The Image, Gender & Personhood
In earlier posts, I have argued against the common idea that the image of God was lost or damaged by sin, noting that it is hard to find a scriptural warrant for this view, and have proposed an understanding of the image as denoting a general family resemblance between God and humans and a protective mark placed over humans which designates every human life as being worthy of protection and preservation. In this post, I want to show why I think this is really important, especially in discussions on gender and personhood.
The Image and Gender
In Genesis 1:27, the creation of humans in the image of God is placed in parallel with our creation as male and female. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that our creation as male and female is part of what it means to be in the image of God, it does suggest that there is a parallel between the way in which we are in the image of God and the way in which we are male or female.
If we go with the common view (which I have argued against) that the image of God is damaged or destroyed by sin, then the implication is that the image of God is a standard to which we have to live up, thus the extent to which we are in the image of God is dependent on how we live. Given that theologians who take this view tend to argue from New Testament passages about the image being renewed or about being conformed to the image, presumably the idea is that part of salvation is the freedom and power to return to living in line with God’s creational intent which makes us more like him. Thus the image is something we have to create through our performance.
If this is correct, then the parallel structure in Genesis 1:27 would suggest that the same is true of our identity as male or female. On this reading, male and female would be standards to live up to and identities which we create through our performance. Such an understanding of sex/gender puts pressure on us to fit into a certain mould to be a real man or real woman and, one could argue, even opens up the possibility of someone changing their gender by changing the way they live it out.
However, as I have argued before, this is not how the Bible talks about the image or our gendered identities. Instead, we find that both the image of God and our identities as male or female are static statuses given to us by God which cannot be changed. We live from a position of being in the image of God and being male or female, rather than living in a certain way to attain either status. If we get the image wrong, we get sex/gender wrong.
The Image and Personhood
The primary importance of the image in Scripture is the way it is evoked as the reason why human life should be protected and preserved (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). In this way, it acts like the modern concept of personhood. Personhood is a quality ascribed to living beings which is different from just being alive or being a human and which is deemed to require the protection and preservation of life. In modern secular thinking, it is personhood which underlies the right to life.
Debates over abortion and euthanasia are thus now about personhood: if personhood is not there then the life can be ended. The key question of course becomes, ‘What are the grounds of personhood?’ As Nancy Pearcey has shown any acceptance of abortion or euthanasia is an implicit affirmation of an answer to that question. It is often claimed that agreeing to one individual’s wish to die because of their inability to care for themselves says nothing of the value of the lives of others in the same situation, but that cannot be maintained as true. If we agree that the individual can end their life, we are agreeing that their life is no longer worthy of protection and preservation, thus we are agreeing that their situation means they no longer have personhood. It follows that anyone else in the same situation also does not qualify for personhood. This is why any acceptance of voluntary euthanasia is dangerous, as it always makes a statement about personhood and that makes the step to involuntary euthanasia much easier.
If we subscribe to the view that the image is damaged or lost because of sin, we have a tricky situation. Given that the image is the biblical grounds for the protection and preservation of human life, how much of the image has to remain to make a life worth protecting? If the image is about how we act, what does someone have to do to lose the right to life? In the Bible, the image of God acts exactly as personhood acts in secular ethics. Because someone in created in the image of God they have the right to life, just as someone who has personhood is believed to have the right to life. If the image can be lost or damaged, then so can the right to life.
It is good news, then, that the image of God is actually a static status, given to us by God and unaffected by sin. Even after the Fall, and despite our rebellion against him, God declares that our lives are worthy of protection and preservation because we are made in his image. The image is a stamp of protection and, in this way, an example of common grace.
Getting the image of God right is really important. Holding to the view that the image is lost or damaged because of sin is not only unbiblical, but also dangerous. We should be those who boldly declare that every human who is every conceived is equally made in the image of God and continues to carry this status throughout their life. This will help people to enjoy the freedom of their God given gendered identity as they live from the status of being created male or female and will offer protection to all human lives and especially to the most vulnerable in our societies.