3.3.4 ‘In the image of God’: introduction

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Unit 3 Contents

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We now focus on the statement in the first biblical text set in the last reading, Gen. 1, that humans beings, male and female, are made ‘in the image of God’.  What does this mean?  In the Bible turn again to Genesis 1 (or access it here) and keep it open as we look at this vital topic.

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Reflection

Look specifically at vv. 26-28.  From these verses, what do you think it means that humans are made ‘in the image of God’?  Do you recall what was said about this in Unit 2?

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For a very long period in Christian history, all the way from the early centuries right up until the twentieth century, this text was interpreted mainly in terms of human reason.  Most theologians argued that it is the human mind – the capacity to exercise reason or rationality, the intellect – which marks us out as made ‘in the image of God’ and distinguishes us from other animals.

The basic argument for this can be put as follows.  God himself can be described as acting in accordance with reason – because God’s actions, Christians affirm, are always consistent with God’s inherent qualities, such as love, justice and mercy.  God is consistent and trustworthy, and so can be said to be characterized by perfect reason.  In creating human beings, God gives them, uniquely, a capacity for reason that reflects God’s own reason, even if far from fully.  It is in this respect that we are in God’s image.

This interpretation has a lot going for it.  Few would deny that the human capacity for rationality is immeasurably greater than in any other creature on earth, even though contemporary zoology has been discovering much evidence of capacities for intelligent behaviour and communication in other animals.  (If you are interested in this, you could begin to pursue it by looking at articles in the ‘Animal Intelligence’ category on Wikipedia.)

Moreover, use of reason is central in everything we do, including all deliberate action and communication.  It is bound up with being responsible for what we do and say, and so for being self-consistent – in a way that can mirror, if only dimly, God’s perfectly consistency.

This way of interpreting ‘image of God’ is expressed plainly by St Thomas Aquinas, the hugely influential medieval theologian whom I mentioned in both Unit 1 and Unit 2.  He argued that “to be [in] the image of God belongs to the mind only.”  This quotation comes from the following optional reading.

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Optional reading (3pp)

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 93, Art 6:

Whether the image of God is in man as regards the mind only

Note

Like all the many articles in the vast Summa Theologiae by Aquinas, this one is set out in the following order:

  • first, there are a number of objections to the proposition that Aquinas will argue for;
  • second, there is a statement of this proposition and some explanation of and argument for it;
  • third, there are responses to the objections he began with.

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However, whether this interpretation really does justice to what we find in Genesis 1 has been very much challenged during the past century.  The argument against it is not that it is wrong in itself, but that it misses some really important things and therefore leads to misunderstanding overall.

A first objection is that there is nothing in the text of Genesis 1 itself that refers explicitly to reason as the key to understanding ‘image of God’.  A second objection is that the focus on reason picks out one aspect of humanness, our minds, and says that it is this bit that is made ‘in God’s image’ – not the whole person with all the dimensions of our humanness.  In short, what about the fact that we are bodily, and that we have hearts, not just minds?

A third objection is related to both the first two, but is more philosophical.  Even though, as you might recall from Unit 1, Christianity clearly rejected Gnosticism early in its history and strongly affirmed the goodness of created nature (see 1.2.3), the Christian tradition continued to be greatly influenced by Platonist thought, which was more or less a mild form of Gnosticism, in that it presented the life of the mind as superior to bodily life.  It was in the context of this influence from ancient Greek philosophy that it seemed entirely normal for Aquinas (and many others) to privilege reason in his understanding of humanness.  The objection to this is precisely that it did not reflect Scripture, but occurred because, at a much earlier time, the Christian tradition had gone too far in embracing Platonist ways of thinking.

In contrast to an exclusive emphasis on reason in interpreting ‘image of God’, two main points have emerged as scholars’ understanding of this text has developed.  I referred to these briefly in Unit 2 (2.2.3).  You will now look at each of them more fully, on the next two screens.  These give background for the reading you are then asked to do, which is the Compendium’s short discussion of ‘the image of God’.

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End of 3.3.4

Go to 3.3.5 In the image of God’: (a) dominion in the good creation

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