“What do Christians mean when they say ‘the image of God.’”
That was the question asked by the guy in the corner of the pub at my monthly book club. The people in the group come with a range of faith perspectives—atheist, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, both liberal and conservative. And a range of professions. There’s a physician, a philosopher, a couple lawyers. Even the waitress at the pub has joined sometimes.
We read classic literature, mostly—Camus and Conrad, Dante and Dostoevsky, Euripides and Eliot, Milton and Shakespeare. And for spice, Jonathan Franzen. The book that evening was Pascal’s Pensees—a full-throated defense of the Christian faith.
I started to answer the question by saying the Genesis creation accounts show that God is creative, orderly, social. At which point the guy in the corner, an atheist who had grown up evangelical, stopped me and said, “Social? That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that before.”
This is a common problem. Christians say “image of God” a lot, but how many of us have really thought through what all it means? I rarely do. Even more importantly, how many of us have even contemplated why God made us in His image? What is the purpose of being created in the image of God?
I contend that God is, in His Trinitarian self, an orderly community of selfless love. And He made us in His image for this purpose: to create, sustain and extend orderly communities of selfless love across the globe.
Let’s look at each one of those words to further understand.
God is creative and He made us to create as well. What we create is called culture—something that God, even before sin entered the world, began to work through people to make. As theologian John Frame has said, “creation is what God makes by himself; and culture is what he makes through us.”
Modern culture idolizes the new, but much of what we do every day is maintain the gifts already given to us--God's gifts in nature and, through the traditions of people, God's gifts in culture.
Adam and Eve were not designed to stay in Eden, even before their sin. They were to “fill the earth,” as Gen. 1:28 says. And Gen. 2:24 says a man will leave his father and mother’s house to live with his wife. So households will multiply, eventually, filling the earth.
The creation account shows God bringing order to His creation, which was formless and void. He separates light from dark, land from sea. He creates animals "according to their kind" (Gen. 1:21). God works with Adam to name all the animals—a cultural creation, based on Adam’s God-given reason and knowledge, that helped Adam rule over the animals. At the same time, the system of names Adam created made it easier to extend that knowledge to other communities, helping people to fulfill God’s order both to the “fill the earth” as well as to “have dominion” over the animals—that is, to rule the earth in an orderly way.
God also gave Adam and Even a job—to tend a garden. A garden is not raw nature—it is an ordered version of nature, as Andy Crouch noted in his delightful book, Culture Making. "From the beginning, creation requires cultivation, in the sense of paying attention to ordering and dividing what already exists into fruitful spaces," he wrote.
God is a community—three persons in one being. This might be reflected in the words “Let us make” in Genesis 1. God also makes people to be a community. When only Adam had been created but not yet Eve, God declared, “It is not good that man should be alone.” And the command to “Fill the earth” implies the addition of lots more people.
What kind of community did God envision for Adam and Eve? We’re used to thinking of this purely in terms of obedience—a community that did not sin by eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree and a community that multiplied through procreation. But we must remember that the first community was a married couple. And the Bible has lots to say about marriage. The Apostle Peter tells wives and husbands to love each other selflessly--wives submitting to husbands and husbands honoring wives--under the rule of God and His Son Jesus (1 Pet. 2:25-3:7).
Peter brackets his comments on marriage with commands to servants under masters (i.e., employees) and then to "all of you" in the church. We are all to submit to one another and serve one another, inside the church and outside it. The church is to be an orderly community marked by selfless love (John 13:34-35). But so are our communities outside the church, as the parable of the Good Samaritan loving his neighbor shows.
The Image in Action
We can use the goal of a "community of selfless love" as a useful gauge to understand why our day-to-day work is important. And to understand if our actions within that work are aimed correctly.
One question people have today is if being a full-time mom (or dad) is valuable. But if our purpose is to "create, sustain and extend communities of selfless love," then feeding a family and training kids in how to love and be loved is the highest work of all. It also means the work of those who produce and deliver the things that keep families fed, clothed and healthy are critical too.
Another question is whether government is an entirely separate realm from our religious lives. But if God's purpose for our lives, beginning even before sin corrupted the world, is to create orderly communities, then government in all its forms--politics, police, courts, military, homeowners associations, keeping an eye on our neighbors' houses and roles of leading and following--is vital to all parts of our lives.
Above all, our work should aim to create selfless relationships that are the definition of community.
In a small way, that's what my book club does. Amid the brokenness of our sinful existence, an honest but respectful dialog--fueled by some of the greatest portrayals of how life is and ought to be--offers a glimpse of the image of God in action, creating a community of selfless love in a small corner of the globe.