Reviewed by Daniel J. Hurst
Misconceptions about what it truly means to be created in the imago Dei, or image of God, abound. Though this doctrine is a central tenet of Judeo-Christian theology, it is pierced with gross misinterpretations and misapplications. The doctrine has been applied callously throughout history to wreak havoc on individuals. In his book Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, John F. Kilner attempts to explain the significance of the meaning of the imago Dei concept and provide much needed clarity to the concept. This work is a rich treatment of the theological doctrine of what it means for all humankind to be created in, and bear, the image of God.
The primary argument that Kilner develops throughout his extensive work is that the image of God has not been damaged, even in a post-Fall world riddled with sin. People are damaged, but Scripture never leads us to the conclusion that God’s image is. In Kilner’s estimation, great devastation can be avoided, and liberation can be gained, by speaking of the imago Dei in the way the biblical authors do. The ultimate “image” of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ. People are initially created, and finally renewed, according to that image.
Much of Kilner’s work is devoted to dispelling misinterpretations of the imago Dei doctrine, which is the primary aim of chapter 1. The history of interpretation of what it truly means to bear God’s “image” has been used to justify such atrocities as the Nazi Holocaust, slavery, and the oppression of women and minorities. In demonstrating how misunderstandings of the imago Dei has led to wrongful conclusions, Kilner establishes that erroneous doctrine can have devastating effects on the church and society. Conversely, though Kilner shows the devastation that can be caused by misinterpreting the image of God and using it to bolster one’s agenda, he also gives the reader a taste of the liberating nature of the doctrine that has the potential to inspire great good. Kilner explains that while some have used image of God language to promote evil, viewing people in terms of the imago Dei has also been used to stimulate efforts to protect and redeem people because it encourages Christians to respect and safeguard the dignity and life of all humankind.
The second chapter offers the reader a brief overview and defense of what the image of God is and its relation to Christ. Kilner holds that the New Testament “reveals that God’s purpose all along has not been for humanity to develop into some sort of generic “God’s image,” but to be conformed specifically to the image of Christ” (52-53). As is true throughout his book, Kilner supports his conclusions with bountiful scriptural support. While a majority of Christians may recognize the image language present in Genesis 1:26, many are not familiar with the New Testament connection. Part of Kilner’s objective in this chapter is to demonstrate that Christ is central to understanding the imago Dei, for if Christ is the primary and true image of God, properly understanding what this means is essential for interpreting humanity’s status as those who bear that image. As the second and ultimate Adam, Jesus Christ “is a fulfillment of who God has always intended people to be” (80-81). It has always been the Father’s intention for Christ to be the image of God and the standard for humanity.
Chapter 3 provides a more in-depth look at what it means for humanity to be created in God’s image. Kilner begins with a basic, though vitally important, explanation that all humankind is identified with the image of God, and overlooking this can have severe consequences. However, humanity is not God’s image now in the same way that Christ is. Rather, “they are intimately connected with God because God’s image is the very blueprint for humanity” (92). God is constantly transforming his chosen people into the very image of God in Christ. Hence, there is an “already, not yet” reality to God’s image. Importantly, Kilner acknowledges that the Bible does not fully define what it means for humanity to be created in the imago Dei, which has, unsurprisingly, spawned conflicting interpretations. Further, there is no suggestion that being in God’s image is constituted only by current human attributes, such as abilities or traits. Rather, Kilner maintains a Christological paradigm and suggests that humanity’s creation in God’s image has to do with being created to conform to who Christ is as the imago Dei, a thesis he develops throughout the book. His argument is that all people are created in God’s image, yet after the Fall, all humanity has lost most of their ability to reflect God. While no image has been damaged, sin has devastatingly damaged people, who are in desperate need of renewal in accordance to the image of Christ (132).
The fourth chapter discusses the impact of sin on God’s image. Kilner’s aim is to dispel the biblically unsound assumption that if the human being changes due to sin, God’s image must also change. Kilner goes to great lengths to emphasize that God’s image has not been damaged since the Fall, but humanity has. Nonetheless, sin has covered much of the evidence that people are actually in God’s image. Sin has prevented godly human attributes from developing as they should. Hence, what are often visible in the world today are not godly human attributes, but corruption.
Chapter five attempts to demonstrate the deficiencies in several manners in which God’s image has been interpreted throughout the centuries. One of the most popular understandings regarding God’s image is that it is equated with reason alone. While this understanding has a long and illustrious history, Kilner believes that using reason to define being in God’s image is more the result of cultural influences rather than biblically sound instruction (181). Similarly, Kilner offers caution on the widespread views that righteousness, rulership, and relationship are equated with God’s image. A better, more biblical understanding of human attributes and their association with God’s image is to understand that humanity in the imago Dei is about connection and reflection. That is, people share a special connection with God and are intended to reflect attributes of God.
Chapters six and seven are concerned with the image of God in relation to humankind’s destiny. Chapter six offers an exploration of six key New Testament passages that describe humanity’s renewal according to God’s image in Christ: Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 3, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 15, and 1 John 3. Kilner carefully walks the reader through these texts and demonstrates that humanity’s renewal takes place according to the image of Christ. That is, those who are in Christ Jesus “have a more specific orientation than toward the generic image of God — their standard and aspiration is now specifically the image of Christ (who is God)” (234). In Christ, humankind is increasingly able to become what they are created to be.
Finally, chapter seven addresses in detail the future destiny aspect of the image of God. Kilner affirms that being in God’s image “is not primarily about how people are presently like God. Rather, it is about a destiny in which God intends that humanity will manifest attributes resembling God’s, in appropriate measure, to God’s glory” (281). The “already, not yet” aspect of the imago Dei shines forth in this chapter as Kilner writes of human attributes such as reason, righteousness, rulership, and relationship that is already being renewed in the Christian, though will not be complete or entirely glorify God until after the glorification of all Christians (299).
Overall, this is a magnificent book that is not for the faint of heart. Those who read Dignity and Destiny should expect to be challenged, as they may recognize manners in which their understanding of the imago Dei is inadequate or mistaken. In way of critique, Dignity and Destiny is at times long and appears drawn out in places where it could have been condensed. At times the book can feel unduly repetitive. Nonetheless, Kilner has produced a very fine, scholarly work that is quite obviously well researched, will prominently stand out in the literature on the imago Dei, and will be a valuable asset for the church.
Daniel J. Hurst is a PhD student in healthcare ethics at Duquesne University. He holds a ThM and MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Dignity And Destiny: Humanity In The Image Of God