What does it mean to be created “in the image of God”? Over the last few posts, we’ve explored that question and raised some concerns about each of the major approaches. Does that mean we can’t really know what the image means? Should we give up and conclude that it’s just a mystery?
Never cry “mystery” until you’ve wrestled with all the issues. And that includes proposing your own solution. So that’s what I’m going to do.
First, let me summarize. We currently have four options on the table: (1) the structural image; (2) the functional image; (3) the relational image; and (4) the multifaceted image. I don’t want to rehearse all the arguments here, so I’ll just say that I think (1) is wrong and (4) is a problem as long as it includes (1). You can go read those posts and find out why. Although (2) and (3) have some problems, I think there’s a lot to be said for both of them. So I’m inclined to think that an adequate understanding of the imago needs to find some way of holding those two together. But you can’t just mush them together like the multifaceted view tends to. You need some explanation that provides a coherent picture.
And that’s just what I’m going to try and do. It’s will take me a couple of posts to lay this all out. But step one is to realize that the imago has to do with “representational presence.” Let me unpack that just a bit.
1. Don’t Punch the President
Most agree that “representation” lies at the core of the image. We image God because we “represent him in some way. But what exactly does that mean.
Representation actually involves a range of ideas. For example, think of the ways something can represent a country.
- A Map: This one’s pretty obvious. A map visually represents the basic shape of a country.
- Money: Now we go a step further. By itself, a dollar bill has very little value. But I can buy something with it because people understand that the dollar bill actually represents a country’s economic power. People value money because they know that a country “stands behind” its currency – wherever the money is present, the country is present.
- A Flag: This is where the idea of presence really comes out. Wherever a country’s flag is, the country is. That’s why we fly flags over embassies. It symbolizes the countries presence. And that’s also why people get really upset when you burn a flag. We realize that it’s much more than just colored cloth.
- A President: Here representative presence is most clear. The entire country is not literally present wherever the president is. (He’d have to be a pretty big president to pull that off.) But we still understand that he represents us in a way that manifests our presence wherever he goes. If someone were to attack the president (even on the other side of the world), we would take that as an assault on us.
So we can see that representation is a concept that spans a whole range of ideas: from the more abstract and symbolic to the more concrete and personal.
2. There’s a God in There
In the Bible, and in the Ancient Near East as a whole, “image” language functions at the more concrete/personal end of that spectrum. And you see that most clearly in the use of idols.
Despite some really funny rhetoric about idols being just wood and metal (e.g. Jer. 10), the biblical authors understood what an idol really was: a physical symbol that was supposed to manifest the presence of some divine being (see esp. 1 Sam. 5).
And that’s exactly what the Bible means when it calls us an “image” of the living God. We are his “idols” in creation, the ones through whom he intends to manifest his presence in the world. Although the Bible never makes the connection explicit, I’ve long wondered if that’s why he tells us not to make any images of him (Exod. 20:4). We don’t need to create images of God because he’s already done it!
3. Jumping to Jesus
Moving to the New Testament, the idea that an “image” is something that manifests God’s presence becomes even more clear. Jesus is the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) specifically because it’s only in Jesus that God is perfectly present (John 10:38; Col 2:9).
We’ll see in the next post that there’s more to the image than just the idea of representational presence. But I think this is where we need to start. Everything else builds off this.