God’s Image, God’s Partner

By Lemuel Sandoval

Being a true human made in God’s image is partnering with God.

One of the most intriguing topics I find in the whole Bible is actually introduced in the very first page. The story is just fascinating: over the fierce chaos of the primeval waters, the Spirit of God flutters, as a bird, or as a butterfly. Through the darkness, God’s voice is heard: “Let there be light!” And light comes into being. After the light comes the sky and then the dry ground. The Earth is now ready to be inhabited. The day and night are occupied by the sun and the moon and the stars. Birds and fish populate the sky and the waters, respectively. The earth becomes the home of animals of all kinds. At the very end, God says: “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us.”

Amazing! Humans are in God’s image. This is just as awesome as it is intriguing.

Theologians and scholars use the phrase, imago Dei, to refer to whatever it is God made humans in. Not only did God create humankind in God’s image, but no other creature shares the imago Dei distinction besides humans. We can certainly affirm that imago Dei defines human distinctively.

As important as this God’s image concept is, the truth is there are many perspectives and interpretations trying to explain what this idea could mean. For a very long time, many theologians argued that God’s image in humankind is some sort of “immaterial substance” God gave humans so we could connect with the divine. This interpretation is called “substantial interpretation.” The God-given “substance” is allegedly what a lot of people know as the soul. It comes along with the intellect, memory, consciousness, will, creativity, language skills, even moral responsibility and holiness, among other things.

Another somewhat recent group of Christian thinkers were not convinced by this explanation and proposed God’s image meant that, since God is typically thought to be and exist in an intrinsic relationship, what is known as the Trinity, so humankind is also to live and exist in relationships characterized by freedom and love. These relationships can be categorized in a relationship with God, a relationship with one’s self, a relationship with others, and a relationship with the creation. For obvious reasons, this view is called the “relational interpretation.”

There’s yet another explanation, the “functional interpretation.” Bible scholars who specialize in the Old Testament have found many parallels with Ancient Near Eastern literature that seem to suggest that the biblical concept of imago Dei actually says that humankind is God’s representative on Earth. This idea is like the way people thought that being in a temple that contained the statue of a goddess was to be in the actual presence of that deity. Or think how ancient monarchs were believed to have come from the gods as their representatives. In the same way, this argument goes, humans indicate God’s presence on Earth and they are God’s appointed representatives.

This doesn’t imply that the biblical authors simply copied the concept from the neighboring civilizations. It’s much more complex than that, but we can say they shared the same concept of an image of god. However, the way ancient Israelites understood the imago Dei is actually contrary to the other cultures’ worldviews. First, the fact that Genesis shows God creating by merely speaking and not by killing God’s cosmic enemies, as in the ancient cultures, already tells a lot about the God in whose image humans are made. Second, in the Bible, all of humankind is God’s image, and not only the kings or the elite class. Thus, no man should rise above others to rule them. Finally, unlike other worldviews that said the gods created humans as their servants, the biblical story tells us God creates humans to share power with them.

In short, this last interpretation says that the imago Dei is a divine calling for humans to be God’s appointed queens and kings over creation, imitating God’s wise, kind, and loving rule. In other words, being a human is partnering with God.

As much as I am more convinced by this last viewpoint than by the previous two, it would be a mistake to discard the other options altogether. It’s self-evident that we humans have certain characteristics, such as intellect, creativity, consciousness, and moral responsibility. There’s the shared notion that we have this thing called “soul.” We recognize our need for relationships as part of our human wiring. Believers affirm that a personal relationship with God gives us ultimate meaning and salvation. All of this is certainly part of what God’s image in humankind means. However, I believe these human characteristics actually are God-given gifts so that we can respond to and carry out our calling as the imago Dei.

“How does this work out, though?” one may ask. “How are we supposed to respond to and carry out the calling of God’s image? How do I partner with God?” Well, the story of Genesis suggests that, even though God created everything good—very good—and even rested “from all the work which God created and made,” the creation was not yet complete. It was just the beginning of a project humans were to continue as the image of God. We can see this in the fact that God gave humans the commission of multiplying their numbers and governing the earth. This implies humans are to continue the work of creation started by the Creator.

I like how this idea is expressed by Adam’s task of tending and watching over the Garden of Eden. If a garden is tended and watched over, it produces food. If food is available, human life can be sustained. Families can grow into societies. Societies can become cultures and civilizations. There’s well-being and development. Humans take care of creation and of one another. This is to be the true image of a God that is good, loving, self-giving. This God invites us to cooperate in the divine, life-giving project.

Many of us dream of a much better world. We dream of a world where people take care of one another, where discrimination and intolerance are replaced by inclusion and dialogue, where justice shelters the oppressed, where generous cooperation and the search of common well-being are the norms of society, where nature is taken care of for its own sake and not just to secure resources for exploitation, where everyone is invited to sit at God’s family table. This is the dream of the Old Testament prophets. This is the dream of Jesus too.

There have been times in history, moments maybe, when we’ve come close to this sort of world. This has happened because people have acted as real humans, who being true imago Dei, answered to God’s calling to partner in the divine project. There have also been times when people have refused to work alongside God and tragedy has happened.

The thing is, this dream of a better world will not come true without our participation. God is calling every one of us to act as true images of God and carry on with God’s creation. Actually, God needs us to partner in this project. For this reason, everything we do matters. Every decision we make in alignment with God’s will opens up newer and better possibilities. Every act of love echoes through the lives of others. The all-loving Creator God is working actively, sustaining life, empowering creation, and calling the imago Dei to partner. Let us be true to our vocation.

Question: What are the implications of partnering with God from the perspective of the other two explanations of the imago Dei, namely the “substantial” and the “relational” interpretations?

Lemuel Sandoval lives with his wife and daughter in Mexico City. He is a pastor and Old Testament Professor in the Church of the Nazarene. Lemuel is currently pursuing further studies in Biblical Languages and has a passion for challenging young minds to think outside the traditional teachings. One of his favorite hobbies is baking sourdough bread.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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