The concept of the Imago Dei first occurs in the creation narrative(s). Genesis 1 pictures God as making all the animals “according to their own kinds”. However, in verse 26 the language changes when he creates humans. There, God states that he intends to create human beings “in our image, in our likeness.” He goes on to explain that his intention in this is so that they will “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Then, according to verse 27 he creates both male and female in this way and for this purpose. Marginalizing misinterpretations of this concept have ranged from “we kind of look like God (or worse yet, he kind of looks like us)” to “God has given us the world to use (and abuse) as we see fit”.
It is true that God bestowed individual human beings with structural attributes that reflect his being. These are commonly recognized as those mental and emotional attributes that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom, in addition to our “spiritual qualities”. It is also true that because God made us “in his image”, our function of “ruling”, or better stated “governing” the rest of creation is foundational to our identity, though our definition of those terms has frequently missed the mark. Theologians like Stanley Grenz, N.T. Wright, and Michael Wittmer point out that at the time Genesis was written, it was common for a king to place a statue or “image” of himself in cities, territories, or colonies where he was not physically present. The idea was that the statue would bear the image of the king in order to remind the people of who he was and of his vision for his kingdom. While we do not buy into the deistic concept of an absentee God, this contextualization does shed light on our function as the “image of God”. We are to reflect God to creation. This function is at the core of what it means to be truly human. However, after the Fall (Gen 3), human beings lost that identity. When God enters into covenant with Abram, it becomes part of the identity of the people of God to image God to the rest of humanity as well as the rest of creation. The New Testament refers to Jesus as “the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), which I believe is a direct reference to Genesis 1. As followers of the Way of Jesus, we are following him in baring the image of the living God.
If then, this is the context for the Imago Dei, then what exactly are we called to reflect as we bear God’s image?
Who God Is
God is, at his core, community. The co-unity of the Father, Son and Spirit form the basis for our doctrine of the Trinity. This divine community of perfect love, harmony, and wholeness is our God. As our society and culture grow radically more individualistic, our call as the Imago Dei is to reflect true community. We reject the myth of egocentrism and instead pour out our lives into others. We pursue harmony instead of self promotion. God is fundamentally a community; therefore any reflection of him must be borne out in community. Possibly as an extension of the previously stated idea, the 1 John 4 asserts that God is, at his essence, love (agape). In order to image God, we must essentially live lives of love. It must be our defining attribute, both as individuals and as faith communities. It must be so fundamental to our character that if we err, we err on the side of love. If Jesus was the image of God as scripture asserts, then we must note some things that he reflects of God’s character as well. Jesus is not noted for his exclusivity. Rather, he is radically inclusive. He refuses to withhold his or the Father’s love from anyone. Jesus is also not recognized for his independence. Instead, he is quite clear on his total dependence on the Father and the Spirit. He also develops deep and significant relationships in community with other humans that are well documented in scripture. As followers of Jesus in Imaging God, we must do the same.
His Vision for His Kingdom
Dallas Willard defines “kingdom” as “the effective reach of one’s will”. Jesus seems to affirm a similar definition when he prays “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I believe these statements in the “Lord’s Prayer” to be a sort of parallelism in which he restates the same idea in a different way to clarify his meaning. If part of our function as the Imago Dei is, as I have proposed, to image God’s vision for his kingdom, then we must ask: What exactly is God’s vision for his kingdom? In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates a world of peace and harmony (shalom). This harmony exists between human beings and God, interrelationaly between people (and genders), and between humans and creation. This peace is shattered in Genesis 3, however it remains God’s vision for his Kingdom. This is further evidenced by prophesies (such as those in Isaiah) referring to the Kingdom of God and by the pictures painted of our eschatological future in Revelation. Our call then, in imaging God, is to live in the reality of the Kingdom of God rather than the alternate reality of the fall. We should display with our lives and in our faith communities God’s dream for the world. We are to live our lives as if Gods vision were realized until, by the power of God at the return of Jesus, it becomes so.
- Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000
- ________…“What Does It Mean To Be Trinitarians: The Role of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian Teaching and Life”; www.allelon.com
- Willard, Dallas…The Divine Conspiracy. New York: HarperCollins, 1998
- Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven Is A Place On Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004
- Wright, N.T…Creation and New Creation In The New Testament. Vancouver: Regent Audio, 2003