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.


Adequate language

One concept that I’m particularly interested in is our metaphorical language for God. How do our images of God, and therefore our names for God, influence our faith, worship, and love for neighbor (human and non-human)? What is implied by and what is embedded in our understanding of God through names such as Father, King, Almighty, Parent, Mother, Lord, etc.?

Sallie McFague has written a great deal on this topic, three main texts being Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, and The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. She contends that the God-language of traditional theism–God as sovereign king–is patriarchal and triumphalistic, and conveys an overly transcendent God-world relationship. Furthermore, these ideas are obsolete in our modern and industrialized global village. McFague works from the presupposition that all language we use for God is metaphorical and is drawn from human experience in relationship. The androcentric God-language of traditional theism, according to McFague, is dominated by this patriarchal and triumphalistic imagery, exclusively assuming the male characteristics of God at the expense of of other images such as Mother, Lover, and the World as God’s Body. These alternative images, contends McFague, emphasize God’s immanence without sacrificing transcendence, and therefore, provide avenues for greater eco-theological exploration.

I’m currently working my way through Stephen Bouma-Prediger’s 1995 text The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann. In it he offers thorough and helpful summaries of the ecologically oriented theologies of Ruether, Sittler, and Moltmann, and critical appraisals of their ideas. In his appraisal of Ruether, he touches upon this concept of God-language and gender that intersects with McFague’s work.

Ruether perceptively observes that while the strategy of envisioning God as mother as well as father is helpful in portraying the fullness of God, especially God’s relatedness to creation, nevertheless it can subtly reinforce harmful gender stereotypes since this approach assumes that maleness means distance and that femaleness means relatedness. Such assumptions feed the very stereotypes which have in part created a problematic view of God in the first place. Hence Ruether argues that until stereotypes of gender roles change and there is a new model of full human personhood that incorporates both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits, viewing God as mother as well as father, while helpful, will still not offer the kind of solution to language about God that is required. Like proposals for speaking of the androgyny of God, in which God has ‘masculine’ as well as ‘feminine’ characteristics, an alternative construal of God as mother as well as father continues to assume typical gender roles and thus is an ultimately inadequate response to the need to have more inclusive language and images of God. [1]

Basically, male-dominated language for God tends to be more transcendent and is interpreted to sanction hierarchical relationships to human and non-human life, whereas female language for God coupled with male language is preferred. However, Ruether contends that these assumptions are born from stereotyped gender roles that must be deconstructed if we are to discover a truly inclusive concept for God that goes hand in hand with an inclusive and non-oppressive/non-hierarchical relationship to all of creation.

Our perpetuated ethics of domination in our relationships to both humans and the earth is projected onto our understandings of God and how we speak of God. Similarly, how we view God and how we speak of God influences our ethics and our relationships to humans and to the earth. Finding adequate language for God and for the God-world relationship is of great importance.

How we image God shapes us tremendously. What is the likelihood of feminine images, or at least non-male images of God becoming incorporated into worship and prayer within dominant Christianity either alongside or instead of traditional images of God? Would you feel comfortable or uncomfortable in communally exploring alternative images? Do particular doctrines or theological positions hang upon androcentric God-imagery?

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Bouma-Prediger, Stephen. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1995.