Jul 1, 2005

Designed for Dignity

6 Min Read

Evaporated. That is a word we can use to describe what has happened to the truth that we live in a moral universe, preserved by the self-revealing holy God. As David F. Wells pointed out in his book Losing Our Virtue, the postmodern mind has substituted values for virtues; personality for character; shame for guilt; and the self for human nature in God’s image — and the exchange has been devastating for our culture. Consider the last of these substitutions. As Wells points out, the self is unique to each individual such that no two individuals have a common reality — except for that narcissistic and nihilistic swamp in which they paddle around in a vain hope of landing on common moral ground. Wells rightly contends that our culture will not recover the truth that we live in a moral universe unless the church acts to reverse the substitutions just cited. This little article on the image of God in Scripture may not cause any reversals, but perhaps it can put out a buoy about the image of God to help us navigate the postmodern swamp in the safe channel of historic Christian teaching.

According to Genesis 1, God’s creative activity reached its zenith on day six, when the divine counsel determined to create man in God’s “image” and “likeness.” The two words used to express this first and fundamental truth about man deserve our attention. What does it mean to say that man was made in God’s “own image, according to His likeness”? Interestingly, in Genesis 9:6 the one word image is enough to articulate the meaning expressed by two words (image and likeness) in Genesis 1:26–27; while in Genesis 5:3, the order of the words is inverted. The two terms, widely understood as interchangeable, deserve a closer look to help us answer the question before us.

Moses informs us first that man was created in God’s “image,” and from this we learn that man represents God. The Hebrew word translated “image” occurs seventeen times in the Old Testament, with eleven of that number applied to a physical image such as a statue or other representation and the remaining six applied to man. That “image” involves the idea of representation is confirmed by the usage of the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word, which appears seventeen times in the story of King Nebuchadnezzar and his image-statue in Daniel 2–3. Applied to man, then, the term “image” introduces us to the humbling reality that man, male and female, represents God.

If we place this basic OT concept in its ancient context, we learn that kings as well as statues and the like were viewed as representatives of, or substitutes for, the deity. This view found special expression in the king’s role as ruler: as the deity’s rule was ultimate, so the king’s rule was representative thereof. In fact, since the same representational function was assigned to both images and kings, the ancients made a connection between the two and the king became known as an image of the deity he represented.

Remarkably, this ancient view intersects (in truth, derives from) the creation narrative in Genesis 1, to the degree that the two attribute a ruling function to humans. And yet we also hear a profound difference between the two. Whereas in ancient culture the image of the deity was particularized in the king, in Scripture the image of God was generalized to man as man and with it the ruling function. Clearly, this democratization establishes a reality common to humans, but we shall leave it to others to expound this theme more fully. For our purposes, the vital truth is that the “image” of God applies to man as man, not just to man as king: all humans represent God; all humans are God’s vice regents.

There is a second term by which Moses describes man’s creation in Genesis 1: Man was fashioned according to God’s “likeness.” From this word we learn that man resembles God. Now, since the living and true God is spirit, we understand immediately that man’s resemblance to Him excludes the notion that man’s body resembles His body. In affirming this fact, however, we should not presume that man’s resemblance to God is limited only to metaphysical aspects of his being. Indeed, certain of man’s physical attributes do resemble certain attributes of God. Texts like Psalm 94:9 remind us that God’s creation of man’s ears and eyes, for example, reflects the reality that his Creator hears and sees. Moreover, the duality of man’s sexuality reflects the plurality of the Godhead. In a phrase, man’s being is theomorphic. Resemblance to the Creator, then, finds expression through both the metaphysical and the physical aspects of humans.

There is a bit more to Moses’ combination of “likeness” and “image.” His introduction of the term “likeness” apparently also serves to preclude the equation that the ancients would have made between the image of God and God Himself. In other words, Moses’ employment of both “image” and “likeness” in his first description of man highlights the fact that, though man is indeed the image of God, he is, as His likeness, not God (with apologies to Shirley MacLaine). From Moses’ account, we are certainly to infer a high view of man when he is described as God’s “image,” but we are, at the same time, instructed not to confuse the image with the image Maker when he is described as God’s “likeness.” Man is to God as Seth, the likeness and image of Adam, is to Adam (Gen. 5:3); the relation between the two is one of similarity, not identity.

All told, man’s creation in God’s “image” and “likeness” tells us that man was created to represent his Creator and to resemble Him. Of all God’s creatures, it is man alone, male and female, who shares His image and likeness. It is just here that we find what the postmodern has lost, namely, the special dignity of man as man — his uniqueness, his value, his worth, even his glory.

In addition to lexical considerations like those above, Bible teachers also often talk about capacities, functions, and/or relations of man to understand the image of God in him more fully. It will suffice here to discuss the nature of man as God’s image from parallels in Genesis between the predications about God and those about man. We note that, having created male and female in His image (Gen. 1:27), God greeted the couple with a benediction, thus empowering them to fulfill His commission to rule and fill the earth (1:28). By examining the days of creation, we are able to discern that this commission had to mean that man was to imitate his Creator in his person (character, being) and work (conduct, actions). Let us consider each in order.

As for His person, Genesis reveals God to be the one who achieved His creative purpose through the medium of His word. The Creator demonstrated His dominion over the components of the creation by first speaking them into existence and then calling them by name. In Genesis, man is a mirror image of God. It is man alone who speaks as God had spoken, and it is man alone who names the woman and the animals as God had named the day, the night, heaven (sky), earth (land), and the seas. Accordingly, as he exercised dominion through his word, man would reflect the image of God in his person.

As for His work, Genesis reveals God to be the one who brought form and fullness to the originally unformed and unfilled earth. In the first three days, He ruled the darkness and the deep to form an inhabitable cosmos. In the next three days, He filled the visible heavens and earth with their respective hosts. On the seventh day, God rested from His labors. The same was to be true for man. He was given six days in which to work, and God sanctified a sabbath for him to rest from that work. Thus, as he engaged in the weekly cycle of work and rest, man would reflect the image of his Creator in his work.

The pattern of predicates in Genesis, then, underscores fundamental truths about human nature in the image of God. Man is at once lowly in origin and exalted in purpose. In his person and work, the creature is to reflect the person and work of God his Creator. Formed from dust by the Creator and set over the rest of creation, man is God’s vice regent. In fact, contrary to postmodern mythology, individual humans — male and female — have shared a common reality consisting in their human nature as God’s image.

Our postmodern culture is lost in an amoral universe because, among other things, it has abandoned the doctrine of God’s image in Scripture, preferring instead to deify the individual self. But multiple deities yield competing moralities, which is to say, no universal morality. In such a context, sin is incomprehensible and Christ is unnecessary. David F. Wells is right: If our culture is to recover from its narcissistic and nihilistic confusion, we must articulate the biblical truth that the image of God in man is fundamental to man’s relationship with God and man, whether we contemplate man at his beginning, in his fallen state (Gen. 5:1–3; 9:6), or in his redemption (Col. 3:10).