Wednesday 23 December 2009

Exploring Biblical Themes (3): Humanity

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 2 November 2009.]

‘When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?’

So asks the poet of Psalm 8, reminding us that the quest to discover the significance of human existence didn’t begin with disaffected philosophers in the 1960s, but reaches back through the centuries. So long as humans have been asking questions, it seems, we have asked the question, What does it mean to be human?

And it should come as no surprise that the Bible has something to say about this – not just on its first few pages, but all the way through.

It’s a humbling picture, actually, as we read in Genesis 2:7 that ‘the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’. That’s a powerful reminder of the connection between us and the ground, that we are – quite literally – ‘earthlings’, designed by God to live in the world he made as living beings, embodied beings, personal beings, relational beings. It also says something about our total dependence on God. And in different places, the Bible has much to say about the stuff of human life – work, marriage, family, sex, suffering, death and the hope for what comes after.

But if there is humility, there is honour too, as we are also told in Genesis 1:26-27 that we are made in the image of God. In this image-saturated world, we ourselves are the images that really count – images made according to the specifications of our Creator.

Of all God’s creation, only humans are singled out as made in the image of God, created to be like God in some sense – but like God in what sense?

It used to be common to think that the image of God meant factors like the ability to think, to reason, or even to speak. And of course, we give thanks that we have the capacity for emotion and imagination, for intellect and communication – like God himself – although it’s not apparent that his ‘image’ should be identified with these things.

What is clear in Genesis is that men and women together constitute the image of God, that humans are made for relationship with each other as well as with God, such that relationship with God and relationship with others is fundamental to true humanity, and we are less than human without it. And this relational aspect is important at a time when there has been a heavy focus on the inward self (the me who knows things) or the fragmentary self (the me who doesn’t really know who I am anymore) rather than the relational self (the me who relates to others).

But even so, we cannot limit what it means to be created in the image of God simply to being made male and female – because it’s clear that animals are also created as male and female. Gender distinction is not limited to humanity, but extends to dolphins and chickens and elephants as well. This doesn’t mean gender is unimportant or incidental. On the contrary, if anything, it makes it even more significant. It shows gender distinction is part of the warp and woof of God’s creation – but not necessarily the most significant point about being made in his image.

More significant is that being made in the image of God has to do with the vocation of men and women to rule creation, to reflect something of God’s own rule. That seems to be clear in Genesis 1:26, where God says, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all creatures that move along the ground’. Humans are charged with the task of ‘dominion’ on behalf of other creatures as God’s representatives or stewards.

And, that’s reinforced in verse 28, which says that ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”’.

Cultures surrounding Israel told stories of people being made as slaves of the gods, with the language of ‘image’ applied only to kings. In Genesis, however, all human beings are created in the image of God, giving all men and women a status and responsibility not found in other worldviews. The delegation of God’s rule over the world is given not to a king or to a select class of people, but to humanity. All humans are God’s living images on earth, called on to exercise his loving rule.

As the poet of Psalm 8 says, in response to his own question about human beings:

‘You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet…’

Which, of course, raises all sorts of questions about how exercise our stewardship appropriately, in a way that involves exploration not exploitation, dominion not dominance.

And although they are now distorted by sin, men and women still bear God’s image, and those tasks of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’ and ‘ruling’ have not been taken away. In the first place, of course, it refers to the building of families, the growing of crops and breeding of animals, the tending of the garden. Creation requires cultivation.

But such cultivation provides the basis for the organisation of society, and includes by extension the development of culture and civilisation – building houses, designing clothes, writing poetry, playing chess. These are the ‘mundane’ ways in which we exercise our creation mandate, as we represent God’s rule over every type of cultural activity, in relationship with others, and in a way that reflects God’s own nurturing, creative hand.

But then, when we come to the New Testament, whatever we say about humanity now has to take account of Christ, not least because the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, reminding us once again – by the way – of the importance of bodily existence.

Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (as Paul puts it in Colossians 1:15), the one who exercises complete rule over all aspects of the created world. He is the new Adam (as Paul says elsewhere, in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). And in 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul can speak of ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’, reminding us of Hebrews 1:3, where Jesus is said to be ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’.

At the very least, Christ as the image of God means he now truly represents God to creation in the way the first humans were called upon to do so. But beyond that it becomes clear that Jesus establishes a new humanity of those who are conformed according to that image, in fulfilment of what God intended from the very beginning.

And there are past, present and future dimensions to this. In Colossians 3:9-10, Paul tells us that we have put off an old mode of humanity, an old self, and ‘have put on the new self’. But the same passage goes on to speak of a continuous aspect to this transformation, as that new self ‘is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’. We are, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’. And this transformation awaits a point in the future when, at the resurrection, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:49, ‘just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man’.

But it’s also apparent in Paul’s letters that this transformation takes place within a network of relationships in the church.

The vision of Ephesians makes clear that what’s at stake is the re-formation of humanity into a new people of God. In 2:1-10, Paul reminds us that when we were dead in trespasses and sins, God made us alive in Christ, and we are saved by grace through faith, brought back into relationship with God. But then, as he goes on in 2:11-22, he tells us that not only is the vertical dimension with God dealt with, so is the horizontal one. Where Jews and Gentiles were once alienated from one another, Christ has broken down that dividing wall and made them into ‘one new humanity’. Formerly, we were enemies of God and alienated from one another; but now, through Christ’s death, we have been made one new person – reconciled to God and to each other.

Then it becomes clear in Ephesians 4:17 onwards (as it does in Colossians too) that this change in status requires a corresponding change in character – that we are to live in a way that matches our calling, putting off our old self and putting on the new self (4:22-24). Those who have been made alive in Christ are now renewed in the likeness of Christ.

So, not only does Jesus bear the image of God in perfect form, but those who are incorporated into Christ are in a process of being restored in God’s image, so that only through Christ are we able to fulfil our destiny as human beings – which means patterning ourselves on Jesus, but doing so together as the body of Christ, looking forward to our complete transformation at the end.

All of which means that the image of God ties together the uniqueness of humanity in creation, the incarnation of Christ, our ongoing formation in the church, and the future resurrection body.

In all this, we begin and end with God himself, like the writer of Psalm 8 does – ‘Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.’

Further Reading

Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 169-85
A chapter-length mid-level treatment from a New Testament perspective, focusing especially on ‘the ecclesiological structure’ and ‘the ethical structure’ of the new man.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 138-47.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 23-33.
A brief overview at an accessible level.

J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).
A full and illuminating discussion of the notion of ‘the image of God’ in Genesis 1 against its ancient Near Eastern background and an exploration of its ethical implications for today.

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