The Imago Dei in Christian Education Briefly Considered
The Bible declares that God created all human beings in His image (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6). This paper will make a two-fold argument based on this fundamental truth. First, that the imago Dei informs Christian education in several key areas. Second, that Christian education must serve as an agent in restoring the Image through God’s work of reconciling humanity, His image bearers, to Himself. This paper will lay a foundation by briefly examining the notion of the imago Dei. What does it mean for a human to be in the image of God? There is a paucity of direct biblical mention of the concept, yet a careful reader of Scripture may infer much about the Image from the remainder of the biblical witness. As voluminous writing concerning the imago Dei exists, this paper cannot exhaustively treat the concept, but rather, will focus on the communicable attributes of God that most directly affect human learning and education.
This paper will consider the aspects of the imago Dei most applicable to the enterprise of education. As the goal of God’s redemptive work is the ultimate, eschatological restoration of His image, the Christian goes through a lifelong process of sanctification. Christian education must ensure that this process of spiritual growth continues for the believer’s entire lifespan. The Scriptures reveal much about God’s ideal for the nature of education and training amongst His people. Having examined the biblical teaching on the imago Dei and the educating of believers, this paper will integrate the two into a coherent foundation for a wide variety of applications in lifelong Christian learning. Further, this paper will not suggest specific programs that a church or school should undertake. Instead, it will emphasize some practical ways in which Christian organizations can facilitate formative practices for building spiritual maturity that consider the divine image in humankind.
The Imago Dei: A Doctrine Examined
In Genesis 1:26-27, God purposes to create humankind in His image. From these verses, it is clear the imago Dei applies equally to male and female. Genesis 5:1 reiterates merely, “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” In Genesis 9:6, God demands the death sentence for those guilty of murder, for the murderer has killed one of God’s image bearers. As the Genesis 9 narrative takes place long after the fall of humanity into sin, the reader can directly infer that the imago Dei survives in sinful humanity. Moreover, Genesis 9 makes clear that it is not merely humanity’s first parents who bear the imago Dei, but all of their descendants, as well. Further, the clear implication is that human life is sacred (Estep, 2010, p. 9).
While helpful, the biblical references do seem like little to go on, at least in applying the imago Dei to the practice of education. As Middleton (2005, p. 16) notes, “With the exception of a few apocryphal or deuterocanonical references (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23; Sirach 17:3; and 2 Esdras 8:44), the idea that humans are made in God’s image does not surface again until the New Testament. Even then, however, only two texts speak of human creation in God’s image (1 Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9).”
What does it really mean to say that humans are God’s image bearers? Beyond these three direct biblical references, all of which occur in the primordial history, the imago Dei faces several interpretive challenges. Given the rarity and vagueness of any direct reference the term receives, many theologians have wondered whether the imago Dei is all that central to a scriptural understanding of humanity and its relationship with the Creator (Cortez, 2017 p. 105). However, most commentators do agree that the concept has profound significance for humankind (Erickson, 2013, p. 457). However, even within this camp, many highly divergent opinions attempt to enumerate those implications. As Middleton (2005, p. 38) says, “To begin with, interpretation of the imago Dei covers two and a half millennia and crosses the boundaries of two religious traditions: Judaism and Christianity.”
Three views of the imago Dei
Erickson helpfully categorizes three common understandings of the imago Dei. Each of these views recognizes, with Genesis 9:6, that the image of God remains in fallen, sinful humanity. However, theologians within each camp (substantive, relational, and functional), differ among themselves to what extent sin obscures or erases any aspect of the image. Indeed, many theologians see the imago Dei not only as undiminished by sin, but also view the volitional ability to sin as affirming the image. Individually, none of these three categories is an entirely satisfactory characterization of the imago Dei. However, taken together, each category significantly informs any discussion on the impact of the Image upon the educational enterprise. The three views of the imago Dei are the substantive, the relational, and the functional views (Erickson, 2013, p. 457).
Widely held throughout Christian history is the substantive view. It holds that there are particular characteristics of God—physical, psychological, or spiritual—innate in the human being (Erickson, 2013, p. 460). A minority, including such heterodox sects as Mormonism (Smith, 1843), hold to a hyper-anthropomorphic view of the Image—in other words, that human beings physically look like God. Less extremely, some scholars have seen in the physical attributes of humans a metaphorical allusion to God; that the human walks upright represents the moral uprightness of God.
Grudem (1994, pp. 185-186) along with many other orthodox scholars, rejects an anthropomorphic view of God. Longman (citation, p. 28), for his part, agrees further rejects any notion that the human being shares in any of the divine nature of God. Instead, humanity (or, most fully, redeemed humanity) possesses or is capable of imitating, the communicable attributes of God. These include spirituality, knowledge, wisdom, truthfulness, free will, goodness, mercy, love, jealousy, wrath, peace, righteousness, and holiness (Grudem, 1994, pp. 185-186). Christian education seems well poised to help develop the kind of spiritual maturity seen in the substantive view.
Arising in the twentieth century’s neo-orthodox movement is the relational view of the Image of God. This view sees human beings displaying the imago Dei in two senses. First is the formal sense. In other words, like God, the human is a rational being, distinguishable in this way from an animal. Second, the relational view sees the imago Dei displayed in a material sense, found only in loving relationship both with other humans and with God himself (Erikson, 2013, pp. 463-464). Again, Christian education, in both formal and informal settings, seems well-positioned to exert the kind of influence that sees people grow in relationship to the divine and one another.
The third view of the imago Dei is the functional view. This view sees the image of God not in the human’s makeup or relationships, but in what the human does. In the context of Genesis 1, the human’s creation in God’s image is closely tied with God’s charge to humanity to exercise dominion over creation. As Towner (2005, p. 355) puts it, man is God’s “vice-regent” on the earth, representing God’s authority on the planet. This regency-based understanding is not entirely without precedent or parallel in the Ancient Near East. Hamilton (1990, p. 135) notes that many nations surrounding Israel thought of their ruler as made in the image of their god(s). As Walton (2001, p. 131) notes, the Egyptian notion of the pharaoh being in the image of deity applied not to personal appearance but the exercise of power and divine prerogative. Walton (2001, pp. 130-131) further unpacks the Mesopotamian and Egyptian notions of physical icons in worship, writing that an idol was used in worship rites, not because it could do what the deity did, or because it necessarily even looked like the deity, but because it contained the deity’s essence. Where rulers and images represented the god, the Ancient Near Eastern kings would further set up a statue or likeness of themselves to express their rule over a given area or region. The notion of the image of deity did not apply to the ordinary men and women. Thus, Hamilton (2001, p. 130) sees the biblical imago Dei as democratizing the divine image in humanity. Original and redeemed humanity exercise sonship in royal relationship with God.
The functional view thinks about the way human beings interrelate with the Creation itself. Here again, Christian education can be the agent of social change that sees people view the environment as part of a divine stewardship. Indeed, the entire concept of imago Dei, in all its categories, seems to have a profound impact on the conduct and philosophy of Christian education. Each person is a unique creation of God, of extreme value in His sight, and due tremendous dignity and respect (Kilner, 2015, p. 92). Like God, each person is a rational, thinking, feeling, relational being. Christian education must take these divinely designed characteristics into account.
The Imago Dei in God’s Redemptive Purposes
A Christian perspective on education recognizes something that has escaped the notice of secular educators. While, the Christian perspective that sees the root cause of all the ills and evils in the world as due entirely to the fall of humanity to sin, secular educational theories, if they even obliquely address sin, see wrongdoing as a symptom, rather than the cause of societal ills. Still, the Bible is clear that God has far from written off sinful humanity. While sin entered into the world through one man, so too will one man, Jesus Christ, bring redemption into the world ( Rom. 5:12-21).
It is the mission of Christ to bring reconciliation between God and His rebellious image-bearers. Christ calls upon the redeemed to share in His reconciliatory work (2 Cor. 5:11-21). In sanctification, Christ followers undergo a lifelong process of education and spiritual maturation through which they are “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:28). Christ declares from his throne, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5). The eschatological purpose of Christian sanctification seems like nothing less than the complete restoration of God’s full radiance and glory as reflected in His redeemed image bearers. As Knight (2006, p. 207) observes, “Education is one arm of God’s restorative and reconciling effort. It may therefore be seen as a redemptive activity.” The goal of Christian education, then, must be the type of spiritual formation that promotes progressive sanctification towards the ultimate, recreated image of God in Christ.
Considering the Imago Dei in Christian Education
A theological discussion of the imago Dei can seem lofty and ethereal. However, the concept of the Image contains immensely practical implications for the highly interrelated practices of Christian education, formation, and discipleship. The Christian educator must realize that our understanding of humanity has its basis not only in social science but much more so on theology (Estep & Kim, 2010). The imago Dei, even if not completely understood, has profound implications for education. The imago Dei is the central idea of what it means to be human, and yet Christian educators recognize the Image is a concept that is missing from secular development theories. As Estep & Kim (2010) write, “We do not develop into the imago Dei; we are the imago Dei. However, developmental theories do provide a lens through which to see growth of many distinctly human dimensions within individuals—from infancy to elderly.”
This writer is not arguing that secular development theories are unhelpful, or that it is wrong to use human development theory in expressing theological truths. Instead, this writer argues that neither the teacher nor the curriculum should ever depart from affirming the value and dignity of the learner as God’s image bearer. Christian anthropology contends that the learner exists inseparably as both physical and nonphysical. Further, human beings, both male and female, share the imago Dei equally. The Image is not half male and half female; it is both male and female in its entirety. The vast majority of the educator’s theologically-informed concepts of human development apply equally, then, to both male and female learners. However, this commonality does not negate the demonstrated and sometimes subtle distinctions between the cognitive and moral development of male and female learners.
Serving alongside sound theology, developmental theories aid in our understanding, and assist in Christian education. As Estep and Kim (2010) note, “(D)evelopmental theories are very helpful when used to explain the difference between an individual’s understanding of God at ages five, ten, and fifteen—in part due to differences int heir achieved stages of cognitive development.” Indeed, as Yount (2010) notes, secular developmental theories are much like the spiritually neutral sciences of meteorology, nutrition, computing, or aerodynamics. They serve a useful purpose. If a developmental theory does not overtly reject biblical truth, the educator should take what is useful.
Developmental theories recognize, with the imago Dei, that human beings are unique and of ultimate value. However, developmental theories, in that they are typically spiritually neutral, are incomplete, at least in the context of Christian formation and learning. Educators should recognize that developmental theories will never explain such theological concepts as the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Developmental theory never explains the fundamental predicament of fallen humanity—sin. Salvation is merely about improved cognition or moral reasoning—the need for increased education—because the fundamental problem of humanity is not ignorance. Instead, sin is humankind’s essential conundrum.
The Teaching Ministry of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was the express image of God (Heb. 1:3), and who was the active agent in the Creation (John 1:1-3), keenly understood the best ways to teach God’s image bearers. As Yount (2010, p. 2) observes, Jesus Christ, “the express image of God in flesh, was best known as a Teacher, Master, and Rabbi as He taught how to live as citizens of His kingdom.” Indeed, a survey of the four Gospels reveals Jesus’ use of widely varied instructional methodologies. If, as this student argues, the imago Dei is at the very heart of what it means to be human, then any Christian educator would do well to study and emulate the teaching style of Jesus Christ. Though Jesus’ teaching ministry was quite different from the contemporary and rigid construct of an instructor lecturing before a classroom, His methods are familiar to educators today.
First, it is evident that Jesus was comfortable teaching in any number of settings. While the Gospels depict Him teaching in the synagogue or temple courtyards, Jesus was equally (and more often) teacher by a lakeside, at a meal, and in other informal settings (Estep et al, 2008, p. 132). Second, Jesus taught with authority. This authority came both from the content of His message, and the nature of His character. Indeed, the Christian educator is not God in the flesh but should recognize that he or she teaches a message that has come from God. Given the importance of the message, the teacher must have a mastery of his or her subject matter, and that he or she must teach with passion. More than that, the Christian educator must strive to live a life of impeccable character and integrity.
Jesus utilized a wide variety of instructional techniques that remain highly useful and reproducible by the Christian educator. First, Jesus did not merely convey information or merely answer the questions of His hearers. Instead, He frequently asked questions of His own. Jesus meant His questions not only to correct theological misconceptions but to disarm His hearers of faulty preconceptions and to expose impure motives. As Estep et al (2003, p. 137) note, Jesus’ questions were meant to create cognitive dissonance and to cause the learner to pause and think. Jesus famously taught using parables. These short stories powerfully illustrated important spiritual truths by developing vivid pictures in the minds of Jesus’ hearers. The parables were not necessarily meant to stand alone for, most times, Jesus later explained the meaning of the parable. The effect of the parable was not only to reveal a truth at the moment but for the hearer to continue pondering what he or she had heard. The Christian educator should not only recount the parables of Jesus but should seek to find other illustrative material that will both create intense personal interest and convey theological truth.
The Christian educator should look for “teachable moments” in the daily activities of learners. Jesus used situations that came along every day to illustrate profound theological truths. The Gospels continuously show Jesus speaking to people in their daily circumstances. For instance, He used a meal at the home of a Pharisee to speak about the difference between outward cleanliness and inward purity (Luke 11). He spoke to a woman at a well to declare that He possessed living water capable of permanently quench spiritual thirst (John 4).
Further, while Jesus possessed the authority of God, He always referred to the Scriptures in His teaching. Christian education must find a solid basis in the Bible. If Jesus appealed to Scripture’s authority, the Christian educator should do no less. Finally, as Estep et al (2008) observe, Jesus was not afraid to be confrontational in His teaching.
The imago Dei is the essential concept in what it means to be human. While the Image remains marred by sin, the redemptive work of God in Christ is to reconcile humanity to Himself and to restore the image. Christian education has at its heart the goal of participating in the restorative activity of God as believers grow in knowledge and spiritual maturity. Much like the general revelation provided by the natural sciences, the theories of secular developmental theorists, while incomplete, can serve a significant role in informing Christian education. However, the Christian educator must integrate theological truths—God’s view of anthropology—if he or she is to teach in a thoroughly Christian way.
Jesus Christ is not only Creator God, but in His incarnation, perfectly reflects the image of God. Jesus possessed a complete, divine understanding of the way that human beings learned, and He demonstrated that in teaching so powerful that billions around the world continue to reflect upon His words. Jesus taught with illustrations and stories, utilized an astute questioning technique, created intense personal interest, and demonstrated passion. He found the teachable in the ordinary, and he never wavered from His appeal to the authority of Scripture. The Christian educator who emulates the instructional methodologies of Christ in his or her educational setting will achieve results because he or she is following God’s blueprint for educating His image bearers.
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