A Biblical Model of Human Dignity: Based on the Image of God and the Incarnation

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Excerpt The foundational source of Human Dignity, the intrinsic worth of a person, has been an issue within Theology and Philosophy for thousands of years. While the concept of a living person having a basic worth is common among societies and cultures, the metaphysical or underlying source of this dignity, or worth, has always been debated. Continue reading

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Dignity can be seen as being derived from its simple, but undeniable, connection to human life.  However, life, and its properties, are synergistic and go beyond the mere limits of the body. The dignity of a person, dignitatis personae, would therefore also share in the metaphysical properties of life and humanity.

The Bible presents powerful model of human dignity, spanning and uniting the Testaments. We propose that the teachings of the Imago Dei and Incarnation illustrate that the human person, body and soul, has been forever dignified. Underlying their powerful professions of faith in the Living God is a powerful substructure of thought which concisely depicts the interaction of the “infinite” with the “finite”.  The teachings of the Imago Dei and the Incarnation should not be dismissed as products of religious zeal, as many minimalists would do, but as the manifestations of thought and writings that have withstood the challenges of time and have been supported by other scientific disciplines. It describes, albeit theologically, the intersection and union between the metaphysical and the sensible worlds, the abstract and the concrete, and infinite power condensed into a finite form.  We would propose, based on these key Biblical teachings that all human persons have an “inherited share” of this union.

The Image of God

In Genesis 1:26, the Biblical texts narrates that humankind was created in the “image and likeness” of God.  The exact properties of these terms are not explained in Genesis. Some early OT scholars tried to explain this couplet of terms in a physical context; man’s upright stature, for example.  However the text seems to suggest that this connotation alone seems to be too narrowly demarcated.  W. Eichrodt and J.L. McKenzie have proposed arguments which emphasize the “spiritual qualities” of humankind. These qualities consist of humankind’s “capacity of self-consciousness and self-determination- in a word, his personality”.(McKenzie 1966: 385)

The overall account of Creation in Genesis 1 follows a clear pattern; announcement, command, report, evaluation and temporal reference. While the account of “man” follows this pattern there are significant differences.  The text which narrates the creation of “man” begins with “let us make man”, which seems to signify a special place, possibly climactic, for “man” in the natural world. This prefatory statement is followed by an account of the emergence of humanity, which is longer than the texts narrating other generative acts. Furthermore, “man” is depicted as having dominion over the natural world, and that the evaluation of man over the natural sphere is evaluated as “very good” would suggest humanity’s “preeminent position” in the natural order.” According to E. Curtis, the “image of God terminology clearly . . . declares the dignity and worth of man and woman”. (Curtis 1992: 3: 390-391)  Curtis goes on to point out that the concept of human dignity is common in the ancient Near East.  However, unlike other ancient models, the terminology depicts a singular and unique association between the physical form and its spiritual qualities.

The Hebrew term for “image” is tselem (צלם ). Theologically, the term had a long and rich development.  However, the root meaning seems to have the meaning of “statue”.  Further connotations of “images/idols” and connections to magical worldviews are secondary expansions. However, the concept of “statue” always seemed to have entailed some sort of physical representation or manifestation of an entity. Because it is a representative object, there seems to be connection between the image and that which it represents.

H. Wildberger argues that the phrase suggests a participation in the power of the entity which is represented by the “image”. (Wildberger 1997: 3:1084) In other words, humankind has a share in the attributes and power of the entity which it represents. This connotes a connection which moves beyond physical and intellectual similarities and ties humanity to the metaphysical force which it represents. Genesis calls this force “God”, as does the community of the faithful.  Therefore, mankind is the physical representation God, according to the Biblical authors. The God of the Bible is the Ultimate Reality, the source and author of life.  These properties are reflected in the name revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush event (Exodus 3:14); YHWH, a name which many scholars have rendered “the cause of existence”.  The Biblical authors are depicting YHWH as the infinite, metaphysical power which generates, “creates”, and sustains the natural world.  Therefore, humankind is the physical representation of the underlying power of the natural world. Consequently, because this is a title given only to humankind it is appropriate that humankind is placed at the pinnacle of the natural order.  Furthermore, as the world is ever expanding, as modern physicists have argued and demonstrated, the Biblical authors are saying that YHWH, the God of the Patriarchs, is the power by which the world is given its expanse.  Because the world is infinitely expanding, we must attribute infinite properties to its source and cause. Humankind is the physical representation of this infinite power and participates in it. By the power of this participation in the infinite, the finite and physical form of mankind is forever dignified. The dynamics of this participation are still beyond the power of our current science and language to define. The Biblical authors felt this constraint as well.  Hence, they introduced a second term, “likeness” to depict the connection between infinite and finite.

The term for “likeness” affirms the connection which generates the dignity of the human person. The Hebrew term is demut (דמת ).  The term may also connote “semblance, resemblance”.  Throughout the innumerable studies on this text, a common theme is the powerful interrelationship between “image” and “likeness”. V. Hamilton points out that “nowhere else in the OT do these two nouns appear in parallelism or in connection with each other”.  Hamilton’s argument is pointing out that this is an immediate relationship; a relationship with no barriers or intermediary entities. This is in contrast to Genesis 5:3, the narration of Seth. The two terms are in tandem; however this builds upon the pattern set by God in Genesis 1. This pattern is being ascribed to Adam and sets the precedent for the human race. God has created Adam in His image; Adam begets Seth in his own image which is God’s image through Adam.  Therefore, Seth has received a mediated image; an image obtained through Adam.  However, Seth, and Adam’s descendants, will keep a share of the image. The image and likeness was bestowed upon Adam and communicated, passed on, to his offspring.

The weight of scholarship seems to point to these words being a complementary couplet.  The Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that “image” refers to man’s structural resemblance to God, which survived the Fall, and that “likeness” refers to a moral image, which was destroyed in the Fall.  This doctrine depicts the combination of physical and abstract qualities that is present in this text.  Hamilton makes the following argument:

“The word “likeness” rather than diminishing the word “image” actually amplifies it and specifies its meaning. Man is not just an image but a likeness-image. He is not simply representative but representational. Man is the visible, corporeal representative of the invisible, bodiless God. [“Likeness”] guarantees that man is an adequate and faithful representative of God on earth”. (Hamilton 1980: 1:438)

The Biblical authors were depicting a unique relationship between man and God, the infinite source of existence.  According to E. Jenni, the term “refers to total comparability and not a perceptibly lesser degree of mere similarity, but that the need to refer to comparability exists only if similarity is not self-evident”. (Jenni 1997: 1:340) In other words, Jenni’s argument proposes that man, in his physical form, has a similarity to, is connected to, and must be compared with the Infinite but the similarity is not apparent, as man is material and the Infinite is immaterial. By using this term, in conjunction with “image”, the Biblical writer is preserving the unique and infinite qualities of the metaphysical source of life, YHWH, but insisting that humankind has a share and partakes in these qualities. Humankind’s worth, dignity, derives from this partaking, or connection. The Biblical authors were trying to explain that human life and personhood are synergistic, properties that go beyond the combination of individual physical parts. Man is not simply statue-like copies or manifestations of the source of life. The Biblical authors recognized that life goes beyond the confines of the body, the physical manifestation of the metaphysical source of the reality of human life, and has an abstract, infinite quality that eludes concrete definition. The best way which they could speak to this combination of qualities was to couple the terms “image” and “likeness”. Underneath the theology is the thought structure which is attempting to explain a philosophical and mathematical problem; the combination of the infinite, that with no clear start or end points, and the finite, the sensible and physical realities whose limits can be observed and verified.

The Incarnation

Central to the Christian faith is the Incarnation, narrated in John 1:14; “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. While the theological scholarship regarding this text is prodigious, we can set our focus on a theme which corroborates the metaphysical argument of Genesis 1:26; the interaction of the Infinite and finite. The Gospel writer knew his Greek philosophy and Jewish background well. He used this combination of knowledge to explain, what he considered to be, a unique event in human history; the pre-existent, therefore infinite, Word of God entering into the physical world.


Forming a foundation for the connection between Genesis and the Prologue is the literary and theological parallel found in the first verse of each work; “in the beginning”.  This ties the two works together very powerfully and it also reflects the development of the concept of Revelation.  During the age of the Patriarchs, Judges, and Kings the will of YHWH was revealed through the emergences of the YHWH Spirit.  Through the era of the Prophets, the vehicle of Revelation became the Word.(McKenzie 1966: 841).  This finds fullest expression in the person of Christ Jesus, the embodied “Word” of God. 

In Greek the term for “word” is logos.  However, the exact connotation of an occurrence depends largely on its context.  John is proposing that this is a revelatory entity, of a transcendent word, command, or commission.  (Bauer 1979: 478)  To be revelatory, the logos must disclose, express, or manifest something of the origin. The term refers to more than the simple sound which mankind calls voice or words.  Mere representation tends to buffer or mediate the relationship between the revelatory event and its origin. Revelatory seems to connote a direct, immediate, relationship.  Perhaps, such a relationship is illustrated in the immediate relationship between thought and word; thought generates words and words define thought. Therefore, behind the demonstrable words is a metaphysical reality which is expressed.

John’s use and depiction of the term, while acknowledging many aspects of Greek philosophy, rests on the Hebrew term, dabar (word).  The Hebrew term has a wide semantic field, but is usually rendered “word” or “matter”.  According to G. Gerleman, the term connotes more than the meaning of a “linguistic carrier of meaning”, which suggests that it is not a mediating entity, but refers to the “content itself. . . [it] is thoroughly abstract in character.”  He continues: “Something of the activity of the verb is always implied in dabar: it indicates something   that can occasion some discussion or treatment or that can become the object of such discussion, thus ‘concern, incident, event’. . .  As a theological term, dabar is an expression [and] voluntative manifestation” of its origin.” (Gerleman 1997: 1:329-330)

J.L. McKenzie proposes that the dabar contains a “continuing reality . . . which reaches from the present into the future”.  Moreover, “the reality and power of the word are rooted in the personality of the speaker”. (McKenzie 1966: 938) Furthermore, as John’s Gospel presents the concept, the dabar or logos is the ”summit  and fullness of the self- revelation” of its origin (McKenzie 1966: 941) Therefore, the concept of “word”, as it began in the OT and continued in the Gospel of John, depicts the word as being an immediate extension of its source or origin. In concrete terms, it reflects and contains the power of the speaker.

In the concept of dabar there exists a dynamic relational quality between the origin and the receiver of the dabar.  The dabar, according to T. Fretheim, entails more than simple “objective realties, as if it were simply a matter of data or information. . . The word is truly revealing”.  Fretheim continues, “the relationship has a fundamental integrity to it . . . it assumes that there is an audience for that word, those who can hear and interact with that word. . . [it] is not a monological reality.”(Fretheim 1992; 6:964)

To sum, the use of “word” (dabar, logos) entails more than just a vocalized sound. It refers to a living, dynamic, entity that interacts immediately, without buffer or context, with the world in which it enters. It is a manifestation or expression of its origin.  In a Biblical context, this origin is God.  However, under this profession of Divine origin is a common structure.  YHWH and the Pre-Existent Logos are the theological or religious names for the source of natural life. As we have pointed out; “YHWH” is best rendered as the “cause of all existence” and the Logos is the entity through whom all life came into being (John 1:10).  Therefore, it can be inferred that the Biblical term “Word (of God)” should be understood as meaning a direct and immediate extension or expression of the infinite properties of life itself.  Hence, the Logos, identified as Jesus by John’s Gospel, is seen to have infinite or Divine qualities.


By the Word entering into the world of the flesh, it is engaging humankind. The theological term that is used is “Incarnation”, meaning any embodiment in or as flesh.  Although scholars have pointed to many antecedents in Ancient Near East literature, John’s Gospel presents the concept in a singular way. According to J. Dunn, in John 1 “the subject is God’s Word – another way of speaking of God’s self-revelation, action upon, and communication with the world of humankind. . . The juxtaposition of in this way of the two concepts, ‘Word’ and ‘flesh’, is very striking”. The Word “belongs wholly to the realm of the Divine” and the flesh “belongs wholly to this world, which is “corruptible”. Dunn argues that the choice of the verb in the phrase, “the Word became flesh”, is not accidental and cannot be easily diminished or diluted by rendering connotations such as “appearing as flesh” or “dwelt in the flesh”. (Dunn 1992: 3: 403-404) In John, the concept of the Incarnation means a direct and explicit expression or manifestation.

The Greek term, ginomai, (became) can be understood as a verb with its own meaning. It is usually rendered, “become, originate, come to be”.  However, the semantic field of the verb also encompasses “persons and things which change their nature, to indicate their entering a new condition: become something”. (Bauer 1979: 158-159) It seems likely that this meaning was foundational to John’s understanding of the logos, an infinite or Divine entity, interacting with the finite realm. As Bauer points out, this designates a new condition or a change in nature, there is no indication of any diminution.

In the New Testament, flesh is seen as “transitory” with “no lasting reality”.  The Gospel is employing a subtle, but powerful, distinction between “flesh” and “body”; the “flesh is not identical with the body. . .  [it] is the physical presence of the body” (McKenzie 1966: 281).  By using the term “flesh”, John is depicting the “totality of all that is essential to manhood”(Vine 1996: 2:242).  The Greek term, sarx, (flesh) literally means the material that covers the bones of a man or animal. However, the key connotations of the term encompass “human or mortal nature as in earthly descent, corporeality, and physical limitations”.  It seems to also stand in opposition to the abstract in referring to the “outside or external side of life”. (Bauer 1979: 743-744)  This relationship of opposition gives the concept of the Incarnation, and Imago Dei, such striking, and common, features.

Overall, the Gospel is depicting, in theological terms, the relationship and result of the infinite joining with the finite.  As Dunn implies, this is not a disguise, an in dwelling, or a transient manifestation. John is depicting a change, not a diminution, of the essence and nature of the infinite when it forms a union with the finite. Furthermore, there is no evidence that this is temporary change, the new condition is permanent. This is not to be mistaken with the temporary nature of the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Incarnation. The infinite has conjoined with the finite, the corporeal and gives the corporeal a new worth, redemption, a dignity. The infinite allows the authority and power to be communicated to all in the corporeal realm; all of humankind.


The question of the relationship between an individual and the group has existed since antiquity. One could say that a form of this question is the basis for the thought of the original Philosopher, Thales (c. 600 BC), who framed the problem of the “one and the many”. This is the problem of identifying the Ultimate Reality (One) that underlies all things and how the many entities relate to and derive from the Ultimate Reality. The Biblical concepts of the Imago Dei and Incarnation have powerful connections to this philosophical problem.  The texts deal with One Being, who is infinite, manifesting properties and communicating them to the finite humankind.

Corporate Personality

In the early 1900’s Wheeler Robinson introduced the term, “CORPORATE PERSONALITY”, into Biblical Studies. The term was adapted from a concept in English law.  The concept deals with the dynamics between a group and an individual member of the group. Applied to the Bible, this concept explains a powerful worldview of the people of the Bible. The authors of the Bible reflected an idea that proposed that a group, or nation, is bound together by such commonality that that they all share a common fate and bear common responsibility.  The group can be regarded as an individual entity and an individual can be regarded as a group. Therefore, the actions of one individual can impose reward or punishment on the entire group, as all share responsibility. In the Old Testament we see this concept employed in the Achan account ( Joshua 7), Saul’s disobedience (1 Samuel 15), and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 40-55). In the New Testament, this concept receives a full expression in Romans 5 1:19. In this powerful text, Paul draws upon logical formulae to argue that as sin came to all through one man, salvation for all comes from one man. This parallel bridges the Testaments in that, in each case, all of humankind partakes in the punishment or the rewards brought about by the actions of one man, who is acting as the visible representative of the entire group.

Therefore, it seems likely that the Biblical authors were employing this concept with the texts of the Imago Dei and Incarnation, as these passages illustrate the communication of infinite, or Divine, properties to a finite set of entities. Although the “image” and the “Incarnation” each focused on the existence of one human, all humankind shared in his properties; preeminence, punishment, and redemption.  Also, this socio-theological concept would propose that the dignity and worth bestowed on that one human would be shared by the rest of humankind.

The Interaction of the Infinite and Finite

At the base of these theological professions is a structure of thought that has survived the centuries and has found support from modern scientific disciplines. Both the Imago Dei of Genesis and the concept of the Incarnation speak to the consequence of the Infinite engaging the finite.  The construct which is established must be clearly outlined; the beginning point is not the finite participating in the infinite, it is the infinite encountering the finite. From this first position we can use a “distribution” model to explain how infinite qualities are communicated to a series of finite entities.

We need not enter into the tangential area of identifying an original cause; we do propose, however, that the abstract property of life be considered “infinite”.  In this way, we can avoid any anthropomorphisms or personifications. Perhaps, the earliest, and most noted, “distribution model” of infinite- to – finite properties was constructed by the neo-Aristotelian, St. Thomas Aquinas.  While, his notion of an infinite series, forward and back, has not been embraced by theology or philosophy, his notion of a hierarchical series seems most valuable. Aquinas’ construct is based on the concept of contingency, that the properties of the finite entities are contingent, or reliant, upon the infinite properties.

Aquinas was not interested in inferring the age of the earth or humankind; this was taken up in the “Kalam Cosmological Argument”, which does not construct an infinite cause-effect history.  “Kalam” proposes a temporal series, based on the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes).  For our purposes, the traditional “Kalam” argument diagrams can be adapted as follows.

This diagram proposes that there is an “infinite” origin () which, for unknown causes or reasons, interacted with the finite world, and this, in turn gave rise to any number of causes (n) or life forms that still inhabit the natural world.  These causes are “finite” (││).This process has no known end point, so must be understood as an “infinite” procession. 

Theologically, this resonates in the words of Revelation 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and is to come. . .”  This deals with the totality of time and the natural world.  The consistency of the “Kalam” model and the Revelation text with the name of God, YHWH, revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) must be observed.  Following W.F. Albright, most scholars accept that the rendering of the Divine Name as denoting the “cause of all existence”. In this Name, we see the concept of this totality emerging.

Several noteworthy physicists have tried to defeat this model, but their attempts have been unconvincing. Physicists such as Oppy, Grünbaum, and Davies fail in their arguments regarding the antecedent cause aspect. S. Hawking must rely on a construct of “imaginary time” to challenge the argument. Therefore, we would propose, following William Lane Craig, that the simplicity of the cause-effect interaction of “Kalam” seems insurmountable.1

J. Derrida proposes a theory of infinite substitutions in the finite realm to explain the infinite entering into the finite world. As seen above, in the Greek term “became”, there is an essential change in nature.  Derrida suggests that this infinite substitution of participating finites is called “supplementarity” (Globus 2003: 145).   Derrida’s theory has special significance for the Imago Dei and the Incarnation; it may suggest that only humans are the participants in the infinite.  This leads to two conclusions.  First, it affirms humankind’s pre-eminent position in the natural order. Second, by this exclusive participation, humanity and human life has a distinct and singular worth, or dignity.

It seems logical to infer, according to the commutative property of math and logic, that if the infinite changed when forming a union with the finite, the finite also underwent a change.  We can find support for this idea from mathematical theories of G. Cantor, who did acclaimed work in infinite set theory. His theories, and subsequent variations, propose;


In other words, if there is a union of infinite and finite sets, or entities, the result will have to reflect the infinite properties; the combination has infinite attributes. This is established by logical principles pertaining to quality and quantity as well.

Therefore, the accounts of the Imago Dei and the Incarnation are describing properties that are part of humanity, but are recognized to go beyond the mere physical boundaries of our forms and bodies. The sound philosophy beneath the professions of the Imago Dei and the Incarnation is supported by ancient models of thought as well as constructs that prevail in modern science and mathematics. The philosophical structure of these Biblical principles propose that with the union of the infinite and finite the attributes of the infinite were communicated to the finite participants, humankind, and that the physical human form, the human body, is forever dignified.


This equation, infinite + finite, speaks to the crisis in modern health, wherein people are struggling to find answers to questions regarding the termination of life. When making “final” decisions, either for themselves or for loved ones, well-intentioned caregivers are caught trying to balance the temporal realities of the situation with the knowledge that the, infinite, mystery of life is still present in the body.  Too often false disjunctions and forced either/or choices are encountered in the decision-making process.  Caregivers, family or professional, feel the pressure to choose between the “sanctity of life”, referring to abstract or infinite qualities, and “quality of life”, referring to values on life placed by society.  This disjunction often generates decisions that lead to self-doubt and guilt.

Perhaps, we need a corollary to Derrida’s “supplementarity”; we would call this “complementarity”, an idea in which the infinite and the finite join, or complement each other, to produce a full human person with infinite and finite properties. Such a construct is needed as to emphasize the abstract, or infinite, properties would be to deny the real value of the finite or physical being. Yet, to terminate life on the basis of the physical, or finite, would be to subordinate the infinite to the finite; an idea which moves against concepts in theology, philosophy, and science.

Complex questions about the termination of life are now part of our existence. The Biblical teachings of the Imago Dei and the Incarnation illustrate that humankind has a unique balance of finite and infinite, abstract and physical, immaterial and material properties. Therefore, our decisions must reflect this unique balance, factor in the infinite and recognize the dignity of the person.  We must acknowledge the philosophical constructs upon which the Biblical authors wrote; that the body is a physical expression of life, of the infinite, of God.  From this union with the infinite, the human person has qualities and a dignity which go beyond the confines of the body.  Therefore, we cannot justify terminating life on the basis of transient or physical markers that are given their value only by contemporary society. The termination of life may take place or be advocated only when the body can no longer sustain this complementary and balanced relationship, when the infinite qualities or soul has separated from the body and life is defined only by technology, or when the integrated systems of the body can no longer support the synergistic life force contained within it.

Perhaps, this is best illustrated by the last words of Jesus on the Cross. In Christian theology Jesus was the Incarnation, in whom the Divine became human and in whom the totality of the Infinite conjoined with the finite.  Recent crucifixion studies have uncovered the horrific ordeal through which the body goes while being executed in this way.2 Jesus, being a fully human man, was no exception. When his finite body could no longer sustain the Divine and infinite life force within him he said;

“Father, into your hands I recommend my spirit”

                                                  (Luke 23: 46)

In His last moments Jesus, always the master teacher, offers a model of when physical life should be surrendered. 


1. The best resource for seeing all of these arguments compared is the following: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/in-defense-of-the-kalam-cosmological-argument . This post provides a reader-friendly overview of the arguments of these physicists (off-site link).

2.  An accessible resource for an overview of the latest in crucifixion studies is a DVD from the “History Channel”, simply titled, “Crucifixion” and it can obtained from the following: http://search.history.com/search?w=crucifixion&asug=c&v=history (off-site link).

See also, http://christiananswers.net/q-eden/jesusdeath.html for a forensic examination of the execution of Jesus (off-site link).


Bauer, W.

1979 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Curtis, E.

1992 The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols.  NY: Doubleday.

Dunn, J.

1992 The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols.  NY: Doubleday

Fretheim, T.

1992 The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols.  NY: Doubleday.

Gerleman, G.

1997 “דברTheological Lexicon of the Old Testament (3 vols). Peabody: Hendrickson.

Globus, G.

2003 Quantum Closures and Disclosures:Thinking-together Postphenomenology and Quantum Brain    Mechanics. Phil: John Benjamins

Hamilton, V.

1980 דמתTheological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody.

Jenni, E.

1997 “דמת”, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (3 vols). Peabody: Hendrickson.

McKenzie, J.L.

1966 Dictionary of the Bible. Chicago: Bruce.

Vine, W.E.

1996 Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville:Nelson.

Wildberger, H.

1997 “צלם”, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (3 vols).  Peabody: Hendrickson.

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