This series (1st post, 2nd post, 3rd post) was prompted by some reader questions on the blog, but in parallel I was discussing some of the same issues via e-mail with theologian Mike Stell. Mike is an ESN contributor. He and I met in person at last summer’s BioLogos conference, and we struck up a correspondence on some of the topics that came up at that meeting. For a change of pace, I thought I’d address the image of God question with some excerpts from that e-mail conversation.
[T]his is exactly the issue which many people have with talking about human beings as “creations” of the evolutionary process. It is not just that it has exegetical problems, it seems to diminish our understanding of ourselves in the order of the universe. And our place in the order of the universe seems to be exactly at the heart of the exegetical issue. How can we call ourselves beings which are created in the image of God, when we are saying that we cannot even distinguish our creation from that of the animals?
I think it is reasonable to have questions about what it means to be created in God’s image, and I think it’s legitimate to say that remains something of an open question within the context of an evolutionary natural history. That said, I don’t get the sense that there has ever been a clear consensus on image of God questions regardless of natural history, so I’m not sure that’s a weakness of accepting an evolutionary natural history.
Personally, I have no problem affirming that God created mankind, and that evolutionary biology tells about the mechanism through which he did that — the paintbrushes he used, if you want to be a little poetic. So I have no problem saying God created humans. And if God says that humans bear his image, then we bear his image. So then I don’t see a problem saying that God created man in his image, even if that is a rather simplistic line of thought.
What quality of humanity represents that image? It could be some aspect of our nature which is different in kind from that of other animals, although our observations of animals continue to chip away at attributes to put on that list. (Note that this is independent of evolution — these are observations of living animals.) It could be some aspect of our nature which is different in degree from that of other animals, such as greater self-awareness or a greater capacity for self-sacrificial behavior. It could be a calling rather than a characteristic, in the way that Abraham and the nation of Israel were separate not because of special creation but because of calling.
Recently, I’ve wondered if it is our capacity to be the church; after all, the church is described as the body of Christ, which certainly suggests that the church has some image-bearing quality. Of course, that implies it is humanity in aggregate which is created in the image of God, rather than each individual human, although I think it could also be a both-and situation. And it also implies that humanity didn’t actually fully realize that image-bearing capacity until after the incarnation (and maybe still hasn’t); I’m not sure if that’s a problem.
All of that is largely independent of evolution. When we add an evolutionary natural history, I think the main question is when exactly humanity became image bearers, or alternatively who the first image bearer was. Some people think that man evolved biologically, but that our rational mind / soul was given to us separately in a special act, and that’s when we became image bearers. In this scenario, Adam and Eve may well have been the first people to receive this capacity even if they weren’t the only biological humans at the time.
If the image-bearing properties are different by degree in humans rather than in kind, then as with so many properties, things probably get fuzzy at the edges. We can say modern humans have the image of God property(s), and we can hypothesize that, say, Homo habilis did not have it, but there may not be a specific individual that, on a specific date, became the first to bear the image of God. That is admittedly somewhat unsatisfying, but then again so many attempts at categorization and classification wind up as unsatisfying at the edges. (Is that really so different from our attempts to differentiate the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?)
If being image bearers is a calling, then we’re back to a scenario where Adam and Eve may very well have been historically the first people to receive this calling.
I think for me, the weakness of the evolutionary natural history in regards to the image of God is that it seems like it is something for which there is no account. While I admit there is argument over the exact theological significance of what it means to be created in the image (and likeness – some people want to separate the two) of God, there is seems to be an account for its existence – God created man in his image. …
I don’t disagree that there is a sense in which we just rest on the revelation of Scripture to say that we are in fact created in the image of God. I guess I am only trying to piece together this historical way that man has been thought about in relation to God’s creative activity and the image of God.
Ed. note: while it is true that the interpretation of the creation story in Genesis is widely varied, the question of Adam’s historicity as a real human being and his status as God’s special creation has a long history of interpretation, even outside of the New Testament. Much of this early thinking about Adam was connected to the incarnation of the Word and his status as the creator. See for instance, Athansius’s De Incarnatione Verbi Dei. This continues into the Middle Ages with the most famous of Anselm’s books, Cur Deus Homo. The first few chapters of Genesis were a common text which many of the medieval theologians cut their teeth on, so there is actually quite a bit of material available. As much as they followed a method which is very different from the literal interpretation common today, they, with rare exception, think of Adam as a real human being, and we are his direct descendant. The Reformers and subsequent generations of Biblical commentators follow suit, and it is really not until Darwin enters the scene that the idea of a non-literal Adam is even considered a possibility. I add this here to give some weight to the comment of historical interpretation – Mike
If man is a special creation, which it seems like interpretive history would want to say, the image of God was just a part of that creation. To place man in the same creative stream as everything else seems to complicate that connection. I think that is the issue for many – there is no alternative narrative which seems to account for this – that is what we need to create. And there is precedent – the issue of the sun vs. the earth as the center of the universe. I think there needs to be more work done on how this narrative was created – because the medieval mind placed the earth at the center because it was the home of man, God’s special creation. I don’t think we really appreciate how unsettling to the medieval mind it was to say that we were simply one rock among many (and not even the first rock, but the 3rd!) orbiting the sun. It was not just a question of interpretation of the Bible, but of the interpretation of man’s place in God’s creation. That we could do that, and now no one questions that it did not remove man from his status as God’s special creation in my mind, should provide us with a way forward. …
I absolutely think you are on the right track with the question of the Church and the image of God. I am convinced that we have made the whole of the Christian faith to be individualistic. I think that the question of the image of God being something that is done in humanity, or to humanity, in the incarnation is absolutely right. But, that is not the standard theological motif of evangelical Protestantism. It is however, a key component in John Nevin’s thinking and I might add, of the Eastern fathers. I think Western theology missed something and is struggling to return to it. My own view is that this will help us move forward in this whole discussion of evolution and mankind. But that is another topic for another e-mail series. Just one thought – if the incarnation is connected to the image of God, I don’t think we have to think of the incarnation or the image of God from the perspective of sin. It would rather be about something else – a plan that God is realizing in creation and this in my mind works well with evolutionary thinking because it thinks about humanity as it is now (Ed. note: this means both pre and post-fall – Mike) as a temporary state – there is something higher (better, add the adjective of your choice) which is still coming. The first human to be this next stage was Christ, in his resurrected state. And we will be like him, when we experience the resurrection. Humanity will be transformed – will be evolved, if you will. … One of the few people to think in these terms in the 20th century was C.S. Lewis. He conceived of the supernatural as the next step in evolutionary progression. I think he was on to something in thinking in these terms.
This conversation on the relationship between an evolutionary natural history and man’s creation in the image of God reminds me of a saying in the world of software engineering: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”
You are absolutely right to say that we currently lack a clear and widely accepted narrative of the image of God in the context of an evolutionary natural history. However, I don’t see that as particularly troublesome. From my perspective, humanity’s imagedness has always been a fuzzy concept. And since it isn’t extensively covered in the text of Scripture, our understanding of it has always relied heavily on inference from science to tell us what makes man distinct. If we already rely on science to tell us what is distinct about humans, having more data that speaks to that question can only be a good thing. An evolutionary natural history can only improve our doctrine on the image of God by refining what that actually means, even if only by ruling out what it is not.
On that score, all evolutionary biology rules out is that humanity’s uniqueness lies in the means of our creation. We were created by the same process as every other living thing. But then again, that’s largely the case with special creation as well. In the special creation model, every living thing is the product of special creation. There may be distinctive details to the process, but they are veiled; the whole point of special creation is that the details are unknown or unknowable. At the very abstract level of what is knowable, all of special creation is the same; only the end product is different. And so we are left to draw inferences on the end products — but of course we are able to do that exact same thing under an evolutionary model as well.
Alternatively, one can appeal to some form of dualism, as you noted. Regardless of how humanity’s biological form came to be, if what constitutes our image is a separate soul/spirit then the narrative of creation in God’s image can center on that aspect. Of course, such a narrative needs to say when we get souls, where they come from, and all the other aspects that you mentioned, and those are more complicated questions in an evolutionary natural history. Still, it is an option.
If anything, I think the bigger challenge for understanding humanity’s creation in the image of God is our growing appreciation for the capabilities of various animal species. In various corners of the animal kingdom, one can find examplars of intelligence, cooperation, toolmaking, communication, dominion over the environment, and all the other traits we like to think make us special as humans. Differences still exist, to be sure, but they are largely differences of degree rather than kind.
In that context, even our communal activities as a church have some analogues elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Still, I think a focus on the church as image-bearers is fruitful if only because it shifts the focus away from what makes us special as individuals.
Next week, we’ll consider the topic of original sin with some more excerpts from my conversation with Mike.