Image of God

Throughout the Bible the Lord manifests himself in human form—so much so that he is often at first simply described as “a man” (e.g., Judg.13.9-Judg.13.10). Often this is described as an accommodation, the Lord graciously taking the form that will make it easiest for us to understand him and communicate with him. God is spirit (Isa.31.3; John.4.24) and therefore essentially invisible and, though visible form is not part of the divine nature, yet there is an outward form that perfectly suits the invisible being of God. This is the form he takes when he wills to reveal himself visibly, and in this form he created man. The human body, therefore, has its own inalienable dignity and worth.

As we proceed through the opening chapters of Genesis, we see that there are other human distinctives that are specially mentioned. The union of the man and the woman in marriage (Gen.5.1ff.) is directly related to the image of God, a unity of two different but matching beings that constituted God’s image. Likewise, when the Creator gives to the man and the woman their joint “dominion,” this too is related to possession of the image of God (Gen.1.27-Gen.1.28). Archaeologists say that ancient kings set up statues of themselves (cf. 1Sam.15.12) to mark areas in which their authority prevailed: so man is God’s viceregent on earth. Furthermore, we note that a clear distinction is drawn between man and the rest of the animal creation in that God’s command to be fruitful is imposed on the beasts (Gen.1.22, “...and said”), whereas the same command is addressed to man (Gen.1.28, “...and said to them”). This observation opens to us the unique spiritual nature of man: the supreme and unique creature with whom the Creator holds communion. In Gen.2.15-Gen.2.17 the special moral nature of man is brought out. In contrast with the instinctive life of the beasts, man has been so created that he must order his life in terms of stated moral ends and in the light of the foreseeable good. Finally, man is seen in contrast with the beasts in terms of his rationality (Gen.2.19-Gen.2.20). Man has the capacity to discern both similarity and difference as he reviews his world, to frame definitions (give names) and to bring a variety of phenomena into categories and order. Here in essence is the work of both scientist and philosopher. In these six areas—physical, governmental, matrimonial, spiritual, moral, and intellectual—there is a summation of the nature of man and a view of this distinctive creature who alone was made in the image of God.——SB and JAM

IMAGE OF GOD. The meaning of the “image of God” is basic to any Christian understanding of the doctrine of man.


OT background.

The second term, the word tr. “likeness,” דְּמוּת, H1952, appears to call for a more abstract notion of “image.” The author seems to be attempting to express a very difficult idea in which he wants to make clear that man is in some way the concrete reflection of God, but at the same time he wants to spiritualize this toward abstraction.

It must be borne in mind that the OT writers, being Semitic, leaned heavily on concrete terms and spoke about God in an anthropomorphic way to make themselves clear at all to a people untrained in philosophic abstractions. The use of “likeness” in addition to “image” is a Heb. solution insofar as a Hebrew may deal in abstractions at all. It must be pointed out also that in Heb. thought, the total personality is not treated as a body over against a spirit, but as an “inspirited” “inbreathed-by-the-breath-of-God” kind of a body. It is not a dichotomy of flesh and spirit, but the total personality, which is treated in modern times as a gestalt. The representation that man was made “in the image of God” might mean superficially to the simple-minded that man looks like God, but to the writer it meant much more. It meant likeness in the inner man as it is embodied in a physical manifestation—powers of thought, of communication, of transcendence, creativity, a sense of humor (which is a kind of transcendence), powers of abstraction, and what are generally put together in personality, i.e., self-consciousness and self-determination. Just as art, architecture, poetry, and music may set forth the person of the artist, so man’s physical body may set forth to some extent the nature of the Creator.

Interpretations of the image of God, therefore, may swing between two extremes: the absolute, literal, physical resemblance, which seems to be supported in Genesis 5:1-3 where the image of God is clearly paralleled with Seth as the image of his father, Adam; and over against this, the necessary spiritual interpretation supported by Jesus’ classic definition of God, namely, that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In addition to this, the OT seems to support the idea that no one ever really looks on God. There is the necessity of a sacramental interpretation, where a sacrament is best defined as “the physical sign of a spiritual reality.”

The NT approach.

Persistent questions.

Continued study on the image of God keeps raising the same questions, which to date at least have no final answers. The first question is the nature of the image itself; the second question is some understanding of what was lost of the image of God in the Fall; and the third question has to do with what is restored or re-created when a man is saved.

Both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies, with some few exceptions, hold that the idea of image in the first Adam has to do with spiritual qualities and powers. Roman Catholics hold that man had a similtudo Dei, which was destroyed by original sin and which can be restored only by baptism. Other qualities in man were obscured but not lost in the Fall.

Protestants are in virtual agreement with this with some changes in vocabulary. Adam was by nature endowed with original righteousness. He had a moral likeness to God; he possessed holiness, although he was in no sense equal to God, nor need one argue that he had attained to the fullness of his own potential. At least the slant and direction of his life were toward God. What he lost in the Fall was original righteousness, and thenceforth the slant of his life was affected by sin, i.e., sin at the origin of every act. But there are elements in man that he did not lose—elements having to do with his image of God as a person or a personality—traits such as self-consciousness, self-determination, superiority over nature, creativity, and the like. It must be pointed out, however, that after the Fall these powers were impaired and could not be used together harmoniously. The restoration (a process) of these human powers plus original righteousness awaits the new creation, the new birth, the indwelling of Christ, so that a Christian may say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The hope of the Christian faith is the full attainment of that “new nature...after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10).

Modern discussions.

In Protestant theology, primarily in the Barthian tradition, the image of God has been a live issue. There is a clear recognition throughout of the terrible and radically disintegrating effect of the Fall. Brunner argues somewhat after the manner of Roman Catholic doctrine that there was a “formal” image, that which constituted man as man, which could not be destroyed without destroying mankind. The remains of this “formal” image are necessary for any point of contact for the grace of God. Only what Brunner calls the “material” image has been lost.

Barth rejected the “formal” image, held that man was utterly corrupted by sin—that man was quite incapable of discovering any kind of truth about God or his own condition—and Barth constantly demanded the “break in” of God Himself in a new creative way. Both Barth and Brunner engaged in a running fight for many years over the possibilities of natural theology, natural revelation, and the salvability of man. In general, however, Protestants still hold to Calvin’s view that there is a natural revelation, or natural theology, but also that apart from the effectual work of the Holy Spirit through the special revelation of Scripture, man cannot see and grasp this knowledge in any saving way.

Another turn in the modern discussion on the image of God is generally related to the writings of Emil Brunner. In brief, it is a shift of emphasis in the use of the term by which one is not to think of the term “image of God” as a noun. It is not that a man has the “image” of God, but that a man “images” God.

This particular approach is characteristically Christian although it has no basis in the straightforward use of the nouns in the OT. It is more helpful as an interpretation or as an illustration than as an exegesis. Emphasis is laid at the outset on Jesus’ perfect obedience. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). Whereas the first Adam fell in disobedience, Jesus brought “Paradise Regained” when He, under the awful pressure of temptation, continued to obey absolutely. Followers of Christ are not so concerned therefore with the “image” of God as they are with “imaging” God, by obeying Him. It is clear how this kind of thinking lends itself to an existential decision, with its emphasis on action rather than on being.


F. Turretin, Opera: de Hominus Creatione (1847); A. M. Fairbairn, The Philosophy of the Christian Religion (1902); A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament (1904); Strong, Systematic Theology (1907), 514-532; H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (1911), 4-150; W. P. Paterson, The Rule of Faith (1913); E. Brunner, Der Mittler, (1927); The Mediator (1934); Natur and Gnade (1934); K. Barth, Nein! (1934); L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1941), 202-208; “The Biblical Doctrine of the Image of God,” INT, IV (1950), no. 3, 259-270;

See also: Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 42-116; Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II, 4-114; IB, vol. I, 482-485; IDB, vol. II, 682-685.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

James Orr