Imago dei is a wonderful doctrine. The idea that we’re made in the image of our Creator imbues us with value and reminds us that we’re not like the other animals. We’re different. We’re closer to our Maker than we are to dolphins and chimpanzees.
So far, so good. However, I fear that this precious doctrine is frequently misused. Allow me to clarify.
Imago dei reminds us of what we share with our Creator, known in theology as ‘communicable attributes.’ For example, we share rationality, volition, emotions (perhaps), moral awareness. But this simply makes us think that he is a big version of, well . . . of us. He’s a super-human. Like us, just bigger, better. More and better of everything.
But he’s not. He’s not bigger and better than us.
He’s in a category all of his own. That’s the whole point of Job chapter 38.
Let’s go back to those attributes. Power, for example. We are powerful, just as he is, we tell ourselves. Just look at what we’ve been able to achieve. Sky-scrapers and submarines and rockets and by-pass surgery. We really are extra-ordinary creatures. Intelligent and creative – like him – and yes, powerful. Able to achieve goals set before us.
(Deep breath.) Okay, fair enough. We’re creative and powerful, but of course, we’re not God. His power is greater than ours.
Greater? Well, that’s the under-statement of the century.
When did you last create something out of nothing? It should be perfectly obvious that his power is of a completely different order.
His power sets him apart. Sets him apart. That should ring a bell. It’s the meaning of the word ‘holy.’
This ‘God is a bigger and better version of us’ makes the Bible especially hard to come to terms with. I’ll mention two aspects, in particular. First, the repeated mention of God’s name and the zeal which God has for his name. He is immensely concerned about his reputation, isn’t he? He demands absolute obedience and he desires that his people respect and revere him. Let’s just say it. He wants worship. Now, if you have the idea that God is just ‘bigger and better,’ this comes across as pride. Self-centredness. If we as humans behaved this way, we’d be called a big-head or arrogant or a narcissist.
But we’re not like God. Not really. He’s the only ‘justified narcissist’ in existence, and I mean narcissist in the best possible way! All existence is about his glory. That’s what the term ‘all in all’ means in the New Testament. One day, God will be ‘all in all.’ He is the only being worthy of worship.
We’ve never even come close. Not even before the Fall. We’re not God.
The second – and perhaps the most serious – difficulty comes when addressing the issue of human suffering. A God who is merely ‘bigger and better than us’ appears to have fallen short. Bigger he may be, but better? When babies die and women are violated? This is the charge placed at God’s door and the answer, he’s bigger and better just isn’t going to cut it. God is in a different category to us – a reply which I have argued contains a great deal of merit – well, even that is a struggle for many to understand. We need something a little more accessible. The most satisfying answer has to do with how we ground goodness. To explain, here’s a short section from my book, House of Souls.
“So what’s the solution?” asked Evelyn.
“The Father is good by nature,” said Korazin, jumping in. “He is intrinsically and essentially good. Goodness is therefore an intrinsic character trait. His nature itself defines what is good, because he is good by nature. Not only that, he is an entirely different category of being to the human. Humans are derivative; all that they are comes from their Creator. This is why in the book of Job, the Father reminds his servant of his vast power and the unfathomable depth of his knowledge. The human being must come to his Creator on the Creator’s terms or not at all. That is only right.
“Dear Evelyn and dear Aidan, the one who made you is not distant and he is not callous. He is close to the broken-hearted and he is profoundly good. Just consider all he has done for you. He has made you and surrounded you with beauty in the natural world. He has given you freedom to enjoy relationship with fellow human beings and with your Maker, if you turn to him. He has permitted a fallen world, yes, but he is not himself the architect of your fallenness. Indeed, we lucidi celebrate his goodness and generosity every day, soaking up his wonder and beauty without ever tiring of our praises.” Korazin bowed his head. © Richard Collins, House of Souls, 2014
That goodness is an essential character trait of God is an idea of immense power. And how could it be otherwise? If there were standards to which he had to adhere, then they would exist independently of him. How could God be worthy of worship only on the basis that he lived up to certain standards? That would not do. And if his behaviour simply defined what was good, then he would be accused of arbitrariness. But since goodness is essential to his nature, then when he acts, he acts in accordance with who he is. And goodness becomes an expression of his intrinsic nature. He cannot express himself without goodness emerging. Naturally. Not arbitrarily.
When the Bible attempts to describe the wonders of the divine being, it always feels as though it’s struggling a bit. Because how can words describe what is essentially ineffable. It’s beyond human language. Our Creator is worthy of worship. You’re invited to believe. You’re called on to trust. When the world burns and evil stalks our neighbourhoods and our schools, you must make a choice. To believe. To trust. And, if necessary, to submit. Yes, submit.
Essentially, the Fall is about man’s refusal to submit. We thought we knew better. We refused to trust. We refused to believe. But perhaps most of all, we refused to submit.
If God is not like us, if he is not bigger and better but of an entirely different category . . . good and pure and holy . . . not simply on a different scale but expressing something beyond our ability to comprehend, and if one day, he will be ‘all in all,’ then I have a different under-statement of the century:
It’s a good idea to do what he asks.
Believe. Trust. Submit.
If he says that obedience and worship are good for us, then . . . well, you don’t need me to tell you what to do.
© Richard Collins 2014
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I’ve noticed I have some Brazilian readers. To you I say, ‘olá pessoas bonitas!’
Finally, for those who are looking for some amusement, some thoughts on beards. Yes . . . beards.