'The Image of God': a nice idea but what does it really mean?

The universal dignity of the human individual is one of the concepts at the heart of western democracy; one that historian Tom Holland traces back to Gregory of Nyssa, who was committed to ministry to the poor because, Holland says: “dignity was for all. There was no human existence so wretched, none so despised or vulnerable, that it did not bear witness to the image of God.”

It’s a beautiful concept at the heart of the modern west; often, in scholarly circles talked about in the latin phrase ‘the imago dei’. Books on the importance of human dignity and the image of God could fill a library. But. What if despite the amazing fruit this idea has produced in the western world — we’ve imposed some western ideas on a more ancient concept. How might we peel back the layers of church tradition on this concept and discover an important and meaningful understanding of not just the nature of ‘human beings,’ but what true human ‘doing’ should look like?

The claim that all humans bear the ‘imago dei’ is rooted firmly in the Genesis 1 account of creation, backed up by Genesis 2, and is an idea that develops through the story of the Bible to find fulfilment in Jesus “the image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1), whose image we are being conformed into by the work of the Spirit (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 3-4). That we need to be ‘conformed’ or transformed into the true image of God suggests at least some part of our created function as image bearers has been lost; the apostle Paul digs into this a bit in 1 Corinthians 15 when he says “just as you have borne the image of earthly man (Adam), so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (Jesus).”

Before the Image of God became a latin phrase, in the realm of systematic theology and what’s called “theological anthropology” (the study of what it means to be human if God is in the picture), it was a Hebrew phrase; and one that was a cognate (a word that sounded the same) with other ancient near eastern countries who lived around Israel.

The Bible’s claim is that we are made as ‘tselem elohim’ — and that ‘tselem’ word, in its most literal usage in the Bible, and surrounding nations, is the word for idol statue. We were made to be  living, breathing, representations of the living, breathing God. We were made to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and expand that image, and the temple-like conditions of Eden, where God is present with his people, across the face of the world — like ancient kings would mark their territory with statues that were ‘images of gods’. There are links between the role of the image of god in a statue, in the ancient world, and the roles of kings (often called ‘the image of God’ in royal propaganda) and priests (who would speak and act for the gods in temples). The Bible picks up these royal and priestly threads throughout the Old Testament, and unites them most ultimately in the priest-king, Jesus, the new Adam.

This gets even richer in Genesis 2, where Adam is formed from dust in a garden, beside the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, and given life — in a scene that closely matches how an idol statue was formed and given life in the ancient near east. Stone tablets like the Babylonian ‘mis pi’ ritual describe this sort of ceremonial creation of an image that would manifest the presence of the Babylonian gods in the world. These ancient near eastern tselems would be captured and taken off into exile by enemy nations, and, if ever they were returned, would have to undergo a ‘revivification ceremony’ — similar to the ‘vivification’ ceremony — so that the god’s life could return to the statue. So we also have an inscription that tells a story about Esarhaddon, an Assyrian king (who gets a mention in 2 Kings 19) who restores the presence of God to a re-captured image of God, and does this by taking them to an orchard, a “pure place” where they can be restored and given life.

It’s significant too that the ‘image of God’ in Genesis is not just something that men do, or that women do, but that ‘male and female’ are created together in the image of God.

When the Bible claims that we are ‘tselem elohim’ — images of God — there’s a context where images cease representing the god they were made to reflect; that when they are removed from their relationship with that god in space and time they need to be restored; and there’s a suggestion that we also have a function in relationship with God; where an image-statue reflects the nature of its god when it is filled with, or connected to, the presence of that god.

In these ancient rituals the people would make the statues of their gods, and then ceremonially pretend that no human hand had touched them (they’d even pretend to cut off their hands with wooden knives). The idea that a human could make a god was preposterous — it’s even what Isaiah names when he talks about a craftsman who makes a god out of a block of wood, and cooks his food with the other half of the tree (Isaiah 44). The Bible offers a critique of these stories, and rituals — because the living, breathing God (unlike breathless idols) breathes life into people; these other stories have it the wrong way around.

This means the image of God is not just an inherent quality of our being, but is a function or vocation, reflecting God’s image as his presence in the world, in relationship with God, and each other, is the task we were created for.

It’s significant too that the ‘image of God’ in Genesis is not just something that men do, or that women do, but that ‘male and female’ are created together in the image of God, our relational capacity, and perhaps even our relationships themselves as realities, are part of reflecting the nature of God. There’s a plural in Genesis 1 that is often thought to be the Triune God speaking within the godhead, but could also be God speaking to the heavenly council, whether there’s a reference to the Trinity in that plural or not, that the triune God made persons, rather than a person, to be united in purpose and ‘one flesh’ is significant for how we understand the task of image bearing. Prohibitions against making idol statues of animals or people in the Old Testament are, in part, because the living God can’t be represented in dead statues, partly because to make a statue of a created thing and worship it upends the divine ‘image bearing’ role we have to rule over creation, and partly because God can’t be reduced to just ‘one’ image — a man or a woman (Deuteronomy 4). The living God can’t be captured in a dead image, instead, he made living images to represent him in our lives, and relationships, and our co-creating or cultivating of his fruitful presence in the world.

Many Old Testament scholars, including John Walton, Greg Beale, and Catherine McDowell, have also connected the Image of God not only with the function of an idol statue, but the setting of the Garden of Eden as the proto-temple. Other scholars have followed John Walton’s observation that to ‘be’ in the ancient world meant to ‘have a function in a system of relationships’. This means the image of God is not just an inherent quality of our being, but is a function or vocation, reflecting God’s image as his presence in the world, in relationship with God, and each other, is the task we were created for.

In the narrative of the Old Testament this is a function that, to some extent, gets lost and restored at various times — humans lose their place in the garden temple in the exile of the fall, Israel is created and ‘smelted’ like an idol-statue as they emerge from Egypt, and live again in God’s presence with the tabernacle and the Temple, only to be taken back into exile awaiting a new restoration to God’s presence — including with the promise of his Spirit (see Ezekiel 37) at the end of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 6) and the Psalms (especially Psalms 115 and 135) make the explicit claim that we become what we worship; that as we worship other idol statues, and the gods behind them, we become like those idol statues. Instead of being like the living, breathing, life-creating God, we become deadened and deadly. When Israel is carted off into exile it is because they have become like the nations, and God has given them over to be like the images of their gods. They are treated like idol statues of the nations, and are no longer connected to God’s presence in the promised land, or through his Temple.

The New Testament, then, is the story of the renewal of our capacity to bear the divine image — as Jesus, the image bearer par excellence, enters the story to restore us into God’s kingdom, and ultimately to make his followers temples of the Living God, those who are being transformed into his image as we experience his presence (2 Corinthians 4). This means we are able to represent God again, in this vocation as image bearers, as those who carry his presence with us as we ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — or rather, as we follow our king’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the father and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19-20). Baptism, the washing of an image-statue that had been in exile, and the giving of life via the Spirit, so that that statue might fulfil its created purpose, is our own re-vivification ceremony; it recognises what the Spirit is doing as we receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and it calls us to be what we were made to be from the beginning (a function lost in exile and through false worship); image bearers of God being conformed.

Every human has the capacity to represent God’s life-giving presence — to take up this vocation, as we are conformed to the image of Jesus by true worship, and by God’s spirit. Every person still bears that divine calling, and perhaps even performs a version of it so long as we live and breathe, and love and reflect the nature of God, even as we are exiled from him through sin, or the worship of other gods. We haven’t fully eradicated the imprint of his image in our lives, but, without the Spirit uniting us to Jesus, and transforming us into his image, we are waiting for restoration to that purpose like a valley of dry bones, or an idol statue carried off into foreign lands and placed in a false temple. We’re not doing the job we were made to do, bearing the image of God in his presence. The pattern for life in this world, as restored image bearers, is found in the imitation of Jesus — the image bearer — in his love, in obedience to his teaching, and in his worship of the Father. Jesus, “the” image of the invisible God, shows us what the true human life looks like.

If we approach the idea of the “image of God” through the prism of years of ‘systematic theology’ rather than by peeling back the layers and getting to the text of the Bible itself, it’s quite possible that we’re missing something profound not just about ourselves, and who we are called to be, but about the story of Jesus told in the pages of the Bible.