Reflection: The Image-Bearers of God

This reflection was initially prepared for my course Introduction to Christian Theology in Winter 2011.

What does Genesis 1:26-27 mean when it says that human beings are created in the image of God? While this idea is alluded to in places in the New Testament, it really is a speculative enterprise despite that it has the potential to shape our view of ourselves and each other in so many ways.

The first solution provided by Migliore seems to be the most intuitive one: we are made in God’s image physically.  God is anthropomorphized throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and as Jesus.  I have personally never heard anybody use this explanation for the meaning of the image of God and it by far makes the least sense to me of the different interpretations given the usual assumed claim that God does not have a physical being.

What of the idea that we are like God in having rationality? God is rational; humans are rational.  It makes sense to say we received that from God. Yet there are problems: as in the pastoral situation for today’s class, what if somebody is mentally disabled? Or what if someone is in a coma? Are they no longer in the image of God? I think most would intuitively say they still are, but the logical conclusion from this interpretation alone would yield the opposite answer to those questions. As Migliore points out, this view was started by Thomas Aquinas in an age where reason was highly valued, and it is only now as we move from modernism to post-modernism that we can see there is more to being human than being rational.

Assuming the same qualifier made by Migliore that dominion does mean stewardship, protection, and respect (a sort of dominion we see in Jesus’ bringing of the Kingdom of God, not the sort of domination used by earthly rulers) then I would agree that we do have dominion over the earth. Migliore also looks at the arguments for freedom and relationality. As God has the ability to choose and is fundamentally relational, the same can be said of humans. This also makes a lot of sense to me, although it is debatable on what qualifies as “relationship” and whether other animals are capable of it. Those three all make sense to me, but intuitively don’t feel like the entire answer.

Another view that I have considered myself recently came from my learning of Hebrew last term. I was shocked the first time that I translated the word usually rendered as “image” and Bill’s textbook dictionary had the word “statue.” About the same time as I was learning this meaning of the word in class, a friend of mine mentioned this same linguistic fact – adding that it was the same word for speaking of “idols” for nearby religions – in a conversation we were having on this very subject. As we talked about it together, the general theory we developed was that we are made in the image of God in the sense that we represent God to the earth. I do not mean for that to say that we are the only representatives of God on earth, but from personal experience I genuinely do feel like other people are the most glaring everyday way of seeing God.

This lines up with Jesus’ call for us to be the light of the world. He was the light of the world while he was in the world, but then he tells us that we will be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Throughout the New Testament we are also called ambassadors for Christ and the body of Christ. Could this be equated to saying that Jesus was God’s image on earth, and we are a marred version of God’s image as well? It also makes me wonder about the fact that ancient Israel was the first known religion to forbid physical idols of God, and I ask the question: is it because human beings were meant to fill that type of role?

I did not feel completely convinced that any of the explanations in the text for the meaning of “the image of God” were sufficient in and of themselves. I would embrace some combination of rationality, dominion, freedom, and relationality, along with primarily emphasizing this concept of being God’s representatives. Yet even in saying so, I acknowledge this is a challenging question with no clear Scriptural answer.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.