What’s The Proper Starting Point for Our Theology of the Image of God?

Where do we begin when reflecting upon what it means to be made in the image of God? First, this question assumes that we ought to even reflect upon this question. David Kelsey questions this assumption. He rightly points out that the doctrine is rarely explicitly stated in the Old Testament. In fact, it appears, explicitly, three times in Genesis (chapters 1, 5, and 9). So instead of reflecting on the image of God as a way to get at the question, “what does it mean to be human” Kelsey prefers to focus on the Old Testament’s wisdom literature. For it is in the wisdom literature that we get a clearer picture of the daily, common, experience of what it is to be human. Should we follow Kelsey in his approach? Kärkkäinen, rightly, suggests that we should not. He provides several reasons why. First, such an approach pits certain parts of the biblical canon against the other. Second, the New Testament explicitly picks up the language of the image of God, applying it to Christ. Third, just because the term is not often used explicitly in the Old Testament, that does not mean that the concept does not inform the rest of it’s anthropology. Finally, as an organizational tool, the doctrine does much to help us reflect on what it means to be human as well as how to treat other human beings with dignity.

Kelsey’s approach represents one way to interact with the doctrine of the image of God, there are, however, other ways to approach the topic. One way to approach is experientially. This approach begins with some kind of human experience and then fills out what it means to be made in the image of God in light of those experiences. Those “experiences” might consist of the experience of being marginalized (e.g. feminist, womanist, black theologies), the experience of hybridity or mestizaje (Latina/o) theologies, or the deliverances of scientific findings. Another approach is to begin reflection on the topic based upon certain theological convictions. There are two main ways that represent this approach: Trinitarian and Christological approaches. Trinitarian approaches are represented by theologians like Colin Gunton in Persons Human and Divine. It is represented by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen in Creation and Humanity. Other representatives include Thomas Smail, Jurgen Moltmann, Stanley Grenz, and other social Trinitarians. The most prominent example of this approach is that of Zizioulas. On the other hand there are Christological approaches. This approach assumes that whatever it means to be human is defined Christologically. Marc Cortez, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Barth, Oliver Crisp, Frederich Schleiermacher, and Kathryn Tanner represent this approach. It should be noted that these two positions overlap in some significant ways. Moltmann for example speaks of the imago Christi and Grenz speaks of humanity’s destiny as being Christologically informed. Barth’s doctrine of the imago Dei is also informed by the I-Thou relationship in the Trinity which is reflected in human sexual differences.

So where should we begin? Probably the beginning.

Where is the beginning? That’s for you to decide….


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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