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What is the imago Dei? Defining the image of God12 min read

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As we explore a biblical view of mankind, a significant starting place, perhaps foundation, may be found in the imago Dei (iD). The many scriptures that describe the structure and functions of mankind rarely suggest new attributes not found in some version of iD theology. For that reason, the iD is a good, if not comprehensive starting place to perform a survey of such structures and functions, and we may use them in the construction of our anthropological model – and in my case, a tripartite model.

The debate over which attributes of God are mirrored in man as the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) continues after nearly 2000 years of Christian theology. Hoekema (1994) makes a historical survey of notable theologians on this matter, first quoting Irenaeus (130-202 AD), writing

“For Irenaeus, the image of God meant man’s ‘nature as a rational and free being, a nature which was not lost in the fall’” (p. 34).

By contrast, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) thought the iD was to be found in the intellect of man, not in the free will as Irenaeus thought.

John Calvin (1509-1564 AD), attempting like most reformers to think supremely biblically about such matters, concluded that the iD was in the mind and affections, or “in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.”

More recent theologians, however, like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and G. C. Berkouwer all deny that the iD is found in the intellect and stress either the male/female aspect (Barth) or the moral and spiritual communion aspects of mankind (Brunner and Berkouwer) as the functional aspects that reflect the iD.

If we examine the scriptures in addition to surveying these historical views, focusing especially on Genesis 1 where the iD is introduced and either explicitly or implicitly defined, we can generalize the following possibilities for defining the iD.

1. All of Christ’s Attributes

Emil Brunner argues that the iD is nothing less than Christ-likeness, as He is “the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3 NKJV) – when coupled with “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10 NIV), we may conclude that Christ’s image, that is his qualities in us, constitute the iD.

“The whole work of Jesus Christ is reconciliation and redemption may be summed up in this central conception of the renewal and consummation of the Divine Image in man.” (Brunner, 1979, p. 501)

A comprehensive review all of scripture related to the iD is outside the scope of this paper, but we should at least consider James 3:9 and 1 Corinthians 11:7 which instruct us that the iD is not lost in fallen man. This might seem to make Christlikeness NOT part of the iD. However, it is also possible to view every type of “Christ-likeness” as an attribute of God that may be part of the iD, but since fallen man still retains the iD, holiness and righteousness may NOT be part of thati D. These logical conflicts point us back to Genesis as our best source for defining the iD, unless, as Brunner does, we take the tack that the image is being restored through sanctification.

2. Male and Female

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NIV)

This is the most explicit biblical definition of the image of God, and based on that we might tend to side with Barth on this point, although his oppositional model of male/female relations seems an odd way to characterize the iD in male and female.

Perhaps in addition to or instead of the idea of internal conflict in the godhead, God intends to show that He has attributes in tension (e.g. war and nurture) and that he is internally relational as well as (pro)-creative.

“Could anything be more obvious than to conclude from this clear indication that the image and likeness of the being created by God signifies existence in confrontation, i.e. in this confrontation, in the juxtaposition and conjunction of man and man which is that of male and female…?” (Karl Barth from Church Dogmatics, quoted in Hoekema, 1994, p. 49)

3. Dominion and Procreation

Dominion is mentioned at least twice as part of the image of God passages in Genesis 1. The first is in v. 26:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” They will rule…the whole earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

This ruling appears a direct continuation of the discussion of the image of God. Secondly, directly after God’s declaration of creating them male and female, he gives them a charge, which can also be seen in Genesis 1:28 – “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” These two concepts will come in handy below as we explore the three major biblical functions of the body (procreation, dominion, nutrition).

4. Animalis Via Negativa

Augustine and others have approached the iD merely as the attributes that make us different from the animals. This thought may have originated with Aristotle, who postulated a hierarchy of souls, from plants (nutritive soul) to animals (sensitive soul) to mankind (rational soul). This methodology led initially to emphasis on the rational mind or intellect, but later theologians like Brunner, Berkouwer, and Barth rejected this for the moral sense and what some anthropological dualists (body and soul/spirit) call the “higher” or “spiritual” functions of the soul.

“Early in the history of Christian theology…man’s intellectual and rational powers were singled out as one of the most important, if not the most important, features of the image of God….Certainly included in the image here is man’s moral sensitivity…and his conscience. Included also is the capacity for religious worship (what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis or “awareness of divinity”). An important human quality frequently mentioned by recent theologians is that of responsibility: man’s ability to respond to God and his fellowmen.” (Hoekema, 1994, p. 70)

5. Moral Sense

Although our moral sense can be deduced using the animalis via negativa, there is a more direct biblical reference that we can point to:

“For God knows that when we eat from it your eyes will be opened, and we will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)

To leverage this scripture, we must assume that Satan was telling a half-truth – that having a moral sense is part of the nature of God. The lie is that God was not only keeping this moral divine nature from them, but this knowledge. However, God fully intended for Adam and Eve to learn about evil and build virtue through resisting it rather than participating in it, as part of their probationary righteous status. (Vos, 2014, pp. 29–33).

Nevertheless, our moral sense, often grouped into the “higher” functions of the spirit (conscience, intuition, communion) may be the true seat of the iD in humans (Nee, 1965; Sinclair, 2020a).

6. Immortality

6.1 Theological Quotes on Innate Immortality

Some theologians have argued that humans are innately immortal as part of the imago dei. For example, Athanasius (296-373) wrote:

For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in the very ‘image’ of the archetypal Word and Truth Himself, and He did not leave us to be earthly, but made us citizens of heaven. (Athanasius of Alexandria, On The Incarnation)

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also believed that the human soul’s immortality is a part of the imago Dei. In his “Summa Theologica,” he stated:

Now, among all others, the rational creature alone has the dignity of likeness to God. For on it alone is the likeness of the Divine Image from the incorruptible Word; all others are made to the heavenly Word’s praise. (Summa Theologica, I, Q. 93, Art. 2)

However, some significant Church fathers disagreed. Martin Luther (1483-1546) did not believe that immortality was an inherent part of the imago Dei. In his commentary on Genesis, he wrote:

The image of God does not consist in the immortality of the soul or in the body but in something spiritual, namely, in true knowledge of God, in true righteousness, and in true holiness. (Luther’s Works, 1:61)

John Calvin (1509-1564) also did not see immortality as an essential part of the imago Dei. In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” he argued that the image of God in humanity was primarily related to the soul’s faculties of reason and intelligence, rather than its immortality.

The immortality of the soul is not, however, proved by these passages. For the image of God extends not less to the body than to the soul; and there is no part of man, not even the body, in which some rays of glory do not shine. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.3)

6.2 Scriptures on Innate Immortality

Perhaps the better question is, which scriptures can be marshalled for or against this proposition? Unsurprisingly, there are no scriptures that are explicit in either direction for this. The classic arguments are as follows:

Scriptures that have been interpreted as supporting the innate immortality of the human soul:

  1. Genesis 2:7 – “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NIV). Some interpret the “breath of life” as an immortal soul.
  2. Ecclesiastes 12:7 – “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (NIV). This verse suggests the spirit or soul continues to exist after death.
  3. Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (NIV). This implies the soul has an existence separate from the body.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5:8 – “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (NIV). This verse suggests the soul continues to exist after death.

Scriptures that have been interpreted as denying the innate immortality of the human soul:

  1. Ezekiel 18:4 – “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die” (ESV). This verse suggests that souls are not inherently immortal but can die.
  2. 1 Timothy 6:16 – “He alone is immortal and dwells in unapproachable light” (ESV). This verse describes God as the only inherently immortal being.
  3. Genesis 3:19 – “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (ESV). This verse suggests that human beings are mortal and return to dust after death.
  4. Ecclesiastes 9:5 – “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (ESV). This verse implies that the dead do not have a conscious existence.

The bottom line here is, innate immortality is not explicitly taught in scripture. However, whether or not scripture teaches the immortality of the soul, it is unclear if it is a part of the imago dei.

7. The Trinity

Lastly, we arrive at Augustine’s significant investment in the idea that the image of God is importantly a trinity, and we should see that reflected in anthropology. This assumption also has some direct scripture that implies it, the aforementioned Genesis 1:26 passage, which has God referring to himself in the plural (“let us make man in our image”). If we read this as a dialog (trialogue?) among the Trinity, then it makes sense that this is part of the iD. And this definition then begs the question – how is mankind a tripartite being? And my answer to that question is found here and here.