This semester, in Dr. Allison's Doctrine of Humanity and Sin class, I had to write an essay on the image of God in human beings. I wanted to share with anyone interested the things I learned from the class.
NOTE: I may revise this after I get the grading back. :-)
The Image of God in Human Beings
What is the image of God in human beings? Genesis 1:26-31 provides both questions and answers. Throughout history, various identifications of the essence of the image of God have been suggested: human spiritual capacity, human moral capacity, human rationality, and humanity’s dominion over creation. The Reformers proposed a faceted material/formal, or broader/narrower, view. This view proposed that humanity completely lost the knowledge of God, any holiness and righteousness (the material or narrower aspect), and that human personalities, moral capacities, and rationality, etc. (the formal or broader aspect) were perverted.
Contemporary views of the image of God, however, often synthesize many of these ideas into a more overarching construct. One view, the functional view, finds the essence of the image of God to exist in the fact that God created humanity to exercise dominion over the world, to rule as God’s vice regent. Psalm 8:5-6 is used to support this view.
Substantive or structural views, common throughout history, emphasize qualities of humans that separate us from the rest of God’s creation. Often reason, moral conscience, and freedom are identified as distinctive human traits.
Another contemporary view of the image of God in human beings emphasizes the relational aspects of human nature. Humans reflect the image of God in our relationships with God and others. Genesis 1:27 clearly indicates that the image of God is both male and female, and this gendered nature reflects God’s inter-Trinitarian relationships. This view of the image of God is quite appealing in reference to the relational nature of the Decalogue and the two great commandments of Matthew 22:34-40. Relationally, Jesus, as the “image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15) exemplified right relationships with God and man.
Millard Erickson argues, however, that functional and relational aspects of the image of God are only secondary since God created humanity in his image prior to any human activity. He argues that functional and relational aspects only follow God’s creation of human beings in God’s image. The image of God, in Erickson’s view, consists of God’s communicable attributes that enable us to carry out God’s design for relationships and dominion.
Anthony Hoekema argues, in contrast with Erickson, that God created humanity for a function, and that function requires a structure. The functional aspects of the image of God are primary and the structural aspects are secondary. Hoekema also includes the relational aspects of the image as a portion of the functional aspects; the relational is a subset of the functional, and the functional aspects are God’s primary purpose for creating humanity. Hoekema argues that human beings, as whole persons, represent God, both physically and spiritually; God intended human beings to be a reflection of himself to the world.
Because of the fall, this reflection of God is distorted. Hoekema argues that the structural aspects God equipped humanity with were retained after the fall; our reason, moral sensitivity, capacity for relationships, etc. continue to serve human beings, but not for the designed purpose. Because of the fall, the functional and relational aspects of the image of God have been lost; human beings no longer exist to reflect God in relationships and dominion. God is no longer the focus of our service and worship. After the fall, human beings employ the structural aspects of the image of God for the perverted and corrupt purpose of glorifying and pleasing self.
Because of Christ and his redeeming work on the cross, Hoekema helps us see God’s renewal of his image in believers. God is progressively restoring in humans the ability to relate rightly with God and with others, and we are journeying toward a restoration of dominion. When Christ returns and we are glorified, we will not be fully restored to the image of God in Adam and Eve, but the image of God in human beings will be perfected, and we will be like Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God.
For me, Hoekema’s view comes closest to accounting for all the ways in which we reflect God, yet I agree with Dr. Allison that the entire discussion of the image of God might be overly complicated. Human beings, created in the image of God, should function to reflect God—to cause others to turn toward God. Like Jesus Christ, who refused to glorify himself (John 8:54), all human beings are designed to glorify God.
Humanity has been commissioned to rule the earth, and directly tied to this mandate exists the mandate to be fruitful and multiply. God created humanity in his image, and he did so by creating us with gender. This engenderedness enables us to fulfill God’s purposes for humanity: to reflect God in procreation and vocation (Gen 3-11). The image of God in us should point others to God as we carry out God’s mandates in society. This understanding of the image of God also directs our efforts to make disciples; we seek the redemption and restoration of the image of God in others. In reflecting God’s glory to others in procreation and vocation, we hope to see God’s glory reflected in others as a result.