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12th Comenius Conference: Imago Dei

22-25 April 2020 at Pápai Református Teológiai Akadémia, Hungary. 

In a time when 3D printers can reproduce damaged bone-structures and when genetic modification and gender transformation allow for altering the given human body, it is time to reflect on the theological question what it means to be human. Are we just biological beings, not substantially different than other living beings? Or are we created in the image of God, having a special value and dignity over all creatures? Is Christian anthropological thinking outdated in our days of enormous technological and societal change? Or does it counterbalance human self-indulgence, having a pressing urgency and relevance? The 2020 Comenius conference in the beautiful city of Pápa, Hungary (April 22–25) discusses the issue under the notion of Imago Dei.

The testimony of Gen 1:27: “God created man in his own image” has a variety of theological meanings and implications. The special place of humankind in creation is often recognized in the ability of (abstract) thinking, speaking, creativity. This raises philosophical and ethical questions. Can rationality define humans and set them apart from other creatures? What does this mean for the appreciation of mentally handicapped people? Can such an understanding of human superiority be maintained in face of contemporary developments towards the post-human (cyberanthropology), genetic manipulation, and animal philosophy?

Christian anthropology

Many systematic theological issues are involved. Gen 1:27b (“male and female he created them”) implies that humankind is created for communion. To be human means to be a personal being in a communion of love. How does such an anthropology relate to the Christian understanding of the Trinity, a fundamentally relational notion? Is creation primarily receptive of divine grace or also responsible for Imitation of Christ? What are the consequences regarding globalization, national identity, gender, environment, consumerism?

This involves practical-theological issues as well. Humankind is not only created by the Word of God but also for the Word of God. To be able to respond to God entails accountability. The command “Be fruitful and multiply, … and have dominion…” (Gen 1:28) does not mean that humankind is the ruler of the world, only the representation of God’s rule on earth? How can we communicate the rule of God, or the responsibility and accountability of humankind concerning the creation toward the Creator and the people of modern ages? Or, from a different angle, what are the implications of Christian anthropology for the sub-disciplines of practical theology, such as diaconal studies, pastoral care, homiletics, religious education etc.?

Sin and the Fall

The notion of Imago Dei has a larger biblical context, raising numerous questions. How, for instance, does it relate to the Fall? How could this happen, when Adam and Eve were supposed to be like God? How should we understand sin; and how does this relate to the likeness of God? Do we need a theory of creation to understand this matter, or is the atonement fundamental for our understanding of the Imago Dei?

Not only Old Testament, but also New Testament exegetical questions are involved. Is a spiritual interpretation of imago dei supported by Jesus’s definition of God (“God is spirit”, John 4:24)? How is Christ the image of God as a perfect reflection of the glory of God? What does Paul teach about the new creation and new nature in connection with the image of God? In what way does our Christology influence our understanding of humanity?

Thinking about Christian anthropology obviously has a long history. Perhaps doing theology is thinking about the relation between God and humanity, and important developments in the history of Christianity are connected to anthropological considerations. Both in its own right, and in order to understand the otherness of our own times, historical questions are called for. For instance: Why did the patristic fathers distinguish between the image and the likeness of God? Why has this distinction disappeared in Catholicism and Protestantism, and is the motive for the distinction compensated for by other solutions? In what sense was the Reformation connected to the awakening self-awareness of the modern subject? How were anthropological notions historically connected to ideas about (nationalistic) superiority?

Theological discours 

The Comenius conference aims at discussing theological issues concerning contemporary challenges. As an international conference, it profits from different historical and cultural backgrounds of the participants. Selected contributions will be published in the Beihefte zur Ökumenischen Rundschau, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig.

Comenius Committee
Pápai Református Teológiai Akadémia