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In every era of history certain Christian teachings become prominent.  In this age, the the image of God in humanity must be highlighted.

The ongoing racial tension in the United States is a primary reason to remind ourselves of the image of God and its implications. The long history of racial injustice in this country—from race-based chattel slavery and legalized discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws to the present mistrust between Blacks and Whites—lends itself to a more thorough discussion of what it means to be made in God’s likeness.

An investigation of the image of God (Latin: imago Dei) helps both those in the racial majority and those in the racial minority.  For those in the majority it challenges the negative assumptions propagated on individual and institutional levels. For minorities, understanding the image of God helps restore the dignity, identity, and significance they possess as God’s special creation.

Recent incidents like the fatal shooting of unarmed, African American teenager, Mike Brown, by White police officer, Darren Wilson, urge an exploration of the biblical teachings on what it means to be human.  Racial justice begins with realizing who God created us to be and how that must affect our relationships with other image bearers.

The Doctrine of the Image of God

We start with the Bible’s teaching on the image of God. The phrase comes from Genesis 1:26-27.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Many have debated the meaning of “image” and “likeness.” Without getting into the minutia, many Reformed scholars see them as essentially the same. Theologian, John Frame says, “The passage makes no reference to the nuanced differences between these terms, but pairs them to magnify the greatness of this particular creative act.” So “image” and “likeness” may be used interchangeably because both contribute to the idea that God made humanity to reflect Him in a singular way.

In God’s Image and Likeness 

What does it mean to be made in God’s image and likeness? In what ways is humankind similar to and different from the Creator? What specific qualities and attributes are found in humanity that are unique among the created order?

Some theologians think that being made in the image of God applies only to particular faculties—like a person’s ability to reason or the presence of an immortal soul. Other people emphasize humanity’s ability to make moral and ethical choices. Some focus on a person’s intellect or the ability to exercise dominion over the earth as primary.

It is best to recognize that all elements of humanity in some way speak to being made in the image and likeness of God.  Theologian, Herman Bavinck, believes

“This image extends to the whole person…While all creatures display vestiges of God, only a human being is the image of God and is such totally, in soul and body, in all his faculties and powers, in all conditions and relations.”

Even though humans are multi-layered and complex beings, all parts exhibit God’s nature. Both human beings in the individual sense and humans as a collective community are the likeness of God. The vast variety of personalities, physical features, cultures, and relations demonstrate the limitless array of qualities God possesses. Persons, individually and corporately, finitely reflect God’s infinite qualities.

Implications of the Image of God

Being made in the image of God has critical implications. First, it means that all people, regardless of their abilities, gender, ethnicity, class or any other distinction, have the right to life. We must, then, preserve life. One application of the image of God is that Christians protect other’s lives and care for people throughout all stages of life from the womb to old age.

Image bearing also means that all people should have the opportunity to fulfill God’s command to them as image bearers. In Genesis 1:26, God tells humankind to have “dominion” over the earth and to “subdue” it. Humanity’s acts of creation, in a limited way, resemble God’s acts of creation. It means that “man’s labor has the goal of bringing praise and glory to God.”  All people should have the opportunity for meaningful work and all work has dignity.

The Image of God and Race

Biblical teachings on the image of God guide our thoughts about race, too. If we are each made in God’s likeness, then any presumption of superiority denies this truth.  In his book,  From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, J. Daniel Hays says, “Racism or the presupposition that one’s own race is superior or better than another is a denial that all people have been made in the image of God.” Racism, in both its explicit and implicit manifestations, denigrates the image of God in other human beings. The doctrine of the image of God shows us that our duty is to exalt God, not one race over another.

The most important implication of the Bible’s teaching on the image of God is that humanity has a purpose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is man’s chief end?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” (WCF Q.1) As bearers of the image of God we are meant to glorify God. We glorify Him by living according to the commands He has given us in His word. We are to think, speak, and act in such ways as will point to God’s splendor and majesty. Glorifying God is the most human activity we can do. God created us for Himself and we enjoy life most fully when we glorify Him as creatures made in His image and likeness.

Part 2 of this series will explore how the image of God was defaced but not destroyed by the entrance of sin into the world and pay specific attention to the African American experience.

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