March 16, 2014

A Materialist Picture of the Imago Dei

Suppose you accept the following two propositions, as I am inclined to:

(1) If S is created in the image of God, then S is a human.
(2) If S is a human, then S has a particular kind of body (i.e., having a particular kind of body is essential to having a human nature).

It follows that

(3) If S is created in the image of God, then S has a particular kind of body.

But we don’t want to interpret (3) as saying humans image God in having a particular kind of body, as if God has a particular kind of body, do we? Well, maybe we do. So far as I can tell, the following is fully consistent with Orthodox thought.

Designate the set of properties essential and exclusive to divinity {P}. Sans creation, God knows this counterfactual:

(4) If the second Person of the Trinity were embodied in W, that’s how He’d be.

where one of the things the demonstrative ‘that’s’ indicates is the having of a particular kind of body. Why that particular kind of body? I dunno. Maybe a particular kind of body is required for a perfect person to be perfectly embodied in W. At any rate, the picture God has from (1) is that of a perfect embodied person, a person with all those properties in {P} with a particular kind of body. What this would amount to in the actual world, W@, is the post-resurrected incarnate Christ. So suppose that the kind-essence that results from embodying a divine person in W@ is humanity. A perfect embodied person in W@ would therefore be a perfect human person—a human person who is necessarily morally perfect, perfectly free, incorruptible, etc. God sees that this would be very good.

Seeing that it would be good, God decides to create persons like that—i.e., humans. However, properties like being uncreated and being omnipotent are essential and exclusive to divinity. So, any non-divine human persons God creates must lack those and other properties in {P}. In other words, God creates with this counterfactual in mind:

(5) If a human person were not divine, that’s how he’d be

imago deiwhere the picture is the same as in (4) save only those properties essential to divinity. The result is, in effect, pre-Fall Adam—a truly human person, albeit a merely human person—a human person who is not necessarily morally perfect, not necessarily perfectly free, not necessarily incorruptible, etc.

If I were a materialist about human beings—and I am as of yet unsure that I am—I would think about human persons qua created in the image of God along these lines.

Discussions of the incarnation sometimes give the impression that the incarnation is logically posterior to humanity; humanity is something antecedently there, and Christ sort of steps down into the middle of things and acquires a human nature. But on the view sketched here, humanity is logically posterior to the incarnation. God starts at the middle (so to speak) with God incarnate, then goes back to the beginning and sets the course of humanity to anticipate the incarnation.



  1. This is the same sort of argument used by some Christian Identity advocates to argue that only those sentient beings with certain properties (“being white” for instance) are truly human – the rest descend from a sinful amalgamation of Eve and the Devil, or the children of men with higher order primates, or some other similar-type narrative.

    Hebrew Israelites (the black community’s version of “Christian Identity”) argue similarly – at least, I’ve heard some of the more theologically-minded of them offer arguments along these lines.

    The question is – how would we avoid restricting the Imago Dei to a particular set of physical properties, as such restriction may lead to radically unpopular conclusions?

    Comment by shotgunwildatheart — May 22, 2014 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  2. Interesting question, Shotgun.

    The distinction between kind essence and individual essence may help here. All the above picture requires is that having a particular kind of body is constitutive of the kind essence humanity (and what makes the body be of a particular kind is being part of the hylomorphic compound necessary and sufficient for a truly albeit merely human being). Now even if one thinks properties like race and gender are essential to a human’s identity, it would not follow that those properties are essential to the kind essence humanity. All that would follow is that those properties are essential to one’s individual essence, and clearly any number of individual essences can belong to the same kind essence.

    So it seems to me the burden is on the person who wants to pack properties like race and gender into the kind essence humanity rather than the essences of individual humans.

    Comment by camcintosh — May 22, 2014 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

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