Friday, 26 June 2015

What Does It Mean To Be Human: Imago Dei in the Light of Science and Technology

This was an essay for the Theology: God and creation paper, which asked "What does it mean to be made in the Image of God? Discuss in light of Contemporary Concerns." This was one I did in my second year.


Throughout human history, humans have asked questions like “who are we?” and “what does it mean to be human?” The answer to these questions in Christian theology is based on the concept of imago dei: humans are created in the image and likeness of God. It is a concept which has been important to Christian theology throughout the churches history (although it has not been as much so to the Jews.[1]) However, the understandings of this doctrine have been challenged in recent years in light of recent development in technologies and new discoveries in the realm of science. It is therefore important that as Christians we wrestle with these new issues to insure that our theology around imago dei is robust. This essay unpacks what is meant by the doctrine of imago dei. It will first look at the biblical base which this doctrine is built on and the way which it has been understood throughout the Church’s history.  It will then look at some of the advances in science and technology which challenge traditional understandings of the doctrine, before concluding where this leaves the doctrine today.




The Biblical foundation for Imago dei

   Any understanding of “Image of God” must start with the biblical passages which deal with the topic. The most important passage is Genesis 1:26-27, where it’s stated that man and women were created in the image (Hebrew: selem[2]) and likeness (Hebrew: demut) of God. There have been many different interpretations of what “image of God” means, which will be explored fully later. While some believe that image and likeness are two separate concepts, others see then as synonyms.[3]  Most however, hold that the likeness is less important than image, hence it is left out later.[4] Firstly, it means that humans are God’s representatives on Earth.[5] However, this does not stop God being totally holy, or other. Also, in many ancient near eastern cultures, the king would be considered to the image of God.[6] This passage is therefore affirming that all humanity, not just a select few, hold this honour. It can also be seen to contrast other creatures that are created “according to their kinds.”[7] It thus sets humans apart from all other creatures. Yet the fact that we are created imago dei within the created order shows that was can come to some knowledge of God through the created order.[8] Image and likeness means that human are like God, but also that they represents God on Earth.

   We must consider what it means when God says “let us make them in our image.” Many understand the “our” to be the hosts of Heaven: God and his angels.[9] However, this view is problematic, as it would mean that ether 1) humans are created in the image and likeness of both God and angels[10] or 2) that angels are created in the image and likeness of God. Both these understandings are problematic when pushed to their logical conclusions. There is little biblical evidence to suggest that angels are created in the image of God. Furthermore, one of the arguments as to why God saves humanity and not angels is because humans are created in the image of God and angels are not.[11]Could humans than be created in the image of both God and angels? Not according to Genesis 1:27 which states that God made humans in his image, and not also that of angels. Others have argued that God the father is speaking to God the son: that this implies the trinity.[12] However, this is not what the original author would have meant.[13] The most likely interpretation is the “plural of deliberation,” which is like someone saying to themselves, “Let’s go.[14]” 


   An important question is “to what degree was the image lost or damaged as a result of the fall?” Related is the question “what is the difference between the image and the likeness of God?” Early in the Church’s history, the image and likeness were separated.[15] With this separation, came the idea that while humans had retained one of the characteristics after the fall, the other had been lost.[16] Tertulllian believed that humans kept the image of God after the fall, but lost the likeness, which was restored in baptism.[17] Orgain believed that while humans were made in God’s image, it was only through Christ that they could become like God.[18] However, given that God forbid murder based on the image (Gen 9:6-7), the best understanding is that while the image was damaged in the fall, it was not totally lost.

   While this is the most important Old Testament text regarding the Image of God there are others. Later in Genesis, when Adam has a son, the son is describes as being in the likeness and image of Adam. (Gen 5:3) This shows that both the image and likeness of God contained after the fall, and have been passed on to all humanity. Another passage which is important is Genesis 9:6-7, where God says that it is wrong to kill a human, because they are made in the image of God. The idea that a person’s punishment should fit the crime was fundamental to Old Testament law,[19] and shows that humans still are image bearers. It shows the great importance of the human life in the biblical narrative. Psalm Eight also reflects on the place which humans hold in Gods cosmos, as being just “a little lower than heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5).

   In the New Testament, Christ is described as being the “Image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4, Col 1:15) While all humanity still has the image and likeness (James3:9), it is most fully expresses in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 11:7, Paul says that males are the image and glory of God, but females are the glory of man. Clearly, this is a challenge to Morden egalitarians like ourselves. However, Paul deliberately avoids says that women are the image of man. Therefore, it is probably talking more about the relationship which exists within marriage rather than the state of maleness and femaleness. While some writers have tried to argue that there is a strong Hellenistic influence on the Pauline concepts, their arguments are unconvincing.[20] Paul says that we are become conformed to the image of the son (Roman 8:29) and that we are to become more Christ-like. (Ephesians 4:23-24) Thus the New Testament understanding rests on a christocentric, eschatological understand: that through Christ, the true image of God, us humans will be restored to also fully reflect the image of God at the eschaton.[21]

Theological understandings of Imago Dei

   There have been many understandings of what it means to be made in the image of God. These fall into three broad categories. The first of these views is the substantive view.[22] Many theologians have gone looking for “something” which is what it is: some defining characteristic. In this context, ideas such as intellect (or reason), language, walking upright, self-consciousness,[23]  tool making, culture, a sense of religion and others have been understood as what the image is. Aquinas argued that as God as an intellectual being, the created order had to include intellectual beings.[24] This has traditionally been the most popular view since the time of Augustine.[25] However, many of these ideas have been challenged in light of advances in science. More will be said of this later. Maybe there is something in humanity which we cannot understand which makes us image bears. If God is totally other, then this would makes since. If God is truly a complex and ultimately an incomprehensible being, then maybe the image is much more complex than just one thing. Thus the image must be something much more dynamic than simple intellect, or one of the other options.

   The second category of understanding the image of God is a relational understanding.[26] God, as trinity is relational in himself. Therefore, as humans are created male and female in relationship with each other, it is in this regarded that we reflect God’s image. This is often known as the social trinity.[27] This is an understanding which goes back to Athanasius, who looked back to the relationship which humans had with God in the Garden of Eden.[28] Grenz in particular has advocated the concept recently, arguing that person is a relational term.[29] Brunner and Barth are two more recent theologians with this understanding.[30] There is something important here. Humans are created uniquely, and have a unique relationship with God.[31]  However, yet again, many of animals are also relational creatures. Angels also, seem to have a relationship with God, although we don’t know to what degree. Thus, while it is true that humans mirror God in his rationality, it cannot be the whole picture. Possibly, it could be a unique relationship which humans have which reflect the image of God.

   A third category for understanding the image of God is a functional view of the image of God.[32] This is a view holds that it is what humans do which reflects the image of God. It is thus linked to the ideas that humans are to have dominion over the earth, and are to be stewards of God’s creation.[33] (Gen. 1:28)  It is thus by representing God that we are his image bearers. This idea is linked with the image in the biblical account, not only in the Genesis one account, but also in Psalm Eight.  While this idea has some merit to it, it is best to see the faction of humanity as a consequence of the image of God, rather than the image itself.[34]

Contemporary challenges to Imago dei: focusing on Science and Technology

   A number of contemporary concerns have affected the way in which we understand the image of God. The postmodern understanding of humanness is one area of new challenge and questions.[35] However, we will here focus on the challenges posed by technological advancements and new scientific understandings. Artificial intelligence is an area of increasing importance, as technology moves towards the possibility of crating consciences. Another area of interest is the area of trans-humans. This is where humans have their abilities increased due to technologies. Some examples are relatively tame, such as glasses and pacemakers, which have been used since the 1950s.[36] But what happens if they get to the point where humans have computer chips implanted in their brains or when Silicon intelligence becomes as common as carbon intelligence?[37] Do they continue to bear the image of God then? If we hold that intelligence is what makes us imago dei, than it could be argued that these will have the image. However, if one holds a more dynamic view of the image, then this less likely to be an issue. While some argue that the complexity which human have will never be reproduced in machines,[38] others point out that machines only represent a western understanding rather than a fully human understanding of what intelligence is.[39] A relational understating of the image of God fits easer with advances in artificial intelligence than other views.[40]

   Another challenge comes from biology, and in particular, evolutionary science. This raises a number of questions around who humans are, as well as questions around the nature of scripture.[41] If we are, as much of the evidence suggest, evolved from other animals, where does that leave the doctrine of humans being made in the image of God?  The more we understand apes in particular, the more we come to realise that many of the characteristic which we thought were exclusively human are not. This includes tool making, culture, and the use of plant for medicine, empathy and self-reorganization.[42] One answer, suggested by Mohioney, is that the image of God is the altruism found in humans. He argues that the need to look after others, which humans have evolved, comes from God.[43] However, this does not take into account the fact than many other animals also have this, and it does not take the biblical text seriously enough. Putz argues that we must expand our understanding of imago dei to include great apes, and possibly other species.[44] However, we must be careful that we do not let our understanding of science tramp the text itself as the priority for interpreting scripture, which is what this argument does. However, where these advances change some of the way which we understand the doctrine, they do not challenge the doctrine itself.

Conclusion

   Being created in the image of God gives humans both great dignitary and great responsibility. As creature who bear God’s image, we reflect the one who creator all things. However, it also makes us responsible as stewards of God’s creation as his representatives on earth. While the challenges of science and technology create new challenges for the ways we think about the image, it does not change the fact that we hold a unique place in God’s universe.  The image of God reflects the fact that we are relational beings: that we have unique abilities to relate to God, creation and each other. However, there is also something deeper and still mysterious about the image of God, just as there is mystery surrounding who the God is who we mirror. To understand the image better, one should look not at the image bearers, but at the one whom the image reflects.



Bibliography


Alexander, T, and Baker, David, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003)

Berkouwer, G.C, Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 1962), 68.

Carson,D.A,  France, R. T. Moyter, J.A and Wenham, G.J, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition ( Leicester: IVP, 1994)

Elwell, Walter, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 591.

Erickson, Millard, Christian Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998)

Grenz, Stanley, The Social God and the Relational Self (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)

Grudum, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Bath: IVP, 2007)

Gunton, Colin, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Hamilton, Victor, The New International Commentary of the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 1990).

Jackelen, Antje, The Image of God as Techno Sapiens” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science; (Jun2002, Vol. 37 Issue 2), accessed electronically 22/10/2010 at http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6832386&site=ehost-live

Louth, Andrew, Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1987)

Mahoney, Jack, “EVOLUTION, ALTRUISM, AND THE IMAGE OF GOD”., in Theological Studies (Sep2010, Vol. 71 Issue 3) Accessed electronically 22/10/2010 at http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=53067279&site=ehost-live 

McGrath, Alistair, A Scientific Theology: Volume One, Nature (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 2001.)




[1] T. Alexander and David Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003), 444.
[2]Victor Hamilton, The New International Commentary of the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 1990), 136.
[3] G.C Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 1962), 68.
[4] Hamilton, 135
[5]Gordon Wenham, World Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 32, Wayne Grudum, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Bath: IVP, 2007), 442-443
[6] Hamilton, 135, Alexander and Baker, 442
[7] Alexander and Baker, 443
[8]  Alistair McGrath, A Scientific Theology: Volume One, Nature (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmas Publishing Company, 2001.) 253.
[9] E.g. Wenham, 2.8
[10] D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A Moyter and G.J. Wenham, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (Leicester: IVP, 1994), 61.
[11] While it is debated whether or not there is salvation for fallen angel (demons), most argue that there is not.
[12] E.g. “The Epistle of Barnabas”, in Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 166, Hamilton, 134, goes for a modification of this approach, which is more likely. 
[13] Wenham, 27
[14] Hamilton, 134
[15] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Fourth Edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 360.
[16] Berkouwer,70
[17] Tertullian in Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, Third Edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 407.
[18] Origen, in McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 407-708. This was because while Genesis confirms that God did make humans in his image, it does not say that he made them in his likeness, but only that he intended to.
[19] Carson, France, Moyter and Wenham, 67
[20]C.F.H Henry “Image of God” in Walter Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 591.
[21] ibid, 592
[22] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 520.
[23] Antje Jackelen, “The Image of God as Techno Sapiens” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science; (Jun2002, Vol. 37 Issue 2), accessed electronically 22/10/2010 at http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6832386&site=ehost-live,  298.
[24] McGrath, A Scientific Theology, 201
[25] Erickson, 521
[26] ibid, 523
[27] Jack  Mahoney, “EVOLUTION, ALTRUISM, AND THE IMAGE OF GOD”., in Theological Studies (Sep2010, Vol. 71 Issue 3) Accessed electronically 22/10/2010 at http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=53067279&site=ehost-live 2
[28] McGrath, Christian Theology, 361-362
[29]  Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 9.
[30] Erickson, 524
[31] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Human being, Individual and Social,” in Colin Gunton, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 163.
[32] Erickson, 527
[33]ibid, 528
[34]ibid, 531
[35] Vanhoozer,167
[36] Jackelen,  290
[37] ibid
[38] ibid,  292
[39] ibid
[40] ibid,  299
[41] McGrath, Christian Theology, 387
[42] Oliver Putz,MORAL APES, HUMAN UNIQUENESS, AND THE IMAGE OF GOD” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science (Sep2009, Vol. 44 Issue 3, p613-624), accessed electronically 22/10/2010 at  http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=45276986&site=ehost-live , 615, 618
[43] Mahoney, 4
[44] Putz, 620

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