In Defense of Difficult Theology

Anyone who has studied serious theology will agree that theology can be quite difficult. Charles Spurgeon once remarked that the contemplation of God “is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity…when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with…solemn exclamation, ‘I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.’” Indeed, even after two thousand years of exploration by some of the brightest minds ever to walk the planet, the Church still struggles to understand certain areas of theology.

The Image of God

Take the image of God—the imago Dei—as an example. A survey of the Bible’s teaching on this concept will reveal that the image of God in human beings is as important as it is obscure. The divine image is the source of our dignity, yet the Bible doesn’t give a lot of details about what exactly the image is; the imago Dei sets us apart from the rest of creation, but the Bible allows the specifics to remain in the shadows.

When God decides to create human beings in Genesis 1:26, he says, “let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule”[1] over the rest of creation. God’s decision to give us the divine image thus predates our species and places us above the rest of God’s creation.

In the next verse, Genesis 1:27, we find a chiastic structure which seeks to place great emphasis on the divine image in human beings:

So God created man in his own image / In the image of God he created him.”[2]

Upon creating human beings, God uses the chiasm to stress that we are made in his image. Perhaps the imago Dei is a defining characteristic of ours.

What’s more, God’s image in us gives us inherent value and is an enduring quality. In Genesis 9:6, God prohibits murder on the basis of the divine image. Since I bear the imago Dei and a dog does not, it would be worse to kill me than the dog. In addition, Genesis 9:6 is well after the Fall; thus, the divine image continues to exist in sinful human beings alongside our sinful nature, though it has been defaced.

Based on this elementary theology lesson, we can agree that all human beings were created as bearers of the divine image, that all human persons are thus inherently valuable, and that all humans continue to bear the imago Dei in spite of our rampant sinfulness. However, theology doesn’t stop at this level, serious theology asks an important question: “What is the divine image?” Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t give a clear-cut answer. Therefore, in an attempt to understand what the divine image is, theologians have constructed several options.

Defining the Image of God

Some theologians take a substantive view of the divine image and argue that the divine image in us is some quality that all human beings possess. For example, many theologians have argued that the divine image is the human ability to reason.

Other theologians opt instead for a functional view of the divine image. These theologians argue that we see the divine image in the things that humans do that are unique to our species, most notably in our ability to exercise control over the rest of creation.

Finally, various theologians take a relational view of the imago Dei. According to the relational view, the image of God appears in social relationships. When we develop relationships with other human persons, we see the evidence of the divine image at work.

Isn’t This All Unnecessary?

Now, each of these options has its own strengths and weaknesses, but aren’t they too much? Aren’t we going far above and beyond what scripture teaches when we begin to ask what exactly the Bible means when it says we are made in the image of God? Isn’t this much too difficult? When asked what the divine image is, shouldn’t we respond by saying something along these lines: “I’m not sure, but that’s what the Bible says, and I believe it!”?

While this response may seem pious, it has two fatal flaws: First, if I don’t know what the Bible means, it’s strange to say that I agree with what the Bible says. The author of Genesis likely had an idea of what it meant to be made in God’s image, and God, the divine author of Genesis, certainly meant something when he inspired this passage. Furthermore, as with the rest of theology, what the Bible means when it talks about the divine image should have some kind of impact on the way that I live my life. If I don’t do the work to understand what the Bible means, saying that I agree with the Bible is like signing an unread contract. I’m agreeing to things that I haven’t taken the time to understand and am accepting obligations that I’m not prepared to fulfill. This wouldn’t be a good strategy when purchasing a car, and it certainly isn’t a good strategy when understanding God’s revelation to us in the Bible.

Second, this pious response detracts from the meaningfulness of our theological discussions. Consider the following two sentences: “The dog sat,” and “shelp flum claked.” What’s the difference? The first has a definite meaning. When I see the words in the first sentence, I know what those words mean. The second, however, is just a collection of noises. I can utter those words, but I’m not expressing anything meaningful. If we attempt to talk about the divine image in humanity without any understanding of the concept of the “divine image,” we’ve moved our discussion away from the first sentence and towards the second sentence: We’re saying words, but we aren’t attaching nearly as much meaning to those words as we could. If we’re going to discuss God’s revelation to us in the Bible, it makes sense that we should attempt to have as much meaning in the discussion as we can.

Therefore, while it sounds pious to say, “I just believe what the Bible says,” it’s not really a desirable position. Much better is the pious mind equipped with understanding! To believe what the Bible says, we must first do the homework required to understand what exactly the Bible is saying. However, the second we start exploring what God meant by the divine image, we’ve begun doing theology. Though theology is quite hard, it is certainly worth doing. For, by doing theology, we begin to grasp what God wants us to know while giving greater meaning and clarity to our discussions of the Creator.

Notes & Sources

[1] Genesis 1:26, all scripture quotations are NIV.

[2] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 1996), 172.

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