Rev Bob Harriman
What does it mean to be made in the image of God?
Throughout history Christian people have asked this question and in each age have usually come up with an answer that reflects the dominant themes of their time.
From within a Greek culture, the early church expressed their answer in terms of their Hebrew heritage. An example of this can be found in the Gospel of John chapter 1, especially verse 14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us"(NRSV). The image of God was enfleshed, embodied in Jesus. In an endeavour to understand how this could happen, the church developed a belief in the trinity. The result was the Nicene creed which proclaimed how a living personal relational God could be both three and one.
Greek philosophical thought drove a wedge between body and mind. The image of God was then thought to be located in one's ability to reason. Augustine demonstrated how reason and the trinity could be brought together. Unfortunately, embodied experience was not a part of the trinitarian expression of the image of God in a man. (According to Greek philosophy women were unreasonable and could only enter into God's image through a man.) The Augustinian emphasis on the oneness of God now located the image of God as trinity in an individual(1). The rise of individualism can be traced back through the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, through Martin Luther to Augustine.
However, a glimmer of hope remains. The eastern orthodox churches have always retained the primary emphasis on the threeness of the living personal relational God, and declared that we all bear the imprint of God, manifested as a desire for humans to be in relationship with Absolute Love (2). This emphasis on relationship suggests that the image of God may not be located entirely within an individual person. Even in the western church tradition, Karl Barth proposed that the image of God was most aptly expressed in marriage between a man and a woman (3). I believe Barth is essentially correct by locating "image of God" in a mutual loving relationship, but is too restrictive in confining the concept to heterosexual marriage.
The image of God is personal and relational. The image of God is expressed in relationships that are mediated by grace, relationships that are based on unconditional love for the other, and not based on reason, race, class, gender, sexual orientation or ability (4).
I work as Chaplain with people with intellectual disability, some of whom carry physical disability as well. The key question I have asked myself is "How is the image of God present for someone who is unable to move, unable
to speak and may be unable to respond to others?" A relationship based on grace does not require a response, because it is a love that gives without the necessity for a reward. Each Image-of-God relationship that I am a part of will be different. Even if I take all of these experiences and roll them into one, my knowledge of God will only be an approximation.
The image of God is not a personal possession. It becomes a reality in the shared space between persons. We have a desire for that quality relationship ("right and just"),- we can contribute to it, we may meet God in and through the relationship,- but we cannot possess it.
There are some important biblical passages for me in this discussion. 1 John 4: 7-12 speaks about where God is, love is; and where love is, God is.
A significant learning for me was a recent discovery in Matthew 22: 34-40. Jesus is asked about the most important commandment. He responds by saying to love God with your whole being, and in verse 39 says "And a second is like it"(NRSV) love your neighbour as yourself. I had not noticed before that Jesus is saying that loving God is like loving my neighbour as myself. Jesus seems to imply that the first commandment is a likeness or an image of the second commandment. These two commands are not Jesus originals, they come from Deuteronomy 6: 5, and Leviticus 19: 18, respectively. These two commands form a consistent trajectory of God's call to people over the millennia. They are the basis of all the law and the prophets, and are enfleshed in Jesus. Jesus is the one who calls us into the personal relational triune image-of-God, in the here and now, with each other, with God.
In this context, sin is understood as breaking the relationship we have with God and each other.
"Each one of us has dignity and is of value". This is discovered though image-of-God relationships.
In the community of God we are impoverished if we fail to embrace people in image-of-God relationships.
When we respect differences, we acknowledge that God is not completely knowable, and that in each new image-of-God relationship we receive a fresh glimpse/revelation of God.
Image-of-God relationships transcend/relativise race, class, gender, sexual orientation and ability. These relationships are expressed in many forms of intimacy, from assistance to friendship to sexual intimacy, and are gracious, right and just, and are desirous of God's shalom for all creation.
1.Cairns,D.,The Image of God in Man. London, SCM, 1953.p.96
2. Crawford,J.,Kinnamon,M.,(Eds), In God's Image: Reflections on Identity, Human Wholeness and the Authority of Scripture. Geneva, World Council of Churches, 1983. p.77
3. Cairns,D., 1953,p.168.
4. Harriman,R.,"An Evaluation of Nancy Eiesland,(1994), The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theology of Disability; in Light of the Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Incarnation of God." Brisbane, Trinity
Theological College, 1996. p.32.