Tag Archives: Human dignity

Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Imago Dei”

Though it’s been a dead language for centuries, Latin continues to be bandied about in theology.  And in Reformed churches, we love our theology, which means we’re going to inevitably encounter some Latin.  Today’s expression is not a difficult one to figure out:  imago Dei.  The first word is clearly related to our English word “image,” and “Dei” is a form of Deus, “God.”  So:  the image of God.  Why not just say “the image of God”?   I don’t know for sure, but you do save two words, five letters, and two spaces!

Imago Dei is used in reference to humanity.  Human beings are “the image of God.”  It’s easy to say that; it’s much harder to explain.  At the very least, it means there is something in humanity that reflects God.  God has some attributes that cannot be reflected in human nature — for example, we cannot reflect his omnipresence or omniscience (comprehensive knowledge).  But we can, in some measure, reflect his love, wisdom, and goodness.  We can communicate with him and with one another.   These things are part of what it means to be imago Dei.

The Scriptures first tell us of this truth in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  Now there are those who say that the fall into sin meant that humanity lost the image of God.  This is based, I believe, on Ephesians 4:24 which encourages Christians “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” This seems to indicate that becoming a Christian involves a recovery of the image of God — regeneration gives us a new nature which is again the imago Dei.  Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 6 uses the language of Ephesians 4:24 and confesses that at the beginning man was created good and in God’s image, “that is, in true righteousness and holiness.”  It seems to be implied that we lost this image with the fall into sin.  Thus, some say, if you are not a Christian, you’re not the image of God.  God has only restored his image in the regenerated.

Now if Genesis 1:27 and Ephesians 4:24 were the only passages bearing on this, we might be able to agree and leave it at that.  But Scripture says more.  Even Genesis says more in 9:6 — after the fall, after the flood:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”  Killing a human being is a weighty matter because of the imago Dei.  Cursing a fellow human being is treated the same way in James 3:9.  The Holy Spirit speaks of the tongue:  “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”  That’s not a reference to cursing fellow Christians, but to cursing people in general.  In general, all people are thus made in the likeness of God.

Evidently we need to make some kind of distinction here.  Theologians have sometimes distinguished between the image of God in the narrow or moral sense and the image of God in the broader sense.  Ephesians 4:24 refers to the former; Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 refer to the latter.  The fall into sin shattered the imago Dei in the moral sense and horrifically vandalized (but didn’t obliterate) it in the broader sense.  Sin has affected both, but to varying degrees.  Regeneration begins to restore and refresh both.

One reason why a proper understanding of the imago Dei is so important is that it directly relates to human dignity.  Being image-bearers means that we human beings all have inherent dignity and worth.  Our value comes not from who we are in ourselves, but because of who we were created to reflect.  As Psalm 8 poetically states, we were created as the pinnacle of God’s creation, second only to the Creator himself.  So, when we look around us at our fellow human beings, we are looking at the image of our Creator.  Though shattered and vandalized, it’s still there and therefore they’re all valuable.  For each precious image-bearer, God wants us all to be part of his image restoration project through the sharing of the gospel.


Book Review: Building on Sand

Building on Sand: Human Dignity in Canadian Law & Society, Mark Penninga, Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 2009.  Paperback, 131 pages, $10.00.

The vast majority of socio-political issues that concern Christians boil down to the question of how one understands the nature and place of human beings.  Whether abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, pornography, polygamy, and many more — they all have to do with what one thinks about humanity.  Mark Penninga’s first book, Building on Sand, is therefore a strategic and important contribution for those called to socio-political engagement.

Penninga is becoming a well-known figure because of his role as the director of the Association for Reformed Political Action.  Travelling far and wide across the country, he is passionate about promoting the involvement of Reformed believers in the political scene.  This book is partly based on a thesis that he did in for a Master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Lethbridge.

Chapter one consists of an overview of how human dignity has been handled in Canadian constitutional law.  While most of this chapter is descriptive, Penninga also lays out the implications and logical consequences of these positions.  In his second chapter, he traces how these perspectives on human dignity were developed.  He gives special attention here to philosopher Immanuel Kant.  The third chapter develops a Christian account of human dignity, particularly building on insights from Reformed theology.  In chapter four, Penninga applies that account to three important issues:  abortion, euthanasia and equality rights.  His concluding chapter explores how the Christian account of human dignity might be advocated and integrated into Canadian law.

Not being a political scientist, it is difficult for me to assess that aspect of this book.  As a “lay-person” in that area, all I can say is that it makes for interesting and informative reading.  I appreciate Penninga’s efforts to make a careful critique of the ideologies that guide our legal system and the history behind it.  As mentioned above, the book also tries to apply the insights of Reformed theology to the development of an account of human dignity.  Here Penninga works especially with the notion of human beings as the “image of God.”  While there is some imprecision here and there, for the most part this is a satisfying and helpful discussion.

I did put a question mark at one place in the discussion on the definition of a person.  Penninga quotes Gilbert Meilaender, “A person is someone who has a history, not something that has certain properties.”  I wonder if a definition such as that might run into problems with the unborn.  Do unborn human beings have a history?  A case can be made that they do, but I can see that there would be those who would vehemently deny it.  Furthermore, the use of the word “someone” in the definition is prejudicial, because it is synonymous with “person.”  Finally, the definition could be strengthened by the addition of a relational aspect.  Persons are individuals with whom one can be in a relationship.  This is also evident in the persons of the Trinity – we call them persons also because we may relate to them and they to us.

Very few books like Penninga’s have been published in our community – ever.  It’s not a light and easy read, but a thoughtful and careful analysis of an important issue.  We can be thankful that we have people like him who are thinking deeply about the issues and making efforts to provide leadership.  As mentioned, this is the author’s first book.  I hope that we see many more from his keyboard.