The Structuralists and Vocationalists

Continuing the discussion from Ken Keathley: How High Are The Stakes?:

An excerpt from the GAE book:

The structuralist “philosophers” want to define “humans” according to our attributes. Though structuralists often disagree amongst themselves about which attributes are important, they are all taking a common approach. They are often focused on scholastic philosophy, which emphasizes metaphysics. They tend to be “systematic theologians.” Catholics tend to be structuralists, often drawing on Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics. Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe take a structuralist understanding of “human” too, often connecting “human uniqueness” to the Image of God .

The vocationalist “exegetes” understand the Image of God as our role in creation, for example, as stewards of what God made. They are often focused on exegesis, understanding what the text of Genesis says on its own terms. They were usually “biblical theologians,” that were following the narrative of the story. Rather than building up a total and internally consistent metaphysical definition of “human,” they were more focused on what the text said. In response to their objection, structuralists would often insist that they too see a vocational component to the Image of God . This is true. This question clarifies: can one have the biological structure of a “human” without the vocation of a “human”? A vocationalist would say “yes,” but a structuralist would say “no.”

“Structuralists” and “vocationalists” fall on opposite poles of a continuum. Individual scholars tended to gravitate to one camp, but often borrowed ideas from the other camp. Still, each camp approaches questions very differently. The divide here is between metaphysics on one hand, and narrative on the other. Systematic theology on one hand, and biblical theology on the other. Between philosophers, and exegetes. It seems the debates here have been going on for a very long time. Some groups find themselves in the middle.

1 Like

Thanks, this is very helpful!

1 Like

I had the same question as @cwhenderson so thanks for that answer.

John Piper’s writings on the the Image of God have probably influenced by view more than anyone else. Based on your explanation above, I have trouble seeing this view as either structuralist or vocationalist, but I’m curious where you see it ending up.

A pretty complete article on his view(s) can be found here:


Is there another dimension that’s missing here?

  1. Structuralists look at Image of God as something biologically or mentally different about us (human uniqueness is something identifiable)
  2. Vocationalists look at Image of God as something we do or are called to do.

But isn’t there another group that focus on “soul” and would say that the Image of God represents an “ensoulment”? They don’t seem like structuralists because I don’t think they probably would claim that there is a scientifically discernible difference. It’s structural in the sense of being an attribute, but it’s not one that we can access scientifically, etc. It’s also not really vocationalist because they would say it was not optional or because of anything we do.

I think I see this type of language in some people who go with “refurbishment” models of A&E. They may also use language that what sets humans apart is our spiritual “ability” to relate to God. That may not be in a structural sense, but isn’t quite vocational either.



This is more in line with my understanding. The Image of God to represent’s the characteristics of God he has given us that allow us to have a real relationship with him, and as Christians be his image in the world.

This would be encompassed within the the non-physical part humans, call it the soul or mind (without worrying to much about exactly where the soul or mind lives, and how much of it is physical or otherwise).

This matches really well with my unprofessional thoughts on the topic. If there are some “real” theologians with the same general opinion, I’d be interested in reading up more on what they’ve written.