[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]
God partners with humanity as divine representatives within the shalom-filled creation, but humanity–and creation with it–degenerates through a series of crises.
Created and crowned with glory and honor as royal creatures within the creation, humanity chose a different route to the divine nature than God intended. While God invited humanity to share divine communion and gave them the status of divine imagers within the creation, humanity wanted more. We wanted to be God and consequently we created our own story within the creation.
Rejecting God’s offer to share the “divine nature” with the Creator (2 Peter 1:4), we pursued our own agenda to embrace the divine and created our own gods (ranging from idols of stone and wood to the contemporary gods of money, power and sex).
The Divine Image
Fundamentally, the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-31) is “godlikeness.” This is unique to humanity among God’s creatures (Genesis 5:1-2; 9:6) which affirms the dignity and worth all humans. But it also limits humanity because the image is not the thing in itself. It is, in some respects, unlike the original. We are not God, but we are the image of God.
But what is this “image”? There are, generally, three primary ways of understanding it.
1. Substantive — The image is identified as some definite characteristic or quality within the makeup of the human (e.g., rationality, personality, morality, spirituality, etc.). The locus of the image is within human nature; it is a quality, substance or capacity resident in our nature or even inherent in our ontology.
2. Relational — The image is identified with the quality of experiencing relationships (e.g., relationship with God, male/female relationships, social relationships, etc.). The image is displayed as humanity lives in particular relationships. That relationship is the image. It mirrors God’s communion and God’s own relational ontology.
3. Functional (Dynamic) — The image consists in something that humanity does; the function it performs (e.g., stewardship, partnership with God, “dominion” over the earth, etc.). The image is not something present in the makeup of human nature nor is it the experience of relationship. Humanity is God’s representative on earth as a vice-regent and shares the divine mission regarding the creation. This is humanity’s honor and glory (Psalm 8).
I understand the “image of God” broadly, inclusive of all of the above. Humanity is substantively invested with gifts that enable us to live in relationship with others and to serve the function God has invested in it. The image of God is not one thing but the reality that we are divine icons who resemble and represent God within the creation. Understood in this way, the idea is pervasively present within the story of Scripture from “be holy for I am holy” to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” to “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We mirror God in substance, relationality and function.
Humanity is forbidden to make “images” (idols) of God. Those images have no “breath” in them (Habakkuk 2:19; Jeremiah 10:14; 51:17). God has no humanly made image, because God has already made the image he desired, that is, humanity as male and female. God does not need an image because we are the image of God.
The image of God, however, is fully revealed in Jesus who “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). He becomes the fountainhead of a new humanity. Whereas the old humanity in Adam bears his likeness with an earthy natural body characterized by dust, the new humanity in Christ bears his likeness with a heavenly spiritual body energized by the Spirit (Genesis 5:2; Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). Our original human identity is restored and renewed in Christ.
Ontologically, humans have always retained their identity as images of God (divine representatives) and thus were entitled to dignity and respect (James 3:9). But the human detour through sin and death transformed that image from full color to a dark negative which needed renewal in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). The process of re-colorification begins with our spiritual renewal and ends with our eschatological glorification in the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:29-30).
Humans were not only designed to represent God within the creation, they were designed to commune with God, to enjoy God. They were intended to share the divine nature through the divine image which stamped their nature, role and function. This is the human vocation, our human identity, that is, to live in communion with and partner with God in the management, development and care of the creation. Communion with God entails a divine vocation.
The mission of God (missio Dei) is to dynamically mature and develop the creation into the fullness of the divine intent. The human vocation is to share the divine task within creation. Humans are co-rulers and co-creators. They partner with God for the sake of the divine mission. God has invested in humanity a glory and a responsibility as divine representatives in the world.
The good creation was not complete at creation but only beginning. The creation would, according to the divine intent, emerge and grow into a maturity fitted for the eschatological dwelling place of the Triune God. Humans, too, would mature as diverse cultures emerged and technologies developed. God glories in both natural and human diversity. Humans who live near the Arctic Circle live differently and develop a different culture than those who live near the equator. Since God determined that the whole earth be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18-19), God intended this diversity, values it, and rejoices in it.
This involves every aspect of human life. The arts (music, literature, art) are expressions of human creativity as we image God and enjoy what is created. Technology manages resources, medicine serves wholeness, and social structures shape community. These are part of the human vocation, our partnership with God, as co-rulers and co-creatures within the creation.
A Rival Story Emerges
The human story took a detour. What were intended as expressions of the divine task given to humanity became modes of reversing the divine intent. Technology polluted the earth, social structures oppressed the weak, and the arts fostered human self-centeredness.
This detour is described in Genesis 3-11. God invested humanity with the freedom to choose between the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” It was a choice between life and death, between partnering with God and autonomy. The episode in the garden of God’s temple (creation) symbolizes the plotline within God’s story of the fundamental choice human beings have between humility and pride (Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 18:12; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), between covenant with God or independence (cf. Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; John 7:17; Matthew 23:37).
The detour is not simply about the “fall” in the Garden but about the emergence of a rival story throughout Genesis 3-11. Evil grows in the story and fills the earth to such a point God destroys it through the Noahic flood. But even that cleansing did not deter humans from their own agenda. The story climaxes in the building of the Tower of Babel where the agenda of God’s creation is turned on its head. While God’s self-deliberation resulted in the creation of humanity (“let us create…”) in Genesis 1, the human self-deliberation resulted in the erection of a tribute to human arrogance and the desire to reach the heavens, that is, to become like God (“let us build….”). Humanity wanted to build their own city as a testimony to their autonomy. From Genesis 3 to Genesis 11 humanity degenerated into a broken, fallen and depraved image of God.
This degenerative process structurally uprooted God’s creative intent. The relationship between God and humanity was severed (e.g., expelled from the Garden), the relationship between male and female was distorted (e.g., husbands would now “rule” their wives), social relationships were deformed into relationships of power, abuse and violence (e.g., Cain and its aftermath), and the relationship between humanity and the cosmos became hostile (e.g., death). This degeneration was the “vandalism of Shalom” (Plantinga). It perverted the goodness of creation and stripped humanity of any power to defeat the enemy they had embraced.
The creation, however, was not without grace. Adam and Eve lived to bear children. Seth introduced a new line of humanity distinct from Cain. Enoch walked with God in the midst of a broken universe. Noah found grace in God’s eyes. And God would call Abraham in Genesis 12. God continued to pursue humanity and he did not forsake his purpose.
Though the word is rarely used in Genesis 3-11, sin emerges as a power within humanity as if it were an alien force. The dynamic of that power is larger than humanity itself and looking from the end of the God’s drama we see that power was demonic and Satanic. It became part of the “elements of the cosmos” itself. This does not mean that the creation became evil but that the creation was subjugated to the reign of evil powers.
Human choice, permitted by God’s will, gave that power to the chaotic and demonic elements within the cosmos. Humanity listened to the wrong voice. They chose sin and sin became a power within the human psyche; it became “second nature” to humanity. It is our “sinful nature” or sarx. The human condition degenerated into depravity and God gave humanity over to its desire (Romans 1:18-32). Sin reigned as a power within humanity and humanity was powerless to dethrone it (Romans 7).
Theologians have debated for centuries what the essence of sin is. The suggestions are wide-ranging, including disobedience, rebellion, pride, anxiety, law-breaking, idolatry and unbelief. Many of these metaphors are legal in character, others are introspective. But I tend to think that sin’s fundamental problem is relational.
The essence of sin, as Grenz argues, is the failure to image God. We were created as the glory of God, that is, to image God, and we have fallen short of that glory (Romans 3:23). We have missed the mark. We have failed to represent God in the world. Instead, through rebellious pride, we have asserted our own agenda. Sin is anything that fails to mirror God’s vocation, character and intent in the world. This includes individual but also social actions and structures which depress or subvert the divine agenda. Sin is not only personal but social; sin is not merely an individual act but a structural reality and dominating power in the world.
Every human person has intrinsic value and dignity. Our status as divine imagers is both our identity and vocation, and this gives worth to every human life. This is the root of a healthy self-esteem as well as the ground of a human rights ethic.
God intended change; he intended his creation to emerge, evolve and develop. Nature evolved, human society developed, and cultures emerged. The richness and diversity of the creation in all its biological forms is a testimony to God’s manifold wisdom. Just as God, humanity enjoys this diversity and learns about itself through the diverse expressions of human culture.
The human adventure is a fundamental conflict between two stories. One story humbly participates in the divine agenda but the other story arrogantly creates its own agenda. It is a contrast between humility and pride. Human conceit empowered evil in the world and rooted it in the fabric of the cosmos. The kingdom of God became the kingdom of Satan but intends to reverse that sad fact.
The human predicament is mixed. The divine image is present but blackened. The human vocation is intact but distorted. Humans are powerless to renew, restore or redeem the broken creation without divine grace. But God is present in the creation to redeem—present in Seth, Enoch, Noah…and ultimately Abraham. God has not forsaken his purposes and his intent will not be frustrated.