Disambiguating Equality: Ontological Value
Criticisms of the idea that “All men are created equal” are as old as is democracy. Plato, for instance, famously taught all men are not equal, associating certain classes of men with corresponding metals of more or less value. Some millennia later, Nietzsche would go on to vehemently rail against any notion of the universal equality of humankind. Darwinian evolutionary theory lent support to this rejection of the concept of universal equality, stopping just shy of explicitly identifying some groups of people as less than human.
In our own day, criticisms raised against the idea of universal equality stir beneath the surface of democratic American interaction. Whether these criticisms are overtly racist or overtly classist, or covertly either one or both, they are present. Not many of the critics, however, clarify what they mean when they deny that “All men are created equal.” To what does equality have reference? If the word has reference to one’s station in life at birth, one’s intrinsic mental and physical abilities and limitations, one’s attractivity or one’s height, then it is true that not all men are created equal. Regarding these accidental properties of being human, not all men are created equal. If taken this way, in fact, no men are created equal. But does universal equality have reference to the accidental properties of man? The obvious answer is no; universal equality, by virtue of its universality, must have reference to what is essential to all men. What makes all men equal, therefore, is what is common to all men.
Men are equal, therefore, because they all share the essential properties of being human. Further questions regarding the inequality of all men, consequently, fall into the category of accidental properties and can be dismissed as serious objections to the universal equality of man. If one, following Darwinian evolution’s lead, denies an essential human nature, denying that being human consists in necessarily bearing certain essential properties, then the situation changes. In that case, accidental properties are all that remain. This removes the idea of universal equality, but it also removes the idea of differences between humans, seeing as humans would have no universally predicable essential properties. At best, there would be an ideal concept of “human” to which no human person would correspond, though all sub-humans (?) or pre-humans (?) would strive toward that goal.By necessity, therefore, we are all created equal.
Disambiguating Inequality: Utility Value
Given what has been established above, what differentiates one person from another is necessarily accidental. Within the context of a social order there may be distinctions of individual value, nevertheless, in light of the demands of that given societal context. Some men are more highly valued because their services, gifts, training, etc are more readily in demand. The value of individuals in a given societal context is determined by their ability to contribute to or hinder that society’s achievement of certain goals (be they academic, economic, or political). Oftentimes, the utility value of individuals and their accidental properties are confused with their (that is the individual’s’) ontological value. Debates about abortion and euthanasia, for instance, seem to confuse utility value and ontological value. The inutility of a person in these instances is interpreted as diminished ontological value; whereas the utility value of the person in favor of killing either the unborn infant or the incapacitated elderly person is confused with his ontological value. Both judgments are wrong.
The Ontological Value of All Men According to Scripture
The aforementioned distinction between ontological value and utility value is present in the Scriptures. Biblical anthropology teaches that all men bear the image of God. Consequently, all men are ontologically equal. All individual men, reprobate and redeemed alike, are more valuable than the rest of the material creation. This is evident from the following Scriptural propositions.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
“Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
“Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
“Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
“Of how much more value are you than the birds!”
In the first of these assertions, Christ clearly states that there is nothing in all of material creation that can be exchanged for a man’s soul. The remaining verses reiterate the same truth in more specific terms, identifying man as more valuable than every animal, signified by the individual animals “birds” and “sheep.”
The Utility Value of Men According to Scripture
The utility value of men is also taught in the Scriptures. For instance, consider the following passages.
As for you, you whitewash with lies,
worthless physicians are you all.
Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
…Formerly [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me…
Other instances of the utility value of individuals may be inferred from numerous passages in the Old and New Testament, but the ones listed above are more helpful by virtue of their explicitness. These verses demonstrate that there is a distinct kind of value that has to do with whether or not an individual may be used for a particular purpose. Job’s friends fail in their attempt to be his physicians and are, consequently, worthless physicians. A neighbor who is nearby is a more immediate, and therefore more valuable, help to one who is in need than a brother who lives far away. Christian men are of greater value to the ministry, Paul tells Timothy, when they are continually being cleansed of their sins and set apart for God’s use in the ministry. Paul speaks this way again regarding Mark. Regarding Onesimus, Paul says that he (Onesimus) is now more valuable to Philemon as a worker, for Onesimus will be serving his master wholeheartedly as one who serves Christ from the heart.
In each of these instances, the value of the persons in question has a particular goal in mind: ministry, labor, friendship, etc. These instances show us that the value of persons as persons is not impinged upon, but that the accidental properties of these individuals renders them more or less useful to particular goals that are in mind.
What is Valued by God
With these things in mind, it is important to remember that because God is a se, i.e. completely independent, he does not need any creature to assist him in accomplishing something which he has decided to accomplish. This implies that God does not judge the value of men upon the basis of whether or not they help him achieve a particular goal. If a man is precious to the Lord, the predicate is used analogically, bearing a literal sense and a figurative sense derived from the literal sense. Indeed, there are some analogies that are used in Scripture to describe God’s relation to the reprobate as well as the redeemed. Here are some examples.
And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, how does the wood of the vine surpass any wood, the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest? Is wood taken from it to make anything? Do people take a peg from it to hang any vessel on it? Behold, it is given to the fire for fuel. When the fire has consumed both ends of it, and the middle of it is charred, is it useful for anything? Behold, when it was whole, it was used for nothing. How much less, when the fire has consumed it and it is charred, can it ever be used for anything! Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so have I given up the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And I will set my face against them. Though they escape from the fire, the fire shall yet consume them, and you will know that I am the Lord, when I set my face against them. And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, declares the Lord God.”
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
…land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
These passages utilize analogies with which we are familiar in order to emphasize a point. What is literal in these passages is the act of judgment being one in which God destroys those who do not fulfill his original purpose of being spiritually fruitful. What is figurative is the idea that God has need of any creature to bear fruit. God is Sovereign and needs nothing from any of his creatures. He decrees whatsoever comes to pass, including the fruitfulness or unfruitfulness of his image bearers. The analogies above drive this point home: If man destroys barren plants and land because they fail to bear fruit, how much more will God destroy those who are spiritually barren and fruitless?
In what way, then, does God value men? We are given two broad categories in Scripture, I believe. The first is creational, the second is redemptive. As the image of God man is special to God. Of all the physical creatures, man’s relationship to God completely different. Man alone is morally culpable for every thought, word, and deed comprising the entirety of his physical life. Man alone physically endures forever. Man alone is redeemable, in principle (for not all are redeemed or will be redeemed, but this does not change the fact that they could have been redeemed if God so chose). Likewise, among the rational creatures – viz. The elect angels and the angels who sinned – man alone is said to be the image of God, to be the object of redemptive love, and to be in union with the Second Person of the Eternal Godhead. Man is a little lower than the angels as regards his physicality (angels are spirit), his intellect (angels are more intelligent), as regards his capacity to sin (the elect angels cannot sin), and as regards his power (angels are much more powerful). However, man is valued above the angels in that God did not decree the salvation of any of the fallen angels. Similarly, God did not become an angel in order to save them, but for man he took to himself a human nature, becoming incarnate to save us from the wrath to come. Angels are called sons of God, it could also be added here, but Christians are truly sons in our union with the Son of God.
Redemptively, the elect are of special value to the Lord because of their union to Jesus Christ. This means that because Christ is the object of the Father’s love and beneficence, we are as well. Whereas our creational value speaks of our place in created order, our redemptive value speaks of our position in Christ. There is no sliding scale of judgment between the reprobate and the elect, it should be noted. Rather, the law of God is the standard against which all men – believers and unbelievers alike – are judged. More clearly, the elect and the reprobate are ontologically equivalent, have an equal creational value, but differ as regards redemptive value. We are valued as God’s special treasure, but this is because Christ is honored above all by the Father. Our lives, then, are not intrinsically more valuable than any other’s life.
When I originally set out to write about this topic, I thought it would be a simple task. However, as I dug into the subject some more I understood how many assumptions were being made when we either assert or deny that all men are created equal. I tried to disentangle some of these assumptions in order to more clearly assess what Scripture teaches about man and the value of his life. Hopefully, I have not missed the mark.
Soli Deo Gloria.
 Traditionally, this has been called Plato’s Myth of the Metals.
 I am using the word accidental in the philosophical sense, signifying properties that are not essential to the subject of which they are predicated.
 Nietzsche inconsistently believed that there was a universal concept of man, as well as a universal concept of woman, famously teaching that man should strive to become an overman (übermensch).
 Gen 1:26-28; 5:1; 9:6; 1st Cor 11:7; Jam 3:9.
 Matt 16:26; Mark 8:36-37.
 Matt 6:26.
 Matt 10:31.
 Matt 12:12.
 Luke 12:7.
 Luke 12:24.
 Job 13:4.
 Prov 27:10b.
 2nd Tim 2:21.
 2nd Tim 4:11.
 Phil 1:11.
 Eze 15:1-8.
 John 15:1-7.
 Heb 6:7-8.