Round Table: Image of God
Round Tables are where several Conciliar Post writers get together and offer their thoughts on a particular topic or question. These forums are intended to demonstrate the similarities and differences between various Christian viewpoints, to foster civil and meaningful discussion, and to provide a place to wrestle with important issues.
At the heart of all discussions are central questions, sometimes explicit, but more often assumed: Is there a God? Where do we come from? Why is the world the way it is? What does it mean to be human? In response to this last question the Christian worldview offers an answer in the first pages of Genesis: to be human is to be made in the “image of God.” In order to more fully explore what it means to be made in God’s image, we asked four members of the Conciliar Post team to answer the following questions: “What does it mean that humanity is made in the image of God? What are the implications of this view?”
As you engage these reflections on the imago Dei, we invite you to offer your own answers to these questions and to engage the perspectives of our writers in the comment section below. Thanks for dialoguing with us.
Senior Editor at Conciliar Post
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27, ESV)
So it began. God formed and filled the world—His creation always becoming more sentient as the narrative goes, until He made the final creature in His own image. Fine, but what does that mean? The short and sweet answer is that humans are God’s ambassadors on earth.
Though God told both the animals and Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:22, 28), He told Adam and Eve something more: “…fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28b) Humans are given rule and authority over the land and animals, to care for them, to cull them, to cultivate them. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden to see order and beauty, and then commanded them to make the whole earth a garden with their hands, their skills, and their creativity.
To give a sketch of the imago Dei, I posit that we bear God’s image in four ways: communication, cultivation, care (stewardship), and creativity. Thus, we are being fully human (what we were made to be) when we practise these four things.
Communication: Using words to communicate truth and love, forgiveness and boldness (and much more, of course)—essentially, using words to breathe life into others.
Cultivation: It is part of our calling and our purpose as human beings to cultivate the earth, whether that means gardening, farming, energy efficiency study and implementation, humane treatment of animals (even the ones we eat), etc.
Care (stewardship): We image God when we care for the earth, animals, and our fellow humans. This might mean letting soil rest, not pouring waste into water, or adopting a pet. It could look like inviting someone over for a meal, helping a neighbour fix their car, teaching someone to work, or walking through grief with a friend.
Creativity: We are like God when we create—from bridges to bicycles, or poetry to peanut butter. Whether on canvas or with clay, with words or with selected silence, through music or movies. God’s imagination is wild, brilliant, and enormous. It has to be in order to think up cells and bodies, giraffes and fruit trees, stars and colours.
Many persons image God without even knowing Him…But many begin to become “unmen”, to use an idea from Lewis’s Perelandra. They forget—or don’t care—that humans are different from all creation. They forget and deny God. They begin to fragment—tearing apart words, art, families, life, meaning. It is a dangerous, deadly thing—ideologically and practically—to deny the imago Dei distinction of human beings.
Editor-in-Chief at Conciliar Post
Human beings are a mystery because God is a mystery. At the center of what it means to be human is the reality that we were created according to the image and likeness of God1; a reality that is the starting point, as well as the goal, of human existence.2 For it is a dynamic reality that is tied to the mystery of salvation.3
As Christians we can affirm that the first place we see ‘image’ used in scripture is at the creation of man. Human beings were made in the image and likeness of God.4 We also see in scripture that Jesus is the image of the Father.5 These two realities, that man was created in the image and that Jesus is the image, are deeply related. Man was created in the image so that humanity might be blessed with the incarnation of the Image and thereby unite the created with the uncreated Archetype—for ‘likeness’ has classically been understood to be the principal source of knowing and potential for assimilation.6
God, who is ultimately transcendent and unknowable, made himself known to us through the incarnation of His son, in order that the we, the created, might be united with the uncreated God. When we talk about the chasm between God and man, we must be careful to note that this “fundamental division within reality [is] not between the spiritual and the material, but between the created and the uncreated.”7 That we might have union with the uncreated is, essentially, the telos of man—the eternal will of the Father. Being that this “fundamental division” existed by the very nature of man being created out of nothing it was eternally willed by the Father, out of love, that the Son would become incarnate. This is why the Church Fathers affirm that even if man had not sinned, Christ would have become incarnate: it was a movement of love, not a reaction to the trespass of man. This is salvation: insofar as we abide in Christ8 we actualize our potential to be in the image and thereby become true images for our being is grounded in Him.
The theology of the image is inextricably connected to the face (πρόσωπον) which, consequently, is connected to the theology of the person (πρόσωπον / ὑπόστᾰσις).9 The early debates over the deity of Christ and the formal articulation of the Trinity during the first several centuries of the Church helped craft and define the language used to speak about such subjects. Strictly speaking, the term person (ὑπόστᾰσις) can only rightly be applied to the persons of the Holy Trinity. From this, man’s potentiality as image bearers is to supercede the limitations of created being—and be freed from necessity10—by being grafted into the uncreated through Christ. True Christian anthropology proclaims that our being is grounded in God and is actualized synergistically through man’s effort and God’s grace.11 A true image has it’s being grounded in the archetype but a false image is not grounded in being. This is, essentially, the horror of hell—the rejection of the image.12 As Paul Evdokimov put it,
“To exist is to participate in being or nothingness. I can make of myself an “icon of God” or acquire a demonic face, a horrible distortion of God.”13
2Nellas, Panayiotis. Deification in Christ. 28.
3Ibid. Also see Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. 84: “The word translated ‘likeness’,, homoiosis, suggests something more precise in Greek: the ending, -oisis, implies a process, not a state (the Greek for Likeness as a state would be homoioma). The word homoiosis would moreover have very definite resonances for anyone who had read PLato, who envisages the goal of the human life as homoiosis — likening, assimilation — to the divine”
4Ibid. “The word translated ‘likeness’,, homoiosis, suggests something more precise in Greek: the ending, -oisis, implies a process, not a state (the Greek for Likeness as a state would be homoioma). The word homoiosis would moreover have very definite resonances for anyone who had read Plato, who envisages the goal of the human life as homoiosis — likening, assimilation — to the divine”
5It should be noted that in the LXX (and subsequently in the fathers) the such is phrased: according to the image.
7Louth, Andrew. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Downers Grive: Intervarsity Press, 2013. 37. Print.
8There are many different understandings of what ‘abide in Christ means’ but such discussion is not our aim here.
9It was through the Arian and Sabellian heresies that the Fathers undertook to define prosopon (face) as well as cementing the definitions of hypostasis (person) and ousia (essence)—over period of time of time between the third and sixth centuries. For theology of the “face” see 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor. 2:13; Ex. 34:35; Num 5:25-26; 1 Chron 16:11; Psalm 31:16; Psalm 67:1; Psalm 80:19; Psalm 119:135; Ezekiel 39:29; Exodus 33:20-23; Exodus 33:11; Deut 5:4; Ezekiel 20:33; Rev 22:4.
10St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Making of Man, Chapter 18.11.
11St Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge, Text 89. Philokalia. Vol. One p.288 “Our likeness to God requires our cooperation. When the intellect (nous) begins to perceive the Holy Spirit with full consciousness, we should realize that grace is beginning to paint the divine likeness over the divine image in us. If the intellect (nous) does not receive the perfection of the divine likeness through such illumination, although it may have almost every other virtue, it will still have no share in the perfect love.”
12Note N.T. Wright’s recent comment on this: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vggzqXzEvZ0>
13Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life. 157.
Senior Editor at Conciliar Post
The notion that humanity is created in the Image of God runs deep throughout the Catholic tradition. The image of God is present in the theology the Scriptures, the great Doctors including Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the modern day workers for social justice such as Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day. One can quickly cite the Catholic Catechism for a definition of the Imago Dei: “The divine image is present in every [human]. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves.”
The Catechism and the great Catholic theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas derive their understanding of the Imago Dei from Scripture, so let us proceed to that same source for our discussion. Genesis proclaims that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Saint Augustine reminds us that “where an image exists, there forthwith is likeness;” thus to be made in the image of God is to bear the likeness (albeit an imperfect likeness) to God. This Genesis passage affirms that all people—both men and women—bear the image of God.
What does this mean for us, then, that we are made in the Image of God? There are a multitude of correct answers, from care for the poor, sick, and elderly to a pro-life political stance, but I want to again return to Scripture for an answer of what being made in the image of God means for our relationship with God, not just our relationship with others. Matthew 22:15-22, the famous “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what God’s” passage, is often interpreted to pertain to taxation. As I realized in my graduate school Biblical Studies class, this is only one interpretation of many and probably not the primary one.
Judaism, including Second Temple Judaism (1st century AD)—the context for Jesus’ world and the Gospels—was an anthropomorphic religion. Think of all the times in the Old Testament in which God is described as walking, speaking, or watching—all human actions. Judaism, especially the Talmud, prohibited the machination of images of God because God made his image in humanity. Therefore, what is made in God’s image (humanity) belongs to God, as the Old Testament references to “the people of God” indicate. Now, the coins of Caesar in the Matthew passage bore the image of Caesar. When Jesus told the Pharisees to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” he meant give to Caesar what bears the image of Caesar—the coins. When he said “give to God what belongs to God,” this carried much more meaning than taxes. If the coin that bears Caesar’s image belongs to him, then the human person that bears God’s image belongs to him (God).
So, when we speak of humanity being created in the image of God, we speak of humanity as belonging to God, as being his people, his children. Being made in the image of God requires us to pay reverence to God our Creator through worship, prayer, and good works. Each time we attend church on Sunday, we are giving to God what belongs to God.
Managing Editor at Conciliar Post
What does it mean to be made in the image of God? This topic has a long and varied history of discussion, spanning at least the four thousand-or-so-year history of Judeo-Christian religion. For Christians, our reflections on this topic must begin with the words of Genesis:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
There are several different ways in which this passage has been interpreted over the years. One of the most common interpretations has centered on the ability of human beings to reason. In some meaningful sense, our ability to think—to rationalize, explain ourselves, and form sense with our words—makes us like the Divine. Another perspective on what it means to be made in the image of God involves our ability to speak. The writer of Genesis describes God’s act of creation as one of the speaking the world into existence. In this view, our ability to speak sets us apart from the animals and other forms of creation, making us like the Creator who speaks. A third interpretation of what it means to be created imago Dei involves human dominion over the earth. In a manner akin to God’s rule over the entire cosmos, humanity has regency over the earth, to control, care for, and bring it to fruition.
These three interpretations about what it means to be created in the image of God are, I think, entirely appropriate ways to think about the meaning (and implications) of imago Dei. They rightly affirm the dignity, worth, and sacredness of all God’s creation while affirming the special chosen-ness of human beings. They call humans to recognize the God-likeness in each person, reminding us of the need to love and honor our fellow human beings in a rightly ordered way. Finally, each affirms the special place and role of human beings within the totality of creation.
However, there is another aspect of what it means to be created in the image of God which I would like to reflect on here, namely, the creative ability of human beings. I take my lead here from such thinkers as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In this line of thought, an integral part of what means to be human is our ability to create. That is, to be made in the image of God is to be able to perceive that which is not immediately before us and then—in some meaningful and creative way, through some act of mind or body—to be able to bring into existence something which previously only existed in our own minds. In a manner similar to the way in which God spoke the world into existence—creatio ex nihilo—the special make-up of human beings is their ability to “create” through mind and body.
This involves imaginative, musical, literary, and physical creation; our ability to craft intellectual meaning, to create and tell stories, to make meaning of mundane and ordinary human events. Obviously some people are better at certain kinds of creation than others. Tolkien, for example, was a master of a literary world; Bach was lord of the organ. Though few are as talented as these exemplars, we all create in our own ways and in our own contexts.
We are also creative when we live out the most important aspect of God’s act of creation, the creation of the universe by his Word. God created humans for relationship through his own Triune love, and we too are called to manifest our participation in the image of God through creative love. For God so loved the world that in love he made to the world, and—the world having fallen into decay–he saved the world through the love of his Son. So also we are called to live as images of God today by loving others.
Photo courtesy of Lasse Christensen.