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What does it mean to be created in the image of God? What does it mean to be Imago Dei? It is a concept that the Scripture does not explain. It is only mentioned as something that exists. It is not something that one could easily assume the nature of. It remains as one of the great mysteries of the spiritual life. Whatever the case may be, the concept of Imago Dei is central to the human relationship with God and with human identity. However, as much as that might be true, it is an unrealized phenomenon. Humans may be created in the image of God, but the reality of Imago Dei is something to be discovered, to be learned, to be embraced. There are many theories as to what it means to be Imago Dei, and a number of them are outdated. Let’s explore the more profound theories and see what can be gleaned from them.
What Does Scripture Say?
To begin, it is best to look at the biblical text itself. Despite the compelling nature of the concept, it is hardly mentioned in Scripture. The most famous example is, of course, Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
There are several parts to this passage, and we will frequently return to it. The most important point of this passage though it that “God created humankind in his image.” It is this phrase that invites us to explore the mystery. Another passage—whose insight is only implied—is Genesis 9:3-6:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood, I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal, I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.
Before providing analysis, let me bring up James 3:8-9: “but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Anthony A. Hoekema, in Created in God’s Image, discusses that, in the Genesis passage, the mentioning of Imago Dei comes as part of a larger set of ordinances about the propagation and protection of life. In this context, the reason why killing another person is wrong is simply because he/she is made in the image of God. This suggests an implicit relationship between God and humanity that points towards human dignity. Because human beings are special, they are not to be treated like every other animal but rather as a reflection of God. Likewise, the James passage presents a similar case: it is wrong to curse other people for to do so “…means, in effect, to curse God in whose likeness they have been made.” These passages seem to affirm a certain reverence for humanity.
With that in mind, let’s turn to Psalm 83-6:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet….
The psalmist poses a great question—what are human beings that God should be mindful of them? The response is profound: “…you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” While this passage does not mention “image of God,” it certainly contributes to the understanding of human value and dignity.
Thus, what we have learned so far is that human beings, as far as being made in the image of God, are created as unique and are elevated above all other animals. They are to be treated with respect and even reverence, for they are a little less than God and have been given authority over the earth. I have not explored all the passages with reference to Imago Dei, but I will touch on the noteworthy ones further along.
Markers of the Kingdom
There is, of course, more depth to the idea of being image-bearers. An analysis of the Hebrew word for “image”—tselem (צלם)—will show as much. The root of tselem essentially means “to carve” or “to cut.” As explained by Hoekema, “It could therefore be used to describe a carved likeness of an animal or a person. When it is applied to the creation of man in Geneses 1, the word tselem indicates that man images God, that is, is a representation of God.” This is to say that the human being is, in some way, modeled after God.
Historically speaking, the concept of Imago Dei has been interpreted to mean that something which constitutes the human being likewise constitutes God. This is called the “Structural View” of the Imago Dei. In some cases, Imago Dei has taken the effect of anthropomorphizing God. Now, the Bible is no stranger to describing God as having human features such as a face or a hand, but are these descriptions to be taken literally? Since the Ten Commandments are keen on insisting that no image should be made of God, the God of the Hebrews, unlike the gods of so many other peoples of the ancient Near East, is treated as generally more abstract. Other interpreters came to believe that the Imago Dei element of human beings was in their stature—their ability to stand upright on two legs, unlike most of the animal kingdom. Altogether, these concepts of the image as being a literal, physical representation of God did not survive long in the history of theology and are, in all honesty, far too simple.
The Structural View—which says that humans and God share a common feature—also includes the idea that Imago Dei is defined by human rationality. Popular among the Greek inspired theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas, human resemblance to God was found in the human ability to reason. Now, certainly it is true that the human capacity for abstract thought outshines any other creature on earth. What is more, it is indeed our ability to think abstractly which gives us our conceptualization of God. I do agree with the general assessment that rationality constitutes Imago Dei, but is it enough? I do not think so, nor do other theologians.
Still, there are some things to carry away from the Structural View. First, our relationality with God is often contingent on our ability to anthropomorphize God. While our minds are capable of abstract thought, abstract concepts are incredibly hard to define in tangible language. Therefore, it is easier to speak of God in very human terms. Second, our unique relationship with God, even as much as we may anthropomorphize God, is absolutely based on our ability to philosophize about what God might be. In other words, God created humanity in his image so that humanity may know God in its likeness. That being said, if we embrace the abstraction—or, in mystical terms, embrace the cloud or the darkness—we may develop a more authentic understanding of God.
Returning to the Hebrew word tselem, there is more that we could unravel here that will only continue to enrich our understanding of Imago Dei. Stanley Grenz, in Theology for the Community of God, points out that it was common in the ancient Near East for kings to plant images of themselves in cities within their domains. They cannot physically be everywhere at once, so statues serve the purpose of reminding the people who they are subject to. Grenz quotes Gerhard von Rad,
Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon the earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth.
This is a functional interpretation of Imago Dei. Human beings, even from a structural standpoint, do represent God. Now, this particular theory is getting into human purpose. As Grenz states, “The terms ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ do not connote a mere aspect of the human person. It is rather in the whole of our being that we are somehow like God.” This includes the existential side of things as well. In a sense, to use the statue imagery, we are markers of God’s kingdom: portraits for veneration, banners flying high, signposts on the road to Heaven. Everything about our being is intended to represent God’s presence and workmanship on earth. There is more depth to this, but for now I will say that I believe this theory to be the most accurate. As the word tselem—“to carve”—indicates, we are chiseled likenesses of God. We are symbols of God.
In truth, the mystery of the Imago Dei is less a question of what the human being is but rather what God is. It has been assumed, of course, that the human being is a reflection of God because God made it so. However, much of what anyone says of God is actually born of human self-reflection. God is actually known through the Imago Dei.
To be continued…