I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

IMAGO DEI: Its Meaning, Implication and Application


A. The broader meaning of being made in God’s image lies in the simple fact that man is in a creaturely sense “like” God and “represents” God. So, in some sense man is an idol made in the image of the One who made him; a favor man has been try to reverse and return of ever since. Although man’s Fall severely defaced and distorted the image he bears, the particulars of the broader category are still residual in fallen man, every fallen man.

1. The fact that we are created “like” God means that man shares certain qualities that are similar to God himself. Such qualities may be set in three classes. Man is, in a creaturely capacity, like God metaphysically, mentally and morally. First, man is similar to God metaphysically. One factor that differentiates man from the rest of the created order is that he is a spiritual being;he is made irreversibly immortal, existing somewhere, for better of worse, forever. It is also this aspect of the image that allows us to enjoy fellowship with our Creator—loving, worshiping and sharing meaningful communication with him. This also indicates that there lies within man an immaterial reality to which he is responsible for maintaining and keeping properly orientated to and in the right relationship with God.

Second, man is similar to God in his mental capacities. For millennia man has sought to understand and explain, apart from the “image” factor, his dignifying ability to reason abstractly and discursively. From Plato’s idealism to today’s New Age “cosmic god—mind” and every philosophy and religion in between, has met utter failure in their search for the why and how of human rationality. However, Christian theism is not bankrupt in offering an answer to this question. Human reasoning, both inductive and deductive, in the biblical context makes perfect sense. The triune God of the Bible reveals himself as having all knowledge (omniscience). If, then, this God creates beings in his own image, they too would have knowledge, yet in a limited capacity—true knowledge, though not exhaustive. Also, God gives his creatures a mandate to explore and subdue the rest of created order expanding and adorning it to God’s glory, thus, man would require reasoning abilities for this task. The simplicity of the Christian’s answer for knowledge and rationality in no wise voids its profundity. Our answer is perhaps simple on the face of it, but the only other options are completely irrational, even at their deepest depths!

Lastly, man is a volitional creature sharing moral qualities with God.

Superficially, many other of God’s sentient creatures seemingly reflect some measure of morality (as many naturalistic atheists would be quick to point out). However, the actions and “decisions” of the brute creatures are not innately moral, they are learned behaviors based upon a fear of negative stimulus or in hope of the positive opposite. It is not so with man. A dog on a walk with its master does not stroll past an animal shelter and mourn the dilemma that faces dog-kind. Neither will a dog bark and growl in righteous indignation at the sight of another of the same species suffering at the end of a six foot long chain, being without food, water or shelter. Injustice means nothing to the lower animals; however, it is an aching reality in the very bosom of the image bearer. The only creature who knows and innately senses right-ness and wrong-ness is man, and the only reason is that he is “like” God morally.

In summery, the meaning of our being “God-like” has subtleties far beyond what is offered here, but most if not all may fit into these three categories: metaphysical, mental and moral.

2. The weight and responsibility of being “like” God is magnified by the fact that man is also created to “represent” God. In the historical context of the ancient Near East, the worldview into which Moses wrote, the term “image” would have communicated and “expressed the ‘presence’ of an absent lord (humanly speaking) in the sphere of his own dominion.” This observation helps us to view “image” in the way in which it would have been understood in its originally intended meaning. The trans-cultural nature of this understanding of “representative image” can be seen in Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees and Herodians over the Roman taxation of Palestinian Jews. Jesus escapes the horns of a dilemma by first pointing out the agreed upon premise: “Whose image and inscription is this?” “Caesar’s” they answered. Therefore, that which bears the Emperor’s “image” (KJV best) reflects his authority, control and presence where ever it is found in the empire (Mt 22:15—22). Jesus escapes the horns of this dilemma by arguing a fortiori, from the lesser (Caesar’s image on the denarius) to the greater (God’s image as stamped upon every human being), thus avoiding the implications of the dilemma posed to him—either the charge of blasphemy from the Jews on the one hand, or the charge sedition from the Romans on the other. Just as Caesar’s presence is represented in his “image” on every denarius, so too God is representatively present in every creature stamped with his own “image.”

Hence, given the goodness of man’s original constitution, it is as if one could have asked the Creator, “what are you like?” and God would have been able to point the inquirer to his image bearers and say, “That is what I am like, for man is the reflection and representation of myself on the earth.” In this our parents failed, as do we all; however, One did not. It is this facet of the “image bearing” that becomes the interpretive backdrop of passages that rightly say of Jesus in his humanity, he bears, perfectly and expressedly, God’s image (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3). Moreover, the same is true when Jesus tells Thomas: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14:7). Thus, we are also able to hear the “ring of truth” in Pilate’s proclamation: “Ecce Homo!” (“Behold, THE MAN!” Jn 19:5).

Therefore, God has given to man as part of the image bearing capacity the responsibility to represent him, the Creator. As God exercises his rule and dominion over the whole of the cosmos, God gives to man, as his viceroy, the role of reflecting that ruling glory over the earth (Gen 1:28; Ps 8:5—8; 115:16).

B. The narrow meaning of being created in the image of God speaks of the image bearing qualities lost at man’s Fall. A biblical view of man and things tells us, even if only intuitively and experientially, things are now abnormal—put out of rights with how they ought to be. Although the OT makes several allusions to ways in which the image of God has been corrupted and some capacities of it even lost when man fell, it is not until God’s revelation about man progresses to Paul’s epistles do we find the specifics.

Certainly one of the most fundamental goals of God’s plan of redeeming man is that they, individually and collectively, “be conformed into the image of his (God’s) Son” (Rom 8:29). Elsewhere, Paul tells us of three qualities which fit squarely into and mirror in a particular way the three categories mentioned above: metaphysical, mental, and moral. These would consist of “true (genuine, God-like) righteousness (moral) and holiness (metaphysical)” and “knowledge (mental) after the image of its creator” (Eph 4:24 and Col 3:10 respectively).

The language Paul uses in Eph 4; “renewed” (v. 23; cf. Col 3:10), “created,” “likeness” (v.24), as well as Col 3; “image of its creator” (v. 10), all points back to man’s originally “good” created constitution of our first parents as found in Gen 1 and 2. This is further bolstered by Paul juxtaposing the “old man” (Adamic) with the “new man” (renewed in, and like Christ). This is not to say that fallen man has utter lost all residual traces of righteousness, holiness and knowledge, for God, in his common grace and by way of man remaining in his image do still posses these characteristics, more or less given the individual, in some sense. However, unregenerate man, that is, fallen man as such, never ever bears them “in truth” (Eph 4:24, NASB), which is the only way God finds them acceptable. Hence, our regeneration in Christ, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, and our continued renewal and progressive conformity to Christ’s image is the integral part of God’s Great Plan to bring his whole creation back into a completely restored relationship to himself. The great joy believers know experimentally now points back to a time when things were right (Gen 1 -- 2) and forward to a time when they with be put to rights again (Rev 21 -- 22).


One implication of these reflections on the imago Dei is the responsibility of every image bearer to “be like...represent” God the Creator perfectly. This implication has great value and application in the task of defending and sharing the faith today.

Many of our modern evangelistic efforts are foiled by the sheer fact of our cultural/temporal setting. Our society is currently in what I call the final wave of the “Christian echo.” For instance, thirty to forty years ago a Christian could use terms such as God, sin, cross and salvation when speaking to an unbeliever because of the Christian heritage they both shared by virtue of living in a wave closer to the center of the Christian echo; thus, they shared in large measure an agreed definition of these terms. Today however, the Gospel proper; preaching sin, judgment, Christ’s death and resurrection, has little life transforming effect. This is not to say that the Gospel itself has lost effectiveness and must be changed to reach our generation. God forbid! Rather, it is to say that because most unbelievers no longer share any level of biblical literacy or the slightest understanding of the “Christian story” (the biblical plot-line; major turns in redemptive history, etc) the mere terms of the Gospel miss their mark in the heart and mind of the hearers. Allowing the sinner to translate and redefine the terms on the grounds of their own understanding of their “problem(s),” without filling those terms with biblical content and presenting them in the biblical context is a sure fire way to see hands go up and get cards signed; however, as I said, few of those lives will go on to bear any sustaining fruit of true conversion.

One Christian thinker identifies the people in this generation of the Christian echo as no longer having the “plausibility structure” in their thinking in which the Gospel terms may fit. For instance, to tell average person in America today that “Jesus died for them” might generate a response like this: “Well...that sounds really nice and all, but why would he need to go and do something like that?!?” “Well,” one might reply, “because God loves you!” Yet again, as amazing as that statement is to those of us who know man’s “real problem” and precisely how intrinsically unlovable we truly are, to the unbeliever today, they view themselves as worthy objects of God’s love by virtue of being born in America or some such thing. Attempting to hang the Gospel truths on the average unbeliever’s “plausibility structure” is like trying to drive a nail in a sheered sheet of granite. I would contend that today the terms of the Gospel must be presented in conjunction with the concepts and biblical definitions of those same terms. One such way is to begin by presenting the “Christian story” in its fullness, something that will start with the “image bearing” theme, and how that image looks today; even in their own life. Not until God’s own diagnosis of the problem is made clear in the mind of unbelievers will God’s wondrous gift of his own Son—the Solution to the image bearers problem—make real sense.

It is the image bearing capacity in man that makes sin recognizable for all its vile wickedness. If then, we are Created in God’s image and as such we are, creaturely speaking, like him and are to represent him as a dependant stand in here on earth, when we sin, even the “small ones,” its is nothing less than directly maligning of God’s name, character and holiness! Every person on earth has the responsibility to represent God in this capacity, to glorify the Creator through their rightly reflecting and representing him, thus, to sin is to tell the whole world that: “THIS IS WHAT GOD IS LIKE...HE IS A LIAR; HE HAS WICKED THOUGHTS; HE LUSTS; HE HATES WITHOUT CAUSE...ETC.” Now, this is not how we normally think of sin I know; but given the “image factor” how could it be anything less?!?

Once, therefore, this concept has found its mark in the image bearer one is attempting to evangelizing, the Gospel (God’s offer of a perfect substitute for their maligning representation of him) makes PERFECT sense!

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