9.5 Theses


9.5 Theses

Gabriel Haley, Assistant Professor of English, Concordia University, Nebraska

Although I am not a trained theologian but that lower form of life, a literary historian, I present the following theses for consideration and discussion. As a preparatory caution, I must note that my approach here is not, on the whole, systematic. In fact, I will not claim that the theses presented below have been fully worked out to exist logically in concert with all the others. Nevertheless, I offer them, along with (half) a suggestion of how we might hold them together in a kind of willing suspension.

1. Instead of attempting to define imago Dei exhaustively, Lutherans might champion the concept in a more general way, as that which distinguishes the human being in the order of creation. Of the many Judeo-Christian concepts available, imago Dei holds enormous appeal to the imagination. Because of this, the concept attracts multiple definitions, both in popular usage and in church tradition. Irenaeus associates it with the union of a soul and a physical body.[1] Other early church fathers suggested additional understandings. Most capaciously, perhaps, Gregory of Nyssa contrasts imago Dei with those faculties that make man “kindred with the lower creation” (such as reproductive capacity and the need for nourishment by food), pointing instead to the “principle of excellence, all virtue and wisdom, and every higher thing we can conceive.”[2] More recently, popular writers have influenced contemporary usage: J. R. R. Tolkien associates the imago Dei with the creative, artistic capacity of the human being, while Tim Keller suggests that it evokes the human’s “irreducible glory and significance.”[3] There may be a “common sense” way to employ imago Dei, one which inevitably involves a certain amount of vagueness, yet maintains the distinction of the human being in the order of creation.

2. Lutherans should avoid exhaustive definition for the sake of Church unity. The proposal to keep imago Dei from definition in any precise way, yet still retain it as an essential way to speak about the human being, is perhaps not as rigorous as one might wish. But such reticence for the sake of unity has some precedent in the Augsburg Confession. In all matters not pertaining to specific reforms, the Augsburg Confession is irenic: “[O]ur churches dissent in no article of faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canon.”[4] Lutherans should engage this part of their tradition, seeking Christian unity as much as possible, in order to live out the creedal belief in the Church Catholic, as well as Jesus’ prayer for unity within the body (John 17).

3. The Lutheran Confessions state that the imago Dei was lost after the Fall; this might be understood with the caveat “insofar as imago Dei is equated with original righteousness. Here we must mark an important distinction found within the Augsburg Confession’s crucial reforms. While imago Dei is not explicitly mentioned in the original confession, the phrase appears in subsequent attempts to clarify the position of the reforming churches regarding justification. Nevertheless, in accord with the irenic tone of the original confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession positions the reformer’s understanding of imago Dei foremost within traditional understandings, claiming that the loss of original righteousness in the Fall is entirely orthodox.[5] Regarding the image of God, the Apology indirectly implies what the Solid Declaration later states directly: “[O]riginal sin is a complete absence or ‘lack of the original righteousness acquired in Paradise’ or of the image of God.”[6] Here imago Dei is placed specifically in apposition with original righteousness, limiting its use to this.

So while a Lutheran anthropology affirms that the image of God is lost after the Fall, this claim is made insofar as imago Dei is equated with original righteousness. With its clarification, the Solid Declaration certainly reveals the influence of Luther’s own thought on the matter.[7] But the prominent definition that associates imago Dei with original righteousness does not encompass the many ways it has been used within church tradition, past and present. Using the larger frame proposed in (1), contemporary Lutheran definitions of the human being might become a part of discussions about imago Dei. For example, the Lutheran understanding of the human being as “responsoric” (one who is called and responds to a call) would be understood as signaling a given human capacity that is reflective of a Trinitarian God, hence one of many potential definitions of imago Dei.[8]

4. Losing a capacious sense of imago Dei threatens to turn the love of neighbor into idolatry. We might now consider a cost of not attributing the imago Dei to every human being. Scripture teaches that the love of the neighbor follows love of God (Mark 12:30-31). One effective way to explain the sequence is to see the neighbor as the image of God. Without imago Dei, love of the neighbor might be idolatrous, since it is a unique kind of love (agape). Love of the neighbor cannot look like the love for any other creature. It is a stronger form of love than affection or compassion. By attributing the image of God to our neighbor, we avoid idolizing the human being.

5. Discussions of imago Dei should include a large array of scriptural sources. Any scripture that suggests the place of the human being in the order of creation can be included in discussions of imago Dei. Most appropriate, of course, are passages like Genesis 1:26-27, 5:1-3, 9:5-6, Colossians 1:15—namely, all places in scripture that use a phrase normally translated as “image of God.” But to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), considering the passage’s emphasis on bodily existence, would be included as offering an understanding of imago Dei that resonates with incarnational theology. Further, Paul suggests that even pagan thought can point to truth in an evocative re-contextualizing of Greek sources: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). By approvingly citing a Platonic philosopher and the poet Aratus, Paul seems to support those who include creative capacity as a feature of imago Dei.

6. We might consider the loss of imago Dei at the Fall to be a loss of vision, as we simultaneously consider that at the time of creation imago Dei was still to come. The above theses have suggested ways to retain a sense of imago Dei that is applicable to all human beings. Common usage would encourage this, but another tack is to think of imago Dei in the terms offered by the Orthodox theologian John Behr’s commentary on Genesis’s account of human creation:

Having declared all these things [all prior creations] into existence by a word alone, God then announces his own project—not with an injunction but with the subjunctive, ‘Let us make the human being (anthropos) in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen 1:26). This is the work of God. This is what he has set his mind to. This is what he specifically deliberates about. This is the divine purpose and resolve. And this is the only thing that is not followed by the Words ‘and it was so.’[9]

Behr suggests that only in the work of Christ is the creation of the human being completed (the “it” of “It is finished”). In this sense, imago Dei is not part of original creation, but the perfection of the human being yet to come in Christ. The implication is that, while human beings were created good, they were not created perfect. The image of God is the perfection of the human being through Christ.

7. A sense of final causation is worth championing, even if the phrase is Aristotelian. Final causation undoubtedly holds an Aristotelian air—no matter. It remains a valuable way to describe human beings with biblical eschatology in mind. Perhaps, as suggested in (6), we conclude that imago Dei was not completed in original creation. Nevertheless, a sense of final causation includes the yet-to-come, fully completed form as a part of the definition of the human being. Imago dei thus remains applicable to any human being as a potential state, since God desires all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). C. S. Lewis points to a practical application of such thinking:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.[10]

See (4).

8. Lutheran anthropology should be better attuned to celibate vocations. At the time of the Reformation, celibacy was culturally privileged. Both Luther and Melanchthon, in their diverse ways, sought to draw attention to the hypocrisy and decadence that had become part and parcel of the spiritual hierarchy. In their critiques, the reformers extended medieval devotional trends that placed greater value on lay piety, a multi-faceted movement which had been ongoing for centuries.[11] Has the trend gone too far, to the point of discounting celibacy as a true vocation? Lutheranism today rarely encourages its members to think of celibacy as a vocation in its own right—the idea, it often seems, smacks of popery. Yet the Lutheran Confessions proclaim, “We also praise true continence.”[12] The fact cannot be avoided that many for various reasons, including medical reasons within a marriage, are called to the celibate life. Given the history of Protestant suspicion of celibate vocations, affirming celibacy now would require a greater emphasis on the spiritual benefits that are concomitant with a celibate life.

9. Biblical anthropology can, and should, remain a speculative endeavor. Most definitions applied to imago Dei have their reasons, but they are not necessarily definitive. The scriptures that explicitly reference the image of God are few, and the difficulty of allowing scripture to interpret scripture can be shown from church tradition. Should we distinguish “image” from “likeness” in Genesis 1? Do we consider the “form of God” from Philippians 2:5 to be synonymous with the “image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15? If we understand Christ to be imago Dei, is there a subtle suggestion that the act of human creation in Genesis is deferred? Any attempt to systematize the study of imago Dei, any attempt to provide exhaustive definition, may inevitably admit errors of commission or omission.

9.5. A Lutheran contemplative theology would not delineate that which is to be believed and confessed, but it could be taught. John Calvin claimed that “a definition of the image of God ought to rest on a firmer basis than such subtleties [as Augustine’s attempt to outline a Trinitarian anthropology].”[13] Could Lutherans find a way to value a speculative—or could we say a contemplative?—approach to doing theology? This would not be pursued as a way to set official doctrine, nor to entertain doubt; but to allow theology to invade all areas of life, to attend to the imaginative faculties of humans, and ultimately to aid devotion.


1 Against Heresies, V, 6, 1.
2 On the Making of Man, XVI, 11.
3 J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf (New York: Harper Collins, 2001). Timothy Keller, Generous Justice How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 84.
4 AC Abuses Corrected. See also the reiteration of the point in the Conclusion.
5 Ap II, 18.
6 SD I, 10.
7 Roland Ziegler, “Defining Humanity in the Lutheran Confessions,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 78, No. 1-2 (2014): 110.
8 Wilfried Joest, Ontologie der Person bei Luther (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), quoted in Ziegler, “Defining Humanity,” 108.
9 Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 34.
10 The Weight of Glory (New York: Harper Collins, 1980), 45.
11 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press), 85.
12 Ap XXIII, 22.
13 “Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis,” vol. 1, quoted in Douglas John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 102.

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