Imaging the Image

Article by   April 2014
This month we want to focus on our status as "image of God," as we begin to think as well about its apologetic implications. Tenet 4 of our "Ten Tenets" says this: 
Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the Triune God, for eternity.

The Bible never gives us a definition of what "image of God" means. It uses the phrase in various contexts (e.g., Gen. 1:26-27, 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; James 3:9), but it is not concerned to define it for us. Yet "image of God" is what sets us apart from every other created thing. How could it be, at one and the same time, so central to who we are and yet without a precise definition?

The answer to that question is embedded in covenant history itself. Instead of a definition of "image of God," Scripture gives us a vast, dynamic, variegated and illustrative demonstration of what is meant by the phrase. More precisely, Scripture shows us what "image of God" means in the ways in which it presents to us our relationship to the One in whose image we were made. In that sense, the "definition" of "image of God" is replete throughout the history of God's dealings with man, and even into eternity.

First, and fundamentally, it is the second person of the Trinity who is the quintessential image of God. It is, says Paul, the "beloved Son" who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation," (Col. 1:13,15). This image-character of the Son, as accruing uniquely him, is not, in the first place, referring us to his status as incarnate; he is not, in the first place, image because he took on a human nature. Instead, Scripture is telling us here that Image refers to the Son's status as Son, who is himself fully and completely God. In the words of Herman Ridderbos, when Paul speaks of Christ as Image, he is referring us "not, as is the case when he calls him the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45ff.), as the second man, but, in Colossians 1:15 (and Phil 2:6), as the Pre-existent One in his divine glory." So, continues Ridderbos, "it can even be maintained that by the name Image of God Paul intended to elucidate precisely the eternal relationship of the Father to the Son." (1)

This is a central and important truth, often overlooked in discussions of the image of God. Christ, who is as Son (that is, ontologically) the image of the invisible God, is the one who takes on the created image of God (i.e., a human nature) in order, as ontologically Image, to redeem that which was lost in the created image. The covenant-historical meaning of the image of God in man, therefore, includes the fact that it can now only be what it is meant to be in Christ (cf. Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). As (ontologically) Image of God, therefore, the Son is the only adequate and accurate representative of God, and is therefore the one who is uniquely fit to reveal to us the fullness of deity that just is God himself (Col. 1:19).

But man is also image. When the Triune God conferred with himself about the creation of man, he was, in a sense, putting it up for a vote. Everything else in creation was brought into existence without the need for a conference. God spoke, and it was. Once created, God commanded. He said, "Let the waters swarm with living creatures, let the birds fly, let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind." But when the topic of man's creation was introduced, consultation preceded command. As Calvin says, "so now, for the purpose of commending to our attention the dignity of our nature, he, in taking counsel concerning the creation of man, testifies that he is about to undertake something great and wonderful." (2)

The "something great and wonderful" that God undertook was to create something that would not be "according to its kind," but would in fact be image of God. In terms of our understanding of the Son as Image, perhaps the consultation could biblically be construed this way, as the Father speaks, "Let us make man like the Son; like the Son, let us make him so that in him the fullness of humanity dwells, in him is the representation of the character of God, and in him is the revelation, in a unique way, of who God is. All in favor?"

Thus, Adam represents the whole of humanity, and man (male and female) represents God in a way that nothing else in creation does, or can do, and reveals what God is like in a way that nothing else in creation does, or can do. Man is, we could say, the unique image of that Original Image who is himself fully God. So, as John so simply but profoundly reminds us, it was this Son, himself the very Word of God, who is, at creation, both the life and the light of man (John 1:1-5, 9). When God breathes into man the breath of life, that breath is the Word, who is both life and light. Thus, man has, by virtue of their creation in God's image, knowledge (i.e., light), as well as righteousness and holiness (i.e., life). He knows God truly; he is "good" and acceptable to God; and he conforms himself to God's character in a way that nothing else in creation can.

Parenthetically, we should remember that there is no indication in Scripture that the angels were gifted with any of these essential benefits. They have no covenant representative, and they are not given the task of revealing God in and through the rest of creation. In that way, the life that they have does not have its genesis in the inbreathing of God, which is the life-giving of the Son (who became the life-giving spirit). The inbreathing of God takes place in only two contexts in covenant history: (1) the creation of man as image and (2) the creation of Scripture itself (2 Tim. 3:16). In both cases, it is the Word, through the Spirit, who is instrumental in the production of God's revelation.

When man is created, God appoints Adam as covenant head of the human race. What Adam is, all humans are. This is the way that God has set up the universe; it is his plan for the world. Thus, when Eve is created from Adam she is, by virtue of her humanity, image of God. She is also, by virtue of her person, from Adam ("she shall be called Woman"). Thus there is, embedded in humanity itself, both the unity of humanity as well as the diversity of persons. There is one (humanity) and there are two (persons) and the two, themselves, are one (Gen. 2:24). Could there be a more magnificent way to show forth the mystery and majesty of God himself?

But Adam did not maintain his "very good" image status. He chose the voice of his wife over the voice of God (Gen. 3:17). In that choice, he turned all that was good into ruin; he changed the life that was from Image to image, and that was intrinsically his by God's very inbreathing, into certain death. He subverted and perverted the good and perfect work of God. The "very good" of creation, which culminated in the spiritual life of man, was now exchanged and was moving inexorably to "only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5).

We recognize from Scripture, therefore, that only man was given the privilege of representation and of revelation. As image of the Image, man's responsibility, and therefore his curse, encompassed all of humanity, and the rest of creation as well. As Witherspoon once noted, the dogs bark and cats hiss when you walk by because they know you have a quarrel with your Creator. Again, with the angels it is not so. The angels, as Genesis 3 confirms, had already fallen when Adam and Eve enjoyed fellowship with God in the Garden. Even as angels had fallen, Adam and Eve remained in the Garden, and all was very good; the rest of creation was not fallen, neither were Adam and Eve out of fellowship with God. The fall of the angels had no direct effect on humanity, or on the rest of creation. Not so with Adam.

There was an obligation placed on Adam, therefore, that was peculiar to him alone. It was not placed on the angels, and was not placed on Eve. It was up to Adam either to continue the life he was given, or to introduce certain death to a "very good" creation. Adam chose the latter, tragically. Since then, all of us, by virtue of our humanity in Adam, are, by nature, children of wrath (Eph. 2:3).

If we think of the image of God as analogous to a mirror image, a couple of points become obvious. As with a mirror, the image presupposes the presence of the original. If the original is not present, there can be no image. So also with us. Being image of God means that God is wholly and always covenantally present to and with man. There is no place where God is not. And that presence requires that we "mirror" the one who is with us. Second, as with a mirror image, the image itself has its identity only in the original, but is also fundamentally different from the original. We are human only to the extent the we mirror God. But even if we do mirror God, we are never more than image. We in no way coincide with the Original himself. By definition, an image is always and only an image; it cannot be the original.

Here is the important apologetic point. Our status as children of wrath presupposes a relationship to the Triune God who made us. It is not a happy relationship; it is doomed to eternal perdition, unless changed. But the reason that we will suffer eternally, if we remain in Adam, is precisely because, in Adam, we are, for eternity, image of God. In our human existence, therefore, we reflect something of God's character. Our depraved and rebellious lives show forth the consequences of seeking to reject God. In hell, we reflect the reality of violating God's holiness; we become the objects of his justice and of his commensurate wrath.

But the relationship, once established in the Garden with Adam, remains for all of humanity, in this life and in eternity. Because we are, in terms of our essential make-up, image, we are obliged to conform to God's character, or to suffer the consequences of our refusal to so conform. Or to put it another way, the reality of our depravity is what it is against the backdrop of our essential character as image. As John Murray once put it, 
"The greater is the potentiality of sin, the more aggravated and virulent will be its exercise. Man in the image of God...points to depravity's gravity, intensity and irreversibility."

Whenever we approach someone with the truth of God, we are approaching someone who is the (fallen) image of God. We are approaching someone who already and always has a relationship to the God of whom we speak. We are approaching someone who can only be who he is meant to be, who can only be "whole" again, if he agrees to renounce his rebellion and to show forth again the character of God, as he is renewed into the image of Christ, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness.

We are who we are in Adam; we become who we are meant to be only in Christ. There is no other "place" for us to be; there is no third category. All of us are defined according to one of two God-appointed, covenant heads -- either Adam or Christ. At this point, at least, our theology is very simple; there are two, and only two, available categories. When we think of all of humanity this way, we begin to see more clearly how we can evaluate and approach those who remain in Adam. Next month, we will pour some more specific content into what "image" means since Adam's fall into sin. For now, however, we affirm the universal, essential aspect of every human being -- we are and will forever remain "image of God."

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

1. Herman N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Translated by John Richard DeWitt. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1975, 71.

2. John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 92.

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