Is man a meaningful creature? Yes, but man is also a creature ordered unto God. The Imago Dei contextualizes the nature of human meaning.
In North America, stop signs are red octagons with the word ‘stop’ printed on them. There are variations, but, for the most part, they conform to this pattern.
There is nothing inherently meaningful about the pattern. Octagons do not automatically communicate ‘stop’. Red does not intrinsically symbolize ‘halt’. Even their combination (octagon+red) fails to produce something which is significant, in and of itself. The choice to make stop signs look this way is overwhelmingly arbitrary.
Similarly, the word ‘stop’ is also conventional. One might argue, that the ‘t’ and ‘p’ are both vocal stops, and so have the nature of onomatopoeia. While this may be true, we mainly know what ‘stop’ means because of the way people use the word, not because ‘stop’ is inherently significant. As Saussure, the French linguist, might put it, whatever its origin, the word ‘stop’ now functions by means of convention and not by nature.
Convention is of great importance, and it is not my intention to denigrate it. But for the purpose of this discussion, it is important to distinguish between that which is inherently meaningful and that which is not.
A stop sign is not inherently meaningful. People could have chosen circles, or squares, yellow or orange, ‘halt’ or ‘pause’, metal or plastic. In this sense, it is an empty sign: an arbitrary vehicle for the communication of meaning. To the extent that a sign is merely conventional, it lacks inherent meaning.
This series of posts concerns the nature of signs, in as much as image is a kind of sign. All signs are, in some sense, not about themselves. Yet, the term ‘image’ often implies something which has a real and not merely imputed connection to the original.
In what sense is the creation, and in particular man, an image of God? Are people merely empty sign of God’s reality, or do we bare some resemblance to Him? What is the significance of the Imago Dei?
Not every sign is merely conventional.
It is said that shaking hands and saluting have their origins in knightly practice. Today, social change makes these behaviors largely a matter of convention, but they once served the practical purpose of not only signing but enacting trust and recognition. The salute and handshake were once ways of ensuring and imaging the reality of one’s allegiance. Within the context of their original use, these were images and not just empty signs. Context is one way to discover meaning, and in fact, there can never be meaning without context.
What is the context of man?
The context of man is God’s creative speech. We are literally created in the context of word and ultimately in the context of God’s Word.
God’s Word is his eternal Image, one in essence with the Father. And in this Image, the Father eternally beholds the fullness of His being. This Image possesses the deepest possible unity with and likeness to the Original (the Father).
The Image participates fully and perfectly in the Original. The Father sends forth his very Spirit to his Son. Thus, the Son is the very Image of the Father, differing from the Father, only in that the Father is the father, and the Son, the son.
The reality of the Father is fully signified in the Son.
If the context of our image-nature is the Son (the Image), and we want to understand the meaningfulness of our own humanity, we can ask if the Son has meaning in himself.
Is the Son meaningful in himself? Yes, and no. The Son is meaningful in the sense that he is the fullness of all meaning, all value, all reality. But the fullness of meaning, which is the Son, is not a reality which exists in isolation from the other two Persons of the Trinity. The Son is no more independent than the Father or the Holy Spirit.
While the Son is other than the Father, He is yet one with him. They are same and other. We have here the archetype of all image: the Son is only Son or Image in relation to (in ratio) the Father.*
As Image, the Son is not secondary or derivative. While an image such as a photograph is derivative of its subject, the Son is Image in regard to his eternal role or Person, not in any secondary or temporal sense. What makes him Son is unity in essence through Spirit.There is no Son without the Father, but there is also no Father without Son. It is the very nature of the Father to be be oriented toward his Son, to pour forth his being to the Son through his Spirit. Yet, there is no time when the Father was, but the Image was not. They are eternally toward and with each other (in ratio).
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each fully God, are eternally meaningful, and that meaning stands in the context of relationship. Thus the eternal archetype of all image and all meaning is ratio. This is implied even in how we speak: an image is always an image of; meaning is always meaning of.
An Embrace, An Image of Participation:
What does this have to do with our humanity and the Imago Dei? Ratio, the structure of image, can be understood as a kind of likeness and participation. The Son participates fully and completely in the life of the Father through the Holy Spirit. But man, who is made in God’s image, is, yet, not the Image of God. Therefore man does not have the same kind of participation in the divine nature as that of the Son. The sameness and otherness, already present in God, finds a more extreme expression in man. We stands toward God in a different, but like ratio.
We share in a life which is like unto, dependent upon, and secondary to God’s reality. Our natural likeness to and participation in God does not constitute equality with Him. But how can something be like without being the same? What does it mean for an image to participate in an original? It seems we need to do some further exploration in regard to the Imago Dei. How does our nature, as image, differ from that of the Son? What, if any, meaning is left to humanity?
While this pushes us toward the deep mysteries of creation and redemption, let’s begin by thinking about imagery again, now in the context of a mundane example, that of an embrace.
To embrace or hug someone is not only to show a sign of affection, but to enact the very reality of that affection. But notice, unlike the stop sign, a hug, to a great extent, is what it communicates; it enacts and embodies what it signs:
- closeness (proximity)
- trust (physical vulnerability)
- peace (restful stance)
- safety (surrounding someone protectively)
- unity (joined in one)
- possession (holding/clinging)
- empathy (bringing one into/toward oneself)
- love (heart to heart)
- greeting (attention)
- Farewell (not letting go/letting go)
A hug is not an empty sign, but embodies and communicates the reality which it represents. That is not to say that beneath every hug are living affections, but that a hug images an ideal reality by being like that reality. A hug is not merely conventional. Yet, a hug is not itself the affection which it communicates. It somehow participates in what it is like, even as it is other than that reality.
It is the nature of Scripture, of God, and of even of ordinary people to seek out signs which increasingly, mysteriously are that which they signify. Why?
This is because God is not an empty Word, but the fullness of meaning. Therefore, that which he creates in the context of word and Word has participation in meaning. The original pattern of Image is not empty, and all of creation, when rightly ordered, tends towards this model.
Creation, subordinate to God, yet made in His image, is like unto Him. It is not only modeled on a pattern of sign, but on a pattern of significance. Thus, if creation is contextualized in an act of God’s Word, it may be reasonable to assume that it is contextualized by a participation in meaning.
The Doubleness of creation and humanity
Creation images the nature and reality of God by being like Him, while simultaneously being other and unlike. While the Son is also other than the Father, he is other only in Person and not essence. Creation, on the other hand, is other than God in its very essence. Creation is not Being-itself, but that which ex-ists or comes to take a stand in being.
Creation exists in the context of God’s being, even as it is not His being. Thus creation presents an aspect of doubleness in its existential structure. This duality is the fact that it comes from God’s word, even as its gifted existence remains contingent and simultaneously from nothing (ex nihilo).
This dual standing, word and nothing, is an expression of sameness and otherness on a different existential plane than that of the Son. Creation’s existence and status as image is never wholly separate from its dual origin. The ground of creation’s existence lacks the essential foundation which the Son possesses, and so, in itself, can only be like the Son.
Creative likeness is instituted and maintained within the context and power of God’s speech. Nature thus embodies the invisible realities of God by proceeding from His act of creative speech, even as this creative speech literally constitutes and gives order to that which once was not.
Creation is what it is and does what it does by abiding within the context of God’s speech–that is by remaining in ratio to Him. While creation is not God, it is made by God, through God, and unto his Word. It thus proceeds from God and remains that which is from Him, but without being or ever having been Him.**
Creation’s likeness or image nature exists because of the context of its status as creation: although, being created out of nothing, it is created by, with, in and for Him (Col. 1:16). Nature thus remains same and other to its Creator. It lives and moves and continues in this mode of being through the Word which collects (legw), orders, and sustains it.***
To some degree, this was already addressed when we discussed how nature displays order, beauty, power, etc.–transcendent attributes which are not wholly nature’s own. It was shown that nature is an image of what it is not; yet, it is so by being like those things and by sharing in their reality. We can now delve deeper into to the issue of imagery and doubleness by considering the meaning of man’s existence as image.
Human Participation in Image
The nature of man’s image status, his participation in God, concerns God’s purpose and His disposition toward his creation. This is where the stop sign is helpful. If God indifferently selected man as a means of displaying His image, humanity, like the stop sign, would be empty of personal significance.
Christian tradition teaches that God created and redeemed humanity for the sake of the divine image. We are also taught that God’s work is directed toward His own glory. Does this mean that His interest in mankind is indeed mercenary? Do we have some value unto ourselves or only in regard to God and the Imago Dei? Am I nothing but a means through which God glorifies himself, or do I matter? Does Christ die for me or only for His image in me? There is another more pointed way to ask this:
Does God love me?
In the final analysis, this question is only satisfactorily answered through the life of faith, but I will attempt a discursive response here, beginning with Scripture:
- “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
- “Scarcely for a righteous man will one die…but God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).
These two passages hint at the reality that we are not empty signs, but living images of God’s nature. We are beloved to God, and can see this in the very fact that He freely chose to create us in His image.
He does not create us or save us simply to recover something he lost in us; what he redeems is us. To separate the human person from the divine image is a false dichotomy, even if each person is not wholly conformed to this reality.
Neither creation, nor man is simply like the stop-sign. The reality that we are symbolic beings does not demote us to the status of the arbitrary or indifferent. However, it does situate our value in the context of relationship or ratio, which is, after all, the reality of image.
We truly are objects of God’s love, and the fact that we are made in his image is the sign of this love. The very reality and structure of our humanity, a being from nothing which yet declares His reality, declares the fact of His good pleasure in our existence.
Neither the world, nor mankind is an empty sign of God’s glory, but is created out of the abundance of His love. God, complete and perfect in himself, set about the work of creation in an act of free gift.
While the creation serves to glorify God, nothing can be added to His glory. So what can the meaning of this be? It is not that our Father sought attention or accolades. This would mean an imperfection and deprivation in His nature–a neediness on his part.
Rather, He created us to participate in his glory. In other words, creation as contingent and unnecessary thus bears the structure of love or gift. The creature is made to glorify Him in order that the creature might find fullness of life in such an existence.
Just as a statue partakes to some extent in the image of the original, we too, as lively images of God, were made unto him to display a likeness to Him in our very living and within the very context of our doubleness as creature. Mankind brings natures otherness to its peak through our reason, self-awareness, freedom and moral structure (aspects which uniquely apply to the Imago Dei).
Human nature helps demonstrate that God created us so that He might bestow his love and glory upon us, not as empty signs, vanity mirrors to please himself, but as partakers. He created us through love, as an object of His love, even as that object’s existence is contextualized by and ultimately ordered to God himself.
His love truly is toward us and for us, even as the end for which we are created is Himself. For the end or telos of an image is to be unto that which is its original. This makes sense of the reality that it is only man who is created for his own sake, even as we are created for the glory of God. For while we are made in the image of God for our own sake; yet, as image, it is our true nature to glorify our Father.
Further, we are called into a restored, and deeper relation and likeness through his very Image, his only Son.
To make the stakes even higher, we can consider that he is the Lamb slain since before the foundations of the earth (Rev 13:8). This means that He planned, since the very beginning, to bestow upon mankind, not merely a human or created glory, which was to be like unto Him, but the very glory of his only begotten Son. In Christ, we not only receive back a renewed likeness to our Father in heaven, but enter into that likeness through participation in the very Image of God–the divine nature.
And how did God prepare such splendor for us? Only by placing our chastisement upon his Son, so that we might enjoy the fruits of his righteousness.
Mankind was never intended for a merely human glory. Our end has always been transcendent, even while God foreknew it was only through sacrificial love that we might attain to such a reward. The meaning of mankind which is real, is yet bound up in relationship and oriented toward it source. But even more remarkably, through Christ we are adopted sons who gain a Son’s participation or a share in the very Source itself.
Is this just secular-humanism in sheep’s clothing? Does this, yet again, attempt to put man at the center of the universe and to dethrone the Creator? Am I saying that man becomes God?
On the contrary this restores the true concept of Image
It is when we forget the nature of an image that we treat it as an end in itself.
Romans 1:20-27 discusses how we traded the worship of the Creator for the creature. We did not then treat the creation as creation, but worshiped it. In other words, we no longer saw what was image as image, but instead sought God in that which He had made. To acknowledge the reality of our nature as image is to acknowledge
- The greatness of the gift
- The nature of our calling
- The cruciform nature of our calling
1. The image of God is not a deposit in man, but is the gifted reality of our existence. As partakers in the reward of the Son, who partook of our punishment, the Imago Dei makes clear the terrible grandeur of God’s gift.
While we do not become God, we become co-heirs with Christ, partakers of God’s very nature.
There is always the danger of transforming the gift into self flattery (Luke 18:9). When we are oriented toward self or creation, we orient ourselves toward the image of God, but under the aspect of its nothingness. When we seek life and satisfaction where it cannot be found, we become incapable of bearing good fruit and certainly of enjoying such (2nd Cor. 3:18).
2. The fullness of God’s gift can only be experienced in ratio, in relationship to Him. For participation in that relationship is the gift. An image is not something in itself by itself, but in ratio. The true Image of God is from, toward, with, and for God. It is through Faith, Hope, and Love that we enter into Trinitarian communion. Though all men are created in God’s image, it only through the life of faith that such a likeness is truly restored.
3. Finally, self-congratulation and flattery ultimately fail to attain to the cruciform life God has called us to. When we live to and for and with god, that is, resting in his Image, we shall be directed towards the life of that image–a life of gratitude, and of sacrificial love and service.
We cannot offer ourselves in love to God or to others if we are selfishly attached to ourselves. The structure of a true image is not that of a being who is turned inward toward himself.
We can never fully know rest, peace or joy (nor would He permit it to be so), until we live to the purpose that others may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5).
*Ratio can translate the Greek term ‘logos’
**(legw) verb form of logos can mean to collect or arrange.
***That which is made in the Image of God is in some sense made for eternity, participates and is akin to that which is and shall be, but also to that which always has been