That human persons are created in the image of God is explicit from the first pages of the scriptures (Gen 1:27). As a concept, removed from its particular purpose in the Genesis narrative, this fact has become the subject of a seemingly endless series of speculations as to exactly what this means. In contemporary theology, this most often takes the form of seeking to identify ‘the image of God’ in man with some characteristic or characteristics of human person. So it is proposed that rationality, or language, or freedom, for example, are the substantial meaning of God’s image. All of these speculations, and this approach as a whole, have severe difficulties. On one hand, as we advance in our knowledge and understanding of other of God’s creatures, we see more and more that human consciousness is not something utterly other than that of other living things, but lies on a continuum, such that these human qualities can also be found in animals, albeit to a lesser degree. On the other hand, we encounter the case of human persons who lack some of these characteristics, generally near the beginning or end of life. Our theological understanding of the innate value of every human person, from conception to death, is grounded in human persons as image-bearers, and so we shrink back from dehumanizing those incapable of reason, language, or substantive choice.
In order to understand the nature of God’s image, it is better to turn directly to the scriptural texts in which this terminology is used, in order to understand how it is being used in its original context. The narrative of creation is the story of God creating a sacred space in which to dwell with his creation, humanity. God does not need a physical space in which to live, but humans, as finite creations, do. In so doing, the text of Genesis 1 and 2 follow the pattern of the construction of an ancient temple. In the religious imagination of the nations surrounding Israel, their gods lived in one of two places, either in a garden, or on a mountain. Sometimes both, as testified to by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, an attempt to construct a garden-mountain. This is not to say that these pagans were correct, or that the God of Israel is like their gods. Rather, it is to say that when God spoke to ancient people, to describe to them this creation of a sacred space, he spoke to them using language and imagery which they would understand. And so the space that God creates in Genesis is a sacred garden. This garden imagery would later be further developed in the decorations of Solomon’s temple. (The tabernacle, on the other hand, followed the pattern of God’s dwelling atop Mt. Sinai, into which Moses entered (Acts 7:44, Heb 9:11, 23).)
The final step in the creation of an Ancient Near Eastern temple was the installation of the god’s image, or idol. After its installation, a ceremony was performed in order to open its mouth and nose, so that the spirit of the god could enter into it. This requires a word about idolatry, and how it functioned in the ancient world. Ancient people worshipped, and sought to interact with, through acts of worship, spiritual powers. In order to interact with these spirits, they needed to take up residence in a body. One means of this was possessing a human person, as was the case of the oracle at Delphi, and other less famous mediums (i.e. Acts 16:16-24). Great men were also seen to be possessed, and guided by spiritual beings, such as Socrates’ daemon (Republic 6.496, Apology 31c-d) or the genius of the Roman emperor. The other, far more common mode of this interaction was through the construction of a body for the god by its worshippers, an idol. Once the divine spirit was inhabiting the image, the primary task of the priests was to care for the idol, by keeping it clean, dressing it, bringing it food and drink, maintaining its home in the temple, etc. It is this which engendered the extended critiques of idolatry throughout scripture (cf. Is 44). It is not merely that humans are worshipping rocks and chunks of wood rather than the God who created them. There is an inherent foolishness at work here. If a so-called god is unable to clean itself, dress itself, maintain its own home, or even pick itself up off the floor if tipped over, how could one possibly believe that such a being could bring rain or great yields of crops? If it cannot govern even the most basic functions of life, how could it govern a nation, or the world? And yet all of these rituals are aimed at one goal, to use the temple and the image to control the god, and get it to do what one wants. The image of the god is the place where it encounters the human world.
What we see in Genesis is precisely the reverse of this pagan practice. Upon the completion of his own temple, his own sacred space, God then creates his own image. After creating a human person as his image, God himself breathes into him the breath of life, opening his nostrils, and causing him to live, and to function as God’s image. The gift which is here given to human persons is to be the means by which God is going to act, to work, in his creation. This is a gift and a privilege, as God does not need humanity in order to act in Creation, any more than he needed a creation in which to act. The fall then represents the failure of humanity to serve as the image of God. Rather than participating in the works of God, man undertakes his own work, another, foreign motion of his will. At this point, as the Fathers distinguish between image and likeness, humanity loses the likeness to God, though human persons continue to be God’s image, such that the reverence which is shown for a human person passes on to his creator, as does the lack thereof (Gen 9:6, Matt 25:31-46).
The true and full imaging of God in human nature, unfulfilled by humanity in sinfulness, finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God perfectly reveals himself in and through human nature. Christ is, in fact, the express image of the Father (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3). This mystery is developed in scripture in the context of a meditation upon the formation of Christ’s body, parallel to the creation of Adam. Hebrews 10:5-7 cites Psalm 40, applying its words to Christ, specifically quoting the Greek rendering of verse 5 that, “a body you have made for me”. This is contrasted with the desire for sacrifices and offerings. Here we see the inversion of the pagan view that God is desirous of humans to fulfill some need, in return for which he gives blessings. Rather, God desires that human persons share in his life by participating in his working in the world, that they become righteous by participating in his righteousness, good by participating in his goodness, holy by participating in his holiness, etc. He desires that they function as his image. Christ, as God himself, gives perfect expression to the character of God, doing only the works of the Father (cf. Jn 5:17, 9:4, 10:37). The Hebrew of Psalm 40 uses the idiom of God having opened his ears, an idiom also used in Isaiah 50:5 to describe God’s suffering servant, who unlike Adam, does not rebel.
Through his death and resurrection, Christ has restored human nature in its function as the image of God. This restoration brings about the descent of the Holy Spirit which fills human persons in whom the image of God has been restored through baptism into Christ. It is in this way, the Holy Spirit coming to indwell the Christian, that human persons are empowered to serve as God’s image in his creation. It is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that human persons come to participate in the working of God in the world, to do the works which he has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10). These are God’s own works, and so God can look upon them and declare them to be good. In its turn, serving as God’s image by participation, brings about growth into God’s likeness (Phil 2:12-13). It is transformative of human persons, both restoring and healing them from the effects of sin, and ever more conforming them to the likeness of Jesus Christ.