10 Things You Should Know About the Imago Dei

Theologians typically have tried to identify one particular element or characteristic feature in humanity that embodies or constitutes the imago dei.

Thomas Aquinas focused on man’s reason, Calvin on the soul (i.e., the mind and heart), and Augustine on the mental capacities of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine argued that since man’s reason or mind is his preeminent or most important feature that we should likely find in it a reflection of God, hence his triadic model which he believed mirrored the triune nature of God.

 

The Imago Dei, Latin for “image of God”, is crucial for our understanding of who we are as the direct creation of God. Here are ten things to guide our thinking.

(1) We read in Genesis 1:26 of God’s determination to create man “in our image (tselem), after our likeness (demut).” Theologians typically have tried to identify one particular element or characteristic feature in humanity that embodies or constitutes the imago dei.

(2) If both humans and animals are created by God, yet the former bear his image and the latter do not, perhaps the image of God consists in some particular feature of a human not found in any animal. In other words, the image is something we possess, some property or properties uniquely characteristic of humans.

(3) Some have distinguished between the “image” and “likeness” of God in man, the former consisting of our capacity for reason and choice, the latter of our moral and spiritual accountability to God. Irenaeus (135-205) is representative of this view (he argued that in the fall the likeness was lost, to be regained in redemption, but the image remained).

(4) Thomas Aquinas focused on man’s reason, Calvin on the soul (i.e., the mind and heart), and Augustine on the mental capacities of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine argued that since man’s reason or mind is his preeminent or most important feature that we should likely find in it a reflection of God, hence his triadic model which he believed mirrored the triune nature of God.

(5) According to what we might call the functional view of the imago dei, the image and likeness of God consists not in something man is or has, nor in his relationship with either God or other humans, but in what man does. Primary emphasis has been placed on the exercise of dominion over creation. Note that in Genesis 1:26, immediately after God’s declaration that man would be made in his image, it is said, “and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air . . .” This emphasis on dominion and stewardship over creation is found in Genesis 1:28-30. See also this link between the image and dominion in Psalm 8:5-6 (“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet”). But as Dennis Okholm asks: “Does the imago consist of dominion, or was dominion a result of having been made in the image of God?” (“Theological Anthropology in Christological and Soteriological Perspective,” 7).

(6) Some have argued that the image consists primarily in our capacity for relationship and social interaction both with God and other humans. Karl Barth (1886-1968) pointed to Genesis 1:26-27 where God (described as plural, “We/Us/Our”) creates man as male and female (plural). Since there is plurality and thus relationship and interaction within the Godhead, so they who are the image of God are likewise fundamentally relational in nature. I agree with Bruce Ware, however, and wonder “whether the point of mentioning ‘male and female’ was to say that the image of God was constituted by their social relatedness, or might the point more simply be that both man and woman are created in God’s image.”

(7) Martin Luther (and to some degree, Calvin) emphasized man’s original righteousness as embodying the image of God. Thus, the fall significantly damaged and perverted the image, without destroying it entirely (see especially Genesis 9:6-7 and James 3:9 which indicate that whatever of the image was lost in the fall it in some sense still remains). The image, for Luther, was a special relation man had to God which Adam lost but Christ restores (see Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10).

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