A precious jewel (1)

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.” Psalm 8:3-6

It is hard to read the central verses of Psalm 8 without pausing in wonder. Or perhaps puzzlement is a better way to describe my initial feelings about the passage. In it David compares humanity to two of God’s most awesome creatures: the vast expanse of our physical universe and the angelic host. He goes on to note that in God’s divine wisdom, He chose to honor humanity with dominion over the entire universe, and then to endow him with powers that are just slightly less than that given to the angels. And finally, greater than even these gifts, God chose to bestow humanity with a glory and honor that is unique in the creation! When I read that passage and proceed to have a look at myself in the bathroom mirror—not to mention the mirror of God’s Word!—I do not see that crowning glory. All I see is another sinful, weak human being. One saved by God’s grace, but just a weak human being nonetheless.

That observation is one that we probably all make of ourselves at one time or another, and it should rightly lead us to the question of what God is revealing in Psalm 8 about the special creation of humans. What is this “crown” of glory and honor that He has placed on humans in a unique fashion? It is my firm belief that this passage refers to the first chapter of Genesis, which describes all of God’s wonderful acts of creation and culminates in His fashioning of a man and a woman in His own image (Gen. 1:26, 27). What greater honor and glory is possible for any creature than that it should be endowed with the image of its Creator? That this is what David had in mind—and through him the Spirit of God—seems apparent from his reference to the dominion of man over the physical creation, which is an exact parallel to the words spoken by God in Genesis 1:26. The crown of man, the symbol of his unique lordship in the creation, is the image of God that he bears.

If, in fact, the glory of man is his display of the image of God, it is exceedingly important that Christians correctly understand what this image is, and how it is properly displayed by humanity. Since the time of the early church, theologians have recognized this importance and have struggled repeatedly to articulate a clear doctrine regarding the image of God. This debate continues in the modern church world and has found resurgence in evangelical movements that are vocally opposed to the societal evils of abortion and euthanasia. Despite the apparent prominence of the doctrine in our modern context, it is often hard to know exactly what evangelical and Reformed proponents of the doctrine mean when they contend that every human being is created in the image of God. If this is true, how is that so?

Two central issues need to be resolved for us to answer these questions. First, we require a precise definition of the image of God, and second, we need to know whether the image is common to all humanity or confined only to the elect people of God.

The Old Testament Scriptures refer to the ‘image’ or ‘likeness’ of God in just four passages.1 The content of the image is not clear from these passages alone, which simply state the fact that humans were originally created in God’s image and use this fact as the basis for prohibiting murder.

A better understanding of the image of God can be extracted from several New Testament passages, particularly in the epistles of Paul.2 It is on the basis of two of these passages (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24) that the Heidelberg Catechism defines the proper image of God to be “knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness” in Lord’s Day 3, which deals with the original, perfect creation of Adam. Whether this creedal definition encompasses the entirety of God’s image has been a subject of intense debate in the Reformed tradition, however, since many theologians see it as being too narrowly focused on the spiritual qualities lost in the Fall at the expense of other unique qualities evident in all humans, such as rationality, creativity, moral awareness and the need for communion with others.

The suggestion that there exists a ‘wider’ definition to the image of God is based primarily on two passages of Scripture (Gen. 5:3; James 3:9), which forbid the physical or verbal murder of any another person based on God’s creation of humanity in His image or ‘similitude.’ How we ought to understand these two passages in the broader context of this topic will not be revisited here since it has been addressed recently and in fine detail by others elsewhere.3 The position taken by the Protestant Reformed Churches distinguishes between the ‘formal’ image of God given in the threefold definition of the Catechism, and the ‘material’ capacity to bear the image of God that is unique to humans among other creatures.4 An oft-used metaphor for this distinction is that of a wedding ring composed of a setting of precious metal, which displays an even more precious stone of diamond. In this metaphor, it is the diamond itself that represents the image of God, while the setting represents the unique capacity of humans to bear and display the image. I find this metaphor wonderfully fitting for what follows in this article, as the choice of a diamond—perhaps unintentionally—becomes an even richer metaphor for the image of God when we consider its chemical composition and physical properties in more detail.

Diamonds are among the most rare and precious of all naturally occurring materials. Crystals of diamond form under extremely high pressures and temperatures on the order of 3,000-5,000°F and 1 million pounds per square inch! Needless to say, there are very few natural environments where such conditions are achieved, though synthetic processes have been developed to replicate them. Naturally occurring diamonds are thought to form deep in the crust of the earth—about 90 miles below the surface—under the extreme pressures and temperatures that are found where continental and oceanic tectonic plates meet one another. These diamonds subsequently find their way to the surface of the earth by volcanic activity, which explains their presence in solidified volcanic magma relatively near the surface of the earth. Despite popular myth, diamonds do not form from coal, which is understood to be composed of decayed and compressed plant material that never exists under the temperature and pressures required to produce a diamond.

The popularity of that myth, however, is not without substance given the chemical composition of diamonds. Like coal, diamonds are composed of carbon atoms and are in fact among the purest forms of this element. Another especially pure form of carbon is the material graphite, which was used for decades as the writing material in pencils. This may seem surprising to many readers, as there is very little apparent similarity between diamonds and graphite, the former being hard and clear and the latter relatively soft and black in color. These differences exist because of the unique ability of carbon atoms to form an amazing variety of chemical bonding patterns that yield different two- and three-dimensional shapes. These different shapes of carbon have remarkably different properties, such that pure carbon can be formed into tubes, balls, sheets, and solid crystals, as is the case with diamonds.

The properties of diamonds that gem experts look for include the “four C’s” of carat, clarity, color, and cut. All these properties come into play when a young man goes in search of a diamond engagement ring that will fit his budget as well as his beloved’s finger. The larger, clearer, more regularly colored and beautifully fashioned a diamond is, the more it will cost. Of all these properties, however, it is perhaps the cut of a diamond that makes it beautiful as a gemstone. As might be expected, the cut of a diamond is maximized to yield the most brilliant display of light through the top of the crystal, making it sparkle and shine in its setting. The most common cut used today—called the ‘ideal’ or ‘brilliant’ cut—yields a cone-shaped stone that contains 58 symmetrically organized facets. When fashioned correctly, a many-faceted diamond crystal is undoubtedly beautiful to look at, which is why it has become the choice stone to adorn the hand of a young bride-to-be.

In the following article, I plan to return to the metaphor of a diamond as a fitting way to understand how the image of God is displayed in humans. We will especially consider two of the key properties that were noted in this article. First, we will consider the relevance of a diamond’s chemical composition and, second, we will consider the importance that a diamond be fashioned as a many-faceted jewel. Together these properties serve as a fitting means to deepen our appreciation for the corporate nature of the image of God in His elect people, which is an oft-neglected feature of this doctrine worth considering in more detail.

1 Old Testament references: (“image of God”) Gen. 1:26, 27; Gen. 5:3; Gen. 9:6; (“likeness of God”) Gen. 1:26; Gen. 5:1

2 New Testament references: (“image of God”) I Cor. 11:7; II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Col. 3:10; Heb. 1:3; (“the same image”) II Cor. 3:18; (“image of his Son”) Rom. 8:29; (“similitude of God”) James 3:9

3 Angus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment.” British Reformed Journal (No. 37 Spring 2003): 18-32. Cf. also http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/imageofgod.htm

4 Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 204-213.