What exactly is ‘the image of God’? Western theology asks which facet of humans makes them ‘like’ God – intelligence, emotions, morality?? This approach defines the precise qualities that people share with God (personality, will, sensibility, etc.) from a philosophical vantage point, but misses the honor-shame dynamics that biblical writers infused into the phrase ‘image of God.’
The image of God denotes the fundamental status and importance of humans, not a particular characteristic that humans possess. We are not made “with” the image of God, as though it were a feature like floormats or tinted windows added on to the base model at the dealership. We are made “in” the image of God. This defines people’s very essence and core function.
The image of God indicates the dignified and honorable status God granted humans at creation. Perhaps a helpful paraphrase of imago Dei would be “the face of God.” The advantages of this translation are two fold:
- The double entendre of the word “face” helps us nicely define the phrase. Face in English can imply representation (“The press secretary is the face of the White House.”) and reputation (“He lost face before his peers!”). To say “humans were made in the face of God” means both (a) we are God’s symbolic face to the world, and (b) we possess God’s Face (i.e., glory and honor). The imago Dei God denotes divine representation and glorification.
- The notion of “God’s face” exposes the presupposition of philosophical essentialism (defining something by its essential properties – “what makes a chair a chair?”) that hinders Western readings. It does not work to ask “What precise part of us is ‘the face of God’ – rationality, relationality, morality, etc.”; we simply are the face of God. We represent and possess God’s face.
Three key areas of the Bible interpret the imago Dei as divine glorification.
1- The narrative of Genesis 1-2 suggests the image of God fundamentally means honor/dignity. Immediately after God resolves to make man in his image and likeness, humans are blessed (i.e., honored through a covenant with God) and granted a respected position of responsibility over creation. In Gen 1-2, people are vice-regents exercising divine lordship. The function of ruling sovereign in God’s creation confers honor and prominence to Adam/humankind. The previous blogpost explained eight symbols of Adam & Eve’s honorable status.
2- The remaining biblical witness about ‘the image of God’ defines it as honor and glory . Psalm 8 – a divinely inspired commentary on Gen 1:26-28–says God “crowned him (Adam/humankind) with glory and honor” at creation. NT writers assume dignity and worth are the main features of God’s image. “For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7); “With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).
3- NT Christology speaks of the exalted Messiah as the image of God par excellence. In 4 key passages, Jesus’ unique association with God’s image implies honor, glory, precedence, and worship (not ontological qualities of morality, rationality, or relationality per se.), as the bold terms indicate below.
- Phil 2:6 – He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.
- Col 1:15 – He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
- 2 Cor 4:4 – The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
- Heb 1:3 – And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.
We cannot interpret the image of God in Genesis 1:27 apart from subsequent biblical testimony. God’s image implies the fundamental dignity and honorable status accorded to humans by God. We are the radiant face of God’s glory.
But, why does our definition of the ‘image of God’ matter? What is the goal of divine history? What direction is the overall story moving? The question of ultimate destination is partly answered by original intention. How God created the world suggests how God will restore the world. As creation in God’s ‘face’ suggests, the intention of God has been for humanity to live with inestimable honor. Honorification was God’s original objective; then shame invaded, thwarting God’s intention and requiring a rescue mission. The image still exists in the core of every person, but the mud of shame must be removed so the light of divine honor can fully shining forth.
Some missional applications:
- Do people see the face of God in us?
- People’s quest for honor is innate and divine. We must not disciple Christians to not chase honor, but disciple them to chase the right kind of honor.
- Christian witness is not only addressing shame, but helping people express their inherent honor.