Recently, Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition, wrote a blog entitled “Thinking Theologically about Race Relations: The Image of God.” I would like to share his thoughts with you in segments over the next number of weeks to help us think through our response as to how we should be thinking about this enormous issue in our country today.
Thinking Theologically about Race Relations
As we consider the fact that all mankind is made in the image of God, there are at least three dimensions of how we live out the image of God. First, human beings are representatives of God. Secondly, human beings are made to be in a relationship with God. And thirdly, human beings are made to reflect the righteousness of God.
This last point needs to be underscored. We will not understand what it means to be made in the image of God unless we know Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15-20). The gospel is the message about the “glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4-6), and by his Spirit we can be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:17-18). In other words, the image of God is now, first, and foremost about Christ.
The Image of God and Race
So, how can we think about the implications of the imago dei (image of God) for race and racism? Here a few applications worth considering:
First, and most obviously, the image of God speaks to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We should not breeze by this foundational point. For starters, while the world talks often about individual worth and dignity, it is unclear upon what basis secular voices can make such an assertion. Is there any ontological and universal reason that every human being should be treated with respect? Does the worth of each person exist prior to and independent of our personal or legal determination? These are questions that the Christian doctrine of the image of God can answer. Secular assumptions do not rest on the same secure footing.
Furthermore, the sad reality is that at times Christians have denied or overlooked the image of God in those they deemed to be inferior. Sometimes this was accomplished by simply positing that the “other” was less than human. It could also be accomplished by locating the image of God structurally in, for example, the intellectual attributes, so that if you think the “other” is by nature intellectually inferior, then they also share in less of the image of God. In many occasions, however, the imago dei in the “other” has been affirmed on a basic dogmatic level without really penetrating the heart.
In one sense, since Christ is the very image of God, the image of God can be considered something we grow into as Christ transforms our life and perfects us, but on another level it is something inherently true of every human being—black and white, young and old, in the womb and out of the womb. Think of Genesis 9:6, where capital punishment is introduced on the basis of man’s irreducible status as an image bearer. James 3:9 is another key text—“with [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” Here the image admits no degrees. Instead, we are given a universal command that depends on the universality of God’s image and likeness in man.
As I reflect on several racial flashpoints over the past few years, I fear I have been too quick to think to myself, “Yes, of course, image of God. Every Christian already knows that and believes that.” But white Christians in this country have not always believed that, or at least they have not always acted like they really believe it. Slavery in this country was originated in greed more than in racism. As the institution endured, it drew racism out of the human heart. You could argue, tragically, that it was precisely because this country was so Christian that racism became so virulent. Most Americans knew what the Bible required in loving their neighbors as themselves and in respecting the image of God in other human beings. But instead of letting their theology correct their practice, they developed perverse ways to conclude that blacks were, in fact, not their neighbors, not fellow image bearers, and not fully human. For many white Christians, the way to make their Christianity and chattel slavery cohere was to convince themselves that the slave was not the same kind of human being they saw in themselves.
Even today, we would all do well to examine our hearts and see if there is any part of us, when encountering someone of a different race or ethnicity, that wonders if we are not actually made of something more refined, more noble, and more divine.
The second application we want to consider is, if the image of God reminds us who we are, it also directs us to what we ought to be. (We will share that with you next week).