Imago Dei is Latin, but in English we translate it to “Image of God.”
You and I were made in the image of God; at least that’s what Scripture says—but what does it mean to be made in the image of God?
Let’s start with stating what imago Dei does not mean.
Imago Dei is not a ‘role’ to fulfill
In the past few months, I’ve come across this idea several times: the image of God is a role for us to fulfill—we become the image of God insomuch as we fulfill the cultural mandate: having children, gardening the earth, and caring for creation. If we do these things, we are portraying God to his created order and being the image of God. However… this simply cannot be. “Image of God” or a parallel is stated explicitly only four times in Scripture.
- First: Genesis 1.26-28
- Second: Genesis 5.1
- Third: Genesis 9.6
- Fourth: James 3.9
The first is the account of creation itself, before sin had entered the world. The second is at the head of genealogy after the fall. The third is a statement after the flood concerning the sacredness of life. And the fourth is much later and is mentioned with the power of words.
It is true that after the first and third, specific mention is given to the cultural mandate, but it significant that three of the occurrences are after the fall—the time in which man certainly failed to ‘fulfill his role.’ Further, occurrence three and four have a particular ethical dimension applicable (apparently) to all humankind:
‘Do not kill [any] man for [any] man is made imago Dei.’
‘Do not curse [any] man for [any] man is made imago Dei.
Is this an argument from silence? In part, yes—but as C.S. Lewis [I believe] stated, an argument of silence is valid if there should be some voice in its place. If the image of God was something that could be lost or maintained by virtue of actions we do, then we ought to expect at least 1.) warning about losing it, 2.) distinction between God-fearers/God-haters by means of imago Dei language, 3.) an account of the fall from image of God in Genesis 5 (which discusses the genealogy of Adam made in man’s image, Seth made in Adam’s image, etc. apparently connecting image of God through progeny), or something. The blanket claims of James and Genesis 9, however, do not leave us with only an argument from silence but rather an argument concerning the general state of mankind. All humanity is made in the image of God whether or not they pursue goodness, truth, and beauty.
Imago Dei is not a claim of perfection upon humanity
The argument that image of God means perfection is usually spoken by critics of one vein or another. By critics of Christianity who point to the wrongs humans do—“How could sinful man be made in the image of God? After all: to err is human, to forgive divine.” Or by individuals who err in overemphasis on total depravity. How could one overemphasis a total depravity? By applying “total” in the wrong way or by failing to recognize the tensions Scripture maintains. The image of God does not mean that we are as good as we could be just as total depravity does not mean we are as bad as we could be. Remember again that three of the four image of God statements occur after the fall—that should be clear enough to state that the Bible never presents imago Dei as perfection. After the fall, you and I remain in the image of God—with all dignity attached to the phrase—even while we are sinners. Put another way: those in the image of God find a way to hate the very God in whose image they are made. And without qualifiers: the images of God spite God. How awful a state we find ourselves in—absolute contradiction of our very being.
Imago Dei is not a claim of body image
This is to say, if needs be said: the Triune God does not have a physical body (apart from Christ incarnate). God is Spirit (John 4) and without corporeal form. The ‘hand’ of God and his ‘mighty right arm,’ the ‘face’ of God and his ‘nostrils’ are the Divine’s communication with humans in such a way that we might understand something of what he is like, but do not need to be taken as sense-descriptive images.
Soon we’ll consider what the image of God is.