The ancient wisdom of the biblical story of the creation sees man as having originated in purity within the divine world. But this wisdom also speaks of a definite intention, a specific goal which stood before the divine world when it called man into existence. God created man ‘in his own image’. Likeness to God this was the great goal, a goal worthy of God, which rayed forth over the creation of man.
In what does this likeness to God consist? If the human being were merely another creature, only a product of creation, albeit a nearly perfect one, this accomplishment would still not do justice to the exalted goal of man’s consecration. Man would only deserve to be called an image of God if he too were a creative being, and thus something more than the product of creation. Man would only be in harmony with the divine purpose if he bore within him his own creative, personal centre of being, out of which he might act in freedom and love, in keeping with divine goodness.
Such a being, free and self-determining, a ‘personality’ in the best sense of the word, cannot simply come forth as a (in everyday language) finished product from the hand of God. Such a being cannot simply be made, if it is to be more than a created being. For this reason God breathed into man something of his own divine nature. To use another image, God offered to man a spark of his own divine, primordial fire, which through sacrifice was placed as a seed in man.
A long process of development is needed so that this seed may one day develop into a free personality in the image of God. In order to unfold his inborn capacities man must proceed through a historical evolution. The fact that he finds himself in just such a historical process is not simply something arbitrary or external to his nature. On the contrary, it is an integral part of his development. Only by suffering through his destiny and moulding it aright, does man gradually evolve to that state which is intended for him.
It is a fundamentally important insight that man, the image of God, is by no means yet complete. He is still ‘on the way’. And in this he is distinct from all his fellow creatures on earth. Stone, plant and animal are finished works. A rose, for instance, is really one hundred per cent rose. It is the perfect expression of its purpose and potential. For the very same reason, however, the rose has no history. The same is true for the animal. In contrast to other creatures of nature, each complete in its own way, the human being is beset by the painful awareness of his own imperfection. He stands much higher than the creatures beneath him and yet, with respect to his own level of perfection, he is so terribly far behind. He is, as man, not nearly as perfect as the rose is as rose.
Of course, as far as his bodily form is concerned, man is without doubt the true crown of creation. Through a long historical development the human bodily form has attained a high degree of perfection. But the actual inner nature of man is as yet only in its beginnings. This is why it is so difficult to arrive at a clear answer to the question of man’s real nature, of the ultimate problem of his worth or worthlessness. The final word has not yet been spoken. The process of man’s development is still under way. If we understand ourselves properly, we must say that we are not yet ‘human beings’ in the strict sense of the word, but rather something for which a word must be coined, something rather like ‘claimants’ or ‘aspirants’ to the name.
Man in the image of God is a distant goal. The path leading to this goal is history.