What does it mean to be made in God's Image?
This teaching is rooted in Genesis 1:26-27: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over . . .all the earth. . . .' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." The Catechism explains how we are made in God's image, noting that among visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator," and "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake" (Catechism, no. 356). The Catechism adds: Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead (no. 357).
We see, then, that man is made like or similar to God in his ability to know: The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection "in seeking and loving what is true and good" (Catechism, no. 1704). By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an "outstanding manifestation of the divine image" (Catechism, no. 1705). Man is also made like God in having freedom, that is, the ability to choose. The hallmark of man's freedom is his ability to image God's love in giving himself to another person. As the Catechism provides, "The divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves (cf. chapter two)" (no. 1702).
Because we are talking now of man's ability to choose, we can transition from man's being made in God's image to man's imaging God to fulfill his God-given vocation. For example, husband and wife uniquely image the love of God, who is three Persons. In His divine essence, God does not have a body; yet, husband and wife image the love of God through their bodily communion. Jesus teaches us that He and the Father are one (cf. Jn. 17:21-23), and, analogously, husband and wife image the union of Father and Son in becoming "one flesh" through the consummation of their marital love (Gen. 2:23-24). And, as the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the eternal love of the Father and Son (Catechism, nos. 246), so too theologians like Dr. Scott Hahn have argued that a family images this Trinitarian love, with a child coming forth as a fruit or "procession" of a husband and wife's mutual love (cf. Catechism, no. 364). In his weekly General Audience of February 20, 1980, Pope John Paul II affirmed that married couples image God: So the very sacramentality of creation, the sacramentality of the world was revealed in a way, in man created in the image of God. By means of his corporality, his masculinity and femininity, man becomes a visible sign of the economy of truth and love, which has its source in God himself and which was revealed already in the mystery of creation. Against this vast background we understand fully the words that constitute the sacrament of marriage, present in Genesis 2:24: "A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."
The Catechism also beautifully affirms the "God-imaging" power of husband and wife: God who created man out of love also calls him to love-the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love [Cf. Gen. 1:27, 1 Jn. 4:8, 16]. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator's eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: "And God blessed them, and God said to them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it'" [Gen. 1:28; cf. 1:31]. One can also argue that man images God in exercising dominion on earth as God's "co-workers," whereas God has dominion over all creation (Catechism, no. 207; cf. Gen. 1:26) and in making disciples of all nations (cf. Mt. 28:18-20; Jn. 20:21). Man, wounded by original sin, finds His perfection in imaging God-in fulfilling his vocation as man-in Christ. As the Catechism provides: "Christ, . . . in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, makes man fully manifest to himself and brings to light his exalted vocation" It is in Christ, "the image of the invisible God" [Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4], that man has been created "in the image and likeness" of the Creator. It is in Christ, Redeemer and Savior, that the divine image, disfigured in man by the first sin, has been restored to its original beauty and ennobled by the grace of God (no. 1701).
He who believes in Christ becomes a son of God. This filial adoption transforms him by giving him the ability to follow the example of Christ. It makes him capable of acting rightly and doing good. In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity, which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven (no. 1709). In summary, man is uniquely made in the image of God through his ability to know and love, and images God in fulfilling his vocation by loving God through loving his neighbor and respecting God's creation. In addition, marriage is a unique relationship in which couples image the Trinitarian God.
By the way, in the official Catholic resources we examined, there is no distinction between "image" and "likeness" in Gen. 1:26-27. While these words have different meanings in the Bible when used separately, in Genesis 1:26-27 they are used in tandem for the emphasis of a single concept, together signifying a truth about man in relation to God. This kind of construction is known as a "parallelism," a literary device common in Hebrew literature. As Catholic and Protestant scholars agree, "The Hebrews would often emphasize something by stating the same thing in two different ways." Because "image and likeness" is a parallelism, the Church sometimes uses "shorthand" subheadlines like "In the Image of God" and "Man: the Image of God" in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism), since the words are synonymous in Genesis 1:26-27.
Given the parallelism of Genesis 1:26-27, we will simply emphasize, for efficiency of discussion, the word "image" in our presentation. In addressing your question, we can distinguish between how man is made in the image (noun) of God in his human nature, and how he is called to image (active verb) God in living out his vocation. Just because man is made in God's image does not mean that he was created in a perfected or fulfilled state. Further, there is the complicating factor of original sin and its effects on human nature even after one has been baptized (cf. Catechism, nos. 404-05). Jesus Christ came so that man could fulfill his vocation, which is, ultimately, to reign in heaven with God.
United in the Faith,
Thomas J. Nash
Senior Information Specialist
Catholics United for the Faith