An Ontological and Teleological Response to the Imago Dei in Disability Theology

Disability theology has challenged traditional theological interpretations of the image of God, having found them insufficient for the task of including persons with disabilities. The way in which disability theology shapes these theological interpretations has also placed limits on our understanding of God and humanity. This paper criticizes the application of disability theory to disability theology and seeks to establish a universal access approach to identity and dignity through the image of God using an ontological and teleological understanding of the image of God applicable to all people, disabled or not and Christian or not.


Who am I? Who are we? These questions reflect the desire of an individual or group to be known, because it is the pre-requisite to know yourself before you can truly be known by others. Implicit in these questions is an answer rooted in differentiation: not as much a positive statement of who I am, but rather a negative statement of how I am not someone or something else. One of the historic ‘who are we?’ questions has been ‘who are humans?’ or more accurately what are humans. [i]

The Bible does provide a clear answer to the former question, at least for Christians: we are in Christ (Gal 3:27). The latter question is more opaque. The answer has generally resided in theological anthropology of the imago Dei, the image of God first referred to in Gen 1:26. The imago Dei is what differentiates humanity from other animals (which would have once been phrased from animals, implicitly holding humanity in a categorically different place from other animals in creation). All creation is created by God, yet it is only humanity which is explicitly referenced as being created in the image and likeness of God. This leads to a uniqueness, and indeed a form of anthropocentric valorisation when it is premised that God is greater than all creation, yet humanity God created only, “a little lower than God,” (Ps 8:5).[ii]

In addition to the imago Dei becoming central to human identity, it is associated with human dignity.[iii] The infinite God who created having made humanity uniquely in his image, and done so purposefully (Ps 136:5a), is then viewed to have bestowed some of his own inherent majesty and worthiness on humanity in a way which is unique within the created order.

All of this can become a challenge when suddenly the imago Dei itself is used to de-humanize some people. If the imago Dei is rooted in a noetic capacity, as has often been the case,[iv] what happens when confronted with a person who has an intellectual disability? Similarly, what happens when assumptions about inherent noetic inequality based on sex or race are applied to legitimate the mistreatment of some humans? John Kilner argues that this approach shrinks the imago Dei, and that historically this practice has been used to disadvantage those who are no longer viewed to hold the fullness of the imago Dei, particularly those with mental disabilities.[v] This leads to theological reactions and counter-reactions, all of which pose their own problems.

This paper will explore the challenges and limits of traditional disability theology, and the ways in which the imago Dei intersects with the questions of identity and dignity. I will argue for a model of the imago Dei rooted in an ontological and teleological realities which together create a universal understanding of our identity and dignity which apply equally to those who are not disabled as well as those who are severely disabled, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Models of Interpretation

Over recent years, there has been an intersection between the secular field of disability theory and theology into what is, unsurprisingly, termed disability theology. Deborah Creamer defines the theological field as beginning, “with the observation that experiences of impairment (physical, intellectual, psychological, and social) are a significant and relatively unsurprising element of human life, and as such are worthy of theological reflection,” and that, “The first task of any theology of disability is to define the word ‘‘disability’’ itself.”[vi] Her point is well-made, because in a constructive sense you need to understand what you are responding to before being able to respond to it. There are other ways of exploring what it means to hold a Christian identity as someone with a disability, however, and this paper instead proposes to use a more universal perspective rather than focusing exclusively on people who are disabled. In adopting this perspective, it will challenge the limits of the applicability of disability theory to theology.

Disability theory is the lens which underpins the construction of most of disability theology.[vii] The philosophical perspective which underpins disability theory is Marxist, and sees the roots of disability itself as a social construction.[viii] The response of disability theory, then, is one of structural change which improves the condition of the individual. This paradigm is inherently limited in a Christian context where the example of Christ speaks to the reverse. Jesus Christ came to save sinners (I St Tm 1:15a) and his ministry speaks to direct interaction with them, and it is through the transformation of individuals that society will be transformed (St Mt 5:16). John Swinton warns that the danger of rooting disability theology in these secular philosophies is that, “either that we end up with a form of theology that is as exclusive as the theology it is trying to replace or challenge, or we find ourselves lost in a mass of impairment specific God images which may do political work but end up deeply theologically confusing.”[ix]

The adoption of this perspective has therefore created limits on how theologians approach the topics of disability. Ironically, while attempting to recognize the individuality and worthiness of people with disabilities, it takes an approach that focuses on society first and relegates those with disabilities to a secondary class of oppressed people in a manner consistent with the general structuralism of Marxist paradigms. An emphasis on God and the individual may provide a better means for addressing what it means for the identity and dignity of the individual, whether disabled or not. This again links back to the question of what it means to be created in the imago Dei.

There are three general ways in which the imago Dei has been understood. The substantial and relational models have been the most prominent, with the functional model proving to be a third less popular model of understanding. Using Paul Ramsey’s definitions, the substantial is “some faculty man possesses,” while the relational model says that, “nothing within the make-up of man, considered by himself apart from a present responsive relationship to God, has the form or power of being in the image of God.”[x] In the functional model, the imago Dei is related to the commissioning of humanity to have dominion over the rest of creation, seen in Gen 1:28.[xi]

The popularity of these different models of understanding the imago Dei have waxed and waned over time. Some of the most widespread interpretations, as noted, have used the substantial model. From St Augustine to Luther and Calvin, there has been an emphasis on a noetic capacity and a desire to use that capacity to distinguish humanity from other animals.[xii] This model has come under criticism from various perspectives. Molly Haslam, for instance, notes that St Thomas Aquinas’s substantial view sought to identify the imago Dei with the intellect, and thus someone who lacks intellectual capacity also lacks the image of God to some degree.[xiii] This view has been criticized historically due to historic efforts to dis-identify some as being in the imago Dei, whether it be women[xiv] or those who suffer from mental disabilities.[xv]

Another two-fold criticism stems from the fact that the understanding of the imago Dei is also the answer to the question of what it is that makes humans distinct from other animals. Yet as the natural sciences progress, many of the noetic capacities claimed to be the imago Dei and found only in humans have ultimately been observed, to a lesser or greater degree, in some animal species.[xvi] Coming from the opposite direction, other critics have argued against this self-same anthropocentric supremacy that comes from viewing that which distinguishes humanity from other created beings as that which makes humanity better than other human beings.[xvii]

These criticisms as they relate to disability theory have led to a reaction against the substantial models instead supporting a relational model of some type in which the imago Dei reflects in some way our relationship with God,[xviii] and images the Holy Trinity’s own internal perichoretic relationship. Molly Haslam argues that an expansive view of what it means to have relationship with God in symbolic and non-symbolic responsiveness to ensure that those who have mental disabilities remain included in our understanding of what it means to image God.[xix]

This view is not without its own criticisms. First and foremost, is that the Scriptural text itself doesn’t seem to support such a notion. As Fergusson notes, “Even if later Christological texts might nudge us in this direction, there is little warrant in the Hebrew Bible for a Trinitarian reading of Genesis 1.26-27.”[xx] If the Hebrews had no concept of the Trinity, their understanding of the imago Dei could not reflect the trinity. At the very least it suggests there is some other meaning being missed. Furthermore, if it is the actual relationship with God, does that suggest that those who reject relationship with him lose the image of God? What of those who have such a severe disability that they lack any possible means of communication? Does someone who is brain dead lose the imago Dei?

The functional approach has been less popular, possibly because it is also easily criticized within the context of the Biblical text. While there are few references to the imago Dei, it is only in the first references in Genesis 1 in which it is paired with the notion of humanity being given a functional task. Furthermore, the presence of God is never particularly mediated through people, but rather before them. “In this respect, human beings do not have a sacramental significance in the Hebrew Bible, even although they fulfil a divine role in relation to others.”[xxi] While this criticism does not deny that humanity has a role of stewardship given by God over creation, finding the locus of the imago Dei in that commission does not seem consistent with the rest of the text. Even were it consistent, it would not be a satisfying answer in the context of seeking to question how the imago Dei applies to those who have a disability, as many forms of disability could prevent a person from being able to respond to God’s commission.

Biblical Alternatives

All three models of understanding the imago Dei have their drawbacks, both in general and when specifically seeking to consider what the implications are for the dignity and identity of persons with disabilities. Aku Visala points out that the criticism of the substantial model of the imago Dei is weaker than the criticisms of the other models. Just because substantial interpretations of the imago Dei have led to morally reprehensible consequences does not make the basic premise of the model untrue.[xxii] It is entirely possible that those moral results are reflective of errors of application due to the Fall rather than errors in understanding of the imago Dei. Similarly, it is possible for the structural approach to be correct, but the capacities attributed to that structural approach could be incorrect. This speaks again to some of the dangers of basing theology on sociological or natural science approaches, because it forces theologians to defer to current understanding rather than being able to root their theology first and foremost in God’s revelation.[xxiii] In that sense, this exploration of the imago Dei must return to the text itself as well.

David Fergusson notes that, “the image of God is largely absent from the Hebrew Bible outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Its brief appearance in the first creation narrative has resulted in a disproportionate attention,”[xxiv] being given to it. In a Hebrew interpretive context, Claus Westermann has noted that the emphasis in Gen 1:26-28 is on God’s creative acts, and not the nature of humanity.[xxv] This is similarly borne out in the Psalms which reference more about nuances of God’s creatives acts than the details of human nature. This is a statement in and of itself about humanity, however, in that it locates humanity as a unique creation of God. It should further be noted that there is never an indication that because of the Fall, the image has been lost as some theologians such as Martin Luther have contended.[xxvi] Indeed, two of the three references to the image occur post Fall (Gen 5:6, 9:3) and Ps 8:5 refers to its continued presence, while Ps 115:6 refers to the continued vocation of stewardship over creation.

In the New Testament, we are presented with the suggestion that in some way that while the image remains, its fullness is only fulfilled in the incarnate Christ (Col 1:15). This suggests there is room for some diminution of the image,[xxvii] assuming the image referred to in Colossians is the same as that of Genesis.

In trying to make sense of how to interpret these different texts, two of the early fathers provide a key understanding that can help shape a substantive interpretation of the imago Dei in an inclusive sense which integrates these faithful interpretations of the Scriptures within acceptable exegetical parameters. First and foremost is St John Chrysostom who said that, “it is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom.”[xxviii] By this he supports both the doctrine of progressive revelation, that our understanding of the Scriptures changes as God more fully reveals himself, and that there are multiple ‘correct’ meanings to a passage. This argument, for instance, suggests that while the Hebrews must have understood the image differently because they had no concept of the Trinity, a relational model which presupposes the Trinity is viable as an additional understanding. Second, and related to that, St Irenaeus of Lyons was the first of the patristic writers to argue for multiple meanings to the image, suggesting that the image and likeness held distinct meanings.[xxix] Finally, in the Anglican tradition where the early fathers and mothers of the Church do not speak with one voice, it creates exegetical parameters within which there is room for diversity of opinion. Taken all together, it suggests that there is room to look at the texts relating to the imago Dei to develop a more integrated and inclusive understanding.

The Hebrew understanding of the imago Dei as reflecting in some way an aspect of how God created cannot be ignored. It speaks most strongly to a substantial model of the imago in which it is something God placed within humanity as an intentional act of creation. This is most consistent with the texts that clearly suggest that all of humanity, both men and women, are created with the imago Dei, and that it significantly remains in all of humanity after the Fall. This begins to outline an identity and dignity that applies to all of humanity.

What of the New Testament, though, which tells us that Christ is the true image? Summarizing St Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of the imago Dei, Elizabeth Cochran states that, “Our teleological end is the restoration of the imago Dei and of our original created state.”[xxx] The consideration of teleology, the purpose of the creation of humanity, has a helpful way of integrating several of the other aspects of creation. Combine that with St Irenaeus who argued for the separation of image and likeness, and suggested that the likeness was in fact our becoming like Christ through his incarnate example,[xxxi] and it creates a place to hold this understanding of Christ along-side the Old Testament understanding of the image.

The uncreated Son becomes incarnate and the perfector of the imago Dei. Through his incarnation, the likeness takes on a new meaning as we strive to live in the example and will of the redeemer, with this likeness conferred both now, sacramentally, and in the future, eschatologically.

This viewpoint integrates these seemingly contradictory conceptions of the imago Dei in the Old and New Testaments. One was given at creation by the father, through the son, and the second is wholly through the person of the Son. It can be viewed as completing the pattern of the Son’s interaction with humanity. It was bestowed at creation, sacramentally after the incarnation and will be again eschatologically. It is the Advent pattern of Christ’s coming which matches Christ’s bestowing.

Put together, we have a picture of human identity and dignity. The image is the substantial ontological reality which can never be removed and through which dignity is conferred and a form of initial identity is conferred. The likeness is a teleological reality which is rooted in relationship, but which does not follow the relational model, and instead is a more functional approach of seeking relationship in and through Christ, and through which the fullness of our identity is also found.[xxxii]

As for dignity, under this model, even those with complete mental impairment maintain:

an image-based dignity that does not waver, regardless of their ability or potential ability. Christ, God’s image, model’s God’s embrace of disability on the cross and through a resurrected but wounded body. All humanity shares in such woundedness and vulnerability in a variety of forms – physical, mental, moral and spiritual – without losing the dignity of being created in the image of God.[xxxiii]

It is never a question of something we as humans have done, even be it only a decision we have made. Our dignity is God-given and irrevocable. Identity is similar. There is an aspect of our identity which is rooted in the fact that we are created by God, but that is not the whole story. When we become Christians, our identity shifts, as we are told in Scripture, as we are made new and find our identity no longer in our createdness, but in Christ himself, in our likeness and the teleological reality we then find ourselves in.


Who am I? Who am I if I am disabled? What am I worth? These are essential questions to ask as they relate to so many issues affecting western society today. How does the Church respond theologically to questions ranging from capital punishment to euthanasia to the treatment of the disabled?

This paper has presented an understanding of the imago Dei which seeks to integrate patristic understanding with modern exegetical frameworks. The image is viewed as an ontological reality through the substantial model which confers both inherent dignity and the beginnings of identity, while the likeness is viewed through a functional model as a teleological reality that speaks to our function, not primarily in the sense of stewards of creation, but in restoring ourselves to full and right relationship with the Father, as Christ has shown us.

Traditional disability theology frames questions of identity and dignity in the lens of disability theory, which creates a worldview which can lead to challenging conclusions. As we ask these questions particularly relating to how we are to protect the disabled who have traditionally been marginalized in society, this interpretation affirms a oneness of all humanity in a way that need not segregate people based on their own self-identity, but rather reminds them that in the imago Dei, we are united in both dignity and identity.


[i] Richard J. Mouw, “The imago Dei and philosophical anthropology,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41, no. 3 (2012): 255.

[ii] William A. Dyrness, “The imago dei and Christian aesthetics,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 15, no. 3 (1972): 162.

[iii] Dyrness, “The imago dei and Christian aesthetics,” 169.

[iv] Aku Visala, “Imago Dei, dualism, and evolution: a philosophical defense of the structural image of God,” Zygon 49, no. 1 (2014): 102.

[v][v] John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 18f.

[vi] Deborah Beth Creamer, “Disability theology,” Religion Compass 6, no. 7 (2012): 339.

[vii] John Swinton, “Who is the God we worship?: Theologies of disability: challenges and new possibilities,” International Journal Of Practical Theology 14, no. 2 (2010): 274.

[viii] Swinton, 278.

[ix] Swinton, 285.

[x] Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (New York, NY: Scribners, 1950), 250, 254 cited in Daniel K. Miller, “Responsible relationship: imago Dei and the moral distinction between humans and other animals,” International Journal Of Systematic Theology 13, no. 3 (July 2011): 325.

[xi] Olli-Pekka Vainio, “Imago Dei and human rationality,” Zygon 49, no. 1 (2014): 121.

[xii] Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 109f.

[xiii] Molly Haslam, “Imago Dei as Rationality or Relationality: History and Construction,” in A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2012), 95-97.

[xiv] David Fergusson, “Humans created according to the imago dei: an alternative proposal,” Zygon 48, no. 2 (2013): 443.

[xv] Haslam, “Imago Dei as Rationality or Relationality,” 104.

[xvi] Miller, “Responsible relationship,” 325.

[xvii] Haslam, “Imago Dei as Rationality or Relationality,” 94.

[xviii] Miller, “Responsible relationship,” 324f.

[xix] Hasalm, “Imago Dei as Rationality or Relationality,” 105.

[xx] Fergusson, “Humans created according to the imago dei,” 443.

[xxi] Fergusson, “Humans created according to the imago dei,” 445.

[xxii] Visala, “Imago Dei, dualism, and evolution,” 110.

[xxiii] Miller, “Responsible relationship,” 330.

[xxiv] Fergusson, “Humans created according to the imago dei,” 442.

[xxv] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion S.J. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 155.

[xxvi] Dyrness, “The imago dei and Christian aesthetics,” 163.

[xxvii] Dyrness, “The imago dei and Christian aesthetics,” 164f.

[xxviii] John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Acts of the Apostles,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. Walker et al., vol. 11, (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 117.

[xxix] Irenæus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 544.

[xxx] Elizabeth Agnew Cochran, “The ‘imago dei’ and human perfection: the significance of christology for Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of the human person,” Heythrop Journal 50, no. 3 (2009): 403.

[xxxi] Irenæus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” 544.

[xxxii] Dyrness, “The imago dei and Christian aesthetics,” 171.

[xxxiii] Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 320.


Cochran, Elizabeth Agnew. “The ‘imago dei’ and human perfection: the significance of christology for Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of the human person.” Heythrop Journal 50, no. 3 (2009): 402-415.

Creamer, Deborah Beth. “Disability theology.” Religion Compass 6, no. 7 (2012): 339-346.

Dyrness, William A. “The imago dei and Christian aesthetics.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 15, no. 3 (1972): 161-172.

Fergusson, David. “Humans created according to the imago dei: an alternative proposal.” Zygon 48, no. 2 (2013): 439-453.

Haslam, Molly. “Imago Dei as Rationality or Relationality: History and Construction.” In A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability, 92-116. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2012.

Irenæus of Lyons. “Irenæus against Heresies.” In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Vol. 1. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

John Chrysostom. “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Acts of the Apostles.” In Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, edited by Philip Schaff, translated by J. Walker et al. Vol. 11. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889.

Kilner, John F. Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

Miller, Daniel K. “Responsible relationship: imago Dei and the moral distinction between humans and other animals.” International Journal Of Systematic Theology 13, no. 3 (July 2011): 323-339.

Mouw, Richard J. “The imago Dei and philosophical anthropology.” Christian Scholar’s Review 41, no. 3 (2012): 253-266.

Swinton, John. “Who is the God we worship?: Theologies of disability: challenges and new possibilities.” International Journal Of Practical Theology 14, no. 2 (2010): 273-307.

Vainio, Olli-Pekka. “Imago Dei and human rationality.” Zygon 49, no. 1 (2014): 121-134.

Visala, Aku. “Imago Dei, dualism, and evolution: a philosophical defense of the structural image of God.” Zygon 49, no. 1 (2014): 101-120.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion S.J. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.

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