On the fifth day, God created the fish and the birds. Early on the sixth day, he created all the land animals. But it was only when he got to the end of the sixth day that he made creatures who would be in the image of God: humans. No other creature gets that distinction. Just us. We must be pretty cool. Special.
We’re exploring what it means to be made in the image of God. (See the whole series here.) And, like many difficult questions, your starting point makes all the difference. If you start with the fact that only humans are said to be in the image of God, then it seems like you have a relatively simple procedure for figuring out what the image is: just find whatever it is that makes us distinct from all the other creatures, and you should be all set.
This is what people commonly refer to as the “structural” approach to the image of God. When God created humans, he embedded some capacity (or set of capacities) in our very nature that makes us image bearers. And, whatever this capacity is, other animals don’t have it. Sucks to be them.
The most commonly cited capacity has always been rationality. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it if you watched our television shows and political campaigns, we’re pretty smart. Much smarter than other creatures (unless we’ve been drinking). And we’ve always used our smartness to distinguish humans from other creatures. Dogs can do some cool tricks, but we’re “rational.” Aristotle famously defined human persons as “rational animals,” and that’s been a popular view ever since.
But rationality isn’t the only thing that people think makes us distinct from other creatures. So people have also suggested things like self-determination, symbolic reasoning, moral agency, self-transcendence, complex languages, and creativity as our distinguishing feature.
Although the structural approach has been the most popular through history and is the one that you’ll probably hear if you ask the average Christian to tell you what the image is, this approach is fatally flawed. Here’s why.
1. Maybe we should read the text
When we’re trying to understand what the Bible means, it seems to me like it would be a good idea if we actually referred to the text at some point. And that’s one thing that the structural approach almost never does. Instead, people jump right into comparative anthropology and then insert whatever capacity they came up with into the text. But, if you actually read the text, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say anything about the human capacity for rationality, morality, or any other capacity. And if you read through all of the other “image” texts in the Bible, you’ll find the same thing. The Bible never connects the image of God to human capacities. Period.
2. Pick your capacity
It should also bother us a bit that people have come up with so many different candidates for the relevant capacity. After a while, it starts to feel like we’re just picking our favorite capacities and calling it a day. Why rationality other than the fact that it makes us sound cool and fits with what we already believe about humanity? Since there’s nothing in the text to guide us, we can do pretty much whatever we want. And we have.
3. Even rabbits “reflect” God
This whole approach depends on the fact that only humans are made in the image of God. And it’s true that we’re the only ones the Bible ever explicitly says that about. But in some places it sure sounds like the rest of creation also serves some kind of imaging function. After all, don’t all of the heavens “declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1)? And doesn’t Paul say that we can see “God’s invisible attributes” in what he has made (Rom. 1:19)? Maybe I’m missing something, but it sounds to me like the rest of creation also reflects God in some way, even if we still maintain (as we should) that there’s something different about what it means for humans to be in the image of God.
4. You’re not as cool as you think you are
This one’s difficult for us to wrap our brains around, but we’re not as different from other creatures as we’d like to believe. I won’t cite all the data here, but modern science has generated a lot of data to support the conclusion that none of our capacities are entirely unique. Indeed, it would be relatively easy to work through each of the proposed structural capacities and identify ways in which very similar sets of capacities can be found in other animals. We do exhibit our capacities in different ways and to different degrees (e.g. we’re smarter, we have more complex languages, etc.). But differences of degree are a weak basis for making sharp distinctions between creatures that image God and those who don’t.
5. My neighbor isn’t rational
Another problem is the fact that for any capacity you name, I can point to somebody who doesn’t have it. I once had a neighbor that I’m pretty sure did not have the capacity for rational thinking. He certainly had the capacity for making a mess out of whatever he was working on, and he routinely used his capacity for kicking things when he got angry. But rationality? I didn’t see a lot of that. And, of course, I could point to quite a few other people who don’t seem to have “rationality” either (babies, coma patients, people who watch reality TV shows, etc.). And I’m sure we could do the same with pretty much any capacity we might name. But how can these capacities define what it means to be human if there are so many people who don’t have them? That seems like a problem.
6. You’re not really human
Of course, one option is just to bite the bullet and say that anyone without those capacities isn’t really a person. It may look like a human, sound like a human, and even smell like a human, but it’s not really a human. It’s something else. And unfortunately that very argument has been used to suggest that infants, the handicapped, the elderly, and other groups aren’t really human. Unless you’re willing to embrace that conclusion, you may want to rethink this approach to the image of God.
7. Putting the “I” in image
One of the benefits of the structural approach is that I don’t really need you to be truly human. If “humanity” is defined entirely in terms of capacities like rationality and creativity, then I have everything that I need to be fully human all by myself. If I escaped on a spaceship just before the rest of you were destroyed by aliens building a new interstellar highway, I’d still have all the requisite capacities. So, on the structural view, the imago is pretty individualistic. And, as attractive as that might be, we’ll see in later posts that there are really good reasons for thinking that an individualistic approach to the image of God just isn’t going to cut it.
8. Jesus is always the right answer
Anyone who’s been to Sunday School knows that “Jesus” is usually a pretty good answer to almost any question. And that’s true here as well. The NT makes it pretty clear that the image of God is a christological concept–i.e. we can’t understand it fully until we’ve seen it in light of who Jesus is. But the structural approach usually neglects Jesus entirely. If they say anything about him, it will just be to affirm that he also has the capacity in question. But that’s just an addendum. The truth is that Jesus has no real impact on what they think about the image. And that’s tragic. If Jesus is the true image of God, then he can’t be a mere addendum to the discussion.
So it should be pretty clear by now why the structural approach just isn’t going to cut it. There’s nothing wrong with comparative anthropology. We can learn a lot about being human by looking to see how we’re different from other creatures. But it’s probably not the best of way of understanding the image of God. And it’s a terrible way of defining the essence of humanity. We’re going to need something else.