Evolution & Image Bearers, Pt 2

This article is the second of a two-part series and was written by Dr. Pam King and former Thrive Research Assistant, Tyler Greenway.

Evolutionary theory raises interesting questions for Christians, particularly concerning what it means for evolved humans to be made in the image of God. In our previous post, we considered one way in which we may begin to understand how we might distinguish species that may or may not be considered potential image bearers based on the psychological capacities required to bear the image of God (the imago Dei).


Further consideration of evolutionary theory and the imago Dei, however, raises another interesting question. If we consider the entirety of human history, dating back to our first human ancestors until today, we may wonder about the image bearing actions, behaviors, or qualities of humans throughout history. We may ask, how have humans borne the image of God across time and in different cultural contexts? For example, the businesswoman in New York City grabbing a cup of coffee before hopping on the subway is presumably an image bearer of God, but so is the hunter-gatherer spending his time fashioning stone tools. An interesting question rises out of this comparison: Do humans today bear God’s image differently than those humans living 1000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, or even further back?


These considerations may be helped by a dynamic conception of the image of God as considered by developmental psychology. We recognize both the continuous work and movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans and also the malleability of the human species providing the capacity to readily adjust to a variety of cultural contexts. Building on these notions, we suggest that a dynamic approach, one that recognizes the human propensity to change and grow, to understanding the image of God allows for a theologically and scientifically coherent conceptualization of what it means for humans to bear God’s image. Given the plasticity inherent in human development and the ongoing sustaining and perfecting work of the Spirit, we make two propositions regarding a dynamic perspective of the image of God. The first is that the actions or behaviors by which individual or communal entities relate to God and image him are not fixed throughout time and place; they are dynamic. Secondly, that the imago is less about a static or fixed image and more about an active or dynamic imaging as humans relate to God and God’s creation.


The first point suggests that the imago Dei may not be evident in the same way across different historical or cultural contexts. For example, during the Enlightenment, the use of reason may have gained importance and helped illuminate an individual’s relationship with God. In more recent times relational qualities, such as having a coherent identity or expressing empathy, may better enable individuals to participate more fully in Christian fellowship and in the life of the triune God. This is not a relativistic claim about the imago, but rather a supposition about how cultural and historical context shapes different opportunities for imaging God that may then inform the intellectual history of the doctrine of the imago Dei. This notion differs from the historical tendency to attempt to locate the image of God in a particular quality that a human possesses and allows for the image of God in humankind to deepen and expand throughout history.


Second, this perspective emphasizes that bearing the image of God involves the whole person and the imago becomes more apparent through relating to God and others. Human nature has a plastic and undetermined element that enables humans to be shaped and formed into a better likeness of the image of God. Although psychological capacities may be relevant to the imago, this does not mean such capacities are fixed or set throughout one’s life. John Webster powerfully made this point by saying that human nature is not “immobile.” From this perspective, perhaps arguing about what the image is (such as the human will or reason) is less the point than how one bears the image of God by participating in fellowship with God. In Webster’s words, being human involves fellowship with God that “becomes through participation in the drama of creation, salvation and consummation.”


Thus the imago is “dynamic” in that it stems from ongoing human engagement with God’s work of creation, redemption, and perfection. Such an approach affirms the importance of human reason, will, love, and relationship (capacities that are identified by different static understandings of the imago), but emphasizes the process by which these capacities enable an individual to engage in the on-going activity of God. Given that the Spirit is the sustainer and perfecter in the process of sanctification, then we should not be surprised that the there could be change over time (in someone’s life or throughout history) in the expression of the imago. Consequently, when the evidence of multiple human ancestors raises the question of how the imago may have emerged within the natural order, a dynamic perspective suggests that the capacity to be an image bearer could have arisen regardless of context or even ancestors—as long as the sufficient constellation of capacities necessary to relate to God, other, and creation were present (for a discussion of some of these capacities, see previous post).


From this perspective, humans are image bearers, and similar to a photo that changes in quality or resolution as it comes into focus, so the image we bear becomes more apparent the closer our relation to God. Perhaps it is through the process of “becoming” more fully who we were created to be, through relating to God, his people, and his creation, that the image becomes more evident. Said differently, the substance is present in a picture, although we may not see it clearly. If we increase the resolution of the picture, we increase the clarity of the image. Consequently, the imago is not limited to a singular quality that mirrors the image of God, but rather we argue for a malleable understanding of bearing the image of God that becomes more apparent in relating to God.


To summarize, given the ongoing work of the Spirit and the constant change brought about within humans as they interact with God, others, and creation, perhaps speaking of “bearing the image of God” is more helpful than a more static concept of “an image.” Such an approach is consistent with existing interpretations of the imago (e.g., Christological, relational, functional) and also compatible with understanding how God could have used natural processes to enable humans to become unique image bearers. Through the processes of evolution, humans eventually had the capacity to bear the image of God in a way that was distinct from their predecessors. This is not at all to suggest that the imago itself evolves over time; but rather that how humans bear the image of God may have different nuances at different times within individual lives and also as a species throughout history.


This article was originally published by BioLogos.

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