New Article: Down Syndrome and the Image of God

A sweet story by a biology teacher who sees things with a new perspective when his own child is born with trisomy 21.

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This is a really timely article for me, personally.

I know someone with Down Syndrome, which is often in my mind when I think about certain theological questions. I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot specifically about the image of God recently. In fact, last night whilst doing some writing on the topic I came to an incredibly similar thought to something Samuel wrote in his article.

He writes, ‘I have come to realize that the image of God does not need to be thought of as an “inventory” or a “checklist” of desirable human traits.’ And, again, ‘I have come to understand God’s image upon individuals with and without congenital impairments as a “divine seal” that denotes our intrinsic worth despite the presence or absence of any given feature.’

Last night I wrote, The image confers unique dignity on humanity because we are the only species that God has chosen to reveal himself to, given eternal souls to, and that he has appointed for a special task within his creation. Just to be a member of our species, then, is to be of unique worth to God, regardless of an individual’s level of ability.

Thanks for posting this, and thanks to Samuel for offering us his thoughts. It’ll definitely be one I come back to as I continue to think and write about these things.

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For insightful comments on the Old Testament understanding of the image of God, read John Walton’s book Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief, which basically confirms your comment.

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I appreciate his emphasis on God’s image in individuals like his daughter. I have the privilege of teaching a Sunday School class for adults with special needs at our local church. I know I have seen the beauty of creation though my time with these brothers and sisters in ways I had never seen before. They are a gift to be sure, but I don’t think I can go where the author goes theologically.

I agree that it’s wrong to tie disabilities to specific sin (like the example with the parents he uses) but I think it’s a stretch to then say it’s not tied to our fallen nature and that disabilities are just a natural part of the “good” creation of God. If that were the case, it seems Jesus would have had different responses to those who asked for miraculous healings. Wouldn’t He have challenged them on their thinking that something was “wrong” with them? Why would he “heal” them if it was wrong to think they needed healing?

I think we are to see God sovereignly using the fallen nature of our world for our good and His glory, while still seeing that fallen nature as not the way He originally intended things to be. When He uses the deception of Joseph’s brothers for the good of Israel we don’t assume that “deception” is a natural part of God’s creation.

I think we can value and cherish those with disabilities, thankful for the truth they are uniquely able to reveal, while still recognizing that this is not the way things “should” be.

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What percentage is down’s children are able to live independently as adults?

Thanks. I haven’t read that book, but am aware of Walton’s view having listened to a number of lectures. There’s a good BioLogos article by Pete Enns that summarises the functional view of the image of God, too.

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Dear Steve:

Sorry for my late reply. First of all, thanks for your services and dedication to people with disabilities. Regardless of any theological difference that we may have, your service is greatly appreciated, not only by God but also by families like mine.

Now, I wholeheartedly agree with you! God can “sovereignly use our fallen nature for our good and His glory, while still seeing that fallen nature as not the way He originally intended things to be.” Where we seemed to differ is on our respective notions of what God “originally intended things to be”.

God declared creation to be “good”. But some may assume that “goodness” means “perfection”. I believe that is not necessarily the case. By definition, all created entities are limited, contingent and finite. As I briefly mentioned in my article, “goodness” does not necessarily imply that creation was exempt from variations and vulnerabilities before the Fall. Consequently, I proposed envisioning Down syndrome as a sign of our inherent vulnerability rather than a reminder of our lapse into sin.

So when people argue that a condition like Down syndrome must be a repercussion of the fall, and therefore not what God intended life to be, they are mostly referring to the fact that such condition causes variable degrees of suffering. (Such an assumption requires a careful analysis of the difference between a condition vs a disease, but we don’t have the time here). Behind such an assumption though, is the idea that suffering can only arise as a direct result of our sinful nature. That is not necessarily the case.

To be continued…
Blessings

Samuel

Good to hear you voice! Welcome to the forum! Of course, I agree with you that "goodness does not equal perfection. I was just reading John Walton where he states the Hebrew word translated good (tov) in Genesis is often used to denote that it is functioning according to its purpose, rather than being perfect.
We look forward to hearing more from you and learning your story as you feel comfortable sharing.

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I am glad to be a part of this group. Thank you so much, Phil, for the warm welcome. Looking forward to participating and learning from all of you.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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