Tag Archives: tselem elohim

On the image of God and its eradication (and restoration): or, more thoughts on cancel culture and statues

I believe the “Image of God” is a vocation not purely an ontological reality that gives an inherent dignity to human beings by virtue of their being human.

Humans have dignity because we have the created capacity and purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God as his representatives in the world; our task is to be for the God of the universe what the idol statues in other theocracies did for their gods.

But the imago dei as it has been understood and developed in church tradition (particularly via ‘systematic theology’) is built on a bunch of assumptions about the nature of human being that I think are problematic; partly in that they emphasise “being” over “doing.” I’ve written about why we’re better off speaking about the “tselem elohim” than the imago dei, and grounding our Genesis 1 informed ‘theological anthropology’ in the Hebrew/Ancient Near Eastern thought world rather than the thought world of the early church in the Latin East with its graeco-roman influence (which isn’t to say the historical church has nothing to say about Anthropology, where I’m going here resonates with, for example, Augustine and Irenaeus), it’s just to say ‘systematic theology’ can often be built on some pretty shaky systematising, especially if it’s built on exegesis that reflects a particular age, and its obsessions and suppositions, rather than (inasmuch as we can access it) the world of the text and both its first audience (Old Testament Israel, whether pre-, mid-, or post- exile — or all three), and its (to borrow a phrase from Old Testament scholar Doug Green) ‘Christotelic’ fulfilment.

For more on how Biblical studies, rather than just church tradition, should inform how we understand the Image of God I’d recommend John Walton’s work on what the nature of ‘being’ is in Hebrew thought, where he suggests ‘function in a system’ not ‘material essence’ is how we should view the ‘making of things,’ J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image, a book exploring the relationship between images and idols in Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern belief and practice, and Alistair McFadyen, who in a paper titled “Imaging God” identified this same “tendency within theological tradition” for the “image” to function as a noun, rather than as a verb. It’s a good article that draws on Psalm 8 to make the case that this ‘verb’ — this ‘imaging God’ — requires us to be relationally connected to God for our calling to reflect him to be possible; he says Psalm 8 provides a reflection on how to ask what it means to be human, but one that as we enter the reflection we start reflecting God…

“What we have, rather, is liturgical performance. And if there is a sense in which we might say the anthropological question is not only asked but answered in the psalm it is not by the communication of facts about essential human nature. Rather, the psalm IS its own
answer to the question. That is to say, in singing the psalm and praising God, in asking the anthropological question, we are performing an answer to it: actively imaging God by seeking our humanity as sought and called by God. The psalm becomes a kind of performative utterance, drawing the singer into the dynamics of imaging relationality of which it speaks through direct invocation of the power of the divine Name through direct address.”

I’ve written before about how the Bible, in its form as a narrative centred on, and fulfilled in Jesus, contains the story of humanity’s glorious creation, our fall, our struggle to be who or what we were created to be, and God’s redemption, restoration, and transformation of our function through Jesus. I drew on Mesopotamian and Babylonian sources to show how this story happens against a particular backdrop with very different stories, and a very different concept of who and what the ‘tselem elohim’ (or “image of God” is) and what it looks like to carry out that vocation in the world, and then looked at how the work of Jesus in the New Testament is a work of re-creation and revivification of us as living, breathing, images of God. That the image of God in us needs restoration, and that we need to be resurrected and recreated, suggests that we can (and do) in our failure to be who we were made to be, start a lifelong process of attempting to eradicate the image of God imprinted on us, so that we can, instead, function as the images of our gods. There’s an increasingly popular phrase articulating this idea — drawing on Augustine, but also on Paul, on Psalms, on Isaiah (and pretty much the entire Old Testament); this is the idea that “we become what we worship” — our decision to worship created things, in the place of our creator, distorts our bodies and hearts and minds so that we represent something other than God, while as “created things” ourselves we are meant to reveal the divine nature and character of God. There are aspects of God’s image that we don’t eradicate before we die — that we live, and breathe, speak, create, and love — but as we worship other things in God’s place, our lives, breath, speech, creativity, and love are given to things other than God and so ‘image’ or reflect the things we worship.

When we engage in false worship we participate in a process that leads to death, and thus, to the eradication of the image of God in our bodies; we return to the dust from whence we came, as we die — as we expire rather than being inspired (receiving God’s Spirit to re-create us so that we do not bear the image of Adam, but the image of Jesus (1 Cor 15), we die in “lives” that aren’t participating in our created vocation as God’s image bearers, but rather lives in rebellion against him, expressed as we reflect the gods of our choice. If we choose to worship things other than God we were “made in God’s image” — created with a purpose — but we are explicitly and wilfully rejecting that purpose. Eradicating the image.

Jesus the image of God (Colossians 1) then comes to transform us into his image (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15), by the Spirit, which enables us to turn from false worship (Romans 1) to true worship (Romans 12), participating in a new script for our lives that shapes us, again, to be living, breathing, images who live and love like God.

There are, of course, ethical implications for this.

I should love my neighbour, as Jesus commanded, because my neighbour (as C.S Lewis might put it in the Weight of Glory) has the capacity not just to function as God intended us to in this creation, but the potential to be a glorious new creation, heavenly even, not just indwelt by the breath of life (psyche in the Greek), but by God’s Spirit (pneuma in the Greek) — Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, has those glorified in Christ shifting from being psyche-icons to pneuma-icons (icon is the Greek word for ‘image’).

I should view people according to the capacity for a person to participate in their created vocation (and that I too, was once dead), but I should also recognise that so long as a person has life, and breath, and speaks and loves and is capable of creativity and still the tension between knowing what we should do, and fighting the temptation to do something else (Romans 7 — which I take, because it’s pre-Spirit, to be Paul describing life in Adam). There is an inherent dignity to that; and yet, that same dignity, which is given as a reason to not murder to Noah, is eradicated enough by idolatry that the same texts (the Torah) can command the destruction of idolatrous nations around Israel, while the prophets warn that Israel will share the same fate should it worship the breathless and dead idols of the nations. This command, for example, in Numbers: “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52) is actually a command to destroy ‘cast tselems’. If a “tselem elohim” is an ‘idol statue’ then to ‘become like them’ is to become an image of something else.

The image of God as a sort of ‘inherent dignity’ is a place people go to both to ethically justify any ‘natural’ human behaviours; the enacting of our basest internal desires, and it’s also a place people go to affirm the dignity of those who fall outside other norms and constructs (often set up from frameworks and anthropologies that look more Babylonian than Christian); that is, the image of God is cited as the reason to love and value those on the margins. It is appealed to in debates about race. But, I suspect, if you’d asked why an Israelite felt justified in going to war with Canaan, on the basis that the Canaanites were made in God’s image, they’d have said it was precisely because Canaan was failing in this calling that war was justified; and yet, Israel’s counter-narrative in Babylonian exile is not just that all Israelites are made in God’s image (where, in Babylon, it’s just the king), but that even the Babylonians have that capacity, lost in their own exile from God. This different view of the image of God in those we might treat as lacking dignity (if we see godlike as the ability to, say, use power or perform as a contributor in an economy) still focuses on something internal (a person’s capacity to reflect the divine nature and character of God, to participate in being fruitful and mulitplying by reflecting the life and ‘doing’ of God), but emphasises that this happens in relationship with God. The ‘image’ isn’t a thing we reflect through performance, but through relationship with God. Classic, Biblical, Christianity (whether Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, or Arminian) doesn’t ever see this as exclusively a human action, but as an enaction enabled by God’s self-revelation through the world, his word, and Jesus and the Spirit; we can’t exclude any human with life and breath from participating in the ‘breath of life,’ given by God, or from God loving and relating to that person as they are. Yet, we can say that idolatry and a person’s breaking of relationship with God does affect a person’s image bearing function. There are also lots of other reasons to see those at the margins of a society that devalues people who can’t perform certain functions as our neighbours, made and loved by God, and as precisely the people Jesus came to liberate through the restoration of the image of God in humanity, the liberation of the world from bondage to curse, sin, and death, and in the renewal and restoration of all things.

“Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8)

We can also, when it comes to ethics and politics say ‘that person is not reflecting the image of God’ in how they live; we can say that certain behaviours push us away from the image of God and into the image of other gods (so Paul in Colossians 3, for example, and all the warnings about idolatry in both Testaments). We can say that these behaviours are sometimes systematised in laws, in political systems, and in cultures (practices, art, rituals, norms, etc); and react accordingly — both seeking to set our hearts and minds on heavenly things, not earthly things (the liturgy of Psalm 8) through true worship — including how we use our bodies and interact with the world (Romans 12), and speaking to condemn idolatry and warn about its affects; and I think even to talk about how idolaters are not ‘imaging God’; not being who they were created to be. This doesn’t mean following Israel’s example in the Old Testament (which was tied to an explicit command of God connected to his actions in the world to restore an image bearing people, and thus creation itself, that anticipated and were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus to pour out the Spirit into the lives of a people). This doesn’t mean operating as judge, condemning to dust, or executioner (though I do think “the state” can do that) — but it does mean recognising that idolatry systematically (both at an individual and cultural level) eradicates the ‘doing’ part of the function of humanity, and that restoration is found in union with Christ, and the Spirit’s act of renewing and re-creating as we are “raised with Christ” and transformed into his image; that is “the image.” It does mean not simply appealing to the ‘image of God’ in a person to say their natural desires should be affirmed and celebrated, or that they must be treated with a particular dignity (there are commands from Jesus that should shape the way we act towards others). This allows us to recognise the distorting impact of sin on our ‘nature’ — we all ‘know what we ought to do,’ but ‘because of sin at work in our flesh,’ naturally choose to do non-image-of-God things with our lives; and when we choose to worship created things in the place of the creator this drastically amplifies this distortion.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the eradication of a variety of tselems; of statues, but also the cancellation, by different groups, of a variety of human images. Someone asked a question in a discussion about Aimee Byrd’s cancellation at the hands of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (and the similar abhorrent treatment she’s receiving at the hands of a cabal of so-called Reformed Christians in a closed group on Facebook) and statue toppling. I think both are acts of desecration; deliberate expressions of judgment about a person’s function as a representative; an image bearer of God.

The question is whether a person who is either erecting a ‘sacred’ digital icon of themselves, desecrating a statue, or desecrating a person’s reputation by ‘cancelling them’ is operating with a true or false picture of God, and thus seeking to reflect, or promote a true image of God while destroying or ‘desacredising’ (trying to capture what ‘desecrate’ means in a not-word word) false images. To ‘cancel’ someone is to ‘demolish their image’ — to damn their memory — to pass judgment on that image as not worthy. I think, in some ways, to cancel someone is to take the sword (in Romans 13) into one’s own hands; to position oneself as God, not a person — and to take up the role of Israel entering the land. Because there is no secular/sacred divide; and because every person operates as ‘the image of their god’ (we become what we worship), both every human ‘image’ affirmed or cancelled, and every toppled or erected statue is either a ‘desecration’ — a claim that this image is not of God, or a ‘consecration’ — an attempt to secure or reflect the image of a particular god. Some acts are both at the same time; to put an image on the outer is an act of defining who is on the ‘inner’ — but also, often images are replaced, not simply eradicated. So, for example, a mining company blowing up a sacred indigenous site simultaneously declares that site ‘de-sacred’ (delegitimising an alternative view) while ‘consecrating’ mining as a holy act in service of a view of humanity and who we should be that is ultimately also religious.

Those cancelling Aimee Byrd should just honestly say they don’t see Aimee Byrd representing truths about God; they might say at that point she is representing an image of an idol, and that, like idol statues in Israel, she should be destroyed… Just as Trump, when he positions himself as a monumental figure of faithfulness (even in a photo opp) should admit that he is presenting himself as an image of the god he worships, and those holding Trump up as a leader (or even just a ‘good Christian’) who ‘bears the image of God’ should acknowledge that the god Trump then represents is the god they are worshipping and reflecting; a God who, incidentally, looks nothing like Jesus, and a whole lot like the false images Paul tells us to get rid of in Colossians 3. The trick is, often in desecrating others who are bearing the image of God we actually eradicate something of our own humanity by propping up and worshipping a false god, or we reveal the gods we’re really worshipping; and the screenshots circulating of the kinds of criticism levelled at Aimee Byrd are revealing.

The ‘image of God’ is a more flexible, dynamic, vocational thing than simply an ontological reality underpinning the common humanity of Trump, Byrd, and those being deformed by the cesspool of the “Genevan Commons” Facebook group. For what it’s worth, I think Aimee Byrd is seeking to reflect the image of God, in relationship with God as we see God revealed in Jesus; and this may also be true of those raising questions about her ideas from good faith positions…

But I think those who take the bold step of appointing themselves as gods, whether in her ‘cancellation’ or in the support of alternative images (idols) like, for example, Trump and his image, are on pretty dangerous ground. Ultimately it’ll be God who determines who bears his image, because of his Spirit dwelling in them, transforming them into the image of Christ, with heavenly, imperishable bodies, and resurrected life in the New Creation in perfect relationship with him, and those who become tranformed ultimately into the images they’ve worshipped — images of dead idols, who return to the dust.

If this model is correct, then it’s actually more theologically true to say that it is those with the Spirit of God dwelling in us, and connecting us to God so that we both worship, relate to, and reflect him who are the image of God in the world; to cast someone out of the church is not to damn them, but to recognise that God’s image is found in the body of Christ, and the goal of such casting out — whether of an idolater (1 Cor 5) or false teacher is not simply to damn their false image, but also to position them alongside other humans we believe desperately need the image of God restored in them by the Spirit. Images in the Ancient world weren’t so much ‘destroyed’ but ‘exiled‘ from the relationship systems that made them function. It’s not our job to give or takeaway life, or the potential for image bearing, but to point to how that image bearing potential is found in Christ, and in true worship.

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 2 — ‘he lays me down’

Back in 2015 I posted one part of a planned two part epic ‘By the rivers of Babylon’, I didn’t ever post the second part, and nobody seemed to mind. Until today.

To recap, I posted some quotes from ancient near eastern rituals to do with the creation of ‘images of God’ — particularly idol statues — and looked at comparisons with Genesis 2, to suggest that there’s a conceptual link; that in the Genesis creation story we see God creating living, breathing, representatives of the divine, in deliberate contrast to rituals, creation stories, and an understanding of humanity in the ancient near east where man created dead, breathless, statues of gods and then had to develop a cognitive dissonance to be able to encounter that statue as though it was a representative of divine life. We have existing accounts, from the ancient world, of the creation of a divine image and its revivification or rededication after an idol had been captured by an enemy or removed from its sanctuary. I have written bits and pieces expanding on this theme, but thought it’d be nice to come back and finish the ‘epic’ as promised.

I suggested the parallel between the Genesis type scene of creation and re-creation of a divine image (which repeats itself through the Old Testament), mirrors these ancient rituals in the following ways, where an image (tselem) is:

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15)
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

I pointed out that this pattern repeated itself with Noah, in the creation of Israel as a people, and was anticipated by the prophets about Israel’s return from exile — where God’s people would be recommissioned as his image bearers. And then promised a follow up post to connect this to the rest of the story of the Bible.

Recap over.

One of my favourite bits of Biblical Theology — perhaps because it was one of the first pieces to grip my imagination about how the Bible might work — comes from connecting Psalm 23 to Jesus, the good shepherd.

 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
     he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. — Psalm 23

It’s a beautiful Psalm as a standalone. But now read it against that number list. The narrator (first David) is:

  1. Placed by waters in the sanctuary of green pastures;
  2. His Soul restored — literally this is ‘nepesh’ in Hebrew and ‘psuche’ in the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the words used for the ‘breath of life’ breathed in to Adam in Genesis 2. It’s a recreation. The ‘restored’ word is the same word used to describe return from exile in places like Deuteronomy 30:3, 1 Kings 8:34, and Jeremiah 30:3
  3. He is guided along the right paths by God for his name’s sake (a purpose within a system, where the ‘for his name’s sake’ is the purpose, connected to image bearing representation and the failure to live for his name is what lead Israel to exile, to no longer being ‘image bearers’, which is a breaking of the 3rd commandment).
  4. He is taken to a place where there is a table, but at the end ‘dwells in the house of the Lord forever’ (placed in the temple)
  5. He is fed, and his cup overflows (the images are provided with food and drink).
  6. He is anointed with oil — which presumably has some connection to fulfilling a function to represent the God behind the image, alongside the ‘his name’s sake.’

Now. In terms of the Biblical theology thing, i’d often simply connected The Lord as shepherd to Jesus as shepherd — Jesus as the provider who specifically does all these things for people, or promises to, as the good shepherd. Look at what Jesus says around the feeding of the 5,000 as recorded by Mark (Mark 6, where the people are ‘like sheep without a shepherd) and John, where the feeding of the 5,000 comes before passages about the gift of the Spirit as living water that brings eternal life — in fact, the whole of John’s Gospel essentially unpacks that re-creation schema. But the Biblical theology connection that makes Jesus ‘the Lord who is the shepherd,’ with the feeding of the 5,000 in the mix, goes something like:

  1. He places people by water, on green pastures (Mark 6:39, John 6:10)
  2. He feeds them with ‘overflowing’ provision (Mark 6:42-43, John 6:12-14)
  3. The people are ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6), and Jesus calls himself ‘the good shepherd’ (John 10).

There’s a degree to which I think this is still a legitimate line to draw from Old to New Testament. But there’s a better story, a better line through the Old Testament story of God creating and revivifying broken images that involves Jesus being the ‘new Adam’ — the new ‘image’ — through whom we are restored as we are united to him; an a reading of Psalm 23 that places Jesus in the narrative schema as the first ‘restored Israelite’, the one whom David points to, who can say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ — I owe much of this reading to Doug Green, whose paper ‘The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd. Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy’ is brilliant.

He says, amongst other things:

“… it is appropriate to read the whole of the Psalter in a prophetic and eschatological direction. More specifically, all of the “Psalms of David” should be read as messianic psalms that describe different dimensions of the life — and especially the suffering — of Israel’s eschatological King.”

“In other words, the apostolic authors adopted not simply a general Christological approach to reading the Psalter, wherein Christ could be “seen” in the psalms, but more specifically a decidedly Christotelic approach, reading it in connection with Israel’s great narrative of redemption, which from their perspective had reached its surprising climax (Greek telos, “end” or “goal” in the story of Jesus, the Messiah.”

Green describes the structure of the psalm as a move from “pasturage to wilderness to temple” that can be described as paralleling “promised land -> exile -> restoration” or “Eden -> Exile from the Garden -> New Jerusalem”. He says:

“Even in their grammatical-historical context, verses 4 and 5, with their images of escape from the threat of death and (possibly) return from exile, tell an incipient resurrection story. Read prophetically, these verses echo the story of the Isaianic Servant as they depict the Messiah’s journey through some kind of suffering, which will subsequently change into his enjoyment of the blessed life, and more specifically to an eschatological banquet…

“If Jesus Christ is indeed the telos, or goal, of Israel’s story, and more specifically the fulfilment of the OT’s messianic prophecies — including the Psalter understood as a prophetic book — then Christian interpretation of the OT must be an exercise in reading backwards, of rereading earlier texts so that their meanings cohere with what God has actually done in history in Jesus Christ.”

He concludes “the eschatological David has been brought from the valley of death into the heavenly house of the Lord, to reside there.” Green, I think rightly, describes this as “the story of those who have been united to Christ by faith” — we’re brought into the story through our union with Christ.

If this Psalm is messianic in this sense, then in some way the Lord’s anointed — who is shepherded by God — somehow leads God’s people through exile from God — or death — into restoration and the temple. If Jesus comes as the restoration moment promised in the prophets, and this Psalm, and he does this by being the true image bearer but his restoration into being an image bearer through exile and death is also grounds for our restoration.

So, that’s a fun reading of Psalm 23 that connects it to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies — where Jesus is the king who ends our exile from God, but there’s more to this story that is explicitly connected to the proposed metanarrative of the Bible; that it’s about God re-creating and revivifying divine image bearers (where idolatry transforms us into the image of dead idols rather than the living God).

My suggestion is that the Gospels, in depicting Jesus as a new Adam, and new Israel, also follow the pattern of establishing Jesus as an image bearer — according to those Old Testament (and Ancient Near Eastern) types — and that this is applied to the church both through union with Christ, baptism, and the indwelling of the Spirit — the things that mark out our transformation into the image of Jesus, from being broken idol-worshipping images. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3), but there are also ways the Gospels follow the script.

  1. Jesus is, in a particular sense, ‘formed’ or fashioned near water  at his baptism — if crossing the Jordan was Israel’s path to nationhood and part of how Exodus paints them being presented as God’s image bearers — his children, then Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan mark his calling in the same way. All four Gospels include the baptism of Jesus.
  2. Especially if the Spirit descending on Jesus is the ‘breath’ of God marking him  . — if this is Jesus symbolically being given a certain sort of ‘breath’ as Adam was (though Adam receives the ‘psuche’ and Jesus the ‘pneuma’ in Greek — and that distinction is interesting particularly because Paul makes it a distinction between Adam the ‘psucheikon’ (or natural/breathed/souled image) and Jesus the ‘pneumatikon’ (or breathed/spirited image) in 1 Corinthians 15:44 as he reflects on and quotes from Genesis 2 and the resurrection, see below). Pneuma and psuche are used in a way that, at a glance, looks interchangeable for breath and Spirit throughout the Old Testament.
  3. Jesus is declared ‘fit for purpose’ in connection with God in the words that speak from heaven — “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11), “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17), “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22), while John’s Gospel has John the Baptist say, of Jesus, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33 — which is significant if the bringing of the Holy Spirit is connected to the end of exile and the restoration of God’s image bearing people).
  4. Jesus is the Temple — or the dwelling place of God — but he also goes in order to prepare an eschatological temple, and in order to transform God’s new image bearers into human temples. This one takes some unpacking. He is also the living representative of God (Hebrews 1), and if we see him we’ve seen the father (John 14:9). He is the “word of God” in flesh, and he “is God” ‘tabernacling’, or ‘dwelling’ in the world in the flesh (John 1:1-14). In John 2, as he cleanses the Temple (which has not ever had God’s spirit come to dwell in it after exile in the way that it did before exile) he speaks of his body as the temple (John 2:22). But he also speaks of his “father’s house” (John 2:16). In John 14:1-3 Jesus says: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am…” this has often been understood as being about the heavenly city-temple — a new Eden — that John sees coming down to earth in Revelation 21, but in an immediate sense of fulfilment of the ‘place for you’ and the going and coming, Jesus says the Spirit is him ‘coming back’ —  “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:17-18) and then “you heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:28-29). The ‘coming back’ might purely be eschatological, but it seems to both immediately describe the resurrection, the ascension (as part of the “going”), and the coming of the Spirit as part of the “return” to them (and the end of the exile that ‘restores their souls’ — and ours).In John 16, in the same extended episode of teaching, Jesus explains more of the going and coming — “Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:19-20)… then, following Jesus death, and their grief, and his resurrection, John records the following: “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:20-22). When Jesus breathes into his disciples and commissions them in John 20:22 it uses the same Greek word for what God does to breathe life into Adam in the LXX.

    The point at which the disciples understand Jesus’ reference to his body as the temple, we’re told, back in 2:22, is the resurrection: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” When this happen — the disciples become the ‘many rooms’ of the house of God, his Temple — as Jesus has been already, as marked by the Spirit descending on him at his baptism (a sort of symbolic end of the exile — God dwelling with his people again).

    Luke does a fun thing with this in Acts 2, where he has the Spirit being poured out on God’s new temple (and I think given Luke’s Gospel ends with the followers of Jesus meeting daily in the temple, and given Acts 2 ends with a reference to the followers of Jesus meeting daily in the temple, and given the festival of Pentecost is a public gathering and there are many witnesses from the Jewish diaspora there, that the events of Pentecost probably happened in the Temple courts, not the upper room mentioned as the setting of the events in Acts 1). God’s new temple — his re-created image bearers — receive the Spirit, in an echo of the glory of his presence coming in to the first temple — with clouds and noise and flaming glory — in the courts of the temple building Jesus had condemned — the temple whose curtain tore when Jesus died as an expression of a sort of judgment on that building and a new way of access to God’s presence…

    Jesus is also positioned as a new Adam in his temptation, especially as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, where the temptation follows the baptism, and genealogy (which goes back to “Adam, the son of God”. There’s some fun stuff going on with gardens, both Gethsemane, and at the resurrection where he is mistaken for ‘the gardener’ — where Adam’s original task in the garden was to ‘work and keep’ the garden.

    The rest of the New Testament makes explicit what this point makes implicit, and draws us into the story through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit  — so that we too become temples of the Spirit, and we are transformed into the ‘image of Jesus’ rather than Adam.

  5. If Doug Green’s schema for Psalm 23 is correct, and it depicts Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the movement from Eden, to exile, to restoration in a new Eden, then there’s something nice about the resurrection appearance being in a garden, and being followed by Jesus eating with his disciples — but also, this becomes something fulfilled in Jesus’ ascension to heaven where he dwells with the father forever, and where there is a new Edenic orchard of food available (near running waters). The new creation is the ultimate re-creation, and Jesus, the Lamb, occupies a particularly central place in this new garden sanctuary — the ‘forever’ house of God.

    Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

  6. The imperative that follows the baptism, and later the transfiguration, where Jesus is revealed as God’s son, with whom he is well pleased is “listen to him” — Jesus is God’s representative. The word made flesh (John 1), the way God speaks (Hebrews 1). The ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1). this point seems the least controversial.

There’s a difference between us, and Jesus, in this metanarrative — where the story of the Bible is the story of broken images being restored — we are broken by our sin and idolatry so that we bear the image of our counterfeit gods, as the Psalms put it the result of idolatry is that “those who worship them will become like them.” Sin — idolatry — leads to exile from God, curse, and death. De-creation even. The coming undone of the image we were created to bear. Romans 1 fleshes out how this works with regards to our exchanging the creator for created things. Our restoration comes through Jesus restoring us as worshippers (ala Romans 12) — through his sacrifice, his resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit which is our ‘baptism’, the moment (depicted as receiving ‘living water’) that recasts us into his image as it re-creates us (see Paul on our being baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus in Romans 6, such that we, as we receive the Spirit, become children of God again, conformed to the image of his son (Romans 8)). Jesus is a broken image restored because he takes our sin on his body at the cross — he is scourged and scarred and moves through death (God’s image lives and breathes but he breathes his last for us). The resurrection is his re-vivification, and the source of ours – where we move from death in Adam to life in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15) as our ‘psuche’ — the ‘breath of life’ in Genesis meets its ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — the life of God by his Spirit making us immortal images.

Where Paul says: “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” the word natural is psuchikon (ψυχικόν), while the word ‘spiritual’ is pneumatikon (πνευματικόν). Paul then quotes Genesis 2:7 to contrast Adam, the living being (ψυχὴν ζῶσαν) — something like ‘a living soul’, but I think it’s better rendered ‘a breathed being’ — in part because in Genesis 1:30 the animals also have ‘the breath of life’ in them’ which, in the LXX, also uses “ψυχὴν ζωῆς”) — with Jesus who is a ‘life-giving Spirit’ (πνεῦμα ζωοποιοῦν). God re-creates us, by the Spirit, through replacing Adam with Jesus in our genetic makeup… so that we share in the resurrection of Jesus rather than the death of Adam.

“And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”  — 1 Corinthians 15:49

It’s probably become clear now from much of the scaffolding above that the six elements of that ‘re-creation’ story also apply to us, in Christ, in ways that make the grand story our story. But here are some fun connections…

  1. We are formed via ‘water’ — Baptism is our visible picture of salvation — a picture of what the Spirit does for us as our ‘hearts are circumcised’ — as we are brought from exile away from God, from death and the dead future of our idols to life with God forever.
  2. We receive life by God’s breath — When we receive the Spirit it is ‘breathed into us’ by God as a gift of immortal life that changes who we are — moving us from Adam’s image of God to Jesus’ image of God.
  3. We are declared fit for a purpose within a system — When this happens and we are adopted as children of God, being transformed into his image we have a new purpose — the ‘great commission’ is a new ‘creation mandate’ — a call to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth. We are also “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10) — Ephesians 2:10 uses the same pair of words for created and ‘handiwork’ that Romans 1:20 uses for ‘what has been made’ (and these are the only times that ‘handiwork’ word is used in the New Testament) — that which is meant to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God’ — the things declared ‘good’ for that purpose in Genesis 1.
  4. We become priests/images/temples — The job Adam was given in the garden was priestly, Israel’s job was to be a ‘nation of priests’, and that is now the job of the church — the priesthood of believers in/as his temple. Our bodies are the ‘temple of the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19).
  5. We are fed/provided for — We receive ‘the bread of life’ and ‘living water’ and are invited to eat at God’s table — a reality we celebrate as we break bread together and remember Jesus’ sacrifice in anticipation of the heavenly banquet. There’s a fun thing with the Lord’s Prayer as it relates to all this (and the Psalm 23 stuff about God’s name) as it is a prayer for ‘the bread of tomorrow today’ — the Spirit — which arrives at the feast of bread, Pentecost — but you’ll have to wait for my boss to write his book on that for more…
  6. We are united by the Spirit to be God’s representatives in the world — his image bearers — transformed into the image of Christ as the ‘body of Christ’… Together. Think 1 Corinthians 12, 2 Corinthians 3-5, Romans 8, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3… and heaps of other places…

It’s fun seeing how this plays out in something like the account of the church in Acts 2, where this recreation process seems to be happening en masse as a fulfilment of the prophets, through Jesus’ ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, and it’s fun drawing a line from there through to Revelation 21 and 22, then asking where in this narrative any particular passage sits, and considering the mechanics by which we become part of the narrative (via union with Christ).

If we’re going to talk about the ‘image of God’ in a foreign language let’s get it right: or why I’m more interested in the ‘selem elohim’ than ‘imago dei’

There is no theological topic I read about as much as what it means to be made in the image of God; it was the question at the heart of my thesis, but my obsession didn’t end when I graduated. It’s a question at the heart of what Christians believe it means not just to be human but to flourish as humans; and the answers to the question have been used to achieve many great things for societies influenced by Christians. There’s no doubt that being made in God’s image is part of what sets us apart from animals, and part of what gives us dignity and an inherent value (see Genesis 9:6) — there are questions about what sort of dignity it carries or what it entails to bear God’s image, and how much we as humans can deliberately or accidentally eradicate that image in pursuit of our own purposes (and very clear evidence about what happens when we refuse to see fellow humans as image bearers).

In church tradition and in the developments of doctrine or ‘systematic theology’ there has been much ink spilled on what it means for humans to be the imago dei — that’s Latin for ‘image of God’. The early church, once it got established and there were people who had the time and space to be theologians, wrote in Latin so there’s plenty of latinisms hanging around in systematic theology/doctrine discussions still. Sometimes the development of systematic theology fails to take into account developments in Biblical scholarship; and I’m pretty firmly in the camp that our theological understanding of the world comes from always going back to the source (ad fontes — in Latin), the Bible, rather than from church tradition (though church tradition does limit totally novel and heretical readings of the source material).

Lots of the stuff I read that digs into what it means to be the ‘imago dei’ is built from church traditions rightly affirming the inherent dignity of the person; and increasingly the embodied reality of our humanity; you can’t be an image and not be ‘physical’ — and that’s true. But it’s often the case that we bring ideas to the text of the Bible that are foreign to its thought world (and developed through the history of the church); rather than trying to get into the world, and once an idea gets a certain sort of momentum or meaning, it’s very hard to rein it back in. This isn’t to say there aren’t systematic theologians grappling with how the text of the Bible shapes a theological concept like the ‘imago dei’; but it does mean we need to be careful of the certain sort of freight tradition brings with it when we use terms, and I think it’s time to start resisting some of that freight to ensure we’re able to do the ad fontes work of building our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him.

Here’s my not so passive act of resistance; I’m happy to talk in english about being made in the ‘image of God’ (not the imago dei) simply because it is clear (more perspicuous — more Latin) and less pretentious (also more latin), but if we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of the meaning of these words I’m not going to indulge the Latin game. I’m going to be talking ‘selem elohim’ (sometimes ‘tselem’ because the Hebrew letter צ rolls that way). This reminds us of the foreignness of the world of the text to our world (in ways that help us not to forget that this is about more than language — and includes how we understand, for example, the place of the supernatural and the reality of a spiritual realm, which underpins the Genesis story but not many modern discussions around anthropology). It reminds us that we’re always translating. It also reminds us that there’s a gap between the institutional church as it unfolds through history for good and for ill, and the experience of Israel and how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and its expectations and shapes the church and its theology (rather than our understanding of God ’emerging’ and ‘progressing’ beyond the ‘exact representation of God’s being’ walking the earth ala Hebrews 1).

Here’s a few things from Biblical scholarship (selem elohim) I reckon lots of modern systematic theology (imago dei stuff), especially at the ‘popular level’ misses.

  1. That the word ‘image’, when it’s not about our role as humans, is almost exclusively used for idol statues (one exception is the weird models of the tumours in the ark in 1 Samuel).
  2. That the word ‘selem’ is what’s called a ‘cognate’ the same consonants are found lumped together in the ancient near east (and vowels are a later edition to the written word); and it has the same meaning in those other nations which establishes a particular context for its use. I’ve written elsewhere about how a ritual for giving life to a ‘slm’ in nations outside Israel parallels in a fascinating way with Genesis 2.
  3. That to ‘be a thing’ (ontology) in the ancient world, including to be ‘created’ (Hebrew ‘bara’) in the Old Testament was to have a function; to be a selem elohim was to do something in particular; a vocation. If we’re not doing it, there’s a question as to how much our ‘material’ is actually being the thing we’re made to be. So there’s a question, from the Biblical narrative, as to how much the ‘imago dei’ is a permanent imprint rather than a purpose that we might systematically eradicate. The human equivalent to the ‘selem elohim’ outside of Israel was the king-as-god (who’d ultimately become part of the gods of a nation).
  4. There’s are many important distinctions between Israel’s ‘selem elohims’ and the nation’s. In the nations around Israel people make images and the gods decide to live in them if they tick the right boxes; in Israel’s story — God breathes life into living images. In the nations only the king is ‘godlike’, in Israel’s story all of us are rulers of God’s world.
  5. This understanding of what it means to be human has some pretty big implications for how we understand human failure — sin — as a failure to uphold God’s image and the pursuit of other ‘images’ that we make for ourselves. All theology is integrated.
  6. That ‘male and female’ carry out this role together means we’re not simply talking about the ‘imago dei’ being an inherent dignity to the individual thing, but something we carry out in relationship with each other (and the God whose image we bear). The plurals in Genesis 1:26-27 and their significance are debated beyond this (whether it’s the Trinity or God addressing the heavenly court room, for example), but what is reasonably clear (including from Genesis 2) is that a man alone isn’t fully fit for purpose. The Old Testament theologian John Walton makes the case that ‘being’ in the ancient world isn’t just about ‘function’ but ‘function in relationship with everything else’
  7. There’s a plot line that runs through the Bible where other ‘selems’ form the heart of the Israelite imagination of the good life, and where instead of being God’s images, Israel is conformed into the image of other gods. When Israel entered the nations they were to ‘destroy all their carved images and their cast idols’ (Numbers 33:52), which they do at least in their own land in 2 Kings when they get rid of the temple of Baal (2 Kings 11:18). Israel is constantly warned (in the Law, Psalms, and Prophets) to be God’s representatives, emerging through the smelting furnace of exodus, rather than to worship idols — the warning is they will become what they behold. Breathless and dead. Or the images of the breathing, life-giving, God.
  8. This line creates a better ‘Biblical Theology’ or narrative of fulfilment where Jesus, the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1) and the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1) is the new pattern for our redeemed humanity that we’re transformed into by the gift of God’s spirit on top of the breath of life (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8). There’s admittedly a jump from Hebrew to Greek in the move from Old to New Testament, but the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) helps track that jump for us.

What it means to be made in the image of God is fascinating and important, and a vibrant part of the narrative of the Bible. It’d be a shame to remove it from that context and make it mean all sorts of other good things. The best systematic theology already deals with lots of the ideas above — and these ideas make the image of God a pretty big deal — but the best understanding of what the flourishing human life looks like; caught up with who we were made to be comes from going back to the text of the Bible and seeing what it really says and means, letting the Bible shape our world, rather than our world (and traditions) shape how we read the Bible (though this is more like a dialogue than a thing where we pit one against the other).

Join the resistance.