Imago Dei: Anthropological and Christological Modes of Divine Self-Imaging

Kurt Anders Richardson
McMaster University


The writings of the New Testament reflect the belief that new prophecy has come to Israel for the sake of the whole world. Some of its texts, echoing the prophetic texts of the Jewish Scriptures, recapitulate creation themes not only to memorialize the story of the Creator and the first human beings, but also to proclaim new creation and a new human being, a new future when the world as a pleroma of creatures emerges from a divine act of cosmic liberation and renovation. At the heart of this vision is the redemption of humankind through the messianic mediation of a second or new Adam. The distinctive Christian interpretation of this vision employs a variety of covenantal, messianic and pneumatological models of agency to mediate this cosmic fulfillment. At the center, obviously, is the messianic, which is presented as the ultimate recapitulation of the creation narrative [which] entails a movement where the Creator, always intimately present to creation, assumes the form of the creature, the human being, in order to effectuate the event of new creation. No two texts of the New Testament display this prophetic movement more strikingly than the Prologue of John (1:1-18) and a key passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians (1:15-20).

For our purposes of investigating the scriptural references to human being in the SSR this year, I would like to focus upon these two texts for the purpose of drawing out the linkage that is made between imago Dei, the humanity of God, and the humanity of the human being. The Christological dimension is included here not only because the New Testament so emphatically makes the connection, but because the Christological manifestation of the imago Dei is one of the most important sources of explanation for the claim that God has not only entered the world in the form of glorious presence as Lord but also in the form of the human as Servant. Recourse will also be made to select passages that convey the New Testament’s ‘Second Adam’ Christology, and so indicate how the imago Dei is presented to connect original creation and new creation.

The history of Christian theology has offered an immensely rich variety of interpretations of the imago Dei . Creation texts suggest divine reality at the center of human nature and virtually all of the great commentators of Christian history have dealt at length with these allusions. From Irenaeus to Barth, the doctrine of the divine imago receives attention and the concept achieves a kind of theological hermeneutic unto itself. As a result, it is impossible to trace all of the thematic trajectories here. I will include one linkage that can hardly be avoided, namely, that of relation between the theophanic and the iconic, the relation of the invisible to the visible in the struggles of the tradition, as well as ?the encounter among the Abrahamic traditions in articulating the boundaries between faithful and unacceptable representations of the divine in worship and in art. I conclude with a number of theses to prompt further discussion of the linkage between anthropological and christological modes of the imago Dei in an endeavor to highlight those questions that Christian interpretation grapples with at the point of interpreting its own traditions.

The Logos Narrative of John

The prologue of the Gospel of John ( 1:1-18 ) is modeled after the first chapters of Genesis. As in the Pentateuchal narrative, the divine Word brings all things into being. In the case of human being the divine word which creates becomes the divine word of address to the first man and the first woman. Together, they are h’adam b’tselemu?elohim , ‘human being in the image of God’ (Gn 1:26). Their being fashioned according to the divine image and likeness makes them a ‘counterpart’ to God. [1] The human being is not only the object of divine address, but also in a real sense the representative of the divine in the world. In John, the Logos of God stands in for the image of God. Reference to the Logos is now not indicative of a counterpart to God but to God himself. God is his own agent in creation. The Johannine Prologue refers to the relation of the Logos to the being of a primal man, but not the first man and woman. Here, the Logos is personified or hypostatized and is identical with the divine light or glory as ‘he’ comes into the world.

By the end of the Prologue the writer is attributing to this one an appearance of divine glory like that which Moses witnessed in connection with the Tabernacle. Indeed, when the Johannine writer describes the human presence of the Logos in the midst of the human world he uses the term skenoo which quite literally means ‘to tabernacle’, ‘to pitch a tent,’ to dwell. Of course this is an allusion to the ‘tabernacle’ of his ‘flesh’ ( basar Gn 2:21, 23f; and together with the LXX sarx here in Jn 1:14) as well as the original Tabernacle and its glory. The Logos is not only the ‘Light’ [2] of God but also the ‘Life’ of God, which is intended to explicate fully the sense in which the Logos is the agent of creation: the Logos is God through whom God makes the world and in the case of human beings is their life. The Logos is also the Light that enlightens every human being and this light is the life of human beings. Temporally, the Logos of God always was God and with God, such that at creation, the beginning of all things, the Logos was present with God as God’s agent of creation. But the references to Logos, life and light quickly move into a different context than original creation. The light has been rejected by the darkness of the world and so the light is entering now in a way that will make faith a reality in the world and by such faith salvation will result. We have then a kind of biographical narrative of the divine Logos who has become manifest in the form of a new primal human being.

A final designation will be attributed to the Logos in full personification as ‘Son of God,’ and ?those who have acknowledged this Son will be named as ‘sons of God’ ( tekna theou ). Now, instead of a narration of the newly formed original human beings there follows the narration of newly ‘born’ ( egenethesan ) human beings, their new creation status no less of divine agency as John’s text takes pains to cancel out the possibility of human agency in this spiritual birthing. The Prologue concludes with an attestation to the prophetic role of the divine Logos-become-human as the one who has ‘declared’ ( exegeomai [3] ) the God whom no one has seen. As Son of God a range of divine attributions accumulate to the enfleshed Logos, all in terms now, not of creation whose truth is hidden in God, but of new creation emanating from ‘grace upon grace’ ( charin anti charitos ) hidden in his ‘fullness’ ( pleroma ).

Like other New Testament references to creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 2:10, 15; Heb 11:3) the Prologue introduces a prophetic schema which recapitulates and extends the divine and human events of original creation but largely along the lines of Genesis 1 and not 2 and 3. The humanity of the new human being that is the incarnate Logos by-passes the original symmetry of the imago Dei in Genesis 1 as a composite of male and female ?? the divine image as an inseparable union of the ish and the isha in the ‘adam. While we do not have time to develop this point here, the Genesis 2-3 texts do find expositional development in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (11:3-16). Unfortunately, much of the ancient interpretation which hierarchialized male / female ( kephale de gunaikos ho aner ) relations is fully in evidence here. Paul formulates the relation differently, but only in an eschatological vision, a future where there is ouk eni arsen kai thelu . ‘neither male nor female'(Gal 3:28). This is not necessarily a denial of sexuality in future human being but a declaration of the removal of status distinctions.

The Prologue’s reference to spiritually born ‘children of God’ also tends to remove any reference to sexual identity. This stands in contrast to Genesis 1, where diverse yet complimentary sexual identity alerts us to two characteristics of the imago Dei : relationality and hegemony. In correspondence to the plurality of the divine voice which uniquely creates by its ‘let us’ there is a dialogical unity that is ‘adam . The creation of living things had already filled the world with animated communities, but now there is an inter-subjective sociality with the potential for covenantal solidarity, for sharing of interests between God and image-bearing humanity. Out of this image-bearing there is immediate reference to their hegemonic endowment as stewards of the created order. As creation emerged from God’s conceiving and speaking it into being, the protological framework of Genesis 1 contains an eschatological dimension. While divine work is portrayed as finding its completion and coming to an end in Shabbat ?God is finished and rests?human work is just beginning and extends beyond the capacity of the original pair to complete. Their sexuality is basic to their destiny in the procreation of all future human beings.

The Prologue of John expands upon the protological and the eschatological dimensions of the original creation narrative concentrating the covenantal dimension in the coming into human being of the divine, pre-existing imago Himself , the Logos hypostatized, the One who was the original image for the human image bearers. Functionally, the Johannine draws upon the prophetic possibility of bringing into human experience and activity an object or form that is based upon a heavenly original, deriving from a heavenly pattern ( tabnith ), the prototype, as in the transference of Moses’ Sinaitic vision of the heavenly Tabernacle with all its dimensions, a building plan for the earthly form (e.g., Ex 25:9, 40; Nu 8:4). Immense significance is given to the idea that a heavenly form ( tupikos ) of the Tabernacle exists and will represent itself in the eschatological kingdom of God, (cf. Ac 7:44; Heb 8:2, 5; 9:11; Re 21:3). The pair is the protological extension of imago for as long as their race can endure. But with their mandate as stewards of creation to be realized in the future, they signify an eschatological dimension of a yet-unrealized representation of God’s reign in the world.

The Imago Narrative of Paul

At this point, we must connect the above with our second text from Paul’s epistle to the Colossians 1:15-20 . In this text, the eikon is explicitly presented in its Christological form. By the time the text moves to its conclusion, the universal sweep of its vision of redemption, stemming from God’s determination to create and to stand in full relation with all that he creates, makes this passage a locus classicus of the Christian tradition. The text opens: hos estin eikon tou theou tou aoratou, ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ ? hypostatizing the image as the ‘invisible’ God is described as full of personal activities. Like the Logos of God, the Image of God is the prototype of humanity and the agent of cosmic creation (cf. 2 Cor 4:4).

Although the text focuses upon the creative and redemptive relation of God to all things through the mediation of God’s own image, v. 19 of Colossians explicates the identity of this image further by declaring that pan to pleroma katoikesai (“the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”).? The text borrows from the sense of the glorious habitation of God with his people as Shekinah (lit. ‘dwelling’, the Targumic term connected with the theophanic narratives of Ex 14:20; 40:34-38; Lev 9:23,24; Nu 14:10; 16:19,42; 1 Kings 8:10-13; 2Chr. 5:13,14; 7:1-3). The divine fullness or glory dwells in the imago Dei who is the agent of creation and redemption of cosmos and humanity. Thus, God contains his own correspondence, the eikon of himself, who is the prototype of humanity and the one who mediates the coming into being of all things orata kai aorata ‘visible and invisible.’ Indeed, the mediation is regarded as so powerful and all encompassing that en auto synesteken , ‘in him all things hold together’ and through his self-sacrifice apokatalaxai?ta panta eis auton , God comes ‘to restore?all things in him’ (v. 20). Again, the protological and eschatological are united, but here, the end is the restoration of the original.

The interpretation of this text finds particular poignancy in Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian whose melding together of Christological and anthropological motifs shaped much exegetical practice historically. One poignant passage runs:

Since then, He who fashioned man, made him in accordance with the image of God, he (man) is a second blessed by participation in the Truly Blessed, having come to be in the likeness of that blessedness. Just as in physical (‘sculptural’) beauty of form, the prototype of the beauty is and exists in a living person, and this is only a duplicate form of that of which it is the image, so also human nature, being an image of the transcendent blessedness, is imprinted by the same goodness and beauty, when in itself it shows forth the characteristic qualities of that blessedness. [4]

All of the elements we have been mentioning so far are summed up here. The mediatorial and incarnate divine Image or Logos furnishes for human beings the mode of participation in the divine life without ceasing to be creaturely and yet truly experiencing this life as blessedness and beauty.

Image, imago-phobia and the imitatio Dei

The reason why we have been investigating the connection between the Christological and anthropological in this essay is the way in which they are peculiarly connected in Christian scripture and theology through the semantics of eikon ‘image.’ That the narrative of human becoming and embodiment includes the imprinting of imago Dei engenders new prophetic narratives of eschatological vision through the mediation of an an adamic figure (cf. Pss 8:4l, 80:17; Dn 7:13-14; 1 Enoch 37-71; 2 Esdr 13;? Mk 8:38; Jo 3:13; Ac 7:56; He 2:6)? is, for Christian texts, messianic and incarnational. But we have been skirting around the conspicuous nature of the word ‘image’ as that which is inherently visible and visionary. In light of the Commandment against images it is an arresting thing to discover that the God who has prohibited their manufacture has himself fashioned an image of the divine in human beings. Central to that biblical piety which connects the knowledge of God with the fear of God is a near phobia regarding an alignment of the representations of the Deity with visibility and corporeality. The scriptures are in favor of images only if God is the one fashioning them. But the human being is, in fact, entitled to participate in the divine prerogative of fashioning an image of the divine through procreation. In Genesis 5:1-3, the ongoing status of the human as male and female in the image of God, but now also the ‘imaged nature’ of the human images itself through the engendering children after the human tselem and d’muth . We know from the later reference in Genesis 9:6-7 that the divine imago in human beings persists as does the mandate vis-?-vis the earth and procreation. Indeed, the Genesis 5 text was the basis of Tertullian’s very early doctrine [5] of ‘traducianism’ regarding the human soul as a ‘sprout’ ( tradux , traducem ) of a new human soul from the life of parents.?

But the visibility of the divine image in the human is a difficult problem for Christianity since its churches are divided (between iconoclasts? and icono-douls) over the appropriateness of images precisely on account of its Christology as embodied in the canons of the Seventh Ecumencial Council of AD 787. At that council, drawing largely upon the iconic theology of John of Damascus, the fact that the Word of God could become visible in the form of alphabetic writing and supremely in human form through the incarnation of the Logos, a proper use for icons was instituted. Against the historic ‘imago-phobia’ of the tradition, it was ruled that since corporeal manifestations of the divine were once visible in the history of redemption, they could again be made visible according to strict canons constructed from scriptural inferences. This did not eliminate image-less forms of Christian worship and tradition but it did create a stumbling block for many across the Abrahamic faiths. Various forms of Protestantism would challenge iconic Christianity, particularly Karl Barth, although his argument is curious:

?it is because Paul and Christians generally saw and thought of the ????? so realistically in Christ that they had to do this in other directions as well. And it is because they had in this image the reality itself that in contrast with the pagans around them they did not need any other images, nor in contrast with Israel, did they need any prohibition of images. Jesus Christ makes both images (of God and man) and also the prohibition of images superfluous?.The invisible God Himself has become visible in Him. In Him we have the image in face of which the question of the original is finally answered. The connexion with Gen. 1:26f is unmistakeable? [6] .

Barth who was very stringently imageless in his liturgical sensibility, tries to argue Christologically for the dispensability of images. Indeed, throughout the 20 th century, a loss of confidence in representation and therefore in the image elicits numerous examples of imago-phobia in postmodernism. Martin Jay’s great work on the subject [7] tracks many recent expressions of antipathy toward the image. But the fixation on linguistic signs as a kind of privileging of the verbal over the visual is fraught with irony of course, since so much of metaphor at the very level of syntax has already installed the sense of sight. At one level of course, the fear of the image is warranted. Exhibitions of human outrage toward oppressors are often marked by their destruction in effigies in quasi-religious moments of anticipating their overthrow, indeed, praying for it, and finally, if political reality corresponds, the iconoclasm of the divinized image. One has in mind, since 1989, numerous public rituals of iconoclasm, toppling public images of a once sovereign human being.

But we understand that the fashioning of images is entirely appropriate depending upon the identity of the fashioner and that which is being fashioned. As above, God can form the human being, male and female, to be an ‘ Abbild ,’ an ‘imprint,’ or a ‘derived likeness’ (the full sense of the prepositional relations in Gen 1:26 of b’tselemenu and chedmutenu …)? in relation to an ‘ Urbild ‘, an ‘original image’ (such that there is actually tselem elohim or also d’mut elohim from which the human as imago Dei is derived, 1:27). Indeed, although Genesis 2 does not contain the terminology of image, the fashioning of the living being that is ‘ adam ‘ has many etymological and anthropological features associated with idol-making in the ancient world. God is fashioning his own ‘idol’. Perhaps in the same way he had fashioned the earth itself to participate in creation ? ‘let the earth bring forth?’ (1:21, 24), now ‘ adam ‘, as the created imago, was participating in divine governance and ordering of the earth. Just as God has fashioned an image after his own likeness, Adam will do the same, and so establish his own sub-genealogical order. Seth is the son born according to the image of his father. Seth is also the evidence of continuing divine favor for Eve , to which Adam has no claim. The discourse of Eve traces itself through the discourses of the matriarchs whose claims upon their sons determine both the course of prophecy and politics ? the source and structure for the ordering and governance of the earth. That Adam is God’s son, in his own image (just as Eve is as generative of all future sons and daughters) is crucial to the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and in turn, to the anthropology / Christology nexus in Paul?where, at his most typological, the entire history of the divine economy of the world hinges upon the appearance and actions of two ‘Adams’, the first through whose death ‘all die’ and the second by whom ‘all will be made alive.'(Rom 5)

This kind of observation of course spawns extensive debate over whether God is in some sense corporeal but invisible, incorporeal as well as invisible, or corporeal but hidden from human sight. It is this image which Paul christologically identifies and personifies in the passage quoted above. The original image of God is the agent of creation, of all things visible and invisible. Thus the connection between divine presence and sight is over and over again a tension-filled theme in scripture. The testimonies vary as to whether God cannot be seen or whether God is hidden. In the classic Exodus text, Moses, one of the ‘friends’ of God who is distinguished by speaking with God ‘face to face,’ nevertheless wishes to view the God of this relationship. God tells him he will be given to see God’s ‘back’: “‘But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.'” (Ex 33:20) This is the theophanic dimension of the presence of God; although sometimes this visio Dei is the result of the elevation of the saint who is privileged to glimpse the divine glory ? not unlike one of the most frequent references in the Quran to Allah, the ‘Lord of the throne of glory’, his heavenly location, where he is seated in absolute sovereignty, surrounded by his angels and the praise of all heaven (cf., e.g., 2:255; 7:54; 20:5; 32:4; 32:7; 32:9; 39:75; 40:7; 81:20; 85:15).

There will remain in the Christian tradition the tension between image-filled and image-less worship. Something of a resolution to the problem can be detected in the classic scriptural piety of the imitatio Dei . The Orthodox tradition elaborates upon the connection in especially striking ways where the body of the living saint is already progressively accruing divine glory through the impartation of grace and self-offering to the will of God in advance of the resurrection. Multiple passages referring to ‘putting on Christ’, ‘transformed into the image of Christ,’ ‘participation in the divine nature’, all derive their sense of the redeemed imago in the human being from imitative or mimetic self-offering.

One of the earliest theological expositions of the imago doctrine is found in Irenaeus. In his exposition, almost entirely focused upon the restoration of the image in resurrection, he postulates that it was because the original image, the divine Logos, had not itself become visible through incarnation. He then traces the basis of his larger soteriology, the process of recapitulation, on account of this restoration of the image in the human:

And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both of these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word. ( Adversus haereses . V, 16, 2.)

Irenaeus goes on to make the closest connection between the redemption by reference to the Holy Spirit. In creation, the Spirit had caused the ‘co-mingling’ of body and soul that is by definition a human being created in the image of God. By this same Spirit, on account of the sacrifice of the incarnate word but also the union of the Word and the flesh in the very act of incarnation, the imago in the human is and will be restored and perfected:

Now the soul and the spirit are certainly a part of the man, but certainly not the man; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was moulded after the image of God?.But when the spirit here blended with the soul is united to [God’s] handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God. (V, 6, 1)

The attention paid to the image of God and the human is due to its significance as the sign of their kinship from the side of God.

Christological and anthropological theses

We might draw then, a number of working theses about the anthropology and Christology of the Imago Dei :

1) The anthropological Imago Dei is the theocentric grounding of the human being, male and female.

2) The anthropological Imago Dei is prepositionally expressed and therefore connotes an original or theological ‘imago Dei’ after which the human creature is fashioned.

3) While certainly present individually, ish and isha , andros or gyne , the anthropological imago Dei ( ‘adam) embraces the two and finds its complementary expression as humanity as such and somehow also in the procreation of human being by this union. In their identity as female and male they are the anthropological imago Dei.

4) The christological Imago Dei is the appearance of the Urbild the original image in human form and thus, according to the image of the Abbild or the impress or derived image. This is the continuation of Theophany but now not merely in the form of the human but as human.

5) The christological Imago Dei becomes the full expression of the humanity of God and the divinity of the human as the original Imago Dei who is both agent of creation and now also of redemption.

6) The christological Imago Dei is also the eschatological image of human resurrection, whose likeness is the destiny of redeemed humanity.

7) The fulfillment of the anthropological imago Dei in the Christological, result in the possibility of acknowledging the creaturely form of the divine in visible representations in liturgical celebration. At the same time, however, faith, hope and love may also eschew visible representation in favor of imageless devotion, reconciled to the present the sees through the ‘dim mirror’ of the flesh until the eschatological fulfillment of ‘face to face.’

8) Profound relations between the visio Dei and the imitatio Dei are connected here. God communicates his attributes to human beings through the human being whose act and being are Son of God / Son of Man, image of God / image of man.


[1] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary .? John J. Scullion, tr.? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, 59-69; also, G.A. J?nsson, The Image of God. Genesis 1:26-28 in a Century of Old Testament Research . CB, OT Series, 26, 1988; S. Lehming & J. Jervell, Abbild, Ebenbild. BHHW I 4ff; T.N.D Mettinger, ‘Abbild oder Urbild? “Imago Dei” in traditionsgeschichtlicher Sicht,’ ZAW 86, 1974, 403-424; C. H. Ratschow, ‘Bilder under Bilderverehrung I, RGG 3 I, 1268-1271.

[2] One question is the extent to which, if at all, the Gospel is drawing upon some of the ideas of Philo; cf. such texts as:

Now the unseen and mental light was made an image of the Word of God interpreting its origin. And it is the star beyond the heavens, the source of the sensible stars…? Creation 31a

The problem being that while much later Origen will speculate about ‘sensible stars’ John does not. Having said that, the crucial role played by a personified image of God and the Logos of God is striking. While dependence is perhaps not at all in evidence, the ideas are about.

[3] A hapaxlegomenon in John and involves proclamation or narration of the works of God.

[4] On the Beatitudes, Sermon I .

[5] Treatise on the Soul 3:181-235

[6] Cf. Church Dogmatics III, 1, 201ff.

[7] Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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