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Essay: Critically explore the notion that the human being is the imago Dei.

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  • Critically explore the notion that the human being is the imago Dei.
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From the very beginning ‘imago Dei’ was sewn into the fabric of Christianity, in the first book of the Bible, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” (Genesis 1:26-27). The meaning of this, as God’s intention, has been discussed for centuries commented on by the likes of Augustine and Irenaeus. However, I reside in agreement to the contemporary theologian John Hick, who recognises that Imago Dei for human beings concerns potential and purpose, in the process of what he calls ‘soul-making.’ I will argue that Hick critiques the historic but plausible theodicy of Irenaeus and develops it into an effective argument for the notion of human beings as the imago Dei.

To begin in the era of 350AD, Augustine (whose theodicy is still popular today) attempted to show that ultimately human beings were created perfect and we have fallen from grace. However, I would argue that although he still tries to propose the notion of human beings in the Imago Dei, he contradicts it entirely through this initial belief.

Augustine took the Eden narrative literally, and interpreted that Adam and Eve fell from their original state of perfection. However, I would argue that the Bible (specifically Genesis 1, “So God created man in his own image”) explicitly shows that we were created Imago Dei, and does not provide detail that we were created perfectly and there is a certain distinction between them. John Hick also rejects this tradition claiming that it lacks plausibility. The idea of us being created perfect and having fallen is not convincing. Scientific knowledge indicates that humanity has been in an evolutionary process of growth. There never was a time when mankind was morally perfect from which it has fallen. All evidence, mainly from the Bible, indicates that mankind has developed morally and spiritually, not regressed.
If in Genesis it says that human beings were created in Imago Dei, then we could not have been created perfectly. In fact, Augustine would be contradicting the Bible’s word of God. Imago Dei appears as only the potential to grow into the likeness of God, imago Dei is not perfection.
Therefore, Hick says that the Augustinian theodicy is part of a ‘pre-scientific world-view.’ Thus, although the idea of the human being as the imago Dei seems plausible with most traditional theologians, sometimes the idea becomes a contradiction alongside their other thoughts. However, this should not undermine the notion totally. Instead, other theologians such as Irenaeus provide us with ideas that support the notion completely.

The Irenaean framework talks of two stages of creation. Firstly, God created in God’s image. The process of coming into God’s likeness has to happen in the second stage of creation.
Irenaeus distinguishes between ‘image’ of God and the ‘likeness’ of God, making it clear that the latter is something humans acquire after a “period of growth.” Irenaeus criticises the human race in its “immaturity,” blaming only us for our inadequacy while praising God for his “power, wisdom and immense goodness.” This triad of traits plausibly seems to be what Irenaeus wants humanity to strive for, as this is the likeness of God. Irenaeus understood this to mean that humans were created as personal and moral beings, already existing in the image of God, but not yet formed in to the likeness of God.
Therefore, the ‘imago Dei’ for Irenaeus is the potential for human beings to resemble God and his traits, and likeness is rather the actuality of this resemblance. By ‘likeness’ Irenaeus means a quality in human life that reflects the divine life. Growing into the likeness of God is the perfecting of person, which is seen as God’s ultimate purpose for humanity, ‘the bringing of many sons to glory’ (Hebrews 2:10). Therefore, we cannot have been created perfect, as this develops in the second stage of our lives.

Irenaeus’ idea of the imago Dei seems highly plausible. As God who is the pinnacle of perfection, being the creator and overarching power over humans it could not be that human beings were created perfect, as Augustine wanted to argue. Irenaeus understands that Adam and Eve were never described to be perfect nor to have God’s likeness (which is perfection). If Augustine wants to believe the mythological Eden story in Genesis, it never says that Adam and Eve were created perfect. Genesis 2:7 (the Eden narrative) says ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’
Moreover, Genesis 2:16 says ‘and the Lord God commanded the man.’ From a simple analysis of this sentence, God and man are not portrayed as equal. ‘Lord God,’ and ‘commanded’ suggest the higher power that God upholds. Therefore, human beings were never created perfect for it never being mentioned in Genesis and for the difference in status portrayal and inequality of man versus God (who is perfect).
Therefore, human beings were in fact created imago Dei and also not in his likeness.

However, Irenaeus’ text is solely a defence for God, and he fails to enrich readers in how we can maintain the ‘imago Dei’ and attain this ‘likeness’ to God. Therefore, I would argue for the contemporary development of John Hick which gives us more meaning to this notion. However, John Hick himself comments on how theodicies are “relatively modest,” meaning that they cannot answer every question, only give us the most plausible explanation. Imago Dei is a big question across the Christian faith and although it may be unsatisfactory to not receive an entirely certain answer, we can learn something in everything.

John Hick published ‘Evil and the God of Love’ in 1966, in which he developed a theodicy based on the work of Irenaeus. Hick also distinguished between the Augustinian theodicy, based on free will, and the Irenaean theodicy, based on human development. Overall, Hick wants to argue that humans are in the process of creation, and imago Dei once again means potential. He interprets that the fall of man, described in the Bible is a metaphorical description of the current state of humans. This contrasts the Augustinian view whereby the fall of man reflects how humans fell from original perfection.

The Eden narrative for Hick as a reflection of our current state shows how God commands us to do good and gives us a path to do the moral thing, while still maintaining our free will as rational beings. This leads on to the notion of Imago Dei as God creates us with the potential to grow into the likeness of him. The potential of this relies on our free-will and the subtle guidance God provides to do good.
The world for Hick is like a “vale of soul-making” where salvation can be and is achieved by all. Humans however, are created at an epistemic distance from God, and have the gift of freedom, through which, by coming to see the value of the good, humans will in the end learn best from what is freely chosen or earned and not from what otherwise might be handed to them on a plate.

A possible objection to the notion of being created ‘imago Dei,’ is that we haven’t witnessed God and therefore cannot account for us being in his image. John Hick makes the strong point in that in order to be free, we must be placed in an environment where we are not sure whether God is there. This is exactly what he meant by the ‘vale of soul-making.’ If we knew God was there, it would inflict us on our decision, and we would feel obliged to do good instead of doing it because we believe it is truly good. Hick writes: “The kind of distance between God and man that would make room for a degree of human autonomy is epistemic distance.” Furthermore, if we are imago Dei that means we have the trait of rationality (like God) which enables us to make free choices. Therefore, we are not truly in the image of God if we cannot exercise this rationality entirely alone. Hick concludes that “the world must be to man… etsi deus non daretur,” meaning ‘as if there were no God.’

Hick therefore has taken the Irenaean framework and developed it in to a contemporary theodicy. John Hick wants to remind us that the Eden narrative is a myth and ought not to be taken literally and less ought to be used as the historical basis for a theodicy. Therefore, rejecting the Augustinian tradition. There is also a constant emphasis on the free choice and human free will as being central to this contemporary theodicy. On the development of this idea, our rationality enables us to make free choices, and this is another argument as to why it seems plausible that human beings are created in imago Dei. Unlike the rest of creation, human beings are at the top of the hierarchy. What separates us from every other species is our capacity to reason. This reflects God, and therefore gives us evidence as to why human beings particularly were created imago Dei. God’s rationality enabled him to make choices and create the entire universe. His position of power reflects rationality, and therefore our rationality must reflect God.

Thus, I would argue that unlike Irenaeus, who although plants the idea that there are two stages; imago Dei and likeness, he failed to instruct us on how we can go from imago Dei to that likeness; and that Hick’s development creates a more concrete and effective theodicy.

However, Hick’s theodicies might be challenged for a few reasons. The distinction Irenaeus and then therefore Hick makes between the image and the likeness of God is not implicit in the Bible, and so is speculative. Moreover, some might ask why the Augustinian theodicy was more influential over Christendom tradition rather than Irenaeus even though his ideas seem more apparently plausible for the contemporary reader. Hick replies that the orthodox church did not develop Irenaeus Eastern theodicy as well as in the West, where Augustine’s Theory was developed.

Besides this, there is plenty of substantial argument in Hick’s theodicy. Hick’s insistence that soul-making from our position of imago Dei requires a long process of experience as opposed to an instantaneous gift may receive positive review. Furthermore, he avoids the objection of God not being present in our life experience. The ‘vale’ idea gives plausible reason as to we can still be created imago Dei while being apparently alone in the process of life.

In conclusion, the evidence given to us makes the notion of imago Dei very plausible. Right from the beginning of the Bible as well as Hick’s product of combining 20th century and 2nd century thinking, the latter being from the writings of Irenaeus, makes it plausible that human beings were in fact created in Imago Dei. The conclusion that humans were created imperfect, but in the image of God with potential to develop into the likeness of God appears the most convincing. Humans also reflect many traits that God reveals himself, and the imago Dei is simply the potential to close the epistemic distance between ourselves and God.

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