This is a thought-exercise in ethics for most people, but it is not for me. In 2002 my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was born. It would soon be manifest that she is in the .055 percent of the population that has severe or profound cognitive disability.5 In her case, there has never been a clear diagnosis of her condition.
I was theologically unprepared for this, and it caused a crisis for my own faith. The more I read the approaches to the doctrine of the image of God from the early centuries to the present day, the more anguished I became. Rebecca did not fit the criteria for being made in the image of God.
In my heart, I knew that Rebecca and people like her had to be made in the image of God, but she did not fit the theological models for human beings as made in the image of God. Many Christian people, pastors, and writers embrace the traditional models but will not follow them to their logical conclusions when dealing with such cases. They include such people as being made in the image of God as an anomaly. In the physical sciences, however, anomalies (the deviation from what is expected) are never in the things being studied. Anomalies always highlight a weakness in the theory used to describe the things studied.
Some modern theologians have seen the problem and have tried to address it. Nancy Eisland, for example, has tried to address the problem by locating the image of God in disability itself (rather than in some ability or capacity such as intellect, or dominion, or relationship). Her approach, however, not only holds out no hope (she envisions an eschatology of universally disabled people worshiping a disabled God who has been left permanently crippled and broken by the crucifixion) but makes typical people the anomaly when considering the image of God.6
God’s bringing my daughter into my life drove me back to the Scriptures to reconsider what it means for human beings to be made in the image of God. The theological models formulating the doctrine largely encompassed only typical people in the prime of life. Is it possible to formulate a better, more accurate model, one that considers Rebecca and people like her? Over the next decade, I began to read the Scriptures with new eyes.
A Deeper Look at Scripture
What I had not seen before was that being made in the image of God is rooted in God’s declaration, “Let us make man[kind] in our image,” and the resulting “so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” It is only after creating mankind in the image of God that He gives directives for dominion, for obedient relationship, and propositional interaction that includes language, intellect, and understanding. This fact, I believe, is key to formulating a more accurate and more inclusive image-of-God theology.
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