The Image of God in Man: A Proposed Working Definition

I believe the most important conviction that a person can have is his belief about God, and second to that is his supposition about man. These two beliefs influence all other ideas and actions. By beliefs about God and man, I do not mean what one claims to believe, but rather what one actually believes to be true about each. My focus in this article is the image of God in man. In our quest to be consistent Christians, our view of the image of God in man should affect our theology, ministry, philosophy, evangelism rubric, politics, pedagogy, penology, criminology, parenting, sociology, psychology, jurisprudence, etc. In reality, these discussions are, whether stated or unstated, pedestaled upon one’s view of man.

For example, most of us are aware of the battles in jurisprudence between those who view criminals as responsible for their crimes (while other variables may have influenced them, they did not make them commit their crimes) and others who portray them as victims of irresistible antecedents. These two perspectives are based upon opposing views of the nature of man. The former is historically known as the classical view as formulated by Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), and the latter is known as positivism, a school that was composed of several Italians that is now most associated with Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909).[1] Beccaria emphasized things like the free will of man and punishment should fit the crime whereas Lombroso argued for a biological theory of crime; therefore, he replaced the theory of man being both material and immaterial with a more naturalistic view of man (no image of God) and replaced free will with determinism. Consequently, punishment should fit the criminal rather than the crime, i.e. indeterminate sentences.

Similarly, we see the medicalizing of morality based upon the same biological view of the nature of man, so that man is viewed as neither right nor wrong but only as either healthy or sick. Thus he needs to be treated as one who is sick rather than wrong, evil, or sinful. Hopefully, it is easy to see how this not only destroys culture, but hardens people to the gospel since they are not really responsible for their actions, which of course means they do not deserve judgment nor need forgiveness but only a rather large aspirin. This also taints their view of God, for what kind of God would send someone to hell for merely having a sickness like cancer? This is just one example of how our view of man must be clearly biblical in our discussions in every area of life and ultimately impacts our communication of the gospel.

It sometimes appears that what is offered as characteristics of the Image of God (Imago Dei) in man are also characteristics of either animal, angels, or both. Consequently, if there is nothing unique to man, then we are actually left without a description of the image. This left me seeking to develop a working definition of the image that recognizes some similarities with angels or animals but also some essential categorical or degree dissimilarities as well.

Systematic theologians like Charles Hodge, John Calvin, and Millard Erickson offer very helpful insights, surveys, and thoughts regarding the image of God. My intent is not to replace those, but rather to suggest a working definition that enables Christians to apply this essential truth in everyday life and to be equipped to answer some difficult questions regarding Scripture and life. The reason for various conclusions about what constitutes the Imago Dei is that, as Erickson notes, “there are no direct statements in Scripture to resolve the issue.”[2]

Please consider the following. First, within Christianity, some claim that the image was destroyed in the fall of Adam and Eve, while others believe that it is corrupted, but not destroyed or eradicated. The explanation that I offer seeks to incorporate each of these opinions. Second, I believe an essential component of the Imago Dei is libertarian free will with “otherwise” choice [3]. As far as the fall of man, this means that whatever choice Adam did in fact make, he could have chosen otherwise. Third, this type of working definition is always tentative. The goal is to provide a working model. Lastly, I have sought to include various aspects that may be considered essential to the image for some while consequences or manifestations of the image to others because they are not contradictory but merely classified differently. The following is my working definition.

Man was created in the image of God, which means at least this: man is God’s representative; man is the product of special creation by God, which included God’s bestowal of some of His divine attributes (Genesis 1:26-28, 5:1). This did not make man God or a god, but rather the unique image-bearer of God. Infants have these attributes in essence—infant form—and nurturing is to develop this essence as well as the child’s physical being.

This image consists of at least: righteousness, holiness, right relationship with and true understanding of God, man, and the rest of creation; sacredness of all human life, “otherwise” choice (libertarian free will and the ability to act contra-instinctually), a sense of justness (now often evidenced by humans’ quest to justify self); moral and spiritual consciousness, extraordinary rationality (including self-awareness and intricate abstractional ability); relational complexity (need to give and be loved involving more than being instinctually relational); compassionate and merciful dominion (ability to exercise delegated authority); creation of other image bearers (procreation); redeemability; ability to exercise trust (seen within the Trinity and essential to all higher-level relationships); and creative ability (e.g. ability to transform matter into wealth for survival, pleasure, or beauty as seen in creation and creative production beyond necessities in the Garden).[4]

While some of these are similar to attributes of angels and animals who are created by God but are not created in His image, other attributes are either essentially dissimilar or dissimilar by an unattainable degree. Attributes that are essentially dissimilar are therefore undeniably not from anyone or anything other than the direct creation of God (e.g. Darwinian descent). Some that are not possessed by angels include redeemability, relational complexity, and procreating image-bearers. Also, the creative ability may not be possessed by angels or may not be possessed in the same degree and complexity as man. Animals do not include those attributes as well as righteousness, true understanding of God, man, and creation; a sense of justice; morals, rationality; spiritual consciousness; compassion; libertarian and counter instinctual choice; and creative ability.

Although man was created in the image of God, man sinned (Genesis 3:1-6), and the image of God in man was changed. The following seeks to explain how the image was changed.

The narrow sense of the image of God includes righteousness, holiness, and right relationship with God. In the narrow sense, the image of God was destroyed. These attributes of the image did not remain in any sense after the fall of man. If man was to ever possess them again, God would have to recreate them through a redemptive and creative act, which He now offers through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:9-10).

The extensive sense of the image of God includes the rest of the attributes of the image of God. In this extensive sense, the image was not utterly destroyed in the fall and therefore still exists in man (Genesis 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9); however, these attributes are corrupted and beyond human repair. Consequently, these still exist in man albeit in disfigured, diminished, and perverted form.

In these areas, we still imitate God, albeit in a very diminished and distorted way. For example, in the area of cognition, Alvin Plantinga reminds us that, “We resemble God not just in being persons, who can think and feel, who have aims and intentions, who form beliefs and act on those beliefs, and the like; we resemble God more particularly in being able to know and understand something of ourselves, our world, and God himself.”[5]

Now, this cognitive ability is corrupted, not totally reliable, and can be used for evil, but it is still real and not imaginary. The same can be said of the other extensive attributes of the image of God. Therefore, fallen man still bears the image diminutively and correspondingly manifests the attributes of the image. Redemption in Christ is the only path to full restoration of the image of God (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

With a biblical view of man-made in the image of God, with some of the image destroyed and some corrupted, Christians can speak most accurately and comprehensively about the destructiveness of man (murder, rape, lying, narcissism, personal sinfulness, blasphemy, etc.,) thereby helping people to see not only the truth of the gospel but their personal need as well. Christians can do this without ignoring the magnificent accomplishments of man (technology, music, medicine, etc., which many seek to hide man’s sinfulness behind) that evidence being created in the image of God rather than merely being a product of Darwinian common descent.

[1] Sue Titus Reid, Crime and Criminology, (New York: CBS College Publishing, 1985), 72-76.
[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1984), 513.
[3] One could have chosen otherwise than he did, in fact, choose i.e. could have chosen to act or refrain. This does not always or necessarily include or imply “contrary” choice. Man did not lose his libertarian free will in the fall, but the range of options changed. He can choose between options in many areas, but he is unable to make a spiritually restorative decision, on his own, without grace enablements, which God provided in his redemptive plan so that every person can accept Christ as savior.
[4]Matter becomes a resource when it comes in contact with humans; before such creative contact, it is just raw matter.
[5] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.

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Ronnie W. Rogers