What does it mean to be God’s image-bear­er (Gen. 1:26)? It’s some­what sur­pris­ing that we are giv­en no expla­na­tion what­so­ev­er of what the image of God means or refers to, either here in Gen­e­sis or else­where in Scrip­ture, apart from the sig­nif­i­cant ref­er­ence to Jesus as the image of God in Paul’s let­ters (see Col. 1:15ff). As a result, this furtive ref­er­ence in Gen­e­sis 1:26 – 27 to a notion that is clear­ly impor­tant to the nar­ra­tive, and hence to our whole under­stand­ing of what it is to be a human per­son, has opened the door for Chris­tians through­out the ages to attach a vari­ety of spe­cif­ic mean­ings to the image of God,” each one an attempt to see what it is that gives to the human crea­ture its dis­tinc­tive nature and task. 

We might think of the image of God” as con­sist­ing in:

  • Ratio­nal­i­ty—the human capac­i­ty to rea­son and speak, just as human log­ic” derives from the divine logos (Greek for rea­son” and word”), the Word” who was with God in the begin­ning and who enlight­ens every­one (John 1:19);
  • Moral­i­ty—humanity’s abil­i­ty to tell right from wrong, since the law of God is writ­ten on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15);
  • Aes­thet­ic aware­nessour pow­er to appre­ci­ate and even to cre­ate things of beau­ty and mean­ing, our own artistry and crafts­man­ship reflect­ing God’s order­ly cre­ative work (see Gen. 1:28; 2:15);
  • Voli­tionthe gift of free will, which allows men and women not mere­ly to be deter­mined by oth­er fac­tors but also to exer­cise con­scious self-deter­mi­na­tion (see Ps. 32:9), once again reflect­ing the God who cre­ates freely and with­out constraint;
  • Reli­gious capac­i­ty—that elu­sive aspect of men and women (per­haps the human soul” or spir­it”), that allows us to wor­ship in spir­it and truth the God who is him­self Spir­it (John 4:24);
  • Rela­tion­al mutu­al­i­ty—that is, humanity’s inter­per­son­al nature, as expressed both in sex­u­al union (Gen. 1:27; 2:18) and in famil­ial and social con­texts (Gen. 4:9; Gal. 6:10), all of which sounds strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to God’s own nature as uni­ty in diver­si­ty (see Eph. 3:15); or, finally;
  • Func­tion—that is, the pecu­liar domin­ion” grant­ed to human­i­ty, the God­like author­i­ty to rule over cre­ation on behalf of God him­self (Gen. 1:26; Ps. 8:5 – 8).

It may not be nec­es­sary to hitch our exeget­i­cal wag­ons to any one of these read­ings in iso­la­tion from the oth­ers. The point here is to see that the image of God, how­ev­er it is under­stood, is a remark­able real­i­ty that sets the man and the woman at the apex of cre­ation, above all oth­er crea­tures — in a cer­tain sense even above cre­ation itself. Talk about the image of God” moves us very quick­ly to a vision of human­i­ty that is shock­ing­ly high. 

Our cul­ture may teach us to think of human beings as sim­ply anoth­er species of ani­mal, and not a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tin­guished species at that. But the aston­ished psalmist sees things dif­fer­ent­ly, as he declares to God about the divine image-bear­ers, You have made them a lit­tle low­er than God, and crowned them with glo­ry and hon­or. You have giv­en them domin­ion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:5 – 6 NRSV). These human crea­tures, the psalmist seems to say, are like God in ways no cre­at­ed thing should be! Who would have thought that such a God-endowed, God-reflect­ing crea­ture could exist? 

The impli­ca­tions of this por­tray­al of human­i­ty are immense. How can mere crea­tures know the incom­pre­hen­si­ble God? One of those crea­tures is made for exact­ly that purpose! 

Human­i­ty is unique­ly endowed with capac­i­ties and tasks that make direct rela­tion­ship with God pos­si­ble, and even nat­ur­al. To be a human per­son is to be noth­ing less than a great high­way in which each lane con­verges upon the great des­ti­na­tion that is God him­self. Each aspect of cre­at­ed per­son­hood serves as a path along which to approach the tran­scen­dent mys­tery that stands behind and in the midst of all cre­ation. Of course, as tran­scen­dent mys­tery, God can­not be con­fined to any cre­at­ed path; he will always over­flow these bound­aries and over­load our capac­i­ties. Yet the paths them­selves are designed with gen­uine inter­per­son­al knowl­edge in mind. All humans are cre­at­ed with an invi­ta­tion to know God stamped on their very nature, for the Trini­tar­i­an God who is beyond knowl­edge desires to be known.

This series has been adapt­ed from Steven D. Boy­er and Chris Hall’s The Mys­tery of God: The­ol­o­gy for Know­ing the Unknow­able. Hun­gry for more? Please vis­it Bak­er Aca­d­e­m­ic for more information.

Originally published September 2016

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