I was having a discussion on Facebook the other day about Monergism vs. Synergism and one of my friends astutely pointed out that the notion of God’s Image may have considerable bearing on the issue. I’m sure where I’m going with this isn’t quite where he was itching but I’m glad for opportunity to think more deeply on the issue. I think it’s important to clarify what the bible actually means by God’s Image and then explore ideas of “justification”. I’ll tackle the biblical idea of God’s Image in the first post, and then explore ideas of justification, faith, and works in the next.
What are we talking about when we speak of God’s Image? The problem is that there are a few different understandings (or preconceptions) of what God’s Image refers to in the passage of Genesis 1. 1) Some (not as many these days) would take it as referring to the idea of man’s tripartite division of body, soul, and spirit and mirroring the picture of Trinity in Genesis 1:1-3: God is present with his wind/spirit “hovering over the face of the deep” and his word is present when God speaks. This is used in conjunction with God’s apparent plurality in Gen. 1:26. However, I think it’s a stretch to see concept of Trinity here but even if there was, a link between that and God’s Image is tenuous. 2) Much more frequently, occurring very regularly among Christian apologists, philosophers, and some commentators in varying degrees, God’s Image is understood as referring to the mental and/or spiritual faculties that man shares with his creator, e.g. man’s reason, personality, free will, self-consciousness, and/or intelligence. However, these sorts of notions are decidedly absent from the thoughts of Genesis 1 and have to be pulled from somewhere else and inserted. Though such ideas may not be entirely absent from Genesis 1, a sensitive exegesis of Genesis 1 should be looking elsewhere for the conceptual framework for God’s Image.
I think a much better understanding of God’s Image is that held by a majority of commentators in varying degrees (of the ones I have access to: Walton, Wenham, Hamilton, Sarna, Waltke, Von Rad, Mathews, Westermann, and Brueggeman; Speiser is too brief to mention anything).
1) “Image” in the Ancient Near East (ANE) was used of idols that were representatives of a god in physical form (not a representative of physical appearance). Along similar lines, among people generally it was only the king who was the image and likeness of a god. As such, the king represented the patron deity of a city-state or nation and functioned as vice-regents, being the administrator of a god’s rule, administering justice on the god’s behalf and being the agent of it’s power and authority. This is seen in an Egyptian context in Amon-Re’s speech to Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BC): “Thou art my beloved son, come forth from my limbs, my very own image, which I have put upon the earth. I have permitted thee to rule upon the earth in peace.” (Cited in Westermann, p. 153). This is precisely the context of Genesis 1.26-27: “Let us make man in our image and likeness and let them have dominion…” And again in 1.28 the idea of procreative blessing is a function of having dominion – rulership is the dominant created function of mankind. (See also II Sam. 7.12-16, Ps. 2, Ps. 45, Ps. 89.19-29, Heb. 1.1-3, 2.5-10)
2) “Image” and “likeness” is found again at Genesis 5.1, 3 with 5.3 being the only other verse in the bible where the two are combined. Genesis 5.1 repeats the thought of 1.26 with “likeness” being sufficient to convey “image and likeness”. But another nuance of “image and likeness” is seen in 5.3 where Seth is a son in the “likeness and image” of Adam. So the idea of sonship is carried in the expression: not in a lineage or physical trait sense, but as how one behaves or acts. (This is typical Semitic-speak: e.g. son of strength, son of death, son of righteousness, son of devil, son of 90 years (Gen. 17.1), son of light, etc.) Thus mankind is given the capacity to act like God in the ways necessary to enact his rulership. This is not merely the assertion of power but includes characteristics such as peace, justice, holiness, etc. Human faculties like reason, conscience, self-awareness, etc. may be a derivative part of human nature created for the given task, but do not denote “image” or “likeness”. (Some commentators allow for these concepts as additional denotation.)
3) This sets up the ultimate tragedy of The Fall. In Genesis 2.16-17 man is commanded to not eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. In the bible “the knowledge of good and evil” (contrary to common thought) refers to the ability or attribute of judging or discerning (2 Sam. 14.17, 19.35; 1 Kings 3.9-12; Dt. 1.39; Isa. 7.15-16) and so refers to wisdom. Wisdom is possessed by God (Prov. 2.6-8, 8.15, 22-31) and is something that man is to seek and attain (Prov. 3.13, 8.10-11). However, to seek it apart from God is moral autonomy, seeking to understand independently or with respect to oneself rather than with respect to God. Thus in the garden God placed the ability for mankind to make judgments in and of himself and so place oneself over against God and his authority. This is precisely what happened in the fall. Man set his Creator-given rulership over against God’s rulership, thereby siding with the serpent’s kingdom (cf. Gen. 3.15). The point is that mankind is to learn to fear God, which is true wisdom according to Job 28.28, and fearing God is precisely what absolutely no one does (Ps 36.1, cf. Rom. 3.18). According to the flow of Genesis 5, it’s this “image” of rulership set against God that is passed along even the “righteous lineage” from Adam to Seth and on and on, cutting themselves off from life – “and he died” ad nauseam (cf. Gen. 2.17, 3.24).
4) At the fall, this image/likeness is not lost per se - in Gen. 9.6 human dignity is accorded precisely because of our God-given function - but it is certainly corrupted (that is, not acting in accordance with created function, e.g. Gen. 6.11). Though man does not act according to created image after the fall, this does not mean that there is no sense in which fallen man acts as God’s image. God still uses even man’s evil actions towards his purpose and will (a major theme in Genesis culminating in Gen. 49…) despite the fact that man refuses to “fear God”, i.e. “esteem him in honor”. Besides this, I think it reasonable to suggest that there are many ways, even to the minutest levels, where humanity “carries out God’s rulership” (stewardship?) even if done very imperfectly. I suppose to some degree, if we were created to function a certain way, that’s the way we’ll function whether we like it or not. Nevertheless, what’s important is that we align our will with God’s, and that was compromised at the fall.