God’s Image as Self-Revelation
When God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” notice who was taking responsibility for making us in his image. God himself was. This point is very important for a couple of reasons. First, God will not fail in this proposal any more than he fails in any other proposal. Because God decided to make us to be his image, we will finally fulfill that role and become that which we were created to be.
Equally significant to the present discussion is the fact that God is proposing to make us in his own self-image. If God is doing the making and if he says that what he is making is to be his image, the result will be a disclosure not only of God but also of God as he sees himself. Is there a difference? Does God know himself well enough to paint a thorough and accurate self-portrait? The obvious answers are “No” and “Yes.” There is no difference. God’s disclosure of himself will correspond just as well to God in his person (as he really is) as to God in his own eyes (as God sees himself).
Then why bother to mention it? Because every major historical understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image seems to imply that God has myopia and can only see tiny aspects of his own character. One interpretation after another says that in creating humankind in his image God had in mind only his purity, only his mind and ability to be introspective, only his love of relationships, and so on. But if the creation of humankind is an act of self-disclosure on God’s part, why should we not expect that it will encompass the whole of God and his glory? Are we afraid to expect that because we do not see God’s glory in ourselves? Where do we look, to ourselves or to God, to determine how we are to understand God’s image?
Historically theologians have automatically turned from the subject, namely God, to the object, which is us.[i] They consider us as we stand now after the fall versus how we stood before the fall. They consider us with all of the light that each theologian’s anthropology can throw onto this topic.[ii] But we are not the subject or focus of this doctrine: God is. God is his own focus in this proposal to make us and he should remain our focus in interpretation.
Adam was moderately aware of who God is because he and God walked together in the garden. But where do we look to see God? We look to God’s expression of himself in his Word, the Bible, and especially in his incarnate Word, Jesus. God has shown himself to us as he walked in the garden, as he sat under the tree at Abram’s tent, as he spoke from the burning bush, and as he conversed with Moses on Mt. Sinai. He wrestled with Jacob like a man, spoke to Elijah as a gentle whisper, and stood with the three Hebrew children in Nebuchadnezzar’s fire. God has revealed himself in many places and in many ways, but his self-revelation reached its culmination in his Son who is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”[iii]
If the self-revelation that we see of God in his Word is long and complex, full of questions and impenetrable mystery, then how dare we interpret his self-disclosure in and through us in a reductionist one-dimensional framework? Someone will ask how I would dare to speak of humanity in such a way, as though we were God’s self-disclosure in some way equal to the Bible or to Jesus. I respond simply with the words of our text, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” There is in the words “image” and “likeness” such a fullness of meaning as to leave no room for partial images and skewed likenesses. God has proposed an act of self-expression, a work of self-disclosure, and we are it. With our perspectives lying here in the dust, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”[iv]
[i] . Consider God’s words as they appear in the sentence: Us (subject), let make (verb), adam (direct object). Grammatically the subject is the doer of the verb, and God is the doer of this verb. Adam is not the subject of God’s proposal; rather, the plural God is the subject.
[ii]. For a fuller treatment of this idea of how the understanding of God’s image has been shaped by anthropology, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), vol. 3, 1, pp. 192–4.
[iii]. Hebrews 1:3.
[iv]. 1 John 3:2–3.
(Excerpted from ch 6 of Covenant and Community)
This is why God's law to us is always guiding us to live, act, think, speak, relate and feel in a manner that imitates how the three who are God have always lived, acted, thought, spoken, related and felt toward each other within the community of the Trinity. The short version of all of God's law was given even before we were created: we are to be their image and to manifest their likeness within the whole community that Adam has become, and even to be pulled into the intimate fellowship of the three whom we imitate. For that we were created, and to that we are being brought, through Christ Jesus. And that, my dear Hamlet, "is a consumation devoutly to be wished!"