There’s a God in There! Moving toward a conclusion on the “image of God”

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?

Not yet.

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.

image of god, Adam and eve, creation, Genesis, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

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.



7 Responses to “There’s a God in There! Moving toward a conclusion on the “image of God””

  1. Adam August 28, 2012 at 3:00 am #

    Okay, so why doesn’t the structural image have to come back into play in order to use this concept of representational agency? When a president or a flag gets to count as properly representing a country, it is in virtue of a back story that makes that fabric or that man “special”. You don’t pick out a man (or woman) at random and slap a “president” label on.

    Although one could claim that God could have picked just any creature to be His representative on earth, it would seem the burden of proof would be on that view. The Genesis story certainly seems to unfold as if God is interrupting the way creation has hitherto gone in order to create creatures specifically for this image of God role, so the natural assumption would be that the creatures created to be the image of God on earth would be designed in some way that’s going to fit or be apt for this role.

    (In other words, the narrative qualities of the story would change dramatically if you told it in terms of God creating all creatures at once with a snap of His fingers and then saying, “Okay, someone’s got to be in charge. Hmm, humans, do you think you can handle that?” The benefit of the doubt surely accrues to a being like God tailoring design to intended function.)

    • Marc Cortez August 29, 2012 at 7:05 am #

      This is probably the most common objection I hear from my students on this subject. But the point isn’t that we don’t have capacities. Of course we do. You can’t exist without having some set of capacities. The point is that the text simply makes no connection between being in the image of God and some particular set of capacities.

      And, even if you want to bring capacities back into the conversation as you have, that still doesn’t mean that capacities define the image. In your argument, capacities are simply that which God has given us in order for us to be image bearers. This would mean that capacities aren’t unrelated to the imago, but it would still mean that they don’t tell us what the imago actually is.

      And I like how you phrased the third paragraph better. In your second paragraph, I thought it sounded like God selected us to be his image bearers because of the capacities we already had (i.e. he looked around and picked the creatures with the right set of capacities.) I actually hear that perspective from people at times and I think it’s importantly wrong. Not only does it miss the fact that this isn’t how it’s presented in the text, but it robs the imago of its “grace” character (i.e. we’re image bearers as a gift from God and not merely as the result of having the right capacities).

  2. Thailand tourist June 2, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    Hey! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the great work!


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