The Image of God: A Covenantal Proposal

Yesterday, I cited Marc Cortez‘s survey of Genesis 1:26-28 and what the image of God means. In his book, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed he lists structural, functional, relational, and multi-faceted as four ways that the imago Dei has been explained. Yet, he also exposes the fact that there are weaknesses in each position, and thus he contributes his own proposal which is a covenantal version of the multi-faceted view.

1. The image as representational presence

One of the key points that Cortez makes about the representational view is that the juxtaposition of “let them rule  . . .” which immediately follows “let us make man in our image” does not necessarily mean that the latter exegetically defines the former. It might. It might not. Ruling is a necessary ‘consequence’ of being made in God’s image, but it is too restrictive to ‘define’ image in only dominion language. Hence, Cortez forces us to consider what it really means to ‘represent’ God.

He lists a number of things that can ‘represent a country’ (31). A map, a dollar bill, a flag, and a president all represent a country, but in different ways. He writes, “From this example, then, we can see that representation is a concept that spans a whole range of ideas: from the more abstract and symbolic to the more concrete and personal” (31). He rightly suggests that the imago Dei “functions at the more concrete/relational end of the spectrum” (ibid.). Building on the cultural idea of “spiritual union” that images manifested the presence of a divine being, Cortez argues that the imago Dei is meant to suggest the presence of God in the form of the men and women made in his image. In other words, God has created humanity to manifest his glorious presence in all the earth. As a dynamic task, we are to image God himself as we live, move, and have our being. This personal representation sets humanity apart from other aspects of creation which also reflect the glory of God (cf. Ps 19:1). Humanity is the pinnacle of God’s revelation and the organism which best displays to the world God’s presence and rule.

2. The image as personal presence

Next, after explaining that imago Dei is a concrete representation of God’s presence, Cortez makes the logical step that the imago Dei is a personal representation. He writes,

The manifestation of God’s presence as a personal presence is seen immediately in the creation accounts as God’s encounters humanity by engaging, even constituting, them as personal beings. In both creation accounts, God initiates the Creator/creature relationship and brings humanity into existence. Yet the narratives are clear that this relationships [sic] is not simply the cause and effect of the Creator/creature relationship but is, in fact, a relationship in which there is personal engagement and dialog. (33)

Put succinctly, Cortez (like Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology) defines the imago Dei as a personal manifestation on the basis of communication, speech, and dialogue. Of course, more could be said about this, but personal speech is a vital component of what humans are and how we interact with God, each other, and ourselves. Personality cannot be reduced to mental rationality; neither can be restricted to material creation. Though it is a debated subject—what is a person?—it is at least a thinking, speaking, communicating being. Most clearly, it is one who is made in the image of the divine Logos himself.

3. The image as covenantal presence

Last, Cortez argues that human beings are covenantal representatives of God’s presence. His argument is not as nuanced as Meredith Kline’s and in this volume, he does not engage with the late biblical theologian who wrote extensively on the covenantal reality of the imago Dei (in Images of the Spirit). Nevertheless, Cortez postulates a view of humanity’s covenantal presence that rightly situates mankind in the covenantal story of redemptive history.

Mankind must of necessity be related to Christ himself who enters the world as the supreme covenant mediator and also the one who is the perfect image of God. Likewise, the image of God cannot simply be defined by a static reading of Genesis 1:26-28. The whole biblical canon—a covenantal narrative—must be recruited to explain how the first man (Adam) is related to the last Adam (Jesus).

In this sense, only as we incorporate a covenantal role for humanity do we create space in our biblical anthropology for understanding the dynamic and teleological purposes of mankind. In other words, the goal of humanity’s creation is not Genesis 1 but Revelation 21-22. Therefore, a right understanding of humanity situates each man or woman in the story that God is telling—not a story of regaining paradise lost but of regenerating heaven and earth by means of Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, the imago Dei cannot simply be a static definition. Even in Genesis, the rest of the biblical narrative must be kept in mind. Adam was created for the sake of Jesus, and Jesus came into the world as the fullest revelation of God’s presence and personality. He is the true image of God, and thus when we define the imago Dei we must do so connecting Genesis 1 to John 1.

Summing up the Matter

Putting all this together, Cortez concludes, “the image of God can be understood as God manifesting his personal presence in creation through his covenantal relationships with human persons, whom he has constituted as personal beings to serve as his representatives in creation and to whom he remains faithful despite their sinful rejection of him” (37).

In this definition, Cortez defines the imago Dei by more than just the introductory statements in Genesis 1-2. He actually incorporates mankind’s fallenness and redemption into the definition. This whole-Bible definition is an improvement  because it defines the imago Dei by more than just a few verses.

Altogether, this covenantal approach seems to be a faithful and fruitful way to understand the much-debated theological topic: the Image of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss