What is Imago Dei? Imago Dei is our worth and our purpose defined. What does it mean that humankind is created in the “image of God?” In what different ways have theologians defined this term, and what should we understand it to mean today? What difference does it make for those who look to the authority of God’s word, and what implications does this leave us with both now and for eternity? When looking for the definition of Imago Dei, one can look several places. First, one can look to the interpretations of Biblical scholars who have commit their time to studying scripture. Second, one can look for themselves all through the Bible for the definitions and contexts provided. Third, one can look to what the world believes or doesn’t believe about Imago Dei, as is evident in both the injustices and humanitarian efforts of our time. Lastly, one can look at their own life- at what they have experienced and how they have lived their lives and discover what they believe or don’t believe about being created in the image of God.
Thus said, I shall begin by answering the question, “How have Bible Scholars defined Imago Dei?” Most scholars agree with a basic outline of Imago Dei as is found in scripture, but there are several different ways of understanding its context. Theologian Wayne Gruden defines the image of God as “The nature of man that he is like God and represents God” (Gruden 1244). In Creeds of Christendom, Biblical scholar Phillip Schaff (1819-1893) explains that being made in the image of God means that God intended for us to know him intimately and to be in a reconciled relationship with him. “Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole Man was holy” (Schaff 521). Schaff also notes the importance of knowing God’s design and original plan for us before the fall of man.
God intended for us to be just like Him- holy, pure, and righteous in his sight (Schaff 521). Scholars of The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology have defined the “image of God” as a fundamental biblical doctrine, an image that is “sullied by sin and that [is] restored by divine salvation” (Elwell 545). Scholar Millard J. Erickson believes that it is critical to understand who God is and who we are to Him. He says, “The implications of the image of God should inspire us and set the parameters for our view of all humanity” (Erickson 170). Erickson believes that the image of God goes beyond the substantive, relational, and functional views and that one must draw conclusions from all of scripture. I agree with Erickson that one finds a concise definition of Imago Dei in God’s word. So then, what does scripture say about Imago Dei?
After much study of the Bible, Scholar Millard Erickson has outlined the places in scripture where Imago Dei has been best defined and explained. The first is in Genesis 1:26-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after 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 earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This is recapitulated in Genesis 5:1: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” Then in Genesis 9:6, we learn: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blod be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Here we see that being created in the image of God implies that we have great worth and our lives are valuable to God. From this verse, we also see that sinful human beings continue to bear God’s image. In the New Testament, the learn about the image of God as we learn about Jesus. In James 3:9, we learn that God hates when we neglect to respect and honor each other, as those who bear God’s image. “With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.”
Much of the New Testament also explains that we are conformed more and more into God’s image- we become more like Him through the process of salvation. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Erickson explains that from searching scripture, Bible scholars and church leaders have come to accept one or more of three views on the Image of God- the substantive view, the relational view, or the functional view. The substantive view states that humankind has many of the same qualities and characteristics as God. These include the physical, psychological and spiritual likeness of God. The relational view states that we understand what it means to be made in the image of God through knowing him in a personal relationship (Erickson 122). We also better understand who God is and who we are through human relationships, such as the love relationship between a husband and wife (Erickson 123).
Even more so, we understand the image of God through knowing the person of Jesus- For Jesus is the very likeness of God, and we become more like God through knowing Christ. The functional view holds that we understand who God is and who we are through what we do. In our dominion over creation and in our being commissioned by Christ to make disciples, we do our best to learn about all that God has given us and to honor God with our lives. We learn about God by following Christ’s example and by living a life worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1). This is the basis of what scripture tells us about what it means to be made in the image of God. Does everyone have a basic understanding of Imago Dei, then? What does what is going on in the world today, and the way that most people treat each other reveal about what people believe about this subject?
Let us look at both the good and bad social realities of our culture, and ask ourselves, “What does life look like for those who seek to understand and accept what God says about Imago Dei compared to what life looks like for those who do not know God?” The list of atrocities and injustices through time is endless. One does not have to look far to see the evil that has resulted from people rejecting God and oppressing one another. Slavery, war, greed, and oppression- an ocean of these disasters has swept through time, making every child ask “why?” and “how” could this be? Today, still, there are injustices to the human race that are hard to understand. In fact, people look everywhere for answers- to the media, to scholars, to historians, and to their leaders, but their search is in vain.
Their hearts are left burning and throbbing. What then has led to the bullying of children, the gossip, and most frightening, the genocides that never cease to degrade the human race and leave us asking, “Why?” It is this: Man has rejected God and does not know who he is, and in turn, they do not know who their Creator has intended them to be. The more I see of the world, the more I know I have been spared. In knowing who God is and who he says I am, I have been set free. I am free to forgive, free to love, free to honor, and free to value each person that God has made in “his own image.”
Knowing that every person on earth has infinite worth in God’s sight, so much that he came to earth to die a criminal’s death on a cross for their sins, that they might trust Him and be reconciled to the Him who loves them and treasures them more than they could ever imagine- this changes everything. I have seen the difference that believing the truth about God and about me not only in my own life, but also in the lives all around me. That others “know we are Christians by our love” is true in not all, but many communities of believers. When I see love that doesn’t look for any in return I know that there is an understanding of Imago Dei. For the sake of the Nations and for the sake of the church, my prayer is that Imago Dei will continue to be understood and lived out, that all might know God and be reconciled to him.
What is Imago Dei? Imago Dei is where humankind finds all of their worth. It is what drives our convictions and frees us to love, forgive, and value each other. Theologians explain that the image of God is often understood through the substantive view- that we are like God in having the same physical, mental and spiritual qualities and abilities that he has, the relational view- that we understand who God is and who we are through a relationship with Him and through our relationships with others, and the functional view- that we better understand what it means to be made in the image of God through our experiences and actions, in living our lives for Christ. What difference does it make to know who God is and who he says we are? All of the difference in the world- literally.
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1984. Print. Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994. Print. Erickson, Millard J, and L A. Hustad. Introducing Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001. Print. Schaff, Philip. Bibliotheca Symbolica Ecclesiae Universalis: The Creeds of Christendom.
Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966. Print.