In my theology classes, we often find ourselves wrestling with questions about which the Bible has relatively little to say. And students always wonder if that means these issues aren’t that important. If the Bible doesn’t have much to say about it, should we?
On the one hand, that’s a relatively easy issue to address. The Bible doesn’t talk about the internet, climate change, or Star Wars either. But those are obviously vital topics to discuss today. The Bible would have to be pretty long (and rather tedious) if it tried to answer every question we could possibly ask. That’s not what it’s there for.
Ultimately, though, that’s not a terribly helpful response because that’s not really what my students are wondering. They know the Bible doesn’t talk about everything, but they do generally believe that the Bible gives us at least the theological framework through which to understand God, the world, and ourselves. So if it doesn’t say much about an issue, then we should at least wonder if it’s really an important important part of that theological framework. It might be an intriguing idea, maybe worth discussing over a few cups of coffee or a couple pints of beer, but surely not the kind of issue that warrants lots of time in a theology class.
At times, I’m inclined to agree. The history of theology is riddled with arguments about issues about which the Bible has relatively little to say because they probably shouldn’t be important parts of our theological systems. I hesitate to provide examples here because I know I’ll end up picking someone’s favorite issue. But I’ll gently suggest that things like who should serve communion, the identity of the Beast in the book of Revelation, and the number of angels that exist, are all things that probably shouldn’t play a prominent role in your web of theological beliefs.
But let’s be careful. Things are not always as simple as they appear.
How Central Is the Image of God?
Take the image of God for example. The imago Dei has long served as one of the most fundamental concepts in theological anthropology, yet it only occurs in the Bible a handful of times. Consequently, some have wondered whether the imago should really be that central to our understanding of humanity. Once again, if the Bible rarely talks about it, maybe it’s not that important.
In his new book on the image, though, John Kilner rightly points out that we can’t gauge the significance of an issue simply by counting the number of biblical occurrences (Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God [Eerdmans, 2015], pp. 37-40). Instead, he argues that we also have to take into account (1) the strategic location of the Bible’s references to that issue and (2) the way the Bible relates that issue to other theological themes. In other words, even with just a few references the Bible can present an issue as fundamentally important if we find those references in particularly important passages and if those references demonstrate that the concept is important for understanding the rest of the biblical narrative.
Or, said differently (and to justify the image above!), what looks small in the Bible might actually have big significance. Let’s see how this plays out.
1. Strategic Location
Kilner begins by arguing that we can identify the strategic nature of the image by noting how it occurs at four key stages in human history:
The particular places where references to God’s image appear are unusually significant in the Bible. The first appearance, in Genesis 1, is at the very creation of humanity, where being in God’s image stands out as a key statement about who human beings are. Extraordinarily, in the space of two verses there are three statements of the divine intention and action to create humanity in God’s image. This is not an incidental matter but something that readers of the Bible are to notice and remember.
The image again appears in Genesis at two other pivotal points in human history. At the start of Genesis 5, the Fall has occurred, radically affecting humanity. Also the genealogies are about to begin, specifically identifying humanity. For humanity again to be freshly identified as being in God’s image at this pivotal point is particular significant. Then early in Genesis 9, right after the flood wipes out virtually all of the human race and humanity receives a fresh (albeit still fallen) start, humanity’s image-of-God status yet again appears in order to reiterate what is irremovable from who human beings are….
A fourth pivotal point in human history is the coming of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. Not only does the New Testament identify Christ as God’s image, but humanity’s dignity and destiny are also freshly defined in terms of that image. (37-38)
According to Kilner, then, although the vast majority of scripture lacks explicit reference to the image, we can identify its significance by noting the references we do have occur at particular important points in the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Given that the New Testament references all point toward the Spirit’s ongoing work of transforming God’s people according to the imago, we can probably add its importance for a fifth stage as well: the eschatological telos of humanity.
2. Strategic Significance
Kilner continues his argument by looking at how the Bible integrates the image into the story of humanity. He thus argues that “there is a strategic attempt in the Bible to use the image of God concept as a ‘gravitational force’ or ‘seedbed’ to anchor and stimulate some understanding of humanity” (39). After quickly explaining that the image presents humanity as having a connection with God (e.g. covenant) that has something to do with the reflection of God in the world and that this all deals with God’s intention for humanity, he argues that the image “introduces and grounds” important ideas about humanity rather than trying to define them in detail.
In other words, the image of God is not something per se that the Bible defines in any detail. It is more of a ‘placeholder’—a “hermeneutical lens” through which the reader is better able to understand the significance of what happens in history and where God’s people are headed. By itself, other than conveying the ideas of connection and reflection just noted, it is open-ended and suspenseful. It invites the reader still today to read on, to learn what it could look like to understand people in terms of God’s image, and God’s people more specifically in terms of the image of God in Christ. (40)
In other words, the true significance of the image cannot necessarily be seen by analyzing the individual uses of image language in the Bible. Instead, we need to understand the ways in which that language introduces and points toward the entire rest of the story. This might be somewhat similar to writing a story in which I introduce the main character in the first paragraph as “an exploding star” without explaining precisely what that means. Instead, I use the rest of the narrative to unfold and explain that initial metaphor. Even I never used that metaphor again in the book, we would still be able to see how it set up and shaped everything that followed. It’s defining significance lies not in its number of uses but in the extent to which it is integrated into the overall story. According to Kilner, that’s the image.
Counting Heads Isn’t Enough
All this to say that we should be careful about assuming that just because we can’t find very many references to something in the Bible, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Like authors today, the biblical authors are fully capable of presenting ideas as vitally significant without mentioning them very often.
If they’re doing this well, though, they’ll let us know. We should be able to find indications in the text that demonstrate the significance of these ideas. In other words, let’s not go to the opposite extreme and assume that everything mentioned in the Bible even once has equal theological significance. That would get a tad unwieldy. Instead, we need to talk about ways in which the Bible can signal a concept’s significance despite a scarcity of references. Kilner has given us two—strategic location and strategic significance—and there may be more. Our purpose here isn’t to provide an exhaustive list of such indicators, but just to reconsider the idea that if the Bible doesn’t say much about something, it must not be that important. I think we can safely disagree, for this one at least.