Reading the creation story in Genesis, many intuitively connect the image of God in Genesis 1 with the reference to marriage in Genesis 2. After all, God is eternally relational, we’re created in his image, and the creation narrative isn’t really done until God fixes the problem of Adam’s isolation (Gen. 2:18) by providing another human with whom he could be come “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It thus seems obvious to many that that the meaning of the image is somehow intertwined with the meaning of marriage.
Although there is some truth here, we need to be careful. I often hear this explained in ways that cause real problems for single people in the church. The image of God has traditionally been viewed as something that is fundamental for what it means to be human. If marriage is somehow part of the meaning of the image, doesn’t that imply that single people aren’t really living the full human lives that God intended? Isn’t theirs a somehow lesser form of humanity? No one wants to say that out loud, of course, but if we’re not careful about how we talk about marriage in the creation narrative, it’s an implication that often comes across loud and clear anyway.
The following is the beginning of a paper that I recently presented at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The whole paper is a bit longer and more technical than the material I usually post here, but I thought you might appreciate it anyway. So I’m going to run the paper as three separate posts. Here is the introduction, but you’ll have to come back later for the two main points I want to make: (1) Don’t Climb a Shaky Ladder and (2) Don’t Grab a Horny Bull.
A “Marital” View of the Imago Dei
“In the beginning.” Those are powerful words around which to orient one’s theological understanding of the human person. Christian theologians have long been convinced that beginnings matter. Consequently, we analyze those first few chapters of Genesis, seeking insight into God’s original purposes for his creatures, purposes that can drive our vision of what it means to be human today. This means that how we read the creation narratives is fraught with both potential and problem. If “in the beginning” drives our vision of human flourishing today, we had best read those texts carefully.
In this paper, I would like to interrogate one common way of connecting two specific aspects of the creation narratives: the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28) and the coming together of Adam and Eve as one flesh (Gen. 2:24). According to certain views of the imago Dei, human persons are inherently relational beings, created to image God’s own triune nature in their relationships with God, other humans, and the rest of creation. Although biblical exegetes have tended to reject this as an adequate interpretation of the imago Dei in its original context, this relational view continues to dominate theological discussions of the image for reasons that we will explore later in the paper.
More specifically, though, I want to analyze a particular type of the relational view, one that specifically contends that marriage itself is in some way fundamental to the meaning of the image. Indeed, throughout the paper, I will define a marital view of the image as one in which marriage is part of the meaning of the image, as distinguished from a more generally relational view, which would not necessarily include this assertion. As, for example, Pope Francis recently declared, “The image of God is the married couple: the man and the woman; not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them together.” Although not everyone would make the claim so straightforwardly, theologians as significant as Karl Barth and John Paul II have offered robust arguments in favor of this approach to the image. And similar statements are prevalent in many popular books and sermons on marriage. (Indeed, when I am teaching on this topic in my classes, there’s a rather pervasive assumption that marriage has something to do with the meaning of the image.) Although these disparate figures might explain the precise connection between marriage and the imago in importantly different ways, the fact that they all assert such a connection is what warrants my including them in the same category. Thus, although my comments in this paper may have implications for relational views in general, I will focus for the most part on the adequacy of the marital view itself.
Nearly everyone recognizes, though, that we need to be careful with any straightforward equation of the image with marriage. Despite significant disagreements about the meaning of the imago, theologians have long agreed that it asserts something fundamental about what it means to be human. In some meaningful way, the image defines humanity. If we equate the image with marriage, then, what implications does this have for the unmarried? Does this somehow suggest that the single state is less than fully human, or, said differently, that the single state is a less perfect realization of God’s creational design for humanity? Few who affirm the connection between marriage and the imago Dei want to draw such sharp conclusions, especially in light of Jesus’ own single state. Consequently, they have offered other ways of arguing for including single persons in the imago Dei even though they think marriage is still in some way fundamental to the meaning of the image.
It would thus seem that any view that wants to relate the imago to marriage without denigrating the unmarried would seem to require the following desiderata:
1. A clear connection between the image and marriage.
2. Some way of explaining that link in a way that does not denigrate the unmarried.
Although this is precisely what most (all?) marital views of the image seek to accomplish, I will offer two arguments that point to a number of exegetical and conceptual difficulties that raise serious questions about the extent to which we should consider this a viable way of understanding the imago Dei.