Do you know how to separate good test-takers from bad ones? The bad ones think “all of the above” is their friend, giving them an out when they don’t know the right answer. Good test-takers know better. “All of the above” is usually a trap.
You see, evil professors know that multiple choice questions can actually be very difficult to answer. Worded properly, the answers all sound pretty good. So the ill-prepared student has a hard time figuring out which one is correct And then the professor slips in “all of the above.” If all the answers sound good, that must be the right choice. It covers all the bases! When in doubt, cover as much territory as possible.
The problem with “all of the above” is that there only needs to be one little mistake in any of the options for your choice to be wrong. A and C could be perfectly true, but if B is a little off, then “all of the above” is flat out wrong. It’s just there to suck you in with it’s seductive promise of all-encompassing thoroughness.
So the good test-taker knows that “all of the above is risky.” It’s not that it can’t be the right answer, but there are just too many ways for it to be wrong. Be careful with “all of the above.”
We’ve been working our way through a series on the image of God. We’ve seen that this is a debated concept, and we’ve discussed three major approaches to understanding what it means: the structural approach, the functional approach, and the relational approach. We’ve also seen that although each have their strengths, they all have problems as well. And this has led some to argue that we shouldn’t try to pick between them. The imago is big enough for everyone. The right choice here is “all of the above.”
A Multifaceted Approach to the Image of God
People arguing for an “all of the above” approach to the imago usually offer a few arguments in its favor:
- An Unbounded Image: The idea here is that the image of God is just too complex to try and capture in a single concept/theory. That’s why the other approaches all seem inadequate in important ways. Individually, they are inadequate. They’re like those blind people checking out the elephant. They each see part of the whole, but you need all of them together to see the imago in its fulness.
- A Holistic Image: A big part of the reason the image is so complex is because people are complex. It wouldn’t be too bad if the imago only referred to one part of the human person (e.g. rationality), but that’s not how it works. The Bible always applies the imago to the whole human person. God simply declares that he will create ‘man’ in his image. There’s no hint that he only has part of the human person in mind. But that means the imago applies to the human person in all its chaotic complexity. So the image itself must also be complex and multifaceted.
- A Big Image for a Big God: If the human person is too complex for a single concept, how much more is that true of God himself? But the image is supposed to reflect the divine nature in some way. So should we be at all surprised to find out that the image is a complex and multifaceted reality? Of course not. We have a big God, so we’ll need a big imago to do him justice.
There’s a lot about this approach that I like. For a long time, this is precisely how I understood the image of God. Why try to pick among competing theories when you can just combine them into one super theory? If they’re good individually, they’ll be that much better when you put them together.
But, of course, that isn’t always how things work.
1. Some Ketchup in Your Coffee
The multifaceted approach builds much of its argument on a faulty assumption. Even if several things are good separately, there’s no particular reason to think that putting them together will result in something even better. I like ice cream. And I like mustard. But you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that mixing them together will create some wonderful, new flavor.
The same problem is at work here. Even if all of these theories are independently wonderful (and we’ve seen reasons to question this conclusion), putting them together doesn’t necessarily result in something better. Proponents tend to focus on how great it would be if we could combine all the strengths of these various positions. And they do have some terrific strengths. But they fail to notice that you end up combining all of their respective weaknesses as well. You can’t have one without the other.
So be careful about assuming that an “all of the above” approach to the imago gives you an even more impressive and robust perspective. You may just end up with ketchup-flavored coffee.
2. No Easy Way Out
My biggest frustration with the multifaceted approach is that it runs the risk of being intellectually lazy. Now, I want to be careful here. I’m not saying that any individual person who holds this position is in fact lazy. I know some pretty impressive people who think this is the right way to understand the imago. So it’s not necessarily lazy, but I do think it runs the risk of being lazy.
The problem here is the same one that crops up every time there are several viable options on some important issue. Instead for doing the hard work of wrestling with the arguments and coming up with the most reasonable solution, some people will always be tempted to conclude that maybe everyone is right. (Religious pluralism at its finest.)
It’s entirely possible that this is the right conclusion. Sometimes a multifaceted approach to a complex issue is perfect. The problem isn’t with the conclusion, but the process. If you come to this conclusion as the end result of working through all the issues, perfect. If you jumped straight here because it seemed like an easy way of dodging a difficult argument, go back and start over.
3. The Picasso Effect
Every parent quickly learns an important skill: pretending to recognize what your child has drawn on a piece of paper. You smile encouragingly, comment on how pretty it is, and then tactfully ask them to explain what they’ve drawn. And that, of course, is because you have absolutely no idea what that mess of lines and shapes is supposed to represent. You can see the pieces of the picture, but it makes no sense. It has no coherence.
I sometimes have that same feeling when I look at the multifaceted approach. I can recognize all the elements on the page, but they don’t seem to make a coherent picture. What exactly does relationality have to do with ruling as God’s representative? How does kingship relate to rationality? These are interesting concepts, but what holds them together? Sometimes it feels like I’m studying a Picasso, lots of interesting shapes and images that make for a rather messy picture.
If a multifaceted approach is going to work, people need to spend more time explaining how all of these various concepts combine to form a coherent whole. It’s not enough just to say “all of the above.” We need some explanation of how the “all” holds together.
4. A Worm in Your Wiener
To be thorough, we’ll wrap this up by returning to the problem mentioned at the beginning of the approach. “All of the above” only works if there’s nothing wrong with any of its parts.
Suppose you’re making a hot dog. And you want it to be a good one. So you have fresh buns, the best condiments, and a top-of-the-line wiener roasted on your BBQ. It’s perfect. Almost. Just as you are about to take your first bite, you notice something protruding from one end of the dog. Looking closer, you see it. A worm. In your wiener. That’s not good.
But hey, it’s just one worm, right? Everything else about the hot dog is perfect. So have at it. I’m sure the worm will just add flavor.
I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I’m eating that hot dog. (And, in case your curious, according to “The Grossest Things Accidentally Found in Hot Dogs Are Even Grosser Than You Think,” a worm isn’t even that high on the list of hot dog nastiness.) And I’d feel the same if the hot dog was fine, but the buns were all moldy, or the condiments spoiled. You only need to mess up one part to ruin the whole dog.
That’s how “all of the above” works. If there’s something basically wrong with, for example, the structural approach (and I tend to think that there is), then any view of the image that includes the structural approach is similarly flawed. You can hide the worm, but it’s still in the wiener.
So “all of the above” is something you need to be careful with. It may still be a viable approach to the imago. But before you check that box, you should do some extra work. Otherwise, who knows what you’ll end up eating.