does it mean to be the image of God? What constitutes God's image in man? This is something which has been debated throughout the history of the Church because Scripture contains an implicit rather than an explicit explanation of the image of God. For the purposes of this post, I am simply going to detail what I believe to be the biblical account of man as the image of God. (If you want a history of the doctrine, I would suggest Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, pp. 530-62.)

Before I get into the details about the image of God, I would like to make a quick comment about God giving of dominion over the earth to man. It has been argued that dominion over the earth is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, but Ge. 1:26-28 suggests that man stood before God as a complete image before God bestowed dominion on him. It is more accurate to say, like Bavinck, that "the image of God manifests itself in man's dominion over all of the created world (cf. Ps. 8; 1 Cor. 11:7)." (Reformed, p. 533) The exercise of dominion is what God's images do, not a part of what they inherently are. Just because a human does not have the ability to exercise dominion (e.g. an infant, an unborn child, or a person with a severe mental handicap) does not mean they are not the image of God. With that said, let us move on to several aspects of the image of God in man.

First, the Reformed confessions and catechisms focus particularly on the "original righteousness" aspect of the image of God in man (cf. WSC #10, #18; WLC #17,#25; WCF 4.2; BC 14; HC #6). "Original righteousness" is defined by the historic Reformed confessions as knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, to which the fall brought great damage. Man is no longer holy or righteous (Ro. 3:10) because he is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), and his knowledge of God and creation has been seriously distorted but not completely demolished (i.e. creation makes God plain to man and man still has the sensus divitatus (Institutes, 1.3.1; cf. also Warranted, pp. 170-86) but man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, cf. Ro. 1:18-32). However, in Christ the image of God is being restored, and in particular Christ's work in this aspect of the image draws the focus of Paul (Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3:10). Now, when thinking about how man's sin as affected this part of the image of God in man, it is helpful to make a distinction between the image of God as direction and the image of God as structure. Man as God's image was created for God and to be moving towards Him always, but man by his rebellion is now running away from God in sin, so the image of God as direction has been lost. But, man still retains the image of God as structure, though it is also marred by sin, and he still deserves the dignity due God's images (cf. Ge. 9:6; Js. 3:9). It is the image of God as structure that we will discuss next.

With the second aspect that I would like to bring out we get into the image of God as structure. As Louis Berkhof states in his classic Systematic Theology, "But the image of God is not to be restricted to the original knowledge, righteousness, and holiness which was lost by sin, but also includes elements which belong to the natural constitution of man." (p. 204) This second aspect is man's soul. When God created man He "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." (Ge. 2:7) The Hebrew word that the ESV translates "creature" is the word nephesh, which is literally "soul." The breath of life was breathed into man and he became a living soul. This soul is the essence of man's life, and it reflects God's spirituality, invisibility, and immortality (for though our present bodies die, our souls live on forever). With respect to the soul's relation to the body, Bavinck has these helpful words, "But man is 'soul,' because from the very beginning the spiritual component in him (unlike that of angels) is adapted to and organized for a body...." (Reformed, p. 556) The soul can exist apart from the body, for the souls of all humans who have died are either in heaven or hell, but man, who became a "living soul" when the spiritual was breathed into the physical body, is incomplete without both. The soul was designed for a body and the body for a soul. To kill a human, then, is an attack upon his very soul, and since a human cannot be without this part of the image, he always deserves the dignity due God's images while he is alive.

Mentioning the soul's relationship to the body brings us to the third aspect of the image of God in man (also under the category of the image as structure), and it is the body. When the breath of life was breathed into Adam's body, his being became a "living soul" created in God's image. Man, not merely the soul of man, was created in God's image. Man's essence is the soul, but that soul was psychically organized for a body. Therefore the body is not a prison and not without inherent value, but it is a beautiful creation of God; created to exist in harmony with the soul as man reflects God's image. To put it another way, it is not the material substance of the body that is the image of God for God has no body, but the body is the image of God in that it is organized for the soul—is an organ of the soul. As Berkhof puts it, the body was created "as the fit instrument for the self-expression of the soul." (Systematic, p. 205) Furthermore, the body may be marred by sin and susceptible to death because of sin but even it, like the soul, is destined for immortality. In the final resurrection all bodies (those of believers and non-) will be raised from the dead (Dn. 12:2; Ac. 24:15) and spend eternity in either the Lake of Fire (Re. 20:15) or the New Heavens and New Earth (2 Pt. 3:13). Therefore, the Bible presents murder as the destruction of the body (Mt. 10:28) and as the destruction of the image of God in man (Ge. 9:6). To cause the death of a human, at any stage of development, is to murder a being made in the image of God—a being that deserves the dignity due God's images. (There are obviously ethical implications here, like withdrawing care from a terminally ill human, which I do not have the time or space to discuss. For further reading on such ethical issues, I would suggest Bioethics and the Christian Life by David VanDrunen.)

With the fourth aspect of the image of God as structure in man we get to what we could call "human faculties." Even though the image of God in man is much more than the faculties possessed by man (as shown above), it does include the basic faculties of the heart, the mind, and the will or, as Berkhof puts it, the natural affections, the intellectual power, and moral freedom. While the soul is the essence of man's life, the Scriptures present the heart as the organ of man's life, not only in the physical sense but also in the metaphorical sense, i.e. as the ultimate source of man's emotions, desire, willing, thinking, and knowing. Indeed, as Solomon put it, from the heart flows "the springs of life." (Pro. 4:23) But, the heart of man, from which all these things flow, is organized by the mind. Bavinck explains, "The heart is the seat of all emotions, passions, urges, inclinations, attachments, desires, and decisions of the will, which have to be led by the mind...." (Reformed, p. 557) In these things, man images God by reflecting His faculties of affections, intellect, and will, and there may even be a trinitarian reflection in these faculties. Augustine saw these three as an analogy mirroring the Trinity. In his work On the Trinity, he compares God the Father being the fountainhead of the Godhead to the heart being the fountainhead of the mind and will, and he likewise argues that the mind and will are analogous to God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (respectively). While that might be reading a little too much into this aspect of the image of God, it is clear from Scripture that man images God in his unique abilities of heart, mind, and will, and, again, deserves to be treated with the dignity and respect due God's images.

The fifth and final aspect of the image of God in man (again, the image as structure) is what some have called the "covenant theology account of the image of God" or the "representative aspect." In the twentieth century a lot of research was done on the covenants of the cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE), of which the Israelite culture was one. When those covenants were compared to the biblical covenants that God made with His people there were many striking similarities (much of this research was done and applied to biblical covenants by Meredith Kline). It should not surprise us that God would pattern His covenants after covenants that His people would know for He generally relates to us in ways we can understand. And, the covenants of Scripture (particularly the book of Deuteronomy) are patterned after a common type of covenant made between kings known as a "suzerain-vassal treaty." A suzerain was a powerful king and a vassal was a lesser king. In these treaties, the suzerain pledged to protect and establish the vassal, and the vassal pledged submission and allegiance to the suzerain. (We do not have the time or space to talk about these treaties in detail, so for more reading I recommend this essay by Kline as a good place to start and perhaps follow it up with his book Treaty of the Great King.) In such a relationship, the suzerain had an ambassador whom he would send to the far countries of his vassals to represent him, and this ambassador was called "the Image." The Image would have the authority of the suzerain among his vassals. When the Image came, it was as if the suzerain himself had come. This was the context in which Moses wrote that humans are the images of God. This historical context shows us that being the image of God means that man is God' representative here on earth and should be treated with due dignity. And, there is another important piece of information that the studies of ANE covenants have revealed. When the Egyptian Pharaohs were the suzerains (and remember, Moses was raised as the grandson of a Pharaoh, cf. Ex. 2:10), they would intentionally choose an Image who was deformed or had some other major physical flaw that would normally put them at the bottom of society. They did this to see if their vassals would treat their Image (who in himself would have been valued as less than nothing by society) with the same dignity and respect as they would treat the suzerain himself, which would be a test of their loyalty. Now, the implications for us are clear. Humans are God's images—His representatives. God puts before us the weak and vulnerable, the afflicted and handicap, and the inconvenient and burdensome as His images in the forms of unborn children, infants, the mentally handicap, and the degenerating elderly. How will we treat them? Even if a human being does not have the full or higher use of his heart, mind, and will, it does not mean he does not bear God's image. He is still God's representative. Perhaps he was put before us as a test from our Suzerain as the Pharaohs tested their vassals. Will we treat them with the same dignity and respect as is due the Suzerain of whom they are the Image?

So, those are the aspects of the image of God in humanity: original righteousness (knowledge, righteousness, and holiness); the soul; the body; the human faculties of heart, mind, and will; and representation of God on earth. And, I believe the last one is of particular importance. The other aspects may be more or less visible; they may vary in degrees. All humans, however, represent the Great Suzerain King. Society may be tempted to look at its inconvenient and burdensome members and try to say they are "sub-human" or "non-persons," but God, our great Suzerain, has put them before as His images. Will we treat them with all the dignity and respect they are due?

There is one more loose end to tie up, and that is how sin has affected the image of God in man. As stated above, it is helpful to distinguish between the image of God as direction and the image of God as structure. Since man is fallen and dead in sin, the image of God as direction is basically lost. His original righteousness is all but gone (see above where I discuss this aspect), and he is in rebellion against God. Man, however, still retains the image of God as structure. He still has his soul, body, faculties, and representation. Now, these too have been wholly defiled because of sin (Ge. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Ro. 3:10-12; 8:7; 1 Co. 2:14; Eph. 2:1-3; Tt. 1:15), but the image of God is still there and God still commands that it be given the respect and dignity it is due (cf. Ge. 9:6; Js. 3:9).

As stated in my previous post on the Gosnell case, only returning to the biblical view of man as created in the image of God will place us in a context where abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are unacceptable. All other definitions of "human" or "person" will always exclude some class, race, or developmental stage of humanity and open the door for any number of atrocities (history has shown us this and at present such atrocities are performed every day in abortion clinics across the world). As is almost always the case: right thinking and right doctrine begets right action, and wrong thinking and wrong doctrine begets wrong action. When defending the sanctity of life, let us defend it not just because it is life but because it is life that bears God's image and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

By His Grace,

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