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The Image of God

May 15, 2012


The concept of the image of God lies at the heart of the biblical doctrine of humanity.[1]  That man – both male and female – in some way resembles the Creator provides significant meaning and value for the human race.  Throughout history, theologians and philosophers have said and written many things about what it means to be made in the image of God.  Is it something we are, something we experience, or something we do?  The following is an attempt to examine the biblical evidence, evaluate the various interpretations of the evidence, and conclude with a summary of what it means to be God’s image bearers.

Biblical Evidence[2]

The foundational passage in the discussion concerning the image of God is Gen. 1:26-28 where God is recorded as saying, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness…”[3]  There has been much discussion regarding the two words “image” (צלם) and “likeness” (דמות) in verse 26, with some arguing for an important distinction between the two,[4] while others suggesting that they can be used interchangeably.[5]  Although there is a lot to be said for the former view, modern scholarship favours the latter.[6]  After creating humanity God immediately charges them with the responsibility of ruling over and caring for the created order.  The two words occur once again in Gen. 5:1-3 where the image of God in Adam is likened to the image of Adam in Seth.[7]  In Gen. 9:6, God prohibits murder on the basis that humanity is made in His image.  The context of this verse suggests that even after the entrance of sin, humanity still bears the image of God to some degree or another.  Beyond this, there are no other explicit references to the image of God in the OT.[8]  Scholars have long recognised, however, that Ps. 8 contains echoes of Gen. 1:26-28.  The parallels between the two are confirmed by the fact that both describe humanity as the crowing act of creation; that humanity was made after the likeness of God, a “little lower” than Him;[9] and that humanity is given dominion over the earth, with everything having been placed under their feet.

The NT picks up on these themes and develops them further.[10]  James 3:9 and 1 Cor. 11:7 both use the image of God in man as a rationale for prohibiting cursing on the one hand, and how certain acts of worship should be performed on the other, once again confirming that although the image may have been damaged by sin, it is not completely lost.  But at this point, we begin to see the concept evolving from simply being part of creation to being part of the process of salvation.  Col. 3:10 introduces this new salvific dimension, stating that believers are to take off the old self and put on the new, which is being renewed in knowledge “according to the image of the One who created him”.  Part of salvation thus involves a full restoration of the image of God in humanity.  Furthermore, in the same letter Paul declares that Jesus Himself is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The author of Hebrews supports this idea when he applies the creation poem of Ps. 8 to Jesus in 2:5-9, implicitly stating that Jesus is the true human being, God’s true image bearer.  Thus, Rom. 8:20 and 2 Cor. 3:18 both speak of believers being conformed to the image of God’s Son, “from glory to glory”.  The NT ultimately reshapes the concept of the image of God around the person of Jesus and the salvation He offers to humanity.


Down through the centuries people have usually interpreted the biblical evidence in light of what was important to them.[11]  Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we let the text be our guide.[12]  There have been three general ways in which the image of God has been interpreted: as something we are (structural), something we experience (relational), or something we do (functional).[13]


Some have suggested that the image of God refers to the spiritual or intellectual dimensions of humanity that are shared with the Creator.[14]  This is generally called the structural or substantive view and has been the dominant understanding throughout the Christian era.[15]  Since humans and other animals are all created beings, the image of God must be something that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation.  It is argued that human beings alone have freewill and the ability to reason which provides them with the capacity to know and love God.  Others have focused more on the physical or corporeal aspect of humanity, suggesting that in some way we look like God.[16]  This interpretation is based largely on the fact that the idea of a physical image is the most natural meaning of the Hebrew word “image”.[17]

However, there are obvious problems with these structural interpretations.  One of the major weaknesses is that they are not exegetically defensible.[18]  It is impossible to determine which, if any of these qualities – spiritual, intellectual or physical – are intended by the text.  These divisions of human nature are also foreign to OT anthropology.  The Hebrews consistently viewed the individual person as a whole.[19]  Therefore, the image of God must therefore refer to the entire person, not just one part or characteristic.[20]


Due to the inherent difficulties in the substantive interpretation, a number of modern theologians have argued that the image of God is not some aspect(s) of human nature, but is instead reflected in the capacity of humanity to relate to God.[21]  In other words, the image does not consist of what we are or do, but something we experience in our relationship with God and others.[22]  This understanding was primarily developed by Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.[23]  The importance of the plurality of God – “Let Us” – and humanity – “male and female” – is used as primary evidence to support this understanding.[24]  The horizontal relationship between humans flows out of the vertical relationship with God.  Standing on the shoulders of others, W. Sibley Towner expands this into a three-way relationship, looking at the way humanity relates to God, with each other, and with the rest of the created order.[25]  Claus Westermann takes a more nuanced approach by arguing that Gen. 1:26-28 “is describing an action, and not the nature of human beings.”[26]  Thus, it is the special way in which we were created that places us in a unique relationship with God.

The relational understanding certainly has its strengths, in that it remains closer to the text of Genesis, but it is not without its weaknesses.  Those advocating this view, or variations of it, seem to pay such close attention to Genesis 1 that they miss the rest of the biblical evidence.[27]  If relationships are an instrinsic part of image-bearing as Barth insists, how does he account for the fact that the image of God is most often used in reference to individuals?[28]  It seems that this interpretation is driven more by existentialism than exegesis.[29]


Although there have always been a small number of advocates for the functional interpretation, its popularity has increased significantly in recent times.[30]  Those who hold this understanding believe that the image consists of humanity being God’s representatives on earth.  It does not refer to who we are so much as what we do.[31]  Biblical scholars have noted significant parallels between the concept of the image of God and the understanding of images in the ancient world.  It has been demonstrated that many ancient Near Eastern cultures held the belief that the king bore the divine image and was thus a representative of the gods, ruling on their behalf.[32]  The kings also had a common practice of setting up images or statues of themselves in regions where they wanted to establish their authority.[33]  This idea of being distant but present through a representative is also reflected in the understanding of idol images.  Idols were not considered gods themselves but it was believed that in some sense they carried the essence of what they represented.[34]

When read against this historical background, the biblical evidence comes up in three dimensions.  It seems that in creating humanity, God has also placed an image of Himself into the world to represent Him and rule on His behalf.  Genesis 1 contains a double reference to humanity ruling over and caring for “the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (vv. 26, 28).  Ps. 8 also describes humanity as having been given the right to rule over the works of God’s hands.[35]  While the surrounding cultures believed that only the king held this role, the Bible appears to have democratised the idea, affirming that every man and woman bears God’s image and is placed in this world as His representatives.[36]  This is also supported in the NT by the fact that the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus equips believers to fulfil their God-given role more effectively.

Some have argued that this interpretation is not what it means to be made in God’s image; rather it is only a consequence.[37]  Recent scholarship has shown, however, that the verb “create” (ברא) in the OT not only carries the idea of forming the object that is being referred to, but also assigning a function to that object.[38]  This pattern can be seen throughout creation week.[39]  Therefore, in creating humanity in His image, we would expect God to also give them a particular function.  And the distinguishing function that is given to humanity is to rule over the created order.  To say it is only a consequence is to miss the point.  It is a function bound up in the very creation of humanity in the image of God.  The functional interpretation thus stands on a solid historical and biblical foundation, and in many ways incorporates the strengths of the other views that are clearly needed in the process of representing God, such as the ability to reason and make choices, and how those decisions impact our relationship with God and others.


After examining the biblical and historical evidence, and the various ways in which it has been interpreted, the following conclusions can be made. The image of God doesn’t simply consist of the ability humanity has to reason, though that is no doubt part of it; neither does the image of God simply consist in the relational aspect that humanity shares between God and others, though that is also no doubt part of it.  As important as the structural and relational qualities are for making us human, they are simply tools that serve us in our image-bearing role.[40]  Bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it’s a vocation.  It means being called to reflect God’s creative and redemptive love by being His representatives, ruling over and caring for the world.

[1] The Latin phrase imago Dei is often used in theological discussions on the present topic.

[2] To provide an exegetical analysis of each passage in which the concept of the image of God occurs or is alluded to would take us far beyond the limits of the present essay.

[3] All Scripture quotations are from the NASB.

[4] Most of traditional Christian exegesis has followed this route. For a more recent study defending this position, see R. Larry Overstreet, “Man in the Image of God: A Reappraisal,” Criswell Theologial Review 3, no. 1 (2005), 58-65.

[5] For instance Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis: 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 29-30. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes argues that it is a simple case of Hebrew parallelism in The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 7.

[6] G. Johannes Botterweck, ed. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 392. See Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 13, for a solid defence of this view.

[7] John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 131.

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 519. He also points to two further explicit references in Wisdom of Solomon 2:23 and Ecclesiasticus 17:3.

[9] See Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 18-19, for three reasons why אלהים should be translated as “God” rather than “angels”.

[10] The key word used in the NT for “image” εἰκών. For the usage and meaning of the word see Gerhard Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 381-387, esp. 395-397 as it relates to the image of God.

[11] John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-16 (Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 18.

[12] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 137.

[13] In an essay of this size, it is impossible to avoid oversimplifying various views. I am in debt to Erickson, Christian Theology, 520-529, for these three categories.

[14] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 445-447, provides an overview of how these specific aspects are like God.

[15] Erickson, Christian Theology, 520.

[16] See Overstreet, “Man in the Image of God,” for a recent defense of this interpretation. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, translated by John H. Marks (London: SCM, 1961), 56-57, states that this is at least part of what the image of God consists of.

[17] The word צלם occurs seventeen times in the OT: five refer to the humanity bearing the image of God while the other eleven refer to a physical image.

[18] Wenham, Genesis, 30.

[19] Botterweck, TDOT, 392.

[20] Rad, Genesis, 56. See also Westermann, Genesis, who states “there can now be basic agreement that when Gen 1:26 talks of the image and likeness of God, it envisages the whole person, and not jus the corporeal or the spiritual side” (150).

[21] Often referred to as the “I-Thou” relationship.

[22] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 184.

[23] See Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, translated by Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947), 82-114; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 183-206.

[24] Barth focuses especially on the repetition of “male and female” in Gen. 1:27 and 5:1-2 (Church Dogmatics, 186), while Brunner’s focus is much wider (Man in Revolt, 105-106).

[25] W. Sibley Towner, “Clones of God: Genesis 1:26-28 and the Image of God in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 59, no. 4 (2005), 349-350.

[26] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, translated by John J. Scullion (London: SPCK, 1984), 155.

[27] For instance, see Wenham’s critique of Westermann in Genesis, 31.

[28] See Gen. 5:1-3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9. Also Jesus, as an individual, is called the image of God in Col. 1:15.

[29] Erickson, Christian Theology, 530.

[30] Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 66 n 46, states that this has now become the domninant interpretation.

[31] Laurence A. Turner, Genesis, 2nd edition (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2009), 15.

[32] Terence E. Fretheim, The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 345. See also Wenham, Genesis, 30.

[33] Walton, Genesis, 130. It has been pointed out that more statues of Roman emperors have been found in Greece, Turkey and Egypt than in Italy or Rome itself.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Erickson challenges this connection with Ps. 8 by arguing that the key words “image” and “likeness” do not occur. Though this is the case, the conceptual and thematic links cannot be denied (Christian Theology, 531).

[36] Wenham, Genesis, 31. Cf. Waltke, Genesis, 66. Contra Westermann, Genesis, 153-154.

[37] Erickson, Christian Theology, 531.

[38] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 38-46

[39] Ibid, 47-71.

[40] Walton, Genesis, 131.

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