The Image of God: 6 Things We Can All Agree On

When you’re arguing with someone, it’s often good to stop and talk about what you actually agree on. That accomplishes two things. First, it will probably get you to stop yelling at each other long enough to have a productive conversation. Second, it will clarify what the argument is really about. You may find that the areas of agreement dwarf the areas of disagreement so much that the argument isn’t worth continuing. Or you’ll reaffirm how important the discussion is, but have a better understanding of why.

Of course, you might also just start arguing about what things you do and don’t agree on.

We’ve been exploring what it means to say that human persons are made “in the image of God.” And this is definitely something people have been arguing about for a very long time. So, before continuing, I’d like to suggest that there are six areas on which there is general agreement.

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1. The Image Involves “Reflection”

Most agree that the basic idea of the image is that human persons ‘reflect’ the divine in some way. The key terms—selem and demut in the OT, and eikon in the NT, all refer to the idea that some object reflects or resembles another in some way. It could be something pretty concrete–e.g. the copy of an altar  (2 Kings 16:10) or a statue (Dan 3), or more abstract–e.g. a “shadow” (Psalm 39:6). But the basic idea still seems to be that of an “image” as a reflection of some other thing. The real debate, as we will see, begins when we try to explain more precisely what is reflected, where this is reflected in humanity, and how this reflection actually takes place.

2. The Image and the Likeness Are Synonymous

Many early thinkers argued that “image” and likeness” refer to different things, often seeing IMAGE as something innate to the human person and LIKENESS as a divine gift added onto human nature. Regardless of whether this distinction between nature and grace is an accurate way of viewing the human condition, contemporary exegetes almost universally agree that we shouldn’t get it from these two terms, which overlap significantly in their meaning and are often used interchangeably.

3. The Image Is Universal

Sadly, the history of theology contains several instances of Christians arguing that certain groups (especially women and certain races) are not actually made in the of God. But biblical scholars are now united in rejecting any such interpretation. The Bible clearly affirm that both males and females are in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and uses this as the basis for treating all human persons with dignity (Gen. 9.6; Jas. 3.9).

4. The Images Has Been Affected by Sin

Although no passage specifically says that the image has been impacted by the fall, most interpreters argue that the idea is implicit in the biblical teaching on the pervasively depraved nature of human existence (Ps. 14.1-3; Rom. 3.23) and the consistent testimony of the NT that the image stands in need of renewal and restoration (Eph. 4.22-24; Col. 3.10). Precisely what it means to say that sin as impacted the image, though, is more contentious and depends on what you think about the nature of the image itself.

5. The Image Is Christological

In the OT, the emphasis is on the fact that that all human persons are made in the image of God. The NT authors continue this tradition (1 Cor. 11.7; Jas. 3.9), but at the same time there’s a fundamental shift in the NT understanding of the image. Here the focus lies not on humans in general as the image of God, but on Jesus Christ as the one who is the true image of God. Thus, Paul focuses primarily on Jesus Christ as the true image (2 Cor. 4.4; cf. Heb. 1.3), who makes the invisible God visible in creation (Col. 1.15). And, as one who was without sin (Heb. 4.15), Jesus is also the only true and unblemished image, the “exact representation” of the divine nature. Indeed, in the NT the fundamental purpose of humanity was not that they might be in the ‘image of God’, but, surprisingly, that they might be ‘conformed to the image of his son’ (Rom. 8.29; cf. 1 Cor. 15.49). So, for the NT, the imago is an inherently christological concept.

6. The Image is Teleological

Finally, most thinkers affirm that the image is not an entirely static concept; instead, they view it as developing toward something. Thus, as we have seen, Paul portrays the image as something that is being ‘transformed’ (2 Cor. 3.18) and ‘renewed’ (Col. 3.10) in human persons as they are drawn ever closer to the person of Christ. For many theologians, this teleological element is a result of sin. That is, humans were fully in the image of God at creation, but that image was lost or marred after the Fall and stands in need of restoration. For other theologians, particularly those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this teleological dynamic has been there from the beginning. Adam and Eve themselves were created with the intention that they would grow toward the image, who is Christ. Humans were thus “predestined to become conformed to the likeness of his son” (Rom. 8.29) from creation. Either way, theologians largely agree that the image of God in humans is a work in progress. It is moving toward its Christological goal, its telos.

From these six points, you can see that there’s actually a lot of agreement in how we should understand the imago Dei in the Bible. Indeed, you can use these six points to develop a fairly robust understanding of the image and how it impacts our understanding of the human person. Granted, there’s still plenty of room for disagreement, especially once you try to define the concept more specifically, and we’ll explore those disagreements in the rest of this series. But it’s good to start by noticing the common ground.



8 Responses to “The Image of God: 6 Things We Can All Agree On”

  1. Tyler Wittman July 16, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    I’ve really been influenced by Peter Gentry’s work on the image, which has just been published as chapter 6 of his new work “Kingdom Through Covenant” (co-authored with Stephen Wellum). Great stuff.

  2. Joshua Farris July 16, 2012 at 9:31 am #

    Good stuff! Thank you. I am wondering if you have any thoughts on a more optimistic view of humans as the imago in their journey to God within the Protestant-Reformed tradition. I recently read through Dominic Robinson’s Understanding of the Imago Dei and he argues that this aspect is largely lost in the Protestant tradition, but is thoughtfully developed in RC and Eastern traditions. I guess this ties into the whole distinction Luther made between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Do you you have any thoughts on this? Is this more ‘sombre’ and pessimistic view (attributed popularly to Barth) an accurate relfection of the Protestant tradition?

  3. Joyce Brown October 5, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    Oh that I could retain all the wonderful truths I read. So glad the idea of being transformed over time comes into the picture because my life doesn’t look like Jesus Christ often enough. How wonderful to think the One who began this transforming will bring it to completion, glorious day!

  4. Andrew T. November 10, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    I’ve just discovered your series of posts, and am reading through them. On point three, you seem to judge it harshly. Consider Imago Dei an elective process; of all of living creatures, God chose male and female to exercise dominion over nature, which is to say to represent an attribute of God in creation. Similarly, mankind stands in for creation before God. This is reminiscent of Christ who is the firstborn of all creation and the very image of the invisible God. It is also reminiscent of elected ‘Israel’, which means ‘to reign with God”

    That said, this election of Imago Dei is clealy mentioned before the fall associated with those two humans who stood naked,shamlessly in the very presence of our Holy God, even if something of Imago Dei survives the fall (Gen 9:6).

    So the question is, if Imago Dei is elective, how does the bible treat election? Covenant of election held provisions for Israelites who rebelled against God to be cut off, so the election was not universal. Clearly the less we rebel against God the more we reflect God’s image perfectly (Christlikenss), therefore the less we reflect the God the less we enjoys the benefits of adorning God’s image.

    If humans choose to be animals in rebellion against God rather than perfect reflectors of God’s image (like Christ) we can’t argue Imago Dei is universal.

    • Marc Cortez November 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

      Hey Andrew, thanks for the comment. And I’m glad you’re checking out the series. Just a couple of quick responses. First, I actually wouldn’t agree that the imago is about representing “an attribute of God in creation.” But you’ll have to read the rest of the series to see what I do with it.

      Second, you’re right that I reject the conclusion that the image of God is limited to certain persons after the fall. The point of this particular post, though, isn’t to lay out my own position so much as to summarize several points that have very widespread agreement. Regardless of what you think happened to the image after the fall, almost everyone agrees that universality must be our starting point (something that hasn’t always been the case). That’s all I’m trying to say here. Whether people are still universally in the image after the fall is still a point of contention, so I didn’t address it in this post.


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