What is the connection between the image of God in Genesis 1 and the reference to Adam and Eve becoming “one flesh” in Genesis 2? Or, said differently, what is the relationship between the image and marriage? And how do we talk about that connection (if there is one) without denigrating the legitimacy of the single life? After all, Jesus was single. So I don’t think we want to say (or even imply) that being single is some kind of lesser form of human existence!
In a previous post, we began exploring these questions by talking about “marital” views of the image, those in which marriage serves as part of the definition of the image of God itself. And I suggested that any such view needs to provide (1) a clear connection between marriage and the image and (2) some way of explaining why this view of the image does not denigrate the unmarried. In this post, we’ll consider the first of those issues. The third and final post in this series will tackle the latter.
Argument #1: Don’t Climb a Broken Ladder
For its first desideratum, the marital view needs to establish a strong connection between the image of God and marriage. Yet any such attempt immediately faces the challenge that there is no direct connection between the imago Dei of Gen 1 and the reference to Adam and Eve becoming one flesh in Gen 2. The first creation narrative contains no explicit reference to marriage, neither does the second contain any explicit reference to the image. Regardless of how one understands the relationship between the two creation narratives, then, and the extent to which it is legitimate to use concepts from one to inform the other, some account needs to be given for why these two concepts in particular should be linked in such a way that they inform one another.
Although there are some differences among various exponents of the marital view, a prevalent way in which theologians tend to create that link looks something like this.
1. The divine plurals in Genesis 1 suggest that God’s intention is to create beings who will image his own plurality.
2. The “male and female” (Gen. 1:27) indicates that the sexual bifurcation of humanity is fundamental to God’s plan for creating humans as an image of his own plurality.
3. The “not good” (Gen. 2:18) makes the same claim about the fundamentality of sexual bifurcation, though in a more narratival way.
4. The “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) is the climax of the creation narrative in which God’s intention to create humans who will image his own plurality through their sexual differentiation finds its ultimate realization in marriage.
If these four arguments work, they seem to create the necessary link between the image of God and marriage such that the latter is fundamental to the meaning of the former. The problem, though, is that the argument does not flow as seamlessly as it appears.
1. The Divine Plurals and the Image of God
I have no interest in rehearsing all of the arguments for and against understanding the divine plurals in Gen 1 as a reference to the Trinity, or at least to a plurality within the godhead, in the way needed for this argument to get off the ground. And I’ll admit that I have some sympathy for Barth’s critique of “modern exegesis in its arrogant rejection of the Early Church,” which consistently affirmed the trinitarian reading of these plurals (CD III/1, 192). But we should at least recognize the fact that the majority of modern exegetes do in fact reject this interpretation, and exercise some caution before using it as the starting point for an understanding of humanity that has wide-ranging implications.
More pertinent to my argument, though, is that few seem to recognize that even if we grant that the divine plurals in Gen. 1 do in fact refer to some kind of plurality in the divine being, that alone is not adequate for establishing the relationality of the imago itself. What exactly is our basis for concluding that this divine plurality is the intended point of reference for the likeness between humanity and God? Rather than denoting the meaning of the image, these self-referential plurals may simply indicate a shift from the earlier “Let there be” of the other creative acts as a way of emphasizing God’s personal involvement in the creation of these creatures. And one could argue that if the intention of these plurals is not denote the relationality of the image, we would expect to find another such plural in Gen 1:27, where we instead find God referring to himself in the singular.
Consequently, even if we think that the divine plurals indicate something about God’s own nature, some further argument is required to establish the idea that this plurality was intended to serve as the reference for the image of God itself. As many have argued with respect to other views of the image, the mere juxtaposition of two concepts is insufficient to establish that one provides a definition for the other. This is the weakness that plagues, for example, arguments that the image involves creativity or speech based simply on the fact that these are among the few things that we see God doing just before he declares his intention to make us in his image. Proximity is not an argument. We’ll need more if we’re going to say that any of these concepts actually define the image in some meaningful way.
It’s possible that many fail to provide an argument for why we should use the divine plurals to define the image because it seems just obvious to them that once we’ve established that a triune (or at least plural) godhead is in view in Genesis 1, that simply must be the reference for the image. After all, if God is eternally triune and if he has created us in his image, then we must reflect that relational community in some way. But is this necessarily the case? According to classic conceptions of God, he is also eternally omnipotent, omniscience, simple, immutable, and so on. These are just as essential to his eternal divine being as the triune relations. So why not conclude that these are the proper reference for the imago Dei? It seems likely to me that the sheer obviousness of the connection between the divine plurals and the image of God stems from an already established commitment to some kind of relational view. Without that, there appears to be no good reason to assume that plurality in the godhead provides the meaning of the imago.
Of course, it is entirely possible that the marital view could try and draw support for its understanding of the divine plurals from later steps in the argument, but we will see in a moment why that is also problematic.
2. Male and Female He Created Them.
The second step in the argument can be more easily addressed. Barth famously claimed that the reference to male and female in Genesis 1:27 provides the creaturely correspondence to this divine plurality (CD III/1, 195). Instead of speculating about the nature of the image and simply importing our own conceptions of true humanity into the text, we should recognize that this is “the definitive explanation given by the text itself” (CD III/1, 195). In being created male and female, human persons from the very beginning are confronted by an other who demands a response. Although this I-Thou encounter happens in all kinds of human relationships, we are most clearly and essentially confronted by an other in the very fact of sexual differentiation.
In what is now a standard critique of this exegetical move, though, James Barr rejected such an interpretation as “a particularly ill-judged and irresponsible piece of exegesis.” Here Barr has in mind another form of the juxtaposition argument. Once again he points out that simply locating two concepts near each other does not necessarily mean that one defines the other. Many kinds of logical relationships can obtain between any two juxtaposed concepts, so one needs to provide an account for the relationship. And in this case, most exegetes agree that the reference to male/female supports the universality of the image, not its definition.
One could argue that Barr and other exegetes have simply taken two juxtaposed concepts and offered their own interpretation of the relationship. Why conclude that they are correct in arguing that this male/female language denotes the universality of the image of God rather than its meaning? According to Barr, the difference is that the question of the extent of such image language would have made sense in that cultural context. Other ANE texts use image language to talk about human persons, but almost all of them restrict that language to particular humans (esp. kings). In that context, it would have been a bold claim to say that all humans are made in the image of a divine being, but it would still have been a perfectly comprehensible claim. This attempt to understand the claim in its cultural context is precisely what Barr thinks is missing in the relational claim. Barr thus complains that “he [Barth] provided not the slightest culturally based backing for this exegesis. There was nothing in the conceivable cultural background of the passage that could make plausible the idea that the image of God actually consisted in the existence of humanity as both male and female. Barth adduced no evidence that anyone in ancient Israel had thought this way or that the words could have been meant in this way.”
A proponent of the marital view can certainly feel free to disagree with Barr and demonstrate that this way of understanding the image has some connection to the way the concept of the image actually functioned in the ancient world. Or, I suppose one could try to argue that the concept’s meaning of the image at that time is irrelevant to its use in Gen 1. But it seems likely to me that even if we think that the image undergoes conceptual development during the course of redemptive history, that later development will be organically related to its original meaning.
3. A Missing Link
Now we begin to feel the real force of the problem for the marital interpretation. If there is no direct and obvious connection between the divine plurals in Genesis 1 and the imago, and there are fundamental problems in relating the male/female reference to some relational aspect of the image, then there is nothing in Genesis 1 itself to support the marital view. Since Genesis 2 makes no explicit reference to the image, this makes it difficult to make a connection between the clearly relational nature of the second creation narrative and the imago Dei in the first creation narrative.
This also makes it challenging for the relational theological to draw on a kind of reverse argumentation in which the relationality of the second narrative is used to ground the relational nature of the first. In other words, one could argue that even though there is no necessary link between the divine plurals and the image of God in Gen 1, we are warranted in making the connection because of the relational framework of Gen 2. But that argument seems to presuppose the very connection that it’s trying to establish. Why not use morality, work, or life itself as explanatory frameworks for understanding the image? All three find reference in Gen 2 and have conceptual connections with Gen 1. What makes it the case that relationality is the proper point of connection?
Once again the lack of argumentation at this point seems to stem from the sheer obviousness of the situation. In Genesis 1, the imago is presented as something of fundamental importance about what it means to be human. In Genesis 2, it is relationality that rises to prominence as having fundamental importantance for being human. Thus, it seems just obvious to many that they are equivalent. But this obviousness is undermined once we appreciate the fact that two things could both be fundamentally important for being human without themselves being identical. I will comment on this more later, but it is entirely possible to affirm that the image of God and relationality are both essential for the kind of human living God seeks to create—thus establishing the need to find some way of understanding the connection between them—while still maintaining that they are distinct truths about humanity.
4. A Shaky Ladder
With all of this in place, we can see how tenuous the final step of the argument actually is. On what basis do we conclude that the “one flesh” of Gen. 2:24 defines the imago in Gen. 1:26-28? As we remove, or at least significantly weaken, each rung in the ladder leading from one to the other, it becomes less obvious that we should even try to climb such a rickety ladder.
Some might try to strengthen the ladder by appealing to the Bible’s later statements about marriage. For example, Barth appeals to a whole range of texts that use marriage as an analogy for God’s relationship to humanity (CD III/1, 195). Yet none of these texts make any connection between this analogy and the image of God. Thus, these texts can only serve to illustrate a connection that has been established on other grounds. Others have appealed to texts that ground the theological meaning of marriage in Christ’s relationship to the Church. Once again, though, it is not clear why we would think that such texts have anything to do with the imago apart from some argument that has already established that connection. Although such texts would certainly seem to warrant the claim that God’s purposes for humanity are inherently social/relational, a claim that we will return to in the conclusion, that is not the same as determining that such texts actually define the image itself.
Without some clear link between the image and these later relational emphases, the ladder upon which the marital view stands grows increasingly shaky.
 James Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology: The Gifford Lectures for 1991 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 160. For a similar critique, albeit less sharply worded, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 205).