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 1:1, 9);
- Morality—humanity’s ability to tell right from wrong, since the law of God is “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15);
- Aesthetic awareness—our 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);
- Volition—the 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.