Mirroring God: Implications of the Imago Dei for Pastoral Care

Posted by on Nov 29, 2015 in Budding Theologians | 3 comments

I recently finished teaching an introduction to Pastoral Care course at Vose Seminary. It was a great class, and many thoughtful projects and case studies emerged. One that especially struck me was this essay by Alycia Randell on the implications of our being made in the image of God, for the provision of pastoral care. Alycia is drawing towards the end of a combined BMin/BTh degree at Vose, and together with her husband Peter is engaged in pastoral ministry in Mandurah. I thought that this fine essay more than justified Alycia being classified as one of our budding theologians, and am glad that she agreed to have her work showcased in this way. I hope you enjoy her essay as well.

As always, feel free to provide feedback via the comments.

Mirroring God: Implications of the imago Dei for Pastoral Care, by Alycia Randell

Abstract

Over centuries theologians have grappled with the concept of imago Dei which, despite its infrequency through scripture, carries great weight for our theological understanding of humanity’s relationship to God. Despite the lack of agreement concerning the precise content and meaning, there are several areas where general consensus can be found. The image of God in humanity can be seen as something that is: Imperishable, Universal and Relational. It is from these common platforms that I will explore the implications of the imago Dei for pastoral care

Finding Consensus on Imago Dei

Many pages over time have been devoted to the examination of the image of God in humanity. Over centuries theologians have grappled with this idea in Genesis that, despite its infrequency through scripture, carries such weight. A plethora of interpretations have ensued which seek to elucidate in what ways humanity is like God. Unfortunately, as Vorster surmises, “There is little agreement amongst theologians on the precise content and meaning of the imago Dei.”[1] Indeed, Brand portrays something of the scope in the following comment,

Philosophers and theologians have long speculated on all that could be contained within the mystery of that single phrase. Predictably, they tend to project onto their definitions the principle concerns of their own era. The Enlightenment age assures us the image of God is the ability to reason, the Pietists identify it as the spiritual faculty, the Victorians claim it as the capacity to make moral judgements, and the Renaissance thinkers locate the image of God in artistic creativity. As for our own psychology-dominated age? What else could that image be, we are now advised, than our capacity for relationships with other people and with God.[2]

Brand’s comment however is too simplistic as it does not take into consideration those questions and conversations that permeate in all eras, such as: how the fall and sin shapes our understanding of the imago Dei. The importance of these conversations being whether humanity still bears the image of God and if it does, to what extent? What damage has been done to the imago Dei as a consequence of sin? Some, like Luther, suggest that sin destroys the human image-bearing capabilities altogether. Others, like Calvin, separate the image into parts by distinguishing between humankind’s natural and super-natural gifts.[3] The conclusions we reach regarding the image-bearers we ought to be and the image-bearers we are will have an impact on how we care. Needless to say, consideration of the consequences of the fall has had an impact in shaping the many strands of thinking about the imago Dei.

Likewise, is the imago Dei a physical concept, a relational concept that indicates the nature of the human beings relationship with God, or does it indicate the way in which human beings represent God on earth? Some, like Brunner, proposes that the imago Dei is an intrinsic quality; a reflection that both indicates the presence of God and points back towards God.[4]  Others, like Barth, reject Brunner’s ideas that human image bearing can lie in any inherent qualities. Instead he asserts that the imago Dei cannot be distinguished outside of relationship with God.[5] The main question here is: what is God’s original purpose for creating humankind in His image? Ironically, the answer is the same; it is the evidence of God. Whether it is for the purpose of bringing others into relationship with God, or the proof of relationship with God, both agree that the imago Dei is the evidence of God.

In fact, there are several areas where general consensus can be found concerning what it means to be a human made in the likeness of God. It is these commonalities I wish to now turn attention to, and the general implications each has on pastoral care practices.

The Imago Dei is …

Imperishable

One thing that is largely agreed upon within mainstream Christian theology is that sin does not abolish the human’s image, but rather twists and distorts it.[6] The reason being that, “The protological history in Genesis 1-11 clearly upholds the human’s possession of the imago Dei even after the fall.”[7] This can be seen in Gen 9:6 where distinction is drawn between humankind and other forms of life; that is, human life is given greater value because of the imago Dei. As Boer states, humanity still participates in the imago Dei, however, under the condition of sin. “The bright flame of its original image is now only an ember, but an ember still glowing.”[8] To this Vorster adds, “The fact that human image-bearing cannot be destroyed by sin does not mean that sin only affects the human partially. It rather means that God still preserves the human in spite of sin.”[9] What Vorster captures is the notion that God has placed within humanity an imperishable image.

To put it another way; that which God has done cannot be undone, even by sin. The imago Dei is immortal and attests to the truth that humankind was made for eternity.  The implications for pastoral care are twofold; that is, the imperishable image is a source of hope and reverence to pastors. It is a source of hope because it means that no person is a lost cause. As Way points out, “[Care] is inclusive of the terrorist, the murderer, the abuser, the perpetrator of horrendous violence.”[10] All humankind retains value in God’s sight, despite sin. Therefore, we have the hope and assurance that no person is beyond the saving and redemptive work of Christ.

Secondly it is a source of reverence, as the pastor is without excuse for mistreating, overlooking or judging another individual.  God has deemed all human life to be valuable because he identifies himself within humanity.[11] Here, the regard shown towards our neighbour is tantamount to the regard we give to the Lord. Indeed, the value placed on any given individual will alter the behaviour towards them. The minister’s work is to treat every person with the highest esteem.

Yet this is an impossible feat in our own strength. Smail is correct when he asserts,

There is something and somebody beyond ourselves and the culture that has shaped us, to whom we are bound and answerable, because our calling is not to be ourselves by and for ourselves, but to find ourselves beyond ourselves in becoming like him.[12]

It is in Jesus Christ that the pastor is both cared for and receives the ability to care. For “Christ does not just display God-reflecting humanity, but he imparts it to us.”[13] In the same way, the pastoral care relationship imitates the grace we have received in Christ and foreshadows the grace we are yet to receive. “For all of us, the reward is the same: a chance to be judged not for what we are but for what Christ is. When God looks upon us He sees his beloved Son.” [14]

Universal

Another thing that is largely agreed upon within mainstream Christian theology is that the image of God is seen in collective humankind. As Boer articulates, “I see mankind… to constitute the one image of God. In this one mighty and varied humanity, all women and men participate.”[15] He goes on to argue, as some others do, that Gen 1:27 attests to male and female being made collectively in God’s image and that the imago Dei therefore is not borne by the individual.

However it could also equally be argued, that an idea embedded in the Genesis text is that the image or likeness of God is not restrained to one type, kind, gender or person. Rather the image of God is shared. Here I am more inclined to agree with Wenham,

Whereas Egyptian writers often spoke of kings as being in God’s image, they never referred to other people in this way. It appears that the OT has democratised this old idea. It affirms that not just the king, but every man and woman bears God’s image and is his representative on earth.[16]

Still, no individual can claim to bear the image of God in totality. Rather, “We are called to bear that image as a Body because any one of us taken individually would present an incomplete image.”[17] Gerkin is correct in asserting the need for “the rediscovery of the congregation as the primary agent of care for the people of God.”[18]  He calls for renewed attention to be given to the structures of care given by the congregation and the advocacy of communal responsibility for one another as the main provider of care.

Relational

A third commonality is the notion that the concept of image ties God and human beings to one another. It also, on the other hand, delineates between both. God makes a demarcation between other creatures and humanity since only humanity is made in His likeness. This quality separates humankind from all other creation. God breathing into man is a ‘single act of special creation’.[19]  “We possess what no other animal does; we are linked in our essence to God.”[20] Yet at the same time, humanity is still part of God’s creation, and the semblance does not mean equality with God.

Like the rest of the creation we owe our being entirely to the will and purpose of God, but our distinctiveness from the rest of creation is that God has mirrored himself in us, made us to be like himself so that he can relate to us and we to him in a way that is unique.[21]

Humankind is intrinsically relational. Alongside the encouragement of believer’s to find creative ways of relating to God, there also is a need for care structures within the gathered church that give space and opportunity to foster connection. Meditation, communion, prayer, singing, foot washing, responsive readings, practicing hospitality etc are just as important practices to consider as visitations. As Way points out,

For an intrinsically relational being, even ordinary kindnesses affirm one’s identity. The removal of this category of relationships from pastoral care has minimized our awareness of how important ordinary graciousness, everyday recognitions, and little kindnesses are for hospitable culture.[22]

Created for Christ

I wish to return for a moment to the question of why God chose to make humankind in His image and why image-bearing is linked to the mandate to rule. The creation of humanity is unique in format to every other creation. Divine deliberation takes place before the creative act and a consensus reached within Trinity to create humankind ‘in our image’. Boer points out, “There appears to be an intimate relation between the image in which Man was created and the work he was given to do.”[23] Smail suggests “This dominion over the creation is the consequence of the imaging of the Creator; we have authority over the creation in virtue of our likeness to the Creator.”[24]

Still creating humankind in the image and likeness of God and giving them dominion over the earth appears above all to be for and in anticipation of Christ Jesus. From a Christological perspective, it could be argued that within Genesis God sets up the natural laws by which His salvific work will be accomplished. Firstly, that Man will be the chief bearer of His likeness and the means by which God will be glorified and known. Jesus Christ is the realisation and fulfilment of God’s original purpose. “In Him the destination of the human’s image-bearing becomes evident.” Christ is the very likeness and image of God and because of this, He holds dominion over the earth.

Christ is more than a reflection of God. He is the Manifestation of God that emits the glory of God. God’s being and character is reflected in a perfect manner in the life of Christ… In Genesis 1 the human receives the mandate to rule over the creaturely, but Christ, who is the true image of God, receives the mandate to rule over the entire cosmos.[25]

As a result of the incarnation and the revelation of the Spirit, we can now know what God is like and in so doing, what ways we are like God. The work of the carer is hence to help summon up in the people we meet, the image of God and spark Godliness in the human spirit. Furthermore, it is to encourage perseverance that, “the restoration of the image is an eschatological gift that starts in the present, but that is only fulfilled in the future.”[26] Finally, it is to give constant reflection and educated interpretation to the ‘open meaning’ assigned to the nature of the imago Dei in Genesis through the study of Christ Jesus.[27]

Final thoughts

Unfortunately it is often those in positions of ministry who can find themselves most at risk of not knowing for certain just who they are and what exactly they are to do. As Dystra shares,

Over time, the sheer accumulation of these kinds of encounters began to take their toll on my faith and ministry. In the face of steady exposure to tragedy and death, I began not only to doubt whether I had anything of substance to offer the victims and their families, but also to question God’s loving and faithful nature that I had previously taken for granted… Confronting others’ severe crises on a weekly basis, I found myself in a crisis of sorts as well.[28]

In such situations, pastoral care also encompasses self-care. Ministers must be cautious to avoid the snare of neglecting personal communion with God. In order to offer care those who minister must live in a state of constant orientation and re-orientation towards God.  Ultimately, a mirror can only reflect that which its face is turned towards.

Bibliography

Boer, Harry R. An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1990)

Brand, Dr. Paul & Philip Yancey. Fearfully & Wonderfully Made (Michigan: Zondervan, 1980)

Brand, Dr. Paul & Phillip Yancey. In His Image: The Sequel to Fearfully & Wonderfully Made (Michigan: Zondervan, 1984).

Cobb, John B. Jr. Theology and Pastoral Care (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)

Dyrstra, Robert C. Images of Pastoral Care (Missouri: Chalice press, 2005)

Gerkin, Charles V. An Introduction to Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)

Smail, Tom. Like Father Like Son: The Trinity Imaged in our Humanity (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2005)

Vorster, Nico. Created in the Image of God: Understanding God’s Relationship with Humanity (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011)

Way, Peggy. Created by God: Pastoral Care for all God’s People (Missouri: Chalice press, 2005)

[1] Nico Vorster, Created in the Image of God: Understanding God’s Relationship with Humanity (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011) 3.

[2] Dr. Paul Brand & Phillip Yancey, In His Image: The Sequel to Fearfully & Wonderfully Made (Michigan: Zondervan, 1984) 20.

[3] Calvin suggests that the natural gifts are distorted by sin while the supernatural are taken away completely. The natural gifts are ruined but not destroyed, whereas the supernatural (love, faith, holiness) can only be regained through regeneration. Vorster, Created in the Image of God, 13.

[4] The relationship, says Brunner, is “characterised by the fact that God reveals himself to the human in the Word and that He at the same time gives the human rationality to receive his Word.” And that, “The human was not only created by God, but was created in and for God.” Ibid, 6.

[5] “The human is a being that lives in a state of interaction.” Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 13.

[7] Ibid, 15.

[8] Harry R. Boer, An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1990) ix.

[9] Italics mine. Vorster, Created in the Image of God, 16

[10] Peggy Way, Created by God: Pastoral Care for all God’s People (Missouri: Chalice press, 2005) 61.

[11] Boer agrees with this sentiment when he comments, “Between the true image and the Prototype there is a fellowship, a mutuality, in which each recognises himself in the other.” Boer, An Ember Still Glowing, 5.

[12] Tom Smail, Like Father Like Son: The Trinity Imaged in our Humanity (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2005) 4. Brand and Yancey echo the sentiment in the following statement concerning Human self-image “Paradoxically, any of those desirable qualities may raise a barrier against the image of God, for virtually any quality that a person can rely on makes it more difficult for that person to rely on the spirit of God.” Brand & Yancey, In His Image, 41-42.

[13] Brand & Yancey, In His Image, 59.

[14] Ibid, 47.

[15] Boer, An Ember Still Glowing, ix.

[16] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, cited in Smail, Like Father, Like Son, 46.

[17] Brand & Yancey, In His Image, 40

[18] [Italics mine] Charles V. Gerkin, An Introduction to Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997) 92. Gerkin points out that the meaning of the term pastoral has historically had “a fundamentally communal connotation.” Ibid, 92.

[19] Brand & Yancey, In His Image, 22.

[20] Ibid, 21.

[21] Smail, Like Father Like Son, 47.

[22] Way, Created by God, 79.

[23] Boer, An Ember Still Glowing, 3.

[24] Smail, Like Father Like Son, 43.

[25] Vorster, Created in the Image of God, 17.

[26] Ibid, 19.

[27] Ibid, ix. As Way says, “The concern is rather a deeper issue of how congregations are to connect their liturgies with their practices, their mission statements with their actions, their scriptural knowledge with their ordinary and everyday behaviours, and their intentions with their embodiments.” Way, Created by God, xii.

[28] Robert C. Dyrstra, Images of Pastoral Care (Missouri: Chalice press, 2005)73.

3 Comments

  1. What an insight! we are truly blessed to have Alycia serving with us at Waratah. A real Angel.
    Syd Middleton. Waratah Christian Community Elder.

  2. This would be a lovely article for people in formation for spiritual direction to look at. When engaged in the interface between pilgrims and God it makes a lot of sense to also be exposed to this type of fine theological reflection. Many thanks. (Chris Brown, author of Guiding Gideon: Awakening to Life and Faith).

    • Thanks Chris. I will pass on your comments to Alycia. I am sure she will find them encouraging.

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