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Where does the idea of human dignity come from?

Our inherent worth is grounded in being made in God’s image

Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God

John F. Kilner

Eerdmans, 414 pages

In Dignity and Destiny John Kilner explores what the Bible itself teaches about humanity being in God's image. He discusses in detail all of the biblical references to the image of God, interacts extensively with other work on the topic, and documents how misunderstandings of it have been so problematic.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

In recent years, American culture has been racked with movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and a bitter political division. What do all these issues have in common? Human dignity. Sexual abuse happens when men do not respect the dignity of women. The injustices faced by people of color are a result of not being treated in accordance with human dignity. Even the rhetoric used to speak of political opponents becomes needlessly divisive when we forget that any person of whom we speak is a person with inherent dignity.

The theological rationale for human dignity is the biblical teaching that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. It is something affirmed only for humans, yet for all humans (Gen. 1:27); it is what makes murder an especially heinous crime (Gen. 9:5-6); and it is what makes even cursing a human being something that simply “should not be” (James 3:9-10).

But exactly what it means for humans to be created in God’s image has been a topic of considerable discussion among theologians for centuries. John Kilner addresses that controversy at length and with passion in his recent book, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God. The argument of the book is summarized in an important paragraph in the book’s introduction. It is worth citing in full:

“Ultimately, the image of God is Jesus Christ. People are first created and later renewed according to that image. Image involves connection and reflection. Creation in God’s image entails a special connection with God and an intended reflection of God. Renewal in God’s image entails a more intimate connection with God through Christ and an increasingly actual reflection of God in Christ, to God’s glory. This connection with God is the basis of human dignity. This reflection of God is the beauty of human destiny. All of humanity participates in human dignity. All of humanity is offered human destiny, though only some embrace and will experience it (xi).”

The book then proceeds to make this argument in three main parts. The first part, consisting of chapters one and two, is introductory. The first chapter explains the importance of our creation in the image of God, tracing how it has been a force both “for liberation and devastation” (3). It is easy to see how it could be a force for liberation. In caring for the sick, in relating to indigenous peoples in the planting of colonies in the New World, and in the struggle over slavery, the creation of all in the image of God was a common motivation for treating people in ways consistent with human dignity. But sadly, Kilner also traces how denials or misrepresentations of the image of God have also been a force for devastation, especially of women and African slaves. Both were denied the status of being image-bearers. 

Kilner asks why there have been such diametrically opposed understandings of the image of God. He acknowledges that explicit teaching on the image of God in Scripture is limited to a surprisingly small number of texts, none of which clearly define what it means to be created in God’s image. But he sees the larger problem as the tendency of humans to import their pre-understandings (theological or cultural) into their interpretation of these key texts. Kilner has sought to filter out personal bias in his interpretation by wide reading of commentators on these texts, personal discussions with others, and inviting written critique of his ideas. His goal is to listen as carefully as possible to the texts themselves. All this is chapter one. Chapter two then follows by giving a preview of the chapters to come.

Misunderstandings about the image of God 

Chapters three through five comprise Part II of the book, with the subtitle, “Human Dignity.” It is by far the longest part of the book, and the part about which Kilner seems most passionate. In all three chapters, Kilner goes to great lengths to guard against misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the image of God, believing that such misunderstandings and misinterpretations exclude some people from having the dignity of being recognized with the status of having been created in the image of God. Thus, he devotes nearly 20 pages of chapter three to detailing some of these misunderstandings and misinterpretations. 

A right understanding of our creation in the image of God is the strongest ground for human dignity, and a misunderstanding of it opens the door to devastating devaluations of humans and the diminishing of human dignity. 

More positively, he carefully notes that humans are not described as the image of God, but as being created in or according to the image of God. Only Christ is the image of God. He believes that we will one day be God’s image, but for now we have a special connection with God because of our destiny. He explains, “While they [humans] do not warrant the title of ‘God’s image’ yet, they have dignity grounded in their destiny to become Christ’s image” (123). This dignity and destiny are secure, because our creation in the image of God speaks of God’s intention and is not dependent on anything that people actually now are or do.

Christ is the image of God 

Chapter 4 builds on the claim that Christ is the image of God and draws out the implications of that truth to counter the common idea that in the fall of humanity into sin, the image of God was somehow damaged. Kilner argues that if we understand that Christ is the image, then we should not say the image has been damaged. He realizes that this is a common idea among theologians and includes a lengthy section citing those who say the image is partly or wholly lost. He rejects all such claims, not only because they miss the distinction between Christ being the image and humans being in the image of God, but because he thinks that speaking of the image of being damaged leads to the devaluing of those created in that image. If the image of God, which is the grounding for human dignity, is damaged, then some conclude that the dignity of humans is lessened or compromised, a conclusion Kilner strongly rejects.

What attributes constitute being made in God’s image? 

Chapter 5 addresses another way that Kilner thinks theologians have misunderstood our creation in God’s image; namely, by identifying some common human attribute or attributes “as what constitutes being in God’s image” (177). He goes through some of the attributes or functions often suggested in the history of theology—reason, righteousness, rulership, and relationship—and again rejects them all, as having harmful implications. For example, taking reason as being central to what it means to be created in God’s image raises troubling questions “for those whose reason is badly impaired.” It leaves such people “without the full dignity and protection that people in God’s image warrant” (187). The same is true of all the other suggested attributes. Either they exclude some who do not have the attribute at all, or they differentiate between those who have the attribute to a greater or lesser extent and see those with a lesser degree of the attribute as less fully partaking of the dignity of being created in God’s image. He believes that a better way of seeing such attributes is as “intended consequences of being in God’s image” (227), not the image itself.

Renewal according to God’s image

Part III is the shortest part of the book. It focuses not on humanity’s creation in the image of God but our renewal in or according to the image of God. Kilner is again careful to clarify that the image of God has not been damaged and is in no need of renewal; it is humans who are damaged. Sin has rendered them incapable of fully living out the intentions of God that constitute life in the image of God, but having been created in the image of God is still the human status and still affords them human dignity. 

The renewal of humanity is discussed as it is presented in six biblical texts. The first text, Romans 8:29, focuses on the eschatological destiny of humans; 2 Corinthians 3:18 describes the progressive sanctification of Christians as transformation “into the image of Christ;” Colossians 3:10 looks back to their conversion as the beginning of the process of renewal in the image of the Creator. Kilner calls these three texts “the primary passages;” the remaining three he calls “the primary echoes” (260). 

Ephesians 4:24 is indeed quite similar to Colossians 3:10, but the correlation of the last two texts with earlier primary passages is less clear. First Corinthians 15:49 is distinctive in describing the resurrected body of believers as bearing “the image of the man from heaven.” Even less clear is 1 John 3:2 in that it does not use explicit “image” language, but it too looks to renewal and the time when Christians will “no longer just be in the image of God, they will fully be the image of God, in Christ” (273). The final chapter continues the discussion of humanity’s renewal with what Kilner calls “recurring themes,” but much is material that has already been discussed in previous chapters and adds little new to his argument. 

The book ends with a 20 page concluding chapter, “Living in the Image of God,” an encyclopedic 52-page bibliography of “References Cited,” and two very helpful indexes, one of names and subjects and one of biblical passages. This book is widely and rightly regarded as the most comprehensive study of the image of God. It is fueled by Kilner’s conviction that a right understanding of our creation in the image of God is the strongest ground for human dignity, and a misunderstanding of it opens the door to devastating devaluations of humans and the diminishing of human dignity. 

I would nuance a few points in slightly different ways than Kilner does (see my understanding of our creation in the image of God in the volume Humanity from the series Theology for the People of God, co-authored by Katie McCoy and due to be published in 2021), but I find much to commend and agree with in this book, especially his zealous defense of human dignity, grounded in our creation in the image of God.

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