Blogmatics 19: Image is everything

He is the image of the invisible God… - Colossians 1:15

This man is man. – Karl Barth

I The end of man?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault famously ended The Order of Things with a prophecy: that there would come a time when ‘man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’. Of course, he was trying to show that ‘man’ is a historically contingent concept, an invention of the Enlightenment; and hoping that the erasure of ‘man’ as an idea might be a moment of great liberation.

And perhaps the end for ‘man’ is nigh. Philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics calls belief in human specialness ‘Christianity’s cardinal error’ and castigates Richard Dawkins for his humanism. After all, say Gray, once God has gone, the notion of ‘man’ as a unique and privileged animal among other creatures cannot surely stand.

We are strangely mysterious creatures, especially to ourselves. Are our special gifts – the extraordinary symphony of physical and mental capacities that we possess – a sign of a particular blessing from some divine being? Or is it simply the further reach of the evolution of life thus far: a stop on the way to somewhere else perhaps rather than the final destination?

II The mystery explained

The Bible itself gives expression to the quandary, asking ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the Son of Man that you care for him?’ (Psalm 8). But of course the question is addressed to someone, a you. There is, in the Biblical perspective, a creator of this creature, and thus a person to whom one might put the question ‘who are we, these creatures that can even think about having a conversation with the creator?’

The author of that Psalm it is likely to say already had in front of him the idea that human beings were made ‘in the image of God’ – that phrase that springs out of Genesis 1 at us. And yet that answer was not enough. It didn’t answer the question. It intensified it if anything: who are we that we were of all creatures chosen to be made in God’s image?

Which is why we need to think about human being from Jesus Christ back aw well as from Genesis 1 forward. Because the mystery of Psalm 8 is solved by the appearance of Jesus Christ in flesh – at least according to Hebrews 2. We do not see, the author says, the human creature ruling the created order as he was designed to do and called to do. We do not know of humanity like that. But: we do know of one human individual for whom this was the case; and who is now extraordinarily crowned with glory and honour.

And more than this, too: the New Testament repeatedly applies the ‘image of God’ language to Jesus the Christ. He is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15). He is the ‘exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1:1-3). He is the one who made the true invisible God known (John 1:14-18). In him all the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily (Col 1).

And his life was not simply an example of what would happened if God turned up. The synoptic gospels in particular show us what happens when human life is lived as it was designed to be lived. Jesus is the Son of Man to whom is delegated the task of forgiving sins (Mark 2); the one who commands the wind and the waves. He is the one whose life is marked by extraordinary acts of service at cost to himself. This was divine life, humanly lived.

And this is human life, eternally established. Whatever we might say about human creatures with all their shortcomings, it was this creature that God was willing to become. It was this creature that he died to save. This should not be the cause for an inordinate human pride of course; rather it is a reminder of the extraordinary responsibility of being human that we all bear.

III More to come

I remember Bishop Rob Forsyth once claiming that Christians were the true humanists, because we actually worship a human being. He’s exactly right: we do.

And from this human being we learn, utterly and definitively, what it is to be a human being. It is this image into which we in Christ are being transformed.

‘Man’ as the Enlightenment thought of him, is hopefully dying. This was a proud, independent being, self-made, self-defining and self-proclaiming. He was made only in his own image. He reflected no-one other than himself.

But if in Christ we know that human creatures are beloved by God to the degree that he would become one of them; and if we learn there that the human creature has a special call from God to represent him and to do the things he would have done in the world; and if we learn that even death did not defeat this one, then perhaps ‘man’ isn’t quite finished yet.

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

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