WHAT IS THE IMAGE OF GOD IN MAN?

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There are three biblical categories concerning the image of God in man. They are termed the substantive, relational, and functional views. In this essay, I will explain both the strengths and weaknesses of each view, how my understanding of the image of God has been shaped by them, and why these perspectives can help us better understand our true humanity.

The substantive view believes the image of God is found in the psychological or spiritual nature of humans, especially reason. They often quote Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” to validate their position.  Thomas Aquinas was a strong advocate of this view because he thought the cognitive, cerebral aspect of humanity is most like God than any of the lower animals of creation.[1]

Irenaeus and Origen, two early church Fathers, also suggested that the substantive view clarify the difference between image and likeness. Image was something bestowed at the creation of humankind, while likeness was only a potential of what humans were to become. When Adam fell into sin, he lost the likeness yet continues to retain the image of God today.[2] Therefore, all advocates of the substantive view believe that the best way to know God is to look within ourselves since it is a definite characteristic within the makeup of the human.

The relational view argues that being created in the image of God is not merely found in the structural qualities of human nature. Instead, humans display the likeness of God when they are in relationship with both God and people. When we turn to God and reflect His nature, it’s similar to standing in front of a dim mirror, only seeing partially, but once we grow in our relationship, the image of God gets clearer over time. The apostle Paul clarifies this idea in his letter to the church at Corinth: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).”

Moreover, the relational view contends that the Triune God, composed of three distinct persons, yet one in essence, fulfills the I-Thou relationship. Renowned Theologian Karl Barth argued that both within God and the human, an ‘I” and “Thou” confront each other, not as solitary individuals, but as two or more persons confronting each other. Thus, the image of God does not exist in what we are but rather what we do—creating relationships with both our male and female counterparts and the Creator of the universe.[3]

The last biblical category of the image of God in man is called the functional view. It claims that the image is not some innate quality within the human or the relational experience with God and others. Instead, it is a human function—something one does. In Genesis 1:27-28, immediately after the “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” the text declares: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This is a functional commandment that God gives to both Adam and Eve. Just as God is the Lord over all creation, humans ought to reflect His Lordship by exercising dominion over the rest of creation.[4]

Two words are used in Genesis 1:28 to describe this relationship of man to nature: subdue and have dominion. These verbs tells us that man is to explore the resources of the Earth, cultivate its land, take care of the animals, and also develop science, technology, and art for the glory of God. Advocates of the functional view call this the cultural mandate: “the command to develop a God-glorifying culture.”[5]

I believe that all three views have a valid argument for what it means to be created in the image of God. The relational outlook helps illustrate the theological importance of the Trinity. The substantive view makes it clear that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God because of our innate will, ability to love, and rationality. Lastly, the functional perspective demonstrates our ability to utilize the natural resources given to us by our Creator. All of these viewpoints put together give us a holistic assessment on the image of God in man.

[1] Millard Erickson, Systematic Theology, p. 521

[2] Ibid., p.522

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T. Clark, 1958), vol. 3, part 1, pp. 197-98.

[4] G. C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962) p. 70.

[5] Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p.79.

One comment

  1. Once again, you’ve taught me some things. I am glad you added that last sentence culminating in your assessment. In understanding what the image of God in mankind is, I too can see benefits from each view, though I feel each view individually is incomplete for a full understanding. I’m wondering if there is yet another view, which includes elements of these, but also maintains that, we too, are spiritual beings, though at present confined in a body of flesh. Every spirit was created to exists for eternity, either with God or separated from Him. Separation is the key to understanding the two biblical terms for “death.” In physical death, the soul is separated from the body. In spiritual death, the soul and spirit are separated from God forever. God is Spirit, and when a person is born they too are given a spirit. It is this similarity that I find missing in all of the above. Blessings.

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