It’s a boy! I could be wrong, but I imagine that’s the first the the doctor said to my parents when I was born. And I’m sure my parents didn’t find this at all unusual – especially since I am, in fact, a boy. But if you think about it for a moment, why is this always the first thing we think about when a new baby is born? Surely, my sexual genitalia were not my most notable features. The doctor could have made equally objective observations about the size of my head or the tone of my skin. Why does gender get so much attention?
And the same is true for non-doctors. Tell someone you’re pregnant, and just count the seconds until they ask if it’s going to be a boy or a girl. Look at the baby shower presents and notice how the anticipated gender shaped everyone’s purchases. Dress your new baby in green and watch all the frustrated people try to figure out which gender category to put it in. Before we have even opened our eyes to see the strange new world that lies beyond the safety of our mothers’ wombs, our sexuality has already started to shape who we are and how we relate to the people around us.
As Robert Jewett said,
Sexuality permeates one’s individual being to its very depth; it conditions every facet of one’s life as a person….Our self-knowledge is indissolubly bound up not simply with our human being but with our sexual being.
So, as we continue our discussion of the image of God, it should come as no surprise that some have considered the possibility that sexuality lies at the heart of the image of God just as the image of God lies at the heart of what it means to be human. But they mean more than just the fact that we were born with certain biological features. For these thinkers, sexuality is really about being in relationship. “Male” and “female” are essentially relational terms–i.e. you can’t really have one without the other. So, by creating humans as gendered creatures, God established us as those who identity is always constituted in relationship to someone else. And it is through these relationships that we we reflect God’s being in the world. The imago is relational.
Arguments for a Relational View of the Image of God
The relational approach to the image has been very popular with theologians in the 20th century (esp. Karl Barth), but it has largely been rejected by biblical scholars as lacking any exegetical basis. Unfortunately, that’s a bit unfair. The relational approach actually has several important arguments in its favor.
- Divine Plurals: Some argue that the divine plurals in Genesis 1 (let “us”) suggest that God portrays himself as plural, and thus relational, right before he declares his intent to create something in his image. Thus, the context leads us to expect that the imaging would have something to do with this plurality.
- Gender Connection: Most note that the author quickly moves from the imago to gender in vv. 27. For people like Barth, this suggests that the reference to male and female provides the necessary clue for unpacking what the image God is all about.
- Not Good: Proponents also argue that we need to bring Genesis 2 into the conversation. Since it follows right on the heels of Genesis 1, we should hear echoes of the imago in Genesis 2, even though it is not explicitly mentioned. So, when we see the declaration that it is “not good” for Adam to be alone, we can only conclude that relationality lies at the heart of being human, and thus at the heart of the image of God itself.
- Jesus: Although everyone agrees that the imago in the NT is a christological concept, the relational approach is the one most likely to make this an important part of its understanding. If Jesus defines what it means to be an “image” of God, then a relational approach seems unavoidable given the centrality of relationships in Jesus’ own life: (1) his trinitarian relationships with the Father and the Spirit, (3) the importance of his earthly relationships with his disciples, and (3) the fact that his ministry culminated in the creation of a corporate group, the church.
Problems with a Relational View of the Image of God
Despite these arguments and the undeniable popularity of the relational approach in the 20th century, we should recognize some important weaknesses to the relational approach to the image of God.
1. Proliferating Plurals
The divine plurals in Genesis 1 (“let us”) are a great way of arguing for the relational image, but only if you can convince someone that these actually do refer to some kind of “plurality” in God’s own being. In other words, if the fact that God refers to himself as “us” in Genesis 1 is an early hint at the trinitarian nature of God, then the fact that God decides to make something in “our” image would suggest that the image itself is relational. That’s a reasonable argument.
The problem is that very few biblical scholars think this is what the plurals in Genesis 1 mean. According to most, the biblical authors often present God as surrounded by all of the angels and declaring his intentions to them. So the “us” in Genesis 1, on this view, actually refers to God and the angels. It’s a little like me saying to the family “Let us make pancakes” when I’m really the one who’s going to do all the work.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that this is another example of biblical scholars being too hesitant to see echoes of the NT in OT passages. (See my last post in this series.) And given the long history of seeing hints of the Trinity in Genesis, I’m hesitant to discard this interpretation entirely. But we should still recognize that most biblical scholars are hesitant (at best) to read the text this way.
2. Proximity Pitfalls
Many relational theologians place significant weight on the fact that the author of Genesis places the imago Dei and human sexuality right next to each other. Clearly they are meant to inform each other in significant ways. It’s not that the imago Dei lacks content, we just haven’t been paying attention to what the text has said all along. God created us in his image by making us male and female. Our sexuality (and corresponding relationally) simply is the image of God. To look elsewhere is to ignore the text.
The problem with this argument is that it draws an illegitimate conclusion from an important observation. Yes, the text does place the imago and sexuality in close proximity to one another. But mere proximity doesn’t tell us anything about the precise relationship between those two concepts. Instead of the latter serving to define the former, it’s far more likely that the intention of the text is to make sure we understand that the imago includes all humans. As we discussed in the last post, the concept of humans being in the image of some deity was somewhat common in the biblical world. The truly radical thing about Genesis 1 is that it doesn’t limit the image of God just to kings or priests. Instead, it tells us that all humans, regardless of gender, are made in the image of God.
Now, I don’t think that this is the only thing sexuality tells us about what it means to be made in God’s image. We’ll talk about that more later in the series. But we need to realize that the proximity argument alone isn’t going to get the job done.
3. Popularity Problems
To be honest, I like the relational view of the image of God. It makes a lot of sense. Modern trinitarian theology has done a lot to highlight the relationally inherent in God himself. And modern psychology and sociology have taught us a lot about how essential relationships are for human thriving. And the same could be said for almost every area of modern study. Modernity is all about relationality.
And that should make us stop and think. In an earlier post, we talked about the fact that we’ve always had a tendency to read our own cultural preconceptions into our understanding of the image of God. Instead of hearing what the text has to say about the imago, we want to tell the text what we already think about the human person. That’s much more comfortable.
The fact that “relationality” is the culturally popular way of understanding humanity should make relational theologians very nervous. It’s not that the text can’t be talking about relationships. Maybe it really is there. Or maybe we’re just seeing it there because we want to. The mere fact that this is entirely possible should make relational theologians far more cautious than they tend to be.
4. Powow Partners
Okay, I’m fully aware that “powwow” isn’t the best word here. But I had such a good “p” motif going, and I couldn’t come up with a p-word for dialog/conversation. So powwow it is.
Anyway, the issue here is that relational theologians need to do a better job listening to scholars from other disciplines, particularly the biblical disciplines. I’m sure it must be quite frustrating for biblical scholars to hear yet another theologian teach that “male and female” defines the image of God in terms of human relationships mirroring the essentially relational nature of the triune God. As much sense as that might make in a theology book, biblical scholars have to be wondering if most theologians ever bother to pick up a commentary, or even a Bible for that matter.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that we should adopt some kind of “majority rules” approach to biblical interpretations based on what “most’ biblical scholars think. But, since they spend their entire lives studying the Bible, we should probably pay at least a little attention to what they’re saying. If nothing else, it’s the polite thing to do.
Now, having said all that, I still think there is some value to the relational approach. I think people who dismiss the relational approach as completely without biblical warrant need to pay more attention to relationality in Genesis 2 and the significance of the christological shift in the NT. So I don’t think it’s a question of dismissing the relational view entirely, though I do think we do need to be far more careful how we approach it.