The Image of God
The aim of this article is to explain what it means to say ‘man is made in the image of God’ and then to consider the implications for human relationships today.
Who made what?
God says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen 1:26, ESV) There have been three main interpretations as to the identity of the “us” and “our”. One interpretation, is that this is a grammatical convention, such as plural of majesty. However, the evidence from Hebrew is fairly weak (Genesis, John Walton, p.128). A second interpretation is that God is speaking of his heavenly host, or, more particularly, the divine council (The Unseen Realm, Michael Heiser, p.39). But would God take counsel with created beings? (Isa 40:14). A third interpretation is that is an early hint of the multiplicity of persons within the Godhead, the Trinity. This is a particularly popular interpretation among evangelicals who hold a high view of scripture and ”the consent of all the parts.” (WCF 1.5)
“Man” in Genesis 1:26-27 refers to mankind or humanity, with v27 defining man as male and female. Genesis 5:2 further emphasises this, stating “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man…” (ESV)
Image and Likeness
Man is said to be made in the image and likeness of God. Are these terms to be understood as synonyms or have they distinct meanings?
Gentry and Wellum present strong evidence that “likeness” and “image” are distinctive and help to define how man resembles God. Comparing ancient Near Eastern sources with the Old Testament, they conclude that “likeness” describes the human relationship to God such that ’ādām can be described as the son of God, whereas “image” describes the human relationship to the world such that ’ādām can be described as the servant king. (God's Kingdom through God's Covenants, Gentry and Wellum, Location No. 1379)
Wayne Grudem takes a similar approach, stating that “likeness” connotes the idea of something being similar i.e. son to the father, whereas “image” carries the idea of representing something or someone else i.e. kingship. (Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, p.443)
Others, however, take the view that the two terms are synonyms; a common technique in Hebrew poetry. Ewart writes that “the two phrases are not meant to be understood as indicating separate things. Both words, ‘image’ and ‘likeness’, refer to something that is similar but not identical to the thing in represents.” (“Made in God’s Image”, Edwin Ewart) Similarly, Kidner states that the words “reinforce one another…Scripture does not use them as technically distinct expressions.” (Genesis, Derek Kidner, p.55) Further, Piper says “The evidence is against any serious distinction.” (Piper, desiringgod.org)
An evaluation of the biblical data would seem to reinforce this view. First, if the distinction is important in verse 26, why omit “likeness” in verse 27? Further, in Genesis 5:1 and 9:6 only one word is used to denote the image, “likeness” in 5:1 and “image” in 9:6. Finally, in Genesis 5:3 Adam is said to father Seth “in his own likeness, after his image”. This reverses the order of Gen 1:26 where God makes “man in our image, after our likeness”.
What is the Image of God?
Various views have been proposed as to what constitutes the image of God. Here we will focus on two of the most popular.
The first, and traditional view, is that the image of God refers to those attributes that man shares with God. Ewart, for example, lists personality, morality and spirituality as attributes that make up the image. Others have thought that it consists in man’s intellectual ability or ability to make moral decisions and willing choices (Grudem, p.443). However, this points to one problem with this view. As Gentry and Wellum state “the fact that commentators cannot agree in identifying these qualities makes this approach suspect” (Gentry and Wellum, Location No. 1216). The Bible simply does not offer us a list of attributes.
A more biblical view, is that the image of God in man is related to his role or function. Walton states that “the image is a physical manifestation of divine (or royal) essence that bears the functions of that which it represents” (p.131). Heiser says “the image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God. (p.41) Atkinson says we are “God’s counterpart, his representative and his glory on the earth.” (p.37) This also makes sense of the succeeding “dominion mandate” in verse 28; man acting on God’s behalf to oversee and steward the earth.
However, these views are not mutually exclusive. Walton (p.131) says that the attributes such as “reason, conscience, self-awareness, and spiritual discernment are the tools he has provided so that we may accomplish” the goal of imaging God.
The fallen Image
Although some suggest the image of God was completely lost after the fall in Genesis 3, it’s clear from scripture that the image is still present. In Genesis 9:6 God’s command to Noah not to murder was becuase man is made in the image of God. Furthermore, James 3:9 condemns those who would curse people “made in the likeness of God”. Surely here, James is thinking of all people, not just fellow believers.
Christ as the Image of God and the renewed Image in Man
In Colossians 1:15, Paul declares of Christ “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (ESV) The full and complete manifestation of God is seen in Jesus Christ, God incarnate. He’s the true son and servant king where “we see human likeness to God as it was intended to be.” (Grudem, p.444)
As believers, our hope is that “we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2, ESV) Colossians 3:10 says “[we] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (ESV) The image of God has been marred, but, in Christ, we are being sanctified and “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.” (Rom 8:29, ESV)
Implications for Christian Ethics
The idea that mankind is sacred, created by God and equal in value are founded on the Bible’s teaching about the image of God. It is why we believe that unborn children have the same rights as every other human, regardless of size, level of development, environment or dependency. It is why racism is so abhorrent, treating fellow-image bearers as lesser because of the colour of their skin. It is why the elderly and disabled should be treated with dignity, regardless of the burdens they pose or the cost to our health systems. It is why misogyny and misandry have no place inside or outside the church.
French atheist philosopher Jacques Derrida admits:
Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred. You should not kill. You should not be responsible for a crime against this...the sacredness of man as your neighbour…made by God…. The concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.
(Derrida, 2001, as cited in Keller, 2016, p.43)