created ad imaginem Dei

Theologically, one says that one is created in the image of God. One might also say that there is a distinction to be made between being in God’s image and in God’s likeness. Much is made of this distinction in evangelical & fundamentalist circles. But as sit, cross-legged in my theological room, with all my beliefs stacked high around me for the sifting through, I find this box the next in line.

And they strike me as important insofar as the content of whatever it is to bear an image (and what an image is), and whatever it is to bear a likeness (and what a likeness is) has direct significance on how one views oneself as a Christian, and indeed how one views others as Christians. I was taught that all human beings are image bearers, saved or not, but that “we” Christians are being changed into his likeness.

The set of beliefs can be listed and expanded by Leibniz’s Law:

formally stated: (x)(y)(x = y ® Px & Py) 

informally stated: for anything x and anything y, if x is identical to y, then x and y have all the same properties—loosely speaking, identical things are identical in every way possible.

 So the beliefs are

     1.  Human beings are created in God’s image.

     2.  Human beings may or may not be in God’s likeness.

1 entails that if something is a human being, then it is created in God’s image. So all human beings are image-bearers. If this is true, then it makes a statement about a necessary property, that for something x to be a human being, it must be an image-bearer. Yet 2 says that the same necessity fails to obtain about being in God’s likeness. Thus by LL, whatever it is to be an image-bearer is not identical to whatever it is to be a likeness-bearer. And by corollary: whatever an image is must not be identical with whatever a likeness is, that is,

     3.  Image-bearers ≠ likeness-bearers

     4.  God’s image ≠ God’s likeness

This much seems easy enough (though I do admit that I’m taking care to justify distinctions logically, not at all the way things were done in my upbringing, where logic was considered a human sin, necessarily opposed to the wisdom of God).

How are these beliefs doctrinally justified? That’s a two-fold question: a) how have they been justified by the fundamentalist, dispensationalist doctrine I was weaned on, and b) how might they be otherwise justified? Depending on the answer to b, I have a third question: is there any reason to continue to hold these beliefs, and what do these beliefs entail?

Beliefs engender beliefs. It’s a chain of justification: if x is justified and entails y, then x justifies y, hence y is justified. That one’s beliefs are justified is a good thing. It’s another thing to look at whether said beliefs are actually true. Since I am treating issues of faith here, I am more concerned with whether each belief is reasonable and whether the set is consistent. My criteria for reasonableness boils down, in this case, to whether the belief in question is grounded in an intelligent interpretation of scripture, whether it stands consistently with other reasonable beliefs, and whether it entails clearly contradictory or otherwise undesirable beliefs.

So I treat each belief in turn.

1 begins at very least in Gen. 1:26-27, where God is recorded as saying “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us,” and where the author poeticizes, Humankind was created as God’s reflection: /  in the divine image God created them; / female and male, God made them.

The only other place I find such claims are in Colossians 3:10-11, where Paul writes “put on a new self, one that grows in knowledge as it is formed anew in the image of its Creator. And in that image there is no Greek or Hebrew; no Jew or Gentile; no barbarian of Scythian; no slave or citizen. There is only Christ, who is all in all.”

Already, I am confused. It seems in one place we are created as image bearers, and in another we need to put on a new self, and it is this new self that bears the image. Of course, this is precisely how the fundamentalist makes the distinction, saying that the original creation is the image bearer, yet we fell (bad us), marred the image, and it must be transformed into the likeness. It’s sort of a Picture of Dorian Grey story–the original image is stunningly beautiful, but as we live our corrupted lives, we are marred, withered, and gnarled. Thus we need God to transform us into his likeness.

But I don’t see all of this doctrine standing right here in these verses. I see two stories: God said God would create us in God’s image, and so it was, and then a few thousand years later, we are to put on a new self, and this one is the image of God. Already things are murky.

When I look to my handy-dandy NIV (the preferred translation of evangelicals, though fundamentalists hanker after the KJV), things get worse. There, the Genesis passage reads “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness”, though the poeticizing reads “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him […]”.

So does this mean that God wanted to create us in both his image and likeness, but only the image came out? Doubtful. Does it mean that image ≠ likeness? Doubtful again, a long doctrinal tradition notwithstanding. It reads rather a stylistic turn of phrase. So much for belief 2 (and 3 and 4).

Whatever distinction has been made in my fundamentalist upbringing between image and likeness has been founded on this notion that all of us are still image bearers, yet clearly some of us are messed up cookies, so there’s some sort of disconnect. Well, how can that be, for an image bearer? There must be something else that we lack, and we’ll call that the ‘likeness’ of God. And it is this likeness thing that we need to regain.

Though I find the idea that there is something we need to aspire to, to put on a new self daily, as it were, quite appealing, and a powerful challenge to daily spirituality and growth, I don’t see how it can be justified in terms of imago Dei, as I’ve been taught.

So what’s going on? One possibility is that God in fact made us in God’s image, and we in fact screwed it all up by eating from the tree of knowledge. But I have difficulty accepting that the God of the universe, immanent in all creation, was terribly concerned about one tree and that this tree somehow had magical epistemic powers. Surely this is a myth expressing the alienation we all feel from God when we are overcome with the evils we encounter. Heck, it seems to me that the overplayed “Problem of Evil” argument against God’s existence is already being responded to by this story—offered as an attempt to explain how God and Evil can coexist. (The free will argument stated more compellingly than Swinburne ever could!)

Well, if there isn’t some ancient place where some ancient magic tree grew in a garden now blocked by winged, flaming-sword wielding sphinxes (Genesis 3:23-24), then it seems more plausible to read this as an attempt to understand our relationship to God.

We are supposed to be image-bearers, at very least. Surely both passages imply that. And the latter gives us an indication of what this image is and is not: it holds all persons, regardless rank, gender, religion, political views, economic status, and dare I say it, sexual orientation on an equally-valued footing. Of course, one might be quick to accuse me of reading something into the scripture that is not there. Paul says nothing about orientation! How dare I! Well, I dare this way. The point of the claim is not to give an exhaustive ostensive definition of what the precise nature of God’s image is. The point here, and in Romans 10:11-13, and in Galatians 3:26-28, is to say that no matter what kind of person you’ve been labeled as, you are valued in Christ equally as any other persons who are differently labeled. There is no hierarchy in Christ. And that is the role of the ‘image’ imagery in the text, I think. We are all valued as sharing in the divine (God created us in God’s image), and we are told to act in accordance with this intrinsic value we all have.

It seems more consistent to interpret these verses thus:

Genesis claims we are all intrinsically valued by virtue of being created in God’s image.

Colossians claims we need to recognize that everyone (not just those who share our status or lifestyles) should be treated as intrinsically valuable.

There is then no longer any contradiction. One verse makes a claim for intrinsic value, the other for how one should act towards things so valued.

Of course, this seems more plausible to me than the fundamentalist interpretation, that holds that we can somehow destroy what God has done. Suppose we can. Then whatever it is that is intrinsically valuable, once destroyed, is no longer of value. Consider the hypothetical by Jesus—‘you are the salt of the earth, but if salt were to lose its savor, what use is it? It might as well be tossed out in the street for people to walk on’ (my paraphrase). Now if we can be destroyed somehow, then our unique value would be utterly lost. It would be like the chemical composition of salt changing so dramatically that it isn’t salty any longer. Of course, if that were possible, then it would be justifiable to toss the valueless thing away like so much floor sweepings. But Jesus’s point here is that salt cannot lose its savor. It’s intrinsic to the chemical composition of the element that it be savory. I think it is the same for being intrinsically valuable as image bearers. It cannot be lost. We are always essentially image-bearers, intrinsically valuable. What is lost is nothing essential, rather merely the fact that we fail to respect this intrinsic value in others. And the notion that we can lose our value is used to justify the abuse of persons who are not ‘in God’s likeness’ according to the easy-to-accept theology of those who prefer to “take notice of the well-dressed one and say ‘sit right here, in the seat of honor!’; and say to the poor [gay, divorced, non-fundamentalist, atheist, what have you] one, ‘You can stand!’ or ‘Sit over there by my footrest.’ Haven’t you in such a case discriminated in your hearts? Haven’t you set yourselves up like judges who hand down corrupt decisions?” (James 1:3-4).

Hmmm. I never know where my belief-sifting takes me, but here I am, looking at the ramifications of image vs. likeness, and I see how the distinction has given the fundamentalist a seeming justification for treating us poorly. Not being so easy to look on in their midst, they tell us to go sit over there, and justify their actions by saying that we have somehow corrupted God’s image in which we were also created. But if God’s image is not something that can be lost (like the chemical composition of salt), then there is no justification for treating human beings of any sort other than one would treat Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:30-46).

In short, regardless your personal dislikes and likes, everyone around you is equally bearing God’s image as you. That should fill us all with awe of the majesty to be had in each smelly person who sits behind us on the bus, in each drag queen we encounter crossing the street, in each jihadist we see raging against imperialism on TV. And it should humble us when we realize just how unjustifiably elitist we all are.


One thought on “created ad imaginem Dei

  1. Bubba

    Fair enough, but I still can’t help but believe that a profitable distinction can be drawn between image and likeness. Granted, all human beings are image-bearers, and therefore absolutely worthwhile, but mightn’t likeness refer to a further reality which, while it obviously cannot impinge on the subject’s worthwhileness, is nonetheless theologically significant? A few thoughts:

    Generally, our use of the word “image” holds connotations of superficiality: the image of something is nothing more than its external appearance. That said, we certainly do not wish to claim that the absolute, divinely-gifted worthwhileness of any and every subject is based on superficial appearance, and I will resist this inference in due course. Meanwhile, to employ an image of my own, I believe it may be helpful to think of the relationship between image and likeness in terms of the relationship between a container and its contents.

    Now, information about a container is, in principle, publicly available: if Muhammad has uncovered a giant earthenware jar at the base of a cliff, anyone present may examine it and see the markings it bears (if any), its size, its apparent age, and the like. None among us, however, can determine from this examination, however careful and meticulous, whether this jar contains gold, a jinni, or the codices of a lost Christian society.

    And, if we project the container/content distinction onto the image/likeness distinction, I believe we can not only retain it, but learn from it. The image of God is given, it is universal, but, more to the point, it exhausts the relevant data our examinations can yield. However closely we look at the jar, all we will ever see is the jar; similarly, no matter how closely we examine our neighbors (or, possibly even ourselves) we will never have access to anything beyond the phenomenal skin, the imago Dei. The content, the likeness of God, is forever and in principle beyond our reach–it is known and knowable only to God. (And, maybe, just a little, to the likeness-bearer?)

    Of course, the problem with this is that it relegates the likeness of God to the noumenal realm and leaves it, for all practical, human purposes, quite nearly meaningless. Indeed, the most we can say of it is that the likeness of God is some similarity the subject has to God independent of that subject’s innate worthiness and inborn potential, perhaps something in the subject’s chosen disposition relative to the divine will at any given moment? (Just a suggestion, and in no way clear or robust enough even in my own mind to elaborate.)

    Ultimately, whether image is likeness or no, we are all image-bearers, and thus under the jurisdiction of the Divine who created us, regardless of whatever phenomenal defects we may seem to bear. To my mind, there is no better reminder of this than the incarnation: we, as Christians, worship a God who chose to manifest in history as a bastard child, conceived out of wedlock, born in a barn, to a menial laborer lacking any real financial security (i.e., land), branded an intolerable threat both to the secular and the religious authorities of his day, followed by the least desirable elements of society, and finally executed in such a manner as, under Jewish law, to bear God’s eternal curse. This is the image of God that we know absolutely and unconditionally represents God; reason would indicate that construing those most similar to this representation of the divine as bearing a less than pefect image and/or likeness of God is not merely unwarranted, it is absurd.


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