Bruce McCormack on the Misuse of the Imago Dei (Image of God)

imago-dei-bruce-mccormackIn a panel discussion at the LA Theology 2015 conference, Bruce McCormack provides this provocative explanation on how the imago dei has been misused in the history of Christian theology. I've transcribed his response in the video link as follows.

Bruce McCormack on the imago dei:

"The doctrine of the Image of God has been badly misused throughout the history of Christian Theology. It's been made to answer the wrong questions. It's been made to answer the question of what gives human beings significance which quickly turns into what makes us different from animals. Now that's a very dangerous game to play, because those who study the higher forms of primate life are eroding those differences left, right and center. And I think, one of the things we may learn from that, is that the Imago Dei is a doctrine about what makes us like god, not what makes us different from the rest of Creation. And because that's the case, you are not going to be able to describe it phenomenological or metaphysically, I think you have to describe it Christologically. You're not describing it in terms of some set of properties, intellect, memory, will, whatever, you're not doing it that way. What I think that the Imago Dei is, at the end of the day, is holiness. It is holiness rooted in kenotic, self-giving, love. Leviticus 19:2 says, 'I the Lord your God, am a holy God, you shall be a holy people.' To be in a relationship with this God, is to be holy. What does this look like? It has to be in conformity of our lived existence in this world to Jesus' own; to his life of perfect obedience; it's about correspondence to him; it's about holiness. And as I say, its a holiness that arises out of kenotic, self-giving love. That's the image, but that's how Christ is."

McCormack, Bruce. "LA Theology Conference Panel Discussion."
YouTube. YouTube, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.


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  1. In Genesis it says that god created us in “his” image. What does that mean? My interpretation is that it is not a literal body similarity. In Chaos Theory the idea of Fractal shapes is prominent. Nature is constructed that way. Look at snowflakes, look at trees. They are constructed as shapes within similar shapes. A tree has branches, these branches have smaller branches and so on. I see us being in god’s image in that sense.

    Another good analogy are those infinitely nested mirrors that are produced when two top levels mirrors see each in the other. We are in god’s image in that sense. We are a small mirror within the top level mirror. This happens through self-referencing.

    In the Garden of Eden they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and then they came to know they are naked. This is an allusion to this self-referencing mechanism. They became self-aware!

    In my novel Shards Of Divinities (Amazon) I discuss this idea in much more depth and breadth.

  2. I understand “in God’s image” to mean the same for Adam and Eve that it meant for the king-priests of other ancient cultures (Egypt, for example): To take that which is of God and as His priests disseminate it to His creation in His name, and to be God’s ambassadors and representatives among His creation, to function as His stewards according to His directives and commandments. Basically a “divine right” objective, which of course has been horribly abused by many rulers, as we all know.

    Which means the most severe accusation against Adam and Eve would have been that they abdicated their divine right to the snake (a mere animal!) by heeding its words above God’s clear directive. Adam & Eve were the pinnacle of God’s creation in Eden, charged with exercising authority over all animals etc. What then were they doing listening to a snake and allowing themselves to be influenced by something they were to have authority over?

    Which then centers the true issue around the snake, rather than around the tree, doesn’t it? Which means that divine judgment would befall the snake, rather than the tree of course (as we then see unfold). Challenging God’s authority and right to rule His creation as He sees fit has always been a no-no and is a thread we can easily follow around the entire Bible.

    Anyway, “imago dei” would have meant the same to the ancient Israelites having just been delivered from the Egyptian culture of god/king/priest pharaoh who was the image of Horus. It would make sense for Moses to reference the Egyptian belief system to help Israel understand its own divine directive based upon their own ancient traditions that would finally be put down in writing. Hence all the Genealogy in Genesis, tracing Israel’s lineage all the way back to Noah and then Adam & Eve. The priestly lineage has always been of utmost importance in Scripture, hasn’t it?

    The Israelites were *all* charged with the divine priesthood, to become a royal nation. Which is why God did not initially give them a king, but a priestly class with a high priest, and He then centered the entirety of Israel’s legal system around divine authority and worship.

    This divine priesthood of course ultimately refers us to Christ Himself, and we all as believers today hold the same exact mandate which Adam and Eve and then Israel were tasked with: To take what is of God and give it to the world. To exercise His authority over His creation and to be faithful priests and stewards of it in His name. We too are born (again) in God’s image, and the Creator’s original mandate still stands and has never been revoked.

    Which then also means that trying to make a distinction of us from animals based on God’s (real or perceived) characteristics is unnecessary, since animals have never been charged with any king-priesthood by our Creator as far as we can tell.


    • According to Karl Barth, there is no Natural Revelation so we may not use comparative religion studies to determine the meaning of Genesis. We may be able to recognize truth as secular parables in other religions in light of Scripture but using ancient or foreign religions as a basis of interpretation is not justified. So I think you need a different starting point to understand Genesis.

      • Thank you for this information, although I disagree with Dr. Barth in this. References in the NT to terms such as Hades, etc., are a direct spillover from the Greek religious framework (that’s certainly not a word from within Judaism). The NT authors draw from other-cultural references to make their points and set those references aright within the Christian framework, so why wouldn’t they also have done this in Genesis? It only makes sense to me.

        In other words, “image of God” was incorrectly used by the Egyptians to reference Horus, but the concept of the royal priesthood was in itself correct, as Peter and others confirm.

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