Too often in our contemporary discussions about justice, Christians have turned to the idea of the “image of God” as the grounds for our social and political ethics. In the same day, I read two different editorials related to political and legal questions where Christians of decidedly different theological convictions both invoked the “image of God” as the grounds for “dignity” and human rights. A little while back, I watched a Gospel Coalition discussion about justice with folks like Tim Keller who emphasized the grounding of justice in the image of God. John Paul II made these connections too in his social encyclicals. It coincides nicely with the current dominance of human rights as the sole public moral vocabulary and allows Christians to make common cause on a host of social justice issues.

The image-of-God-as-grounds-for-rights is a nice ready-made formula for a nice ready-made social ethics. It’s right there in Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

From that passage, many will make the jump to Genesis 9:6, where that invocation of the image of God is made again by God as the grounds for punishment for shedding another person’s blood. I would only note that the explanation is quite ambiguous. But after that, it mostly drops out of the Old Testament. Notice no mention is made of human worth or what being made in God’s image entails.

There are two problems with this equation. First, the image of God as the grounds for the inherent worth of human persons is a formulation of almost completely modern provenance. One can hardly find this tidy distinction in theology earlier than the 20th century. It’s just not there. This will not bother many, but if the Christian tradition matters and the Bible matters for discussions of justice and ethics, then this should be a major problem.

A couple of years ago, Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs offered an impressive genealogy for this idea that justice is grounded in the idea of intrinsic worth. The problem with Wolterstorff’s account is that it is a thesis in search of a history that does not exist. Neither the Reformers, medievals, nor ancients thought that justice and moral order began with individual worth and what was owed to an individual on account of that worth.

In Samuel Moyn’s excellent book Christian Human Rights, he shows how Catholics and Protestants in Europe came to adopt human rights as a common political agenda in the ashes of World War II. Until then, Christians on the European continent were very wary of the seemingly revolutionary nature of the rights agenda that was associated with the French Revolution, which of course was a disaster for the Catholic Church. Catholic and Protestant acceptance of rights was in reality a politically calculated compromise. It had great benefits for post-war Europe, and the Christian democratic parties that sprung up in the wake of WWII were an immensely successful and stable force in the reconstruction of the devastated continent.

What you will find if you look back to the Reformation or medieval discussions of justice, or even back to the golden age of patristic theology, is that rights are nowhere to be found. Neither Luther nor Calvin will make any such appeals to the image of God as the grounds for human worth and justice. They may speak of the image of God and accord it value, but it is not the cornerstone for thinking about social ethics as it has become in many circles today.

The historical point is related to a more fundamental biblical point. The Bible does not speak of rights, at least not in the way that we imagine. Just because the word “rights” pops up in the Bible doesn’t mean that the Bible is talking about individual rights. If we are commanded to serve, love, protect, or punish in the scripture, it’s not because that person has intrinsic worth, though they are no doubt of great worth in the eyes of God. It is because God has commanded it so, and God’s commands reflect God’s holiness and righteousness (Lev 11:44-45, 19:2; Matt 5:48, 22:37-40; 1 Pet 1:15-16).

Influential 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey, taking his cue from Karl Barth, found the idea of covenant a more appropriate moral basis for thinking about justice than rights. Yes, God has created humans, and they are precious in his sight. But the ultimate moral reason for loving the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves is because God commands us to reflect the righteousness of God in our own actions. God’s faithfulness towards humanity, his covenant love, his redeeming acts towards Israel and through the Son are the basis of what he calls us to follow and strive towards, even as we are painfully aware of how short we fall on a daily basis.

Humans are of great worth, but that worth is because they are created and loved by God and not primarily because they possess God’s image. God invokes his own self as the grounds for our moral reasons. The image of God is not meaningless, but we ought not to give it a meaning it does not possess. This doesn’t mean we must abandon rights. But rights cannot be the grounds for justice, and inherent worth is not grounded in the image of God.

Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Photo Credit: Detail of The Gates of Paradise depicting the creation of Adam and Eve, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1425–52. Battistero di San Giovanni, Florence, Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.