Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Image of God?

This is an essay that I did several years ago on the meaning and implications of being made in the image of God. It's a little "thick" but if you wade through it you might discover some new things! If you have any questions or want to go deeper comment and I'll send you some resources!!


What Does It Mean to Be Made in the Image of God?

Modern science has long debated what it means to be a human being. With abortions and in-vitro fertilization becoming more prominent in its availability, science has attempted to define our “humanness” in terms of conception and birth.[1] Still the debate rages on with polarity between scientific views. Presenting a different perspective, Christian doctrine claims that humanity is created by and made in the image of God as seen in the Genesis account of creation. Such claims can have a dramatic affect on the way in which we go about our lives.

An impossible task

It must be understood that to fully comprehend what it means to be made in the image of God would require a total understanding of God. Christian tradition has declared God as incomprehensible.[2] Since Scripture asserts that humanity has been made in the image and likeness of God[3] it stands to reason that on this side of Eternity we will not grasp the fullness of the statement “made in the image of God.” This does not however exempt us from looking in-depth at the data we have available to us, not only in Scripture, but also the opinions held by theologians. Having assessed the data, we will look at the impact this information has for the individual, the church and society as a whole.


There is minimal scriptural data available on the subject of humanity being made in the image of God, however because of the significant theological implications of such assertions, the data we do have needs to be taken quite seriously. We begin at the Creation account in Genesis:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness’…So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen. 1:26a-28a).[4]

From the data alone in this passage several conclusions can be drawn. First, human beings have not always existed, nor are they self-existent. Rather human beings are created beings. Second, within the context of the whole passage, the creation of humankind is the final creative act of God in this account therefore human beings are the “climax of creation.”[5] Along with the assertion that humankind is made in the image of God, there are two commands given: First to be fruitful and multiply and second, of dominion, to oversee the created order.[6] Having viewed the data given at face value we take a look at the language choice and its historic interpretations.

There are two descriptive words in this passage, they are: “image” (tselem[7]) and “likeness” (demuth[8]). Historically these words have had separate meanings. Irenaeus was the first to make the distinction. For Irenaeus, the use of “image” referred to humanities capacity for intellect and rationality and “likeness” referred to the spiritual capacity of human beings.[9] However, lack of Scriptural evidence, caused many theologians to reject Irenaeus’ belief. Through the progression of time[10], there are now three commonly held views on what it means to be made in the image of God: the substantive view, the relational view which is inclusive of the functional view, and the dynamic view.

Essential Qualities

The first view, the substantive view, deals with the substance, inner traits or qualities of humankind that reflect attributes of God. Louis Berkhof states in his book Systematic Theology that these characteristics are various traits, which belong to humans as human beings such as intellect, their capacity for emotion and moral freedom.[11] Such attributes, he claims, cannot be lost without the person ceasing to be human. Stanley Grenz echoed Berkhof’s stance by saying that even in our fallen state, we maintain these essences as a reflection of God.[12]

Although this idea has some credence, there are a few flaws with the idea.[13] For example, what stance is taken with the case of mental retardation? Is the mental function, or lack thereof that which defines our humanity? There seems to be an exclusive nature to this argument, making it impossible for beings that do not have mental function, or the ability to reason, to be human by definition.

Relational Capacity

The second view is more inclusive than the first. The relational view by defines humanity in the context of relationship: With God, other human beings and with creation. Many theologians agree that humans are social creatures but the thing that truly sets humankind apart from animals and the rest of the created world is the unique capacity for relationship with God. [14] It has therefore been concluded that the thing that completes our definition as human is relation to God. As Emil Brunner stated succinctly, “’Image of God’ is a metaphor for relationship with God, not an action or task, but relationship.”[15] Brunner also takes it a bit deeper than that, arguing that relationship is a primary function of love. This argument can be supported scripturally. The Bible states, “God is love.”[16] If humanity is made in the image of God, one could logically conclude that because God is love, we are created for love, with the capacity to love. Hart supports this understanding by declaring that this view helps us describe the purpose for which humanity was made: to love.

This purpose of relationship also translates to the concept of community. Not only is our divine purpose to have relationship with God, but with other people. Emil Brunner once again has strong arguments for this theory stating: “For love can only operate in community, and only in this operation of love is [a human truly] human.”[17]

I have also included in the relational view some of the concepts of the functional view because they are closely linked. The idea of dominion is presented in the Genesis 1 account through God’s command to rule and subdue the earth. If relationship is the primary purpose of humanity, then dominion of humankind is the task of humanity. These two ideas, relationship and dominion are intertwined in the implied responsibility and accountability that comes from the divine directive. We are “called to manage and utilize together the created world not as wholly independent agents, but as persons accountable to our Creator.”[18] There can be no accountability without relationship.

The relational view breaks down once the idea of sin enters the picture. Sin, as Grenz describes it, is “the destruction of community.”[19] In other terms, it is the destruction of relationship. If humanity is defined by it’s relationship to God, then the breakdown of relationship would shatter our distinctiveness as human. Proponents for the relational view argue that Christ restores the divine image that was lost at the fall.[20]

In the Process of Redemption

The final view is the dynamic view. First offered by Luther, suggested that the image of God humanity lost through sin, “can be restored through the Word and the Holy Spirit.”[21] John Calvin added emphasis to the restorative concept by stressing the sanctifying work of Christ in the believer’s life as drawing them towards Christ-likeness.[22] This places additional focus on eschatology as we will not receive the fullness of the image of God until Christ Jesus returns. As Daniel Migliore states: “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.”[23]

These three views offer suggestions as to what it means to be made in the image of God. Each are composed of truth, but as mentioned before, we will not fully grasp what it means to be made in the image of God this side of eternity. I would therefore like to assert that the image of God is not just a function or capacity for something, but a metaphor of the intrinsic value God has placed upon humanity.

An Additional Thought

Each of the three views can be perceived through this perspective of value. God saw fitting to endow humanity with intelligence, emotion and a spiritual capacity.[24] These gifts show the value of humanity in that no other creature or aspect of creation has these capacities. Our value as humans is defined in our capacity to have relationship with God. Nowhere in scripture does it say that anything in creation has the capacity for relationship with God as humankind does.[25] And finally, the intrinsic value of humanity is located in the Incarnation, in the passion of Jesus Christ as an act of redemption. The famous passage, John 3:16 declares that “God so loved the world, that He gave,” God sent His Son, of ultimate value, to redeem humanity. Such an act implies the tremendous value that God places upon humanity.

Significance for Humanity/ Conclusion

The image of God clearly has tremendous value regardless of the viewpoint held. If an individual believes what the Scripture claims, that humankind is created in the image of God, then that individual can have confidence in the value God places on them. Such and understanding can and rightfully should draw the individual into loving relationship with God, which is humanity’s primary purpose.

The understood value God places on humanity should also be understood and outworked in human-to-human relationships, embodying the Gospel by loving one another.[26] As Emil Brunner said, love is the basis of community.[27] It is only through reconciled relationships that humanity can function in community and as a community. The command for dominion and its implied responsibility is not only left to the individual but also the community as a whole. This understanding of value should shape our views on issues such as abortion an in-vitro fertilization. It should also shape humankind’s reaction to the inhumanity than many other human beings face, whether it be extreme poverty, inability to feed their children, or the horrors that civil war cause. Our status as beings of tremendous worth and value should demand response in light of these tragedies.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the Church to draw an unknowing humanity into relationship with the One in whose image they are made. To partner as a community of believers, operating in love, to reconcile a fallen humanity to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Thus restoring the intended purpose of our creation as persons whose value is found in the distinctive and loving relationship with the Creator, outworked in and through community and expressed in the uniqueness of the individual.

[2] Stanley Grenz, in his book Theology for the Community of God, said that this “divine incomprehensibility” is a theme throughout scripture (e.g., Job 11:7-8, Ps. 145:3; Is. 45:15; 1 Cor. 2:11) and means that God is hidden from us, in that “God’s essence is not totally displayed to us” (p. 45).

[3] Genesis 1:26a (TNIV) “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness.’”

[4] All Scripture references are from the Today’s New International Version. (Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004).

[5] Eldridge, S., Captivating. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2005). P. 22.

[6] Hart, L., Truth Aflame: A Balanced Theology for Evangelicals and Charismatics. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers Inc. 1999) P. 190.

[7] Baker, W., Carpenter, E. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003). P. 952-953.

[8] Baker, W., Carpenter, E. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. P. 241.

[9] There are several issues that arise with this line of thought. First, the use of either word in those capacities does not allow for an inclusion of our physical bodies, which Emil Brunner states in his book, Man In Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, “the body is given that [we] may come into contact with the world, empirically, and also that [we] may shape the world; the body has been set as the creaturely boundary of the individual between [themselves] and the Creator, and also between [themselves] and other individuals” (P. 108). Thus, the Genesis command of dominion is outworked (1:28). Second, the Hebrew words used are synonyms, that is to say, they can be used interchangeably. There is therefore no support of the separation in meaning of “image” and “likeness,” but rather an instance of Hebrew parallelism.

[10] There are other views that have been held throughout history on what the image of God is. Early church fathers felt that our capacity for reason and morality defined our status as human beings (more discussion on this topic in another footnote). Later, Clement of Alexandria rejected the possibility of any bodily analogy for the image of God and like Irenaeus, delineated between “image” and “likeness” by saying that the word “image” reflected characteristics human beings as human, and “likeness” as qualities that can be enhanced or even lost. And in more recent times, John Calvin claimed that the image of God can only be humanity’s receptivity to God. (Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology, 1984) p. 202-203.

[11] Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth and Trust, 1984.) P. 204.

[12] Grenz, S. Theology for the Community of God. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eedermans Publishing Group, 1994.) P 169.

[13] This view found its origin in Greek thought. Reason, was seen as the highest and most distinctive characteristic that identified human beings as human. This thought greatly influenced early Christian thought, and was linked with the idea of what it means to be made in the image of God. Thus reason, rationality and our cerebral functions are what the early church felt defined the image of God. (Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. P. 169)

[14] Hart, L., Flame of Love, 1999. P.187).

[15] Brunner, E., Man in Revolt: a Christian Anthropology. (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1957)

[16] 1 John 4:18b.

[17] Brunner, E., Man In Revolt, 1957. P. 106.

[18] Sherlock. The Doctrine of Humanity. P. 27.

[19] Grenz, S., Theology for the Community of God. 1994. P. 181.

[20] Grenz, S., Theology for the Community of God. 1994. P. 171.

[21] Luther, M., Lectures on Genesis, in Luther’s Works. As found in Grenz, S., Theology for the Community of God, 1994. P. 172.

[22] Ibid., 172.

[23] Migliore, D., Faith Seeking Understanding. 1991, 128. As found in Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. 1994. P. 173/

[24] There is no need for scientific explanation as such evidence is manifest in every human being one comes in contact with.

[25] Larry D. Hard states in his book, Truth Aflame, that “we are only creatures to be sure, but we stand apart from the rest of creation by virtue of the unique relationship we have with God.” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers Inc. 1999). P. 190.

[26]John 13:34.

[27] Brunner, E., Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, 1957).

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