The Sistine Madonna.cherubs

189. Creation: What Does It Mean to be Made in the Image of God?

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind[c] 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.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
[Genesis 1:26-27, NRSV]

Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo

What do theologians say imago Dei is?

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? The myriad views the we get down through the ages may be synthesised under three groups.

First, is the relational view. This is the view Pope Benedict stresses in the book. It insists that humans are most like God when it comes to their unique relational qualities. Thus it is human’s ability to engage in complex interpersonal relationships that best reflects the divine. Benedict specially stresses that to be made in the image of God means humans have the capacity to relate to God. This analyses, one might note, resonates with Karl Rahner’s analyses of the human persons as “spirits in the world” who are “hearers of the word”, with fundamental openness to the Infinite, and capable of hearing the Word uttered by God.

The second is the representative view. In view of God’s transcendence, God meets the need for his continued presence by giving people the imago Dei. This nature then possesses certain qualities, characteristics, or endowments (spiritual, rational, volitional, etc.) that make humankind like God.

The third is the dominion-functional view. Ruling over creation is the essence of the imago Dei, so that having imago Dei qualifies people to rule.

What specific qualities relative to the imago Dei have been favoured by theologians down through the ages?

  • Freedom [Irenaeus, AD185].
  • Rationality [Irenaeus, AD185].
  • Intelligence [Francis of Assisi].
  • Intellect [Thomas Aquinas, 15C]
  • Reason and Will [John Calvin 16C].
  • Relationality [Karl Barth; Pope Benedict].
  • Moral, social, and spiritual faculties [Karl Rahner].
  • Mercy, compassion, and love [Kasper].
  • Capacity for self-gift, service, kenosis [Philippians].
  • Creative freedom [contemporary authors].

From “imago Dei” to “ethic of creation”

Our place and reason for being is, first and foremost, to have life, and to live it in abundance (John 10:10). The untainted image of God bestowed by the Creator on His human creatures was originally intended for that. We were meant to be able to create life existentially, to live a beautiful and noble life and to let others live likewise. The terms “life” and “create” take on meaning at the positive and wholesome levels. As we connect this with our appreciation for God’s creation as delivering gifts of the “conditions of possibility” in life, our ethic of creation demands that we make return-gifts. A life of worship of the Creator-God must witness to a scale of values which features at the top the twin elements of “freedom” and “solidarity”. This would truly be a life lived in personal “authenticity” on the one hand, coupled with a thick practice of “co-humanity” on the other. We therefore appreciate the gift of creation, including the imago Dei, as being at the same time a duty to flourish to the best extent we each can; and a duty to promote the flourishing of others in their gifts. A core question in this regard is how well we apply the “possessions” bestowed on us by the Creator as our existential conditions of possibility, and how well we purposefully encourage, stimulate and enable others to apply theirs. These possessions are best captured under the 3T’s – time, talents, and treasures. Created in the image of God, we are naturally oriented towards love and nature.  We are each at our created best when we truthfully apply our time, talents and treasure in loving God, others and ourselves, and in protecting and enhancing nature as our common home.

The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it well:

  • “Bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it is a vocation. It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God. It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship – or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God.”
  • “Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion.”

Pope Benedict renders a precise definition: Our place and reason for being is to image God on earth.

From the Vatican document Vocation of the Business Leaders [VBL], human dignity holds the pride of place. At the very foundation of the Church’s social tradition stands the conviction that each person, regardless of age, condition, or ability, is an image of God and so endowed with an irreducible dignity, or value. Each person is an end in him or herself, never merely an instrument valued only for its utility – a who, not a what; a someone, not a something. This dignity is possessed simply by virtue of being human. It is never an achievement, nor a gift from any human authority; nor can it be lost, forfeited, or justly taken away. All human beings regardless of individual properties and circumstances therefore enjoy this God-given dignity (VBL, 30).

Charles Darwin proves that evolution works through the survival of the fittest. But Christianity is committed to the survival of the weakest [cf. Mt 25; 1 Cor 12:22].

The weak is never completely weeded out in nature, thus suggesting that while nature cannot prevent the process of the wedding out of the weak, it does not desire its complete destruction either. Meaningful evolution today means nature needs help from the human race to protect and nurture. Nature is interested in the survival of the weak because vulnerability and weakness bring something to nature that is absent when it is only concerned with the survival of the fittest and with producing ever-stronger, more robust, and more adaptable species and individuals. Clearly, what the weak add to nature are character and compassion, which are the central ingredients needed to bring about unity, complexity, and consciousness at the social and spiritual level.

To square Christian ideal of preferential option for the weak with the theory of evolution, our starting point is that the “dominion” conferred by God at the beginning of creation is a mandate to “watch over”, of tending the garden, of being wise stewards, and of helping nature do things that, in its unconscious state, it cannot do, namely, protect and nurture the weak.

Recall, in this regard, two theologians. The glory of God, Saint Irenaeus of the second century has famously said, is the human being fully alive! Today, the renowned liberation theology professor Gustavo Gutierrez says: The glory of God is the poor person fully alive! And that is as well the ultimate glory of nature.

In its Christological hymn, the Letter to the Philippians provides a serious pointer to how the Son of God served. Looking back after the events, the followers of Jesus saw him as Saviour and Redeemer of the whole human condition of sin and death. In Jesus’ own existence, they saw clearly that Lucifer’s “I will not serve” had been completely and definitively reversed in a decisive stance of total service, the ultimate self-gift in which, paradoxically, the true image of God is dazzlingly realised and revealed [Phil 2:5-11]. This Epistle teaches that the full image of God also manifests in no less than an utter reversal of the pride of Adam and his desire to be like God:

  • Out of obedience to the Father’s will, the only Son of God has graciously descended from His side.
  • Abandoning his privileges, and his right to equality with God, the Son has taken the form of a servant, in the likeness of our humiliated status as slaves. [Not grabbing].
  • He descended further yet, even to accepting a mode of death reserved in the Roman Empire for common criminals. [Descent > sacrifice > till death].
  • The supreme scandal of the self-emptying, or kenosis of the suffering Son of God, is the staggering truth which divided Christians from the Jews, and from the Greek religion of their day. It is the truth of the full image of God, displayed only by the “truly human” Jesus of Nazareth in kenosis.

And shall we give thanks?

  • Lord, we thank You for the gift of creation and the gift of your divine image to every human person born. Help us treat all humanity and nature with the dignity and respect You intended. In your question: “Adam, where are you?” we know, Lord, that we have failed miserably in imaging you in our lives. Remember us in your mercy.
  • Lord, we thank You for the gift of the conditions of possibilities in life. Guide us with a positive mentality and a proactive spirit that we may apply our time, talents and treasures to their full potential for the glory of your Kingdom on earth.
  • Lord, we thank You for the gift of the desire and the opportunity to study and learn. May your spirit of wisdom and revelation continue to lead us, so that we may grow to know you more and, in knowing you more, we may grow to love You more and serve You more.  Through the power of the passion, death and resurrection of Your Son. Amen.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2017. All rights reserved.

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