What is a hammer? That may sound like an odd question, but think about it for a second. How would you explain a hammer to someone who’d never seen one? You could try to describe what a hammer looks like, probably saying something about its handle and the shape of its head. But, of course, you’ll immediately run into a couple of problems. First, not every hammer has the same shape. And second, something with the proper shape but made out of shaving cream would hardly qualify as a hammer in any meaningful sense (though it would be fun to watch you try and use it).
Your other option is to focus on what a hammer does, its function. Thus, a hammer is anything that can drive a nail (or similarly pointed object) into something (e.g. your own finger). Granted, this means that a book, a screwdriver, and even a shoe might qualify as “hammers” at various times. Not very effective hammers maybe, but hammers nonetheless.
As we work our way through our series on the image of God, the “structural” approach tries to explain the image like the first hammer definition. It locates the essence of the imago in the shape/structure of the human person. And it runs into a similar problem: what do you do with people who don’t have that same shape/structure?
So others have argued for a different approach. Don’t view the image as something that humans have, but look at it as something humans do. This is the “functional” approach to the imago Dei.
Arguments for the Functional Approach
Proponents of the functional approach have two strong arguments on their side. First, the idea of a human person being “in the image” of some god was hardly unique to Israel. It was actually quite well known in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. And, in their writings, “image of God” clearly referred some human, typically a kingly figure or a priest, who was the god’s official representative in the world. And they exercised dominion/authority in the world specifically because they were their god’s “vicar.” Since the biblical authors use the phrase without explanation, it seems reasonable to conclude that it had a common meaning that they expected people to know. And the best candidate for this common meaning is the notion that to be “in the image of God” is to be his divinely appointed representatives/vicars in the world.
And this argument gets further support from the fact that even in Genesis 1 we find the imago associated with ruling as God’s representatives (v. 28). This seems to confirm that the biblical authors were using an idea that was well known in that cultural context, which is why they don’t take the time to explain clearly what they meant. (This also means that the radical idea in Genesis 1 isn’t that people can be “in the image of God,” but the extension of this notion so that it includes all humans rather than just kings and priests.)
With such strong arguments in its favor, this seems like a slam dunk. Indeed, although it’s exceedingly rare for OT scholars to agree on mucho f anything, there’s a pretty strong consensus in the field that this really is the only legitimate understanding of the imago Dei. Nonetheless, we should note at least a few reservations. None of these actually defeats the functional image. But they do suggest that to use the functional approach well, we will need to strengthen and clarify it in some important ways.
Weaknesses of the Functional Approach to the Image of God
1. Budapest Is Not Barcelona
Whenever we use extrabiblical sources, we need to be careful about assuming too quickly that what something means in one culture is precisely the same as a similar-sounding concept in another culture. Cultural differences matter, especially when we’re talking about important religious concepts. So we must be sensitive to the distinctive culture of ancient Israel and, more importantly, distinctive theological framework of the OT, in understanding how “image” and “likeness” function in Genesis 1. That doesn’t mean we should avoid these hints from other ancient cultures, but a measure of caution is warranted.
2. An Empty Concept Is No Concept At All
I would also like to see proponents of the functional approach spend a little more time unpacking exactly what it means to “rule” creation as God’s divinely appointed representatives. Granted, this issue gets talked about quite a bit when interpreters get to v. 28, especially among those in the “cultural mandate” tradition. But those discussions often get disconnected from discussions surrounding the meaning of the imago itself. If we image God by ruling creation for him, it would seem important to pin down precisely what that means.
3. Blinders Are Never a Good Idea
Probably my biggest frustration with many functionalist interpretations is an overly narrow approach to exegesis. Many interpreters restrict the discussion almost entirely to Genesis 1 and (sometimes) later passages like Psalm 8. Consequently, they often miss the function of Genesis 1:26-28 within the narrative flow of Genesis and, indeed, the rest of the canon. The two creation accounts are importantly different. But, in the final form of Genesis that we have, they were placed next to each other for a reason. And they should be read together. Thus, although the second chapter of Genesis makes no explicit reference to the imago, it continues the Genesis account of humanity’s creation and raises a number of important themes that should be taken into consideration: “tending” creation, human relationship, relationship to other creatures, and accountability, to name a few. A narrow focus on the first chapter alone, then, may cause us to miss something important being expressed in the overall flow of the narrative. And the same can be said for isolating the imago from the rest of the biblical narrative with its emphasis on Israel as God’s chosen people and Christ as the consummation of the imago Dei.
4. Away in a Manger Is a Bad Place to Leave the Messiah
And that leads directly into our last point. Here as well we often see a tendency to neglect Jesus as the true image of God. And this often stems from interpretive decisions as well–especially the desire to resist reading NT concepts into OT passages. However we understand the image in Genesis, we must do so in such a way that it finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The proper interpretive context of Genesis 1:26-28, then, is not just Genesis 1 alone, but the entire scope of the narrative that it initiates.
By the time we’re done with this series, I think we’ll see that the functional approach offers a very important perspective on the imago Dei. We need to nuance the functional approach in a few important ways. But, in the end, any attempt to understand the imago needs to include a healthy dose of the idea that humans are created to “rule” creation as God’s divinely appointed representatives.
[If you enjoyed this, you may want to check out the rest of our series on "What Is an Image and Should I Care?"]