Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Imago Dei and Personhood

Far from being an abstruse theological technicality, our understanding of the image of God in man (the imago Dei) literally has life-and-death consequences. In the 50 years, medical technological advances have blurred man’s attempt to define himself. Physicians and ethicists ask, What is a “person”? When does life begin and end? and, What quality of life is worth maintaining? The medical and ethical discussion concerning “personhood” and the theological consideration of the imago Dei both seek to establish the essence of existence which qualifies a human being for dignity and respect.

Historically the church has understood man as imaging God with such metaphysical characteristics as rationality, intellect, creativity, and the ability to relate with God and each other. However, if the imago Dei is restricted to the immaterial, the conclusion could be that many humans (such as the severely handicapped, mentally underdeveloped, irreversibly comatose, and victims of Alzheimer’s disease) either never had the image of God or have lost it. This is a position endorsed by a number of Christian theologians. It is a short step from this to justifying selective abortion and advocating infanticide and euthanasia. More radical ethicists (including a Nobel laureate) have suggested a waiting period after birth before bestowing personhood on infants. The motivation is to complete genetic testing, thereby allowing society to weed out the genetic “riffraff.”

However, numerous evangelical scholars challenge such a narrow definition of the imago Dei. Helmut Thielicke said it would violate the mentality of Hebrew thought to separate the essence of being from its physical manifestation. Bruce Waltke says, “Moses did not intend to exclude man’s glyptic [sculpted] form from the notion ‘image of God.’ Mankind as a physical-spiritual unity is the image of God.” Especially in light of medical advances which cause us to confront new and difficult life situations, it behooves us to expand traditional definitions of the image of God to include the whole being of man.

The result of the Fall was corruption of the imago Dei—spiritually, morally, and physically. Excluding from personhood those who don’t measure up physically or mentally has dangerous consequences. Redemption, however, promises a total restoration of the image of God: unbroken fellowship with God (spiritual), absence of sin (moral), complete knowledge (mental), and perfect bodies (physical). This is the good news of the Gospel.