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Humanity in the Image of God


There are a number of textual indicators in Genesis 1-2 that point to the special significance of the creation of male and female in the image of God (I'm indebted to Bruce Ware for these observations):


  • It is only after God has created man that he says of all he has made: it is "very good" (1:31). This is not simply because God's creative task is finished but because mankind is the pinnacle of all he has made


  • The creation of man is introduced differently than other products of creative work, with the personal and deliberative expression, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.'


  • The one God who creates man as male and female deliberately uses plural references of himself (e.g., 'Let Us,' 'Our image,' 'Our likeness') as the creator of singular "man" who is plural 'male and female.'


  • The "image of God" is stated three times in 1:26-27 in relation to man as male and female but never in relation to any other part of creation (are angels created in the image of God?).


  • The special term for God's unique creative action, bara, is used three times in 1:27 for the creation of man in his image as male and female.


  • Man is given a place of dominion over all other created beings on the earth, thus indicating the higher authority and priority of man in God's created design.


  • Only the creation of man as male and female is expanded and portrayed in detail as recorded in Gen. 2.



A.        Traditional Interpretations of the Image of God


We read in Gen. 1:26 of God's determination to create man 'in our image (tselem), after our likeness (demut).' Theologians typically have tried to identify one particular element or characteristic feature in humanity that embodies or constitutes the imago dei. Among the more popular schemes are the following:


1.         Substantive Views - If both humans and animals are created by God, yet the former bear his image and the latter do not, perhaps the imago consists in some particular feature of a human not found in any animal. In other words, the image is something we possess, some property or properties uniquely characteristic of humans. Several characteristics have been noted:


Some have distinguished between the "image" and "likeness" of God in man, the former consisting of our capacity for reason and choice, the latter of our moral and spiritual accountability to God. Irenaeus (135-205) is representative of this view (he argued that in the fall the likeness was lost, to be regained in redemption, but the image remained).


Aquinas focused on man's reason, Calvin on the soul (i.e., the mind and heart), and Augustine on the mental capacities of memory (memoria), understanding (intelligentia), and will (voluntas). Augustine argued that since man's reason or mind is his preeminent or most important feature that we should likely find in it a reflection of God, hence his triadic model which he believed mirrored the triune nature of God.


2.         Functional Views - According to these views, the image and likeness of God consists not in something man is or has, nor in his relationship with either God or other humans (see below), but in what man does. Primary emphasis has been placed on the exercise of dominion over creation. Note that in Gen. 1:26, immediately after God's declaration that man would be made in his image, it is said, 'and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air . . .' This emphasis on dominion and stewardship over creation is found in Gen. 1:28-30. See also this link between the image and dominion in Ps. 8:5-6 ('Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty! Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet'). But as Dennis Okholm asks: "Does the imago consist of dominion, or was dominion a result of having been made in the image of God?" ('Theological Anthropology in Christological and Soteriological Perspective,' 7).


3.         Relational Views - Some have argued that the image consists primarily in our capacity for relationship and social interaction both with God and other humans. Karl Barth (1886-1968) pointed to Gen. 1:26-27 where God (described as plural, 'We/Us/Our') creates man as male and female (plural). Since there is plurality and thus relationship and interaction within the Godhead, so they who are the image of God are likewise fundamentally relational in nature. I agree with Ware, however, and wonder 'whether the point of mentioning 'male and female' was to say that the image of God was constituted by their social relatedness, or might the point more simply be that both man and woman are created in God's image.'


Martin Luther (and to some degree, Calvin) emphasized man's original righteousness as embodying the image of God. Thus the fall significantly damaged and perverted the image, without destroying it entirely (see especially Gen. 9:6-7 and James 3:9 which indicate that whatever of the image was lost in the fall it in some sense still remains). The image, for Luther, was a special relation man had to God which Adam lost but Christ restores (see Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10).


4.         Dynamic Views - This is difficult to explain, but essentially entails the idea that the image is not to be found in the structure of human personality or in our functions or relationships, but rather is a goal or destiny to which redeemed humanity is moving. Daniel Migliore put it this way: "Being created in the image of God is not a state or condition but a movement with a goal: human beings are restless for a fulfillment of life not yet realized" (Faith Seeking Understanding, 128). Although all humans are even now in the image of God, that image is fully embodied by Jesus Christ according to whose image we are being shaped and conformed. Thus the image is both a present reality and a dynamic and progressive telos toward which we are moving.


Okholm correctly points out that we have two clues in helping us identify the image of God in man: '(1) we have those references that describe the goal of our regeneration or redemption viz., Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; 1 Cor. 15:49; and 2 Cor. 3:18; and (2) we have those references that point us to Christ who as the "Adam" is also the very eikon of God viz., Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; and 2 Cor. 4:4' (8). He thus concludes with three claims about the imago dei in man.


First, the restoration of the image involves 'becoming like Christ' (see Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15). To the degree that we correspond to or become like Jesus, the more perfect is the image reflected in us.


Second, the restoration of the image is a 'continual process' (2 Cor. 3:18). 'In other words, the goal of our salvation is not to be forgiven of our sins nor to escape hell. The goal of our salvation is the restoration of the image of God' (9).


Third, the restoration of the image 'takes place in community,' or more accurately 'as community' (Eph. 3:17b-19; 4:12-13,15-16; Col. 3:10-11). The 'restoration of the image is not an isolated project of the individual' (9) but occurs only as we grow up together in Christ. (On the element of "community" as essential to the restoration of the image, see especially Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 151-80.)



B.        A Holistic View of the Imago Dei


It would appear that each of the above views is true in what they affirm but incomplete because of what they deny. Perhaps a more holistic view is in order that embodies all of these elements. Anthony Hoekema (Created in God's Image [Eerdmans, 1986]) states:


            "Must we think of the image of God in man as involving only what man is and not what he does, or only what he does and not what he is, or both what he is and what he does? Is 'image of God' only a description of the way in which the human being functions, or is it also a description of the kind of being he or she is?" (69)


Hoekema goes on to emphasize that our structural capacities (reason, will, conscience, etc.) provide the necessary conditions for us to function and to fulfill our responsibilities as those who relate to and represent God on earth. In an unpublished paper, Bruce Ware builds on this suggestion and concludes that


'the structural serves the purpose of the functional being carried out in relationship. One might think of this proposal, then, as advocating a 'functional holism' view of the image of God. That is, while all three aspects are involved, priority is given to the God-ordained functioning of human beings in carrying out the purposes he has for them to do. Perhaps our summary statement of what it means to be made in God's image could employ this language: The image of God in man as functional holism means that God made human beings, both male and female, to be created and finite representations (images of God) of God's own nature, that in relationship with him and each other, they might be his representatives (imaging God) in carrying out the responsibilities he has given to them. In this sense, we are images of God in order to image God and his purposes in the ordering of our lives and carrying out of our God-given responsibilities.'