The Shattered Visage

Man is a god in ruins – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Broken mirror

What Are We?

What is man? The question has captivated this worldly existence no less today than it has in the current of history. The Greek philosophers saw man as rational. The Eastern religions saw man as mystical. The Scientific Revolution saw man as material. The Postmodern age sees man as existential. None of these has captured the essence of man. Is man a glorified animal? Is he a demythologized god? Or is he nothing more than a mystery? Christianity offers an answer to the question that remains un-assailed. It maintains that man is a creature of unique dignity, however marred he might be. The account of man’s creation in Genesis says he was created in the image of God. He and she bears the imago Dei. But Eden could not sustain the man and the woman for long. Soon after the forbidden fruit stained the lips of Adam, mankind saw his visage shattered, and God’s image was obscured. Emerson may be unwittingly accurate.

If man bears this unique resemblance to God, what is it? The Reformer John Calvin maintained that man cannot know himself until he has first looked into the face of God. Jonathan Edwards carefully pondered that the two most important kinds of knowledge are of God and of one’s self. To understand who man is most certainly entails knowing his Creator. The imago Dei in man is a reflection of what God is. The notion of “image” and “likeness” in the creation account is not merely the equation of God with the original and man with the copy. Man is not just a “Xerox” of God; a cheap imitation. Human beings in their very essence retain an authentic correspondence with the nature of God. But does this make them little gods?

Man is certainly not an animal, but neither is he divine. There will always be a remarkable distinction between the Creator and the creature. God is the supremely self-sufficient being in that He depends on nothing outside of Himself.  All things outside of God are in fact dependent on Him; they derive their existence from the creative power of God’s self-existence. God simply spoke and out of nothing all came into being. As a creature, man’s being is derivative, he is not his own. God has indelibly impressed upon the essence of mankind, including all of his innate capacities, a finite reflection of the infinite God Himself.

Although humans by virtue of their finite nature could never attain certain attributes predicated of God alone, nonetheless, the imago Dei is not merely the possession of attributes that are like that of God. We must reach deeper for what alludes us. The Bible never precisely defines the image of God in man, and since knowledge of man requires knowledge of God, the panorama of God’s self-disclosure is necessary to define it. The more we know who God is, the more we know man. Theologians have understood the image of God as focused on the immaterial nature of God as reflected in man. However, some have wondered whether the image is reflected in the physical body. The Bible makes it clear that God is spirit and has no body, yet there is some argument that the Bible views the material and immaterial aspects of man as a unity. Perhaps it is best to say that the body reflects the image of God only in a functional way as an instrument of the image retained in the soul.

How Like God We Are

The immaterial dimension of the imago Dei takes features that liken humans to the Creator and distinguishes them above all other creatures. Of all God’s creatures, man alone has the capacity for self-transcendence, self-reflection, and spiritual awareness. Such allows him to even ask the question, “What is man?” The following characterizes what Calvin called the sense of the divine in all human beings.

(1) God created man as a spiritual being. He is by nature religious and has an instinct for worship.  He must satisfy his need to relate himself to something sacred. He cannot exist in the lonely charters of the profane.

(2) This shows man is also a relational being. He must bear some kind of relationship to his Creator and to his fellow humans. God did not create Adam as an androgynous creature; “. . . male and female he created them.” Man is complimented in his social dimension by a counterpart in marriage and needs other humans for fellowship. But above all, man is in desperate need to always be rightly related to his Creator.

(3) God created man as a moral being. He has a conscience so that he knows right and wrong. He also knows this ethical sense within him did not originate there, but elsewhere. Man’s ethical self-awareness unequivocally points him to a righteous and just God, who alone is the standard of all moral judgments.

(4) Man was created as a volitional being. He is able to make informed choices and is granted freedom.

(5) Man was created as a rational being. Man alone can think intuitively, making logical connections between disparate realities, drawing inferences from either concrete or abstract propositions and forming cohesive and intelligible arguments.

(6) This also demonstrates that man is a linguistic being. He can string together abstract thoughts, turning all sorts of metaphors and ethereal symbols into meaningful concrete expressions of communication. His natural knack for language sets him apart from all other creatures who communicate.

(7) Man was created as an emotive being. He displays a complex web of various affective dispositions in varying degrees allowing him to appreciate every other dimension of his immaterial nature.

(8) Man was created as an aesthetic being. He derives a particular significance from beauty. It stimulates his soul to rise above the mundane that would otherwise corrupt meaning in his environment. He has a playful and purposeful imagination involving him in all manner of arts.

(9) Man was endowed as a creative being. God alone is genuinely creative, able to make something out of nothing. However, man can creatively reconstruct out of pre-existing resources all sorts of practical and efficient devices and inventions. His command over the rest of creation progresses to unprecedented limits.  He is technological and always advancing in knowledge. In contrast, the animal kingdom ever remains inert.

 These features of the imago Dei serve as the structural or formal component. They are those aspects which endows humanity with personhood. The functional or material dimension of the image corresponds with man’s responsibility as a representative of God on earth. Properly speaking, this is the manifestation of the image and not part of it. God called Adam to exercise dominion over the creation. As God’s representative man is to reflect the will of God in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness to one another. When viewed as a whole, the various elements described of the imago Dei (by no means exhaustive of all that is implied) form a network of interdependence that distinguishes man as the crown of creation, a being of unequaled gravitas. It thrusts man high upon the pinnacle of the universe and boldly manifests his nobility within the cosmos. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How express and admirable! In action how like an angel. In apprehension how like a god!”

In spite of such accolades, all is not well with man.

How Unwell We Are

The mirror has faded and has been grossly fractured. Man can no longer look at himself and see with clarity the radiant glory of his God.  The face of man has dimmed. As Calvin said, the imago Dei after man fell into sin remains but a “frightful deformity.”  In fact, fallen man has worked hard to erase any trace of God. He has sought to replace God.  What remains of the likeness, man supposes has emanated from himself. Thus he has become a god, a god of his own making—“a god in ruins.” The self-absorption of humanity has swept the Creator under the cosmic rug of his consciousness and he can no longer relate to God or make sense of his own existence. He must create his own meaning and despise responsibility. As Reinhold Niebuhr astutely judged, man’s penchant for self-deception and self-justification in nearly infinite. This leaves man in a state of forlornness, though so often he scarcely recognizes it. J. Gresham Machen has pointed out that sin has not destroyed the image of God in man; however it no longer makes it “a blessing but an unspeakable horror and curse.”  All of fallen man’s divinely reflected capacities are used not to glorify God, but himself.  What Adam formerly retained in perfection is now exercised in corruption by his progeny.

How Well We Can Be

The broken hopes of man are not lost on his own disavowal of what was good in the original creation. The Creator has provided for reparations on our behalf. For the true follower of Jesus Christ the renewal of the imago Dei is being carried out in a methodical transformation of his shattered visage via the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Christians are being re-conformed to the image of the true God in Christ, or as one theologian has said, they are experiencing “Christiformity.” Once, Moses walked into the midst of the camp of rogue Israelites with his countenance ablaze with the shekinah glory of God, having conversed face to face with Him at great length. Moses needed to veil his radiant appearance. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that they too bear the glory of God in their faces: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God is taking scrap from the heap of smoldering ruins and is fashioning a magnificent edifice to honor His glory and majesty. Each man or woman who has given their life to Him for that purpose becomes one of the glorified building stones. Whereas, Adam before the fall was posse non peccare et mori (able not to sin and die), when believers receive their final glorification they shall non posse peccare et mori (not be able to sin and die). They will live in eternity in confirmed holiness as perfect bearers of the image of the perfect Christ.


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