We hear much today about the destructiveness of individualism. It know doubt is a significant cultural issue. But only in the recent past has such excessive focus on the individual emerged. Throughout most of human history around the world, individual human beings were considered subordinate to society or the rulers. An individual’s existence and liberty were maintained largely at the pleasure of the societal elite. Elaborate religious and cultural customs often emerged that offered some protection for individuals, but the idea of all human beings being of equal status in some ontological sense was foreign to ancient cultures. Thus, even though the Greeks experimented with democracy for powerful Greek men, Greek philosophers also tendered instruction on how these men should manage and pacify their wives, slaves, and other social inferiors.
Judiasm offered the unique concept of bearing God’s image. Ancient Near East kings erected images (eikons) throughout their territory to symbolize their authority throughout the region. No doubt the first chapters of Genesis were calling this idea to mind when the first humans were called “images of God,” told to fill the earth, and to exercise dominion. They would be God’s junior partners showing forth God’s authority throughout the world. Unlike wooden or stone eikons, these living eikons would share the faculties of reason and creativity. As God’s eikons, each individual human being has intrinsic value.
Extending from this “image of God” idea is the notion of human rights. While we often have a hard time defining precisely what we mean by human rights, we do have the belief that people should not be deprived of freedom or killed arbitrarily. We can also say that the ideas of “image bearing” and of stewardship are interwoven into the mindset that gave rise to the Western world and its economic institutions. We are steward-owners who have a sense of responsibility to those who, for whatever reason, are in need of basic necessities. People have great intrinsic value and should be treated as such. In an era of hyper-individualism, it is hard to appreciate just how profoundly exceptional this valuing of individuals is in human history.
We also see the impact of this “image of God” thinking on property rights. The Old Testament code lifted up the private ownership of property not as a tool that serves the best interests of the state but as the rightly ordered state of affairs established by God. Considerable portions the Old Testament law is devoted to managing property disputes and the Leviticus 25 jubilee provisions were to ensure that not one would become permanently alienated from the land God had entrusted to them.
God calls us individually and corporately to be stewards of the created world. Property is to be held and used in trust for God not the state. Since our personal survival depends on our ability to create and manage resources for our own well-being, economic freedom is closely tied to personal and political freedom. Therefore, while ownership is not absolute, neither is it to be arbitrarily violated by the state or other powerful people. Property ownership is intrinsic to the mission of being an eikon of God in the world. That some Enlightenment and Modernist philosophies have sought to make property rights paramount because of their indispensable role in pursing personal autonomy doesn’t alter the origin of this elevation property rights.
Property rights and human rights as we know them could not have emerged without the idea of humanity in the image of God. Some will argue that the Enlightenment had a more significant impact on these concepts but the Enlightenment itself was inextricably connected to understandings of human nature from Judeo-Christian thought. While the concept of human rights has now become a global feature there are still many cultures that are resistant to Western notions of human rights that played such a key role in the rise of Western prosperity.