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A Publication of

From The Ark No. 193 - Spring 2003

The image of God

Huw Spanner is a freelance editor and writer, who contributes occasional columns to the Independent and regularly thinks for the day on Radio 4. He was the publisher of Third Way magazine from 1993 to 2002.

By Huw Spanner

Even the Devil quotes Scripture for his own ends, so it should not surprise us that history is full of examples of the damage the Bible can do in the wrong hands. It has underwritten, if not actually inspired, iniquities from anti-semitism to the slave trade.

Genesis 1:28, with its language of subjugation and domination, has often been blamed for the shambles the industrialised West has made of much of the natural world. But it is arguable that the preceding verse has done much more extensive, if subtle, harm.

The declaration of Genesis 1, repeated in 5:1 and 9:6, that human beings are made in the image of God appeals to our pride, in much the same way as the snake’s temptation in Genesis 3:5: it seems to say that our very nature is Godlike. Through the centuries, theologians have debated what this means. Origen even suggested that we resemble God physically. Almost everything we have ever thought (or would like to think) peculiar to our kind - that we stand upright, use tools, have language, feel emotion, know right from wrong - has been ascribed to the image of God. (Most crucially, Aristotle’s belief that we alone possess reason, which is the supreme principle in the universe, was quickly incorporated into Christian orthodoxy.)

A parallel logic says that properties we believe to be of the essence of God - for example, that he is a spiritual and personal being - may be found in our kind but will never be found in any other species. Hence, in large part, the dogma that only humans have souls.

Furthermore, given the insistence in the Judaeo-Christian tradition on the absolute otherness of the Creator, the idea that we are Godlike has tended to set us apart from, and even over against, the (rest of) creation.

The ramifications of this thinking are very many. It leads us to reduce other species to ‘mere animals’, and indeed to mere objects and commodities. The idea that they are no more than means to our ends was expressed thus by Ignatius of Loyola: ‘Man is created to praise, reverence and serve God. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining [that] end. Hence, man is to make use of them.’

Some Christians reach a more benign conclusion, that we are called to be stewards (in other words, managers) of the world. Most of us, all the same, are tolerant of such evils as vivisection: after all, what is the life of any number of guinea pigs compared with that of one human being made in ‘the image of God’?

But could that term imply something else? According to the scholar D J A Clines, it ‘is to be understood not so much ontologically as existentially’: that is, it finds expression not in what we are but in what we are to do.

In the ancient Middle East, the title ‘Image of God’ was commonly given to kings. It reflected the belief that they represent God and hold authority in loco Dei. Thus, the reference in verse 27 to the image of God is explained in the mandate that immediately follows it, to subdue the earth and rule over its other inhabitants.

This interpretation is, in fact, now accepted by the overwhelming majority of Old Testament scholars, though perhaps it has yet to percolate to our pews. Its implications are enormous.

For example, though the Bible accepts the principle that kingship is ordained by God, it has no time for the fiction of royal blood. An earthly king is not inherently better than his subjects, or, indeed, other than them. So, Deuteronomy 17:20 teaches that a king is ‘not [to] consider himself better than his brothers’.

It is consonant with this that Genesis 2 tells us that God made all the animals out of the ground (v. 19) and then presses the point that we are ‘of the same substance’ by repeating, 16 times in 25 verses, the name adam, which is a pun on a Hebrew word for ‘soil’. (If the author had been writing in English, perhaps he would have called our ancestor Doug.)

Likewise, as 1 Samuel 16 goes out of its way to stress, even David was chosen out of the lowest ranks of the common people - created king, one might almost say, from the dust of the earth.

If we pursue this idea of kingship, we find, first, that our species is not essentially either better or other than non-human animals (as, indeed, many ‘primitive’ societies believe which are not cocooned and dazzled by advanced technology). This perception restores us to our proper place within Creation. We can no longer suppose that we are really ‘spiritual’ beings temporarily stranded among animals in a world we are told to subdue but do not truly belong to.

Second, this account of the image of God stands on its head our understanding of our dominion. For if it is a role, which is kingship, we can only realise God’s image by exercising that kingship in the way God exercises his. And on this point the Bible is very clear: God is a servant king. To ‘all he has made’, Psalm 145 tells us he is gracious, compassionate, good, faithful, loving, generous, and protective. In Genesis 1, his characteristic acts are to create, to appreciate, and to bless.

Such kingship is most fully expressed in Jesus, the shepherd - another ancient title of kings, found in Homer as well as Ezekiel - who lays down his life for his sheep. In Luke 22:25ff, he tells his disciples: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, but you are not to be like that. I am among you as one who serves.’

On this understanding, Genesis 1:27f is neither an invitation to imagine ourselves to be ‘more than’ animals nor a licence to treat them as our ‘things’. On the contrary, it lays a heavy burden on us: out of all God’s earthly creatures, we have been chosen and anointed, like David, to act as kings over the rest. We bear the image of God in so far as we exercise that servant-kingship rightly.

© Third Way 1998 This article was first published in Third Way, a magazine that thinks intelligently about the modern world from a Christian perspective. For a free sample, go to . Huw Spanner can be contacted at .

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