Whatever happened to the image of God?

I recently picked up Creation and Fall by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Within a few pages, I had made up my mind that this book is a gift, a total surprise in its sharp yet natural exegesis of Genesis 1 to 3. It has reshaped my understanding of creation, of the world, and caused me to wonder at God’s grace and love for us in a totally new way. As the preface indicates, Creation and Fall was originally a course of lectures delivered at the University of Berlin in the winter semester of 1932-33. Bonhoeffer’s students compiled their notes into the book we now have. Though I cannot do justice to this masterpiece in such a short write, three questions have captured my interest: What does it mean to be created imago Dei (in the image of God)? What does it mean to be sicut deus (like God)? What is the purpose of life sicut deus?

What does it mean to be created imago Dei?

Bonhoeffer points it out from the start: people tend to throw around the expression ‘made in the image of God’ without really knowing what it means. We have a vague sense that something of God is in man, but perhaps most people aren’t quite sure what this something is. To be fair, this question has resonated with Jewish and Christian theologians for centuries. A brief overview of history reveals that the Jewish tradition understood ‘image’ (sélèm) and ‘resemblance’ (demut) as referring to different aspects of human nature; image was the ethical component whereas resemblance spoke of man’s immortality. For the Fathers of the Church, such as Irenaeus, image encompassed natural attributes (intelligence, freedom) and resemblance was the supernatural attribute (Holy Spirit). We could follow the debate on the concept of imago Dei through the Middle Ages all the way to today with Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of image and resemblance being two sides of the same coin. In Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer boils it down to one key word: freedom. And this makes perfect sense when we look at the account of creation and how the idea of freedom is interwoven throughout the narrative.

Here are three points he makes about freedom. First, God created the world and humankind out of his own freedom. There is no causal relationship in creation. The act of creation is free in that it is a unique act, as Bonhoeffer says, it cannot be repeated. ‘Between the Creator and creature, there is simply nothing’. Though this appears to be a strange expression, he explains that this ‘nothing’ is precisely what makes it free (unattached to a cause), and yet this ‘nothing’ is not empty. It is charged, it is full, it affirms something, the ‘nothing’, in other words the freedom out of which God created.

Second, by the end of the fifth day, God had created many wonders, but he could not find his own image in anything of yet. None of his creation was created free as he is free. Therefore, he makes man and woman in his image. They are a mirror to his freedom. Bonhoeffer says, ‘humankind differs from the other creatures in that God is in humankind as the very image of God in which the free creator looks upon the Creator’s own self’. Yet man and woman do not possess freedom as the Creator but as creature. They are free in their ‘creatureliness’.

This brings us to our third point, which is a crucial question: what is freedom? Bonhoeffer answers that freedom is paradoxically a bond, a relationship. ‘Only in being in relation with the other am I free,’ says Bonhoeffer. As a creature, man’s freedom does not exist on its own or for its own, it exists for a purpose. In relationship to God, this means that Adam and Eve were created for the love and worship of God. In relationship to each other this means that man and woman were created for each other, they exist in duality. Bonhoeffer uses a series of expressions such as ‘over-against-one-another, with-one-another, in-dependence-upon-one-another’ to convey this duality. There is another aspect to freedom, the idea of limit. Once again, man’s creatureliness means he is not God, he is not free like God. He is free as a creature of God, with natural and given limits. These limits guarantee that he finds everything he needs, everything he desires within the garden.

Of course, this leads us to consider the command God gave to the man in regard to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What is the meaning of this tree for the man and the woman imago Dei?

What does it mean to be sicut deus?

Two trees sit at the centre of the garden of Eden, which is symbolic of human existence: the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil (tob and ra) indicates a limit or boundedness of man and woman, their ‘creatureliness’, as Bonhoeffer says. This limit is a grace, because it comes as the affirmation of their existence in freedom and their united and unbroken relationship with God and each other. On the other hand, the tree of life is God, the giver of life. Together, as ‘boundary and life’ these two trees mean that life is only possible with God and within this boundary.

As we know, the story takes a fatal turn. Here enters the serpent. He speaks words against the truthful word of God, and introduces a new idea, the idea of being sicut deus, like God. How is the knowledge of good and evil becoming like God? Because to become sicut deus is to become the one who not only knows, but defines good and evil. It is to step out of the attitude of creatureliness and become a creator-creature without limits, without boundaries, or to put it otherwise, a creator-creature with limitless desires, with a never-ending thirst for something that is always out of reach.

The consequences are manifold: death as decreed by God, separation from God, alienation from each other, brokenness on the inside, destruction of the world. The limit that was once a grace is now the object of hatred. The God who was loved is hated, the other creature who was loved is hated, the united self becomes divided and finds no security, no rest, and finally life itself, which was a free gift turns into a command. Man is commanded to go on living in the now sicut deus world (that is a world marked by the duo tob and ra, the pleasurable and the painful), but he will do so without God. From now on, man will live sicut deus out of his own resources, as the centre of his own life and create his own word of truth, his own god. This despairing picture can leave us wondering what hope, what purpose can be left for the life sicut deus? Precisely.

What is the purpose of life sicut deus?

It is no secret that life sicut deus will be a battle. Because mankind believed the words of the serpent, because man sicut deus now believes his own words over and above God’s, life sicut deus will be a battle for words of truth. It will be a battle to know God, to know truth, to believe truth. Life is a maze in which we are constantly seeking, and so we should. Yet in his abundant grace, God provides a means for us to know, not the full but the greatest part of the truth. He gave his word, he sent Jesus (the Word) to testify to the truth. This gives us a realistic view of the battle for truth, a true hope for life, while stirring in us a sense of the importance of pursuing his word fervently.

When life became a command, so did love. As we see in the Scripture itself, God has now commanded us to love. Because he knew we couldn’t, because he knew we wouldn’t. We fight another battle, a battle to love God, to love the other, to love ourselves (rightly). And though we cannot go back to the other side of the fall to see what perfect love with God and with each other might have been, we can learn from God’s word, from Jesus himself what it means and what it looks like to love God and another in our sicut deus world.

To conclude I return to the title question of this post: whatever happened to the image of God? Do we still bear it or is it forever lost? Somewhere in the middle of his lectures, Bonhoeffer makes this incredible connection: “Imago dei, sicut deus, agnus dei – the human being who is God incarnate, who was sacrificed for humankind sicut deus, in true divinity slaying its false divinity and restoring the imago dei.” The answer is yes. In Jesus, the imago Dei is restored to us. Not through our own efforts, not through our own truth, but through his work of grace on the cross. Where Christ reigns, there is the freedom we long for, the centre we search for, the limit we cherish, the hope that makes the impossible life sicut deus possible.

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