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CFOT THEOLOGY COURSE | IN HIS IMAGE

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In the CFOT Theology course the first year cadets, The Proclaimers of the Resurrection, have been asked to give consideration to Salvation Army Doctrine #5, Genesis 1:26, 27 and the movie The Elephant Man, and articulate a theological understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God.

The following essay is by Cadet Justin Gleadall.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’…So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them…” (Genesis 1: 26, 27). With those words God completed his special creation, making man and woman in His image to rule over the world that He would provide for them.  But to take a look around everyday this comment seems strange.  How is it that there are so many people who do not look anything alike coming in all shapes, sizes, and races yet they are all made in God’s image?  To look at this passage of Scripture from the surface level the idea does not seem to hold much ground leaving the question; what does being made in the image of God actually mean?  This question is one that has been discussed throughout the history of the church but also in the secular world in order to bring to light a topic that seems to be so confusing.  It is a concept that has been debated and defined by the earliest theologians, the subtext for motion pictures including The Elephant Man, and has been foundational to the doctrine of The Salvation Army.  To truly unpack what it means for God to create man in his image it is necessary to go below the surface of a person to the actions of their heart.  It is there that the answer to the question of what the image of God looks like will be answered.

Throughout history the Christian church has relied on its theologians to explain much of the perplexing aspects of the faith.  Often though in these times of discussion and discovery the theologians have come to the same conclusion as many other less scholarly Christians; the image of God is a complex topic to “pin down”.  In attempting to define the image of God, Tertullian felt that while humanity had retained the image of God after sinning, the likeness of God could only be restored through activity of the Holy Spirit. This idea appears to say that mankind while still in the image of God is not reflecting the likeness of God without the work of the Holy Spirit.  This opinion was echoed somewhat by Origen, a contemporary of Tertullian’s.  It was Origen’s belief though that the people would only take on the likeness of God at the final consummation of God’s Kingdom[1].  As the centuries went on other theologians came forward to offer their insights including Lactantius and Augustine who spoke of the image in very different terms than their predecessors.  Lactantius believed that the image of God established a unity and dignity for all people through joint brother and sisterhood in Christ.  While Augustine believed that the image of God was humankind’s ability to reason, the intelligence to judge their behaviour that other living creatures on the earth do not have[2].  In viewing the answers to this question from some of the most biblically enlightened men of the past it is clear to see that they struggle to find the same answers as everyone else.   That while it is certain the image of God is not what people look like on the outside, trying to define it will be far more difficult.  It is a definition that even the world of modern film has tried to find in bringing the lives of people to us in a thought provoking way.

In viewing the film, The Elephant Man, based on a man named John Merrick and his journey through life.  As the audience is introduced to Mr. Merrick, the images are of a man who does not carry an outward appearance appealing to the eyes.  The people around him are either scared of his appearance or cashing in on the curiosity of the paying public.  Mr. Merrick is treated poorly, mocked and abused because he is seen as far less of a human being than he was.  Here was a man, made in the image of God, but the only thing people could see was the outside of him.  Merrick says in the film, “People are frightened by what they don’t understand[3]“, in describing his situation and the reaction of others.  However as the film moves on and people become closer with him they begin to see that while the outside appearance of the man is not attractive the person that he is from within is full of beauty and grace.  They establish that this man who has never been given a chance is loving, caring, compassionate, and brilliant far better showing the image of God than anyone else who he has come into contact with.  It is then that we see the reality that the image of God is not found in the reflection in a mirror but in how life is lived in attitudes, attributes and showing the heart of God to those we come into contact with on a daily basis.  This was a realization that all the people in John Merrick’s life needed to come to and some did but others could not get past the skin level. While that was a motion picture the problem is one that humanity still struggles with to this day even in some cases in our local Salvation Army churches.

The Salvation Army since the early days under General Booth has sought to bring dignity to the marginalized, the mistreated, the oppressed and the poor.  Among this group are many people who have been placed aside because of the way the world views them.  General Booth felt strongly that all men are worthy of receiving the message of the saving grace of God but that many of these people were being missed because of the way they were looked on the surface.  In Doctrine 5, we see the Army’s view on the state of all men articulated. “We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God”[4].  It was through the sins of our original parents that the image of God became something that people needed to work at.  Because in the beginning as it says in Genesis 1, God created man in His image, the perfect image of the creator but when sin entered in that image was blurred.  Humanity was still able to show the attributes of God and to show the example of who He is but the impulse to do the opposite to cheat each other, to lie, steal, to disobey was more of a natural impulse. It was not until the coming of Jesus when humanity was able to see the untainted image of God again.  Able to look into a man, like them but to see in him something far different, to glance upon the image of God in a way not possible since the fall in the Garden so long ago.  Jesus came to bring about salvation to save the “depraved from the exposure of God’s wrath”, but he also came to show how reflecting the image is done, not through beauty on the outside but beauty on the inside.  He lived out in his life the reality of the fruits of the spirit; love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians5:22, 23).

Accomplished writer/preacher/theologian, N.T. Wright tells a story about being a young boy and having his mother put an angled mirror in the hallway when he was sick.  The point of doing this was that he could see from his room his mother, and other family members to not feel isolated but also that they could see him.  He further goes on to compare this to the human’s role in being the image of God as the angled mirror, able to reflect the majesty of who God is through love, care and stewardship shown but also that humanity is a reflection of praise back to God[5].  He is saying people are called to fulfill the promise of Genesis 1: 26, 27 by showing this reflection to all those around them.  Humanity is called back to God from the darkness to be in relationship with Him once again, to live a life in the full glow of God’s image.  This image is not the one that is seen literally in a mirror, on the surface, but through the actions and heart that lies beneath.  In a famous scene in The Elephant Man, John Merrick lashes out yelling, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man![6]” While this line is a personal cry for him on the injustice that he is living with everyday, it is one all people should take to heart because to truly be a man or woman as Mr. Merrick says is to be a reflection of God as He intended.

For Footnotes and Bibliography, click here.

Cadet Justin Gleadall, his wife Colleen and their two sons, Peyton and Kai are a part of The Proclaimers of the Resurrection session.  This year, Justin is also the goalie on one of the Salvation Army hockey teams.  Anyone know what his current stats are?