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Dignity and Destiny

Kilner, John F. Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 414 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Max Heidelberger (September 21, 2017)



John F. Kilner’s new study of the imago dei, entitled Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, is not—to use the classic phrase—reinventing the wheel. The ground Kilner covers is well trod, and there is not much new machinery here. What Kilner highlights, rather, is the centrality of the proverbial wheel itself to the larger history of Christian thought and practice. Kilner shows that the doctrine of the imago dei has the capacity to “foster both liberation and devastation,” since this concept has had both a humanizing and dehumanizing role within Christian discourse (3). The various ways and means by which God’s image has been invoked throughout the history of doctrine are not mere theological curiosities, but sites of struggle, fraught with hidden agendas, cultural preferences, and deep ethical implications. To cut through this complexity, Kilner claims to offer a purely Bibliocentric—and therefore Christocentric—account of the imago dei, which identifies and minimizes historical, cultural, and critical preference insofar as this is possible. Dignity and Destiny is clearly intended to be a teaching tool, and the scope of the book is broad, covering topics and texts that have been exegeted in greater detail elsewhere. Still, Kilner’s central claim and contribution is his forceful identification of the capacity of the imago dei to help and to harm. In this sense, Dignity and Destiny is the story of an idea, offered with suggestions for how we might better ourselves in asking what can only be one of the most central theological questions: what is God communicating by making human beings in God’s image?

Kilner divides his discussion into three parts. Part I concerns “The Human and Divine Context,” which outlines the implications for the discussion of the imago dei as a whole. As mentioned above, this is where Kilner makes his best case for the book’s importance. In Chapter 1 entitled “Much Is At Stake,” Kilner describes the imago dei’s capacity for liberation and devastation, and provides three reasons for why the doctrine occasionally goes awry: poor attention to Biblical texts, the Bible’s own opacity on the issue of God’s image, and the tendency of theologians to import their own doctrinal and cultural commitments into the discussion. Kilner uses Karl Barth as an example in this case, demonstrating that Barth’s understanding of God’s image-as-relationship was indebted to the I-Thou concept within Martin Buber’s existentialism, rather than a biblical account (49). Kilner is not necessarily critical of this evolution since it is unclear how theologians ought to divorce interpretation from contemporary influences. Indeed, Kilner admits that he “does not pretend to be immune from such influences” himself (50). Still, Kilner contends that a heightened awareness of context-specific biases can go a long way in separating the dangerous excesses of the image from its liberative roots. Having laid bare the difficulties of the doctrine, Kilner concludes the first section by offering a bare definition of image as a connection which invites reflection: “Being in the image of God turns out to mean having a special connection with God and indeed a meaningful reflection of God” (54). Human beings’ status as reflections of God is both present (insofar as Christ is the image of God) and ultimate (insofar as humanity will one day perfectly image of God), revealing a tension between likeness-image and imprint-image—to bear God’s image as a human creature is to bear similarity, but to bear God’s image as Christ is to possess God’s very identity. Image thus has immense Christological implications, as well as implications for human dignity.

The second section of Kilner’s book focuses on this latter concern; indeed Part II is simply titled “Human Dignity.” This is the most dense portion of the book, and it is here that Kilner sets out to address his central concern: the image’s capacity for liberation and devastation. Kilner makes clear that the image among human beings is universal, and he gives special attention to biblical treatments of women as equal image-bearers with men to prove this point (85-94). Kilner also separates functional, spiritual, or attributional understandings of the image from the proper ontological one, asserting that the imago dei is not achieved by action or belief, but simply by virtue of being created in the divine image (105). Kilner also addresses sin’s impact on the image here, crucially arguing that there is no scriptural basis for believing that the image of God can be damaged or lost. The consequences of believing the latter is to diminish respect for the dignity of human beings, with implied permission for oppression, discrimination, and exclusion. The damage of sin is to humanity, not the image of God—is damaged creatures that are restored, not a damaged image (141). Kilner is notably running against a number of Christian ethicists and theologians on this issue, particularly figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Leavy, Ellen Ross, Emil Brunner and Helmut Thielicke, all of whom described at various turns a “lost,” “bent,” “weakened,” or “fractured” image. Scholars of Karl Barth will note that Kilner explicitly addresses Barth’s affirmation in CD I/1 that the image of God “is altogether lost,” observing that Barth remains in line with other neo-orthodox protestant theologians on this issue (161). It is at this point that Kilner makes his heftiest—and given the theologians he contends with, his most controversial—normative claim, arguing that “the Bible consistently avoids indicating that the image of God is either lost or damaged in human beings—now or in any day” (174). The image has been neither virtually nor actually damaged, and to infer this can have serious consequences. Kilner writes, “while the metaphor of a corrupted or defaced image may be convenient for certain theological purposes, the harm risked by using it far outweighs the gain” (176).

Part III of Dignity and Destiny is titled “Human Destiny,” and it concerns God’s intention for human beings to bear and reflect God’s image. Since the imago dei itself does not need to be fixed or restored—since it was never lost—humanity now becomes the site of renewal in Christ, who is both “the standard and enabler of who people are to be, as created in God’s image” (233). The incarnation and the atonement do not change the image, but rather humanity itself is changed by the unchanging image (234). Kilner identifies this dynamic in three key passages: Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 3, and Colossians 3, and he conflates this renewal of human beings with the restoration of humanity’s original destiny in Adam and Eve. In looking back to Eden and looking forward to the eschaton, Kilner demonstrates the “already-not-yet” nature of renewal in God’s image. The image, essentially, “is about a destiny in which God intends that humanity will manifest attributes resembling God’s, in appropriate measure, to God’s glory” (281). Humanity’s capacity to manifest these attributes is never lost; however, sin’s damage to people —not to the image—requires restoration so that human beings can experience and enjoy the fullness of their similarity to their Creator.

In his conclusion, Kilner recaps all three sections of his discussion with the following: “connection with God is the foundation of human dignity,” while “reflection of God is the aspiration of human destiny,” and finally that “all of humanity participates in human dignity” and “all of humanity is offered human destiny” in Christ (311). Kilner closes his book by revisiting the ethical implications of his argument, and calling for the church to recover the creation of humanity in the imago dei as its rallying cry.

Kilner’s book is dense with biblical exegesis and boasts an immense bibliography, which makes it an outstanding introduction for students who want to dig deeper into the history of the doctrine of the imago dei. Kilner does not contribute anything particularly new to the discussion, but he firmly anchors himself in a specific camp while also articulating the reasoning and rationale of those who would approach the imago dei differently. While Dignity and Destiny is an eloquent account of the doctrine of the imago dei, in both scripture and Christian thought, the book’s greatest strength is Kilner’s powerful invitation to reconsider the ethical and practical implications of Christian doctrine. Kilner’s connection of the imago dei to historic and systematic oppression, while also highlighting its powerful capacity for liberation, demonstrates acute anthropological concern, not only for the veracity of biblical ideas, but for their proper application in both church and society. For this reason above all others, Dignity and Destiny will likely be used as an introductory text on the imago dei for years to come.

Max Heidelberger, Wheaton College

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.