A look at the “Image of God”

The biblical motif of the image of God, also known as the imago Dei, is a concept encountered early on in Scripture. It has been a part of major theological discussions for nearly two thousand years and its implications are important and widespread. Yet, at the same time the image of God is mentioned only a few times in the Bible, and is rarely specific. In trying to understand the image of God, certain questions arise: What does the Bible say about the image of God? What have theologians historically thought about the image of God? What are the implications of the different perspectives? These questions will be addressed as the image of God is looked at from a biblical, historical, and contemporary perspective. The biblical motif of the image of God is important to understand because it has great theological significance and important implications in how one relates to his neighbor and to God.


The image of God is clearly foundational to the biblical understanding of humanness and personhood. However, for being such a foundational doctrine, it really is not explicitly explained in Scripture. This has left theologians, exegetes, and scholars throughout the centuries to debate various interpretations of the passages in which it is mentioned. What is known for sure about the image of God is that humans are in some way like God. The Bible does not take the time to explicitly explain how man is like God. It merely tells us that he is indeed like God. In order to understand in what ways man is like God, one has to know what God is like. That understanding comes from discovering who He is throughout Scripture.[1]

Relevant Passages

There are really only a total of five very relevant passages in the Bible which help give the clearest understanding of how man is like God (Gen 1:26-27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jam 3:9). There are other passages such as Psalm 8 which indirectly talk about the image of God, but these five passages are the most explicit and the most helpful. The most often referenced passage, and rightly so, is Gen 1:26-27. Here the first human beings are seen made in the image of their Creator. God had created everything up to this point, including all the animals. Yet here there is a change in the pattern. Here, God references Himself and says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (ESV).” This change in structure indicates the fact that man is truly in a class of his own.[2] Verse 27 says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Here it is seen that not only man is made in the image of God, but both male and females are made in God’s image.

Genesis 5:1 affirms the fact that man was made in God’s image. Genesis 9:6 makes application of the truth by stating that murder is wrong because of the fact that man bears God’s image. The important aspect to note is that this commandment is mentioned post-fall showing that the image of God was not lost at the fall.

In the New Testament there are two texts which explicitly address the image of God as it is understood in Genesis 1:26-27. The word “image” is used 23 times, while “likeness” only appears once (Jam 3:9). There are ten references to image in Revelation and one in Hebrews which are not relevant in this context. There are nine occurrences in the Pauline letters, but only 1 Corinthians 11:7 is explicitly connected with the Genesis account.[3] In the Corinthians usage Paul is explaining that a man must not cover his head because he is the image of God, whereas a woman should cover her head because she is the glory of the man. Here, it is important to note two things: 1) Man is explained as not having the image of God, or being made in the image of God, but being the image of God. 2) Women, even though they are explained here as man’s glory, also are equally the image of God, as stated in Genesis 1:27. However, it is through the man that a woman shares in God’s image.[4]

When Paul refers to the word image, he usually is referring to our humanity which we have inherited from Adam, and which is transformed by Christ. He does not use it as the link that man has with God, which is very much how it is used in Genesis 1:26.[5]

James 3:9 is the only passage in the New Testament that explicitly mentions man’s “likeness” to God. Here James makes an argument similar to the one made in Genesis 9:6. Man should not be cursed with the tongue because they are made in God’s likeness.

The Gospels do not have a definitive passage which discusses the image or likeness of man to God. But in Matthew 22:20, Mark 12:16, and Luke 20:24 Jesus mentions man’s image when discussing paying taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees had tried to trap Him in His words, but Jesus asks them whose “image” is on the coin. They answer that it is Caesar on the coin. Jesus then says, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21 NIV).” Here Jesus could be intending to imply that just as the coins belonged to Caesar because his image was on them, so humans belong to God because His image is in them. This is not explicitly expressed, however, and so one cannot build too much upon these passages.[6]

Defining the Image of God

The task of defining the image of God is challenging because of its vagueness and scarceness within Scripture. Scripture just does not explicitly define the image of God. So perhaps it is better to define it as vaguely as Scripture does, while bringing out a few observations: 1) The image of God is a permanent aspect of all humans, not affected by the fall (Gen 9:6); 2) the image of God distinguishes us from other creatures and is a special characteristic of  humans (Gen 1:26); 3) both males and females are like God equally (Gen 1:27, 1 Cor 11:7); and 4) people are not to be degraded or killed because the image of God gives them value and dignity (Gen 9:6; Jam 3:9). These are generalizations that can be made from what Scripture gives explicitly. Of course, there are inferences which can be made from these passages and other less explicit passages to help in understanding of the image of God.


Throughout the centuries theologians have attempted to further define what the image of God truly is in man, and to thresh out its implications. In attempts to further define the image of God they go beyond the biblical text, but do use Scripture and logic to back their conclusions. However, there are many variations and differing conclusions of what it means to be made in God’s image and whether that image was damaged or removed by the fall.



Irenaeus believed that man was created in the image of God and in His likeness, but at the fall the likeness of God was lost while the image of God remained. He believed that this lost likeness of God can be restored. It occurs in believers through the process of redemption.[7] Irenaeus believed that it is only through Christ that a believer can be restored in likeness to God because Christ makes him one with God the Father.[8]

The image of God according to Irenaeus meant man’s “nature as a rational and free being, a nature which was not lost at the fall.”[9] The likeness was the “robe of sanctity” that the Holy Spirit had given to Adam.[10] Believers therefore have a body, soul, and spirit while unbelievers have only a body and a soul. This separation of image and likeness would be accepted for centuries and be very influential in the conventional understanding the image of God.


Augustine saw the clause “Let us make man in our image” as a reference to the Trinity. This, he felt, it had implications for the threefold nature of the human soul.[11] He also understood the image and the likeness to be two separate ideas. The image was the knowledge of the truth while the likeness was the love of virtue. He argued that if they meant the same thing, there would only be need for one word.[12]

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas also saw the image and likeness as two separate concepts. The image itself is rationality. Man was created with this ability, with this image of God. After man was created God gave him an extra gift, a donum superadditum, the likeness, understood as original righteousness. Therefore, man is understood not to have been created righteous per se, but was morally neutral. Adam’s fall resulted in the loss of this original righteousness. He fell back to that original moral level in which he was created. It is in this state that man, because of his free will, is able in some way to please God.[13] This interpretation would be hugely influential in the Roman Catholic Church and still is even unto this day.

Aquinas believed that the image of God does exist in some sense in all people, just at different intensities. He simply believed the image of God is not always equally as bright in all people. Aquinas’ view limits the image to the realm of man’s intellectual nature. He had a weak view of the fall’s seriousness and of the goodness of man before the fall.[14]

Martin Luther

For over fifteen centuries the image and likeness found in Genesis 1:26 were generally believed to be two separate ideas. Whole doctrines and philosophies were born and based from this understanding. It was not until the 16th century that the skilled exegete Martin Luther explained that the two ideas were in fact not different at all.[15] Luther explained that the “image” and “likeness” in Genesis 1:26 do not have different referents and that this is simply a common instance of Hebrew parallelism. Therefore, there truly is no significant difference between image and likeness.[16]

John Calvin

According to Calvin, the image of God lies primarily in the soul, but also includes the body.[17] Generally, Calvin felt that the image of God was obliterated by the fall, yet sometimes he mentioned that there are remnants of the image of God within us. His focus was almost entirely focused on the renewal of the image of God through Christ.[18]


There are three basic interpretations of the image of God: the substantive (or ontological), relational, and functional view. Up to this point the substantive view has really only been addressed. This is historically the widest accepted view. This view holds that the image of God is identified as having definite characteristics or qualities within the makeup of the human.[19] Some, such as the Mormons, go as far as to state that the image of God is physical.[20] This is not the most common view by any means, but it does have historical roots reaching back to people such as Justin Martyr.[21]

What is common within the substantive view is isolating the image of God within the psychological or spiritual makeup of a human being.[22] Historically the emphasis has been on man’s ability to reason, but this has changed and skewed slightly in the recent post-modern, post-Christian age of the west. Yet, the focus remains still on man’s ability to think and to understand.

Within the realm of psychology, psychologists explain that man is born with the ability to understand the reality around them. Studies have shown that babies as early as two weeks old are able to communicate with other people in consistent and realistic ways. Not only are these babies able to learn and solve puzzles, they take pleasure from doing so. Today people argue that such studies show the fact that humans differ from animals in this way, and use such studies to say that the image of God really is wrapped up in man’s ability to reason.[23]

The Relational View of the Image of God

In the twentieth century, theologians such as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner began challenging traditional views of the image of God. They did not see the image of God as something that man has or is. They believed that the image of God was experienced through relationship. Barth rejected the idea of the image being reason, attributing it to Aristotle who defined man as “a being gifted with reason.”[24] Barth, when discussing Genesis 1:26-27 in his Church Dogmatics, said, “Could anything be more obvious than to conclude from this clear indication that the image and likeness of the being created by God signifies existence in confrontation?” For Barth, the image of God was about the confrontational relationship between man and man, man and woman, and ultimately man and God. According to Barth, this relational aspect between man, God, and others defines what it means to be human and therefore was not lost in the fall. Therefore, there can then be no such thing as the renewal of the image of God.[25]

Brunner said that it is only when one has faith in Jesus Christ that one fully possesses the image of God. He agreed with Barth that the image was not reason. Reason for Brunner is simply a tool to experience a relationship with God. He split the image into two senses, the formal and the material. The formal aspect deals with such aspects as freedom, reason, conscience, and language. The material image of God is man’s act of response, the relationship with God. The formal aspect was not affected by the fall according to Brunner, but a person may or may not have the material sense of the image of God.[26]

The Functional View of the Image of God

The functional view differs from the substantive and relational view in that the image of God is not something one has or the experiencing of a relationship, but rather something one does, most specifically, exercising dominion over creation. As Barth and Brunner drew on existentialism, the functional view draws on philosophical functionalism or pragmatism.[27] The focus is very much upon Genesis 1:26-28 where man is seen made in God’s image “so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground (Gen 1:26b, NIV).” As God is Lord over all creation, humans reflect the image of God by exercising their dominion over creation. In this view, the image of God is truly the image of God as Lord.[28]


The image of God remains for me something that cannot be completely defined. As God cannot truly be defined by only a few attributes, I believe that His image within man cannot be completely understood in simply one realm. Because the Bible does not draw out on the implications, we are left to compare and contrast with animals and with God. When we contrast ourselves with animals, it is obvious that we are indeed the only being that has the capability to truly reason. When we compare ourselves with God we find significance in relationships. We are the only beings that can truly experience relationships and love.

I understand the image of God to be who we are as humans. We are the image of God, not simply in the image of God (1 Cor 11:7). There is also the possibility that Genesis 1:26 could be rendered “Let us make man as our image,” as well as in verse 27. In reality, to be in the image and to be the image itself is not really any different. So in this sense I take the substantive view of the image of God. At the same time I also acknowledge the fact that man was indeed made in the image of a working God. God had just made the universe before making man, and man was created to exercise dominion over all creation. God is at work all the time and we are His image. Yet, at the same time, the image of God is not this work. Both structure and function should be included in understanding the image of God.

The body should be included in some way as well, but only to the extent that we are our body. We can exist apart from the body, but at the same time the body cannot be completely left out because it has a part in what makes up a person. Our bodies may just be tents for our time here on earth, but one day we will have incorruptible bodies for eternity (1 Cor 15:42-49).

Practical Implications

If we are made in God’s image, or if we are His image, then there are some very practical implications. The image of God gives value to every single person on this earth. This has strong implications for the medical field and within ethics. If everyone has the image of God, then killing babies (abortion) or the elderly and handicapped (euthanasia) is murder. The fact that everyone is given dignity and value by being made in His image sheds light on the sins of slavery and racism. There are wicked sins which take place within society when the image of God is not valued in others.

This is not just a grievous sin within the world. It is found it the church. It is naïve to think it does not. We are very good at acknowledging the truth of the image of God as a doctrine, but very poor at living it out. As James said, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:9-10, NIV).”

For the last three years my home church has taught VBS from Genesis 1. All three of these years I have taught first graders. We teach them about creation and that they are made in the image of God. But at the end of every day we reward either the boys or girls, whoever memorized more Scripture, brought more friends, etc., by smashing a pie in a leaders face, or making an ice cream sundae on their head.  We teach them one thing with our words, and then teach them something completely different with our actions. Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words.

God made both male and female in His image. I believe that in a certain sense God incorporates both genders. Without both males and females we would not have as full of an understanding of who God is. Although Scripture clearly shows that men and woman are different in many ways, one aspect in which they are not different is that they both are made in God’s image and share His likeness. This means that to treat one gender with less respect than the other is wrong. Both have been made in His image. Children also equally share the likeness of God. This has implications for understanding other doctrines such as the priesthood of all believers.


There are many more implications that can be drawn: belonging to God, Jesus as the perfect example, work being good, etc. But it is clear that the biblical motif of the image of God is very important as it relates to humanity because of the theological significance and the important implications in how one relates to his neighbor and to God.

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 442.

[2] Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; and United Kingdom: Paternoster, 1994), 12.

[3] Brian S. Rosner et al., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity & Diversity of Scripture (IVP Academic, 2000), 576.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anthony Hoekema, 33.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt, trans. Ilive Wyon (New York: Scribner, 1939), 93.

[10] Hoekema, 34. Also see Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, III.23.5.

[11] Rosner, 576.

[12] Gordon H. Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man, (Jefferson: Maryland, 1984), 11-12. Also, see Augustine’s Summa Theologica.

[13] Clark, 12-13.

[14] Hoekema, 34-35.

[15] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 523.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hoekema, 42.

[18] Ibid, 43.

[19] Erickson, 520.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Clark, 11.

[22] Erickson, 521.

[23] Paul D. Ackerman, In God’s Image After All: How Psychology Supports Biblical Creationism (Baker Pub Group, 1990), 49-54.

[24] Hoekema, 49-50.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Erickson, 524.

[27] Ibid., 529.

[28] Ibid., 528.

Published by Andrew

a ragamuffin dad planting some sequoias

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