Image of God and Human Personhood

The image of God becomes most evident in the unique human capacity to respond to God’s offer of covenant relationship. To echo Robert Jenson, human distinctiveness is simply that we are related to God as his conversational counterpart. Because God speaks to us, we know he is personal. As we answer him, we too are personal.

Image of God and Human Personhood

The Majesty of Man
Humans stand out among living creatures with special characteristics that include the use of complex language and symbolic thought, the production of culture and technological innovations and fostering community based on moral values. It is most significant that only humans display religious longings and sing hymns. In this regard, Christian theology is right in seeing the uniqueness of man lies in his relationship with God: Only man is an ordered being, an addressed being, a responsible being. Only man is called to prayer.

The Psalmist (Psalm 8) exclaims a sense of wonderment, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Humans may be made lower than heavenly beings, but he is entrusted with dominion over the creatures. Humans are under God but over creation.

The Creation story emphasizes several aspects of the dignity of humans and their high calling:
First, the biblical tradition affirms the original goodness of creation that includes human beings. As such, all humans are potentially redeemable from the present corruption of nature. The goodness of creation emphasizes that the predicaments of human existence does not lie in the inadequacy of God’s law and his structuring of the world. God made a cosmos and not a chaos.

Second, the structured world or creation order is what makes moral freedom possible. Morality is man’s participation in the ordering of nature. Christian moral action is his joyful response to the duty God has entrusted to him. God made the world as a dynamic and open system, a historical process that continually challenges human participation to bring the world to achieve its full potential.

The Mandate of Man

Reference to the ordering of life brings our discussion to what is called the Cultural Mandate. In traditional theology the cultural mandate includes such duties like work, marriage, government and culture. It should be noted that man is still held responsible to God regardless of his fall in sin. Indeed, despite sin, God maintains his common grace of preserving goodness in human society so the effect of sin is restrained and that there remains possibility of redemption or new beginnings for human beings.

The original mandate given in Genesis 1:28-30 remains in effect despite human sin. Spykman elaborates.

God mandates mankind, as his “junior partners”, to join him as coworkers in carrying on the work of the world. The original creation was good, but not yet perfect. It stood posed at the threshold of its historical development. God’s creating work was finished. Nothing good was lacking. Both structurally and directionally, everything was in state of readiness, laden with potentiality. All these very promising potentials were eagerly awaiting their awaiting their intended realization. To this end God enlist the services of his imagers, male and female, as his coworkers. Made in the divine likeness, we are called to exercise our office by continuing his work in the midst of his world. This original mandate still stands as a direction-setting cultural signpost along the roadway of world history (Spykman, Reformational Theology, p.257).

The Cultural Mandate commands humans to use their rich talents and gifts to order the world. The mandate begins with agrarian activities in the Garden of Eden. It undoubtedly legitimizes the flourishing of technology. The Cultural Mandate will find fulfilment in the heavenly city God intends to display with full magnificence when he eventually redeems and uplifts humankind (Isaiah 60; Revelation 20-21).

The cultural mandate is not to be celebrated as the achievement of human autonomy. In the final analysis we exercise our gifts and talents as we wish, but in conformity to the norms built into creation (creation order and subsequently the covenant demands of God). Humans are to be responsible in exercising his talents whether it be in creative arts or technology or commerce, not to exploit but to create resources to be shared with the common good. .Ours is not an initiating but a responsive and responsible freedom. The abiding framework for human freedom is faith in God, love toward our neighbors, and care for the earth (Spykman, p.251).

The Image of God
A full discussion on the image of God should consider the image of God as both ontological (structural) and functional (directional). The image of God is something each human possesses. There is no consensus as to what the image of God is ontologically, but it has been associated with as human capacity for reason, relationship and religion (3Rs?).

From the directional or relational perspective, respect and regard for human life arises from the dignity that God has placed humans with dominion over all things to represent or image his righteous rule over creation(Gen 1:26-28 and Psa 8:4-8). Concomitantly, each person is unique and precious since humans are made in the image of God. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gen. 9:6). These verses demand that every human be treated as equal regardless of race, gender or social position. Acknowledgment of human equality entails protection from harm and along with it the range of inalienable human rights including the right to respect, the right to life, and the right to certain freedoms exemplified by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Abraham Kuyper argues that if all human life is immediately laid before God “then it follows that all men and women, rich or poor, weak or strong, dull or talented, as creatures of God, and as lost sinners, have no claim whatsoever to lord it over one another, and that we stand as equals before God, and consequently equal as man to man. Hence we cannot recognize any distinction among men, save such as has been imposed by God himself, in that He gave one authority over the other, or enriched one with more talents than the other, in order that the man of more talents should serve the man with less, and in him serve God” (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 20, 28).

As a way of comparison, we note secular humanists informed by Marxist historical ideology ground human rights on the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat on its path of liberation and historical fulfillment. Evolutionary ideologists ground rights on the individual’s contribution to the survival of the evolving species. Surely, to ground human rights onto changing processes results only in uncertainty and subjectivism. In contrast, the Christian tradition’s emphasis is that the promotion of human rights is not dependent on shifting and subjective assessment of what some people deserve compared to others. Human beings created in the image of God demand non-negotiable recognition of human dignity and conferment human rights.

Covenant and the Image of God
Looking at man as the image of God in its directional and functional aspects brings to mind his relationship with God: The image of God is pre-eminently expressed in the human ability to respond to God’s offer of a covenant relationship between God and man.

What is a Covenant? Sometimes it is understood as a treaty or an alliance between two parties ratified by treaty documents. The Bible indicates that the all-sufficient God took the initiative to establish a Covenant which includes special favors and protection for the people of the Covenant. The Covenant that the Bible describes goes beyond legal requirements since the two parties enter into a special relationship, pledging a mutual commitment of an intensely personal kind. Hence, loyalty and faithfulness are the central qualities of the Biblical Covenant.

The relationship is ratified by the ritual of atoning sacrifice which emphasizes that humans can enjoy the benefits of this Covenant only because God has provided the means to overcome/cover sin which has earlier caused estrangement between God and man. Finally, the Covenant includes a deposition of authoritative Scriptures that spell out in detail the obligations entailed in keeping this relationship which is a way of life characterized by utmost loyalty, trust and obedience to God.

God’s covenant word becomes the normative benchmark of our duty to fellow man. According to Micah 6: 8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Human vocation, the cultural mandate gains a deepening dimension with covenantal requirement of the love command. Moral duty to fellowmen (horizontal dimension) is now informed by respect for personhood and obedience to the love command of God (vertical dimensions).

The image of God becomes most evident in the unique human capacity to respond to God’s offer of covenant relationship. To echo Robert Jenson, human distinctiveness is simply that we are related to God as his conversational counterpart. Because God speaks to us, we know he is personal. As we answer him, we too are personal.