Understanding the “image of God”

The creation narrative in Genesis 1 characterizes human beings as made “in the image” and “after the likeness” of God himself. In our very design and essence, we are closely linked to who God is: a wonderful thought! But what qualities do we have that constitute that image in us? Traditionally, there have been two approaches to the theology of the imago Dei (“image of God”).

The so-called broader view points out that we have unique abilities that set us apart from all other creatures. Human beings have great intelligence; we have moral agency and a responsibility to choose right from wrong; we have a deep appreciation for beauty; and people are creative in many ways, making and naming new things, not unlike God’s creative activity.

According to this broader view, the image of God remains in us even after the fall. Sinners may abuse their intelligence, morality, and creativity; but we still possess these qualities. Psalm 8:5 supports this idea when it observes that God made mankind “a little lower than the heavenly beings (lit.: God/gods)”. Even in our fallen state, human beings retain an excellency that brings us to an almost divine level.

The narrower view finds the image of God in our moral perfections. This is the approach of the catechism, when it speaks of righteousness and holiness, and the ability to know God truly, to love him heartily, and to live a blessed life of worship. Adam and Eve had all these qualities in perfection; but after the Fall, all of it was lost. We tend to go the opposite way, of wickedness and unholiness, of foolishness, hatred, and death.

The question may be asked: “Are we still in the image of God? Or did we lose it completely?” Both answers may be defended—depending on how you understand the “image of God”. It is good to keep both in mind. On one hand, human beings still have unique qualities and great dignity. This must be maintained over against evolutionist views of man and pagan disregard of human life. On the other hand, we must be aware that our fall in sin robbed us from essential qualities. Our only hope is to be renewed completely in the image of God, which we find in Jesus Christ.

Recently, Bible scholars1 have given a third interpretation of the “image of God”. In the ancient Middle East, this expression was used to describe the authority of kings: a ruler was viewed as representing the gods to his subjects. In Gen. 1:26, the expression “image of God” is immediately followed by the mandate: “let him rule …” Possibly, the Biblical expression refers primarily to the special human task of being “under-kings”, ruling God’s creatures on his behalf. This third view is not at odds with the first two. We can rule over this world because of our intelligence, moral agency, and creativity. And we can only rule rightly if we are righteous and holy.

  1. See J.R. Middleton, Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, p. 121ff. And G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, p. 30-33.

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