In Genesis, in making humanity, God says:
Genesis 1:26-27 Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.This passage, as people generally know, has had a significant effect on Christian thinking about what the Bible teaches about what it means to be human. And it is common among Evangelicals to try and understand ‘image’ as something self-contained, something humans have as a completed thing at the point of creation (the big contenders being reason, the ability to enter into relationships, or dominion as to what the image is that we had). It is then either lost or impaired when Adam breaks the command.
But when we get to the NT we find that Christ is also described as the image of God:
2 Corinthians 4:4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Colossians 1:15-16 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him.
Hebrews 1:3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
This then creates an issue. Is Christ the image of God simply because he became a man, and took on the image of God in the Incarnation? (Calvin's view, below) This seems difficult to square with the context of how it is used in the verses above, where ‘image’ is being used in a context that suggests Christ’s divinity.
Or is it that there are two images? We are the image in one way (human), and Christ is the image another way (divine)? This seems to multiply images needlessly (not a good idea, in light of the prohibition on making images—small joke there…). It also suggests that the Lord Jesus is two images of God, one as man and one as the Son of God. That seems a bit clumsy.
A further issue is that ‘image’ is used as a salvation category in the NT. It is one of the ways in which the Bible speaks of what it means for us to be saved:
Romans 8:29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;Now, normally, Evangelicals understand verses like this in terms of moral transformation—we become godly. However, something more seems on view in passages like the following:
1 Corinthians 15:47-49 The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.
In the argument of 1 Corinthians 15 this issue of the bearing the image of the man from heaven cannot be simply an ethical similarity. It is more ontological, It is part of the logic that moves us to the very next verse:
1 Corinthians 15:50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
It is a statement that the resurrection is more than resuscitation, it is a transformation. A transformation of the human from an earthy human made from soil to a heavenly human who is a life giving spirit.
In terms of the general approach to anthropology that sees ‘image’ as something finished at creation and self-contained this strand of eschatology in 1 Cor 15 seems a bit out of place. It seems almost as though we aren’t going to be really human in the End.
However, one of the things I’ve noticed is that a number of the early church fathers understood image quite differently. At first I thought it was just Athanasius, but then I discovered it in Irenaeus so I thought it was just Eastern. But now I’ve seen it in Tertullian (along with Augustine often considered to have founded Western Christianity, which Evangelicalism descends from) as well.
From Tertullian’s work Against Praxeus (Praxeus was an early teacher of Sabellianism or Monarchical Modalism—the idea that ‘Father’ ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ are not three Persons who exist simultaneously but three roles or names or modes of God’s activity):
In the following text also He distinguishes among the Persons: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him.” Why say “image of God?” Why not “His own image” merely, if He was only one who was the Maker, and if there was not also One in whose image He made man? But there was One in whose image God was making man, that is to say, Christ’s image, who, being one day about to become Man (more surely and more truly so), had already caused the man to be called His image, who was then going to be formed of clay—the image and similitude of the true and perfect Man.Against Praxeus XII
The idea here envisages a more open-ended content to the statement ‘let us make man in our image’. Whereas the first view above sees that statement as being fulfilled when Adam is created, this view doesn’t see that God has really made humanity into the image of God until Christ’s death and resurrection. That is, image of God looks forward all the way to our union with Christ by the Spirit. It is something that is brought about by the work of Christ, not simply when God fashions Adam from the dust and breathes into him.
I find this idea very attractive, far more so than its alternative, for the following reasons:
o It is more inherently Trinitarian (as Tertullian brings out in the quote above), understanding Image of God in terms of how it is used in the NT—to designate the second member of the Godhead, rather than a more monistic sense of ‘like the divine nature’ which the first view tends towards.
o It is more inherently Christ-centred—drawing a strong link between humanity’s image and Christ’s Image, and making the latter the grounds for the former. Human beings are those creatures God made to be transformed by being united to his Son.
o It also unites who Christ is and what he’s done more fully. Our being conformed to the image of Christ arises out of who he is as the Image of the Father. ‘Image making’ is part of his work, because Image is part of who he is.
o It better captures the strand of teaching in the Bible that indicates that humanity’s final state will be more glorious than Adam’s was in the beginning. The picture in the final chapters of Revelation, 1 John’s statement that we will be like God, Peter’s statement that we are to be sharers in the divine nature, the motif that Christ has become head of creation, the statement that at the End ‘God will be all in all’ and 1 Cor 15’s picture of a spiritual body that is not ‘flesh and blood’ all point to redemption doing something more than undo sin and return us to creation. It suggests that Eden has nothing on what’s in store. A view of the Image that is likewise open-ended, where Adam’s humanity is the start and not the final word seems to mesh with this strand of the Bible’s teaching on salvation and eschatology. I certainly prefer it to Calvin’s approach which seems to suggest that redemption is basically designed to restore the image we had in Adam:
But our definition of the image seems not to be complete until it appears more clearly what the faculties are in which man excels, and in which he is to be regarded as a mirror of the divine glory. This, however, cannot be better known than from the remedy provided for the corruption of nature. It cannot be doubted that when Adam lost his first estate he became alienated from God. Wherefore, although we grant that the image of God was not utterly effaced and destroyed in him, it was, however, so corrupted, that any thing which remains is fearful deformity; and, therefore, our deliverance begins with that renovation which we obtain from Christ, who is, therefore, called the second Adam, because he restores us to true and substantial integrity.Institutes 1.XIV.4
While I like this approach because it also seeks to understand what Image is in light of Christ—we understand the Image from its restoration, if one reads Book 1, chapter 14 of the Institutes, I think one will get the impression that Calvin doesn’t carry that project through in a thorough going fashion. He takes a few short cuts to get to his view that image is the rational soul and our moral likeness to God and that Christ restores it after sin’s ravages.
This identification of Image with a Platonic rational soul (and Calvin is quite clear in 1.XIV.6 that Plato had something worth saying about the soul) leads him to classify angels as being in the image of God too (without any Scriptural warrant). The only place he sees salvation as possibly taking us higher than where we began, he sees becoming like the angels, rather than being conformed to the Son of God as our destiny:
But it cannot be denied that the angels also were created in the likeness of God, since, as Christ declares (Mt. 22:30), our highest perfection will consist in being like them.Institutes 1.XIV.2
In short, I think the view of Athanasius (et. al.) captures the Bible’s teaching much better than the more Augustinian/Calvin view that dominates Evangelicalism—and it makes sense of parts of the Bible that I think tend to be passed over a bit (those things I highlighted above).
The main problems with it seem to be:
1. That it suggests that Christ’s role as mediator precedes sin. Either it means that Christ would have been Incarnate even if sin hadn’t occurred (a view that Irenaeus seems to imply, if not state outright)—which as Calvin points out is to go beyond Scripture as the only Christ we are given is he who came to deal with sin. Or it means a more supralapsarian position—that salvation was decreed ‘first’ and is the reason and cause for sin being ordained by God. This also, in my view, falls under Calvin’s prohibition—it seeks to enter into God’s predestining will at a point where God has not disclosed it.
That suggests that this is a bit of a problem for the 'Athanasius' view that needs to be watched, and is going to continually encourage people to start to speculate on things there is no revelation about. However, Col 1: makes it clear that creation exists for Christ:
Colossians 1:16 all things have been created through Him and for Him.So there is something very fitting about Christ being the head of creation, and the bridegroom of the Church—such relationships mesh well with the fact that creation was made for him.
2. Calvin clearly rejects the idea in the Institutes:
There is more plausibility in the imagination of those who interpret that Adam was created in the image of God, because it was conformable to Christ, who is the only image of God; but not even for this is there any solid foundation.Institutes 1.XIV.3
In characteristic style, he doesn’t trouble with anything so trivial as a reason for rejecting this non-Augustinian view of a good chunk of the early church. Despite my great respect for Calvin, an assertion without evidence is hard to accept.
3. 'Let us make man in our Image' couldn’t have meant ‘let us make man to become like Christ’ to its original readers. This doesn’t seem that strong to me. If God’s words here are a form of prophecy, then they couldn’t be clearly understood until they had been fulfilled—that’s just part of the nature of much of Biblical prophecy.
All in all, these don’t seem sufficient to prefer the more classical reason/dominion/relationship understanding.
I think we were made in the Image because God made this universe for his Son, and made us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. Being conformed to the image of Christ is both the fulfillment of our creation and the overturning of sin’s attempt to destroy God’s good creation.