Made in God’s image

Photo by Luis Ruiz on

If we are to understand what it means to be human, then we need to go back to what the Bible says about our origins about what it means for us to be created by God. This links to our studies on the Doctrine of Creation, to know who we are, we need to understand how we got here, where we came from and this means that we need to understand what it means to be created by God and more than that, to be created in his image.

So, let’s head back to Genesis chapter 1 and the sixth day of creation. The context is that God has spoken, bringing form, order and structure, separating light from darkness, space from planet, land from sea. Then God has filled space with lights, stars and the moon for night time, sun for daytime. He has gone on to fill the sky with birds, the sea with fish and other sea-creatures and the land with plant-life. Then on the sixth day, he has also filled the land with animal life too. The birds, animals and sea creatures are all blessed and told to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the sphere in which they are place.

Then we are told

26 Then God said, “Let us make man[h] 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.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” ”[1]

Let us

First of all, we see a decision on God’s part, it is a conscious action of the will. Those who have read “How did we get here?” will recall that there are two competing theories about origins. In the first, we are here in effect by accident. Ancient theories as described in mythology suggest that we are the accidental by-product of the god’s competitions and wars. Contemporary evolutionary theory agrees that we are accidental by-products but this time of our genes as they seek to survive through mutation and multiplication.

The competing and contrasting theory is the one  int the Bible. It’s the belief that we are here because of God’s deliberate will and intention.  God deliberates and determines us to make humanity.

God determines to make us in his image and likeness.  Calvin argues that these are not two separate concepts but rather these are interchangeable terms so that the Hebrew language uses repetition for emphasis. [2] Wenham agrees, he notes that some people have considered the possibility that they refer to distinct attributes but argues that this would be a foreign concept to the Old Testament and that the words are used interchangeably elsewhwre.[3] However, “likeness” rather than mere repetition may also offer a nuancing to give greater clarity to what we mean by “image.”[4]  We will explore in a little more detail later exactly what it means to be made in God’s image however, to do so, we need to get the full picture of what God says about how he created us. Whilst observing some of the attempts to define and explain the meaning of these terms, I want to suggest that as is often the case, the Bible itself provides the definition and meaning in the context of the term’s usage.

Let them

So, God goes on to describe his plan and purpose for humanity. They (note male and female together) are to have dominion over the creatures. In other words, they are to have authority and power. Note too that whilst the creatures are constrained and limited within the boundaries of their spheres (land, sea, sky), human dominion transcends across the three domains. 

So God

There is a sequence of repetition throughout the section. We hear God’s deliberation about what God will do (make mankind) and his purpose for them (dominion), then we hear the description of God making them, which itself takes on a poetic form with an element of chiasm

God created man

in his image

In his image,

God created him

Here we see that the reference behind mankind or humanity is to the creation of both male and female. Both are made in his image. Finally, there is a repetition of God’s purpose for us.

God Blessed

God blesses humanity, just as he has blessed the other elements of creation. God speaks. Remember that one of the themes of Genesis 1 is the fulfilment of God’s Word. He speaks and it is so.   Blessing is seen first in God’s purpose and command. People are to fill, subdue and rule over all of creation.  However, it also includes provision. God gives seed bearing plants and fruit to humanity for food just as he also gives all the other creatures the green plant life for food.

What is the image and likeness of God? -some options

So, what does it mean to be made in God’s image, to share in what is technically referred o as the imago dei? Well, first of all, John Calvin sees it as evidence demonstrating that we are both body and soul, that there is something more to being human than physical, material existence.. He says:

“A strong proof of this point may be gathered from it being said that man was created in the image of God. For though the divine glory is displayed in man’s outward appearance, it cannot be doubted that the proper seat of the image is in the soul.” [5]

Meanwhile for Bavinck, it is a reminder, if we needed one, that our existence is derived from God and not vice-versa. Despite the claims of secularism and indeed, even some liberal versions of Christianity, man is made in God’s image not vice-versa.

“’Image’ tells us that God is the archetype, man the ectype, ‘likeness’ adds the notion that the image corresponds in all parts to the original.”[6]

Notice Bavinck’s point there about likeness.  We may be tempted to think of God’s image as some aspect of his being that he possesses. If I were to talk about my “image” then I’d be referring primarily to a frontal visual representation, particular focused on my facial features.  However to be made in God’s image goes further than that according to Bavinck.

“’image’ and ‘likeness’ do not refer to anything “in God but to something in humankind, not to the uncreated archetype but to the created ectype. The idea is not that man has been created after something in God that is called ‘image’ or ‘likeness’ so that it could, for example, be a reference to the Son; but that man has been created after God in such a way that humankind is his image and likeness ”[7]

Now, whilst some theologians have sought to distinguish image from likeness, Bavinck is with Wenham and Calvin in seeing it as a repetition and emphasis. However the perceived distinction has persevered down through history.  Pelagius for example saw “likeness” as something additional to be acquired through good works. .[8] -this view is known as “naturalism” [9] From this perspective, Adam and Eve were created in a state of innocence but not as holy and righteous. [10] 

Bavinck observes that:

“underlying this view is the error that innate holiness cannot possibly exist. Holiness we are told, is always the product of struggle and effort.”[11]

And, indeed, under such a viewpoint, the Fall becomes at one level necessary because Adam and Eve could not progress to holiness and righteousness without moving beyond that state of innocence. It was necessary for them to know good from evil.  Even if we don’t push the logic that far, it at least means that the fall “ceases to be an appalling sin and changes into a nonculpable misfortune.”[12] This has implications for our understanding of God too because this understanding of human nature and The Fall  ”does less than justice to the justice of God, who has then allowed his creature to be tempted beyond his power to resist.”[13] In other words, Adam and Eve cannot be blamed for sinning because they were not at the point of creation fully equipped to withstand the assault of the enemy. This though would also conflict with God commissioning Adam to keep or to guard the garden which suggests a level of responsibility for protecting creation against attack

The traditional Roman Catholic approach to human identity and divine image is known  as Spernaturalism .[14] As with Pelagius, the idea is that Adam was created innocent to a neutral, natural state.  There is then a state of glory based in infused grace  which is added to our natural state.[15] This is “a gift superadded to nature.”[16] Bavinck explains:

“Roman catholic theology has a dual conception pf humanity; humankind in the purely natural sense, without supernatural grace, is indeed sinless but only possesses natural religion and virtue and has his destiny on earth; humankind endowed with the superadded gift of the image of God has a supernatural religion and virtue and a destiny in heaven.”[17]

On this understanding, original righteousness is something that God added to Adam when he breathed life into him.  However, it was not something that was essential to his nature.  Rather, “Original righteousness can be lost because it is an incidental property (accident) of human nature, not part of its substance.”[18] The result of the Fall then would be that Adam and Eve reverted to their natural state, lacking glory but with their essential nature intact and uncorrupted. This view means Christianity is not about redemption but about “an elevation of nature.”[19]

The Reformation as well as challenging our view of Scripture and salvation also challenged our view of human nature.  If Calvin’s view that our knowledge of man is shaped by our knowledge of God and vice versa, then this means that the reformation also touched on our knowledge of who God is. 

The Reformed view is that Supernaturalism is wrong because “it led to a weakening of the doctrine of original sin.”[20]

“If by sin, by the loss of the image of God, man had become totally corrupt, it must also have belonged to his nature. Thus, Luther maintained ‘that righteousness was not a gift that came from without, separate from man’s nature, but … was truly part of his nature, so that it was Adam’s nature to love God, to believe God, to know God, etc.”[21]

However even the reformers “had to maintain an distinction between what was left and what was lost of the image of God.”[22] In other words, we cannot simply say that Total Depravity means that the image of God is lost completely because if it is not an added extra then it remains essential to the core of what it means to be human and distinct from creation. 

Lutherans responded to this challenge by  reference to what were termed natural and supernatural attributes of God with the former retained and the latter lost.[23] The danger is that this comes close to the Catholic idea of something superadded.

Reformed theologians prefer to speak “of the image of God in a broader and narrower sense.”[24] Note that in this context,  “the image extends to the whole person.”[25] This is important because it means that “the human body belongs integrally to the image of God.”[26] This is essential in countering Gnostic and dualistic concepts of humanity and the distinction between spirit and flesh.  As Bavinck comments:

“The body is not a prison but a marvellous piece of art from the hand of God Almighty, and just as constitutive for the essence of humanity as the soul (Job 10:8-12; Ps 139:13-17; Eccles 12:2-7; Isa 64:8).”[27]

Body and soul are therefore integrated so that:

“It is always the same soul that peers through the eyes, thinks through the brain, grasps with the hands and walks with the feet.”[28]

Our understanding then of being made in the image of God in a wider sense means that all humanity continues to carry that image, though note that we still have not completely defined what we mean by it.  However, in a narrow sense there was something lost, we fall short and are not able to show the image as we should. It is therefore helpful at this stage to consider how Jesus is the perfect, unfallen man who uniquely images God in the fullest sense.[29] Therefore, “what the Son is in an absolute sense, man is in a relative sense.”[30]

What is the image of God? Looking at the Genesis context

I find in the end that it is best to look to the actual text of Scripture in its context to tell us what it means. It has been observed that the idea of an image of a King or ruler would be replicated through statues around an empire and God’s people under Egyptian and later Babylonian and Persian rule would have been familiar with this feature of life under the rule of others.  It would have been great encouragement for God’s people to know that they bore his image and not that of Pharoah or Nebuchadnezzar.  To bear God’s image then is to represent him within this part of his kingdom.[31] WE are “God’s vice-regent on earth.”[32]

However, even that description is based on external information, although I do think it fits with the text.  The key thing in informing   our understanding of image bearing in Genesis 1 is the purpose for which God made man and woman and the blessing he game them.  This means that they bore his image in exercising dominion by ruling over creation, by subduing it and by filling it. Remember that unlike the other creatures, Adam and Eve are given a blessing that extends beyond one sphere of creation so that their presence would be felt in all corners of the earth. 

Furthermore, note that ruling by bringing order, structure and boundaries as well as filling by creating stars, plant life and creatures is what God does. It is in his commissioning of us to rule over, to subdue and to fill his creation that we display his image because this is how and where we are able to glorify him and enjoy him. Consider too the point that those who bear God’s image are, in the narrow sense, those who obey him so that we see Christ the one who was the perfectly obedient son.


Humanity exists as the pinnacle of God ;s creation because we were made to glorify him and to enjoy him forever.  We bear his image and display this by obeying his command and fulfilling his purpose for us in life on earth. Only Christ can truly and fully bear and reflect that image.  Yet as believers we are called now to imitate God and to follow Christ’s example so that this image is now restored in those who  belong to him

[1] Genesis 1:26 -28.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.3. (Beveridge, 1:163).

[3] Genesis 5:3.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 29-30

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.3. (Beveridge, 1:162).

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 532.

[7] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 533.

[8] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 534.

[9] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 534.

[10] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 534.

[11] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 538.

[12] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 539.

[13] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 538.

[14] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 539.

[15] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 539-540.

[16] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 540.

[17] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 541.

[18] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 546.

[19] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 547.

[20] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 548.

[21] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 548. The Luther quote is cited from M. Luther, Luther’s Works, vol.1: Lectures on Genesis 1-3, 165.

[22] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 548.

[23] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 548.

[24] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 554.

[25] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 555.

[26] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 559.

[27] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 559.

[28] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 559.

[29] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 533.

[30] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 2: God and Creation, 533.

[31] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 30-31.

[32] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 32.

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