What is the Image of God?

Creation’s origin cannot be appropriately understood apart from its eschatological aim. Creation was “very good” but in a real sense unfinished; it had before it the promise of a consummation in everlasting Sabbath blessedness. Humans were created in covenant relationship with God and one another for the purpose of securing this blessedness. Every nonbiblical anthropology begins with an assumption of the autonomous individual—intrinsically independent from God and creation and standing in sovereign judgment over God and creation.

I take the “days” of creation as analogical (though not mythological). They are God’s accommodation to his ordained pattern and commandment of six days of labor and one of rest. Eschatology is the principal motive: we were created and called to imitate God’s pattern of work (Adam’s trial of obedience) and rest (the Sabbath enjoyment held out to him). This original, creational covenant relationship is intrinsic to the meaning of being created in God’s image. All people retain some sense of God as their Lawgiver and Judge and of their obligation to love him and one another. This status as a commissioned servant of God, created in his image, renders every person both dignified and accountable. The fall did not obliterate humanity’s covenant relationship with God but divided humanity between the rebellious children of Cain and those of Seth, who called on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4).

To be created in God’s image is to be called persons in communion. Human existence and identity is not lodged in self-consciousness or in the ability to reason or to will; it is the result of being spoken by God and spoken to by God. And though all are determined as persons by the mere fact of our creation and calling in God’s image, our realization of the purpose of our personhood depends on whether we correspond to God’s intentions. Throughout Scripture, the faithful servant of God is the one who responds to the Great King’s commission, “Here I am.” Such an answer opens us up to the call of our neighbors as well as to God. The image’s relational character is undermined if it is identified with any faculty or capacity within the individual. The image is chiefly the law of love for God and neighbor written on the conscience.

Humans certainly differ from other creatures in their natural capacities for rational reflection, language, and deliberative action. By themselves, however, these distinguish us merely as more complex forms of biological life in certain respects. It is God’s command and promise and the role we have been given in his unfolding drama that marks our uniqueness. In short, the significance of the image of God is our moral likeness to our Creator and our covenantal commission in Adam to usher all creation into God’s everlasting Sabbath. The image is constituted by the following four characteristics.

  • Sonship/royal dominion—As children and servant-kings of God, we are meant to exercise righteous, respectful, responsible dominion over the rest of creation.
  • Representation—Like priests, we are meant to be analogues of God, official embassies of his character, will, and actions; this places the image in the realm of judicial commission (ethical relationship) rather than being a mirror of the divine essence (ontology).
  • Glory—We were created as temples indwelled by the Holy Spirit, filled with the Father’s glory in his Son.
  • Prophetic witness—We were created to hear God’s Word and then respond faithfully, to him in praise and to others in witness to God’s character and works.

The commission of imaging God, which Adam and his children have twisted and spurned, is truly fulfilled in all its kingly, priestly, and prophetic aspects in the eternal Son who became man, Jesus Christ, the very Image of his Father.


The Trinity and inclusive love

Moving towards a theology that embraces both oppressed peoples and care for the earth requires the reclamation of trinitarian concepts and language that move us into communities rooted in radical love. Patrick Cheng writes,

The doctrine of the Trinity is a manifestation of God’s radical love because it is an internal community of radical love. That is, the Trinity breaks down a number of categories, including the self and the other. Because God is an internal community within God’s very being, this collapses the usual difference between the self and the other (that is, otherness as being “external” to one’s self). Thus, God consists of both the “self” and the “other.” Indeed, the love among the three persons of the Trinity has been described by the term perichoresis (or circumincessio in Latin), which means an ecstatic dance or interpenetration of the three persons.[1]

The Trinity teaches us that the ontology of God is paradoxically both oneness and relationship. Part of our bearing the image of God is our longing not only towards relationship and community, but towards love. That humanity bears the image of God means that all people experience the intimacy of God through embrace, inclusion, community, and love. John writes that although no one has ever seen God, if we love one another God becomes alive within us, tangible, and made visible (1 John 4:12). The love which we are to imitate is indeed a radical love that is demonstrated in the act of creation. Cheng continues,

I believe that creation can be understood as God’s outpouring of radical love . . .God’s own being is inherently relational. That is, because of God’s three-fold existence, God is already a self-contained community and does not need anything else that is external to Godself. However, God chooses to create the universe–including humanity–as an outpouring of radical love.[2]

Last week I wrote about history/nature dualism, which holds at its core that the natural world exists for the exclusive purpose of human use and enjoyment. This says something about our understanding of ourselves within the universe: we can use and dominate that which is “other” to us.

I am captivated and inspired by the concept of the Trinity containing both “self” and “other” in a radical love relationship.

Our spiraling human patterns of domination begin with the natural world and extend to our own species towards those whom we think are lesser than us, not as economically valuable, or simply “other” than ourselves. Our imitation of trinitarian love requires us to deconstruct hierarchical relationships that promote self over other, rich over poor, male over female, and human over non-human in an attempt to image the radical love of God and make it tangible, real, and present in a broken and hurting world.

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1. Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (Seabury Books, 2011), 56.

2. Ibid., 62.