Ryan Patrick McLaughlin is a PhD student (systematic theology) at the
Catholic Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His main area of
research is contributing to a theological basis for animal welfare and he is
working on projects exploring themes of animal welfare in the Church Fathers and
Orthodox theology. Here he explores the ‘image of God’. by Ryan Patrick
Throughout Christian history, theologians have grappled with the meaning of
the ‘image of God’ (Latin, imago Dei) in Genesis 1:26-27. Many thinkers have
equated the image with an essential quality inherent in the human creature. More
often than not, that quality is either rationality or freedom of the will, or
both. This substance-based interpretation creates a category in which humans are
similar to God and dissimilar to the rest of the creation. The substantive view
of the imago has, in part, formed a foundation in theology where humans are
exalted above the rest of the created order.
The Church Fathers can be claimed to favour the substantive interpretation of
the imago. Irenaeus set groundwork in the East for this reading. In the West,
the substantive view was solidified with the work of Augustine, who claimed,
‘God, then, made man in His own image. For He created for him a soul endowed
with reason and intelligence so that he might excel all the creatures of the
earth, air, and sea, which were not so gifted.’1 Early Reformers, such as Luther
and Calvin, took a more relational approach to the imago. With this approach,
the focus was still the identity of the human creature. However, this identity
was understood only in relation to God. Hence, when the relationship between God
and humanity was disrupted, humanity lost the image of God. This relational
interpretation is evident in contemporary theology with the work of Karl Barth.
These two interpretations of the imago are not the only options, however.
Recent biblical scholarship, following the direction of Gerhard Von Rad and
represented by Douglas John Hall, Terrance Fretheim, W. Sibley Towner, and J.
Richard Middleton, has taken a different approach to the imago. Concerning
Genesis 1, these scholars note (1) the socio-historical context of the ancient
Near East where images of deities represented the deity on earth; (2) the
structure of the narrative that connects creation with function; and (3) the
syntax of the Hebrew which further suggests a correlation between what was
created and why it was created. These textual considerations indicate that the
imago denotes a function for the human creature. In particular, God calls the
human being to represent God’s reign in the created order. In this sense, the
imago is not simply an ascription of human identity, but also a calling to a
uniquely human responsibility. Furthermore, because Genesis democratizes the
imago by attributing it to all humanity, every human is called to represent the
presence of God to the rest of the created order.
Whatever faculties humans exhibit, whether differing in degree or essence
from animals, they are not in place to privilege humanity above the created
order; rather, they are provided by God so that humanity might fulfill their
place within the created order. God creates human beings in the image of God so
that they might represent God in the cosmos.
This functional view of the imago, though undoubtedly shadowed by the
substantive interpretation, does find affirmation in Christian history. For
instance, Irenaeus states that humanity ‘was free and self-controlled, being
made by God for this end, that he might rule all those things that were upon the
earth.’3 Subsequent Orthodox theologians have continued to incorporate the
functional interpretation of the imago into their theology.4 If the textual
analysis of Genesis 1 provided by biblical scholars is correct, the imago
provides both an identity and a responsibility to humanity. Furthermore, the
imago has full significance not only for humanity, but for the entire created
order through humanity. To delineate this significance, one further
consideration is necessary.
What kind of God do we image?
The functional interpretation, much like the substantive and the relational,
focuses primarily on the word ‘image.’ However, if the imago constitutes a
calling in which humanity is meant to represent God to the created order, one
must also explore what representing God might look like. The question thus
arises: What kind of god do we image? The historical context of the priestly
writers and editors of Genesis 1 was contemporaneous with the Babylonian
creation narrative, the Enuma Elish.
In the Elish, Marduk, the god of Babylon, engages in divine warfare before
creating the cosmos. After defeating Tiamat, a rival god, Marduk creates the
world from the fallen deity’s body. With the world in place, Marduk creates
humanity to be slaves for the gods. The contrast between Marduk and Elohim is
sharp. In Genesis 1, Elohim creates all creatures without any sign of warfare or
struggle. Furthermore, Elohim creates human beings to be co-regents, not slaves.
In short, Elohim’s act of creation is predicated upon love and harmony; Marduk’s
act of creation is predicated upon utility and chaos.
Marduk vs Elohim
An exploration in the disparity between Marduk and Elohim in conjunction with
a functional interpretation of the imago provides an opportunity to reconsider
how humans ought to relate to animals. The propensity in Christianity to view
the created order as a hierarchy where the ‘lower’ tiers of creation are put
completely at the service of the ‘higher’ tiers is more characteristic of Marduk
than it is of Elohim.
In Christianity, the God who created the cosmos is the same God who died on
behalf of it. Colossians states that Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in
heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers
or authorities; all things were created by him and for him’ (Colossians
1:15-16). As this verse suggests that Christ is at the top of the hierarchy,
since all things were created for him, so Christ establishes precedence for
those who are ‘higher up’. The higher are to serve, not exploit, the lower. The
higher status is an opportunity to take care of others.
Given these theological points, I believe Christians must continue to engage
in a re-evaluation of their concern for animals. If we view animals as lower
than us and use this measurement to justify viewing them in a purely utilitarian
light, we have become nothing less—and nothing more—than the imago Marduk.
Living up to the image of God—not just any God, but the triune God who creates
out of love, sets free, and accepts death on behalf of the creation—means
following the lead of Christ in self-sacrifice. It means taking our
understanding of hierarchy as establishing an identity beneficial to humanity
alone and amending to an understanding of hierarchy that establishes a
responsibility on behalf of the entire created order.
As a final sobering thought, imagine if God treated humanity with the same
utilitarian mindset that many human beings—including Christians—treat animals.
What kind of God would we serve? A God who benefits from our suffering? A God
who justifies causing us torment because we are lower in a cosmic hierarchy?
This God would surely not be Elohim, but Marduk. Christians are thus left with a
choice. Who will we choose to represent to animals: Elohim or Marduk?
1. Augustine, City of God, XII.23, Basic Writings of Saint
Augustine, ed. Whitney J. Oates, volume II (New York: Random House, 1948),
2. Douglas John Hall in Imaging God: dominion as stewardship (Grand
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986); Terrance Fretheim, God
and World in the Old Testament: a relational theology of creation
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005); See J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating
Image: the Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005); W.
Sibley Towner, ‘Clones of God: Genesis 1:26-28 and the Image of God in the
Hebrew Bible’, Interpretation 59 (October 2005), 343-49.
3. Irenaeus, Demonstration, 11. Quote from Irenaeus’ Demonstration
of the Apostolic Preaching: a theological commentary and translation, Iain
M. Mackenzie with the translation of the text of the Demonstration by J.
Armitage Robinson (Burlington: Ashgate, 2002).
4. E.g. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: historical trends (New
York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 140-42.