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One of the reasons I was encouraged to write The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo was because a specific and detailed examination of how the image of God may be reflected in the embryo seemed to be missing from the accumulated heritage of Christian study.[1]

A lot had been written, previously, concerning the moral status of the human embryo. Over the past centuries, even more had been published concerning the image of God in humankind. Surprisingly, however, the combination of these two themes had not resulted in any significant volume of literature. From a theological perspective, this was interesting since any discussion relating to the moral status of human embryos cannot be dissociated from a consideration of the image of God that gives true value and meaning to all persons. In this regard, the Church of England ethicist Brendan McCarthy indicates:

This concept of the dignity and status of humans being fundamentally determined by the image of God is an important one in our attempt to evaluate the human embryo. If it can be demonstrated that the image is to be found in the human embryo, then any destruction of it or experimentation on it ought to be opposed.[2]

There is, therefore, a real need for clear understanding about the manner in which entirely human, and partially human, embryos may be considered as reflecting the image of God. This is especially the case when new utilitarian demands relating to the “special moral status” of the human embryo are continually putting pressure on this status to be reconsidered and questioned.

For example, in 1984, Lady Mary Warnock (one of the main architects of the UK embryology legislation) commented, in her report that led to the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, that the embryo “ought to have a special status”[3] under UK law. Later, in December 2002, her position had changed significantly, indicating instead:

I regret that in the original report that led up to the 1990 legislation we used words such as ‘respect for the embryo’ . . . I think that what we meant by the rather foolish expression ‘respect’ was that the early embryo should never be used frivolously for research purposes.[4]

She added, “you cannot respectfully pour something down the sink—which is the fate of the embryo after it has been used for research, or if it is not going to be used for research or for anything else.”[5]

This example demonstrates how an entity, which was understood as having a special status in the 1980s, is no longer considered to have such a status and, in fact, is seen to have lost all moral status. From this perspective, it is apparently only the biomedical research (and not the embryo) that should now be respected in the UK.

So how can the image of God be seen to be reflected in a very small human being who does not even have a brain or any developed organs?

To begin with, it must be recognized that the topic of the image of God being reflected in the human embryo and its associated moral status will inevitably be sensitive and controversial, including amongst the Christian theological community. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons why it has been somewhat put aside or even avoided. It may even be suggested that, because of the discomfort associated with any appropriate discussions relating to the moral status of embryos, this subject matter may have become somewhat taboo, including in local church situations.

This may have happened in order to show appropriate compassion and sensitivity towards those affected by the very difficult experiences of infertility, miscarriage, and abortion, with all the significant suffering generally associated with such occurrences. But, this may also mean that many parishioners are being singularly deprived of any Christian guidance about how to consider and regard the human embryo, a situation which may have been compounded by pastors themselves feeling (1) unqualified from a theological and scientific perspective to address such a subject, or (2) unprepared to speak to their congregations on a deeply moral issue out of an understandable fear of causing deep upset to, or even alienating, some church members. Regrettably, this silence may at the same time have led many Christians to resemble the Israelites in the time of the Judges where “everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 17:6, NIV).

John Kilner argues that the silence and inaction of most churches in this arena is distressing.[6] Similarly, Charles Colson and Nigel Cameron expressed concern that our churches are “sleeping through another moral catastrophe” for which they “are ill-prepared.”[7]

Thus, there was a need for a thoughtful new study to be presented based on serious theological analysis and the very rich arguments from different Christian denominations on the concept of the image of God in the embryo. It was in this context that The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo was written, with the intention to produce a resource that could be used by all the different stakeholders in helping this important conversation move forward in a constructive manner while being informed by the latest scientific results.

The work begins with the recognition that the image of God can only be better defined but never completely understood since it reflects something of the mystery of God. From this perspective, however, it is possible to examine prevalent arguments about the nature of the image of God or more specifically what it means for humans to be created in the image of God.

The main discussion then gets underway by exploring substantive aspects and the way the image of God may be reflected in Homo sapiens from the standpoint of physical human nature or substance. Functional aspects and the capacity of human beings to do or be are examined in the next chapter, followed by a survey of the relational aspects and the way these enable loving relationships to exist giving value and meaning.

Throughout I explore how the image of God and the associated notion of personhood might be applied to the arguments concerning the moral status of the embryo. But these perspectives are shown to be insufficient, on their own, to adequately discuss whether the image of God can be recognised in human embryos.

To address this problem, it was important to investigate two relatively new angles in relation to the embryo: the creation of humankind by God (which I examine in chapter 4) and the incarnation of the Word of God (chapter 5), and how both inform the image of God and personhood. As such, I argue that these could be far more useful and relevant when seeking to discuss and understand the true value and worth of human embryos.

Of course, it will never be possible to scientifically prove that the image of God is reflected in the human embryo. Indeed, it is only because of the Christian faith in God that a belief in the image of God in persons is possible which then enables a belief in the image of God in embryonic persons.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that deliberately destroying an embryo with its mysterious image of God is no unimportant matter. This is because, as Kilner explains: “Destroying someone in God’s image, in light of God’s connection with humanity, is tantamount to attacking God personally.”[8]

The deep commitment of love that God has given through creating humanity in his image, might suggest that he has opened himself up to a kind of vulnerability with this image.[9] This may be one of the reasons why this image has come under so much attack in both history and modern society.

In 2012 Lord Alton (a member of the UK House of Lords) indicated that the destruction of human embryos—human persons made in the image of God—had reached an “industrial” scale in “casual indifference.”[10] If human embryos may be considered to reflect the image of God, as I suggest in this book, and they are deliberately being destroyed by society, then this may be just another front of the war against God in the context of his creation. But, it is also a front in which Christians should engage with God’s help, love, compassion, and wisdom.

This means the worldwide Christian church should be profoundly challenged by the millions of human embryos that are being destroyed without the expression of any significant protest or compassion. In this respect, it should be remembered that one of the moral measures of the Christian church is how it considers the smallest, weakest and most helpless individuals with the most vulnerable claims of personhood reflecting the image of God.


[1] Portions of this essay have been adapted from the "Preface" of Calum MacKellar, The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo (London: SCM Press, 2017), vii–xi.

[2] Brendan McCarthy, Fertility & Faith (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 126-127.

[3] Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1984), 63.

[4] House of Lords Hansard, Volume 641 Part 14, Column 1327, 5 December 2002.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 327.

[7] Charles Colson and Nigel Cameron, eds., Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 20-21.

[8] Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 319.

[9] William Channing, “Spiritual Freedom,” in, The Works of William E. Channing, vol. 4, (Boston, MA: James Monroe, 1841), 76, referenced in Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 117.

[10] Andrew Hough, “1.7 Million Human Embryos Created for IVF Thrown Away,” The Telegraph, December 31, 2012, (accessed June 30, 2017).