One of the earliest and most foundational doctrines established in the Bible is often referred to by it’s Latin name: Imago Dei (which in English translates to “Image of God”). Found in Genesis 1.27-27, 5.1-3, and 9.6, it is established off the theological conviction that human beings are created in God’s image, and therefore have inherent value and dignity independent of their utility, function, social location, etc.
I have been blogging about Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill (see here for part 1, 2, 3, 4) and examining the ways in which he describes the person of Jesus to a religiously and culturally diverse group of people. If Jesus is the “image” of the invisible God, then how do you go about describing that image in a comprehensive, holistic way… and in a manner by which a diverse group of people can all interact with it?
The first theological building block that Paul uses is the Imago Dei. Here is the first big point in Paul’s sermon:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17.22-26)
This is the language of Imago Dei. Paul affirms here that God has not only created everything in the world, but has specifically created each one of us. This in turn affirms that every human being is created in the image of God. That every human being draws their life and breath from God. That every human being is created with intention. In fact, the level of God’s involvement with each of our lives is so granular that even our nation of origin, time in history, and geographic birth location reflect divine involvement.
There are so many reasons why the doctrine of the Imago Dei is essential to a holistic understanding of Christianity. We don’t have any inherent base for self worth without it. And without grasping this truth, we are left with nothing but a shallow system of constantly attempting to prove ourselves with the hopes of measuring up somehow to others.
It’s also a critical doctrine for authentically living together in community – particularly when we try to live out the Biblical mandate of living together across class, racial, and socioeconomic lines.
Here’s a story from my own life that revealed the degree to which I didn’t understand this truth, and why it was so imperative that I learned it:
Back in my early days of working at Willow Creek I came in contact with the life and ministry of Dr. John Perkins (if you don’t know much about his story, it’s worth catching up on. You can see some of his bio here. Dr. Perkins has had a tremendous impact on me, and the organization he founded was instrumental in me planting River City.) Because of his immense popularity I assumed it was impossible to get time with him, but I came to discover that he had a program in Jackson, MI where church groups could come spend a week working, doing projects, and hanging out with him. I jumped at the opportunity, and brought a team of 12 volunteers on a road trip to Jackson.
There were so many highlights of that trip, and it was quite transformative for me. Best of all were the Bible studies he would do with us at the beginning of each day. Normally I would have protested at the early start time, but the content was so good that I was able to leapfrog my normal morning barriers.
I still remember each of those Bible studies vividly, and one of my favorites was the devotional he did on John 1. He summarized the point of what John was saying in his own words, and I still have them etched in my journal: “In Jesus is life, and the life of Jesus is the light of all people. John came as a witness to that life and an igniter of that light….”
He began to share how this verse had impacted his theological understand of Christian community development. He said, “The light of God is within ever person, because they are created in God’s image. Now it’s true that for many that light is not shining brightly, and for some they don’t even remember it’s there. John came as a witness to testify concerning that light. He was not the light – he came only as a witness to the light. You can be an igniter for the light that lives within people.”
Dr. Perkins then began to talk about ways in which he tried to be a witness to the light of Christ in the lives of those in his neighborhood. He talked about how he went in every week to the young men’s juvenile center and did Bible studies with them. He shared with us the ways he perceived society beating down the sense of dignity that these men carry, and showed the connections between lack of nurture in the home and the ways that affect every person.
He then began to rattle off story after story of specific children, youth and parents from his neighborhood that had seen the light of Christ, and had the light inside of them ignited. He told ways in which their lives were being transformed spiritually, financially, and emotionally. He shared stories of cycles being broken and future trajectories being reshaped. It was incredibly inspiring.
As he finished his Bible study, he asked us if there was any thoughts or questions we were feeling in response to it. I felt the Spirit of God moving so powerfully each time he shared one of these devotions, and this particular Bible study had really provoked something within me. I wanted to live with the same kind of purpose and passion as Dr. Perkins, so I went first.
“I want to be that kind of person Dr. Perkins. I want to be someone who, because of the light in me, can give dignity to other people… just like you!”
I thought that what I was saying was in line with what he was saying, but boy was I wrong. He stared at me, and there was fire in his eyes, and I knew I had crossed some type of very serious line. I just had no idea what.
Dr. Perkins replied: “Young man, it is not within your power to give someone dignity, nor is it within your power to take it away. To think like that is not only completely destructive – it goes against the heart of the Christian gospel. You can’t give someone dignity – you can only affirm it.”
I was totally stunned. Just moments earlier I had felt this overwhelming sense of spiritual energy, but now all I felt was embarrassment. Surely Dr. Perkins could see that this was just a verbal misstep, couldn’t he? Obviously my intent was pure… right?
It took me the rest of the day to work through the defensiveness I felt around this. I felt misunderstood, and was tempted to deflect the bigger point.
Fortunately I was able to sense that something else was happening. Though I felt stupid, I also had an inkling that there was something profound that I was supposed to learn from this. My bruised ego wanted to blame it on Dr. Perkins being too oriented around politically correct language, but in my heart I knew it was deeper.
I got to see him again that evening, and we picked back up with my clumsy statement. I told him that I had been reflecting on it, and wanted to more clearly understand where I had gone wrong. I was less interested in learning how to say it just right… I really wanted to know why this had stirred something so deeply in him, and how I could grow out of whatever it was that led to me saying that.
We had a wonderful conversation, and it all revolved around the theology of the Imago Dei.
As a group of us circled around him, he began to teach us why the Biblical truth of being created in God’s image is so central to all of life. When we fall into a trap of thinking that some people (or some cultures) carry more of God’s image than others, the stage is set for all kinds of unequal treatment and oppression. He believed that this is one of the most pervasive problems not just in society, but in the Church as well.
“That is why I stopped you right when you said it. Your reflexive instinct was to see some people as needing to have their dignity given back to them, and that is so problematic. You can’t give dignity to someone, and you can’t take it away. You can’t give light to someone, and you can’t take it away. No human can. Only God is the giver of dignity. When we act as the one that can give dignity or that light – no matter how pure we think our motives are – we are then pretending to be God. We are acting like they are less than us, and it leads to paternalism and colonialism. It may come from an innocent place, but it comes from a bad theological place.”
This was such a transformative moment for me. I’m sure I had heard the theology of the Imago Dei articulated before numerous times, but there was so much of it that had not really taken root in my heart and mind. In that moment I saw how my own humanity had been distorted by some of the powerful meta-narratives in society that assign more worth to some and less to others, and how badly I needed to be saved from that.
This conversation also began to plant the seeds for having a more holistic understanding of reconciliation, justice, and community development. Over those next weeks, months, and years I would replay this conversation in my head on a regular basis. I would remember the words of Dr. Perkins – that every one of us already carries the light of God in us. That the power to allow that light to shine is neither given nor taken away by any other human being – only God has that power.
I would remember the way he used John the Baptist as an example – as being Christ-ones who testify to that light. I would reflect on his call to action to identify and attack any system or structure within society that obscures that light. But to do so with a foundation of the Imago Dei. To remember that we are all called to this fight, and that we all need each other.
That is why, when reflecting on Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, his emphasis on the Imago Dei jumped out to me so forcefully. If we are going to really see Jesus accurately – and then each other accurately – our theology must be deeply rooted in centrality of all people being created in the image of God.