We ought to reject any narrative that tells us that “those other people”—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, cops, protesters, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals—are as bad as the worst people of their kind. We should not curse people made in the likeness of God. More than that, we should have a good reason before we castigate them too.
This is part two in a four-part series on thinking theologically about racial tensions. I posted an introductory piece last week. Prior to this series, I also wrote a post on race and American history.
The image of God seems like an obvious and already agreed upon foundation for talking about race, but it has more to teach us and more ways to correct us than we might at first realize.
The doctrine itself is multifaceted. Considering its significance as a theological concept—highlighted three times in the opening chapters of Genesis (1:26-28; 5:1-2; 9:6-7)—the image of God has not always been easy to define.
Older theologians tended to emphasize the structural aspects of the image of God. They viewed man’s capacity for intelligence, rationality, morality, beauty, and worship as that which distinguishes us from the animals. Even in unborn babies and persons with severe impairments, there is still a unique human capacity for these qualities, however limited by physical or psychological constraints.
More recent theologians have focused on the functional aspects of the image of God. That is, they identify God’s image less with our essence than with our ethics. According to passages like Romans 8:29 (“predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”) and 1 Corinthians 15:49 (“as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven”), the image of God is not just what we have, it is our eschatological goal—what we are called to do and be (1 John 3:2-3).
Both aspects teach us something important about the image of God, but the Bible allows us to say much more about the functional (what we do) than the structural (what we have). Note, then, three further dimensions of how we live out the image of God.
First, human beings are representatives of God. Just as an ancient king would place statues of himself throughout his realm, marking his ownership and rule, so our presence as image bearers in the world marks out the earth as belonging to God. Further, as representatives, we are called to be rulers and stewards. We are set apart from the animals in that we are given “dominion over the works of [his] hands” (Psalm 8:6; Gen. 1:28).
Second, human beings are made to be in relationship with God. Unique among his creatures, Adam was created for covenant (Hos. 6:7). As Michael Horton observes, the image of God is not something in us as much as it is something between us and God (p. 381). To be an image bearer is to be the sort of creature who can know, serve, and self-consciously worship the Creator.
Third, human beings are made to reflect the righteousness of God. The New Testament defines the image of God as true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; WCF 4.2). Although sin has marred the divine image in man, we can still be renewed by God in Christlikeness so as to increasingly reflect his image (Col. 3:9-10).
This last point needs to be underscored. We will not understand what it means to be made in the image of God unless we know Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15-20). The gospel is the message about the “glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4-6), and by his Spirit we can be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (3:17-18). In other words, the image of God is now, first, and foremost about Christ.
The Image of God and Race
That’s only the briefest overview of a massive topic. But with enough of the big ideas in place, we can think about the implications of the imago dei for race and racism. Here are applications worth considering:
First, and most obviously, the image of God speaks to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We should not breeze by this foundational point. For starters, while the world talks often about individual worth and dignity, it is unclear upon what basis secular voices can make such an assertion. Is there any ontological and universal reason that every human being should be treated with respect? Does the worth of each person exist prior to and independent of our personal or legal determination? These are questions that the Christian doctrine of the image of God can answer. Secular assumptions do not rest on the same secure footing.
Furthermore, the sad reality is that at times Christians have denied or overlooked the image of God in those they deemed to be inferior. Sometimes this was accomplished by simply positing that the “other” was less than human. It could also be accomplished by locating the image of God structurally in, for example, the intellectual attributes, so that if you think the “other” is by nature intellectually inferior, then they also share in less of the image of God. In many occasions, however, the imago dei in the “other” has been affirmed on a basic dogmatic level without really penetrating the heart.
We saw in the theological survey above that the image of God can be considered something we grow into, but on another level it is something inherently true of every human being—black and white, young and old, in the womb and out of the womb. Think of Genesis 9:6, where capital punishment is introduced on the basis of man’s irreducible status as an image bearer. James 3:9 is another key text—“with [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” Here the image admits no degrees. Instead, we are given a universal command that depends on the universality of God’s image and likeness in man.
As I reflect on several racial flashpoints over the past few years, I fear I have been too quick to think to myself, “Yes, of course, image of God. Every Christian already knows that and believes that.” But white Christians in this country have not always believed that, or at least they have not always acted like they really believe it. Slavery in this country was originated in greed more than in racism. As the institution endured, it drew racism out of the human heart. You could argue, tragically, that it was precisely because this country was so Christian that racism became so virulent. Most Americans knew what the Bible required in loving their neighbors as themselves and in respecting the image of God in other human beings. But instead of letting their theology correct their practice, they developed perverse ways to conclude that blacks were, in fact, not their neighbors, not fellow image bearers, and not fully human. For many white Christians, the way to make their Christianity and chattel slavery cohere was to convince themselves that the slave was not the same kind of human being they saw in themselves. Even today, we would all do well to examine our hearts and see if there is any part of us, when encountering someone of a different race or ethnicity, that wonders if we are not actually made of something more refined, more noble, and more divine.
Second, if the image of God reminds us who we are, it also directs us to what we ought to be. As image bearers we were made to know God and be conformed to the image of his Son. This gives us value, but it also gives us a vocation. As John Kilner puts it, the image of God is both our dignity and our destiny.
If we focus only on our worth as image bearers, Christian doctrine can end up sounding the same as any worldly self-esteem mantra. Of course, the Christian has more consistent metaphysical reasons for concluding the same thing, but by itself “Black lives matter” or “All lives matter” captures only one aspect of the imago dei. The image of God is not only what we possess, it is what has been marred and what must be renewed. The image of God gives us dignity, and it gives us direction. It tells us that we matter and what we were made for.
What a wonderful thing it would be to see a recovery of the image of God in our culture, both as an antidote to racism against our fellow human beings and as an antidote to rebellion against God. We do not help people understand the image rightly unless we point them to righteousness, holiness, and a true knowledge of God. The image of God speaks to the worth of all peoples, and it calls every people from every tribe, language, and tongue to worship the One into whose image we must be transformed.