Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. – Gen 1:26-27
Here we are again, looking at the image bearers of God – that is humankind. If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, I would suggest doing that before continuing.
The Functional View of Image Bearing
One last wrong way, mind you were are finishing our list of the wrong ways, of saying how humans bear the image of God, is traditionally called the Functional View. This view focuses on the passage above. The idea is that we are reflecting God in what we do. As in v27, the dominion clause as it is sometimes called, we are assigned a task – one of several to come. The problem is that when we treat this solely as an actionable task, we run into the same problems of the other views we have looked at this far. Namely, that if someone is unable to perform in some way, does that mean that they are not created in the image of God? Thus, we make babies (born or unborn), crippled, sick, etc. less than the image of God somehow. In reverse, those that seem more capable are consider more reflective of the image of God. This just doesn’t seem right. Why?
Failure of the Previous Views to Value Human Life
Let’s consider Gen 9:6,
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image
The idea conveyed is that killing humans is like killing a representative of God. In the NT (New Testament) we might see this reflected in Luke 20:9-18, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. In this parable, the tenants are expected to provide compensation to the owner of the land. They live on the land and farm the land. According to the agreement between them and the owner, they are expected to pay a percentage of their proceeds. This is a well-known example to the people of the first century. However, when the representatives show up, they deny the proceeds and beat them. Finally, when the owner’s son is sent, thinking this is just as if “I myself was there, they will surely behave properly.” Instead, they kill the son thinking that the land will be theirs. This thinking would only be the case if the son was seen as equivalent to the owner.
The act of aggression towards the designated representative is treated as if that same act was committed against the sender or original person. In the parable, the son is Jesus and the owner is God the Father. A modern act which might be analogous, would be to burn a countries flag or burn a stuffed dummy of a leader in effigy. The above would be like burning God in effigy. Certainly this analogy is not without its flaws but it does provide some insight. Of course this is not the same because in Gen 9:6 we are not dealing with dummies but living representatives. It is important to note that Gen 9:6 doesn’t say anything other than “God made man in his own image” as justification for the very definitive response. There are no other qualifications for the harmed than that the person exists. However, looking at Gen 9:6 alone is insufficient as it is the axiom on which we will build. But, in a somewhat sly way we have stumbled into what might be closer to the meaning of humans being the image of God.
How then are Humans Image Bearers
Wayne Grudem, when discussing the topic says, “When we realize that the Hebrew words for ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ simply informed the original readers that man was like God, and would in many ways represent God, much of the controversy over the meaning of ‘image of God’ is seen to be a search for too narrow and too specific a meaning.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 443).
So Grudem is suggesting that we have picked up a book and began reading in the middle without even looking at the cover to see what we are reading about. The author of Genesis is informing us that we are representing God. I think this is a good start, although I am not much in agreement with where Grudem goes with it in some places. Let’s look at how another author analyzes the meaning of the Hebrew language a bit more intently and is more exacting then Grudem’s generality.
A Short Word About Original Language Analysis
I know it can get a little technical when we start to look at the original languages that the Bible was written in, but it really is necessary. Translation is both scientific and artistic. You can’t just look up a word in a Hebrew or Greek dictionary and think you have it. Context matters a lot when selecting from what can be a myriad of definitions for a single word. Even just speaking in English you require context to understand what is being said. I like to use the example of an old Saturday Night Live skit I saw once. A retiring nuclear reactor engineer played by Ed Asner, gave a last bit of advice before leaving, “You can never put too much water in a nuclear reactor.” Then he left. The young crew thought they had it until they started talking amongst themselves. One thought that you can just keep putting more and more into the reactor because it can never be too much. A second though he meant you cannot put more than a required amount in because putting too much in was bad. A third, who the others thought would break the tie, thought Ed had emphasized the ‘you’ meaning it wasn’t their job to control the water level at all. Eventually, the reactor blew up. Context may not be everything, but it sure means a lot.
Bring on the Hebrew
The term, בְּצֶלֶם (betselem), which is “in the image” can carry a meaning of “as” the image of God. Another way to state it might be “in capacity of”. This is sometimes referred to as the “beth (bet) of essence”. The “beth” is the preposition in front of the preposition phrase, “in the image”. So, we think of humans as being ‘as’ God or more accurately ‘as God’s representative’. Much like the son in Luke’s parable we have been sent to tend to business of the vineyard or in this case God’s created world. Of course, I am using the parable as an analogy as the ‘son’ in the parable is Jesus to whom we do not come close in comparison. Note, however, that in the Genesis passage it is a designation and not some quality of godliness that we possess. Michael S. Heiser in the Lexham Bible Dictionary puts it like this:
“The concept can be conveyed if we think of ‘image’ as a verb: Humans are created as God’s imagers—they function in the capacity of God’s representatives. The image of God is not a quality within human beings; it is what humans are.”
Note that seeing the Hebrew in this way, we “function in the capacity of God’s representatives.” There are no qualities or actions that are required for this designation other than to be a human being. The issues of human qualities, ability to function, or place in a lifespan fall away as immaterial.
The Backwardness of God vs Human Perception
God in this instance (Gen 1:26-27) presents to his human creation a concept on God’s own terms which appears backwards in human terms. He doesn’t describe the job duties and then checks to see if we fulfill them like some cosmic job interview. Instead, he issues an edict, a designation, or a holy decree; “Human beings are my imagers”. Consider also that the creation of man stands amidst the rest of the creative acts in Genesis where God creates first and then assigns a designation – not just what we shall be calling something but what that something IS.
God separated (a very important term in Genesis by the way) the light from the darkness and calling the light Day and calling the darkness Night – giving it not just a name but a designation of WHAT IT IS.
God called the land Earth and the waters the Seas – again, giving them not just names but defining them as seen by the Earth then sprouting vegetation.
God created lights in the expanse of the heavens, also separating day from night (with sun and moon) – this again is a designation. Following this is what that designation then does, its role – to be for signs and seasons.
God’s Designation for his Human Creation
So, why should the designation for humankind be any different? Humankind is created as his imagers – period. That is what God has designated us to be. Now, as Genesis demonstrates, we are the pinnacle of his creation (which in my mind makes me a bit proud and a bit sad as I am such a weak imager in many cases). As the pinnacle of creation, we are complex and are to have many duties and expectations for behavior. Our first duty is to be stewards of creation as defined in Gen 1:27. Throughout the rest of Scripture is woven the behavioral norms and other duties that are expected of the designated imagers of God. We have had a long history of being educated by God in our duties and expectations as image bearers. From what I have seen, we have much learning still to do. We can see clearly not that the actions, duties, characteristics are not what defines us as imagers – God’s decree in our creation did that from the beginning. The actions duties, characteristics are the expectations that God has for those who have already designation of imager.
Gen 1:27 – “let them have dominion…” – as his imagers we are to be stewards of creation
Gen 9:6 – “Whoever sheds the blood of man… “ – since all humankind is an imager, destruction of God’s imagers is an offence to God.
And in the New Testament, does it still make sense to see all humankind as God’s Imagers
2 Corinthiasns 4:4 – “ In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
2 Corinthians is speaking in the chapter of the ways and practices of the people. But as I have shown in many cases, the actions don’t make you more or less of an image bearer of God. What is happening here is that you are more or less living up to your expected behavior as an imager of God – and the expected behavior is modeled in the glory of Christ (although this is certainly not his only role).
This is why in Ephesians 4:20-24 Paul can say,
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
See how he mentions your ‘former manner of life’. This is a way of living that is inconsistent with our designation as an imager of God. It is not the case that we are working to become image bearers. We are being instructed on how to better reflect our preexisting status as imagers of God. You do not become something we already are, we reflect better who we were created as (Eph 4:24)
One more example from Paul, Colossians 3:12-27
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
We see that Paul says to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones,..” Thus, the status of imager of God is already in place, we are to put on the role that we were already created in. No where will you see Paul saying that you earn, work towards becoming, or are granted after doing anything to be an imager of God. It is all predicated on the fact you already are, so now start acting like it.
Summing it Up
We are created as imagers of God. This is who we are from life to death (and beyond). In our lives we aspire only to properly live out the designation of imagers of God and the stewards of creation. Each of us does this within the confines of our abilities, bodies (as flawed or crippled as they may be), and simply in our existence – fulfilling the role already assigned from the very beginning of life. Since you are already an image bearer, your capacity to reflect that is within the context of your condition. Those that cannot speak, walk, relate, interact effectively, or suffer any number of physical, emotional, or mental ailments that plague our human bodies in this broken world are still image bearers of God. The way that we all reflect that image bearing is in the context of our abilities – we reflect we don’t earn.
We are “created to image, to set forth reality. Act in a way that reveals God.” – John Piper, Lecture on Imago Dei.
Why this matters:
Humankind is designated by the Creator as Imagers of God, from the beginning and without evaluation by any human standard, ability, performance (past, present, or future). Not a single human can be excluded from this holy decree as it is simply predicated on being a human. And in reverse this degree is applied to only humans, excluding animals no matter how smart or cuddly. Certainly, all of God’s creation reflects him and his work in a variety of ways, but only human beings are image bearers. This means that every human being has value in God’s eyes. It is not only about how you behave, but the value, love, and respect with which you treat other image bearers. This is why Jesus said the second commandment was “love your neighbor as yourself”. That is what is expected of an image bearer to treat all other image bearers as God’s representative. Think about that next time you’re impatient, angry, rude, or simply unkind to another human. You are being those things to a person representing God in that moment.
We are thus bound, based on scripture, to be the best imagers our circumstances, bodies, minds, and hearts will permit us to be. We are not more or less an imager, which is again a designation not a performance. Thus, the poor person suffering from a crippling disease leaving them out of control of their muscles and unable to interact as others in society is no worse an image bearer than the most eloquent preacher, actor, or leader. You quest is to be the best image bearer you can withing the context of your ability (and if God so asks, outside of your comfort zone). It does not earn you image-bearer points but draws others inward towards God.
This understanding of all humankind as designated imagers of God must inform how we treat all humans regardless of deed, ability, mobility, or station in life. Throughout history and even today at this very hour, it is the first step in justifying the actions of the oppressor, the antagonist, the dictator, and the unthinking mobs is to suggest that the people they assault are less them human. There is no more consistent justification for genocide in the history of the world.
Where would I go Next
Now that you understand this you will need to enact it. I would suggest:
- Read Genesis 1 and 2 again.
- Read at least some of the passages I noted in this article, it would be better to read the entire books.
- Read the Gospels Matthew and Luke to start might be advised.
- One book I find very helpful in this particular case is After you Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York, NY: HarperOne 2010) written by N.T. Wright.
- Look for Living Out Theology on Facebook and Instagram for upcoming information or posts about questions I have received.