Results tagged “Imago Dei” from Reformation21 Blog

Created vs. Creative Identity

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The problem (so to speak) with Christianity is that it places creaturely identity in the hands of the Creator rather than the creature. In other words, it holds that the identity of every human being--and, for that matter, every created thing--is fundamentally established by God, not constructed by the creature. Christianity and contemporary culture necessarily exist on a collision course on this matter since one of the defining features of our cultural moment is the perception that every individual has not only the ability but also the inalienable right to play a constructive part in determining his or her (or zir?) identity.

As Christians we acknowledge layers to the identity that we as individuals have been given by God. We are, in that sense (and hopefully few others), like onions. There is a creational layer to my God-given identity. That layer comprises, for example, my ethnicity, my age, and my gender. DNA testing might turn up surprises about my pedigree, but nothing, in the final analysis, can change the biological identity of my parents, the doctor's verdict ("It's a boy") upon my birth, or the precise time and date of my birth. There is, however, also a redemptive layer to my (and every believer's) God-given identity. On the basis of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and continuing intercession for me at his Father's right hand, I am a justified, sanctified, and adopted child of God, sealed by God's own Spirit, enjoying the rich benefits of my redemption and awaiting the full inheritance that belongs to me and my spiritual siblings.

Neither of the identity layers I have just noted lies within my own control. God is the author of both. Which is not, of course, to deny that there are aspects of my identity over which I do have creative control. The identity that I project to myself and others includes not only the created and redemptive realities just observed, but also a vocation (teaching), political convictions (I plead the fifth), a concrete nexus of relationships (wife, children, dog, etc.), specific tastes in food (Indian or Mexican), music (Americana), and film (anything by Wes Anderson or Pixar), and so on. Nevertheless, the creative and redemptive layers to my identity remain considerably more fundamental than those aspects of my identity that I myself engineer.

More to my present point, while the world may happily dismiss the redemptive layer to my identity as wishful (or needful) thinking on my part, it grows increasingly insistent on putting the created layer into my own creative control (and so effectively making me the Creator). Thus I might, if so inclined, self-identify (with this world's blessing) as a seventeen year-old Native American girl, and force others to relate to me accordingly. How dare you tell me my bathroom is over there? How dare you tell me my application for financial aid on the basis of my Native American heritage has been denied? How dare you tell me I'm actually a balding, middle-aged, white man? That's not how I self-identify. That's not, in other words, the identity that I have freely constructed for myself.

As Christians, we need not deny, nor should we trivialize, the event of individuals experiencing dissonance between their self-perception and their created (i.e., God-given) identity (whether measured in gender, ethnicity, age, or any other created facet of one's person). We must, however, insist that the world's answer to that event is, in the words of the BFG, a catasterous disastrophe. Rather than lovingly helping individuals reconcile self-perception with reality (i.e., helping individuals move towards their God-given identity), the world increasingly insists that reality conform to every individual's self-perception, thus amplifying the dissonance felt by certain individuals between self-perception and the reality of who they are (which reality invariably informs others-perception). Soaring depression and suicide rates among youth is but one fruit of such amplified dissonance. Human beings were quite clearly never meant to bear the psychological burden of establishing their own identity at the fundamental levels of gender, age, and ethnicity. The "freedom" to do so is an intolerable weight that, to all appearances, is crushing individual psyches.

As Christians, we would also do well to equip ourselves with resources for helping us and our own children understand and appreciate those aspects of identity that are God-given rather than self-engineered. A resource I've found most helpful in this regard, both in my home and in my work with middle-schoolers (where, given the age of my pupils, defense against certain cultural assumptions and agendas often takes the form of a good offense; i.e, intentional, constructive, theological training) is the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The tenth question of the shorter catechism, at least to my thinking, has particular purchase in our cultural moment. How did God create man? God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures. Quite a few assumptions and agendas of our age are, I think, undermined by that very simple description of how God made us. Thus, it constitutes exactly the kind of thinking with which I hope to arm my children/students as they step towards a mature presence in this world.

Catechesis, then, might play an important role in preparing a Christian generation to engage assumptions and agendas in this world that, quite frankly, previous generations didn't face (or, at least, didn't face so pointedly). Who knew a catechism crafted in the 1640s could have so much contemporary relevance? Catechesis can also, in my experience, be quite fun (in a way the Westminster divines, to be fair, probably didn't anticipate). In my home and school my children/students sing the Westminster catechism. There have been various efforts to put the WSC (and other catechisms) to song. The effort I like best is that by Bruce Benedict. In addition to several CDs covering large portions of the WSC, Benedict also has on offer a songbook that will allow a fairly amateurish guitar play (like me) to accompany the catechized in their singing. If the present-day relevance of a seventeenth-century catechism never ceases to amaze, neither does the pedagogical value of a beat-up guitar and the knowledge of a handful of guitar chords. Regardless, in my experience, amateurish guitar playing coupled with the proclivity of children to create motions for songs you teach them is a formula for enjoyable education and, best case scenario, robust theological understanding.

Catechesis forms a critical component both in the Bible classes I teach and in my family's worship time. In fact, it's the component that neither my students nor my children ever complain about. And it's rewarding to me. Every time my own children and my students sing, for instance, the truth that God has created us "male and female," I take satisfaction in the knowledge that they are singing, unbeknownst to them, themselves into a binary understanding of gender, and so a notion of identity as created, that will very likely set them sharply at odds with the world they encounter in a few short years. God willing, that understanding will equally equip them to speak words of genuine hope into this world, hope discovered in learning to move towards rather than away from one's created identity and, better yet, towards the identity that God offers every human being on the basis of his Son's person and work.

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 2, The Imago Dei

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[Editorial Note: This is the second post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article 2: The Imago Dei

WE AFFIRM that God created every person equally in his own image. As divine image-bearers, all people have inestimable value and dignity before God and deserve honor, respect and protection. Everyone has been created by God and for God.

WE DENY that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual's worth as an image-bearer of God.

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, after proclaiming the highest view of Scripture, affirms, briefly but forcefully, the reality of the creation of mankind, all ethnicities, all tribes, all peoples, in the imago Dei, the image of God. While this affirmation would have been supercilious only a few centuries ago, today, especially in Western culture, it is not only necessary, it is almost startling.

Christianity's doctrine of man has always been grounded in the reality of God as Creator. The entirety of the narrative of salvation in the Christian Scriptures, the Bible, is based upon God's power and might seen most importantly in His being called "Creator." Since God is the origin and source of all things, He defines them, gives them meaning, and this is the ground we have of confidence in being able to obtain true knowledge of the universe around us and even of our own selves. Without a Creator, we are left awash in a vast expanse that is random and chaotic.

As the West has worked very hard to distance its thought from the idea of a Creator (most often so as to allow for sexual license and expression) the concurrent result has been a diminishment in its view of man. Man is now barely distinguishable from the animals, a cosmic accident without transcendent value or worth. Once this view of man becomes entrenched, the entire basis of law must shift away from that provided by the Christian faith in the past.

Once the basis of law moves away from its historic roots, of necessity all definitions and concepts of "justice" must be altered as well. So much of the current controversy is due to just this: what is just and right in a world created by God indwelt by His creatures who are endued with His image will differ greatly from what is just and right in a random, purposeless, accidental world filled with random animals fighting for survival and dominance. The Christian worldview with its wise and powerful Creator has grounds for asserting man's transcendent worth as man bears God's image. As this conviction becomes more remote in the consciousness of Western societies, grave changes will result.

The Christian conviction that all men and women together share the imago Dei is central to the gospel message preached by Jesus and the Apostles. The means by which God brings His people to redemption is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. There the elect of God, joined to Christ by the Father's divine sovereignty (John 6:37-35), are joined to His death in their place. There is not one death for men, another for women, one for one ethnicity and another for others. The fact that there is but one sacrifice for "men from every tribe, tongue, people and nation" (Revelation 5:9-10) is strong evidence of the universal reality of the equality of men and women before God: both in their sinfulness, and in their redemption. Therefore, in those times past when Christians allowed themselves to be influenced more by their cultural concepts than by Scriptural categories, and the gospel was in any way altered by ethnic concepts, hindered by racial prejudices, or watered down in its application, God was not glorified and the church was substantially damaged. This was, and remains, sin. The gospel of Jesus Christ affirms by its very nature, provision, and demands, the imago Dei's universal character across all ethnic and cultural lines. The same Son of God had to give Himself completely for each and every one of His elect people. Few things could confirm the true equality of the peoples like the gospel!

Just as the positive affirmation enshrined in the Statement reflects these theological realities, the negative statement is concerned to protect these truths from redefinition or distortion. The imago Dei is neither negated by, nor added to, by one's external circumstances. The powerful are not more like God because of their power, the poor not less (or more!) like Him in their poverty. No nation bestows upon its citizens a closer resemblance to the Creator, a greater level of image-bearing, and surely no ethnicity can, or should, make such a claim. Every attempt by such groups in the past to lay claim to this divine truth with that kind of very human deviation deserves prompt and thorough repudiation.

While the Christian does not bear more of the image of God than the non-Christian, in and through Christ that image is restored and made right with God. But that does not make the Christian more human, but instead makes him or her a redeemed human with the promise that, eventually, all that detracts from the fulness of the display of that image will be removed and we will be changed to be like Christ in His fulness. But this is always a work of grace and comes to us from outside, not on the basis of merit, but solely upon that of mercy, grace, and love.

While this portion of the Statement is indeed brief, it is foundational to all that comes thereafter in its affirmation of the only ground of true equality that mankind could ever need: the fact that each man, woman and child is made in the image of God and is therefore worthy of respect and honor. The farther societies move away from this divine and biblical truth the greater will be the probability, even the necessity, of degradation, the loss of liberty, and the rise of concepts of ethnic or national superiority.


James White is the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics organization based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of more than twenty books, a professor, an accomplished debater, and an elder of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church.

Human Dignity, Justice and the Death Penalty

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Pope Francis' recent and much-publicized change of the Catholic church's position on the death penalty presents a challenge in the realm of theological and ethical reasoning. His rationale for denouncing the death penalty, according to the Vatican statement, is that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."1 On the contrary, we should maintain that God's truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice. Pope Francis' argument is problematic because it runs contrary to the Scripture's witness on the connection of justice and anthropology.

With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis' position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.

The conceptual change necessarily implied by Francis' stance is that capital punishment is unjust; justice must then be found at some lesser punishment, and mercy (presumably) at a punishment less severe than that. For it is assuredly unjust to "attack...the inviolability and dignity of the person." If that is, indeed, the nature of the death penalty, then it is a sin to execute a criminal for any crime, an act of profound injustice. However--as I have already noted--this understanding runs into insurmountable problems in light of the biblical witness.

Regarding theological anthropology, we need to first recognize that the pope's opposition to the death penalty is grounded in a concept of human dignity built on a premise of inviolability--meaning that the human life must not be taken as penalty for a crime. The human person is the central concern, and justice is determined based on anthropology. But is this the correct approach, and is the implicit anthropology sound?

Certainly, human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. Humans are made in the imago Dei and have a blessed standing at the height of God's creation. The Fall had a cataclysmic effect on human life, but did not obliterate the dignity with which we were invested by God's creative work. So the problem is not with applying human dignity to the question of criminal justice, but with how that application is made. In the case of Francis' ethics, we see a secularization of the imago Dei, where theological anthropology becomes anthropocentric instead of theocentric.

In Scripture--indeed, the same book in Scripture--God first reveals to us that He made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27) and that He decreed the death penalty in the case of murder (9:6). This observation puts advocates of the pope's stance in the perilous position of maintaining that God, having established the basis of human dignity (which they regard as inviolable) proceeded to legislate what in their view can only be regarded as gross injustice.

We also find that the Mosaic law, given by God to the people of Israel, legislates the death penalty for numerous crimes. It is important to note that the first statement of a death penalty, in Genesis, is in agreement with the legal code laid out further in the Pentateuch.

It is not irrelevant to point out that this is precisely where Pope Francis has displayed careless exegesis in the past. In another statement that garnered considerable media attention, in 2016, he declared that "The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty."2 But even a cursory examination of the context of the sixth commandment shows that it refers not to all killing but to murder, and that it stands in a legislative code that prescribes the death penalty for numerous crimes.

My point is not that the presence of the death penalty in the Mosaic legislation automatically requires the death penalty in modern American legislation. We are not ancient Israel, we are not governed by the Mosaic law, and a variety of hermeneutical issues need to be considered when applying the Mosaic legislation to contemporary situations. My point, however, is that one certainly cannot make the sixth commandment an argument against the death penalty. It is exegetically indefensible for one to attempt to do so. Instead, we must acknowledge the place of the death penalty in a law code established by God.

The Scriptures must be heard both contextually and in their whole witness; only then will they properly form our theological ethics. What we must observe from the Scriptures is that human dignity is not given as an argument against the death penalty--it is given as the basis for the death penalty (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 17:21). Because humans have been made in the image of God, the heinous crime of murder deserves the severest of penalties--namely, the death of the murderer.

Human dignity, in other words, is connected with justice. God, who created us in His image, established the implication of the imago Dei--that murder should not be treated lightly, but regarded as an offense deserving death. Human life is not, then, inviolable where justice is concerned. A properly theocentric theological anthropology must take this into account.

By contrast, the pope's stance strikes one as a secularized, anthropocentric theological anthropology. Human dignity has become an end in itself, and stands in an ethical position not obviously different from the prevailing secular conception of justice. Western culture has taken a turn to where we are more and more seeing a confusion of concepts: that mercy is justice, and justice is injustice. Pope Francis, with his anthropocentric anthropology, is playing into this mischaracterization of justice.

The point of this essay is not to argue for the death penalty. A Christian may reasonably argue that the death penalty should be opposed because of the New Covenant priority of mercy, or because our justice system is too corrupt and biased to be trusted with such a severe responsibility. Whether either of those lines arguments would prove ultimately reliable remains to be shown, but they are both plausible theological rationales.

What is not theologically reasonable is arguing against the death penalty on the basis of inviolable human dignity. It is unfortunate that arguments against the death penalty are so often not focused on prioritizing mercy but on a shifting understanding of justice. When inviolable human dignity is the driving factor, the death penalty is regarded not as a true and severe justice (which we should perhaps not enforce), but as a barbaric and unjust measure. Theologically, such a position, while not explicitly Marcionite, has definite Pseudo-Marcionite implications.

We must keep our theological anthropology, and its implications for ethics, centered on God. When God is not in the center, humanity becomes all-encompassing. But our dignity is theologically grounded, and our telos is theocentric. Creature-centered ethics do not give adequate attention to the identity and purposes of the Creator. That is where Pope Francis' theological anthropology shows its glaring weakness.


1. "Pope declares death penalty inadmissible, changing Church's stance," CNN, 08/02/18.

2. "There's no excuse for it: Pope Francis on the death penalty," Catholic News Agency, 06/22/16.



Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Race and the Imago Dei

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In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.

The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:

"To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are 'like us' and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ."

In this video, Rob and Vanessa talk about race, all mandking being made in the image of God, and how the cross gives meaning to all of life

The Christ-Haunted Song

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The Scriptures declare that the Lord fills the heavens and the earth (Jer. 23:24); and, that He who made the vast expanses of the starry sky gives to all men "life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25). Since "all that borrows life from Him are ever in His care," all that we have and possess (including our ability to think and reason in the realm of metaphysical truth) is nothing other than "borrowed capital." John Frame so helpfully sets out the implication of this truth when he writes, "The truth is known and acknowledged by the unbeliever. He has no right to believe or assert truth in terms of his own presuppositions, but only on Christian ones. So his assertions of truth are based on borrowed capital." The truth is inescapable for the unbeliever, though he or she constantly seeks to suppress it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). No matter how much men and women seek to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, however, the knowledge of God made known to all image bearers (Rom. 1:19) continually resurfaces in their consciences.

This principle is heightened in a culture in which biblical revelation has taken root. One can watch a nature show on television in which a naturalistic (i.e. anti-theistic) worldview undergirds the premises of the show; yet, the show's host refers to the animals on the program as "creatures." Another example is seen in the way in which revisionist attempts to do away with a calendar that centers on the Savior's coming into the world (i.e. B.C. and A.D.) fall as soon as they rise. This has been evident in the art and literature of the Western world, which has been so greatly impacted by Christendom; and, it is true in a special way in places where there has been a high concentration of Christian churches and biblical preaching, such as in Flannery O'Connor's Christ-Haunted South.

I have noticed this to be so to a high degree in much of the secular music that I have listened to throughout my life. For instance, John Lennon's song, "Imagine," encourages the unregenerate to try to imagine that there's no heaven or hell. The irony, of course, is that imaging that such places do not exist is the best attempt men have at suppressing the truth of their reality.

In the months leading up to my conversion in 2001, two songs in particular left me deeply "Christ-haunted." One was the song "Pickin' Up the Pieces" by the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic. It was especially their refrain, "Not wanting to meet my Savior, no not this way," that haunted me. The other song that haunted me at that time was "Faker" by the band Moe. The lyrics that plagued me the most while I was in dark rebellion were these: "I am a faker, pretending along; lost site of my Maker; I will die before I finish this song." Coming from the Christian home in which I had grown up, these words cut to the core of my conscience.

As I now listen to music as a believer, I continue to have the greatest of appreciation for the beauty, creativity and giftedness of so many secular artists; yet, always with an awareness of the "Christ-haunted" nature of most of it. There are times that I wish I could sit down with the numerous musicians whose music I love so much (e.g. John Moreland, J. Tillman, etc.) and talk with them about the Christ they have rejected and the truths of Scripture that they are singing about in overt and suppressive ways in their songs. I often wonder if they are "Christ-haunted" as I was, when they continue to sing their "Christ-haunted" songs.