The Image of God

There is a universal tendency found in every culture. Regardless of time or place humans have believed in the existence of a higher reality; a greater force that exceeds the human race collectively. Today, it is often suppressed and distorted by a minority, for the majority of the population, however, there still exists an internal sense of deity that is continuously present and functioning in the human experience. Moreover, for the psalmist, there also exists a universal language providing constant evidence of the greatness of this deity evident in nature.[1] “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1).

In the book of Genesis, creation reached its zenith when God created man in his image. The fact that human beings were created in the image of God has important ramifications for not only morality, but for what it means to be human. The Creator, God, has separated animals from humanity by imprinting his image on the soul of every human. Moreover, he has extended his lordship over the world through his image bearers, who were charged with governing it for God’s glory.[2] God’s commandment of “fill the earth” in Genesis, demonstrates how God would expand His presence beyond the Garden to cover the whole earth. Psalms 8 supports this narrative disclosing that, “God’s ultimate goal in creation was to magnify his glory throughout the earth by means of his faithful image bearers.”[3] The image bearers, however, failed in their obligations by allowing sin to enter the Garden. Nevertheless, it seems God had a plan for restoration as well. This article will examine biblical references dealing with the image of God, key issues, and how it progressed from the Old to the New Testament.

The Image of God and Ethics

Thomas Aquinas developed many key aspects in Christian theology. He is best known for his argument “Five Ways,” which were evidence for the existence of God.[4] Aquinas also contributed to theology regarding the image of God. He believed that the image of God was located in man’s soul.[5] He also viewed the natural world as a place of divine presence. For Aquinas, God is present in all of creation. He writes:

God exists in everything; not indeed as part of their substance or as an accident, but as an agent is present to that in which its action is taking place…Now since it is God’s nature to exist, he must be who properly causes existence in creatures, just as it is fire itself sets other things on fire. And God is causing this effect in things not just when they begin to exist, but all the time they are maintained in existence, just as the sun is lighting up the atmosphere all the time the atmosphere remains lit.[6]

Aquinas is describing the continuation of God’s creative act. However, the only creatures made in the image of God are intelligent or spiritual, with the capacity to know God and receive his wisdom. Humans are the only creatures in God’s creation to fit this criterion. The intellectual life, according to Aquinas, focuses on reason and will, leading to a shift in the image of God in man. The relation between intelligence that allows for the capacity of speech and the development of ideas unite reason with will to produce free will. Thereby, placing the image of God in the power of humans to act morally responsible. For example, free will, according to Aquinas, is progressively formed in humans to produce moral acts consistent with the image of God. The freedom developed in this process is imperfect, that is, free will agents can still sin, but as the process continues and humans make an effort to conform to the image of God, the stronger the will becomes to deny sinful acts.[7] Thus, humans have the capacity to make ethical choices that correspond to the image of God.

The Source for Morality

Humanity’s morality and motives for seeking justice are the byproduct of God’s creation that originated when man was created in God’s image. The moral code that dwells in man was installed at Creation.[8] This is evident in Scripture when God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God…” (Gen. 1:26-27). And when He told Israel, “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about the ground. I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore, be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45). Thus, moral obligations must be understood in terms of their connection to God’s requirements for his creation.

A key issue or problem regarding morality with respect to contemporary culture is the source of morality. For Christians, the source is clearly God. However, for those who reject God, articulating moral obligations becomes difficult. A popular view in secular society for explaining moral obligations is that of cultural relativism. The philosophy behind cultural relativism views moral obligations in terms of social approvals and disapprovals. For example, the actions deemed acceptable for a given culture within society will be taught and indoctrinated into the youth of that culture. Hence, action designated right or wrong will vary from culture to culture. Moreover, in a society that adheres to cultural relativism, there exists no transcendent moral obligations for humans, because God and his requirements do not exist.[9] This creates a serious problem for cultural relativism. Since there does not exist a higher moral authority for evaluating the value of an action, a culture that practices infanticide, racism, or genocide, could not be condemned by other cultures that did not practice such actions. By rejecting objectivity, God, or the biblical claim of being created in the image of God, which was integrated in humanity at creation, it allows for the possibility of a destructive culture within society. For example, the moral beliefs and practices of Nazi Germany could not be criticized by other cultures under the philosophy of cultural relativism.[10] However, when a culture uses God as the standard to evaluate its morality, the need for moral change becomes apparent. In the Old Testament God is revealed as perfect, and the same characteristics (God’s image) are expected among his human subjects (image bearers).[11] Moreover, perfection was not exclusive to morality, priests were required to be without physical blemish in the Old Testament, for example (Lev. 21:16-23).

The Cappadocian Fathers, when addressing the image of God and morality, support the idea of God as being the standard for evaluating morality in societies. Regarding creation and man as God’s image bearer, Gregory of Nyssa argued, “neither the heavens nor the moon nor the sun nor the beauty of the stars nor any of the other phenomena of creation,” could claim the title given to man in Genesis, “image of God.”[12] Gregory of Nazianzus directed the following at government officials, “You are the image of God, and you rule over those who are the image of God!”[13] He made it clear that the doctrine of the image of God was key to societal ethics.[14] Something which cannot be inferred in secular philosophy regarding morality, articulated by C. Stephen Evans is: “A God who provides the basis for moral obligations must be understood as a moral being, a being who cares deeply about the realization of moral values.”[15]

Progressive Development of the Image of God

References in the Old Testament have already been noted regarding God’s perfection and his expectation for his image bearers, they are to be holy, as He is holy. The same sentiments are present in the New Testament. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Paul argued that those who were called by God to be his people, were to separate themselves from unrighteous things and be perfectly holy.[16] “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers…For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore, come out from them and be separate.’ Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 6:14-17, 7:1). The same concepts are also found in 1 Thessalonians. “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thes. 4:7).  In Ephesians, a reference is made to the Old Testament by Paul regarding God’s requirement of spotlessness and free from blemish. Paul was instructing husbands on how their wives were to be treated. However, undertones from the Old Testament regarding perfection are evident in the text. For example, Paul stated, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25-27). Paul’s words are harmonious with the passage in Leviticus’s narrative regarding requirements for priests (Lev. 21:16-23). Furthermore, the passages in the creation story and the analogy that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians regarding husbands, wives, and the image of God, is another example of the progressive development of the image of God, transparently reflected in his analysis.[17] “A man ought not cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (1Cor.11:70). Paul explains his argument by reflecting on the story in Genesis, that is, the woman being created for man.

Conclusion

God’s perfection is revealed in Scripture and because he installed a moral code in man at Creation, He requires man to be guided by this code (God’s Image) as man acts as a representative for God’s glory in the world. Beagle and Kim agree, humans were created in the image of God to represent his presence in the world. Adam and Eve were the first to be equipped with this moral code, God’s image. They were to rule in the Garden as God’s representatives. However, when they sinned, the image of God became distorted and the image bearers were no longer acting as the representatives they were called to be. Thomas Aquinas concurred, he believed that original sin nearly destroyed the image of God in humanity, resulting in the depravity of intellect and the bondage of will.[18] Still, God’s image was not completely removed from them. Free will, according to Aquinas, which had been issued to humanity at creation, began to progressively form in humans to produce moral acts consistent with the image of God. The freedom developed in this process is not perfect, but as the process continues and humans make an effort to conform to the image of God, the stronger the will becomes to deny sinful acts. This makes it obvious; humans have the capacity to make objective moral decisions based on the image of God.

In the New Testament, the image of God was restored through the perfection of Jesus Christ and his atonement. Thus, the image of God, as it applied to humans, was restored and extended back to them by God’s grace, so they could represent more clearly the image of God in the world. Concepts regarding the image bearers’ responsibility (reflect God’s image) in the Old Testament are present in the New Testament as well. They can be found by comparing the Old and New Testaments. “…God created man in his own image, in the image of God…” (Gen. 1:26-27), and “…be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45). Jesus stated, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Paul argued that those who were called by God to be his people, were to separate themselves from unrighteous things and be perfectly holy. These concepts show a progressive development of the image of God as it is restored in humanity through Christ’s atonement. Finally, any standard for judging morality that does not bear God’s image often has devastating consequences for society. Objective morality is difficult to fathom, perhaps impossible, without the image of God, which exists within the soul of humanity.

Bibliography

Beale, G. K., and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Edwards, Denis. “Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).” In Christian Understandings of Creation: The Historical Trajectory, 131-50. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1tm7hq2.10.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Evans, Stephen C. and Manis, Zachary R. Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. “The Ordering Symbol: The Restored Image of God in Man.” InDonne’s “Anniversaries” and the Poetry of Praise: The Creation of a Symbolic Mode, 108-141. Princeton University Press, 1973. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0xfb.8.

McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought 2nd ed. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. “The Image of God.” In Christianity and Classical Culture: TheMetamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. 120-35. Yale University Press, 1993. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bt32.13.

Schreiner, Thomas R. The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and NewTestaments. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Servais Pinckaers, et al. “Ethics and the Image of God (1989).” In The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology. edited by Berkman John and Titus Craig Steven. 130-143. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005. https://www.org.stable/j.ctt3fgpz5.13.

“The Image of God.” Life of the Spirit (1946-1964) 6, no. 61 (1951): 27-29.http://www.jstor.org/stable/43704048.


Notes:

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 124-125.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) 5-6.

[3]G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 35.

[4] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 91.

[5] “The Image of God,” Life of the Spirit (1946-1964) 6, no. 61 (1951): 28, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43704048.

[6] Denis Edwards, “Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).” In Christian Understandings of Creation: The Historical Trajectory, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2017), 132, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1tm7hq2.10.

[7] Servais Pinckaers, et al., “Ethics and the Image of God (1989),” in The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology, edited by Berkman John and Titus Craig Steven (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 34, 37-38, https://www.org.stable/j.ctt3fgpz5.13.

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed., 257.

[9] C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 89.

[10] Ibid., 90.

[11] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 257.

[12] Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Image of God,” in Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale University Press, 1993), 123, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bt32.13.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 96.

[16] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 257.

[17] Vernon S. McCasland, “The Image of God According to Paul,” Journal of Biblical Literature 69, no. 2 (June, 1950), 85, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3262077.

[18] Barbara K. Lewalski, “The Ordering Symbol: The Restored Image of God in Man,” in Donne’s “Anniversaries” and the Poetry of Praise: The Creation of a Symbolic Mode, (Princeton University Press, 1973), 118, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0xfb.8.

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