The approach of theologians past and present has been to try to locate the image of God in those qualities and abilities that we have in common with God and that separate us from the animals. These qualities and abilities then effectively become criteria by which to judge the presence (or potentially the absence) of the image of God. But this is precisely the reverse of what we find in the Scriptures.
In Genesis 1, man as the image of God is rooted in God’s declaration and creation of human beings. Everything else that might be identified with the image of God is the result of being created in the image of God. Those faculties and abilities do not constitute the image of God.
This is very good news, not only for people born with severe cognitive disabilities, but for all of us, because in Genesis 3 we are told that something catastrophic happened. In humankind’s rebellion against God, we, all of us, became very broken so that none of us expresses the image of God as fully as we otherwise would have.
As an analogy, consider the images we have discovered of the Phoenician god Baal, from the ancient Near East. The most striking feature of Baal is a long protrusion on the top of his head. Imagine if archaeologists were to discover such a statue but with the long protrusion broken off and missing. They would not conclude “this used to be an image of Baal.” They would recognize the statue as an image of Baal that had been broken. The protrusion is not what makes it a statue of Baal. The intention of its creator is what makes it an image of Baal.
Human beings — all human beings — are the image of God because that is what God has created them as. The “fall of man” has made it so that the image is broken; that is true in all of us, in some more visibly than others. Being made in the image of God is not diminished by being broken. Rather, it is something established by the intention of the Creator.
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