We have been working our way through a 3-part series on whether we should view marriage as part of the meaning of the imago Dei. In part 1, I explained that any marital view of the image needs to establish a strong connection between marriage and the image of God, so part 2 looked at some of the exegetical challenges involved in establishing that connection. Today’s post goes in a different direction. The second thing any marital view needs to do is explain the connection between marriage and the image of God without unintentionally denigrating the unmarried. And I think any such approach runs into some pretty important problems here as well.
Don’t Grab a Horny Bull
The second problem with the marital view is that its very framework creates one of those dilemmas in which grabbing either horn would produce significant difficulties. So my advice is to leave the poor bull alone.
Both Karl Barth and John Paul II offer similar ways of arguing that marriage is fundamental to the imago Dei without excluding the unmarried. Despite their differences, each argues that marriage is a basic expression of a more fundamental kind of relationality. Humans were created for “existence in confrontation” (Barth) or for the “communio personarum” (John Paul II). This is the fundamental nature of relationality that finds its ultimate expression in the triune godhead and is mirrored at the creaturely level in many kinds of human relationships. Insofar as we engage each other in the “I-Thou” relationship (Barth) or in “reciprocal enrichment” (John Paul II), we are expressing the divine image/likeness. Marriage is significant in that it is the fundamental expression of this relationality at the creaturely level, but not in a way that excludes other expressions of this relationality.
But the idea that the real meaning of these texts lies in some more basic kind of relationality creates some important problems. Although both of these theologians spend considerable time explaining how they derive these ideas from the text, one cannot avoid the suspicion that they are actually taking pre-conceived notions of relationality and imposing those notions on the texts. Although self-giving freedom (John Paul II) and being-for-the-other (Barth) might be important anthropological concepts, it’s difficult to see how the narratives themselves press toward these interpretations.
Returning to Barr’s argument, we can see that his fundamental concern about Barth’s interpretation was not merely his fallacious juxtaposition argument. Instead, Barr’s real target was the worry that Barth’s argument was anachronistic. Rather than deriving his I-Thou relationality from the texts, he was imposing that framework on them. Barr thus agrees with Phyllis Bird’s conclusion:
Despite close reference to the biblical text as his primary source, he [Barth] has failed to discern its anthropology—and theology—and has advanced only a novel and arresting variation of the classical trinitarian interpretation, an interpretation characterized by the distinctly modern concept of an ‘I–Thou’ relationship, which is foreign to the ancient writer’s thought and intention.
This is not to say that ancient people could not have understood the concept of relationality as being fundamental to the image of God, only to ask whether they actually did use this language in this way or whether this is another example of modern exegetes reading modern concepts into ancient texts.
This argument points out something else that needs to be taken seriously in this discussion. Several recent theologians have argued that the image in Genesis 1 is almost an empty cipher, waiting to be filled with theological content by later developments in redemptive history. Given the later emphasis on the importance of community and relationality in the outworking of God’s through Israel and the Church, we are thus justified in concluding that the image itself is inherently relational. The weakness of such an argument, though, is that the image language in Genesis 1 had actual meaning in its cultural context. We may debate the precise nuances of that meaning or the aspects that provide the proper conceptual background against which to understand the creation narratives, but that is not the same as saying that the concept was entirely vacuous and can be filled with whatever later content we find most appropriate.
Indeed, when we look at the texts themselves, they are remarkably silent on any form of human relationality beyond that expressed by the male/female and marital relationships. The texts talk about being fruitful, multiplying, and becoming one flesh. Appealing to a more basic form of relationality about which the texts are entirely silent begins to sound like a way of avoiding the implications of the kind of relationships the texts actually describe.
The alternative, though, is hardly any better. Given that these theologians have linked these relational texts to the imago Dei in such a way that they define the nature of the image itself, they simply cannot affirm that these texts just are about marriage without simultaneously seeming to exclude, or at least minimize, the full image-bearing status of quite a number of human persons, including Jesus himself.
These seem to be the horns of the dilemma. To the extent that the marital view relies on a more abstract concept of relationality of which marriage is a basic expression, it exposes itself to the charge of anachronism. On the other hand, if it tries to avoid these problems by emphasizing marriage itself as the definition of the kind of relationality involved, it runs the risk of excluding (or at least minimizing) the unmarried from fully participating in the image of God.
One could opt to grab either horn of that dilemma, but once again, my advice is to leave the bull alone.
 Phyllis Bird, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 132.