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Home arrow Religion arrow The Theological Roots of Christian Gratitude

Made in the Image of God

The Christian concept of the self is complex and even beyond words. But as Wittgenstein revealingly remarks, “Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has meaning” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 16e).

The Christian concept of the self, however, is countercultural, for its meaning is rooted in the essential relationship between humankind and God found in the biblical tradition. Discussion of the biblical material will be brief, but key perspectives will I hope become clear for our purpose. What we want is a sense of what Christians mean by

“a grateful person” and what Christians understand this to suggest for “the practice of the Faith” and therefore also for professional practice.

I say “suggest” advisedly, since much debate takes place about the relation of theological inquiry and ethics. The idea that theological propositions straightforwardly imply moral certainties is generally rejected. Nevertheless, while there may be no deductive relationship between theology and ethics, an interactive coherence must be continuously worked for because, as I have argued, doing and saying are intimately connected. Christian theology offers a moral framework in which to think through ethical judgments, not a moral system from which they can be deduced (Roberts, 2013, pp. 13-17). One might put it this way: how do the theologically explored insights of Christianity grasp ethical principles on which we can rely when, as faithful selves (souls), we want to live with moral integrity?

The Christian understanding of the human self flows from the claim that humankind is made in the image of God:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28)

There is no space here to discuss the multitude of scholarly interpretations of “made in the image of God.” But the idea is central to Christian anthropology, a matter of current theological discussion and included in the catechisms of Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. The question of its meaning cannot be dodged.

The Hebrew word tselem has been translated as “likeness” with the implication of similarity, but it carries the sharper sense implied by “image”: humankind is made in the image of God—that is, it “carries God’s stamp.” We cannot here be talking in physical terms, which “likeness” may suggest; the idea is irrelevant, since God has no material form. The better approach affirms that God’s character informs the true character of humankind. Indeed God’s creation of humankind implies its special relationship with him, since the Hebrew verb bar’ is exclusively used of God’s creative authority. Thus the clue to the nature of the human self lies in the nature of God, by whose gracious act humanity was brought into being and whose mark it bears. So what, if anything, can we usefully say of the nature of God?

First, God exists in “aseity”—that is, the nature of his being depends on nothing and no one but himself. God knows himself absolutely, but the mystery of his presence is beyond human grasp because of the very absoluteness of his being. He is therefore without external constraint or interior stress, free to commit himself to the well-being of his creation without anxiety that its existence and development will constitute a challenge to the knowledge he has of who he is in himself. God chooses out of his grace to create the world; he is not compelled to do so nor constrained by external circumstances in the manner of his creating.

Second, in the profoundest sense, God loves the world that he is making and pronounces it good. Thus we say that God, in his creating, is graciously redemptive; God continuously makes and renews the world in order to bring it to itself. He is eternally himself and acts with authority in accord with his own nature.

Third, there is no end to the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to seek the essential participation of creation in its own coming into being. God crowns creation with humankind made “in his image,” endowing it with the freedom to know itself, the created world, and him whose creation it is.

Fourth, God identifies himself in Christ with his creating in order to show absolutely that nothing can separate him from his creation and its coming to perfection.

There is a wholeness about the human self as thus conceived, at least potentially, that is compatible with the wholeness of God himself. The human is not a divided being any more than God and therefore cannot be understood as divided into body, mind, and spirit. Linguistic usage in the Bible makes this plain. The Hebrew word nephesh, often translated as “soul,” refers to what one is in oneself, not to something one possesses—a perspective closer to Aristotle than Plato, as Aquinas perceived. And what one is, a soul, is the result of one’s relationship with God, one’s Creator (Pedersen, 1926, pp. 99-181). We are capable of knowing not simply that we exist, but who we are by virtue of our relationship with God, for it is through God’s gracious gift of the spirit (nephesh) that we are who we are. To turn away from God is to be a fool, to lack any sense of oneself as a self and behave as if there were no limits to what one can do or who one can become. To deny one’s nature as a human being and in one’s pride neglect to search for wisdom is to suffer with the ungodly (Ps. 14:1-7; Prov. 1:20-22). The human being is profoundly a unity, a soul.

St. Paul’s use of anthropological terms is an insightful expression of this conviction (Jewett, 1971). Whatever human relationships St. Paul is exploring, he is clear that he is talking of the totality of human selfhood: the human self is indivisible. Thus, when a person sets his or her mind (Gk., nous) and heart (Gk., kardia) on God, the person is a soul (Gk., psyche); when he or she abandons that dimension of aspiration and focuses on satisfying mere bodily needs and desires, the person’s whole self becomes subject to corruption and is, in Pauline terminology, “flesh” (Gk., sarx). Paul on two occasions refers to the “inner man” (Gk., eso anthropos)., which he identifies with the human heart (Gk., kardia), the term that Paul used to symbolize the whole person as daily renewed by God’s spirit (Gk., pneuma). In each case, a person remains “body,” a whole person capable of relationships with himself or herself and other persons and therefore of commitment to God in faith; a human being is a subject with a personality who really exists (Gk., soma; Bultmann, 1952, pp. 192ff.). Hence, when talking of Resurrection, Paul cannot imagine a “future life” without “body.” Interestingly, it seems neither could Strawson (Strawson, 1959, p. 116). Personhood is an object of perception that identifies the individual as a persistent entity; the Christian notion of the self is dependent on the reality of God’s presence and is affirmed by God’s grace. The human being is free to take responsibility for himself or herself in relationship with other people, with the world, and with God. What that amounts to is a matter of serious concern.

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