The following is the first in a two-part review of John Kilner’s new book entitled Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). This review was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2015 (Vol. 4.1) issue of the Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID), for which I serve as Book Review Editor. Information on the JCID, including subscriptions and downloadable articles, can be obtained at http://www.joniandfriends.org/jcid/
The concept of the “image of God,” while central to much theological reflection over the ages, has often not been well understood. The image of God has frequently been defined by picking out one or more present human attributes—moral virtues, functions, or capacities such as “reason,” “righteousness,” “relationship,” or “rulership”—which are taken to render human beings either “like God” or “unlike animals,” and thereby possessing “dignity.” The problem with these accounts is that no matter which current human attribute one identifies as constitutive of being “in the image of God,” it will inevitably be a degreed property, rendering some human beings more “in the image” than others. Consequently, large segments of the human population will be excluded from participation in the imago Dei, either in part or in whole, with significant implications for their subsequent treatment. Indeed, as Kilner observes, history is riddled with examples of “image-inspired devastation,” in which entire classes of human beings—women, enslaved Africans, and Jews during the Nazi holocaust, to name a few—have been deemed to be lacking the “image of God,” and therefore lacking in human “dignity.” From there the slide toward abuse, oppression, and even wholesale murder of such groups has been an easy one.
Kilner traces the source of problems with discussions of human dignity to the acceptance of two faulty assumptions: (1) being in the image of God has to do primarily with current human attributes; (2) the image of God can be damaged. In rejoinder, Kilner argues—by way of careful biblical exegesis of all relevant biblical texts—that creation in the imago Dei has more to do with intended rather than current (human) attributes, and that the imago Dei itself remains undamaged despite the presence and impact of sin. It is human beings who have been damaged (by sin) and are in need of restoration, not the image of God. We are created by God in his image, which means we have a special connection (of similarity rather than identity) with him and are intended ultimately to reflect his attributes to the fullest extent possible for human beings—at which point we will then in that sense be his image (through union with Christ by faith in him, who is the image of God). For now, we bear his image, with the divine intention being that through the process of sanctification—culminating in post-resurrection glorification—we will increasingly reflect godly attributes as we are “renewed in” the image of (God-in-) Christ, thereby fulfilling our intended destiny of being, or becoming, the image of God. Thus, creation in the image of God has to do more with God’s intentions for us—to be conformed to the image of Christ—than it does with our present capacities or functional abilities. The “image of God” is not a substantial (physical) object to which one can point, or a degreed property of which one can have more or less. Instead, it is a fixed and invariable standard—namely, (the person of) Christ himself—to which people made “in,” or “according to,” that image, and who have “embraced” their intended destiny through faith in Christ, are being conformed over time. At present, sin interferes with our ability to reflect godly attributes; it does not, however, affect either the “image of God” itself, or humanity’s status as created in (according to) that image. Consequently, a lack of present capacities or functions on the part of any individual human being cannot be taken as evidence that that individual somehow fails to be “in,” or to “bear,” the image of God. Together, these realities of created connection with God and intended reflection of his attributes ground our dignity and our destiny as human beings, both individually and collectively.