Imago Dei

Image of God (Theology Lecture given at WFU School of Divinity)

Genesis 1:26-27: Some passages of Scripture have been especially fruitful for theological and ethical reflection in the history of Christianity. We may legitimately say that they have been more revelatory than other portions of Scripture in that once the teaching sinks in, it profoundly changes the way you view God, the world, yourself and the relationship between them. Gen. 1:26-27 is such a passage.

One of the nice things I like about these verses is that they have driven theologians and Sunday School teachers crazy for centuries because it clearly states that God says “let us make humankind in our image.” There have been solutions proposed for the plurality of divine beings implied in this verse, but none of them have proven entirely satisfactory. It is interesting that there has been a marked reluctance by interpreters to connect the “our” here with the creation of males and females. Only a few folks like Jacob Boehme and Ann Lee proposed that the plurality refers to the masculine and feminine aspects of God.

Our focus today is on humans as being created in the image of God and what that might mean for Christian doctrine. This is not spelled out for us in the Bible, and so there has been ample room for speculation in the tradition. Those who claim to base their theology on Scripture alone generally rely on tradition to interpret this verse.

Male and Female: First of all we should highlight something that is already well known to you, I suspect. The text clearly states that males and females are both made in the image of God. Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 11 that man is the image of God and woman the image of man is a common misreading of the text. Man and woman are both created in the image of Elohim here. Thankfully, Paul admits that sometimes he’s speaking for himself instead of for God, and I think this is one of the times. He was led astray by traditional rabbinical teaching on Genesis that tried to integrate the two creation stories. Paul’s reading of Genesis became the norm in Catholicism, but as good Protestants here, let’s begin with the plain meaning of the Genesis text rather than tradition. In this crucial passage, both men and women are made in the image of God. This is the one text that feminists in the church tend to literally why so-called biblical literalists use tradition to contradict the plain message.

Rather than revisiting the material discussed on Friday, let’s first focus on what this idea that both men and women are made in the image of God tells us about God. We could conclude with Mary Baker Eddy and other unorthodox thinkers that God is both masculine and feminine. Or we might conclude that the image of God in human beings is not connected to gender at all. Gender is part of biology and human society, and may have nothing to do with the Creator. It seems likely that gender, like race or individual attributes, is not definitive of the image of God, but that the image of God is something shared by all people regardless of gender or race or age. It seems to me that Genesis is teaching us that all humans, simply by virtue of being human, share in the image of God as an aspect of their creation. To be human is to have the image of God.

Universal Image of God: Notice that the image of God here was not given at baptism or circumcision; every person is a living image of God. Sometimes we read the Bible too quickly. We sweep right past one of the most important affirmations in the history of civilization and jump into the story of the Fall or the flood or the call of Abraham without considering the global implications of this claim. Genesis 1 does not say that only two of ancient ancestors were made in the image of God, and that later generations lost that image. It says that men and women alike were created in God’s own image as part of the fundamental, foundational goodness of creation.

If all that God made is good, humans are especially good because we are the living images of God on the earth. Turn to someone near you – in pairs or triads if you like. So long as you can share the gaze of another person in the class. Look into the face of the other person and examine her or him for a moment. Don’t be embarrassed. Look in the eyes, at the face, at the body of the other person. Now say to each other slowly, “you are the image of God.” Ponder that for a moment. Shelley, Barrett, Christa, Orita, Alfonso, Wesley, each of you is the image of God. Say to yourself, “I am made in the image of God.”

A Physical Image: Turning our attention back to the Bible, it is important to ask what the phrase “image of God” mean? There has been a lot of linguistic research and debate over the meaning of the world translated as image here. It refer to a likeness or a copy of something, such as a graven image is a likeness of a person or a deity. We cannot exclude the possibility that the original intention of the author of this verse was to claim that humans are smaller versions of a bi-pedal deity. Many of deities in the ancient world were represented in human form, and we know that the ancient Israelites had graven images of deities at least until the time of David, probably later. If Genesis was the only Scripture we had, we might conclude with the Mormons that God is like a human with legs and hands since he is often depicted as walking and doing things with his hand or finger.

But there are reasons why the whole tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has rejected this extreme anthropomorphism. The most compelling reason is that for much of the history of Israel and Judah the prophets railed against graven images and other forms of idolatry. Not only did the Jews promote a form of radical monotheism in contrast the dominant polytheistic cultures around them; they also adopted a view of God as radically beyond human constructions. They worshiped an invisible deity who spoke to priests and prophets but who has no physical form. By the time the litany of creation was attached to the beginning of Genesis, the rejection of anthropomorphism was normative for Judaism. I think we can safely dismiss the idea that the image of God refers to the physical attributes of humans as indicative of the divine being. It is not our opposable thumbs that make us bearers of the image of God, and we do not have to worry that birth defects or accidents make us lose the image we bear.

Stamped Image: Another meaning of image is like the image that is stamped on to a coin, usually the image of the governor authority (emperor, king, etc.). This marks the coin as legal tender. The same type of image may be stamped on official documents as a royal seal or guarantee of the authenticity of the document. In this case, the image is representative of the authority of the one whose images appears on the seal. In light of the fact that humans are created on the day before God rests and that they are explicitly given dominion over the creatures of the earth, it makes sense that the image here refers to a royal stamp of authenticity and authority.

By being stamped with the image of God, humankind is identified as the representatives of God on the planet. This would agree with the theme of stewardship proposed last week. We do not have divine authority to pillage, plunder, and rape the earth like brigands and blackguards; we have divine authority to care for the earth with the same love shown by the creator in making the earth. To wantonly destroy or passively allow the desecration of the earth is tantamount to rejecting the image of God in yourself.

Sharing in Divine Wisdom: A third way of viewing the image of God takes elements of both the first two. Children are said to be the image of their parents since they have traits of each parent. They are reproductions of their parents, at least partially. For centuries, theologians have discussed what it is in the human character that is a reproduction of the being of God. For the most part, theologians have focused on reason as the thing that distinguishes us from animals and makes us most like God. If God created the heavens and earth through the Word or Logos, then it makes sense that it is our Logos that connects us most intimately with God. Or, if you prefer to follow Elizabeth Johnson, it is Sophia that is the image of God in humankind.

If this is true, then the commandment to be fruitful and multiply takes on a different nuance. It is not simply to reproduce like other animals, but to be fruitful through our reason and our wisdom. The commandment to have dominion over the earth should then be read as a commandment to exercise wise and intelligent dominion rather than spreading across the earth like a ravenous swarm of locusts.

Churches in recent decades have been too quick to denigrate reason, primarily because of the attack on faith by certain types of naïve rationalism. The doctrine of the image of God should call us to exercise our God-given abilities wisely and courageously. As far as we know, we are the only earthlings who can use our minds to investigate the mysteries of the universe far beyond the confines of our own bodies. Without leaving our homes, we can travel to distant lands, predict solar eclipses, and marvel at the subatomic world. In our minds we a fleeting glimpse of eternity and are freed from the constraints of the body.

Creation: We do not have to enter into a contest with the Creator to prove that we are powerful. We seem to think that as our power and knowledge grows, our awe in God’s creation should diminish. Too often we are like children who learn how the magician does the trick and become cynical about magic instead of being inspired to learn how to do the magic ourselves. Personally, I think a recovery of the doctrine of the Image of God may help us recover a proper sense of reverence for the creator. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that there are miracles that humans can perform, such as raising the recently dead, that the Creator cannot do. We are the first generation that can cause a virgin to conceive through scientific means, and yet we find it hard to believe that God could do so. If our minds can move our bodies or use electrons to move machines, why do we doubt that God can work subtly but intentionally to move the natural world?

Perhaps part of being made in the image of God is the desire and ability to do miracles and wonders. Perhaps the image of God that humans share is the quality of creating, of calling new things into being. It may well be that we live most fully into our divine image when we create or at least re-create the world in which we live – or at least share in God’s appreciative love for creation.

Morality: Others have identified the moral sensibility of humans as the uniquely divine-like quality we share. Even though attempts to find a universal moral code running through all human societies has failed, we can assert with confidence that all human societies depend on some type of moral code. The ability to look at actions as having moral consequences appears to be a uniquely human trait. Contrary to the teachings of some schools of philosophy, humans do not act solely on the basis of self-interest or to satisfy the desires of the flesh. Humans can and do exercise restraint and self-discipline. They sometimes even sacrifice their individual desires for the sake of others. The ability to view actions in terms of right and wrong rather than in terms of success or failure may be our most important quality as human beings. We’ll talk more about this on Wednesday.

There is another approach to understanding the meaning of the image of God. We could look at the concept in the context of Genesis 1. What does God do in this litany? God creates, God speaks, God names, God orders, God plans for the future, God encourages life, and God blesses the world. It makes sense to me that this tells us about the image of God that humans bear. Humans think, create, speak, name, order, love, and plan for the future. We do these things and we should do these things because this is our essential nature. Moreover, humans are called to be like God and encourage life and bless the world God has made.

Fully Human/Fully Divine: And here we come to a conclusion that may be surprising, and many theologians have rejected this idea, but Genesis teaches us that we are most like God when we are most truly human, and we are most human when we act toward creation as God acts. We are called by God to use our God-given reason and our remarkable powers to care for what God has given. We are to share in God’s loving desire for creation, which ironically means we should limit our own appetites and desires in order to make room for creation to take place around us. We are to exercise a benevolent dominion over other living things, just as God does. It may be that we are most divine when we are most fully human.

Ethical Implications There is a problem with most of those approaches to the Imago Dei, however, which some of you may have picked up on already. They are very logocentric, and could be used to say that only humans who are rational, wise, creative, and moral are made in the image of God. Those born with disabilities or who lose significant brain functioning could be dismissed as not fully human. It is not just theologians who are in danger of viewing some humans as more divine or more human than others. Pay close attention to many policy debates in industrialized nations and you may find a tendency for wealthy, white, well-educated people to define humanity in their terms. Health care if for some, not all. Resources are for some, not all, for instance.

According to Genesis, all of humankind bears the image of God, but this image may be obscured through diseases of the mind and body, including the diseases of a society that dehumanizes the poor, ignorant, and neglected. We are the ones who tarnish God’s image, often with our racist and elitist attitudes. I am often bemused by the fact that many “Bible-believing Christians” reject the plain teaching of Scripture that all humans are created equal in God’s eyes. Souls and minds do not come in racial colors. Incidentally, this idea of that all humans are made in the image of God was the central issue behind the early opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It is interesting that it was religious liberals and social progressives who generally opposed Darwin in the 19th century because they feared that Darwin would undermine morality and social justice.

Among them was Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce—the man who was mostly responsible for freeing slaves throughout the British Empire. Samuel recognized that Darwinism could be used to justify racism, slavery, military aggression, and the worst forms of cut-throat capitalism. Wilberforce was wrong about the science of biology, but he was prophetic in his warning of the evils that can result when humans no longer view themselves and each other as the image of God. Ideas of racial progress and “survival of the fittest” played important roles in some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The misuse of Darwin’s theory demonstrates that it is not just theology that can be distorted for destructive purposes. Science can also be an ally in the service of hatred, greed, and oppression.

Living Images of God: It may be a good thing that the Imago dei is not explicitly discussed in Genesis 1. The text leaves ample room for us to develop our own thinking, and I personally think that we should not choose a single human attribute as the sign of the Image of God. Rather, we should think of the whole human person as being in God’s image, and we should worship the creator by living into the identity that he has given us.

What is most important, though, is that we recognize that the image of God applies to all humans, not some humans. There is no indication that some are more like God than others. It is even possible that we most clearly reveal the Image of God in our own lives when we are able to view others as representatives of the Image of God in their own right. Think how differently we would raise our children, speak to our spouses, treat our employees, and live in society if we let every single person remind us of God, our creator and judge. In times of war governments work very hard to dehumanize and even demonize the people on the other side in order to make it easier for soldiers to kill them. What if we simple refuse to go along with that demonic program? What if Jews, Christians, and Muslims with one voice said to every person in the world: “You are the image of God, and your life is sacred to me.”

Comenius: What happens when we view every child as a representation of God on earth? What happens when we look into the eyes of our enemies and see the eyes of God? Despite the claims of Augustine, Calvin, and others, there is little support in Scripture for the view that we lost the image of God in Adam’s fall. More on that Wednesday, for now let me just assert that the only way we lose the image of God is to refuse it. For now, let me leave you with this quotation from Comenius with apologies for the sexist language of the translator: “Whenever you encounter one of your neighbours, regard him as yourself in another form (which he is), or indeed as God in another form, for he is the image of God, and God will be watching to see how reverently you treat him.” Panorthosia, I:22.


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