Framing the Image of God: Be or Do?
Thinking consistently and logically concerning all the concepts presented in the Bible about who we are (or are meant to be) in relation to God and others can be a daunting affair. The Bible is chock-full of analogies that frame our identity in familial, military, agrarian, religious, political, domestic, royal, and even inanimate terms (think stone, vessel, etc.). The practical beauty of this, of course, is that every one of us can relate with at least one or two of these analogies. One statement of our human existence that categorically transcends all other descriptors is that we are created “in His own image” (Gen. 1:26-27, Gen. 5:1-2, Gen. 9:6, 1 Cor. 11:7, James 3:9)(All scripture references ESV unless otherwise noted). This is different, of course, from saying that man is God’s image. The scriptures speak to who is God’s image and that is the Son of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:18, John 14:7-9, Col. 1:15, 2 Cor. 4:4, Hebrews 1:3). To be made in the image of God is to be made in the likeness of Christ Jesus, through Christ Jesus, and for Christ Jesus (John 1:3, John 1:10, Col. 1:16, 1 Cor. 8:6)
Recognizing that humans are made in the image of God and determining what that implies are two different things. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? We’ve already recognized the relationship that our being has to the Son of God, Christ Jesus, but what more can we draw from the scriptures concerning what it means to be made in the image of God? I contend that at the very least, scripture is also very clear on the fact that our maleness and femaleness are a foundational part of our being in the image of God. There is a relational beauty and truth to our complimentary sexes that is inherent to being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, Gen. 5:2, Matthew 19:3-6)
Other than these two foundational qualities, our relationship to Christ and our male and femaleness, there have been several approaches to determining how to describe what it means to be made in the image of God. Wayne Grudem writes concerning these approaches:
Theologians have spent much time attempting to specify one characteristic of man, or a very few, in which the image of God is primarily seen. Some have thought that the image of God consists in man’s intellectual ability, others in his power to make moral decisions and willing choices. Others have thought that the image of God referred to man’s original moral purity, or his creation as male and female (see Gen. 1:27), or his dominion over the earth.(Grudem, Bible Doctrine, pg. 189)
We can categorize these views even further into three primary categories of substantive (also referred to as structural or ontological), functional, teleological, and relational. I will not dive into a lengthy description or argument concerning these views but will suggest that all have merit in referencing aspects related to who humans are, were intended to be, or will be in the future (Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest have produced a very thorough assessment of different theological perspectives on the imago Dei in Vol. 2 of their valuable contribution to theological studies, Integrative Theology). I believe that it is difficult to speak of our actions without speaking of our intellectual capacity. It’s difficult to speak of our embodied functional abilities without referencing our foundational relational nature and habits. That said, I do believe that it is important to reference the fact that there is a difference in the scriptures referencing who we are and what we do. There is also a difference between how the Bible speaks of us prior to the fall of humanity, after the fall of humanity, after the coming of the Spirit upon believers, and after the resurrection. This second list is wrestled with more specifically in relation to the teleological approach. As noted before, Lewis and Demarest go into great detail concerning these differences in what the Bible says about who we are and what we do. That said, there is certainly continuity in the fact that the image of God terminology is referenced through the various stages in our relationship with God, and thus should be seen as something that transcends these various phases in our personal and communal history. Some seek to cover all the bases in our understanding of the imago Dei by suggesting that it is a composite of all these various views. While I understand and appreciate the reason for proposing this view, I believe that attempting to say the imago is everything positive that pertains to humanity is dangerously close to saying that it is nothing in particular.
Whatever the image might pertain to, it certainly pertains to our human existence even in a sinful and corrupted state (Gen. 9:5-6, James 3:9). It’s clear from the scriptures that our existence of being-made-in-the-image is something that every human being to have ever lived can point to, whether clearly expressing the intended likeness of God in a functional, relational, or substantive manner or not. Whether an aborted baby, a human with physical deformities, a mentally challenged human, a baby not fully physically developed, a woman who has lived a life of slavery, a man who has never created anything, a wondering man who has lost his mental faculties or will to live, all can be said to have been created in the image of God. As these examples should reveal, there is much danger in suggesting that being made in the image of God implies the necessary presence of certain faculties of substance. We do a disservice to our brothers and sisters when we begin to project what an image-bearer must be or must do beyond what the scriptures have clearly articulated that we must be or do. This is not to say that there is not an intended form that we will all someday take beyond death or that there is nothing clearly articulated that we will do in our final resurrected condition, but these are things that are not our business to systematize. We are to be what we can be and do what we can do today, being made in the image of God and guided by the scriptures and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Contemporary Relevance: Kings & Servants
As I mentioned prior, there are metanarratives on the image of God that frame it in relation to what God intends for us to be and do. These can be referred to as teleological approaches. The functional approach is also closely tied to these narratives and they often focus on our ruling responsibilities over the rest of God’s creation. This is sometimes fashioned as the royal view. This particular view has been systematized by several theologians over the years in such a way as to give a subsidiary metanarrative concerning how Christians are to interpret God’s original intentions for humans on earth, the current fallen and limited role of fallen humans on a cursed earth, and the redeemed role of humans on a redeemed earth. This view focuses heavily on Genesis 1:28, which reads: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”” (It’s important to note that in Genesis 2:15 this language is changed to “work it and keep it“). Psalm 8:5-6 is also often used to validate this metanarrative: “You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.” But one of the most foundational arguments made to support this particular view is not actually found in the Bible; it’s the historical background information about ancient Near East practices of fabricating images of their gods and kings (idols). The extra-biblical presupposition supporting this approach of viewing humanity in regal terms is the idea that Moses and the writers of the Torah were deliberately juxtaposing God creating humans in his own image with how the kings of the ancient Near East culture, which Moses observed and was familiar with, created statues of their own image, often to support the claim that they were gods (we see this approach presented in this Bible Project video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbipxLDtY8c; and in this Desiring God article: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/kings-and-queens-in-training) .
While there is no doubt that the worship of Yahweh is diametrically opposed to the worship of pagan gods and kings, there is no textual connection in the scriptures to suggest that Moses and other writers of scripture are deliberately framing human existence in regal terms. There is literally no reference to humans collectively being called kings or queens in all of the biblical scriptures. As mentioned earlier, all you have are a very few mentions of humans reigning or ruling, and even those few mentions are associated with the primary reign and rule of Christ or in connection to our “royal priesthood.” So, the actional roles (in verb form) of humans that speak of regal activity are extremely rare in the text and are almost entirely nuanced in relation to their connection with Christ and the priesthood of believers. When compared with the tremendous amount of other identifiers and actional identity references concerning humanity that are found in the text, it seems inappropriate to propose the functional royal metanarrative as the best picture of redeemed humanity’s destiny in Christ above other relevant identifiers. Listed here is a selection of just a few of the terms that are given to our identity in Christ as image-bearers that could also have a metanarrative built around them:
“Blessed of the father,” “fellow-heirs,” “dear children,” “redeemed of the lord,” “people near unto God,” “lights of the world,” “heirs of salvation,” “salt of the earth,” “obedient children,” “the just,” “heirs of the grace of life,” “children of the living God,” “servants of righteousness,” “joint-heirs with Christ,” “faithful of the land,” “kingdom of priests,” “chosen generation,” “witnesses for God,” “royal priesthood,” “holy priesthood,” “trees of righteousness,” “vessels of mercy,” “living stones,” “beloved of God,” “children of the highest,” “heirs of the kingdom,” and “chosen vessels.”(https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/themes/Titles+and+names+of+saints#thematic_title_51600)
All of the above identifiers have their own list of scripture passages that present them as a valid way to speak of Christ’s redeemed image-bearers. In particular, based on the abundant scripture passages referring to us as servants, I could make my own metanarrative which partners with Paul’s explanation of fallen humanity’s digression and John’s assessment of our state at the return of Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains the world that Noah, Abraham, and Moses all found themselves in:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:18-24)
Paul is explaining to us that our interaction with creation, of working and keeping it (caring for it), should be a reminder of God’s sovereign presence in our lives and in all of existence, because his very existence is testified to through all of creation. Our service to one another and our stewardship of the earth should have resonated, and continue to resonate, with our innate knowledge that he is divine, powerful, glorious, and worthy of our complete devotion. But we have a rebelliousness in us that makes us want to serve ourselves, to reign over our own lives, to be a slave to our passions rather than a servant to our Creator. So, in order to reveal what a true servant looks like, the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) comes to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Paul writes again in a letter to the Philippians to tell us more about this servant identity that we should recognize as our proper identity in Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7). We even recognize our identity as servants represented in the very last chapter of the last book of the Bible to have been written. John, the beloved of Christ, refers to redeemed humans as servants in Revelation chapter 22; verses 3, 6, and 9.
We can see that there is at least another metanarrative concerning how to reference the teleological identity of those who are made in His image. As I mentioned before, we can look at the image in different ways, and this particular way is to highlight the ultimate identity of humans who have believed on Christ Jesus as their savior. When one narrows the discussion of image-bearers down to the redeemed, then a whole selection of identifying terms open up as paths to create competing or corresponding metanarratives about how God sees us and how we should see ourselves. Servant is one of those identifiers, and the pure volume of references concerning a Christian’s identity as a servant would seemingly far outweigh the relevance of the metanarrative based on royal terminology. But, despite all these identifiers that we could point to in reference to how to frame humanity’s most relevant role in Christ, it’s important to remember how the Apostle John references our destiny: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears[a] we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)