Imago Dei: Historical Views and their Implications for Persons with Disabilities

The opening of Genesis tells the remarkable story of how God created the world, including the creation of man. Genesis 1:26 declares that God has made man in His own image, after His own likeness, Since the dawn of the church, Christians have wrestled with what it means for man to be created in the image of God. The implications of this doctrine for people with disabilities and their access to corporate worship are profound.

The early church generally held the image or likeness of God as being displayed in man’s cognitive endowment, freedom of will, and capacity for good. Irenaeus held that man’s likeness to God was lost in the Fall, but the image of God remained. The likeness to God, according to Irenaeus, is restored through regeneration and sanctification (Toledo, Imaging God in Private and Corporate Worship). This position is called the substantive view. Man is like God in his substance, even though the image of God is marred by sin. Augustine and modern theologians such as Geoffrey Wainwright held that man’s position as God’s vice-regent on earth is how the image of God is expressed. This functional view concerns man’s activity, both his priestly and kingly functions, not his substance. Yet others, like Stanley Grenz, see the image of God expressed in man through vertical and horizontal relationships. As espoused by Calvin, this relational view finds its perfection when man’s affections are rightly aimed toward God.

Where is space created in each of these views for persons with disabilities? Could they be excluded as image bearers? Are there implications for inclusion in gathered worship? This paper will provide a brief survey of historical views of what it means for man to be created in the image and likeness of God, considering their implications for persons with disabilities. Additionally, this paper will identify patterns of discrimination against people with disabilities, which each theological position may have partially justified. Finally, an alternative, biblically faithful, inclusive view of imago Dei doctrine will be offered, building on the work of David Toledo, Benjamin T. Connor, and others. This paper advances Christian scholarship in theology and philosophy through a theological evaluation of the historical views of God’s image and their significance for people with disabilities.

4 thoughts on “Imago Dei: Historical Views and their Implications for Persons with Disabilities”

  1. Commendable project on worship and disabilities
    A critical study on historical and modern understandings of the imago Dei and worship would be helpful, especially building on Toledo’s fine dissertation. Considering implications regarding disabilities is commendable.


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