The Chosen Species: Human Uniqueness and the Image of God

Allan H. Harvey

Not long ago, I attended a conference on the intersection of science and Christian faith. Among many good presentations, one seemed a little off-target. The speaker criticized some ways science gets used as a weapon against faith, but parts of his talk seemed to legitimize those weapons. For example, he correctly noted that theism does not depend on the biological "design argument," but then he argued for design in the evolutionary process (albeit in a more sound manner than the Intelligent Design movement). He pointed out that our moral responsibility before God does not depend on human biological uniqueness, but then he expounded on ways in which he claimed humans are unique. The whole talk struck me as It is wrong to say that Christian theology depends on X Ė now here are some arguments for X.

I will focus here on the human uniqueness issue. One of the most common fears Christians have about evolutionary science is that it threatens our idea that humans are special. If we descended from other animals, are we just another animal? Christian theology gives a central role to humans that modern biology does not recognize. I can think of three reasons why Christians might be concerned about this.

One reason might be that we want to feel special. While each of us is uniquely known and loved by God, our desire is to be different in a way that sets us above others. We do this at the individual level (where in extreme forms it becomes narcissism), and also at the tribal level (leading to the sins of racism and nationalism). Despite the prevalence of such thinking (for example, in much consumer marketing and in the doctrine of "American exceptionalism"), it is contrary to our call to humility. Paul wrote to the Philippians, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. While Paul was urging humility among humans, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that any desire to feel superior, including superior to other species, is not a proper Christian attitude.

A second reason might be Biblical interpretations that require humans to be a physically separate creation. Much could be said about this; suffice it to say that such interpretations result from imposing on Scripture modern scientific questions that the inspired writers were not trying to answer. To expect answers from Genesis about how God created humans is to badly misread the genre. If we recognize the figurative, theological nature of Genesis 1-3, there is no reason to insist that humans are unrelated to the other animals in God's creation.

However, even if we put aside naÔve literalist readings, some tension with the Biblical narrative remains. Simply put, human exceptionalism is an inescapable element of Christian theology. Only humans are said to be created in the image of God. When God became incarnate, it was as a human named Jesus. And it is humans who are called to join in the Body of Christ, God's vehicle for bringing reconciliation to all of creation. All of this points to a qualitative difference between humans and the rest of God's creatures. How are we to think about this, now that we know that we are related to other species and that our physical and behavioral capacities, while perhaps developed to a different degree, seem to not be unique?

I believe the answer is to stand with historic Christian theology in affirming human uniqueness, but to think more carefully about the way in which we are unique. And the place to start is with the first passage in the Bible that suggests that uniqueness, near the end of Genesis 1 where humankind (unlike all other creatures) is made "in the image of God."

There have long been different interpretations of the Imago Dei. Many have seen it as being like God in some essence (such as the human soul being like the mind of God) or in some quality (like the capacity for moral reasoning or for love). However, most Old Testament scholars agree that this is not the main meaning. A good book about the topic is J. Richard Middleton's The Liberating Image.

The scholars tell us that the primary meaning of the image of God in Genesis is one of function (or we might say "responsibility" or "role"). Several observations support that conclusion. The Hebrew word translated as "image" is used for cult statues or idols. These were images of gods placed in temples, or images of kings placed in cities, to function as a reminder that the god (or king), even if not physically present, was in charge. The text echoes Mesopotamian royal themes, where kings had a god-ordained status that involved ruling on Earth as their god ruled in heaven. For example, Babylonian kings imaged the god Marduk by conquering other nations (including Israel) and establishing orderly rule like Marduk had conquered opposing gods in their creation myth. Finally, the "image" language in Genesis 1 is immediately followed (twice!) by a job description: to exercise dominion over God's other creatures. Dominion is not domination; it means to rule as God rules, with wisdom and generosity.

In a limited sense, the view of the image as being "like God" is right — except that we are like God not in any innate quality, but rather in our role as rulers. As images of God, our lives should testify to the character and reign of God. We are God's representatives or vice-regents, entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing God's world in a way that replicates God's benevolent rule. A word that captures much of this role is "stewardship."

There are several benefits to this understanding of what it really means to be Godís images. First, it frees us from the theological need to find some unique quality in ourselves, as science continues to show that our differences from other animals are not as profound as we might think. Second, it removes the ethical problems that arise if we identify the image of God with some capability such as the capacity for love or for rational thought. If we locate our humanness there, what of those who lack the capability or have it to a lesser degree? Are babies, or those with severe disabilities, or elderly people with dementia, less the image of God than the rest of us? Clearly we do not want to say that, but it is almost unavoidable if we identify God's image in us with particular qualities.

Perhaps the greatest benefit is the egalitarian nature of the image. In the dominant culture of Babylon (a probable backdrop for Genesis 1-11), only the king (and maybe a priest, although often the king took the priestly role) was exalted as the image of a god. In this royal ideology, the rest of humanity had a low status, with no value or purpose other than to serve the gods and the king. In stark contrast, in Genesis all of humanity is in Godís image. All social classes are included — even women, which was radical in that patriarchal culture. This eliminates any pretext for superiority based on ethnicity, gender, or any of the categories we use to treat others as inferior. Its granting of a priestly role to all humans also anticipates the "priesthood of all believers" theme in the New Testament.

We should not be surprised that the Bible attributes our unique status as God's images to God's gracious decision rather than to our own capabilities. In the Old Testament, we are told that God's choice of Israel was not due to its numbers or strength, but was simply God's choice. In the New Testament, we see God working through lowly peasants and fishermen. In both Testaments, a consistent message is that God's chosen people should not lord that status over others, but instead are chosen to bless and serve others. I suggest that similarly we should not be prideful about our status as God's chosen species, but instead should see it as a responsibility to minister to the world on God's behalf.

Now, that is not a perfect analogy, because humans as a whole do seem to be best suited to serve as God's images. We have relevant capabilities (for example, for relationship, love, and reason) to a greater degree than other animals. So it may well be that God has uniquely shaped us for that responsibility. But, no matter how well suited we might be for our role, we must remember that it is not a role we got by our merit.

So are humans unique? Yes! But our uniqueness for the purpose of Christian theology is not something that can be measured by biologists or psychologists, and therefore it is not threatened by science. Instead, it is a blessed responsibility we have been given to represent our Creator. Our concern should not be what qualifies us for this gift, but rather how to be good stewards of the gift. In that task, our model is Jesus, the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15), who embodies what our species is meant to be.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally written July 2017. Page last modified July 23, 2017.