Hero Image

The Image of God

An Approach from Biblical and Systematic Theology

Published in Studia Biblica et Theologica, March 1971

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Systematic theology is not biblical theology; but if it would be Christian, it necessarily must rest upon biblical theology. Therefore, this paper, aiming primarily to determine a Christian belief, will have the following structure: First, I will examine the Old Testament teaching on the image of God; then, I will examine the New Testament teaching about the image; and third, through an interaction with several contemporary scholars, I will work out a systematic, theological definition of the imago Dei.

The Image of God in the Old Testament

The explicit theme of the image of God appears in three texts in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:26–27; 5:1–2; and 9:6. I am excluding from the discussion such important texts as Psalm 17:15 and Ecclesiastes 7:20 because, although these texts bear upon the essence of man as such, they are not part of the Old Testament’s own teaching about the image of God. Given this limitation, intrinsic to the Old Testament itself, we readily see that among the ancient writers there is not a great interest in describing man in terms of the image of God. This cautions us, perhaps, that we should measure our emphasis accordingly.

The first text, Genesis 1:26–27, records the final creative act of the sixth day of creation:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.1

The fifth chapter of Genesis contains the genealogy from Adam to Noah. It begins:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. (Genesis 5:1–2)

Our third text falls within the context of God’s blessing upon Noah immediately after the flood. God says to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

In these texts, the English word image translates the Hebrew word tselem; and the English likeness translates the Hebrew demuth (except in Genesis 5:1, where likeness translates tselem). Our first task, then, is to find out the meanings of these words from their usage in the whole Old Testament.

In the remainder of the Old Testament, tselem is used, but for the two exceptions, to refer to the physical likeness of a person or thing, and almost uniformly these images are abominable.2 The two exceptions of this usage, however, broaden the possibilities of the meaning of this important word. We should, therefore, consider these texts more closely. In Psalm 39:5–6 we read:

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
     and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!
     Surely a man goes about as a tselem!

The ESV renders tselem shadow, which points to its meaning as a resemblance or reflection of something greater. It certainly is not a material idol or the like. Thus we have some evidence that tselem is not bound to denote a physical image. Similarly, in Psalm 73:20 Asaph, speaking of the rich heathen, says,

Like a dream when one awakes,
     O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as tsalmam.

Here the ESV renders tsalmam phantoms. Thus we are not dealing with a concrete, tangible image, but again, a more abstract likeness. With von Rad, I conclude from the above evidence that tselem “means predominantly an actual plastic work, a duplicate, sometimes an idol . . . only on occasion does it mean a duplicate in the diminished sense of a semblance when compared with the original.”3

The second important word, demuth, apart from the Genesis texts, has a greater flexibility than tselem. It is used in a concrete sense almost synonymously with tselem,4 and in the abstract sense of resemblance.5 Although the abstract quality is there, demuth is used uniformly in connection with a tangible or visual reproduction of something else. So again, as with tselem, the usage of demuth urges us very strongly in the direction of a physical likeness.

The next question we ask is whether or not a substantial distinction is meant between these two words when the writer says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). The evidence is against any serious distinction. If the author conceived of an important distinction between tselem*and *demuth in verse 26, which is God’s resolution to create, then why did he omit demuth in verse 27, the record of the very act of creation? The most obvious explanation for the oversight, either by God to create man in his likeness, or by the author to record it, is that there really was no oversight by either and that nothing is lost either from man or from the meaning of the text by the omission of demuth. Another bit of evidence which points to the interchangeability of these two words is that in Genesis 5:1 and 9:6, only one word is used to denote the image, demuth, in 5:1 and tselem in 9:6. The Septuagint translators perceived what was happening here and accordingly translated both demuth and tselem in the texts by the one word eikōn. Finally, with regard to Genesis 1:26 we must recall the repetitions for the sake of emphasis, variety, and rhythm, are common in Hebrew poetry (e.g., Psalms 59:1–2; 104). This passage (Genesis 1:26–27) is poetic, and the repetitions of verse 27 are obvious. “So God created man in his own image / in the image of God he created him / male and female he created them.” It is understandable in this context that the author would use two different words with no fundamental distinction intended.

We must ask now what role the prepositions play in the phrase “in our image, after our likeness” (betsalmenu kidhmuthenu). Do they imply that man is not the image of God, but is only in the image? That is, does man image God or is he twice removed, the image of an image? Karl Barth follows the latter possibility.

Man is not created to be the image of God but — as is said in vv. 26 and 27, but also Genesis 5:1 (and again in the command not to shed human blood, Genesis 9:6) — he is created in correspondence with the image of God.6

This looks very much like theological expediency, however. It is likely that the prepositions should not be pressed for such a meaning. My main reason for saying this is found in Genesis 5:3: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” Obviously the author does not mean that there was an image of Adam according to which Seth was fashioned. The conclusion that emerges from the comparison of these two texts is that when the author employs this kind of phrasing, he simply means that in some sense the one person is like the other; man is at some level a copy of his Maker. As H.C. Leupold remarks, “The double modifying phrase, ‘in our image, after our likeness,’ is in the last analysis nothing more than a phrase which aims to assert with emphasis the idea that man is to be closely patterned after his Maker.”7

We are now in a position to ask what the author of Genesis 1:26–27; 5:1–2; and 9:6 really intended to convey about the image of God in man. To answer this, let us observe more closely the context of Genesis 1. What features of the creation narrative are unique to man? 1) Man is the final creation; 2) only man is stated as being in the image of God; 3) only man is given dominion over all the earth; 4) prior to the creation of man alone was there divine counsel; and 5) only man is explicitly stated as being created male and female. Now what, if anything, does each of these features contribute to our understanding of God’s image in man?

First, that man was the final creation gives rise to such statements as “Man is the crown of creation, the end toward which it was all directed.” But this tells us nothing about the nature of God’s image.

Second, and by far the most important feature of Genesis 1, is the actual statement that man is in God’s image. On the basis of the linguistic evidence presented above, it would reflect a theological prejudice to deny that the author means man’s physical appearance images his Maker. As von Rad says:

The marvel of man’s bodily appearance is not at all to be excepted from the realm of God’s image. This was the original notion, and we have no reason to suppose that it completely gave way, in P’s theological reflection, to a spiritualizing and intellectualizing tendency. Therefore, one will do well to split the physical from the spiritual as little as possible: the whole man is created in God’s image.8

That God’s image in man may go beyond the physical is not ruled out, but it may turn out that the Genesis writer intends to give us no information in that regard.

The third feature of the creation narrative is that only man is given dominion over the whole world. Helmut Thielicke thinks that here we have a statement of the very essence of the image.

The divine likeness is thus a relational entity because it is manifested in man’s ruling position vis-à-vis the rest of creation, or better, because it consists in this manifestation, in this exercise of dominion and lordship.9

He maintains that to distinguish between the image itself and its manifestation is to foist a Platonic way of thinking onto the text which is foreign to biblical thought. Over against this idea I would place von Rad’s opposite contention. “This commission to rule is not considered as belonging to the definition of God’s image; but it is its consequence, i.e., that for which man is capable because of it.”10 This seems to be closer to the truth, not because it reflects Platonic thinking (von Rad, I think, would be horrified at that accusation), but because it is the most natural way of handling the language of the text. We must emphasize again that the author may not intend to tell us any more about the content of the image, for, as von Rad cautions, “The text speaks less of the nature of God’s image than of its purpose. There is less said about the gift itself than about the task.”11

The fourth unique feature of man’s creation is the divine counsel which preceded it. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). Barth finds a significance here for determining the nature of the image. As he put it, “A genuine counterpart in God Himself leading to unanimous decision is the secret prototype which is the basis of an obvious copy, a secret image and an obvious reflection in the coexistence of God and man, and also of the existence of man himself.”12 In other words, the divine deliberation indicates the “I-Thou” character of God’s existence, of which man is a copy. The image of God in man, therefore, consists in man’s addressing and being addressed as a “Thou.” At this point we must be very careful to distinguish between, on the one hand, what may be a correct assessment of the nature of man and God, and, on the other hand, a correct assessment of what the Genesis writer is intending to say. I find it very difficult to see Barth’s interpretation in the intention of the writer (though I do not rule out its possibility). In the three texts where the actual statement that man was create in God’s image occurs (Genesis 1:27, 5:1, 9:6), no plurality is mentioned. Also, the plural is used elsewhere when God deliberates before an important act. In Genesis 11:7–8 we read: “‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth.” We may say two things on the basis of this text. First, it appears that the plural let us may be a way of pointing to God’s own self-deliberation.13 Second, when an author uses the plural, we cannot insist that he intends any essential connection between what the plural implies about God’s nature and the immediate object of his action.

The final feature of the creation account unique to man is that explicit statement that he is created male and female. This is reaffirmed in Genesis 5:2. Barth finds here the specific locus of the image of God in man as a “Thou.” “Man can and will always be man before God and among his fellows only as he is man in relationship to woman and woman in relationship to man.”14 This view is weakened to the extent one rejects Barth’s other notion that the divine counsel of Genesis 1:26 is intended by the author to supply the divine prototype of which man is the copy. I have abandoned that notion, and I find nothing else in the text to compel me to think the author intended to say that the bisexuality of mankind is an essential part of the image.

Finally, if we look at Genesis 9:6, we see again that all the author tells us is a consequence of man’s possessing the image of God. Because man is made in the image of God, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The most important thing about this text is that it comes after the fall of mankind into sin. Negatively, there is no indication that man has lost the image. Positively, the benefits of being created in God’s image continue to be preset realities after the fall. I, therefore, concur with Barth that “It is not surprising that neither in the rest of the Old Testament nor in the New is there any trace of the abrogation of this ideal state, or of the partial or complete destruction of the imago Dei15 (I have yet to demonstrate the whole of this statement, however).

The following conclusions may be drawn from the foregoing discussion: That man is in the image of God means that man as a whole person, both physically and spiritually, is in some sense like his Maker. Just what the nature of this likeness is, we are not told. But we are told what really matters: Even as sinners we bear God’s image. As a result of this image in us, we have dominion over all the earth, and we have a right to live out our days upon the earth. Beyond this teaching about the image of God in man, the Old Testament is silent.

The Image of God in the New Testament

In the New Testament the primary word for image is eikōn. Secondary words are homoiōsis and charaktēr. eikōn appears in twenty verses throughout the New Testament. In twelve of these it explicitly denotes physical representations.16 In one verse it refers to the law as not being the true image of things to come (Hebrews 10:1). Twice it is used to denote Christ as the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15), and five times it relates man to the image of Christ or God (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:7; 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10). James uses homoiōsis, saying that men “are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews uses charaktēr to say that Christ is the “exact imprint of [God’s] nature” (Hebrews 1:3).

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the image of God, and when all the information is gathered, we know we are speaking of image here in a radically different sense than we found in the Old Testament. “He is the image of the invisible God. . . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15, 19; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4). The men who saw Jesus Christ saw God (John 12:45; 14:9). Jesus is the effulgence of God’s glory and the representation of his very nature (Hebrews 1:3; John 1:14). Now if Christ is the image of God, in what sense does the New Testament see man as being in God’s image? The following paragraphs set forth the key texts.

In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, verses 35 to 50 answer the questions, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35). After discussing in detail the resurrection of the dead, Paul gives the summary statement: “And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Corinthians 15:49, ASV). The context makes it clear that Paul is thinking in personal terms: Adam is the earthy and Christ is the heavenly. We must ask what the “image of the heavenly” involves. The answer is found in noting what specifics verse 49 summaries. The “image of the heavenly” has to do with the nature of the resurrection body. “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42–44, ASV). Thus, to take on the “image of the heavenly” is to be incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual.

It is very doubtful that Paul is here thinking in terms of the image of God in Genesis 1:26 at all. He is concerned to teach about the resurrection, and the metaphor “image of the heavenly” is helpful. He is not teaching a recovery of the image at this point (marred or lost at the fall), because he is contrasting the resurrection body with what Adam was by the act of creation (prior to the fall): “So also it is written, The first man Adam became a living soul. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45, ASV). Paul is not contrasting a fallen body with a redeemed body, but a natural body with a spiritual body: “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. . . . The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:44, 47, ASV). Therefore, I conclude that this passage has nothing to say directly about the image of God that men now have or once had and shall regain. The reason I have examined this passage at all is that it regularly finds its way into theological discussions about the image of God where, I have noted, it is sometimes misused. Properly interpreted, it serves as a preliminary warning that the mere appearance of the word image, even “the image of the heavenly,” does not mean the author is thinking in terms of Genesis 1:26–27.

In Romans 8:29–30 Paul writes,

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

In this passage the phrase “conformed to the image of his Son” defines the destination to which the elect of God are appointed.17 Verse 30 specifies that the one who is predestined to be in God’s image is, as a means to that end, called, justified, and glorified. Being conformed to Christ’s image appears conterminous with glorification. This is supported by the context. Since we are predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” then to conform to his image means to become heirs with him — brothers. But in Romans 8:17 being fellow heirs with Christ is on the same level as being glorified with him, while sharing his sufferings is the condition of both. Therefore, being conformed to Christ’s image entails being glorified with him. Furthermore, Romans 8:18 and 21 speak of glory as the destiny of the believer, which in verse 29 is described as conformity to the image of God’s Son. Thus, it is important to emphasize that in the present text the meaning attached to “the image of his Son” is the glorification of the saints.

Two other features of this text are important for our purposes. First, a necessary implication of Paul’s remarks is that we are not now conformed to the image of Christ, at least not fully. Being completely conformed to Christ’s image awaits the final glorification, which is future. Second, it is God who conforms man to the image of his Son. God predestines, God calls, God justifies, and God glorifies. Man here is entirely recipient. The possibility of conceiving Paul’s meaning of the image in this text as a restoration of a lost image will depend on whether or not Paul indeed thinks man has lost the image of God which was given in creation. The answer to this question will become obvious when I discuss 1 Corinthians 11:7. For the moment we should recall that in 1 Corinthians 15:49 Paul uses the image terminology and definitely does not intend any direct connection with the image of Genesis 1:26.

In 2 Corinthians 3:18, the stated content of the image is again glory — the glory of God through Christ.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

In 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 we learn that the glory we behold is the glory of Christ, and his glory is the “light of the gospel” which shines in our hearts. It is by the light of the knowledge of the gospel that we are being glorified and hence attaining gradually to the image of God. Here Paul places his teaching about the image alongside the preaching of the gospel and thus gives us an insight into the practical way in which God is working out his eternal purposes in human lives.

Another very important aspect of Paul’s teaching about the image of God is the identification of the glory of Christ with the glory of God. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 “the glory of the Lord” is ambiguous, but as we follow the text into chapter four, we see that Paul uses the phrases “glory of Christ” and “glory of God” interchangeably. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 he speaks of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Then in verse 6, as if following the logic of his own statement, he speaks of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, we should not make any significant distinction in Paul’s teaching at this point between being conformed to the image of Christ and being conformed to the image of God. When a man attains the full glory of Christ, he has attained the greatest image he ever will.

This text confirms that men are not now fully in God’s image, as Paul uses the phrase; but it explicitly states that men are now in the process of becoming the image. This statement is important for two reasons: first, because it teaches that “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). By the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life, he experiences the present reality of God’s image and is changed from one degree of glory to another. This truth comes out more fully in Paul’s teaching about the new nature.

The next passage we consider is Colossians 3:9–10.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Here we find the image in a context of moral admonition, which points to its practical consequences as a present reality. Note that it is not our old nature which is being renewed; that was crucified with Christ. It is the new nature created in man by the Holy Spirit which must be made even newer, as it were; it must change from one degree of glory to another. Lightfoot takes “in knowledge” to mean “unto perfect knowledge.”18 That is, a fundamental aspect of our renewal after the image of our Creator is increased knowledge. This must be understood in terms of the knowledge which is in Christ. Paul says in Colossians 1:9 that he has prayed continually that the Colossians might “be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” And in Colossians 2:2–3, he strives for them to “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Thus, in Colossians 3:10, the central element of the image which saints are attaining is a full and perfect knowledge. This is qualified in verse 11 which says, “Christ is all, and in all.” It should be noted in passing that again the renewal of the image is not by man’s effort, but is being done to him, we may be sure, by the Holy Spirit.

A passage which must be considered as parallel to Colossians 3:10 is Ephesians 4:22–24:

[You were taught] To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

No word for likeness appears in the Greek text. The phrase “after the likeness of God” translates ton kata theon, which literally means, “which is according to God.” But on the basis of the parallel in Colossians 3:10, and the obvious sense intended, the ESV rightly fills out the ellipses. Whereas in Colossians, Christians are approaching divine likeness in fuller knowledge, in this text the divine likeness is manifest in righteousness and holiness. Again, this aspect of the image is not one of our own doing. The righteousness and holiness that are the image of God in us are created, not elicited. They are our possession only by continued grace.

In none of the texts so far discussed does Paul seem to move within the idea of Genesis 1:26–27. Nowhere is the image viewed as something restored, something which man once possessed and then lost. But does the fact that Paul neglects to mention such a restoration eliminate it as a true description of what really occurs? No. In order to eliminate the idea that the image of God attained in regeneration is a restoration of the image given in creation, one must demonstrate that Paul viewed the image of Genesis 1 as still intact in fallen mankind. If this could be demonstrated, then the image of God in the Old Testament and the image attained in regeneration would have to be carefully distinguished.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1–6, we find Paul thinking not in terms of redemption, but in terms of the natural order, the order of creation. The key thought for our purposes is found in verse 7: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God.” Verse 8, which says that woman was made from man, and verse 14, which speaks of “nature itself,” make it clear that Paul is thinking here of the divinely established order of creation. Therefore, when Paul says that man is in the image of God, he means first that this image is the image given in creation, and second, that man is indeed now in that image.

Lest we belittle this text as an isolated example, let us consider James 3:9. Here the belief we are deducing from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:7 is made explicit by James. In giving warning about the improper use of the tongue, he says, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” James, therefore, comes alongside Paul in teaching that men are created in God’s image and are now in that image, so that certain practical consequences ensue, just as they did in Genesis 1:26 and 9:6. The inference which may be drawn from the above is this: since Paul views the image of God as a present possession common to man by virtue of creation, the image of God which man newly attains in regeneration cannot be a restoration of the image bestowed in creation. Thus, both the Old and New Testaments concur that the image of God given to man in creation is not lost, even in the presence of sin. As I said above, we must therefore carefully distinguish between the original image of God and the new creation in Christ. They are not equal.

In conclusion, I offer the following summary statements regarding the New Testament teaching about the image of God in man.

  1. Underlying New Testament thought is the assumption that all men retain the image of God given in creation. This is not described except insofar as it is the ground for various practical admonitions.
  2. A central Pauline teaching is that in regeneration men receive the image of God.
  3. Jesus is the image and fullness of God, and men therefore receive the image of God by sharing in what Christ is.
  4. The image of God which Christians receive is really, but only partially, possessed in this life.
  5. To receive the image of God through Christ means to begin to share in his glory, knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. It means to become like him.
  6. The Christian life is a process of increasingly full attainment of these virtues.
  7. The image of God in its present reality and future fullness is a gift of God worked in man by the Holy Spirit through the light of the gospel of Christ.

If this truth does not satisfy our hunger, consider that “we are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Systematic Theology and the Imago Dei

The Bible gives us an appreciable insight into the image of God in man received through regeneration, but it tells us practically nothing concerning the image of God common to unregenerate man. To this latter use of the image I now turn. In the conclusion to my discussion of the Old Testament I said that there simply is not enough evidence to be sure what the nature of the image of God was in the mind of the ancient writer. Karl Barth and Helmut Thielicke make series attempts to find the content of the imago Dei in the context of Genesis 1, but come up with different answers, thus illustrating the ambiguity of the text.

Barth notices that man was the only creature created as a “Thou” whom God could address as “I.” Thus man is unique in that he stands in an “I-Thou” relationship to man and God.19 But Barth specifies the imago further, claiming that the phrase “male and female he created them” is an interpretation of “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).

Men are simply male and female. Whatever else they may be, it is only in this differentiation and relationship. This is the particular dignity ascribed to the sex relationship. It is wholly creaturely, and common to man and beast. But as the only real principle of differentiation and relationship, as the original form not only of man’s confrontation of God but also of all intercourse between man and man, it is the true humanum and therefore the true creaturely image of God.20

Thielicke also appreciates the “I-Thou” character of man but locates the specific content of the image at a different point.

The divine likeness is thus a relational entity because it is manifested in man’s ruling position vis-à-vis the rest of creation, or better, because it consists in this manifestation, in this exercise of dominion and lordship.21

We have noted von Rad’s opposition to this view; let us now consider Barth’s rejection of it. With regard to the relationship between the image and man’s dominion, he comments:

There can be little doubt that the two are brought together and that the dominium terrae is portrayed as a consequence of the imago Dei, but the question remains whether a technical connexion is intended. If this were the case, would it not have to be expressed?”22

If this is justifiable criticism of Thielicke (and I believe it is), the same question should be put to Barth’s own interpretation. Is there any “technical connection” intended between the statement that man is created in God’s image and the statement that man is created male and female? “If this were the case, would it not have to be expressed?”23

Thus, when I examine contemporary discussions of the imago Dei, I find my previous conclusion confirmed. Evidence for determining the precise way the Genesis writer used the phrase, “in the image of God,” is simply not available. We will see later that the data of Genesis 1–9 enables us to make important exclusions from the content of the imago, but no further positive content is found in the texts. Barth and Thielicke are to be commended for adhering so closely to the text itself. But adherence to the text is not faithfulness to the text when “truths” are found which are not there. All theologians have encountered the ambiguity of the Genesis teaching about the imago Dei, and traditionally a method other than straight exegesis has been employed for determining the content of the imago. This method, I believe, also underlies the efforts of many theologians who stick most closely to the Genesis texts. Stated simply, the method is this: First, determine from Scripture as many attributes of God as you can; second, determine all the attributes of man that distinguish him from the rest of the animals; third, determine which of these attributes are found in both lists, and in just these ways is man to be considered the image of God. Consider, for example the reasoning of St. Thomas:

Man is said to be after the image of God, not as regards his body, but as regards that whereby he excels other animals. Hence, when it is said, Let us make man in our image and likeness, it is added, And let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea (Genesis i.26). Now man excels all animals by his reason and intelligence; hence it is according to his intelligence and reason, which are incorporeal, that man is said to be according to the image of God.24

The method just described asks for an extensive anthropology couched in terms of the imago Dei. At this point, biblical theology and systematic theology part ways. In other words, biblical theology asks the Bible what it means by the phrase “image of God,” whereas systematic theology asks the much larger question, “How is man like God?” What, then, have been the important answers given this question?

The early church fathers were quite agreed that the image of God in man consisted primarily in man’s rational and moral characteristics, and in his capacity for holiness.25

This approach, which locates the content of the imago Dei in qualities that man possesses, has been developed and systematized in the orthodox theology of the Catholic Church. Man’s God-likeness is conceived in a dualistic way. It includes “nature,” whose substance is static and self-contained. This substance cannot be augmented or diminished, improved or destroyed, because it consists of an accumulation of ontic parts, each of which is in itself unalterable. If this nature is to point or lead beyond itself, it cannot do so of itself. There must be a creative act which imparts the supernatural gifts which lead from the natural imago to the supernatural similitudo. Originally, this distinction was found in the words image and likeness in Genesis 1:26.26 But the system does not depend on this linguistic distinction. The supernatural similitudo consists in man’s original righteousness (justitia originalis); that is, in the harmonious ordering of the natural elements. Given this from man’s God-likeness, the fall cannot affect the natural imago of ontic parts; rather, original sin consists in the dissolution of the harmonious ordering of these parts. The way St. Thomas relates the ontic imago and the supernaturally endowed similitudo is seen in the following summary.

Wherefore we see that the image of God is in man in three ways. First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men. Second, inasmuch as man actually or habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly; and this image consists in the conformity of grace. Thirdly, inasmuch as man knows and loves God perfectly; and this image consists in the likeness of glory. . . . The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed.27

This kind of description of the imago Dei Thielicke calls the “ontological” approach, over against which may be placed the “personalistic” approach of contemporary European evangelical theology (e.g., Barth, Brunner, Thielicke). The features of the personalistic approach are, first, a complete abandonment of all efforts to locate the image, the true humanum, in the ontic qualities of man, and second, a wholehearted adoption of the effort to discover in God’s or man’s action the precise locus of the imago Dei. The personalistic element comes out in the fact that the essence of the imago is found in those actions of man and God in which they relate to each other as persons. Thus arises the general label given the imago, “relational entity” (a peculiar combination of words, to say the least, for those who think ontologically). For a moment, let us see how these three theologians conceive of this “relational entity.”

Barth characteristically fixes his gaze on God himself to determine what man is. And when he is finished describing man, it is fair to say he has really never taken his eyes off God.

Thus the tertium comparationis, the analogy between God and man, is simply the existence of the I and Thou in confrontation. This is first constitutive for God, and then for man created by God.28

The imago Dei is not a quality possessed by man; it is a condition in which man lives, a condition of confrontation established and maintained by the Creator. Thus in no sense can we speak of man losing this image. “What man does not possess he can neither bequeath nor forfeit.”29

Brunner suggests, first of all, that there is a formal, structural imago which consists not in the possession of a rational nature existing in its own right, but in man’s relation to God as a responsible, personal being. This formal imago cannot be lost, but Brunner suggests secondly that “The existence of a merely formal responsibility, without its material fulfillment through the love of God, is the result of the Fall and of Sin.”30 Thus Brunner distinguishes the imago as a “formal” and lasting responsibility on the one hand, and the imago as a man’s proper “material” response to God on the other hand, namely, his yes to God.

There is a step which Brunner takes, however, that to me is illegitimate on the basis of the scriptural evidence. He believes that “The restoration of the imago Dei, the new creation of the original image of God in man, is identical with the gift of God in Jesus Christ received by faith.”31 To claim, as Brunner does here, that the image of God received in regeneration is a restoration of the “original image” is to go beyond the limitations of the evidence. If we do not know the precise nature of the original imago, we cannot know what constitutes its restoration. The fact that Paul not once chose explicitly to relate the imago of Genesis 1 and the “new creation” should caution our efforts as well. The danger in pursuing such a correlation is the tendency either to restrict unduly the content of the “new creation” or to expand the imago of Genesis 1.

As Thielicke presents his view in Theological Ethics, Vol. 1, it is very difficult to pin down. He comes at the subject from a number of different angles, and, in the end, his ideas seem very much like a distillation of Barth and Brunner. Like Barth, he locates the imago in God himself.

What is at issue is the imago which God has of us. . . . Hence the imago Dei — man! — is the object of faith and not of knowledge. Man really exists only in the consciousness of God. Hence man is present to men only as God himself is present, namely, in faith.32

But like Brunner, he conceives of the imago in two senses, which he calls the positive and the negative “modes.” The positive mode of the imago Dei is that positive relationship in which man was created, from which he fell, and to which he may return through faith in Christ. The negative mode of the imago Dei is the relationship which endures in fallen, unregenerate man. The fall is the loss of a positive relationship. But that man can see his present relation as a negative shows that the image remains. That man can reflect on his loss, and be addressed on the basis of it, bears witness to an alien dignity.33

I turn now to ask the question: Why this turn in modern theology? What has occasioned the abandonment of ontology in preference for personalism? And finally: Which of these approaches, if either, leads to the truth? Let us take as a sample argument (not the best) against the ontological approach the following statement of Helmut Thielicke.

Paul said that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” and the moment his “whatsoever” is limited in the slightest degree, e.g., by the setting apart of certain ontic spheres which are neutral as regards faith, the sola gratia and sola fide are abandoned in principle.34

This statement represents an intolerable exegesis of the biblical passage quoted. The quote is Romans 14:23 and has to do with eating and drinking in a questionable situation. The entire verse is, “But whoever has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Thielicke has converted a local moral affirmation into a sweeping metaphysical affirmation about all that is. Whether or not there is anything neutral about man is a fair question to ask, but it will never be answered by this kind of proof-texting.

Perhaps it is unfair, however, to examine such surface arguments without understanding the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the personalistic approach. Both personalistic and ontological approaches speak of relationships. But the person who thinks ontologically always asks the question: Who or what is relating? The personalist makes no distinction between the one who relates and the relation itself. Being, for the personalist, consists in action, specifically interpersonal action, i.e., relationships. Theologically, this kind of thinking is an effort to think biblically. For example, Thielicke says,

The attempt to differentiate the essence of the imago from its manifestation . . . has no foundation in the Bible and betrays a platonic mode of thinking. The imago of God consists in its manifestation….”35

The Bible never offers us the ontological content of the imago. It presents an imago in its manifestation, a God who acts, and a man of faith. This mode of thinking becomes very attractive when one sees that a number of biblical problems are lessened by its use (e.g., faith and works).

But the personalistic approach should be seen in its philosophical context as well as its theological context. Personalism in theology is just one shoot growing out of the much larger branch of modern philosophy characterized by the rejection of the Kantian distinction between subject and object. Immanuel Kant is noted for his attempt to reconcile the materialist and the idealist philosophies which he inherited in 18th century Germany. On the one hand, he asserts the existence of a reality outside our consciousness which he calls the “thing-in-itself.” But, one the other hand, the “thing-in-itself,” he says, is inherently unknowable, beyond our cognition. The mind (subject) brings to the chaos of sense experience (object) the categories which are able to present the “thing-in-itself” to the knower as knowable. Modern existentialism, which appears to have had a profound influence on contemporary evangelical theology, reckons Kant’s description utterly passé. The “thing-in-itself” is a useless cipher. Characteristic of existentialists of every stripe is the affirmation that “existence precedes essence or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.”35 This is the philosophical structure that has influenced almost every branch of thought in this century. In art, a picture consists in the way we see; in hermeneutics, the meaning of the text is a horizon-fusion; in theology, revelation is truth which happens in an existential encounter. Against this background the personalist’s aversion to ontological thinking is understandable. The poor man trapped in the world of ontology asks, “Is not man, when he is addressed by God, characterized at least by a quality of addressability?” And Thielicke responds,

That there is no such attribute or epistemological quality as ‘addressability,’ we would assert as forcefully as possible by our statement that it is the divine address which constitutes the person as imago Dei.36

For the ontological thinker and the personalist thinker to argue about the nature of the imago of God is fruitless, because they do not even speak the same language. Ontologically speaking, to say the imago “consists in a relationship” is neither true nor false; it is nonsense. A relationship is definable only in terms of beings that relate or are related, and apart from these entities, relationship is inconceivable.

At this point I should confess that I am one of those who is convinced by the eminently common-sense view characterized by ontological thinking. To clarify my position over against the personalist, let us look at an analogy which Thielicke uses.

It is the very essence of a picture — that is its point! — to “effect” something, for example, in the person who looks at it; it “consists” in this effect, not in the variety of colors.37

I take the very opposite view. The essence of the picture is grounded in the color and configuration of the stuff on the canvas. If a picture’s essence consists in the onlooker’s response, then the Mona Lisa has millions of essences, and that, in my opinion, is no essence at all. The one, common “essential” factor in every person’s encounter with the Mona Lisa is the unalterable color and shape of the lady herself. Thus I believe in the “thing-in-itself” and say with the early church fathers that where there is relationship, there must be that which relates.

To the personalist’s criticism that ontological thinking is foreign to the Bible, I am less antagonistic. The Bible does depict a God who acts and a man who believes or rebels; it does omit, by and large, ontological speculation about the essence of God and man. But is it not an argument from silence to debate one way or the other about the metaphysical underpinnings of biblical thought? The Bible is history and story; it does not claim to give its own philosophical ground. The important question to ask is: Would not a story sound the same whether told by one who thinks ontologically or one who thinks personalistically? For example, if I were to say, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:30), how would my hearer know whether my view of reality was such that God consists in this saving act, or was such that he exists in and of himself apart from his deed? I am not trying to foist onto the biblical writers any specific way of thinking. I am simply trying to take some of the wind out of the sails of those who too readily confine biblical thought to any one mold — ontological or personalistic.

I turn now to what seems to me to be the greatest difficulty the ontological view has to overcome: the question: Is Satan in the imago of God? If we locate the imago Dei in man’s reason, oughtness, and freedom, it appears that Satan along with man has these qualities and is like man, in the image of God.38 My first response to this conclusion was: “Yes, I guess Satan is in the image of God, like fallen man.” But there is a problem with this confession. Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 seem to make man’s possession of the image of God the ground for his right not to be murdered and not to be cursed. Satan, however, is obviously given no such right in Scripture; he, indeed, is the cursed one. Therefore, the mere possession of the traditional ontic qualities does not mean man is in the image of God. The imago must be other than, or more than, these attributes.

In the introduction to this paper I said I would work out a systematic, theological definition of the imago Dei. In the course of the discussion, several limitations of such a definition have emerged. The Old Testament does not tell us the nature of the image of God. The New Testament tells us much about the new creation in Christ, but does not explicitly relate this to the image of God in the Old Testament. Finally, the problem of Satan just stated keeps us from a simple paralleling of attributes in man and God as the basis for a description of the imago Dei. The Bible is not as concerned as we are to discover the precise nature of man’s God-likeness.

For the sake of systematic theology, however, I offer the following conclusion: What the full meaning of man’s God-likeness is cannot be determined until all that man and God are is known. Man as man — a complex, physical/spiritual being — in his wholeness, not his parts, is like God. It is not enough to say he reasons, nor is it enough to say he is addressed, for Satan, too, reasons and is addressed. Our definition of the imago Dei must be broad because the only sure statements we have about the imago are broad. The definition I offer is this: The imago Dei is that in man which constitutes him as him-whom-God-loves.

The obvious thrust of this definition is to insist that this something intrinsic to man cannot completely be specified (indeed, the Scriptures do not specify its content). I have thus removed myself from the traditional orthodox view which I described earlier. An important result of this move is that I do not have to assert that man is a morally neutral being. In fact, I choose not to say anything at all about this issue. Whether I believe man is a morally free being or is absolutely determined does not affect the definition of the imago Dei I have offered. My concern is to maintain, not that man is free in himself, but that he is something in himself.


  1. All quotations from the Bible will be from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted. 

  2. Molten images to be destroyed (Numbers 33:52); images of tumors and images of mice (1 Samuel 6:5); images of Baal (2 Chronicles 23:17; 2 Kings 11:18); abominable images made of ornaments (Ezekiel 7:20); images of men made of gold and silver (Ezekiel 16:17); images of Chaldeans portrayed in vermillion on a wall (Ezekiel 23:14); images of other gods and kings (Amos 5:25); the image made of five substances (Daniel 2:31–35); the image sixty cubits high and sixty cubits wide (Daniel 3, twelve times). 

  3. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, translated by John H. Marks, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 56. 

  4. “To whom then will you liken God?” (Isaiah 40:18); the model of the altar (2 Kings 16:10); in the furnishing of the temple there were figures of gourds (2 Chronicles 4:3); the likeness of a throne (Ezekiel 10:1). 

  5. “As for their appearance, the four had the same likeness” (Ezekiel 10:10). 

  6. Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Creation Part 1, Vol. 3.1 of Church Dogmatics, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans J.W. Edwards, O. Bussey, and H. Knight (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 197. 

  7. H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1942), 88. 

  8. Von Rad, Genesis, 56. 

  9. Helmut Thielicke, Foundations, Vol. 1 of Theological Ethics, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 157. 

  10. Von Rad, Genesis, 57. 

  11. Von Rad, Genesis, 57. 

  12. Barth, The Work of Creation, 183. 

  13. Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. Emil Kautzsch, trans. A.E. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 398. 

  14. Barth, The Work of Creation, 186. 

  15. Barth, The Work of Creation, 200. 

  16. The image of Caesar on Roman money (Matthew 22:20, cf. Mark 12:16; Luke 20:24); images resembling men and animals (Romans 1:23); the image of the beast (Revelation 13:14–15; 14:19; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4,). 

  17. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 318. 

  18. J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), 215. 

  19. Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, 184. 

  20. Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, 186. 

  21. Thielicke, Foundations, 157. 

  22. Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, 194. 

  23. Cf. Brunner’s criticism of Barth’s view: Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, Vol. 2 of Dogmatics, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952), 63. 

  24. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 3 vols. (New York: Benzinger,1947), 1:15. 

  25. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 202. For example: “God then made man in his own image. For he created him a soul endowed with reason and intelligence.” Augustine, The City of God, Modern Library (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 407. 

  26. Likeness is distinct from image “so far as any likeness falls short of image, or again, as it perfects the idea of image.” Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1:477. 

  27. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1:471–72 (italics added). 

  28. Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, 185. 

  29. Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, 200. 

  30. Brunner, Creation and Redemption, 78. 

  31. Brunner, Creation and Redemption, 58. 

  32. Thielicke, Foundations, 165. 

  33. Thielicke, Foundations, 168–70. 

  34. Thielicke, Foundations, 208. 

  35. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism,” in A Concise Dictionary of Existentialism: Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Marcel, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, ed. Ralph B. Winn (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960), 33. 

  36. Thielicke, Foundations, 165. 

  37. Thielicke, Foundations, 157. 

  38. Thielicke, Foundations, 159, 161.