The Image of God
In this episode, Kymberli Cook and Marc Cortez discuss the image of God, focusing on interpretations and implications of this doctrine for Christian living.
- Cortez’s studies in theological anthropology
- Defining Imago Dei
- Other interpretations of Imago Dei
- The Image of God in the New Testament
- The Image of God and unbelievers
- Implications of the Image of God
- Difference between resemblance and presence
- Loving our neighbors
- Key implications of the doctrine
Kymberli Cook: Welcome to the table podcast where we discuss issues of God and culture. My name is Kymberli Cook, and I'm the Senior Administrator at the Hendricks Center. And today we are gonna be talking about the Imago Dei, and how we should love our neighbor in light of that doctrine. So I promise, that already sounds abstract and heavy, but we're gonna do our best to make it relevant and something that really touches everybody's hearts, and makes us really look at the person next to us differently.
I am joined by Marc Cortez, a Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. And Marc, we are so thankful that you have carved out some time in your schedule to be with us. Thank you for being here.
Marc Cortez: My pleasure, Kym. Thank you for the invitation.
Kymberli Cook: Absolutely. Just to orient our listeners a little bit, you are specialized in Theological Anthropology. One, we want to hear a little bit about you, how you ended up in scholarship in general, and then what in the world is theological anthropology? But first, if you just want to share a little bit about yourself and how you ended up just even being a scholar.
Marc Cortez: Sure. Yeah, so a little bit of a story there. My original or first career was in Youth Ministry, so I got involved in Youth Ministry when I was in high school, and caught a vision for that fairly early on. So I transitioned from being a student into being an intern, and then into being a full time Youth Pastor, and part time, full time Youth Ministry for about ten years. My initial undergraduate degree in Theology. But even then, the plan was to use that Theology degree for the purpose of doing Youth Ministry.
I'm not sure where I caught the vision, but somewhere along the way, someone convinced me that theology was really important for doing Youth Ministry. And I'm very [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:02:06] because I think it's very true. So I did that for about ten years. Then, as my time at that church … that was ten years at the same church [Inaudible comment] _____ drawing to a close. My wife and I had always talked about going on and getting my seminary degree at some point. So we did that. And at that time I really thought that I was getting more training to continue on in Youth Ministry. It wasn't until I got back into the classroom in seminary that I caught a vision for training people to do ministry.
And it was a bit of a vocational disturbance. It was actually a really tough year of letting go of this thing that I thought I had been called to do for a long time, and transition in more of an academic direction at that point. I've stayed connected to Youth Ministry on a volunteer basis. That was the one thing that made me a little bit happier with letting go of just the vocational piece, and not the Youth Ministry piece itself.
So I went on. I did two graduate degrees at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. By that time I was pretty convinced that teaching was where I wanted to go. It's why I did my PhD, and have been in the classroom ever since.
Kymberli Cook: Fantastic. So what is Theological Anthropology? And is that your only specialty?
Marc Cortez: I usually will say … well, let me back up for a second. Let's talk about Theological Anthropology. One of my least favorite questions, particularly at church, is what do you teach? I'll try to usually get away with something like Theology or Christian Doctrine, or whatnot, because I know as soon as I say Theological Anthropology no one really knows what I'm talking about.
Kymberli Cook: Blank face.
Marc Cortez: Uh-huh. And fairly often, people will hear just the anthropology word, because they're familiar with that one. And then they'll think that I'm doing cultural anthropology and I'm visiting indigenous peoples at various places around the world, or whatnot. And I have to explain, no, I don't do that. I actually rarely leave my office.
So, Theological Anthropology, broadly speaking, is to think about what it means to be human … that's the anthropology side of it … from an explicitly theological perspective. So what is it that Christians have believed, historical perspective, what is it that we ought to believe? Of course, biblical anthropology plays a key role in that. But it's reflecting on all of the questions that surround the fundamental question of what does it mean to be human, and seeking to engage those questions from intentionally and explicitly theological perspectives throughout.
So I end up [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:04:41] the image of God and sin are the two key topics that have always been central to Theological Anthropology. You get lots of questions about what's the theological significance of the body? How should we think of ourselves as gendered beings? [Inaudible comment] _____ free? So free will questions come into play there. Do we have a soul? Questions of race and ethnicity. The list could go on and on.
Kymberli Cook: Not at all relevant things for what's going on these days.
Marc Cortez: They're all anthropological questions, and they all need to be thought through theologically. That just is what Theological Anthropology is all about.
Kymberli Cook: So how did you get interested in that?
Marc Cortez: Honestly, I have no idea.
Kymberli Cook: Stumbled into it.
Marc Cortez: Honestly, I deeply suspect that somewhere in my seminary degree, when I caught an interest in doing doctoral work, that I started asking professors what's something that is really important that evangelicals aren't paying enough attention to? I don't know that I actually did that, but I remember thinking about doing that. And [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:05:47] Gregg Allison, who's a Theology professor at Southern Seminary now, he was at Western Seminary when I was there. He was the director of the THM program. And I can almost guarantee, if I had asked him that question, he would have directed me to Theological Anthropology.
So, I suspect that there's a conversation I have forgotten about. He oriented me that …
Kymberli Cook: Or some alternative string theory dimension. But that's what happened.
Marc Cortez: What I do know is once I realized that Theological Anthropology was an area of inquiry, theologically, and I started getting a feel for the kinds of questions that I just laid out, they resonated so closely with the issues that I was dealing with all the time working with [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:06:27] high school students. And so I began to realize that those aren't Youth Ministry issues, those are deeply theological issues that connect to long historical conversations that we've had about what it means to be human. As soon as I got exposed to this as a doctrine that is worth studying in its own right, I got enthralled by it, and I've been stuck there ever since.
Kymberli Cook: So, let's just get stuck there for awhile, and talk about, turn our conversation to the image of God. So, like you said, there are a variety of implications of how we understand the image of God that apply to regular day conversations that millions of people are having that are on websites and all over, controversies and social media … it touches everything, particularly for me, and I think was even the impetus for this podcast specifically is the idea that we have become, it seems, such a tribalistic culture, and so contentious amongst those tribes that sometimes I think we lose sight of who we are, and who God has made us to be, and other people become the enemy or the other or whatever label you want to give it. And we lose sight of what we do have in common. And so, I think that's what we at the Center were talking about and we thought, "Man, it would be really great if we could just really dig in to this doctrine, and talk through that to maybe think about the implications of how we treat one another because of the image."
So, to get us started in that direction, that's where we're headed, but to get us started, first we need to talk about what we even mean. Imago Dei is a Latin term, in and of itself. And so we're talking about the image of God. And what does it mean to be made in the image of God, particularly, let's start with what we see in scripture. What do we see in scripture about the image of God? And there are some differences between Old Testament and New Testament. So let's start in Old Testament, work our way to New Testament, and then we'll talk about Christian tradition. So, do you want to kick us off? I'm assuming we're gonna start in Genesis.
Marc Cortez: Really good place to start. Yeah. So your key text, of course, is Genesis 1:26, 27, 28. And so God made humankind to be in His image, according to His likeness. So that's where the language comes from. We have the two Hebrew terms in that text, tselem and demuth, that at various times people have understood as referring to two different things. And so you get into discussions about, so what does image mean, and what does likeness mean, and then how are they related to one another? Most biblical scholars now are going to argue that they mean basically the same thing. It's an example of parallelism. And the two terms together are meant to convey an idea. [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:09:40] image and likeness, right there in Genesis 1:26.
The challenge, of course, is that the text doesn't actually say what that means. We don't get a definition of the image and likeness in 1:26. And so most of the biblical discussion then is can we find indications in the text itself that even though the don't straightforwardly define the image, maybe they're pointing us in the right kind of direction? Or can we look to the broader cultural context, see how these terms are used outside of the Bible? And maybe that will give us an indication of what's going on.
Or some people will argue for more of a canonical way of thinking through things. Let's take everything the Bible says about the image, and then take that as a definition of what's going on in 1:26 there to begin with.
So, if I take the first of those, what hints might we actually get in the text about what it might mean? The two things that people most commonly point to are, immediately after saying that God would make us in His image, according to His likeness, it says, "And let them rule." And so, maybe we should take that reference to rulership or dominion as a definition of the image, particularly since that comes so quickly after the declaration. So to image Him is to be given the task or the function of exercising dominion, stewardship, rulership, whatever language you want to do there.
The other option is to look either at the divine plural, the fact that God says let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness. And maybe that indicates that the image should be interred against the backdrop of some kind of plurality in God's being. Whether that's a proleptic reference to the Trinity, or some more vague sort of plurality [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:11:34]
Kymberli Cook: Heavenly language. Yeah.
Marc Cortez: If nothing else, you've got plurals, on 26. So maybe that hints at the idea that the image should be understood in a more relational sense, and then in 27 you get the reference to male and female. So it's not just humans generically being made in the image, but specifically male and female. So maybe that is also pointing at a relationality. Neither of those, the dominion or the relational, the text doesn't actually say these are definitions of the image. You get, here's the image, and then here's a concept that's really closely connected to the image. So maybe it's the case that one of those two is actually defining the image for us.
If we looked outside the biblical context … So let's say that I think … I'm reading Genesis 1:26, but the author drops these words into the chapter, tselem and demuth, and then doesn't bother to define them, that it seems reasonable to conclude from that that he does that because the words had a pretty commonly accepted meaning. So in that context, he didn't have to define them. People just generally knew what a tselem was, or what demuth was, an image and a likeness. And so, if you look in the broader cultural context, you do find, in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian settings similar terms being used to describe either kings as representative rulers for the divine being. This is particularly common in Egypt, where the idea is that the Pharaoh is an image of some divine being, particularly Ra, with the idea being that basically Ra doesn't want to mess with … do the messy work of ruling over creation because it's complicated and it takes a lot of effort. So he's gonna designate Pharaoh to be his representative ruler, and Pharaoh will rule in his place.
And then you often get the same language being used to refer, not to a human being like Pharaoh, but to the cultic statues, the idols that are used in the ancient world, where those are tselem or demuths. They're images of divine beings in a fairly robust sense, where that idol is the material means by which the divine being is making himself or herself present in the world. However you go about doing that, it's looking at, if the terms aren't defined in Genesis 1, then maybe I can look at how they're used elsewhere, and that will give me a sense of what's going on.
Kymberli Cook: And so if you were to find that helpful, the cultural context that you're talking about, that would that support more of the functional interpretation that you were speaking of, correct? Or would that also support the relational?
Marc Cortez: The most commonest to take that in a functional direction since you have the idea that to call Pharaoh an image in that sense, is to say that he's been given the task or the function of ruling. So fairly common way people will use that to reinforce the dominion idea. So even though Genesis 1:26 doesn't explicitly say that image means rulership, in that cultural context, to use image language in close proximity to dominion language would be heard in rulership sorts of ways.
When we get on a little bit, I'll nuance this. The way that I prefer to talk about the image, and then we'll take [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:15:04] idol stuff that I just mentioned in a moment.
Kymberli Cook: Okay.
Marc Cortez: [Inaudible comment] _____ moment ago, but I want to come back to that a little bit later.
Kymberli Cook: Okay.
Marc Cortez: Yeah. So you're right. The most will take the cultural context in a dominion direction and offer a functional interpretation of the image on that basis.
Kymberli Cook: And from what you're saying, and the values behind what … the evidence that you're presenting, for both of the interpretations, the Hebrew terms and the cultural context, those tend to be the reasons that a lot of Old Testament scholars, particularly tend to take the relational perspective. Is that right?
Marc Cortez: Yeah.
Kymberli Cook: Okay. So just to orient everybody to what we're talking about, there are a variety of interpretations to the image of God. Because of what Marc has described, it can be … it's a bit vague in scripture. And so there have been many pages written trying to discuss and think through the different ways that it can be understood. And so two of the interpretations he's presented is the relational perspective, and the functional perspective. There's actually probably a couple more coming in our conversation.
And so, and like I said, again, to orient you to the conversation, the Old Testament scholars particularly tend toward the functional because of what we've talked about. And so … But let's talk a little bit about the New Testament, and what we do, because it seems like we don't see as much of the image of God terminology, even though … I think it only happens three times in the Old Testament, something like that. We see a lot more of the image of Christ, and Christ's image, and that kind of thing. So what is the relationship between the image of God and the image of Christ? And then, what does that do for how we understand what, perhaps a different interpretation of the image.
Marc Cortez: Yeah. Great. If I can say one thing before I go on, to convey the various interpretations of the image, I skipped over, unfairly, probably the most historically influential interpretation of the image. So if you take functional and relational, which are the two that we've talked about so far, historically most have actually interpreted the image as referring more to something that is intrinsic to human nature, something like rationality, morality, free will, something like that. And the logic there actually does flow as well out of Genesis 1, even though the text doesn't say anything about those kinds of capacities.
The logic tends to go more like, in Genesis 1:26, only humans are said to be made in the image, even though lots of other creatures are talked about in Genes 1. So it stands to reason that the image would be something that differentiates humans from non human creatures. And, since the image relates us to God in some way, then the image should be something that humans have that we have in common to at least some degree with who God is.
So a lot of the image work historically has been, if we can find that aspect of what it means to be human that differentiates us from creatures, but makes us in some way like God, it stands to reason that that would be the meaning of the image in Genesis 1. And historically, the fact that we're rational creatures, created with the capacity to know and love God, is the thing that makes us different from all other creatures. And God clearly is a wise, rational, knowing being. So our wisdom or rationality makes us like God different from the other creatures.
So that would be, if you're gonna … putting the three big …
Kymberli Cook: Putting the labels on. Yeah. So that would be the substantialist? Or what term would you …
Marc Cortez: Yeah. Substantialist is probably the most common. Some people …
Kymberli Cook: Yeah. So we've got functional. Again, that's the role, the task, that what it means to be in an image of God is to have a job to do. That's kind of broad, but to have a job to do, and a task to execute, essentially. And then substantialist is that there is something internal that God has placed, and is inherent in humanity. And then the relational … I almost said representational … The relational is that essentially the capacity, the dimension of relationality in us is what makes us in the image of God.
Marc Cortez: Yeah. I'd say it just a slightly … The relational one's the trickiest of the three. And you illustrated nicely why it's tricky that way. Because if you talk about the relational view as the capacity for relationality, that would actually be a different form of substantival [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:20:12]
Kymberli Cook: Oh, okay.
Marc Cortez: … capacity for rationality. If it's a capacity for relationality, then we're still talking about this kind of intrinsic feature of humanness.
Or people often turn the relationality into more of a verb, and say that the relational view is about us relating to God or to one another, which in my mind doesn't work either, because that makes it just a different form of the functional view. So [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:20:35]
Kymberli Cook: Hmm.
Marc Cortez: … relating is this task that we're given to carry out in the world. So for it to be a distinct view, it actually just needs to refer to some kind of brute relation that exists. It's simply the fact that we exist in relationship to God and one another, irrespective of any capacities that we might have or any functions that we might be perform. That would be a distinctive relational view.
Kymberli Cook: Okay. Fantastic. See, we prayed beforehand that this would nuance our own thinking, and there you go. Okay. So the fact that there is a relationship. Okay. So that is the relational interpretation. So let's move to the New Testament real quick before those of you who are hanging with us, before we get more to the practical things. We're almost through most of the weeds on describing the different interpretations.
How do we take the … how do we understand the different term of image of Christ? Is that talking about image of God? Is it the same? Is it different? What's going on there, and then how does that help us understand any kind of way that we should look at the image of God in the New Testament?
Marc Cortez: From the New Testament you get a pretty decisive turn in the conversation. So Genesis 1:26 and 27, if we just started there, we're gonna emphasize that all humans are made in the image. So there's no attempt to differentiate some are image bearing humans, and then we have some non image bearing humans. It's all humans, full stop, made in the image of God. You do get a little bit of that in the New Testament. So you have a couple of passages that talk about the image in what sounds more like a generically human sort of way. 1 Corinthians 11 might be doing that. James 3 might be doing that. But almost all of the references to the image in the New Testament are striking in that they're not referring to all humans. They're referring explicitly to Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God in Colossians 1:15. And in Romans 8, it's not only that he is the image, but it's being transformed into his image that is our ultimate destiny or telos as human persons.
So we get more of the sense in the New Testament that it's not so much that we're already made in the image. Jesus is the one who is the true Imago Dei being. And the good news for the rest of us is that through the indwelling of the spirit and union with Christ, we get to be drawn up into his image bearing status. So historically we've talked about humans as actually being images of the image. So Jesus is the true image, and then we get to be Christlike. And in so doing, we're imaging the one who is himself of the true image.
And what that does, then, for discussions of the image, is it refocuses our attention a bit. It doesn't mean that we neglect and of humanity in general, but it does mean that a lot of theologians are arguing that to understand the image rightly, we really need to begin, not in Genesis 1, but in what we see about the image in the incarnation. So it's by looking at Jesus that we see ultimately what it means to be the image of God.
Kymberli Cook: Okay. And that tends to be referred to as the christological interpretation. Is that correct?
Marc Cortez: Yes. So, if I go back to the beginning of the interview, you asked if I had any other kind of interests in this. Theological Anthropology has been my main interest for a long time, but my specific question has always been about the relationship between Jesus and the rest of humanity, and what does it mean to say that Jesus somehow reveals what it means to be human, which is a claim that theologians have long made, and I've been wanting to press further in that. So a lot of my work is on this, what I call a christological anthropology, or looking at humanity through the lens provided by Jesus Christ.
But having said that, I actually think it's a pretty broadly shared conviction among theologians that the image needs to be defined christologically in some sense, because the New Testament is just so clear, that we can't understand the image rightly apart from centering it in who Jesus is and what he's done.
Kymberli Cook: So that would be something that even somebody having … again, using the labels we've already talked about, the relational interpretation or functional interpretation … they would also concur with that. Most, obviously. You can't speak for all.
Marc Cortez: Yes. I wouldn't want to make quite a blanket statement. If I'm gonna take a functional interpretation and emphasize dominion, I have the idea that Jesus himself is king. So he's the one who came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. And the good news is all about Jesus being the king and restoring God's rule in the world. [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:25:22] lot of the miracles that Jesus performs as demonstrations of his kingliness in that. And so I have a lot that I'll hand out on in that Jesus reveals what it means to be the image in virtue of being the true king.
Relationally, Jesus was all about relationships. So the fact that he doesn't come and just preach a message all by himself, that he gathers disciples around him, and then more fundamentally that he establishes the church. And so we fast forward to the end of the story and we see where this is all headed, the Book of Revelation, it's the good news about God dwelling eternally with His people in and through the Son. So it's clearly a relational story, and I'll go there, christologically. Or, Jesus is the word and the wisdom. So if that's my interpretation of the image [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:26:12] If I'm doing any one of those three well, I'm going to [Inaudible comment] _____ them robustly in what Jesus reveals to us about what it means to be a human.
Kymberli Cook: Hmm. Okay. So as we think about Jesus being a key in our understanding of what the image is, or how we should try to make sense of the variety of uses in scripture, how do we understand the unbeliever? What is the relationship between the unbeliever, and somebody who will never come to safe … they're not a believer now, but. And if Jesus is what it means to be in the image of God, does that … and they're never conformed to his likeness, does that mean that they are not in the image of God? How do we think through that? Because I think that, especially, is really important for us thinking through how to treat those, even in the public space.
Marc Cortez: Yeah. So you've got really … and this is gonna be yes or no questions. So you have two options.
Kymberli Cook: I'm not asking yes or now. You are more than welcome to take the scholarly both, and …
Marc Cortez: Historically it's been a yes or no question. Are unbelievers in the image or are they not? And historically you do have some people who argue not. And that's usually aligned with an interpretation that the image [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:27:34] lost [Inaudible comment] _____ fall. So [Inaudible comment] _____ create in the image. The image involved something like, let's say, right relationship with God. And so, if right relationship with God is lost to the fall, then the image is lost to the fall. [Inaudible comment] _____ restored in the New Testament, [Inaudible comment] _____ and union with the Son. And so you do get an exclusive-ist interpretation of the image. That is the minority report.
The most theologians have argued that no, Genesis 1 is pretty clear, that all humans are made in the image. This is where a text like Genesis 9 often [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:28:06]
Kymberli Cook: Um-hmm.
Marc Cortez: … where after the flood, God's talking to Noah after the flood, and the covenant. And He's telling Noah, "Hey. You shouldn't go around murdering people. And the reason you shouldn't murder them is because humans have been made in the image of God." And that fact that this is a post fall story suggests that the image has continuing significance, even after the fall. You get a similar logic in James 3 with respect to even how we speak to one another. And that has most theologians convinced that we shouldn't talk about the image as lost at the fall. The fall clearly affects the image in some way. The fall of human persons remained in the image. And, of course, each view will have its own way of explaining exactly [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:28:48]
Kymberli Cook: Um-hmm.
Marc Cortez: … out. You're actually hard pressed to find too many theologians now who will say that the image was lost to the fall, such that non believers were not made in the image of God.
Kymberli Cook: Yeah. It is difficult. That's a tough sell. I would have to imagine that they would … not very many people would want to go there.
Okay. So let's move a little bit more to the implications of the image for how we're treating other people, and how we're thinking about other people. So maybe the first place to start is … and a little bit maybe even in the spirit of what you were talking about with how do we learn what it means to be human by looking at Christ, and that relationship. What is the proper way for us to think about … So if we were made in the image of God, does that mean we reveal something about God? Is that an okay way to think, that we can look at ourselves and think something about God? Is that allowed? How do we think about what it means to be in the image, and what we know about God because of ourselves?
Marc Cortez: As we get into the implications that this is … we're gonna start to, I think, float over to why I end up talking about the image slightly differently than any of the three that we've talked about so far. The logic of all three of these does live a little bit off of the idea that to image God means to resemble God in some way, so that resemblance is often just assumed to be a part of image language. And if to image God means to resemble God in some way, then that would allow a kind of anthropological move where we can go from, well, humans are like this [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:30:38]
Kymberli Cook: Um-hmm.
Marc Cortez: … something about who God is, in virtue of the image. I'm not convinced that image means resemblance. And so I tend not to be super excited about that particular kind of movement. So if I can briefly back up to the idol language, I do think there's at least something to be said about understanding the image against the backdrop of the ancient Near Eastern conception of an idol. Maybe not as the exclusive way of understanding the image, but as a really helpful way that we don't spend a lot of time talking about. And so if you think about an idol in the ancient world as the material means by which a divine being manifests presence in the world. So if you go and create an idol … I'm going to assume that you probably don't do that regularly … but if you were to go create an idol …
Kymberli Cook: Just so happens I don't.
Marc Cortez: We have a tendency to confuse ourselves a bit with idol language, because we think that if you go make yourself an idol, that what I'm saying is you go carve a statue, and then you call it by the name of some god, and that's your idol. And that actually isn't very accurate to how the ancient world thought. That carving statue was just the first step in the process. If you're actually making an idol, there's a whole set of rituals and ceremonies that they would take that … actually it includes the creation of the statue. So even carving the statue was understood to be a religious ceremonial rite.
But after that, you would take your statue through a whole series of rituals, and it was in virtue of those rituals that a divine being was understood to actually infuse its presence into that material object. So that once that happens, anywhere that you take that statue, that your god is going with you. It is quite literally present wherever it's idol is present.
And if the Hebrew language of tselem and demuth are used in the ancient world to describe statues, and basically everybody agrees that those terms were used to describe what they call cultic statues … I know the word cult is weird for us these days … but [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:32:51]
Kymberli Cook: [Laughs]
Marc Cortez: … statues could be used in …
Kymberli Cook: Worship.
Marc Cortez: Yeah. So everyone agrees that the terms image and likeness could be used, actually were commonly, most commonly used to refer to these kinds of statues. Then to refer to humans as image and likeness in that cultural context would have been heard as describing us as being the material means by which God will manifest His presence in the world.
And so most of what I do with the image is in thinking about the image as God seeking to manifest His presence and creation in and through us. So the language of being fruitful and multiplying toward the end of Genesis 1 is to say that we are going to be the means by which God manifests His presence, not just in Eden, but throughout creation, as literally His image bearers spread His image, His presence throughout the world.
Kymberli Cook: So can you just outline for us real quick … sorry, I am gonna interrupt … what is the difference, because you said you weren't a fan of the resemblance language, so it's not … so what is the difference, what is the nuance that you're making between the two, just so everybody's real clear.
Marc Cortez: The reason that that has me a little bit dissatisfied with the resemblance view is because there's nothing about the idol way of understanding the image that requires resemblance. An idol in the ancient world, sometimes they work hard in ways, they were understood to look like divine beings. But that wasn't intrinsic to an idol. Now you can have an idol that was very abstract. You can have idols that were misshapen lumps of rock. You could have idols that were shaped in all kinds of different ways. So there's nothing about the concept of an idol that requires resemblance. And partly why I emphasize so much that the idea behind the idol way of understanding the image is God manifesting presence in and through us. That doesn't require me to resemble Him in any way in order for idol language to work.
Now, people sometimes mishear me then, as suggesting that I don't think being like God is important. That would be a mistake as well. We have lots of imitation language in the Bible. It's very clear that God wants us to act like Him. But for understanding the image, the imitation follows from being made in the image of God. Because God has made me to be His image bearer, I am therefore called to imitate Him, and live in Christlike manner, using New Testament terminology.
So that the imitation doesn't define the image. The imitation comes as a consequence of being made in the image. So that … to go back to the original question … I wouldn't use the image to say that I should look at some aspect of humanity and draw conclusions about who God is. Because the image isn't about resemblance. And imitation, the logic imitation move precisely the opposite direction. It's look at who God is, and then try to figure out how we ought to live in the world in light of that.
Kymberli Cook: So what you're saying is that the … it's not in resemblance, it's in … is it like presence-ing God on earth?
Marc Cortez: Yeah. So the language of presence is the one that I have to go with. So when I teach on the image, I talk a lot about the spirit. The spirit is the … where the biblical authors tend to emphasize God's presence, the spirit makes God present in the world … the I tend to think that the image of God is a thoroughly new natalogical concept. It's a thoroughly spirit filled. To be humans in that sense is to be filled with the spirit to manifest God's presence.
Now that raises questions almost immediately about how you differentiate then believers from non believers. Or even how you differentiate humans from non humans, 'cause God's omnipresent. So what does it mean to say that He's manifesting presence in humans in a way that He's not in the chair next to me? Or, what do I do with the indwelling language of the spirit in the New Testament? And on this one I just have to punt a little bit. Language about God's presence in the Bible is tricky, and theologians have wrestled with this for a long time. We know we have to say both that God is omnipresent, but also that we have to recognize at least different kinds … or maybe not different kinds … but different ways in which God is present.
So God seems to be present in the burning bush in a way that He's not present in the bush 30 feet over, God's presence in the tabernacle in a way that He's not present in some other tent. He's present in it. So we know that we have to talk about God being differently present, and we've just long wrestled with how in the world do you explain how an omnipresent God can be differently present. And there are all kinds of theories on that that we don't need to get into.
I just say that I'm doing exactly the same thing here. That I can say that the image of God is unique to being human, and the image of God is about God manifesting presence. And then just say that means that God is somehow differently present in humans than He is in non humans. And that when we get to the New Testament and the language of indwelling, [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:38:19] say that something radically important happens at Pentecost, and will end at the fall. So that we talk about God being differently present in humans after the fall, and then differently present in humans after Pentecost. I don't think, though, that means I need to say that He's non present throughout that, just that those things make a difference in terms of God's presence, and it's a difference that, to be honest, I'm still working out in my own head.
Kymberli Cook: That's fair. So let's say somebody's hung with us all the way through this conversation, and they say, "Okay. You talked about how all of this impacts how I love my neighbor." So beyond saying, "Okay. So that person is made in the image of God," I think I heard that in Sunday School at some point, how does this conversation about what it does mean to be human, and what it means about others' humanity impact how we love our neighbor, how we engage people on social media, and just in the public square in general? What would you say to that?
Marc Cortez: I would want to lead with that the image has historically used by Christians to ground affirming the full dignity and full [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:39:32]
Kymberli Cook: Um-hmm.
Marc Cortez: … human persons. That's been the center feature of Christian discourse about the image of God. We do have … if you get into the history of the image, there have been times when we haven't done well with that, and the image gets used in ways that exclude certain people explicitly. But historically we've wanted to say, "No. Image of God means full dignity, full value of all human persons." It might help if, I think … So go back to the three categories that we talked about initially, the relational, the functional, and the substantival.
When people talk about those today, they tend to raise worries about all three of them with respect to the kinds of implications, the love your neighbor kinds of implications that are worth being aware of. I don't think they're deal breakers for any of the three, but they are the things that I would say, if you're going to talk about the image in any one of those three ways, you would want to be aware that there's a worry here.
So. The substantival worry, and the one that people all pick on is that I'm gonna talk about the image in terms of something like rationality, what does that imply about people who do not seem to express the full range of human rationality? So people who have a condition from birth where their mental capacities seem restrained or restricted in some way, could be through a disease or an accident of some kind [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:40:57] state, does that mean I'm no longer made in the image of God? And people who affirm that that view have ways of addressing that. But critics of the view tend to worry that no matter how you nuance you get, that way of talking will almost always result in at least a hierarchicalized way of thinking of people, where some people are more image bearing, and some people are less, with the possibility that some people might end up being so less that their not really in the image at all. So people writing in disability theology tend to be particularly worried about the implications of that view of the image for the people that they work with.
On the functional view, a worry that I don't think comes up quite as often, I'm a little bit puzzled as to why this is. Let's take the disability theology worry about the rational view. In my mind it applies straightforwardly to the functional.
Kymberli Cook: Your ability to do things.
Marc Cortez: So many times people will [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:42:01] the things, well maybe it's not an individual task. Maybe it's a corporate task. And that's almost certainly true that there are individual and corporate [Inaudible comment] _____
Kymberli Cook: Um-hmm.
Marc Cortez: … in the image. But the reality is, that we don't talk about the images being an exclusively corporate thing, that the logic that the image biblically is not just that we are made in the image, as true as that is, but that you are made in the image, not I am made in the image. So the way you treat me as an individual should be shaped by the reality that I am made in the image of God.
And so the functional view does raise some of those questions. If I am not, for some reason, capable of participating in whatever this function is … let's say it's rulership. The other thing I worry about a little bit is the way that a functional view talks about being human in what sounds to me like highly performative terms, that at the end of the day, what it truly means to be human is to behave or to perform in certain kinds of ways. And when I work, particularly with my middle and high school students now, they are so thoroughly convinced that the story of the Bible is a performative story … it's a story about doing and performing in the right kinds of ways … that I worry about telling them that the image is about performance and function, 'cause I'm just reinforcing the idea that that's what the Bible is ultimately about. Now they know that salvation by grace through faith in Jesus [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:43:34]
Kymberli Cook: Yeah. Great. Um-hmm.
Marc Cortez: … I think deep down they think that the story actually starts performatively, and then either gets change to a story that's about grace at the end of the day, or grace gets layered over the top of a fundamentally …
Kymberli Cook: Where grace lets us then perform.
Marc Cortez: Yeah. They still [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:43:57] it's a story that's about performing [Inaudible comment] _____. And so I really worry, at least if you're going to articulate dominion or function or whatnot as the definition of the image, I think we really need to do a good job explaining how that doesn't land us in that sort of performative account of what it means to be human.
And then the relational view, I'll just say, that 99 percent of what I hear on the relational view, as I mentioned earlier, it really does sound to me like just the substantival or the functional view, a capacity for relationship or relating, in which case both of those worries would just come right back up. [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:44:35] capacity for relationality. What do I do with people who don't have whatever the requisite capacities are to participate in those relationships? If I turn it into a verb, what happens if I'm no longer capable of relating in the _____ ways?
So if I focused in on just that pure relationality, then I'll just say my worry there is I'm not entirely certain what we mean by that. What is this pure … What makes the relationship that we're experiencing right now different from the relationship between me and this chair next to me. [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:45:09] about capacities or functions or whatnot. If anything, I'm in a closer relationship with the chair right now than I am to you. But an image of God sort of relationality wants to dig deeper than that. [Inaudible comment] _____ fundamentally difference about what's going on between us than what's going on between me and the chair.
That's a subsidiary worry for me [Inaudible comment] _____ worry is. Does it lend itself to this performative, or does it have implications for the full humanity of all human persons?
Kymberli Cook: So I feel like what I'm hearing from you is, is one of the core things that we take away from the image doctrine with regard to others is the dignity piece, that each person has deeply ingrained, whether or not it's inherent or not is up to the interpretation, but deeply dignity. And we are to honor that by our words and our actions, like you were even talking about earlier with imitation of Christ, imitation of God. And so is there anything else that you would add than dignity?
Marc Cortez: Well dignity and value. They're pretty [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:46:24]
Kymberli Cook: Yeah.
Marc Cortez: … but I like to use both words, because people hear them somewhat differently, that really, the idea behind image of God language fundamentally has always been to pick out something that is unique about human persons that has us ascribing to them and interacting with them with ourselves in a way that is shaped by that commitment to dignity and value. I'll say that one of the things that I have fun with on the idol view is the idol view. I don't know if anyone actually calls it that. [Inaudible comment] _____ [0:46:56]
Kymberli Cook: [Laughs]
Marc Cortez: … image against the backdrop of that concept. So if I think that you are an ancient Near Eastern kind of person, and you've gone on and you've made that statue, and you took it through the rituals and it became the physical means by which your god is manifesting presence in the world, that thing that you understand that idol to be, and then you take it home, and you set it on your fireplace mantel, and I walk into your house and I see the idol sitting on top of your fireplace mantel. And let's say that I am also a Dagon worshiper, which I'm not, if anyone's curious. The way that I treat that statue is going to be thoroughly informed by the fact that I view it as the means by which a divine being is making itself present in the world. And so I'm not going to just walk over and flippantly knock it off the fireplace mantel. That would be an unthinkable act for me, because of how I now conceive of that.
And so when I have time to sit and think through the love your neighbor piece of this deeply with people, it's to encourage them to imagine what it would look like to turn and see their neighbor as being that kind of effect.
Kymberli Cook: A kind of presence.
Marc Cortez: Yes. The one through whom their God is manifesting presence, so that the way that we treat it, whether it's Genesis 9, don't kill that person, or James 3, even being mindful of how you speak about that person, or lots of biblical passages. They're even, be careful how you think about that person. They're all being shaped by the reality of that person is the means by which God is making Himself present in the world. That's a powerful way of shaping the way that you view the person next to you.
I also like to encourage people to look at the mirror and think those same thoughts as they reflect they are as a person made in the image of God.
Kymberli Cook: Fantastic. Well, I just want to thank you so much for your time, Marc. We are … our time is up, and that was just … I think you rounded it out really well with how we need to think about others, and the dignity and value we need to ascribe them, because we are made in image, and we presence Him daily. And so again, just thank you so much for your time and your insight. We really appreciate, and we're so glad that the Lord called you to this out of Youth Ministry. Yeah, again, just really appreciate your time.
Marc Cortez: Thank you very much. This was fun. I appreciate it.
Kymberli Cook: Absolutely. And thank you to those who are listening for joining us on the table. And we would just encourage you, if you enjoyed this podcast to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And we hope that you join us next week when we discuss issue of God and culture.
About the Contributors
Marc Cortez is a theology teacher, writer, blogger, and youth worker. His academic writing focuses on the relationship between Christology and theological anthropology. Or, said differently, he’s interested in what it means to say that Jesus reveals what it means to be truly human, and what difference that claim makes for important issues like race, gender/sexuality, embodiment, and free will. Marc lives with his family in the Chicago area and teaches theology at Wheaton College.