The Image of God



Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him…”
Genesis 1:26-27

Scholars have a wide range of opinions on what the image of God mentioned in Genesis 1:26-27 actually is.  Personhood, reason, free will, authority and many other possibilities have been put forward by notable theologians since the early church fathers.  However, as it is only mentioned three times in the Old Testament (in addition to Genesis 1:26, also in 5:1 and 9:6) and never defined for us, it would seem as if we are left to choose one of the options on offer and hope for the best.

However, other scholars—and this is new to me—put a whole new slant on the issue and point out that the image of God is not primarily telling us something about what we are like, but something about what God is like.  Stephen Webb in Books and Culture says, “at first glance the doctrine of the imago Dei looks like a definition of human nature, but on closer inspection, it redirects our gaze toward God.”

An illustration would be the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  When we look at the monumental sculpture of Lincoln, the instinctive reaction of most people is not to try and calculate its weight, decide whether it is made of granite or marble, or find out how old it is.  Rather, we are conscious of the gravitas, the wisdom, and the dignity of the man himself.  In other words, the image points away from itself.  It tells us something about the person it represents.

In a similar way, Webb argues that our being in the image of God is not primarily a statement about our constitution and capabilities as human beings, but rather acts as a mirror to tell us something  important about God himself.

However, the problem with this is that at first glance we are apparently back to square one.   We still need to know what characteristics in the human person comprise the imago Dei if from it we are to discover something about God himself.  But this is not true.  Webb’s argument does not in fact plunge us back into speculation about what the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27 means, as we might initially think.  However, the Old Testament can give us no more light, and to solve the conundrum, we need to move on to the revelation provided in the New Testament.

While we find found a paucity of references to the image of God in the Old Testament, we find an abundance of references in the New Testament.  However, most of them are to what David Watson called “the one un-spoilt specimen of humanity,” Jesus himself.  Had there been no incarnation we would still be in the dark, but now One has stood on the earth who was “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3), and therefore reveals what the original prototype is like in a way that we—as fallen beings—can never do.  So to discover what the image of God in man truly is, we can now look at the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  As the truly human one, he enables us to see without distortion the glory of God in a human face (2 Cor. 4:6).

But as helpful as this is, we can’t stop here.  Webb says that “God did not become incarnate to look like us.  Our bodies look like they do because God decided from all eternity to become incarnate in Jesus Christ.  Simply stated, we are like God because we are like Jesus.”  In other words, we are reflections of his image, of his true humanity, not he of ours.  Before the foundation of the earth, God decided that he would image himself in the humanity of the incarnate son, and this is what we were created to reflect.

For the full impact of this to take hold, we need to realize that when scripture says Jesus is the image of God, it is speaking primarily about his humanity, not his deity.  If Jesus is God it is obvious that he must also be in the image of God.  To say that one who is divine is in the image of God comes as no surprise to us.  We don’t need revelation to grasp what is self evident.  But to grasp that it is his humanity that images God means that we have a flesh and blood portrait in the Gospels of what the image of God truly is.

All this is extremely helpful, but here is a further dimension to explore before we have the full picture.  Ian McFarland in his book The Divine Image points out that the body of the one who is the divine image is now also corporate, a singular collective, not just a single individual.  “Jesus is the head and…humans comprise his body.  We [now] know Jesus best in other peoples bodies, not his own.”  In other words, in addition to seeing the true image in the humanity of Jesus (as it is expressed in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection) there is also now the possibility of seeing the image in his mystical body, the Church.  The full glory of Christ, who is the express image of God, cannot be fully mirrored in any single individual, but rather in the community that now comprises the totus Christos, the total Christ, the “body” of the truly human one.

And this means that we now have a dual responsibility.  First, as individual believers, as those “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), we are called to be authentic mirrors.  And second, as the church, corporately to do the same—only with greater magnification and plenitude.  That this is a primary biblical imperative is demonstrated in Paul’s passion in his epistles that exhort the church to radiate the glory of Jesus in her life and conduct.



One Last Thought…


The Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, makes the statement that “it is my body that makes me available.”  His point is that if I am on vacation, I am not available at work.  If I am sick, I am not available at church—and so on.  So much is obvious.  But Jenson then goes on to say that in a similar way it is the body of Jesus that makes him available.

Let me unpack this a bit.  Most Christians frequently need strength, encouragement, guidance, a word from the Lord, a touch of God’s healing, or a fresh encounter with the love of God.  But the mistake we make is to think that these things come to us “vertically,” directly from heaven.  We fail to realize that just as it is my body that makes me available, it is the body of Christ that makes him available.  The normal way that Jesus wants to minister to us is through his people—his body.  Many believers in a time of testing are deeply blessed by the care and provision shown to them by other Christians, but are somewhat mystified if they don’t feel God’s love and hear his voice during the time of testing.  They simply fail to realize that Jesus himself is ministering to them “horizontally” through his people.

George McDonald was fond of saying that we expect the sun to shine on us vertically through the skylight, and fail to notice that it also shines on us horizontally through the window.

Many times when I have been sick or discouraged, I have been deeply grateful for the love and kindness of other believers.  For many years I have appreciated this, but it has only been recently that I have realized that this is not “the kindness of other Christians,” but Jesus making himself available to me through his body.  It is not simply that people are being kind; it is that Jesus himself is reaching out to me in acts of kindness and words of encouragement through his body.

So the definition of the imago Dei is perhaps not shrouded in speculation as we might first think.  It comes into focus in the incarnation, and into its fullness in the totus Christos, the body of Christ.  However, even if the church was without “spot or wrinkle” it still would not simply be a beautiful piece of iconography, as helpful as that would be.  The church’s calling is to be a body that is a living icon though which Jesus is both seen and makes himself available to and through his people.