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Theologians have long explored the meaning of the biblical notion of the imago dei for our understanding of the complexities of human personhood. In recent years the focus has often been on the “functional-relational,” as opposed to an “ontological,” account of the imago. Richard J. Mouw reflects here on the ways in which these biblical-theological explorations can cast light on the issues traditionally discussed by philosophers in the questions they raise about what, if anything, comprises the uniqueness of the human person. Mr. Mouw is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also serves as President.

In the very first chapter of the Bible, the creation of human beings is introduced by the divine announcement that God has decided to fashion them “in our im-age, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). This declaration of divine intent in the creation of humankind obviously sets the tone for the Bible’s unfolding story about the nature and destiny of human beings. What does that declaration offer Christian philosophers in our own attempts to look for carefully formulated answers to the basic questions about human realites? That is the topic I will be exploring here. I have thought about this question for a long time; indeed, in many ways the relevance of the notion of the imago dei has never been far from my mind in my own philosophical pilgrimage. Because of that, I will risk immodesty by framing some of what I have to say in autobiographical terms.

Looking for Connections

During my seminary studies, which I pursued just before beginning my five years of graduate studies in philosophy, I read G. C. Berkouwer’s Man: The Image of God. Actually, I not only read it but I re-read it several times, and since then I have also regularly turned to it for a reminder of some of the important questions and answers that are crucial for a theological understanding of issues pertaining to human nature.

And one is certainly confronted with many theological questions and answers in Berkouwer’s book. His detailed discussion offers little comfort to anyone who is hoping for a straightforward account of what it means for a human being to be created in God’s image. Right off, for example, Berkouwer introduces various treatments by theologians of a distinction between a broader and a narrower sense of the imago. And further distinctions and nuances soon follow: the formal versus the material aspects of the image; arguments about whether being created in God’s image and being fashioned in God’s “likeness” point to different realities; the original created image and the remnants of the image in human fallenness; the image as relational and the image as ontological; the image by itself and the image linked to a supernatural donum superadditum; the imago dei as it is on display in the individual human person and that image as it is manifested in collective humanity; the image as partially restored in redemption and the image as it will be manifested when as believers “we will be like [Christ], for we will see him as he is” (I John 3:2); and much more.

Much of that was considerable theological overload for what I encountered in the Anglo-American discussions of philosophical anthropology in the 1960s. During those days the agenda had been pretty much set by Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, where Ryle’s rejection of “the Ghost in the Machine” metaphysical dualism was still a dominant reference point for discussion of the philosophical issues. Ryle himself seemed to espouse at times a fairly straightforward behaviorism, as in his suggestion at one point that we can construe consciousness as a set of dispositions to behave in certain ways.1 I initially pursued the Rylean agenda by reading the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Wisdom, Norman Malcolm, J. L. Austin, and others who did a lot with “ordinary language” analysis. But I soon moved on to what I saw as a more sophisticated address to the issues, in work on the analysis of human action and related topics, particularly in the writings of Stuart Hampshire, P. F. Strawson, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Anthony Kenny.

Again, that necessitated my putting a lot of the Berkouwer-type theological content on the shelf for a while, although I was able occasionally to take an item down and dust it off. One particular inspiration for reaching to the shelf occurred as I was working my way through P. F. Strawson’s 1959 study, Individuals. Straw-son made the case that “the concept of a pure individual consciousness… could not exist as a primary concept to be used in the explanation of the concept of a person.” While this meant, for him, that the traditional mind-body problem was based on a confusion, Strawson did allow for at least the sheer possibility that a disembodied consciousness “might have a logically secondary existence,” since it is not difficult for a person “quite intelligibly [to] conceive of his or her individual survival of bodily death.”2 But this notion of a disembodied consciousness makes sense, Strawson observed, only as “disembodied, “ as the continuing consciousness of “a former person”3—in the robust sense of a person as an entity to which “both predicates ascribing states of consciousness and predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics” are applicable.4

Strawson obviously meant this allusion to resurrection as a kind of throwaway line. In spite of his actual intention, however, he was onto something important. And I continue to think that his basic point is well taken, both philosophically and theologically. But before pursuing the significance of this matter for philosophical anthropology, I want to do a little more sorting out of the questions about human nature that have engaged theologians as they have reflected on the meaning of the image of God.5

A Shifting Focus

The anthropological topics that have loomed very large in past theological discussions have often had to do with human composition. Of what is a human being composed in the most basic sense? Here the obvious options are dualism and monism. Either we are composed of two basic stuffs, the mental or spiritual and the physical, or we are made up of only one of these. Bishop Berkeley and Mary Baker Eddy to the contrary notwithstanding, a monism that sees reality in general and/or human beings in particular as nothing but mind or spirit has not been a serious option in the Christian tradition. Some form of metaphysical physicalism, on the other hand, has often been proposed, and that as a way of rejecting the dualistic compositional perspective that has long dominated theological anthropology.

Does the biblical reference to human beings as created in God’s image in any way address this issue? In one sense it does not. To be sure, there is a long-standing insistence in the Christian tradition that the biblical imago reference does provide a fairly straightforward answer to the question of composition. Those who have argued thus have gotten to their conclusion by two moves. First, they have assumed that the reference to the image in Genesis is implicitly responding to what we might label for a shorthand the differentiating feature question. They ask: what is a significant property that is characteristic of both God and human beings and is not possessed by any other creature? And then they single out a compositional property. They will talk, for example, about the fact that God is a spirit. Then they will observe that human beings are like God in that they also are at least in part spirits, and that no other creatures (except the angels, whose creation predated the activity described in the Genesis creation account) are spiritual in this sense. Therefore, they conclude, being at least in part spiritual is what it means to be created in God’s image.

This kind of understanding of what is meant by the imago has not fared well in more recent theological accounts, where the shift has been away from seeing the Bible as offering straightforward metaphysical teachings. Instead the assumption is that the biblical writers focus primarily on the more functional-relational dimensions of the human person. Karl Barth’s treatment of the imago dei is one of the best-known examples of this approach. Barth dismisses the past efforts to identify the image with spirituality or rationality as “arbitrarily invented interpretations” that are set forth by people who simply have “ignored the definitive explanation given by the text itself.” As the right way of going about the investigation, Barth points to the “divine plural” in the Genesis account of the creation of humankind: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). He does not see this as an intentional reference to God’s triune nature, but he does insist that it rules out the notion of the biblical deity as a solitary sovereign. And it is significant, he observes, that this reference to a divine “us” is immediately followed by the reference to the creation of “male and female.” This clearly suggests, he says, that there is a “simple correspondence… between this mark of the divine, namely that it includes an I and a Thou, and the being of man, male and female.”6 On this view, then, the image of God consists in human sociality, our being created for “I-Thou” relationships.

There are at least two problems with this as the “definitive” account of the imago, however. One is that male-and-femaleness as such is not a distinguishing mark of humanness—it is shared by many others in the animal kingdom. The second is that Barth himself seems to be reading more recent philosophical notions into the text with his use of the Buberian “I-Thou” construction.

A more interesting difficulty, however, lies in the fact that a look at the text itself for the answer to the meaning of the image raises another significant candidate. Having created humankind as male and female, God immediately gives them an assignment: they are to “have dominion” over the rest of the creation. This feature7 – the exercising of dominion – has the advantage of applying uniquely to human beings among the creatures, as well being a divine delegation of something that is central to God’s character as the sovereign Ruler over all things. Thus being “imagers” of God is something that is on display when human beings act, when they exercise the authority that God has delegated to them.

Actually, there are some problems also with this view as an account of what the biblical writer had in mind in referring to our being created in God’s image.8 But let me cut to the chase by saying that I do think that the functional-relational kind of account is the correct one, and that some combination of the sociality and the dominion characteristics is close to the truth about the image. The Dutch theologian Harry Kuitert has it about right in this comment:

To look like God, to be His image, is not something we can do simply by being rational creatures or by having a good will. We cannot see God in man while man stands still. To look like God has to do with the purpose God has for man. The question, then, is what is man for, what is his calling? What is he here for? He is here to reflect God, to reflect God the Covenant Partner. To be God’s image means simply that we as men are to live as covenant partners with God and with our fellows on earth.9

Kuitert’s notion of covenant partnership seems to integrate nicely with what is important about both the sociality and dominion emphases: the “covenant” part captures the importance of relationships and the partnership points to the mandate to engage in a shared “doing.”

Sociality and the Political

All of this is a roundabout way of explaining my observation that in an important sense the biblical reference to the imago does not help us directly address the question of the metaphysics of the human person. Indeed, what this has meant for my own work is that the imago idea has had more straightforward relevance to basic issues in social and political philosophy than to metaphysics as such. My primary mentor in social and political philosophy at the University of Chicago, Alan Gewirth, formulated the basic philosophical questions regarding sociality and politics in a way that was especially helpful in making the connections for me. He saw the fundamental issues in terms of these questions: Why are human beings social at all? Why are we political at all? And what social and political arrangements are best for human beings?10 Having set up the discussion in these terms, Gewirth laid out what he saw as the two basic options in social-political thought. One was a means-end justification of the social and political bonds—for example, the Hobbesean picture of isolated individuals sacrificing their right to “all and everything” in order to gain a measure of safety and stability; the other was the view, as in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, that sociality is somehow intrinsic to human nature.

To employ Nicholas Wolterstorff’s terminology, it seems clear to me that the idea of being created for covenant partnership provides us with a set of “control beliefs” that can guide us in formulating/selecting/modifying theoretical perspectives in social-political thought.11 For example, Psalm 139 seems to make it clear that we are at the very least fundamentally social beings in the sense that we live inescapably coram deo, constantly in the presence of the living God. But, given our “intrinsic” social natures, we are also fallen creatures, which means that the Hobbesian picture of individuals guided by hostile attitudes toward our fellows may well capture – albeit, in much too extreme terms – significant features of our sinful condition.

Similarly, our involvement in political arrangements can be seen as in some sense a “natural” expression of our created natures. We do have to be careful, however, in positing a connection between the “dominion” mandate of Genesis 1 and questions about the basic role of politics in human relations. In my early writing on the subject I did not exercise this caution. In one of my books, written in the early 1980s, I attempted to make a case for a creational grounding of politics by arguing that “[t]he ways of human government in a sinful world are perversions of the ‘subduing’ and ‘dominion’ which God intended as a part of the good creation.”12 My rationale for making this case was that the God-delegated authority to exercise dominion is the divine sanction for the kind of political arrangements that would eventually be necessary if human beings did in fact, even under sinless conditions, “be fruitful and multiply.” Thus, I took what was overtly mandated in Genesis 1 as a legitimate human dominion over plants and animals as directly extendable to an inter-human pattern of dominion relationships.

That was, as I came to see things,13 much too quick a step, moving from the acknowledgement that human beings have a God-given authority over non-human creatures to the insistence that they also have the authority to institute “dominion” arrangements within the human community. To recognize that move as too quick a step, however, does not mean that we have simply to give up on the idea of a creational grounding for politics. We do have to avoid making the case directly in terms of dominion, since in the Genesis account, that has everything to do with our common task with regard to the non-human creation and nothing to do with how we treat each other as humans. The question of politics comes up, though, when we ask how we go about our intra-human covenant partnerships. How do we structure our lives together in such a way that we honor the Creator’s intentions as we work together to manage the affairs of the creation?

Gewirth’s first two questions, then, about the basic role of social and political arrangements in human affairs, have to be addressed from a Christian perspective with reference to the fact of our created sociality. The first question gets the rather direct answer that we gave above: we are social beings because God created us with deep communal longings and needs. The second question, on the other hand, is answered with a little bit less directness: politics enters the picture when it becomes necessary for us to give some structure to the “together” part of our exercising “dominion together”; as creatures who have been told by God to fill the earth with the patterns and products of cultural formation, we need not shrink from contributing a political culture to the world in which God has placed us.

Thinking about Composition

But back now to the composition question. As a typical expression of what I have called the functional-relational understanding of the biblical contribution to theological topics, Berkouwer boldly asserts that “[t]he Scriptural anthropological concepts which vary so extremely never occur in a context which is concerned with the composition of man as such, in himself.”14 There is no dualistic picture of the human person in the Bible, he says. Rather, “in all of [the Scripture’s] varied expressions the whole man comes to the fore, in all his guilt and sin, his need and oppression, his longings and his nostalgia.”15

Again, that strikes me as a helpful way of viewing the Bible’s direct contribution to discussions of human nature. But there is still room for looking for at least some biblical guidance on the composition topic. Berkouwer himself admits as much. He notes that any attempt to single out specific biblical terms for human “parts” (“spirit,” “flesh,” “body,” “heart”) in exploring compositional issues will inevitably run into much messiness. Such terms are used “in very concrete and extremely varied ways,” as divine “revelation directs our glance toward man in his totality, in his relation to God.” But Berkouwer does allow for the fact that while the Bible’s intent is not “to reveal to us something of the composition of man,” it can be thought of as pointing to the composition of the human person “as an anthropological given,” even if it does so “only incidentally, in order to speak of man as a whole.”16

Here is what I think we ought to do with what Berkouwer is trying to get at in this observation of what the Bible says “only incidentally” about composition. We cannot look to the Bible for a systematic presentation of the metaphysical “parts” of the human person. The biblical witness points us, rather, to our integral wholeness, and it reveals our guilt and loneliness, illuminating our deepest hopes and fears. Even more basically, we can learn from revelation that we are created for covenant partnership. And we could add some other things that fall within the scope of the functional-relational.

But in all of this, the Bible does “incidentally” say some things that have im-plications for our understanding of human composition. So we can legitimately ask questions of this sort: What kind of metaphysical entity must a human person be in order to be capable of covenant partnership? As we attempt to understand ourselves in our wholeness, what reductionist understandings of human nature should we be on guard against? While we cannot get a lot of metaphysical mileage from the Bible’s unsystematic references to “spirit” or “heart” or “soul,” we can certainly ask what kinds of beings we must be, in metaphysical terms, in order for the Bible to say what it means to say about us when it is using these terms.

An obvious topic that the Bible addresses in this regard is the question of post-mortem survival. One of the most helpful biblical-theological explorations of this subject is Oscar Cullmann’s much-discussed essay, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament”—a piece whose philosophical significance was rightly recognized by Terence Penelhum, when he included it in his short philosophy reader on after-life topics. Cullmann illustrates what he sees as the clear difference between the Greek view of im-mortality and the Christian view of resurrected bodily life by presenting a stark contrast between the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. After a calm philosophical discussion with his friends, Socrates takes the hemlock in a seemingly cheerful anticipation of the separation of his soul from his body. Jesus, on the other hand, sweats drops of blood in Gethsemane as he pleads with the Father to allow the cup of suffering to pass from him. And then on the cross he cries out in agony over his experience of abandonment. 17 The underlying issue here, says Cullmann, has to do with radically differing conceptions of the meaning of death. For Socrates, death is the welcome release of the spiritual from the physical. For Jesus, death is an enemy that destroys threatens the destruction of the whole person.

As Cullmann reads the anthropological data of the New Testament, there is a compositional duality of sorts attributed to human beings there, but it is not that of a radically separable soul and body. While the words “soul” and “body” do appear on pages of Holy Writ, the real contrast for Paul and others is between “the inner” and “the outer” person. Our inner and outer lives need each other, says Cullmann. “Both belong together, both are created by God.” Our inner lives require a home in a body. While this inner life “can, to be sure, somehow lead a shady existence without the body, like the dead in Sheol according to the Old Testament,” this shadowy existence is not really “a genuine life.”18

This leads Cullmann, like many other commentators associated with the post-World War II “biblical theology” movement, to celebrate the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body as the central teaching with regard to post-mortem survival. But Cullmann does not shirk from a fairly nuanced address to the nature of “the intermediate state,” that is, the mode of existence that the believer can anticipate between the time of a person’s death and the future resurrection of the body. He points out that in 2 Corinthians 5: 1-10, the Apostle Paul expresses anxiety over the “nakedness” of an interim condition when he is no longer in the body but not yet resurrected. But in this same passage, having expressed his “natural anxiety” over the very real threat posed by the destruction of the body, Paul also voices much confidence that he will experience “Christ’s proximity, even in this interim state.” The inner person is not abandoned by the Holy Spirit when the outer person disappears.19

The important philosophical question, of course, is what this means for the composition issue. It has been characteristic of the twentieth-century advocates of the functional-relational type expositions of biblical anthropology – who typically draw a stark contrast between Platonic dualism and the “Hebraic view” set forth in the Bible – that they often avoid any careful treatment of the doctrine of the intermediate state. One pattern of avoidance is exemplified in Robert McAfee Brown’s brief summary, in a 1958 theological handbook, of current views regarding biblical anthropology. The very title of Brown’s entry is an indication of the metaphysical tone of the content: “Body (Soul),” which signals the view of composition that he sets forth, where the terms “body” and “soul” are each taken to refer to whole person, without even a mention of the intermediate state20 Another option is a favorite strategy of Berkouwer, who does raise the problem of the intermediate state, but then resorts to a heavy reliance on the word “mystery.”21

By way of contrast to those patterns, Cullmann’s discussion is refreshingly nuanced. Indeed, as John Cooper points out in his extensive discussion of the issues I am touching upon here, while Cullmann is “often touted as a champion of biblical holism against Greek dualism,” Cullman refuses to slip into the “conceptual ambivalence” that characterizes so many other recent commentators on this subject. Cullmann strongly criticizes Barth, for example, for using the “sleep” metaphor as grounds for insisting that human person does not experience the passage of time between death and resurrection. Those who are “dead in Christ” do experience some sort of state of consciousness prior to the resurrection, Cullmann argues. They “are still in time; they, too, are waiting. ‘How long, oh Lord?’ cry the martyrs who are sleeping under the altar in John’s Apocalypse ([Rev.] 6:11).”22

Nor does Cullmann shrink from facing the metaphysical implications of what he is allowing for here. It is fair to ask, he says, “whether in this fashion we have not been led again, in the last analysis, to the Greek doctrine of immortality.” And the fact is, he continues, that

[t]here is a sense in which a kind of approximation to the Greek teaching does actually take place, to the extent that the inner man, who has already been transformed by the Spirit (Romans 6:3ff) and consequently made alive, continues to live with Christ in this trans-formed state, in the condition of sleep… Here we observe at least a certain analogy to the “immortality of the soul,” but the distinction remains nonetheless radical.

The key differences between the biblical and the Greek views remain, he insists. Death continues to be an enemy for the Christian; a residual consciousness after dying is not due to anything about “the natural essence of the soul.” The interim state is, for the believer, a “waiting for the resurrection.”23

It is important to note explicitly here that all that Cullmann says on this subject applies exclusively to the Christian believer. He tells us nothing about the post-mortem prospects of human beings in general. Indeed, he even stipulates that the Christian who has died enters into this “sleep” state by virtue of “ a divine intervention from outside, through the Holy Spirit, who must already have quickened the inner man in earthly life by His miraculous power.”24 This too reinforces his insistence that there is considerable distance between the New Testament perspective and the Greek doctrine of immortality. Of course, it could be that God performs a somewhat different kind of miracle for those who die without having been transformed in their inner beings by the Spirit, perhaps sustaining in them a fearful waiting for the resurrection. But that is not a topic that Cullman discusses.

However that may be, it is at least interesting to observe that Cullmann’s discussion coincides nicely with Strawson’s seemingly throwaway comment about the resurrection, cited earlier. Indeed, Strawson’s ontology of personhood can be seen as a fitting nicely with Cullmann’s theological perspective. Personhood, on this view, is such that “spiritual” attributes can only be ascribed to an entity that also is constituted by physical reality. Any state of consciousness that is thought of as existing apart from a body, then, must of necessity be understood as a disembodied consciousness, that is, as consisting in a form of conscious life that can only be possessed by “a former person,” an entity that once possessed both a bodily and a conscious life.

Whether this view is the correct account of what a human person must be like if the person is to be thought of as bearing the divine image is, of course, a question for continued debate. My own sense is that it has the advantage of allowing for a continued consciousness for the believer between death and resurrection while also emphasizing the fact that full personhood is only possible eschatologically when consciousness once again resides in a human body.

The idea of a disembodied consciousness, however, was subject to theological challenge at the very beginning of the Protestant movement, a challenge that was renewed by the Adventist movement of the nineteenth century and has taken on new philosophical and theological sophistication in recent years by the advocates of a Christian version of “non-reductive physicalism.”25 Those who issue this challenge typically do not deny the truth of those biblical claims that seem to affirm a continued intermediate state consciousness; rather they interpret those claims – such as “absent from the body, present with the Lord” – in alternative ways. Given the emergence of new developments in brain science, these arguments must be continued—although always, it is to be hoped, with a clear focus on the Bible’s witness to the fact that human beings are created in the divine image.

The Imago and Human Commonness

The biblical reference to the image of God has significance for what may be an even more urgent problem today, which is the question of human commonness. What is it, if anything, that all human beings possess in common? On what basis can we posit a universally shared human nature?

Our present cultural climate requires new attention to these questions on the part of the Christian community. There are many voices today that are celebrating uncommonness. This is all too apparent, not only in the very visible tribal and ethnic conflicts that disrupt human life in so many parts of the contemporary world, but also in some prominent patterns of present day intellectual life, where a variety of thinkers have been attacking the very idea of a unifying “meta-narrative.” There is no legitimate way, they insist, of articulating a basis for our common humanness, because every such formulation is oppressive; the attempt to group all human beings under a common “story” is in fact nothing more than a brutal exercise of power, in which some groups exercise hegemonic control over others. As the self-described “postmodern” thinker Iban Hassan puts the case, we are living in “an antinomian moment” in which we must all recognize the need to “unmake” and “deconstruct” all “totalizing” accounts of the human condition; what this rejection of “the tyranny of wholes” means, he says, is that we must live with “an epistemological obsession with fragments.”26

However we as Christians may assess the merits of this or that element of the epistemological or metaphysical aspects of this “fragmenting” perspective;at the very least we cannot simply abandon an emphasis on a God-created human commonness. The Christian intellectual tradition offers several significant resources for contemporary reflection on this subject: natural law thought, the idea of general revelation, prevenient and common grace theologies, and so on. But surely the image of God idea continues to be a prime candidate for anthropological exploration.

There can be no ignoring the fact that in the past, a conviction that all human beings are created in the divine image has been a powerful force for good on the part of the Christian community. This point was made forcefully by J. H. Elliot, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford’s Oriel College, in a review published in The New York Review of Books, of several historical studies of colonialism. Contemporary writers on early missionary activity frequently distort the motives of the evangelizers, Elliot argued. The sixteenth-century Spanish friars, for example, were, in his words, clearly “struggling to discover resemblances, not differences, in their pursuit of the not unworthy objective of establishing the common humanity of the human race.”27

This kind of observation has to be taken very seriously today. There is no question that what often compelled the missionaries of the past to enter into what was for them unknown territories, often at great risk to their own lives, seeking out human communities to whom they wanted to bring the Gospel, both in word and deed, was a deep conviction about the innate dignity and value of the human person. They had the abiding confidence that they would not encounter any human being in any rural compound or village or city who was not created in the image and likeness of the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

An important assignment for Christian philosophers today, then, is to reflect on what it was about that past conviction concerning the shared image of God in all human beings that we must grasp, refine, and retain for our own present-day understanding of humanness. I argued earlier that it would not do simply to equate the image with the possession of such things as a soul or free will or rationality. Instead, we need to ask what properties of that order are necessary in a human being if that being is to actualize the functional-relational roles and actions associated with the divine call to engage in covenant partnerships.

In our efforts to formulate a contemporary understanding of human commonness, however, it would be a mistake to ignore what advocates of “the postmodern turn” have been trying to teach us in recent decades about the need to focus on human diversity, including the human differences associated with such attributes as race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and social-economic location. Here too, I suggest, we can draw on the resources offered to us by past theological discussions of the imago dei.

In this regard, I am intrigued particularly by the reflections of the nineteenth-century Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, on the imago. Bavinck observed that the creation of humans in the divine image in the Genesis creation narrative “is not the end but the beginning of God’s journey with mankind.” In mandating that the first human pair be “fruitful and multiply,” says Bavinck, God was making it clear that “[n]ot the man alone, nor the man and the woman together, but only the whole of humanity together is the fully developed image of God,” for “[t]he image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be.” Furthermore, this collective sense of the imago, he argues, is “is not a static entity but extends and unfolds itself” in the rich diversity of humankind spread over many places and times. For Bavinck, this understanding of the image necessarily takes on eschatological significance, when in the end times “all the glory of the nations will be brought” into the New Jerusalem.28

For our present-day discussions, this suggests that we might think of the Creator as having distributed different aspects of the divine likeness to different cultural groups, with each group receiving, as it were, a unique assignment for developing some aspect or another of the divine image. Thus, it will only be in the eschatological gathering-in of the peoples of the earth, when many tribes and tongues and nations will be displayed in their honor and glory in the New Jerusalem, that will we see the many-splendored imago dei in its fullness.

In this regard, we are privileged as Christian philosophers to be members of an international Christian community that affords a rather natural access to a cross-cultural conversation undergirded by a spiritual bonding that is seldom available to scholars whose global contacts are available only through the usual academic networks. The privilege of participating in this extensive Christian network can nurture in us the attitudinal and communal resources that can help us to wrestle effectively with the facts of both commonness and diversity, even experiencing the freedom these days to linger a little more on the diversity side of things, while not abandoning our convictions about commonness.

We can receive an extra word of encouragement for this exploration from Socrates, as Plato portrays him in the Meno. There Socrates has grilled his friends so extensively on the subject of virtue that they are finally ready to give up in despair. They have been trying to come up with a unified definition of virtue-as-such, but instead, they say, all they have been able to produce is a “swarm” of virtues. At that point Socrates adopts a more pastoral tone. Do not get discouraged by the swarm, he tells them—in spite of appearances, “all nature is akin.” This means, he says, that there is nothing to hinder us, having learned just one thing, from going on to find out about all of the rest, as long as we do “not weary in seeking.”29

It is to be expected that we will experience similar frustrations in our attempts to understand what the imago dei means for philosophical anthropology. As hard as we try, it is difficult to avoid a swarm of possible formulations of the imago, even as we are attempting to address a swarm of philosophical questions about human nature. But we should not be too discouraged. Christian philosophers have even stronger reasons than Socrates did for operating with the conviction hat “all nature is akin.” We can be confident that when the Bible makes a point of telling us that in the beginning humankind was fashioned in the very image and likeness of God, we are being given a piece of supremely important information, and that we ought not to grow “weary in seeking” to understand it more clearly.

Cite this article
Richard Mouw, “The Imago Dei and Philosophical Anthropology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 253-266


  1. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1949), 181.
  2. P. F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen & Co., 1959), 115.

  3. Ibid., 116 (italics in original).
  4. Ibid., 102 (italics in original).
  5. Ibid., 116.
  6. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/I (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958), 183-195.
  7. This view is spelled out and defended by David A. J. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968): 53-103.
  8. I discussed these matters in greater detail in my book Politics and the Biblical Drama (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 22-29.
  9. Harry Kuitert, Signals From the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 32.
  10. For Gewirth’s elaboraton of these three questions, see his introductory essay in Alan Gewirth, ed., Political Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Company, 1965), 1-30.
  11. To employ Nicholas Wolterstorff’s terminology, it seems clear to me that the idea of being created for covenant partnership provides us with a set of “control beliefs” that can guide us in formulating/selecting/modifying theoretical perspec-tives in social-political thought.11 For example, Psalm 139 seems to make it clear that we are at the very least fundamentally social beings in the sense that we live inescapably coram deo, constantly in the presence of the living God. But, given our “intrinsic” social natures, we are also fallen creatures, which means that the Hobbesian picture of individuals guided by hostile attitudes toward our fellows may well capture – albeit, in much too extreme terms – significant features of our sinful condition.
  12. 2Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 30.
  13. 3I offered my “amendments” to my earlier views on this subject in some detail in “Cre-ational Politics: Some Calvinist Amendments,” Christian Scholars Review 23:2 (December 1993): 181-193, especially 183-185.
  14. G. C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 199.
  15. Ibid., 203.
  16. Ibid., 199.
  17. Oscar Cullmann, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: The Witness of the New Testament,” reprinted in Immortality, ed. Terence Penelhum (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1973), 60-63.
  18. Ibid., 69 (italics in original).
  19. Ibid., 81 (italics in original).
  20. Robert McAfee Brown, “Soul (Body),” in Arthur Cohen and Marvin Halverson, eds., A Handbook of Christian Theology, (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 354-354.
  21. See also Berkouwer, Image, 269-278.
  22. Cullmann, “Immortality,” 79.
  23. Ibid., 83 (italics in original).
  24. Ibid.
  25. See, for example, Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2006).
  26. Quoted in Richard Bernstein, The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Moder-nity/Postmodernity (Boston: MIT Press, 1992), 199.
  27. J. H. Elliot, “The Rediscovery of America,” New York Review of Books (June 24, 1993): 38.
  28. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation; ed. John Bolt, and trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 577-578.
  29. Meno, 81A; cf. Great Dialogues of Plato, trans. W. D. H. Rouse (New York: New American Library, 1956), 42.

Richard Mouw

Fuller Theological Seminary
Richard Mouw taught Philosophy at Calvin College (1968-1985) and Fuller Theological Seminary (1985-1993), and he served for twenty years as Fuller’s president. Among his publications are Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (1992) and He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (2001).