Theology 101

Human Ethics, Religious Freedom, and the Image of God

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For the Christian, every question of human ethics begins in one way or another with the character of God before flowing inevitably to the beliefs and behaviors of humanity which has been made in the image of God.

What we believe concerning God necessarily forms our understanding of the duties he requires of us. The doctrine of Imago Dei is intensive and extensive at once, in that it says something about the whole of the human and the whole of humanity. It speaks to more than one human faculty such as reason or creativity or language by speaking to all that is human.

Understanding the Image of God

What is the image of God? It is what the human is. Whenever we consider the unique qualities of humanity, we are recognizing aspects of the image of God that find expression in his image. As such we can acknowledge human sense of meaning and purpose as derived from the human status as a creature that bears the image of the creator.

The creation account in Genesis 1 retells the origin of the cosmos as if it were an ancient Near Eastern building program. Depicted as a king constructing his throne room, God completes the two-part construction of the heavens and the earth, with each domain in good order and properly populated and furnished. The final phase of the program is to place his tselem, “image,” in the sanctuary, much as a representation of the deity would have been placed in sanctuary complexes around the ancient world.

Like the creator God in whose image they are made, man and woman are commissioned to have dominion over the world as stewards of the cosmos and to continue in the furnishing of creation with other images of the creator (Gen 1:28; Ps 8:3-9). In this way, it is the responsibility of the image of God to continue in the work of the divine creator and sustainer, filling out the throne room in a way that is fitting for the king.

The totality of the command to fill and subdue the earth gets at what it means to be image of God, that is, to be human.

The Dignity and Responsibility of Humanity

There are two significant implications for our focus here. First, the dignity and the responsibility of humanity as the image of God is necessarily derived from the Creator, meaning that it does not reside in humanity itself but rather in the God whom humanity images. Second, it follows from the first that humanity’s status as the image of God is irrevocable. The image of God is part of God’s creation which he has declared “very good” and he has not rescinded that judgment (Gen 1:31). Even the condemnation of the Fall of humanity does not turn back the quality of humanity as images.

For John Calvin, the derivational quality of the image meant that whenever human dignity or industry were honored or acknowledged, God himself was being glorified. Likewise, the persistence of the image of God after the Fall meant that all humans, even the ardent atheist or the antagonistic apostate was deserving of the dignity and honor as an image of God.

We are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love…Say that [a man] does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, III, 7.6.)

One striking element about the history of redemption as it is recounted in the scriptures is that in spite of the clear distinction between the redeemed and the condemned, all humans are images of God and deserving of dignity. For theologian Herman Bavinck, a person does not bear the image of God but merely is the image of God, as he explains in Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2:

In our treatment of the doctrine of the image of God, then, we must highlight, in accordance with Scripture and the Reformed confession, the idea that a human being does not bear or have the image of God but that he or she is the image of God. As a human being a man is the son, the likeness, or offspring of God.

This is what it means to be human. When humans desire a thing, their desire has meaning. When they yearn, when they pursue, when they choose one thing over another, such actions also have meaning and speak to a broader truth. We should not be surprised that humans of all animals are the only ones to erect monuments to meaning, whether in the form of a hero, an accomplishment, or an abstract idea.

The Value of Human Reason

The human world is a haunted world, inhabited by the spirit of progression, purpose, goal, sublimity, and horror. Humans alone speak of things being evil or being wondrous, and the biblical authors reject any notion that such categories can be merely understandable in the “immanent frame.” For the biblical authors, human activity is understood to be subject to divine agency (Gen 15:20; Prov 16:9; 16:33; Acts 17:28), and yet the character of that agency defies human understanding.

While we might understand certain beliefs and behaviors to derive from certain biological processes or solidarity with the species, these sources cannot be the origination of the belief or behavior, but rather they are “secondary causes,” contingencies ultimately put into play by primary divine cause. While they may explain the feelings that attend to such a sense of meaning, they can only do so in the local sense. In the biblical perspective, each secondary cause reflects the transcendent character of God that is known in some capacity or another by all humans who are made in his image.

While the notion of the image of God does not speak directly to religious freedom, it does shed light on the value of human reason, volition, and agency. If humans are understood as just another animal, devoid of the dignity and purpose derived from the Creator then the discussion of religious liberty becomes arbitrary as in whether one ought to dress up their poodle in a polka dot sweater. The dog’s taste doesn’t really matter.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All (Abilene Christian University Press, 2019). Save $10, while supplies last! Order here.

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