Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Imago Dei: Where it is

We’ve looked a bit at what the image of God is not. So let’s look at what it is (and more specifically for this post: where it is). A common approach to discerning what imago Dei means is to examine the differences between animals and mankind. This approach has some merit, but as we will see can mislead us as we get further into it. Another approach is to say man has a soul or spirit (or both), but this tends to lack a tight reasoning (particularly from the portions of Scripture where the image of God is mentioned). I think the best approach is to examine the passages themselves and understand what is involved in their context. 

Before we get to what it is, however, we need to enumerate the passages that discuss the image of God. In “What it isn’t” we listed the four explicit occurrences Genesis 1, 5, and 9, as well as James 3. But there are further implicit occurrences of the image of God, notably Psalm 8 and its New Testament correspondent Hebrews 2.7-9 (which D.A. Carson convincingly argues is about mankind in general rather than Jesus particularly, the resource which I cannot locate). But where else can the language be found? My friend, Alex recently echoed these thoughts: why do we talk so much about the image of God when the overwhelming picture in Scripture is the sinfulness of man?

Perhaps, like asking a fish about water, the image of God is something so present and sublime that we simply fail to recognize it. Perhaps it’s an assumption of Scripture throughout. After all, the ethical demands in Genesis 9 and James 3 are based on the assumption that man is made imago Dei. But if murder and words are established upon such a foundation, cannot stealing, covetousness, adultery, and all of them likely be set upon an assumption of the intrinsic dignity bestowed upon man? “Do not harm another human! Because they are God’s image.” “Love your neighbor as yourself—both created in the image of God.” But the assumption runs deeper than the command to respect another human being.

The assumption carries the reason for responsibility. Man is responsible. God is sovereign and humanity is responsible for their actions. But animals are hardly held to a similar standard. There are commands about killing an ox if it is known for goring men, but as C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain—we do not say that an animal has sinned against us, they have acted on instinct and nature: Pavlov may teach a dog to obey and perform but this is not righteousness. To the contrary: man is held responsible for his actions in ways that an animal is not. Animals may be taken out back and shot, but men must give recompense for their behavior; and only in extreme cases is their life to be taken. They are given commands because they are endowed with great power, and like a large ship it can do great good or great harm. They sit as the crown of creation and are solely to blame for the captivity of the earth (Rom.8), even as they ought to do good.

Therefore the prophets lament the behavior of man because they are made in the image of God and have chosen otherwise. Our Holy God required sacrifice from men because they have desecrated the image of God. In Exodus 13 when God tells Israel the sacrifices to be performed on the Passover, he gives them the option of redeeming the firstborn of the flock, but of the firstborn of men he requires the redemption price. In fact, as Vishal Mangalwadi discusses in The Book that Made Your World, the inherent dignity of mankind is a revelation of the Judeo-Christian worldview. The entire narrative of Scripture, the whole missio Dei (Mission of God), presupposes and assumes the value of those created in God’s image. Mankind is fallen from the glory of God, and while not worth saving God has chosen to redeem some and condemn others because they are made in his image and he loves them.

Even the existence of Scripture itself demands something unique about humankind for God has chosen to reveal himself to us in words and ways that we can understand and which awaken us to our history and his glory.

So… Imago Dei, where is it?