On the Evolution of the Imago Dei: Insights from St. Thomas Aquinas | The BioLogos Forum

Note: The subject of human origins is one of the toughest issues for the evolutionary creationism position. If humans evolved as a population from a common ancestor with other living things, how do we understand the Bible’s teachings about humans—whether concerning the Fall, original sin, or the image of God? We think the evangelical community deserves a robust, thoughtful discussion about these important issues in light of the clear scientific evidence for human evolution. Today, ECF grantee Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., explores a potential path to understanding the image of God in humanity in light of evolutionary science. As Rev. Nicanor underlines at the end of the post, his thoughts are not intended to be a definitive answer to this difficult question, but instead a thoughtful speculation grounded in Scripture and Christian tradition, in conversation with scientific discovery.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/on-the-evolution-of-the-imago-dei-insights-from-st.-thomas-aquinas

Thank you for reading my essay. I am available to respond to thoughtful comments and questions about my ideas.

The use of language is a marker for something else. What differentiates Man from (probably most) other animals is the development of conceptual thought (for a full discussion of this see The Difference of Man and The Difference It Makes / Mortimer J. Adler). The need to communicate what is thought about would provide a stimulus for the development of ways to make that happen. This communication would have preceded the development of full language, probably by a very long time.

I wonder if when Aquinas is referring knowing and loving it could apply a good deal further back in our history than with the development of the genes to support language. I would argue that anyone who has the ability to make and control fire using whatever materials happen to be around demonstrates ability to think conceptually.

Thank you for your wonderful essay. I am convinced by this argument, although I don’t think we will ever know the timing and mechanism of the mutations that allowed for language acquisition. I find the connection between human speech and Imago Dei compelling. And of course, lest others chime in on animal communication, the key phrase here is speech, and not rudimentary symbolic signaling, as is done by chimps and many other species. The idea that it is the human spoken word that sets man apart is not new, of course, but it is a concept that needs to be resuscitated in order to counter the growing argument that Imago Dei refers to all creation (made by many Christians) or that it is clearly anti evolutionary. In this regard, I wonder if you think it significant that Adam’s first task is to name all the animals, the first mention of symbolic language in creation.

> At the heart of St. Thomas’s account of the human person as the imago Dei is his claim that the human person is made in the image of God because of his or her rational nature, i.e., his or her ability to know and to love. This is a profoundly Trinitarian insight because the acts of knowing and of loving are the acts that constitute the very persons of the Triune God (cf. Summa Theologiae I.93.6). In knowing himself, the Father speaks the Word who is his Son. In loving each other, the Father and the Son breathe forth the Holy Spirit.

Thank you Rev. Austriaco, for providing us with a theological insight about the Image of God, which is basic to our understanding of humanity. You are very correct in saying that our understanding of humanity is rooted in our understanding of God, Who for Christians is the Trinity. I really do not mean to argue with you, but I would like to present a different view which I think is helpful.

I take the Image of God to be the Trinity. God created Humans, please note both male and female in God’s own Image. God made them with the ability to think (the Logos), the ability to Love (the Spirit), and the ability to Create (the Creator.) Our physical nature is our gift from the Creator, our rational nature is our gift from the Savior, and our spiritual nature is the gift from the Holy Spirit. All three gifts evolved from the gift of life through God’s design, plan, and guidance.

Humans are physically human with the ability to speak and think, but that ability does not mean that humans will speak and think. This must be learned. Unlike Darwinians I do not believe that speaking and thinking humans used these abilities to compete with other home sapiens, but more likely shared and taught others to speak and think.

Speaking and thinking, i.e. rationality, so not necessarily lead to spirituality as we know, since many people are trying to deny the reality of the spiritual, but do make it possible. The mind is the seat of rationality while the spirit is the seat of the spiritual.

@RevAustriaco, Thank you for your insightful essay. I am an Intelligent Design proponent, believing that there can and has been evidence of purposeful effecting of events in nature by someone. In the case of the ability to acquire and use language, I’m curious if the ten mutations you referred to are all necessary in order for someone to have that ability. If so, then we might have a case of an irreducibly complex system. If it turns out that none or very few of the mutations have any other selective benefit, then they would either be neutral or (slightly?) deleterious mutations. For them to arise by chance in two people who then, also by chance, happen to mate and pass on those mutations to multiple children, who survive and mate, starts to take on a level of improbability that suggests purposeful effecting of a number of events. In other words, it looks like perhaps God might have been (gasp!) “tinkering” with His creation.

One difficulty with identifying the appearance of the imago Dei in evolutionary history is that it is hard to identify clear and robust paleoanthropological evidence for conceptual thought. Language use is a clear signature for this power. Other possibilities – for example, the use of tools or of fire – would be more controversial.

As Steve Mittelstaedt pointed out above, rationality understood classically involves conceptual thinking, which numerous philosophers over the ages have argued, cannot be attributed to a material substrate. I do not have time to go over their arguments here but I think that they are strong: Conceptual thought and language use are signs of spiritual activity. Thus, I would be hesitant to make such a strong distinction between the mind as the seat of rationality and the spirit as the seat of the spiritual. Human knowing, which is the basis for human speaking, is a knowing involving both spiritual and material dimensions. This is one reason why the imago Dei, for St. Thomas and for many Christian thinkers throughout the centuries, is both spirit and matter. We are ensouled bodies.

The nature of the mutations required for language use is not known. Presumably, these mutations would lead to changes in brain architecture that predispose the evolving body to the spiritual powers associated with the soul.

To address your other concerns: as St. Thomas argued 800 years ago, the clearest sign for the purposeful causing of the universe is not necessarily the complex relationships among genes, proteins, or cellular parts, but the very existence of every single contingent being in creation. It is not physics or chemistry or biology, but metaphysics, that best reveals the fingerprints of the Creator on His creation.

Also, God designed His universe through evolution. This would be a statement of divine providence that acknowledges that God has to be present to His creation at every moment in history in order to keep them in existence precisely as the individual beings that they are with a specific nature that moves them in species-specific ways.

Rev. Austriaco,

Thank you for your response.

I quite agree with your statement above. Humans are material, spiritual, and thinking beings. The difference between us is that you make as strong distinction between the body and mind, while I make a strong distinction between the body, mind, and spirit.

In my opinion mind/body dualism does not hold up under careful theological, philosophical. and scientific scrutiny, while the Image of God as Trinity does.

However since the subject of your essay is to explain the ideas of St. Thomas in this area, I will take my arguments into the general discussion.

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I think that it is important to distinguish between mind/body dualism, which I reject, and matter/form hylomorphism, which I advocate. In hylomorphism, matter and form are not substantial entities but are principles of being that together make up the whole human person, a philosophical account that goes back to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. The substantial form is the principle of unity, integrity, and identity for the being, whether it is an oak tree, a kangaroo, or a human being.

In response to your proposal that we are body, mind, and spirit: as St. Thomas explained clearly, if you have a body, a mind, and a spirit, then are you really a single person? In other words, which one is really you? And if neither one of these three are “really” you, then how do you explain that all three come together to “really” make you? This is a philosophical question that does not require faith to propose and to answer.

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if you have a body, a mind, and a spirit, then are you really a single person? In other words, which one is really you? And if neither one of these three are “really” you, then how do you explain that all three come together to “really” make you? This is a philosophical question that does not require faith to propose and to answer.> emphasized text

Rev. Austriaco,

Thank you for your response.

As I see it, following Augustine’s De Trinitate, the human being is created in the Image of God as a Trinity, because we have the same issue with the Trinity. Which Person is really God? Most people think that the Father is God, while Jesus is the Son of God, and the Spirit is the Spirit of God, so the Father is “really” God, which is not accurate.

The answer as I understand it is that I am my body, my mind, and my spirit, both severally and collectively, just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are God both severally and collectively. The fact and the point is one cannot separate the body, mind, and spirit, nor can we separate the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity always acts in concert. When the aspects of the person do not act in concert the person is either ill or dead.

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This “Diagram” of the Trinity is based on the words of Augustine found in De Trinitate. [It is also on the cover of my book, The GOD Who RELATES.] It says:

“The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.” But all three are God.

My body is not my mind. My mind is not my spirit. My spirit is not my body. But all three are me.

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