The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells us that God made humanity in the image and likeness of God. This is narrated in Genesis 1:26-28. Throughout history, scholars and theologians have debated what this means. At LAMP Seminary RDU, we’re currently reading Anthony Hoekema’s Created In the Image of God, which is a wonderful treatment of this sometimes controversial and confusing concept.
Hoekema (1913-1988) was long-time professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, and was a theologian in the Dutch Reformed tradition. But, this book is not a dry and dusty tome of big theology words. Although there is some meaty content, Hoekema always brings his Biblical and theological insights to bear on the realities of practical life. He consistently surprises in showing how relevant the doctrine of the imago dei is. Our last “Mission Monday” post considered the inadequacy of the phrase “give a hand up, not a hand out,” with help from Professor Soong-Chan Rah. To build a solid theology of helping others, we need to understand the doctrine of the imago dei. And yes, this is related to Christmas. Hang with me until the end!
Hoekema argues that, “the concept of man as the image or likeness of God tells us that man as he was created [in the beginning] was to mirror God and to represent God” (Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 67). What does this mean, practically?
Hoekema explains: “First, he was to mirror God. As a mirror reflects, so man should reflect God. When one looks at a human being, one ought to see in him or her a certain reflection of God. Another way of putting this is to say that in man God is to become visible on earth. To be sure, other creatures, and even the heavens, declare the glory of God, but only in man does God become visible … No higher honor could have been given to man than the privilege of being an image of the God who made him,” (Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 67).
So, during this Advent season, and as we look forward to Christmas, this reminds us that Jesus came into the world to restore the broken and damaged image of God in humanity. Jesus came as the True Man–the True Image of God (Colossians 1:15), and when we are united to him through faith, then that image is renewed in us. We can reflect the nature of God again—his holiness, righteousness, and truth, just as we were meant to in the beginning.
Furthermore, according to Hoekema: “Our capacity for fellowshiping with God in worship reflects the fellowship that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have with each other. Our ability to respond to God and to fellow human beings imitates God’s ability and willingness to respond to us when we pray to him. Our ability to make decisions reflects in a small way the supreme directing power of him ‘who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’ (Eph. 1:11). Our sense of beauty is a feeble reflection of the God who scatters beauty profusely over snow-crowned peaks, lake-jeweled valleys, and awe-inspiring sunsets. Our gift of speech is an imitation of him who constantly speaks to us, both in his world and in his word. And our gift of song echoes the God who rejoices over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17),” (Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 71.)
So then, Christmas is a time when we celebrate the beginning of the renewal of the image of God in humanity. This renewal is what makes the pursuit of justice mandatory for Christians and for the church. Because we are to reflect God’s character, and because God is a Just God–whose very nature defines Justice (Psalm 33:5)–then we must pursue justice for all. Because we are created in the image of God, racism is impossible for true Christians. How can we hate anyone made in the image of God? The imago dei mandates care for the poor, the unborn, the orphan, widow, and immigrant. Because they are all made in God’s image, we must reflect and mirror the Creator’s love for his creation.
And as God is a Father who gives good gifts to his children, so we reflect His character and give gifts at Christmas. If we combine this gift-giving with care, concern, and a “hand across” to the marginalized, oppressed, and lost, then what a glorious opportunity to reflect and mirror the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Triune God’s perfect character!