The Echo of the Imago Dei

In our last post, we made four observations regarding how Lewis goes about establishing the law of human nature in the first section of Mere Christianity. We should return to these observations and make some additional comments on how they might be applied to apologetics. However, it first must be noted how these apologetic appeals are justified within the framework of Reformed theology and its understanding of the covenant of works.

Reformed theology views God’s relationship with man in terms of covenants. In Scripture covenants are “solemn agreements, negotiated or unilaterally imposed, that bind the parties to each other in permanent defined relationships, with specific promises, claims, and obligations on both sides.”[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith declares the distance between God and man is so great that he took the initiative to voluntarily condescend to him through the expression of covenant (WCF 7.1). The WCF affirms two major covenants in Scripture—a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. The covenant of works is the first covenant made with man, “wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (7.2). Due to the fall, Adam and his posterity became incapable of life through the first covenant, whereby God made another called the covenant of grace, in which he freely offers life and salvation to sinners by Jesus Christ; “requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained onto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe” (7.3).[2]

The WCF also uses the terms “covenant of nature” and “covenant of life” in reference to the covenant made with Adam. The covenant of works assumes that when God created man, the relationship he had with Adam was a natural one. Adam was naturally under the law and was duty-bound to obey.[3] There was no dualism between Adam’s spiritual life and his work-a-day world. Adam was made a holistic being, and his life as a creature of the covenant was a unified whole.[4] But we should say more. Creation itself must not be thought of as a natural order whereupon a supernatural order was imposed on it; rather, the entire cosmos is dependent on God and operates on a charter given to it.[5] “For humanity, all of life is fundamentally religious because all is lived before the face of God, either obediently in his service or disobediently in the service of an idol.”[6] The classical Reformed teaching regarding the covenant of works sees Adam naturally endowed as originally created in the image of God. He lived in a state that was changeably good, not a state that was unchangeably good as when a person is justified by faith. When sin entered, the created order was spoiled and Adam was ruined. Nevertheless, vestiges of the imago Dei endured in Adam’s post-fall posterity.[7]

In the first movement of the epistle to the Romans, Paul establishes that both Gentile and Jew are under God’s wrath because of their knowledge of his divine law. All humanity stand judged by the law because God has revealed himself through creation (1:18-31) and conscience (1:32-2:29). Lewis makes reference to both of these dual components of general revelation in Mere Christianity, but with a special emphasis on conscience. Paul argues that despite the Jews being stewards of the law, they consistently violate the law. He then contends that while the Gentiles are not curators of the divine law, they nevertheless violate their consciences in word and deed. The conscience is the entity Paul says “bears witness” to the law because it possesses a sense of “right and wrong.”[8]

For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Rom 2:14-15, ESV).

The law of nature, therefore, is situated in hearts of all men and offers a general understanding to good and evil. However, classical Reformed thought limits this knowledge as insufficient to lead one to saving faith. This knowledge can also be suppressed (Rom 1:21). Indeed, Paul’s treatment of the witness of the external creation and the internal conscience shows that all of humanity stands condemned by God and under his wrath.

Calvin’s own understanding of the law of nature draws deeply from the first two chapters of Romans, leading him to say, “For since men are imbued by nature with some knowledge of God, they draw true principles from that source.”[9] Calvin clearly identifies this innate knowledge of natural law with human conscience and views it as the lingering effects of being in the image of God.[10]

A century later, the Westminster divines were essentially saying what Calvin had said about the echo of the imago Dei. In his lectures on the law, Vindiciae Legis, Anthony Burgess distinguished between how natural law functioned before and after the fall, saying that when Adam was first created the laws of God were perfectly implanted in his heart, but after sin entered there existed only “residual fragments.”[11] Burgess rejected the notion that the fall completely obliterated the law of nature—what he called common notions—from the heart.[12] If men and women have no residual knowledge of God from their original state of innocence then humanity itself would cease to function.[13]

Although prominent 20th-century Reformed theologians had serious reservations about natural law theory, Fesko shows how earlier Reformers were very much at home with it. His analysis of theologians like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Cornelius Van Til concludes that they made serious errors in judgement by not fully examining primary sources and were largely influenced by Kantian-Enlightenment theological and historical methods.[14] Fesko makes four observations about how earlier Reformers appropriated natural law theory:

  1. They drew their ideas of the law of nature primarily from Romans 1:19 and 2:14-15.
  2. They positively cited pagan authorities on the law of nature while distinguishing between principles and conclusions.
  3. They positively cited Aquinas and other Roman Catholic theologians while noting their differences with them.
  4. They situated their beliefs about the law of nature in their teaching on the covenant of works and the residual effects of the imago Dei.[15]

Unlike Karl Barth, who argued there was no common point of contact between the Christian and the non-Christian, early Reformed theologians insisted that believers and unbelievers both shared common notions about right and wrong.[16] Moreover, the classical position for both Protestants and Catholics alike, maintained that an appeal could be made to the “book of nature” when defending the faith. The pre-and-post Reformation consensus was that general revelation and special revelation were not incompatible, but complementary.

With this in view, we can return in our next post to the first book of Mere Christianity. From there we may draw out some important implications for apologetics—implications that would be consistent with a Reformed understanding of the covenant of works and its post-fall effects on the human conscience.

Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee in Martin. He is the author of The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Crossway, 2003) and Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-made Environments (Pickwick, 2013). Hunt and his wife are members of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jackson, TN. 

Related Links

Podcast: "Reforming Apologetics"

"Literary Theological Imagination" by Leland Ryken

"Covenantal Apologetics," review by Stephen Myers

"Reforming Apologetics," review by Ryan McGraw

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker

The Messiah Comes To Middle Earth by Philip Ryken 


[1] This definition is taken from J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 87.

[2] Some Reformed theologians insist there is an additional covenant, one made between the Father and the Son, whereby in eternity the Son became surety for his elect and undertook to obey and suffer in their place. Those holding to only two major covenants often incorporate this third intra-Trinitarian covenant in the covenant of grace.

[3] See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Louisville, KY: GLH Publishing, 2017), 174.

[4] See O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980), 82.

[5] See Rowland S. Ward, God and Adam: Reformed Theology and the Creation Covenant (Lansvale, NSW, Australia: Tulip Publishing, 2019), 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See ibid., 188.

[8] There is some disagreement as to whether “conscience” is a Greek concept or already was embedded in the Israelite ethic. See Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary series, general ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 126-27.

[9] Quoted from Calvin’s commentary on Acts 14-28, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. T. F. Torrance and David W. Torrance (1960; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), comm. Acts 17:28, p. 121 in Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 59.

[10] See Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 59.

[11] Ibid., 30.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Fesko puts it more succinctly in ibid., when he says, “if all knowledge of God were destroyed, humanity would cease to exist because there would be nothing left of God’s image,” 205.

[14] See ibid., xi; 191-92.

[15] Ibid. This is a summary of Fesko’s points, 47-48.

[16] Ibid., 48.

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 1/3/23, adding slight nuance concerning the attitudes of 20th-century Reformed theologians towards natural law theory.