A clarification—from God—on the meaning of “image of God”

In the controversial discussion a couple of weeks ago on whether humans could lose the image of God, I wrote:

When I look at the photographs and read the accounts of the deeds of these mindless murdering remorseless thugs, I guess that they are some kind of human beings, but how can I believe that they are human beings that have any aspect of the divine image? If my statement is wrong from the point of view of orthodox Christian teaching, I will gladly take it back. But where does it say in the Bible that it is impossible for a human being to lose the divine image?

To my knowledge, no one in that discussion, including my implacable critics, pointed to anything in the Bible that says it is impossible for a human being to lose the divine image.

But then two nights ago, reading the story of Noah, I came upon this, one of God’s commandments for mankind that he delivers to Noah following the Flood:

Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:6.)

In the Hebrew Bible, “man’s blood” means his life, the life principle within him. So to shed a man’s blood means, in the present context, to murder a man. The murder of a human being is absolutely prohibited, because human beings are made in the image of God. Murder is such a terrible crime that the punishment is death. The prohibition on the murder of a man is general and absolute, because man is made in the image of God. Which necessarily means that all men are made in the image of God—and, further, that no matter how debased a man may be, he is still to be thought of in some sense (though it may be hard for us to understand in some cases) as a being made in God’s image.

So I have the answer to my question. If a certain overwrought blogger, a long-time apparent blog-friend and ally of mine, had simply pointed me to that biblical passage instead of dissociating herself from me and reading me out of the company of decent people and basically trying to discredit me and all my works for merely raising the question, the conversation might have been resolved much sooner and much less destructively.

Also, J.H. Hertz, in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (1965), provides useful commentary on the same passage in Genesis:

We have here a declaration of the native dignity of man, irrespective of his race or creed. Because man is created n the image of God,, he can never be reduced to the level of a thing or chattel; he remains a personality, with inalienable human rights. To rob a man of these inalienable rights constitutes an outrage against God. It is upon this thought that the Jewish conception of Justice, as respect for human personality, rests.

- end of initial entry -

Andrew B. writes:

Christian theology traditionally associated the image of God with man’s free will and dominion of the natural world, and the likeness of God with man’s possession of supernatural communion with God through faith and the sacraments. A person who acts on instinct is lacking in true free will, which is dominion over one’s own body and its carnal desires and actions.

St. Irenaeus wrote: “If the Spirit be wanting to the soul, he who is indeed of an animal nature, and being left carnal, shall be an imperfect being, possessing the image in his formation, but not receiving the similitude through the Spirit; and thus is this being imperfect.”

This distinction is throughout St. Paul’s letters when he distinguishes the carnal or sensual man from the spiritual man.

LA replies:

Obviously a remorseless murdering criminal is imperfect, that’s not the issue. And obviously he is spiritually imperfect. That also is not the issue. The issue is whether a man can lose the image of God. And Irenaeus seems to be saying that a man can lose God’s spiritual likeness or similitude (which is connected with spiritual communion with God), but he cannot lose God’s image, which is part of his very formation as a man. So Irenaeus seems to be in agreement with my interpretation of Genesis 9:6.

I should point out that a commenter in the original discussion also drew our attention to the Church Fathers’ distinction between God’s image and God’s likeness. I then asked my implacable critics if they would accept this formulation: that a man could lose God’s likeness but not God’s image. They swept it aside as so much contemptible sophistry and continued declaring that I had entered a world of extreme moral darkness and that I was tainting the entire VFR community by even allowing the discussion.

Brian J. writes:

I’m not at all sure I agree with this interpretation. I’m not sure how you arrive at your conclusion, nor how J.H. Hertz arrives at his either. I think we’ve all agreed that men are created in God’s image, but the question is, can they lose that? The verse you quote says that since men are created in God’s image it is a very big deal to murder another man, so that a murderer should be put to death. But what if that murderer isn’t put to death? What if he just keeps on killing and killing? I would argue that he becomes a monster in the truest sense of that word. I mean if murder isn’t monstrous what would be?

And then to extrapolate that idea up one level, what if you have a group that worships violence? Over time couldn’t this monstrousness become a group attribute? The Bible does refer to people in group terms.

It seems to me like you skipped a step of logic somewhere.

LA replies:

No step of logic was skipped, though this step could have been spelled out better. No matter how violent a person is, it is wrong to murder him. Now of course when people become dangerous uncontrolled enemies of society and the law is unable to arrest and punish them by normal procedures, they have to be killed. But that is not murder. For example, when the British authorities in 19th century India wiped out the thugees, a cult of assassins, that was not murder. When the U.S. government killed the terrorist leader Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, that was not murder. And of course killing people in war is not murder.

Terry Morris writes:

Thank you for posting this important follow-up. I know that passage from Genesis by heart, and have cited it many times in defense of capital punishment. Yet it never occurred to me to mention it during the original “image of God” discussion.

Robert B. writes:

I do not buy into the idea that a person, no matter how vile he becomes, no matter how evil his actions, will go on having the image of God. Part of creating us in his image—in fact the only part that matters, is the eternal soul. Without that, or the loss of the God like portion of it, that human is nothing more than an animal. And the Bible itself is loaded with examples of evil men who lost their souls.

LA replies:

An answer to this objection is that the soul is not the same as the image of God. Earlier in this discussion Irenaeus was referenced to the effect that man can lose his spiritual communion with and “likeness” to God, but not the image of God, which is constitutive of his humanity. Well, the spiritual part of man is like his soul; they are both “spiritual,” representing something beyond his basic man-ness. So it would follow that a man’s soul can be lost, but not the image of God in which he is made.

I’m not claiming to understand these concepts and their mutual distinctions—the soul, the likeness of God, the image of God, the human. I’m just trying to deal in a reasonably logical and informed way with the statements we have from the Bible and religious authorities.

August 16

Terry Morris writes:

Logically I’m not sure God himself can remove his image from man if he would. This is an attribute exclusive to man

LA writes:

As for that overwrought female blogger, I can’t resist quoting, as a final send-off, these extremely apropos lines from Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”:

Someone’s got it in for me
They’re planting stories in the press.
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick
But when they will I can only guess….

Even you, yesterday,
You had to ask me where it was at.
I couldn’t believe, after all these years,
You didn’t know me better than that.
Sweet lady.

Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 15, 2012 08:04 PM | Send

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