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


In what sense is man the image of God? What does it indicate about man for man to be God’s likeness? Since the image is not delineated in the Scriptures, is it even proper for man to surmise what constitutes the image? Because of the silence of Scripture, will the discussion end in frustration? With these reservations in mind, two observations will be made.

The nature of the image is best understood by viewing it initially in relationship to God and then by viewing it secondarily in man's relationship to the rest of creation; that is, the image should be considered in terms of God before it is considered in terms of man and creation. Discussion of the image must first be theological before it is anthropological.

Man is like God, and man is different from all other things that have been created. This likeness and this distinction provide insight into the nature of the image.

In relationship to God the image means that man mirrors God for the purpose of Dominion. It must be understood that man does not possess the image as a something that he has but man himself is the image—the image is what man is, not some gift that man possesses. Man’s existence and God’s image should not be separated; they are one and the same. To be man is to be the image; the substance of the image is man.

God said: “Let Us make man in Our image” (Gen. 1:26), and the man that He made He made in His image and likeness. It should be obvious, therefore, that the image is not a set of faculties or qualities that comprise the image, but the image is the man who was made. Compositionally, man is the image.

Man in his totality, or in his unity, displays the image of God. The discussion of whether the image is in the body or the soul, the material or the immaterial part of man, is an invalid discussion. It introduces a problem that is not in the Scriptures, which merely affirm that man has been made in the image of God: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him” (Gen. 1:27). It bears repeating that man does not possess the image, rather, man is the image; the complete man is the image. Neither directly nor indirectly does the Revelation hint that the image is applicable merely to a part of man, be it material or spiritual.

To reject some display of the image in the physical is to compartmentalize man and destroy the unity which is the essence of man. Of course, God is Spirit, with no corporeality. But in some sense even the body of man is like God. For instance, man’s mind reflects God’s purpose and omniscience; man’s eyes suggest God’s omnipresence who is everywhere and sees all; man’s hands and feet speak of God’s activity, activity such as His creation and government of  the world—every aspect of man reflects God in some manner.

The psalmist relates the two concepts when he says: “He who planted the ear, shall He not hear? He who planted the eye, shall He not see” (Ps. 94:9)—indicating that the physical features of man speak of the spiritual attributes of God. Even Calvin asserted that man’s body bears “some sparks” of the glow of God’s image (Institutes,  I, 15, 3).

The image is not specific in that it can be defined in a single quality or in the sum of several qualities. Rather the image is to be understood in a broad and comprehensive sense: all that man is, is a reflection of God. In the Imago Dei that is man, God is expressing Himself in humanity, both in body and soul. It is impossible for man to fathom the depths and heights of the image of God that he is; man knows that he is the image, but he knows in part. The knowledge is exhilarating and humbling.

Refusal to see the comprehensiveness and richness of the image is to limit the display of God in man, and to fail to appreciate the exalted position man occupies by virtue of his essential nature—man epitomizes God (see: Display the Image). For this reason Adam is referred to as “the son of God” (Lu. 3:38), and as Paul later explained, “we are the offspring of God” (Acts 17:29); correspondingly, in the Old Testament the judges are addressed as “gods” (Ps. 82:1, 6).

What man is, is in God more real, that is, the fullest and greatest potential resides in God. To illustrate, man has a mind and knows; but in God there is full and comprehensive knowledge—God is omniscient, whereas man knows in part. Other illustrations could be used to support the comprehensive nature of the image.

If the image, in its comprehensiveness, identifies man with God, then how is the image to be understood?

Immediately after God said, “Let us make man in Our image,” He said, “let them have dominion” (Gen. 1:26). So, before the creation of man there was the association of the image of God with the dominion of man. Then verse 27 records the creation of man. After his creation, God said to the man and the woman: “Be fruitful and . . . have dominion” (v. 28); therefore, immediately after God made man in His image, He informed man of his dominion. This same relationship in seen in Psalm 8 where man is “crowned with glory and honor” and made “to have dominion” (vs. 5-6).

It would seem, consequently, that there is an intricate relationship between the image and the charge of dominion, not that the image is the dominion but that the image equips man for the dominion. Man is what he is (the “image”), so he can do what he is to do (“have dominion”); the image is the essence, the dominion is the purpose (see: Dominion Mandate).

Since man is to rule over creation, he must be endowed with what is needed in order to exercise this responsibility. In this sense man is like God—he has been given that which is needed in order to rule. And the rule over creation is reflective of God’s rule over all the universe; therefore, man must be like God in order to rule like God. He must be endowed with the qualities necessary to implement this right and obligation to have dominion, which is really a sovereignty over the rest of creation. Dominion is a responsibility given to man in light of his being made in the image of God, but it is not what constitutes the image.

Compositionally God made man to be His image in order that man might be equipped to rule as God’s representative over the earth.

Should not the image be understood as the wherewithal to rule, the ability to exercise dominion, which is an exercise of sovereignty? The question is not intended to convey the idea that the image is functional rather than substantive; the image is substantive, with the substantive being what it is so that man will be capable of fulfilling the proper function given to him. The substantive is the base for the functional; the image is the foundation for the dominion. Dominion is the function of the image, rather than being the definition of the image.

Man is what he is—the image of God—so he can do what he must do—rule over creation.

Therefore, those qualities necessary for Adam to meet the requirement of dominion were given to him and those qualities constitute the image; and the image is the man (see: Image of God). Understanding of the image is not gained by being able to number or to specify the qualities, rather man as constituted is what is necessary to exercise dominion. The image is not something man has that qualifies him, but man as he is, is gifted to rule.

Man, being the image of God, is capable of dominion. In this sense man mirrors God and exercises a sovereignty that is reflective of and subservient to God’s Sovereignty (see: God is Sovereign).

In relationship to creation the image distinguishes man from the rest of creation, revealing his capability to rule over creation. Aspects of the image may be found in the characteristics or qualities that distinguish man from the animals, and these distinguishing qualities must contribute to that which constitutes the image of God in man. Man possesses these qualities that no other part of creation possesses, qualities that equip him for the dominion over all of creation.

Adam was created with the ability to rule, to exercise sovereignty over creation, with a sovereignty like that of God—as God is to the universe, in a similar manner man is to the earth. Man is God’s vice-regent. Reflection of what man is does give emphasis to the distinctiveness of man that qualifies him to exercise sovereignty over creation; aspects of the image would include but not be limited to:

* self-consciousness or self-awareness (knowledge of personal being or existence);

* moral awareness (a sense of ought; capable of ethical judgments);

* rational judgment (logic, analytical reasoning, intuitive grasp of consequences); man is a thinking being; can reflect on ideas, critique and judge them;

* conceptual understanding of reality (a grasp of universals by which to interpret the particulars)—the point is that man was not born with a blank slate, but from the beginning was capable of rule; innate knowledge;

* compassion (care for the creation which would mean proper use of creation and not abuse of creation);

* purpose (an understanding that there is meaning and significance to life, which leads to the doing in life of that which is one’s duty);

* responsibility (an innate awareness that one is accountable for the deeds done);

* communicability (ability to converse with others like the communication between the Persons of the Godhead; potential for fellowship);

* creativity (not in the sense of God at Creation, but in the sense of planning and producing some new thing; initiative);

* volition (decision making capability; the exercise of the intellect).

This listing of qualities that possibly comprise the image is just a suggestion of what is involved and should by no means be considered definitive; some additional qualities could be listed. It is not some things that man has that comprise the image but it is man who is the image. And the above listing is merely an attempt to grasp in some manner what it is about man that distinguishes man from the animals and makes him a mirror of Deity and, therefore, capable of rule.

The image should be considered in a comprehensive manner rather than in a restricted and limited sense. Ultimately, the image cannot be defined nor understood any more than God can be defined and understood. After all it is an image that mirrors God that is being discussed, and the image is as mysterious as God.

A final observation regarding the nature of the image needs to be made. The image is universal, all men have it; and it is equal or the same in all men, regardless of race or sex. It comes to all as a gift, for it cannot be humanly obtained, lost, nor destroyed. To be man is to be the image.

But as seen in another article, the image has been greatly impaired or defaced by sin; that is, the rule by man is a sinful rule because man has become sinful man (see: Status of the Image).

Return to: Crown of Creation; Next Article: Implications of the Image

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