Disability and the Image of God


Guest blogger: Peter Gordon

Genesis 1:28 (NIV)
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

This brief statement contains an important nuance that is often overlooked. The pronouns referring to humans move from the singular to the plural when humankind’s creation is described (from “him” to “them”). We easily and readily recognize that we are created individually in God’s image, and we tend to limit our understanding to the singular. “I am made in God’s image.” “He is God’s image.” Rarely do we think about the image of God in the plural. “Together, we are God’s image.” “They are God’s image.” Realizing this, we are reminded that all people, individually and collectively, are created in the image of God.

This thought is closer to the Old Testament view that all of the children of Israel together were the image of their Creator. Likewise, for God’s New Testament people, we are all the Body of Christ, different parts of one whole, and each of these parts is the image of God, and the whole body together is the image of God. We collectively image God, because God is a divine community of three Persons. One person alone cannot image God fully, because God is a community.

This collective view of the image of God has implications for how we think and how we view other people. The image of God is not limited merely to individual attributes or characteristics; all of us together are the image of God. Consider the incredible variety God created in His image. Male and female reflect God’s image. The image of God is African American. The image of God is Asian. The image of God is European. The image of God sits in a wheelchair, walks with a cane, has a companion animal, and has trouble learning.

As we do service for each other as the image of God, we do service for God. Jesus taught His disciples that serving the “least” of their brothers was serving him (Matt 25:31-46). Being the image of God means that as we are one body in the body of Christ, so all of us human beings are all one in the image of God.

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Thomas E. Reynolds in his book, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, has a chapter devoted to the discussion of the image of God and disabilities. I highly recommend his book.

To add to this discussion, here is Reynolds' definition of the image of God: "the image of God is an elusive category loosely signifying that we are fashioned bodily to be creative, relational, and available agents in God's world." (p. 176)

It's part of a deeper and bigger theological argument but one of the implications is that people with impairments or disabilities, even as individuals, are creative, relational and available (open to receiving love and to loving others) in an infinite variety of ways, albeit maybe not in ways prescribed by the "cult of normalcy". People with disabilties, therefore, are also individually image-bearers of God, as much as anybody else, not only in the collective sense as described so nicely in this post.

Reynolds' emphasis is this: "the heart of the creative and relational fabric of the imago Dei: human beings reflect God's free love as an availability displayed by solicitude toward what is other. Created in God's image, we are beings with the capacity to respect, be faithful to, and show compassionate regard for others." (p. 185)

Some of the implications of that statement are clear: respecting, being faithful to and showing compassion to people who are different than ourselves, to those who are "other", is part and parcel of imaging God.

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Thanks for sharing this. Hans Reinders has done some very helpful reflection on the image of God as well in his book, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. Many people say that to be made in God’s image means that we have certain abilities such the ability to think or the ability to obey or disobey God. But these ideas about the image of God exclude some people with disabilities, especially people with severe intellectual disabilities. The image of God begins with fact that we all share a common humanity and ends in God’s love. According to Reinders, we are “created in God’s love, since love is what defines the God in whom Christians believe.”

Shiao and Mark, You guys are both correct on these nuanced aspects of profound disability and how we are brothers and sisters in Christ. How God value's us is apart from our judgment or any cited author's theological musings. I love you guys for efforts to define these issue's. I kwow what I said was harsh and sarcastic but this is basic wisdom from the Bible(i.e. Lords prayer or the story of Jesus life on earth) . Why do people think someone else has figured out? Don't you know that everyboby's relationship is slighty different with the Lord than our own and the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit will discern all things if you believe it ? The theif on the the cross with Jesus was only a Christian for a few hours at best and yet he is going to share paradise with Jesus and hopefully with us. That knowledge alone should lead a person to conclude that everyone is valued through God and that's why Jesus told us to treat(Love) others as we would desire for ourselve's to be treated.

I am sorry for the rant , the Holidays have been rough but you guys deserve better. You guy's an sistir's in Christ our trying to help people like me. For being aware and listining I want say God bless you and forgive me. I posted this to show how the Lord changed me while I wrote it. I hope he live's this close to you my friends as He does with me at times when I listen to my heart or see His signs. Just remember, a Calvinist doesn't have to believe in serendipity (i.e. predestination) so the Spirit  has to be with you. It's logical to me but then I am brain damaged.