Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the imago Dei and the Happy Life

Genesis chapter one reads:

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (vv. 26-28 NRSV)

This text is the origin of the biblical and theological understanding of human beings as made in the image of God (imago Dei). It is a doctrine with profound implications for our understanding of the meaning and value of human life. It is also a doctrine about relationships: the relationship between God and humanity; the relationship between human beings and the creation; and the relationship between the sexes—“in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

What I want to do here is to summarize a chapter entitled “The Image of God: A Theological Summary” from the book Created in God’s Image (Paternoster Press, 1986) by the late Reformed theologian Anthony A. Hoekema. And why am I doing this? Well, I find that over time I refer to this book quite a bit. It was my first introduction to the centrality of the imago Dei, and continues to be a touchstone to which I return. And the overall point is that the re-creation of the image of God in human beings is the goal of human life and the recipe for human happiness. Psychology has a definition. Aristotle had a definition. So does Scripture, and that definition is the imago Dei.

The Image of God: A Theological Summary

The entire constitution, every bit of a human being, mirrors and represents God. As a mirror reflects, so people should reflect God. When a human being is what he or she ought to be, others should be able to look and see something of God: something of God’s love, God’s kindness, and God’s goodness. Human beings also represent God. As God’s ambassadors to the world, humanity represents the authority of God, speaks for God, and should be wholly about the furtherance of God’s program in the world. And no one should neglect the body in this, for the body is absolutely necessary on both counts.

Structural and Functional Aspects

Does the image of God refer to something innate in the person—to what people are—or does it refer to actions—to what people do? Theologians have stressed one or the other aspect over the centuries.

Those who place the image in something innate, something in the structure of the human person have cherry-picked various capacities: reason, for example, or morality, religious sensitivity, responsibility, free will, and even aesthetics and creativity. Really, though, it is all of these. By the image of God in the broader or structural sense, we mean the entire endowments of gifts and capacities that inform what human beings do.

Now in the twentieth century, the stress has been on functional, on what people do; on human beings as they worship, serve, love, etc. Relationality is the key word; people are incorrigibly related, both to one another and to God. People aren’t just what they are, but are also what they do. This addresses a narrower slice of the human being, the relational slice, and so it is absolutely ethical, concerned chiefly with relationships. That means, of course, that in every way it should be informed and governed by the character of the triune God, who is relational in his very being.

Hoekema argues that both is and does, structure and function, should be taken together to circumscribe the whole of what is meant by the image of God. Yet, the structure he takes to be secondary and the functioning as primary. What we have (structure) is given for a purpose (function), and so it is the function which is more important (and it was the function that was lost).

God has created us in his image so that we may carry out a task, fulfill a mission, pursue a calling. To enable us to perform that task, God has endowed us with many gifts--gifts that reflect something of his greatness and glory. To see man as the image of God is to see both the task and the gifts. But the task is primary; the gifts are secondary. The gifts are the means for fulfilling the task. (73)

The biblical data is quite clear: even after the fall, the image of God remained in humankind, but it was also lost. And this division between structure and function allows us to see just how this could be. For the structure remained unchanged, but the function was twisted, broken, and perverted. Human beings were no longer related to God, and so, when that chief relationship left, its straightening and informing effect on all other acts and relationships was taken, too. Indeed, what makes sin so serious is precisely the fact that humanity now uses God-given and God-imaging powers and gifts to do things that are an affront to its maker. The image of God is not lost, but marred in fallen human beings—and that damage must be renewed even as the relationship is renewed.

Christ as the True Image of God

Jesus Christ is the image of God par exellence (Col. 1:15). Looking at him, we see what human beings as the image of God should be like. Obviously there are aspects to Jesus that are removed from us. Not many persons have joined to their human nature one that is fully divine. Yet, this divine nature doesn't really come into play here. We aren't asked to be God, but to image him, and so the human Jesus, being truly and completely human, is not removed from us. And what is imago about Jesus is not reason or intelligence, but, as Hoekema points out, love in action. Hoekema plots this in 3 directions.

  • Jesus was wholly directed toward God, (Matt. 26:39).

  • Jesus was wholly directed toward the neighbor, (Mark 10:45; John 15:13).

  • Jesus rules over nature, (Hoekema refers to Jesus's miracle-power over nature and the demonic).


These three directions prove quite helpful in our developing understanding. First, we saw that the imago takes in the complete human being both structurally and functionally. And now we see the whole person in action along three broad relationships. "In sum, from looking at Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God, we learn that the proper functioning of the image includes being directed toward God, being directed toward the neighbor, and ruling over nature" (75). (All three of these relationships can be found in our Genesis passage, and I hope you'll take a second and re-read it with them in mind.)

Human beings in This Threefold Relationship

Hoekema spend a few pages detailing each of the three relationships just mentioned, but we don't have the space for that. Instead, I'm going to pull out the best material from his discussion of each one.

To be a human being is to be directed toward God. Human life is entirely lived coram Deo--as before the face of God, in love, trust, obedience to him, in prayer and worship, thanksgiving and in public, familial, corporate, and even political action. This vertical relationship is basic to a Christian anthropology. Indeed, here is where we pick up that thread of criticism with psychological well-being.

All views of man that do not take their starting-point in the doctrine of creation and that therefore look upon him as an autonomous being who can arrive at what is true and right wholly apart from God or from God's revelation in Scripture are to be rejected as false. (76)

Human beings can never be "man-in-himself" (G. C. Berkouwer). We are responsible to God, and do all to and for the glory of God.

To be a human being is to be directed toward one's neighbor. "Male and female he created them," that's what the Genesis passage says. People are not complete in themselves, they need others. The imago doesn't exist alone, but in community with others--and though the marriage bond is discussed in this passage in Genesis, Hoekema and all other theologians do not limit the image to covenantal/sexual union. Jesus, after all, was never married. And in the life to come, when humanity will be totally perfected, there will be no marriage (Matt. 22:30). Human beings are incomplete apart from others.

Man's relatedness to others means that every human being should not view his or her gifts and talents as an avenue for personal aggrandizement, but as a means whereby he or she can enrich the lives of others. It means that we should be eager to help others, heal their hurts, supply their needs, bear their burdens, and share their joys, loving others as ourselves. It means that every human being has a right to be accepted by others, to belong to others, and to be loved by others. . . . Man's acceptance of and love for others is an assential aspect of his humanness. (78)

Note that here we discover an argument against racism or sexism that isn't rooted in 1960's-era rights-speak.

To be a human being is to rule over nature. The main thing here is that dominion does not mean what you think it means. We hear that as absolute power over, and for the purposes of fulfilling our wants. But, remember, the restored image of God always takes God's desires into account. The Hebrew roots behind the words in Genesis translated "subdue" and "have dominion" are more about gardening, shepherding, and cultivating than they are about the industrial revolution. And Hoekema is careful to say that this Genesis mandate includes the development of human culture "not only agriculture, horticulture, and animal husbandry, but also science, technology, and art." Theologians today are making much of the green-aspect of this part of the image; we should take care of the planet we're on, its flora, fauna, and wildlife. It is a better basis for ecological stewardship than arguments that either equate human beings with animal life, so that we should conserve because everyone has a right to a piece of the pie, or that try and motivate a green attitude by painting picture of ecological apocalypse. The Christian needs neither argument, but only that God be glorified in our use of his creation.

All three of these relationships are interrelated, and only human beings operate simultaneously in all three. They also reflect God's own being. Humanity's responsibility to and conscious fellowship with God reflects God's own love and fellowship with humanity. The relationship of human beings with others reflects God's own inter-Trinitarian life. And humanity's stewardship of the earth reflect God's own supreme dominion (see Psalm 8.5). The image of God flows out from human beings along these three planes, and it is within them that we perform the image.

Anyway, now we turn to the imago Dei as it has existed historically. In order to understand the imago, we have to understand it in the light of creation, fall, and redemption. Remember, though, all three of the above relationships exist at each stage.

The Original Image
Hoekema, following in the footsteps of theologians before him, wants us to know that human beings were not created as consummate, perfect images of God. They were, as it were, "in a state of integrity" but had not fully developed in the image of God. Theirs was a provisional existence that awaited a probationary test for completion. At this stage, see, there was still the possibility of sin. They were able not to sin (posse non peccare), but were not yet not able to sin (non posse peccare). Their image of God existed at a boundary, and God's command "not to eat of it" stood in the way of its perfection.

The Perverted Image
Alas, they sinned. The fall into sin does not annhilate the imago but perverts it. "The image in its structural sense was still there--man's gifts, endowments, and capacities were not destroyed by the Fall--but man now began to use these gifts in ways that were contrary to God's will" (83). In the place of the relationship to God, there appeared idols (Rom. 1:20-23), perversions of man's capacity for worshipping God. In the place of a loving relationship toward others, those relationships are selfish manipulations, or indifference, or alienation. "Hell is other people," (Jean-Paul Sartre).

He uses his gifts of speech to tell lies instead of the truth, to hurt his neighbor instead of helping him. Artistic abilities are often prostituted in the service of lust, and God-given sexual powers are used for perverse and debasing goals. Pornography and drugs have become big businesses; their purpose is not to help others but to exploit them. The motto of many in today's world seems to be, 'Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.' Man is still inescapably related to others, but instead of loving others he is inclined to hate them."

And, finally, human beings now exploit the earth for selfish purposes, exploiting and stripping it, polluting it and using its secrets to wage war. Human culture--literature, art, science, tecnology--magnifies the whole, praising it and its achievements instead of God.

The image is still there, but malfunctioning. Crippled all the way down. Corruptio optimi pessima: the corruption of the best is the worst.

The Renewed Image
It is the redemptive process, the ordo salutis that describes the restoration of the image. Human beings are set right again, so that they can properly function in those three relationships. All three persons of the Trinity are intimately involved. The ordo salutis, then, is this (and remember, though we list them they are actually a unitary work of God often occuring simultaneously to each other):

  • regeneration: by the preaching of the Word, the Spirit acts to make dead people alive again, placing them into living union with Christ. This is the cause of faith, and the beginning of every other part of the order of salvation.

  • conversion: confession of faith and act of repentance in the believer

  • justification: an instantaneous act whereby the sin and guilt of a believer are imputed to Christ and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer. The believer is made righteous.

  • adoption: believers in Christ become sons and daughters of God, joint-heirs with Christ of every blessing, with all the corresponding rights and priviledges.

  • sanctification: Pimarily the work of the Holy Spirit operating through Word and Sacraments, the restored image of God is manifested to greater and greater degrees.

  • glorification: The image is perfected in the new creation, and human beings, now dwelling in perfected bodies, no longer have to worry about sin, being now non passe peccare, not able to sin.


The renewal of the image of God involves a broad, comprehensive vision of the Christian view of man. The process of sanctification affects every aspect of life: man's relationship to God, to others, and to the entire creation. The restoration of the image does not concern only religious piety in the narrow sense, or witnessing to people about Christ, or "soul-saving" activities; in its fullest sense it involves the redirection of all of life. . . And is discovered in its richest form in Christ together with his church, or in the church as the body of Christ. (88, 89)

Finally, in this section, Hoekema spends some time making sure his reader understands that the renewal of the imago, though primarily accomplished by the Holy Spirit, is also a cooperation. We are encouraged to put to death our old self, to cast off sin, and to pursue holiness. The renewal of the image is something in which we take an active part. While in this present life, believers are genuinely new but not yet totally new. The image is breaking out through believers into the world, but it is not yet seen competely and perfectly in them.

The Perfected Image
The imago Dei in humanity will only shine out in perfected brilliance when believers are finally glorified. And glorification is not a return to Eden, but a fuller form of human being. Adam and Eve could never have been said to "partake of the divine nature." Just as Christ has been raised and glorified, so those in him will be raised and glorified--their image patterned after His. We can't say much about what this state will be like, but we can say that it will still include all three of those above-mentioned relationships. Hoekema goes to great lengths to stress a new creation that is full of variety and expression, creativity and energy, a world in which the imago Dei as it finds fulfillment in the whole of the perfected human race acts perfectly along all three of those dimensions.

In the life to come we shall see the image of God not only in its perfection but also in its completion. All of God's people, from every age and every place, resurrected and glorified, will then be present on the new earth, with all the God-reflecting gifts that hae been given them. And all of these gifts, now completely purged of sin and imperfection, will be used by man for the first time in a perfect way. Then, throughout eternity, God will be glorified by the worship, service, and praise of his image-bearers in a scintillating and totally flawless recreation of his own marvelous virtues. (101)


Concluding Observations
Hoekema's conclusing observations amount to three points. First, that we must always treat people in light of their destiny. Quoting C. S. Lewis: "It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit." And this should drive us to corporate holiness and also to mission in the face of perdition. I like this quote by John Calvin:

We are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, "he is contemptible and worthless"; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. (Institutes III.7.6)

Second, that the imago Dei should deeply inform how the church is and acts. "Our concern in evangelizing people is not just to "save people's souls," but to restore the image of God to its proper functioning in all of life, to the greater glory of God. And third, that sexual difference does not cease in the new creation. Not that sexual procreation will continue--Jesus was plain on this one--but that our sexuality, such an intimate part of our individuality, will not only be retained but enriched, and that the future community will demonstrate the complex wholeness of men and women properly related to each other. This is a strange ending, but one that affirms rather than denies God's creation, and though I don't understand in a logical way why God would continue male and female into the next world, I see that a neutered humanity is no real humanity at all.

The doctrine of the image of God touches so many aspects of the Christian life. The imago to me is the central "why" behind so much of Christian ethics and ecclesiology. Understanding this gives great value in seeing so many disparate ideas congealing underneath one great head. It is Christian anthropology, and it does not deny, or limit, but fulfills everything about human being and life, affirming human beings in their physical, psychological, spiritual, economic, cultural, and indeed in every portion of their lives.

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