Evolution and Image Bearers, Part 2 | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

As discussed in a previous post, evolutionary theory raises interesting questions for Christians, particularly concerning what it means for evolved humans to be made in the image of God. In a previous post, we considered one way in which we may begin to understand how we might distinguish species that may or may not be considered potential image bearers based on the psychological capacities required to bear the image of God (the imago Dei).

Further consideration of evolutionary theory and the imago Dei, however, raises another interesting question. If we consider the entirety of human history, dating back to our first human ancestors until today, we may wonder about the image bearing actions, behaviors, or qualities of humans throughout history. We may ask, how have humans borne the image of God across time and in different cultural contexts? For example, the businesswoman in New York City grabbing a cup of coffee before hopping on the subway is presumably an image bearer of God, but so is the hunter-gatherer spending his time fashioning stone tools. An interesting question rises out of this comparison: Do humans today image God differently than those humans living 1000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, or even further back?

These considerations may be helped by a dynamic conception of the image of God as considered by developmental psychology. We recognize both the continuous work and movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans and also the malleability of the human species providing the capacity to readily adjust to a variety of cultural contexts. Building on these notions, we suggest that a dynamic approach, one that recognizes the human propensity to change and grow, to understanding the image of God allows for a theologically and scientifically coherent conceptualization of what it means for humans to bear God’s image. Given the plasticity inherent in human development and the ongoing sustaining and perfecting work of the Spirit, we make two propositions regarding a dynamic perspective of the image of God. The first is that the actions or behaviors by which individual or communal entities relate to God and image him are not fixed throughout time and place; they are dynamic. Secondly, that the imago is less about a static or fixed image and more about an active or dynamic imaging as humans relate to God and God’s creation.

The first point suggests that the imago Dei may not be evident in the same way across different historical or cultural contexts.For example, during the Enlightenment, the use of reason may have gained importance and helped illuminate an individual’s relationship with God. In more recent times relational qualities, such as having a coherent identity or expressing empathy, may better enable individuals to participate more fully in Christian fellowship and in the life of the triune God. This is not a relativistic claim about the imago, but rather a supposition about how cultural and historical context shapes different opportunities for imaging God that may then inform the intellectual history of the doctrine of the imago Dei. This notion differs from the historical tendency to attempt to locate the image of God in a particular quality that a human possesses and allows for the image of God in humankind to deepen and expand throughout history.

Second, this perspective emphasizes that bearing the image of God involves the whole person and the imago becomes more apparent through relating to God and others. Human nature has a plastic and undetermined element that enables humans to be shaped and formed into a better likeness of the image of God. Although psychological capacities may be relevant to the imago, this does not mean such capacities are fixed or set throughout one’s life. John Webster powerfully made this point by saying that human nature is not “immobile.” From this perspective, perhaps arguing about what the image is (such as the human will or reason) is less the point than how one bears the image ofGod by participating in fellowship with God. In Webster’s words, being human involves fellowship with God that “becomes through participation in the drama of creation, salvation and consummation.”

Thus the imago is “dynamic” in that it stems from ongoing human engagement with God’s work of creation, redemption, and perfection. Such an approach affirms the importance of human reason, will, love, and relationship (capacities that are identified by different static understandings of the imago), but emphasizes the process by which these capacities enable an individual to engage in the ongoing activity of God. Given that the Spirit is the sustainer and perfecter in the process of sanctification, then we should not be surprised that the there could be change over time (in someone’s life or throughout history) in the expression of the imago. Consequently, when the evidence of multiple human ancestors raises the question of how the imago may have emerged within the natural order, a dynamic perspective suggests that the capacity to be an image bearer could have arisen regardless of context or even ancestors—as long as the sufficient constellation of capacities necessary to relate to God, other, and creation were present (for a discussion of some of these capacities, see previous post).

From this perspective, humans are image bearers, and similar to a photo that changes in quality or resolution as it comes into focus, so the image we bear becomes more apparent the closer our relation to God. Perhaps it is through the process of “becoming” more fully who we were created to be, through relating to God, his people, and his creation, that the image becomes more evident? Said differently, the substance is present in a picture, although we may not see it clearly. If we increase the resolution of the picture, we increase the clarity of the image. Consequently, the imago is not limited to a singular quality that mirrors the image of God, but rather we argue for a malleable understanding of bearing the image of God that becomes more apparent in relating to God.

To summarize, given the ongoing work of the Spirit and the constant change brought about within humans as they interact with God, others, and creation, perhaps speaking of “bearing the image of God” is more helpful than a more static concept of “an image.” Such an approach is consistent with existing interpretations of the imago (e.g., Christological, relational, functional) and also compatible with understanding how God could have used natural processes to enable humans to become unique image bearers. Through the processes of evolution, humans eventually had the capacity to bear the image of God in a way that was distinct from their predecessors. This is not at all to suggest that the imago itself evolves over time; but rather that how humans bear the image of God may have different nuances at different times within individual lives and also as a species throughout history.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-image-bearers-part-2

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #3


The biggest problem I have with this post is that it uses an OT model of God as God the Father. For the Christian the Model of God is the Trinity. God is not only the Father. God is also Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is the reason for the confusion in this second part of the series.

Just as God is One and Many, Humans created in God’s Image are one and many.

Just as God is Powerful, Wise, and Loving, Humans created in God’s Image can be and should be powerful, wise, and loving.

Furthermore and this is most important, while God and Creation are not identical or nearly identical as pantheists and panentheists maintain, there is a close relationship between the Creator and the Creation. God’s Triune Image is found not only in humanity but also in the very structure of the creation, which is Trinitarian, one and many, complex/one. The universe is a form of the power of God, the wisdom of God and the love of God.

(Albert Leo) #5

The little girl peering out from the cover of blankets is a great way of introducing the topic of God’s Imange Bearers, and Tyler & Pamela are to be congratulated for a fine job of explaining a difficult subject in words a ‘layman’ can understand. If one cannot see the image of God in those sparkling eyes, its not likely they will find it elsewhere in His creation.

The authors make a valid point in stating that the imago is dynamic, and stems from the challenge to become co-creators with God. The earliest true humans appreciated the fact that improving the human condition depended upon building more effective societies, and they devoted considerable time and effort to instruct their youthful members (probably separating girls and boys) in their obligations to the society they were entering. Certainly the artists who, some 30,000 yrs. ago, painted the striking images of the animals their lives depended upon, had a different view of creation and the God who brought it all about. Over the centuries, the progress in building a better society that maximized the human potential was, to say the least, not steadily upward. It took the life of Jesus to make the point that, since God loves ALL of humanity, we must do so too, if we want to be like Him–to be as much as possible ‘in His Image’.

(Stephen Cloyd) #6

Unquestionably, a thesis worth considerable mental review. As an instructor of Hermeneutics at a Reformed seminary I found no less than 5 intriguing points which would merit some serious classroom discussion. The concept of the plasticity of God’s image in man (as you frame the theory) will no doubt raise some student’s eyebrows even as lights go on in their thinking. Thank you for your contribution to the ever expanding narrative at BioLogos.

(Preston Garrison) #7

“the businesswoman in New York City grabbing a cup of coffee before hopping on the subway is presumably an image bearer of God, but so is the hunter-gatherer spending his time fashioning stone tools.”

I’m not so sure about the latter part of this. Surely there were (and are) hunter gatherers who conceive of a great Spirit and have the capacity to relate to Him, but that doesn’t mean that all those hunter-gatherers going back to scavengers on the savannas of Africa millions of years ago were “made in His image.” For myself, I make the distinction between biologically based capacities that are clearly necessary (but not sufficient) for creatures that would be in the image of God, and whatever the je ne sais quoi is that constitutes moral and spiritual capacity - that’s where I think the image is to be found. As C. S. Lewis noted, it is possible to imagine creatures who have all our intelligence and abilities, but lack the capacity for knowing God. It is not hard to imagine, since there seem to be all too many people who seem to have that kind of existence as a goal.

Language is the most obvious necessity to be an image of a God who is the Logos, but simple signaling for cooperation in hunting & gathering doesn’t seem adequate. Writing began with book keeping and moved on to the fully human expressions of letter writing and poetry. By analogy, speech itself may have made some kind of progression from simple, literal to metaphorical. There are no doubt a number of other necessary capacities, so called “theory of other minds,” development of manual dexterity and and neural systems for making things (if you haven’t read Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, do. Her point, that in the context where the image of God is first noted, what God is doing is creating, I think is an interesting one.)

It is interesting and surely relevant that the idea of the image of a god became so prevalent during the rise of Neolithic cultures (I don’t know enough about archaeology to say if it began earlier.) Nearly everyone made literal images of their gods, offered them sacrifices (sometimes horrific ones,) and asked blessings of them. Thousands of these images are found in Neolithic sites. The images were of “created things,” as the Hebrew prophets noted, the animals that we still find so fascinating, heavenly bodies, etc. the wonders that they perceived to be the visible representations of the power(s) that made and run it all. That urge to have a thing to direct one’s prayers to carried on to Medieval Christianity. But those prophets had made the command that must have seemed incredible to their listeners. Do not make images of your God. Stop doing what everyone in the world at that time was doing. You are his only images in this world. But they just couldn’t give it up. It seemed so natural to them. It took an exile to Babylon to convince them.

The specific nature of God’s image surely does change, even in the life of an individual. The image in an adult is a long way from the image in the infant. But if the image means moral and spiritual capacity (at least potentially,) it also means responsibility. And I don’t see how that can be quantitative. Those biologically based necessary capacities mentioned above may be functions that can be quantified, but I would guess the image of God is either there or it isn’t. It seems unavoidable now that the moment when the image was given was different for people in different cultures, and it is probably beyond our knowledge and wisdom to identify the times and places.

(Stephen Cloyd) #8

Interesting comments all. I would submit, however, that what this thesis is suggesting is that God’s image, once gifted to man qua man, does evolve in it’s specific expression and fulfillment. But the “giftedness” of that image itself is God’s providential choice to “invest” Himself in humanity…whenever and wherever He (not we) defines humanity. In fact, the prophet Isaiah appears to be saying something along a similar line of reasoning. And just as an appropriate response to Genesis 1 would be to seek the understanding of WHY God spoke humanity and the cosmos into existence (rather than debating the WHEN or HOW of that creativity), perhaps the Biblical redemptive narrative should move us to take a similar approach with image-bearing. With degrees in both Zoology and Exegetical Theology I have personally found that my existential questions somehow always seem to end up trumping my biological questions; i.e., Psalm 8 vs Genesis 1,2. Ultimately, however, I suspect that the readers of the BioLogos website would all pretty much agree that God Himself has set in motion a wondrous plan to reclaim for Himself damaged “out-focus” image bearers (from every tribe!) who don’t in fact know the “beginning from the end”.

(John Wilson) #9

I admit that when I was much younger the image to me was physical which needed to break down very quickly under the pressure of Genesis 1:26. And note please that this was after the creation of the cosmos and of the planet Earth itself. Humanity came along recently, nearly last in fact, as evolution also indicates we have. What is different is that we have been blessed with carrying the image of God, not a physical image no matter what some have believed through the ages, but the creative force, in my perception of the image but also the image extending from creativity beyond that of any other creature we know of on the planet as well as the knowledge of and some fear of consequences which has caused humanity to make some horrendous mistakes both individually and as a species from which we have, at times, been barely been able to survive. Yet, Hermes we were also granted, as the King James put it Dominion over the earth; put another way, we were given the right to rule the earth as well as to us, te the divine power of creativity, the ability to, however imperfectly to see far enough into the future to see the signs of what our actions were doing to the home were were given to take care of and thrive in. Humans have also been given the ability to form and manufacture tools created largely in our own minds often far from our immediate needs, we have also mastered fire, alone among the creatures of this world. And which of the many forms of “human” that have arisen since the first early ones till modern humans (us) Homo Sapiens rose also carry the image of God in one form or another? I would suggest strongly, at least for now, until we know more, that all those who paleontologists have added the phrase Homo to the rest of the species name have. I would be extremely uncomfortable leaving out some because they look so different than Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals appear, for example, to have adapted to the need to survive in and through the last ice age this world has seen. We homo sapiens are poorly adapted to survive in the kind of cold, ice, and snow that they adapted to and lived in. They passed on after we appeared in Europe after the world warmed up and we simply out competed them for the available resources according to recent theory about how and why they died out. For all of that they were a far more remarkable branch of humanity than, until recently, we have ever given them credit for. That is why I say in all seriousness that they too carried the image of God as we do.
At the same time I need to argue that as caretakers of the world, we have done a poor job because we are responsible for raising the temperature of the planet to the point where glaciers are retreating, aquifers are disappearing or retreating deeper into the earth, surface creatures such as coral in our oceans are dying and there are still enough humans around who insist on continuing on insisting to do the things the way we always have in the face of crop failures, wide spread desertification and other potential disasters which we do have the creativity and ability to fix because of the gift we were given by carrying the image of God within us if only we let it speak to us and we speak to it in prayer and meditation. In the room with me are two creatures that, much to my surprise, I have discovered that, except for one major change at a time when all other mammals were losing “sabre teeth” lost the same and by that I mean the cat. All varieties, all sizes, domestic, wild, feral, lions, tigers, cougars and others, have not changed one iota since they first appeared on earth. The skeletal and muscular structure are the same, the brain case size, in relation to tha cats size is the same, their hearing would appear to be the same, which is the keenest of any mammal so is the cat, broadly speaking, one of these rare moments when god and evolution got it all correct the first time around with an animal? Even as humans in the middle ages in an orgy of destruction and blood-letting unsuccessfully tried to wipe them out? Only to have cats save them from the plague, particularly in the UK. We were saved from the consequences of our own actions there, actions based on superstition that the image of God we carry ought to have been able to save us from our own stupidity if we’d listen to it.
I’ll close with this, perhaps a drift off topic, as a recovering alcoholic I’ve attended AA meetings for years and there are times when someone will be talking and they’ll say that something happened to them after sobering up that changed them suddenly and permanently. These people, always self proclaimed atheists will also say that moment frightened them as it came from deep inside, that same place where, for lack of a better spot, I say the image of God resides in me. Almost to a man or a woman, after this happens the person seems in more peace with themselves and wiser. Not too long after, while still saying they are atheist, they will start to talk about their “God moment”. and how much it changed them. reading what I’ve been reading here I’ve come, not at all reluctantly, to the conclusion that it was then that the image of God broke through to a person not equipped to deal with it but equipped to deal with what it had to communicate.

(system) #10

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