Q&A: Image of God and Our Rational Abilities

Image of God and Our Rational Abilities

Why is the doctrine of the image of God often associated with the rational abilities of human beings?

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The doctrine of the image of God has been often associated with the rational capabilities of human beings. I think there are a couple of main reasons why that's been the case. One is a kind of common sense reason, and that's that as we look at the opening of Genesis and see man described as being the image bearer of God, it's obvious that Scripture is there in some way setting us apart from the other creatures; there's something unique about us as we were created. And as we look at ourselves, there's a lot of things we share in common with the other creatures, but one thing that certainly seems to distinguish us is the fact that we have rational capabilities. And I think it was very natural to read a text like that and to see that, to think that rational capabilities must be a very important part of the image of God. I think there's also, you might say, a more exegetical reason for that. If you go to the New Testament and consider a text like Colossians 3:10, which speaks about our being renewed in the image of God, it refers to that in terms of being renewed in knowledge. And so, that seems to indicate that the image of God has something to do with our knowledge, with our rational capabilities. Now, I would also add that I think it's probably best to understand the image of God as presupposing and involving rational capabilities, but I think we want to avoid the idea that that exhausts what the image of God is. Certainly we could not be the image of God if we were not rational. We couldn't fulfill the things that Scripture says about the image if we were not rational creatures. But I think it's really important as we consider a text like Genesis 1 that we understand that the image of God does not just lie in one particular capability or ability that we have as human beings but is ultimately a kind of a moral vocation. It's a call to be rulers under God, to exercise dominion in this world, and rationality is important for that, but it certainly doesn't exhaust everything that the image of God involves.

Answer by Dr. David VanDrunen

Dr. David VanDrunen is professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.