Can Shared Intentionality Theory Help Bridge the Gap between Relational and Structural Views of the Image of God?

Daniel W. Houck
Saturday 5 June 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

In a debate with John Lennox, Christopher Hitchens posed a memorable objection to the doctrine of the image of God.[1] “We are only ourselves half a chromosome away from being chimpanzees. The one thing this is impossible to square with is the idea of us being made in the image of God” (Hitchens 2017). In other words, since genomic studies have established that we share approximately 98.6% of our DNA with chimpanzees, we know that human beings have not been created with any utterly unique traits. Traits that are distinctive to us—complex language, for example, or algebraic reasoning—have evolved on a continuum, and exist in different degrees in our animal cousins. Yet the doctrine of the image of God is that we’ve been uniquely given intellect or reason, making us “a little lower than God” (Ps. 8:5, NRSV). In sum, then, Hitchens’s objection is that evolution has undermined human uniqueness, and with it the image of God. Though genetic evidence arguably lends it powerful weight, the core of his objection has existed since the nineteenth century and has profoundly influenced Christian theology (Bavinck 1999, 147).

It led some theologians to deny or downplay the doctrine of the image of God. It led others to deny evolutionary theory on the basis that it would lead to the denial of the doctrine. Perhaps the most common strategy, however—at least in scholarly theology—has been to concede (at least implicitly) the point that evolution undermines human uniqueness from a natural or biological standpoint, but to argue that the doctrine doesn’t require that sort of uniqueness. Karl Barth, for example, influentially proposed that the image of God is not a human capacity at all, but is rather the “I-Thou” relation between man and woman (on which more below). Others have drawn on Old Testament scholarship to argue that the image is a God-given “function,” such as exercising dominion over creation. For over a century, then, theologians have tended to agree with the key premise of Hitchens’s argument: the theory of evolution undermines human uniqueness. Surprisingly, however, cutting-edge evolutionary theory is now calling that assumption into question.

In the same year that Hitchens debated Lennox, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, was in the midst of a research program that had begun in 1998 and would culminate in the monograph Becoming Human (Tomasello 2019, ix). Far from holding that Darwin had threatened human uniqueness, Tomasello maintains that he deepened the questions surrounding it. We still rightly want to understand what makes humans different from other animals, but “[s]ince Darwin, the additional question has been how they became different” (Tomasello 2019, 297). Tomasello’s ambitious research program has homed in on both questions: what makes us different from our closest non-human relatives, the great apes? And how did these differences evolve? In order to answer these questions, his lab sought to execute rigorous comparative studies of human and great ape ontogenies. A crucial finding of these experiments, Tomasello argues, is that only humans are able to form “shared intentions.” Roughly, a shared intention involves (at least) two agents seeing an object together, while recognizing each other as agents who recognize each other. This ability, as Tomasello argues at length in Becoming Human, underlies the possibility of genuine cooperation, advanced communication, and cultural transmission. On Tomasello’s “shared intentionality theory,” therefore, evolution, far from undermining human uniqueness, explains it. At least in part. As such, it refutes the key premise of Hitchens’s aforementioned objection, which also underlies a great deal of modern reflection on the imago. We are closely related to the great apes, to be sure, but at some point in our lineage a unique cognitive capacity emerged: the ability to form shared intentions. This ability does not exist on a continuum; it is not found in non-human animals. What implications might this have for theology?

Because Tomasello’s work is new, theologians have only recently begun to engage it. It has potential implications for a number of loci in systematic and philosophical theology (see Breul 2019 for a discussion of Tomasello and the mind-body problem, inter alia). This puzzle focuses on its implications for the doctrine of the image of God. There are two kinds of theories of the image of God that might benefit from engagement with shared intentionality theory.

Prima facie, it seems that shared intentionality theory could be resourced by theologians interested in retrieving the traditional “structural” view of the image of God, on which the image is somehow identified with rationality. This is because shared intentionality is a cognitive ability. It would be premature, however, to claim that shared intentionality theory simply vindicates the traditional view. For one thing, generally speaking, the traditional concept of reason is that of an individual power (for example, one’s ability to grasp a universal concept such as “justice”), whereas shared intentionality is essentially communal. The relation between traditional accounts of reason and shared intentionality theory would need to be explored, if this path were to be pursued in any depth.

It also seems that shared intentionality theory could be resourced by theologians interested in fine-tuning a “relational” view of the image. This is because sharing an intention requires a relation between at least two agents. Again, however, it would be premature to declare that the relational view has simply been vindicated by shared intentionality theory. The relational view in modern theology was forged in opposition to the structural view, whereas shared intentionality is an evolved “natural” or “structural” capacity. The connections—or contradictions—between modern accounts of relationality and shared intentionality theory would need to be explored, if this path were to be pursued in any depth.

Finally, it seems that shared intentionality theory might help bridge the gap between structural and relational theories. Might it, for example, enable an account of rationality that includes relationality? My goal here is to explore that question. To that end, this puzzle forwards the following hypothesis: Michael Tomasello’s “shared intentionality theory” can be resourced to bring together salient elements of the structural and relational accounts of the image of God, ultimately contributing to a fusion of these accounts in a new theory of the doctrine. 

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Imago Dei

This puzzle focuses on the doctrine of the image of God. Although the Bible teaches that humans have been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–28), there is arguably no definition of the image of God in the Bible, and as a result the meaning of the doctrine has been—and still is—debated. Probably the most common view of the image, historically, is that it consists in reason or intellect (for a prominent example, see Aquinas 1920, I, q. 93, a. 6). As God is supremely rational, human beings “image” God by virtue of having a rational nature. The image survives the Fall, because all humans have a rational nature (though not necessarily the ability to exercise reason). An alternative view attributed to Luther identifies the image with original righteousness; as such, the image is forfeited with the Fall (Cairns 1953, 121–7). By the nineteenth century, however, both of these accounts—and in some cases, the doctrine of the image of God itself—began to be criticized.

Schleiermacher, for example, argued that the creation account in Genesis need not be regarded as historical, and he accordingly reinterpreted the doctrine of original justice “teleologically,” that is, with reference to the purpose of God-consciousness. Relatedly, he admitted that the doctrine of the image of God may not be compatible with his account of creation (Schleiermacher 2011, 252). Karl Barth offered an influential retrieval of the doctrine. The image consists in an “I-Thou” encounter that exists in eternity between the Father and the Son, and which God has graciously given the human, paradigmatically in the encounter between man and woman. Yet this encounter is not a natural or biological capacity (Barth 2009, 185). Accounts denying that the imago is a capacity and affirming that it is a relation or set of relations are common in contemporary theology (Grenz 2001, McFarland 2005). Old Testament scholarship, meanwhile, has begun to converge on the “functional” view that the image should be identified with representing God; as God rules, human beings are called to rule (Middleton 2005). Theologians have drawn on the scholarship underlying the functional view, sometimes in conjunction with Barth (Cortez 2018). There have been attempts to combine at least two of the foregoing views (Hoekema 1994). We might call these “complex accounts,” for lack of a better term. It is worth noting that the structural view still has defenders (see e.g. Visala 2018, which argues from the basis of dualism, and Vainio 2014, which engages neuroscience). Are any of these accounts—either the traditional account or one of the modern modifications of the doctrine—adequate?

This puzzle concurs with a recent article on the doctrine to the effect that “the imago Dei problem has not quite been solved yet” (Harris 2018, 59). In that regard it may be worth mentioning some objections that have been raised to views currently on the market. Against the view that the image lies in the individual’s reason, it may be objected that it is individualistic, and that non-human animals also engage in apparently “rational” behavior. The view that the image is original justice is problematic not only because the doctrine of original justice itself has been called into question, but also because, in any case, it suggests that the image has been lost, just as original justice has been. Against the denial of the importance of the doctrine, it may be objected that it is clearly witnessed to at critical junctures of the Old and New Testaments. And while we may applaud Barth’s retrieval of the doctrine from desuetude, his claim that uniquely human relationality has no basis in nature or biology has been falsified by evolutionary theory. Functional accounts, while enriching our grasp of the historical context of Genesis, are an insufficient explanation of the doctrine as a whole. They don’t explain the basis of humanity’s representation of God’s rule. Moreover and relatedly, it is not clear that they can be connected to the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology unless they are synthesized with structural or relational accounts. Finally, “complex” accounts have a gerrymandered feel about them. This puzzle shares the intuition that there are elements of truth in the structural, relational, and functional accounts. It is not enough, however, simply to affirm that humanity, like God, has reason, love, dominion, and so on. What is needed is an explanation of why each element is important (exegetically, theologically, and if possible scientifically) and how the elements relate to each other.

This puzzle does not attempt to solve all the problems of the doctrine; the goal is rather, as mentioned above, to start building bridges between the relational and structural theories, or even (to switch metaphors) fuse them. To that end, we will leave more in-depth discussion of the functional theory to another time, and turn to salient literature in developmental and comparative psychology.

2.2 Developmental and Comparative Psychology

Astonishing commonalities between humans and great apes were discovered in the twentieth century. Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees use tools, to cite a famous example. (Over twenty-five million Americans viewed the 1965 CBS documentary Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees (Gerber 2017), (Goodall 1986)). This led Louis Leakey to remark, “[n]ow we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human” (Surujnarain 2019). Though few, if any, would accept chimpanzees as human, many have opted to redefine—or not define—the human being, questioning whether a sharp demarcation between humans and great apes is possible. Since the sixties, other studies have indicated that great apes use language, have intentions, engage in social learning, and as mentioned above, share the vast majority of their DNA with humans. The emphasis in the twentieth century, in a word, has been on the commonalities between great apes and humans. Yet the pendulum may be swinging back the other way. Without denying the commonalities between great apes and humans, a number of prominent scientists are arguing that research shows equally astonishing individualities, or distinctives. This puzzle focuses on developmental and comparative psychology, specifically the ontogeny (the development from embryo to adulthood) of humans and their closest living relatives, great apes. As mentioned above, I will draw on the work of Michael Tomasello and his lab.

A brief discussion of “shared intentionality,” a key concept in Tomasello’s research program, is in order. This terminus technicus does not simply refer to the ability to imagine another’s perspective, “to put oneself in another’s shoes.” It must be distinguished, in other words, from “individual intentionality,” which is, roughly, the ability to imagine another agent’s perspective. Consider the following:

a dominant and subordinate chimpanzee compete for food in novel situations in which one piece of food was out in the open and one piece of food was on the subordinate’s side of a barrier where only she could see it. When their door was opened (slightly before the dominant’s), the subordinates chose to pursue the food on their side of the barrier only; they knew that the dominant could not see this food (whereas he could see the food out in the open) (Tomasello 2019, 48; citing Hare et al. 2000).

This indicates that one chimp could imagine that another could see her food, anticipate that other chimp taking it from her, and adjust her behavior accordingly. Her ability to anticipate the other chimp’s behavior is an example of “individual intentionality,” the ability to recognize objects and agents in the world and plan one’s behavior accordingly. By virtue of individual intentionality, “chimpanzees know that others see things, hear things, know things, and make inferences about things” (Tomasello 2019, 49). Shared intentionality goes further.

Human infants not only understand others as intentional agents, as great apes do, their recognition is recursively structured. They can recognize another agent’s attention to themselves, and thereby form “joint intentions” with that agent. Joint attention is “triadic,” involving two agents and the object of their experience. For example, an infant can show an object to an adult by pointing it out, understanding not only that the adult can see the object, but that the adult can see that the infant is seeing the object (Tomasello 2019, 56). Great apes do not, and arguably cannot, point at objects for others to look at along with them. They cannot form shared intentions.

Tomasello argues that shared intentionality has massive significance: unique to humans, it is the basis for our ability to form “cultural common ground” with others, as well as the closely related ability to pass on culture through the generations. For present purposes, however, we will focus only on the core “shared intentionality” concept.

3. Discussion

Any theory of the image of God must have an account of both God and that by virtue of which creatures are said to “image” God. I begin by sketching a few salient assumptions about God and then move toward a constructive account of the image. This puzzle presupposes a Trinitarian view of God. God is a Trinity of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is fully God, and together they are the one God. Because each person is fully God, each person has full knowledge of the other persons. The Father knows the Son from all eternity, and the Son knows the Father. Moreover, the Father knows the Son as a person who knows the Father. The Son, likewise, knows the Father as a person who knows the Son. As they know each other, they breathe forth the Holy Spirit in love. The Father and the Son know the Spirit as a person who knows the Father and the Son, and the Spirit knows that the Father and the Son know the Spirit.

On shared intentionality theory, human persons can understand each other’s understandings of each other, such that a given person can understand another person as one who understands herself. As a result, human persons can intend an object together, that is, share an intention of it. Human persons are the only animals capable of forming shared intentions. The Father and Son’s shared knowledge of the Spirit can also be called a “shared intention,” given that, as stipulated above, the Father knows the Son as a person (and vice versa) in their spiration of the Spirit, whom they know or “intend” together. The term “shared intention” is predicated analogously of human and divine persons; there are crucial differences. Divine persons, for example, have an immediate awareness of each other that human persons do not and indeed cannot have. The key similarity is that divine persons and human persons can intend an object recursively.

Given that the doctrine of the image of God concerns human uniqueness (which this puzzle assumes), it is proposed that the image of God consists—on a basic level—in human nature’s capacity for shared intentions.[2] As the Father knows the Son as one who knows himself and vice versa, and in that knowledge, both know another (the Spirit), so too one human person knows another as one who knows herself, and in that knowledge intend an object together. Human shared intentionality is thus an image of divine shared intentionality.

It falls short of the divine archetype, to be sure; for one thing, the unity of human persons’ intentions falls far short of the unity of divine persons. That the image falls short of the imaged should not surprise, or be taken in itself as an objection to the theory’s orthodoxy or even plausibility; any account of the image will involve an analogical “gap” between image and imaged. Take for example the Augustinian psychological analogy, on which the human’s formation of a concept is analogous to the Father’s generation of the Son, because human concept formation is immaterial, just as the Son’s generation is. This analogy falls short because the human concept is non-subsistent, whereas the Son is a divine person. Yet this does not negate the usefulness of the analogy; the Augustinian rejoinder is that we shouldn’t expect a completely “univocal” relation between the image and imaged. Instead, we should benefit from the glimpse of God we get from the image, without pressing it too far. The same could be said for the shared intentionality analogy.

This proposal is both “structural” and “relational.” It is structural, because, pace Barth, uniquely human intentions and relationships are grounded in the natural, evolved structures of human existence. Yet it is also relational, because the key cognitive distinction of shared intentionality just is the ability to enjoy a certain kind of relationship with other persons. The structural element of the theory helps it avoid the apparent groundlessness of previous relational accounts. Its relational element arguably helps it avoid the weaknesses of traditional structural accounts: it is not individualistic, and it identifies clearly where the difference between human and non-human animal abilities lies.

The structural and relational aspects of the theory are naturally integrated, not arbitrarily jumbled together. Because the structural and relational views developed separately, I used the metaphor of “bridging the gap” between them to describe what this puzzle is doing. Yet that imagery is limited, because on this proposal, the dichotomous standing of the structural and relational accounts is itself challenged: its relational elements are structural, and vice versa. It could thus alternatively be described as a “hybrid” model; rather than uniting two different things that each remain distinct, this proposal hybridizes them such that they are formally united.

Future research could proceed along multiple lines; here are a few possibilities. How should the shared intentionality view of the image proposed here assimilate (or reject) the specifics of previous relational accounts, such as Barth’s? Could the bridge that has been built between the structural and relational theories be extended further to the functional theory? Relatedly, how should the view developed here relate to recent work on the “ecclesial self,” (Grenz 2001), which focuses on the body of Christ as the chief locus of the image (McFarland 2005)?

4. Conclusion

Although theologians have tended to assume that evolutionary theory undermines human uniqueness and with it the structural view of the image of God, shared intentionality theory holds that humans have evolved the ability to recursively cognize the intentions of others, such that they can share experiences of the world. This puzzle asked whether shared intentionality theory can offer resources to bring together the “relational” and “structural” views of the image of God. The hypothesis presented here is that it can. Human shared intentionality is an evolved, natural ability of human beings, part of the “structure” of human existence; it is also by its very nature “relational.” As human persons share intentions with each other, so too divine persons share, in a richer way, their knowledge of each other.


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[1] I would like to thank Mikael Leidenhag, the editorial committee, and Brendan Case for helpful feedback on this puzzle at various stages of its development.

[2] I say “on a basic level” because I do not want to rule out other aspects of the image, such as the “functional” view. It may be, for example, that we image the Trinity in our shared intentions, and image the Trinity’s providence through stewardship. I say the “capacity for shared intentions,” because I assume that the image is present in infants prior to their actualization of shared intentions; and it is likewise present in humans who for whatever reason are incapable of actualizing shared intentions.

Cite this article

Houck, Daniel W. 2021. “Can Shared Intentionality Theory Help Bridge the Gap between Relational and Structural Views of the Image of God?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 2).

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Daniel W. Houck
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