Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pondering the Image of God

After reading my sediba paper, one of my students asked, "Why would God allow such similarities between His created Image and another portion of Creation?" Great question. I don't have the answer, but if we reflect a little on the image of God, we might begin to understand the question a little better.

First of all, the concept of the "image of God" appears most prominently in Genesis 1: 26-27:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(ESV)
The image of God also appears in Genesis 9:6, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image" (ESV). It has a few obvious parallels, as in Genesis 1, all animals and plants are made "according to their kind." Also in Genesis 5:3, "When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth" (ESV).

The Hebrew term for "image" in these passages is tselem, which is also used for statues or idols in other passages in the Old Testament, which carries with it the idea of being a representative of something else. In Ancient Near Eastern, the concept of "image of god" was almost exclusively applied to royalty, implying that the "image of god" relates to power or authority. Regarding the question of what the biblical "image of God" actually is, I'd like to quote a passage from Raymond C. Van Leeuwen in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (vol. 4, pp. 644):
There is a long history of efforts to understand 'the image of God' as an aspect or function in humans that sets them off from other creatures and in terms of which they are 'like God.' ... The image is properly understood as referring to the entire human, not a part or property. In recent research, Stendebach discerns two main lines of interpretation of the image. First, humankind is God's representative upon earth, given the task of dominion over the nonhuman creation. The second model sees humankind as God's counterpart ... so that a dialogical relation between God and humankind exists.
If we think of the image of God as an "aspect or function" of humans, we can run into problems. On the one level, equating the image of God with some quality or qualities that we think make us superior to animals (reasoning ability, communication ability, etc.) raises the possibility that we can lose the image of God. Newborn babies have no reasoning or communication ability, but no one would deny that they are made in the image of God. Perhaps we could broaden our understanding of these qualities to include their potentialities, which would include the very young. But potentialities would not encompass the very old who have lost their faculties or the mentally challenged who have no potential to gain them. Basically, there will always be a minority of individuals who lack whatever qualities we equate with the image of God.

On the other hand, by adopting the image of God advocated by biblical scholars who are sensitive to the text and context of scripture, then we can see that our resemblance to God could well be our position as rulers of this creation. We are in His image because He made us to have dominion over creation. We are His representatives, His "idols," in creation. In that sense, our resemblance to certain animal creations becomes less problematic. The image of God is not something we possess as much as it is something we are. By mere virtue of being human, we are the image of God on earth. All those descendants of Adam and Eve share equally in that image. This understanding of the image does not explain why there are animals so similar to us, but it makes similar animals less troubling because the image is not a part of our physical makeup.

Contrast this biblical understanding of the image of God with Kenneth Samples's from RTB's podcast on the Neandertal genome:
Most Christian theologians I think are comfortable ... making a distinction between what we call the natural image and the moral image. The moral image would be that Adam and Eve would have some kind of inherent righteousness and holiness. That would be the moral image. The natural image would be things like Adam and Eve's rational capacity, their volitional capacity to make moral choices, spiritual, relational, and then, of course, this ability to take dominion over the world in which they lived. That would be the natural image. Now a very important component in Christian theology is how is the image of God impacted by sin, by the Fall? Well, I think most evangelical theologians would say that the moral nature is obliterated. There is a loss of inherent righteousness and holiness, but that the natural image would be effaced but not erased. So humans after the Fall are still made in the image of God but less like God than they once were, and of course, something that doesn't get a lot of discussion, and I think it's critical, is that the process of salvation is God restoring us to that original image.
That concept of two images that Samples says "most Christian theologians are comfortable" with is actually a Wesleyan conception. Actually, John Wesley originally distinguished three images: the natural image, the moral image, and the political image (our position as rulers of creation). Of these three images, the political image is the most consistent with our best understanding of the biblical text as described above. The natural image and moral image, while not anti-biblical by any means, are certainly not biblical. They are philosophical constructs added to the text, and they are not necessarily the understanding held by "most Christian theologians." They're definitely not the conception held by actual biblical scholars.

As I listened to Samples, I immediately began thinking of those who lack these qualities of rationality, etc. that Samples equates with the natural image, but he was prepared. Talking about giving presentations like this in public, Samples said,
I often have people who have Down syndrome children, they come to me... I think they... you know, when you talk about these wonderful abilities that we have as human beings, you know, rational, volitional, spiritual, relational, and then they recognize in their own children that, you know, these kids don't reflect some of these characteristics to the level that the rest of human beings do, you know, they wonder about that. And I would argue, of course, that Down syndrome kids are still made in the image of God, that obviously something has impacted their physic ability to experience these kinds of things.
That's not actually an argument, though. It's just an assertion. In contrast, I would argue that they are made in the image of God regardless of what qualities they possess or lack because the image of God is not a quality. It's a position that we hold by being human (i.e., descended from Adam and Eve).

So what does Samples do with human/animal hybrids, which RTB now openly acknowledges?
How would this factor in, if a Neanderthal, which is not made in the image of God, which was an animal, had sexual relations with a human being that is made in the image of God, what might the impacts be?
...
If there were offspring from this, there would be minimal effect on the image of God.
...
I don't see this as having any profound impact on the image of God.
Amazing. So despite the fact that he wants to make the image of God a quality of humans, he doesn't see the mixing of humans and Neandertals as any problem to this position. A creature that was half human and half animal does not bother him, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. If he denies the implications of his position for the "differently abled," I suppose it's not all that shocking that he would deny the enormous problems that human/animal hybrids create. Notice also that he doesn't walk us through his logic, and he doesn't explain the rationality behind his assertions. He just declares that human/animal hybrids are not a problem and expects us to take his word for it. Sorry, that's not good enough.

Meanwhile, my young-age creationist understanding of Neandertals and the image of God avoids all of these theological contortions. I see Neanderthals as a species (or subspecies, if you must) that is descended from Adam and Eve. They are human. I don't have to wonder about what happens to the image of God when Homo sapiens and Neandertals interbreed because they are both made in the image of God.

Most bewildering of all, Hugh Ross and company conclude their podcast patting themselves on the back at how much the Neandertal genome falsifies young age creationism and evolution and how it helps them develop their own model. I think in this assessment, I've shown precisely the opposite. By accepting the evidence of Neanderthal/sapiens hybridization, RTB has falsified then ignored their own previous claims, misquoted research to attack a straw man young-age creationist position, advocated mindboggling non sequiturs, and shrugged off huge theological problems. That is not a position I would want to be in.

Meanwhile, young-age creationism will warmly embrace this new evidence from the Neanderthal genome. Interbreeding with Neanderthals? We weren't surprised at all.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.