Made in the image of God

22 Feb

As Australian people await the outcome of the judicial processes in Indonesia and the likely execution of convicted drug dealers, the question arises as the fundamental basis of our views of human life. What right has anyone to take another life? What is the foundation of our conviction that every life is inherently precious?

Christian thought has based its assertions on the ancient biblical idea that human beings are made in the image of God. I wrote a post about this last year: it was among those I lost, but here it is retrieved, and I hope with something relevant and helpful to say. I’d welcome comments and conversation about this idea, as it is so profoundly relevant. In saying that, we have to acknowledge too that those who have made this assertion over the centuries have not always held to it, or have limited it to just some humans (usually of their own kind, colour or creed). Perhaps the assertion that humans are made in the image of God needs first of all to be a confession!


Are human beings like God? What does it mean to say that?
I’ve been reading and writing about this classic biblical idea this week. Imago dei—the basic idea derives from the text in the first creation story, in Genesis 1 verse 26, where God says: ‘Let us make human beings in our own image.’ (The ‘us’ is interesting here—as is the question of the possible audience for this proposal.) Then we are told that God did make human beings ‘in the image and likeness of God’.

Throughout the history of Christian theology there has been much time and ink devoted to the possible difference between the ‘image’ of God and the ‘likeness’ of God. Some scholars have thought they were different things, while the largest consensus of scholarship for many centuries now is that this is simply a parallelism, in Hebrew poetry.

I’ve been writing about what I call the ‘modernist misreading’ of this idea. There are two really significant things at work here. First of all, in the modern era we have seen a wonderful development of individual freedoms and rights. We have moved beyond the time when authority figures and powerful social norms controlled basically everything about a person’s situation, in society, in relationships and so on. We have freedom of thought and speech, freedom to travel and to express ourselves in lifestyle and so on. I for one have no desire to go back to pre-modern times. I believe in human rights, even the rights of others to live in ways I may not choose for myself, and I believe we all need to defend human rights.
But we have also developed this idea of the individual to what I believe is an unhealthy extreme. In Christian thought, the idea of the human person made in the image of God has been developed in a way that emphasises individuality. For many centuries philosophy and theology have sought to define this ‘something’—an element, a ‘faculty’ or ‘substance’ within each and every human being which is (or was, according to those who think it was created in Adam but lost at The Fall) the imago dei. There are many candidates for this special something, though the most common idea is reason, the human intellect, which itself is the likeness or reflection of the divine mind, the ultimate source of all truth and reason.

In a paper I’ve written, I suggest that there are four prevalent emphases in the ‘modernist’ understandings of imago dei: it is essentialist, individualist, human-centred and historicist.The first element reflects that focus on finding the ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ of human nature which might then be said to reflect the divine nature. This approach reflects what is called substance metaphysics, and amongst other things encourages a dualist view of reality, in which the ‘real’ reality is that underlying or invisible ‘essence’. The individualist tendency we have already mentioned. These two elements lead to a view that human beings are the centre of God’s creation, or that it is all for us. We are (slowly, at best) learning that this human-centred view of things is in fact an environmental disaster, threatening our very existence. Finally, this modernist view looks back, as if the true human nature is found in some past which has now been lost.

By contrast, very significant biblical and theological resources are available to correct this view. The biblical stories of creation are stories of partnership: we are created for being-with, primarily being with God, but that means being with all God has created. The creation stories invite us into a lived partnership. Walter Brueggemann describes this literature in terms of its rhetorical power and purpose: it sketches a world into which we are invited.
It is also significant that in fact the expression ‘image of God’ is used only three times in the whole of the Old Testament. Furthermore, two of these are after the story of the Fall, and both assert that the people are made in God’s image. (It has not been lost.) More significant, however, is the intense resistance to all image-making in Hebrew thought. This leads, I think, to the implication that the ‘image and likeness’ of God is not a thing or a person, as such, but a life, a way of living ‘after the likeness’. It’s an ethic, a life-style, a spirituality, and indeed a nation: Israel, if anything, is to image God, to show the likeness of God—but not in some exclusive sense, but as a light to the nations, in order that all people and all creation might live with God.
Very helpful New Testament theology extends this way of thinking. The coming of Jesus is the revelation of imago dei: that is to say, he is the revelation of what this life with God might be, and he is the further and fullest invitation into human life in partnership with God.
Thus the New Testament offers the idea of becoming like Christ and thus entering into the image and likeness of God. It is for Paul much more our destiny and calling than something we once had and have lost.

There is both a rich and inviting line of thinking here, which I have found immensely helpful to people, liberating them, and there is a task to be done, ‘recovering’ from the modernist misreading.

This task is well stated by F. LeRon Shults, in his book Reforming Theological Anthropology(Eerdmans, 2003). Shults begins with the ‘turn to relationality’ in modern science and philosophy, which has effectively disposed of substance metaphysics and dualism. It is not acceptable for theology simply to keep asserting pre-modern ‘orthodoxies’, nor is it helpful simply to adopt the contemporary cultural forms while abandoning our biblical traditions. Rather, as I have also argued, by a return to the richness of our biblical sources, we can find a much more dynamic and inviting vision of human life with and in the image of God. Shults’ conclusion states this theological position (in strongly Trinitarian terms):

‘This phrase holds together all at once the intuitions that the nature of humanity must be ultimately understood in terms of its relation to God, that the goodness of the human creature is tied up with its call to responsible stewarding of tis relation of solidarity with other creatures, and that humanity is intrinsically oriented to life with God in the Spirit disclosed in Jesus Christ, who is the image of God.’ pp.217-218.

There it is! An exciting life to live, to discover, to become together.

2 thoughts on “Made in the image of God

  1. Thank you Frank. I am also intersted in commonality as the basis for human preciousness. Raimond Gaita asserts that the idea of the sacredness of human life as that which is related to God is necessarily reliant on the rationally prior concept of human beings as holding their humanity in common. In other words, he would say, you can’t say “we are all made in the image of God” without holding as self evident that we all hold our humanity in common. He would like to say that it is precisely that notion of our common humanity that does away with the need for our human worth to be grounded in our relation to the divine.
    I wonder if we can situate our preciousness as human persons in our common humanity without needing to lose the sense of divine life in that reality? Would it be possible to say that human relations themselves, that are based on the preciousness of common humanity, reveal human nature as intrinsic to what we mean when we speak of divine life? In other words, might it be impossible to conceive of the divine without first experiencing the preciousness held in common by all human beings?

    • Excellent comment, Chris. In fact as I was writing this I was thinking also of Gaita’s work and perspective.
      It’s a challenging idea—that the inherent preciousness of humans in relationship is the fundamental basis of our humanity.
      I like the emphasis on relationality. It concurs with my resistance to the individualism of much thinking about human rights, integrity, etc.
      It also fits well with the recent resurgence in the idea of the social trinity, the idea that God also is inherently relational.
      But in regard to both there is an interesting question: is this assertion of Gaita’s an epistemological claim or an ontological claim?
      That is, is he asserting that fundamentally we can know the inherent worth of persons through the preciousness of every person to someone or some ones, that is to others in relationship, because that is how we all find this, know this—or is he saying this is how we are, and there is no reality ‘deeper’ than that, no God reality which makes it so? I know he wants to claim the second, but does he have a reason for claiming it further than the former?
      In the same way, some argue that claims about the social trinity are really just arguments to the nature of God from our own nature and experience: God must be a social being as we understand ourselves (ideally) as social beings.
      What do you reckon?

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