It is well-known that Christians believe that human beings have dignity and value because they are made in the image of God. But what exactly does this mean? What is it that makes human individuals image bearers of their creator? Is there a particular aspect of us that more closely reflects the creator than others?
These are perplexing questions, and theologians have given answers that seek to synthesize and appropriate the various scriptural texts that speak on the matter. Other than Genesis 1-2, 9:6, James 3:9, texts like 1 Cor. 15: 12-58 and Romans 5:12-19 are also significant. Deeper systematic-theological questions thus arise: do we image a particular person within the Godhead (say, the Father, or the Son, or the Spirit?)? Or all three? What difference does it make? In what way are we made after Christ, who is the archetypal image of God (Col. 1:15-20)? What aspects of the image are ruined after the fall of Adam?
Bavinck’s answers to some of these enduring questions are both traditional yet creatively constructive. I wrote an article that synthesized much of what he had to say, drawing also the implications of his construction to his understanding of original sin, and why Adam’s fall should affect all of humanity. This article was recently published on the International Journal of Systematic Theology. I’ll give a very short and non-footnoted summary here.
To grasp Bavinck’s interconnected reflections on these issues, one should discern three moves in Bavinck.
1. The Trinity should shape our thinking about the world.
In Bavinck’s worldview, the Trinity shapes our understanding of the world, causing us to view all things in terms of his being. In God one discerns a unity-in-diversity – there is a three-fold personality in God that are united in a single substance. Because this is the case, Bavinck often argues that truth, beauty, and the good are exemplified when a harmony of interconnected parts obtain. God’s three-in-oneness implies that creation bears many non-numerical unities-in-diversities. It is sin, in Bavinck’s view, that forces us to seek for a unity that leads to singular uniformity (as in the Tower of Babel), or to diversity that leads to an atomistic autonomy (as in anarchism or materialism). Instead, harmony exists when diversities are unified. You see this in the cosmos, in the animal world, and above all, Bavinck argues, in humanity. The Trinity implies that creation, therefore, is an organism with parts that are interconnected into a larger whole.
2. The Image of God has three referents: the individual, the male-female relationship, and in humanity.
The Image of God thus displays the pattern of unity-in-diversity in the highest degree within creation because human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation. This, for Bavinck, obtains in three levels. First, the individual in all of its diverse capacities and attributes are unified in a single person as an image of God. Though Bavinck thinks that the human personality or soul is the core of the individual, every aspect of the human individual reflects God. There is no spiritual/worldly dichotomy in Bavinck’s understanding of the human individual. Secondly, the Image of God can also be seen in the way in which males and females relate to one another. Possessing different roles and functions, the male-female relationship exemplify the unity-in-diversity that a Triune creation is supposed to embody. Provocatively, in places, Bavinck even argues that the bringing forth of a child further amplifies the reflection of this unity-in-diversity.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Bavinck argues that the Image of God, as a singular referent, picks out humanity considered as a single unit. All of humanity, composed of all of the individuals that have ever existed or will exist, is unified as a plurality of diverse personalities. What is it, though, that unites every person into a single unit? Bavinck argues that every person is united under a single representative, a single federal head. That representative, as Christian theologians would immediately know, is either Adam or Christ. All of humanity is a single organism, bearing the Image of God, with a representative head as the centre of that organism, who binds us all together. For Bavinck, humanity is bound by a bond of ethical solidarity into a single organism.
This is Bavinck, I think, in one of his most creative moments. Most of us, I would imagine, probably only have in view the individual when we think about the image of God – that we have the capacity for prayer, reason, freedom, worship, and the like. For Bavinck, the image of God is much broader than the individual.
3. Original Sin reflects Humanity’s Organic Character
In some representations of original sin out there, one can get the impression that God merely made a pact, or a voluntary covenant, with Adam, in which God decided that if Adam were to succeed in obeying God (caring for the Garden, being a priestly representative of God on earth, and crushing the serpent, and so on), Adam would receive eternal life along with his posterity, and that if Adam had failed, then Adam and his posterity would fall into guilt and depravity. Why should Adam’s posterity receive the punishment or reward that result from Adam’s actions? Other than appeals to our physical union with Adam (we partake of the same human “stuff” or “material” of our first father), theologians would appeal to God’s right to decree the terms of the covenant and to set Adam apart as our representative.
Not so with Bavinck. With Bavinck’s organic and Trinitarian worldview in place that shapes Bavinck’s understanding of humanity as a single unity-in-diversity, original sin (in both guilt and pollution) is neither just the result of some voluntaristic decree from God nor merely the outcome of our physical partaking of Adam’s substance. Rather, that Adam’s fall should impact the rest of humanity is a reflection of humankind as a single organism. The covenant, therefore, is an expression of humanity’s organic shape in which every individual has an ethical bond with a single representative.
What’s the other upshot from all this? A theology that seeks to deny that we inherit guilt (or pollution) from Adam would be pressed to show, on Bavinck’s terms, why it is that the Image of God should not have its referent in humanity taken as a single unit, and to show why the Image of God should merely be a description of the individual. Bavinck’s constructive efforts, indeed, holds valuable resources for one to defend the plausibility of original sin, and to defend it from charges of injustice.
So, in Bavinck one finds not a mere repristination of the classical descriptions of the transmission or rationale of original sin. Rather, Bavinck drew from the philosophies and theologies prevalent in his day (in this case, I would argue, he drew in part from the German Romantics and the Ethical emphasis of Ritschl), in order to vindicate very classical and orthodox Reformed doctrines.
This summary cannot do justice to the depth and rigor of Bavinck’s theological construction (and neither could the article!). Nonetheless, I hope the article would be useful, if anything, to point readers to consider Bavinck on this topic again.