That humans were made in the image of God is a point made by both accounts of creation. With regard to the image of God, this section will examine the oriental theology, the ideas of Reformed and Orthodox theologians, the different ways to think of the imago Dei, and finally, the idea of the imago Dei as sacral kingship.
Genesis agrees with oriental theology in several aspects. One of these is that man has both material and spiritual qualities. Gordon Wenham states that Atrahasis speaks of man as being “made out of the mixture of clay and the flesh and blood of a dead god.” The text of Atraharsis literally states: “They will take one god, kill him, and make mankind by mixing the god’s flesh and blood with clay…” Wenham goes on to say that Egyptian texts also speak of human beings as made in the image of God. Ancient near eastern religions saw royalty as the sons of the gods or the representatives of the gods. See a previous post “Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. 2 – The Second Creation Narrative” for more details on these ancient near eastern creation myths.
Martin Luther saw the image of God as something that was not inherent in humans, but something that had to do with a relationship with God where humans can mirror the divine being. When someone turns away from God, they would stop mirroring the divine being and thus the image of God would not be found in them. John Calvin saw the image of God in unique human attributes and also in the freedom humans have to reflect God through their attributes or to choose not to. Thus, the imago Dei can be missing in humans.
Vladimir Lossky, from the Orthodox tradition, states that the image of God is about “manifesting God to the extent to which his nature allows itself to be penetrated by deifying grace” and the Reformed theologian F. LeRon Shults writes that “the imago Dei is not a static likeness between two substances but a dynamic longing that constitutes creaturely personhood, a longing for participation in the peaceful life of the eternal Trinitarian God.” Christopher Southgate argues that this capacity developed in humans and is still developing.
The term used for this life of the Triune God which Shults speaks about is the Greek word perichoresis (Latin circumincessio), which refers to the loving interaction of the three persons of the Godhead as equals and equally divine. Jack Mahoney explains that just as “dynamic, circulating, interpersonal love is central to the nature of God conceived as a community of persons, likewise an innate concern among humans for their mutual welfare can be identified as a distinctive feature in which they are created to image God, not only as individuals, but also as a species.”
James P Hurd states that “Genesis tells us that the eternal, transcendent, and immanent God is other than the creation, not identical with it. Humans share a createdness with stars, giraffes, fungi, and granite rocks, yet they are given a special status in this creation.” Humans enjoy this special status because they are made in the image of God. This detail sets them apart from the rest of creation. That humans are in the image of God may be interpreted in a number of different ways. Wentzel Van Huyssteen mentions the following ways in which the imago Dei may be interpreted: substantive, functional, relational, and eschatological. When this image of God is understood as the imago Trinitatis, then it would mean that it is not “the capacity for such perfect self-giving, for that is uniquely the character of the life of God in Godself, but as the capacity to respond with self-giving to an initiative of self-giving love,”according to Southgate. This view is also known as the “social conception of the image of God.” This understanding is about substance, but it is also relational and functional. Southgate continues as follows: “This response is the human vocation, to be worked out in our relationships with each other and the whole creation. It is also eschatological – the image is only now being perfected by the transforming work of salvation in Christ. Also, the idea of reflecting God by responding to God’s initiative does more justice, I suggest, to the idea of an image than some other suggestions for the character of the imago Dei.”
The feature of humans to image God is the view that is closest to the sacral kingship of Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the king was regarded as divine or as the representative of the divine. The words “image” and “likeness” are both used for physical representations. Some Egyptian royal stelae refer to the king as the “image” of God. In Genesis, however, it is not just royalty who are in the image of God, but it is something that is in reach of all who are human. Robert Davidson states that “[c]ontext is the safest guide to meaning,” which indicates that the part regarding mankind’s representative dominion over creation should be read as the meaning of the image of God. Van Huyssteen makes the interesting and thought-provoking observation that the Hebrew idea of the imago Dei is a holistic one, which implies that “the imago Dei finally and strikingly functions as a hologram where the original image is visible from certain perspectives, but from others the reality of sin and evil is revealed and the tragic dimensions of human existence dominate.” Being made in the image of God does not negate the fallenness of humanity. The dominion which is given to us by being representatives of God also bestows a weight to carry. Davidson states that because this dominion is delegated, humans have a responsibility before God and are called to stand in relationship with God. It is a dominion which is not our own, but one that has been delegated to us and one for which we should take responsibility. Van Huyssteen states that “[b]eing created in God’s image in a very specific sense highlights the extraordinary importance of human beings as walking representations of God… with an additional call to responsible care and stewardship to the world, also to our sister species in this world.”
A literal reading of the creation narratives in Genesis is not possible, because of the inherent contradictions between the two narratives and the scientific knowledge we have today. We simply cannot ignore modern scientific knowledge in favour of reading Genesis as a scientific handbook, which it was never supposed to be. The fact that the Bible is not an accurate source of information on natural science does not mean that it is without any meaning or value. One can find much value in the Bible as a book about people’s experiences with God and spiritual truths. Just as one would not expect to find the meaning of life in a biology text book, so one should not expect to find scientific truths in the Bible.
The biblical texts have a socio-historic context that must be taken into account for the text to be interpreted in a responsible way. In the case of the creation narratives, the Mesopotamian background of the themes provide insight into why the narratives were written in the way that they were. The first creation narrative acts as a strong polemic against the polytheism of the ancient near east and provides a monotheistic view of the origins of the world. God is presented as supreme, all-encompassing and nature as demythologized and subject to the will of God. Wenham explains the message that Genesis offers against the Mesopotamian cultural and religious background of the time:
The ancient oriental backgrounds to Gen 1-11 shows it to be concerned with rather different issues from those that tend to occupy modern readers. It is affirming the unity of God in the face of polytheism, his justice rather than his caprice, his power as opposed to his omnipotence, his concern for mankind rather than his exploitation. And whereas Mesopotamia clung to the wisdom of primeval man, Genesis records his sinful disobedience. Because as Christians we tend to assume these points in our theology, we often fail to recognize the striking originality of the message of Gen 1-11 and concentrate on subsidiary points that may well be less of moment.
Saying that the accounts are not literally factual does not diminish the value. We can still see the value of the Genesis accounts, even without a employing a literal reading. James Hurd thinks in the same vein when he says that “Genesis 1-3 helps us understand human godliness, human uniqueness, human moral responsibility, human failure, and God’s loving response to that failure. We see ourselves in Adam and Eve, not only in their fall, but also in their great potential in God. This is the meaning of Genesis.”
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Southgate, C. 2002. God and evolutionary evil: Theodicy in the light of Darwinism, Zygon 37(4):801-824.
______2008. The groaning of creation: God, evolution, and the problem of evil. London: Westminster John Knox Press.
______2011. Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian response to Darwinism, Zygon 46(2): 370-395.
Wenham, G J. 1987. Word Biblical commentary. Volume 1: Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word Books.
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