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THEOLOGY > Man > Crown of Creation > Interpretation of the Image 


Throughout the history of the Church no universally accepted understanding of the image has arisen. Interpretations have exhibited great variety.

A common method of organizing the interpretations of the image is to list the three main approaches: the substantive view, the functional view, and the relational view (see: Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, or H. Wayne House, Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine).

The substantive view, which affirms that the image consists of some qualities, faculties, or characteristics that are given to the individual, is the oldest and most widely held view, with great range when it comes to defining the substance or characteristics of the image. While some writers have seen the substantive in both man’s material and spiritual side, most believers consider the image to be in the spiritual dimension of man.

A distinction between image and likeness was made by the early Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others), and this division was maintained for the most part until the time of the Reformation. Irenaeus distinguished between the two, with “image” being rationality and free will and “likeness” being righteousness, a righteousness which was the moral character given by the Spirit.

For Ambrose the image was the soul; for Athanasius it was rationality; and for Augustine the image was Trinitarian, composed of memory, intellect, and will, a position that Calvin referred to as “that speculation of Augustine” and “by no means sound” (Institutes,  I, 15, 4).

Romanism, as it developed during the Middle Ages, understood “image” in terms of an unchanging rationality and freedom, and “likeness” in terms of righteousness, which was given to man after his creation to assist him in the battle with carnal inclinations, a superadded gift (donum superadditum); the addition was not part of Adam’s essential nature but was an accident, a divine grace, that was added. Thus there was an acceptance of the earlier distinction between image and likeness articulated by Irenaeus.

As a result of the Fall man lost the “likeness” but not the “image”; man, therefore, has a tendency toward sin but retains his reasoning capabilities and freedom. It was Aquinas who provided the formulation that made permanent the historic understanding that has subsequently become the teaching of Roman Catholicism: the image, which was fixed at Creation and cannot be lost, is the rational ability and free will of man; and the likeness, which was original righteousness and was a gift at Creation, was lost at the Fall.

This distinction between the two words, therefore, yields itself to the Roman Catholic scheme of salvation whereby divine grace operates with and depends on human ability.

The Reformers rejected a distinction between the concepts, identifying the image and likeness in a rational, moral, and spiritual manner. Luther understood the image solely in terms of righteousness and felt that it was totally lost in the Fall, while Calvin identified the image as the understanding and will and felt that vestiges of the image remain in man after the Fall though the image was marred, with only the moral qualities being totally lost.

The view of many Reformed thinkers, with hints of Roman Catholicism, today is the view of Hodge: man was made upright (Eccl. 7:29); he was not created with moral neutrality or simple innocence but with moral rectitude, with neither taint of sin nor tendency toward sin (Eph. 4:21-24 and Col. 3:10). There was knowledge of God, coupled with righteousness in life and holiness toward God.

Some Reformed theologians make a distinction in terms of a broader and a narrower concept of the image, with the narrower (righteousness) being lost at the Fall but the broader (rationality) being retained.

There are those who think only in rational terms. For instance, it has been asserted that man in his rational capacity reflects the image: “Man’s mind therefore, his rationality, is God’s image” (Gordon Clark, In Defense of Theology, 110); “God’s image must be reason or rationality because God is truth, and therefore fellowship with God requires thinking and understanding” (Ibid, 111). Clark said “the image is not something man has, man is the image” (Biblical Doctrine of Man, 9); he added that “the image is the soul” (Ibid, 11); and man was created “with the light of logic as his distinctive human characteristic” (Ibid, 19).

For Strong the image is self-consciousness and self-determination.

Most modern scholars, whatever their view of the image, are agreed that no difference is to be made between “image” and “likeness.” Usually the sameness of the two words is argued on exegetical and theological bases. But the denial of a distinction between the two words is a rejection of the view held by the majority of the Church for nearly 1500 years which distinguished between the two words.

The functional view focuses not upon what man has but upon what man is to do. It relates the image to the instruction of God for man to have dominion; in fact, “the exercise of dominion is considered to be the content of the image of God” (Erickson, ST, 528).

This identification of the image with the dominion is found in both Genesis 1 and Psalms 8. So the image is not a something that man possesses in his material or immaterial dimension, but it is a function that man is to fulfill. The question becomes not man’s being, but what is man’s proper responsibility. Sentiment for this approach is increasing.

Buswell drew attention to the fact that image and dominion are closely related in Genesis; man, he concluded, was given the image for the dominion. In the words of Buswell, the dominion is an “aspect of the image” but the true exercise of the dominion will only be realized in eternity because sin keeps man from ruling in the present “as he was intended to do” (A ST of the Christian Religion, 233, 234).

Early Fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, and others, associated dominion with the image; later the Remonstrants (or Arminians) and some Anabaptists accepted this viewpoint, following the interpretation of the Socinians.

The relational view gives emphasis not to something man possesses, nor to a function he is to accomplish, but to a relationship he is to have. For Barth the image is the male and female relationship, which is a reflection of the relationship in the Godhead; he looked to the word “Us” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and used what that word coveys to speak of the relationship that characterizes the man and the woman.

Brunner observed: “. . . the fact that man has been made in the Image of God is conceived nor as a self-existing substance but as a relation” (The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 59); for him the concept of relationship extends to all human relationships, not just the male and female relationship.

Since the image of God in man is this relationship and not some faculty or substantive essence, then the image was not something that could be lost in the Fall. And the image is not dependent upon the historicity of the first man. The idea of the image is not being but associations; the image becomes relational not compositional.

If the concept of the image as a state that man has is rejected, then the understanding of the image as something dynamic is possible, something active rather than something static; it is not some substantive quality that characterizes man but is a living relationship. Those who favor this understanding usually also accept the revelation of God in a dynamic form rather than a static propositional revelation that is fixed in the text (see: Revelation).

Critics of the relational interpretation of the image have coupled its rise with the inability of modern theologians to accept the account in Genesis as history. Skepticism toward an original man with a nature set at the moment of creation has necessitated a re-evaluation of the traditional concept of image, hence the emphasis upon relationship. In the reinterpretation of the image in terms of relationships rather than a substantive endowment, the account in Genesis has also been revised in terms of myth (Brunner) or legend (Barth), which is a denial that actual history is being reported in the account (see: Work of Creation and Question of Evolution).

Does the image suggest a state with which man was originally constituted, or does it speak of relations, relations between men that reflect the relationship that exists between the members of the Trinity? Does not the word “image” itself suggest something substantive rather than something relational?

Some understand the image in terms of Christ, for He is the very image of the invisible God and exhibits God’s intention for man; He is the One who shows us what it means to be human in the fullest and truest sense—a state that will be realized for redeemed man in eternity, for only in eternity will man experience the full blessings of relationship. Thus there is a certain looking ahead rather than back to seek understanding of the image—more significance is give to the eschatological aspect than to the creational. Emphasis is usually given to Colossians 1:15 and II Corinthians 4:4, arguing that only Christ is the true man and man participates in His humanity; Barth and others have articulated aspects of this view.

Several thoughts regarding the Christological motif are proper:

* understanding of the image must begin with Creation and not with Christ;

* the image is the result of God’s work of Creation not Christ’s work of Redemption;

* the image is true of every individual by virtue of Creation, and not just of some by virtue of Redemption;

* the teaching that man was made in the image of God and the New Testament message of Christ being the image of God are two different concepts; they should not be confused nor merged; one is Creational, the other is Redemptive;

* Scripture teaches that the image was given to man at the time of Creation and is not something that accrues gradually during the redemptive experience; the image was an act, it is not a process;

* the image is not a relationship, but is the substantive state of man that is necessary for a relationship of man with man and man with God.

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