Christological Confusion & China's Reforming Churches (part 8)

This is the eighth post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see part 123456, and 7)

Fourth Statement: The Recast Image of God

Recast by the concept of Christ's eternal humanness (see part 5), the image of God is no longer just about the way humans were originally created in God's likeness but now also about how humanity's original form eternally exists "within God's being." He reasons that "the image of God is Christ and therefore Christ in eternity is the original form of human nature."[1]  Turning the imago Dei on its head, he proceeds from the claim that "humanness is the essence of Christ and . . . Christ is the image of God" to the conclusion that "this image contains within it the original form of the essence of human nature. Perhaps," he proposes, "this could be called the 'Un-known humanity of God in Christ'."[2]

Orthodox Reformed theologians sometimes speak of Christ as the essential image of God (imago essentialis) in the sense that, as the Son, he is co-essential with the Father. When they do, however, they carefully distinguish this sense of the divine image from the sense in which humans are created in God's image (imago accidentalis), and deny that humans possess the essential image of God.[3]

As the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ in some sense makes the invisible God visible. Hence he is "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15) and "the exact imprint of his nature" (Heb 1:3) in a way that surpasses anything that could be said of mere humans. Only the incarnate Son bears the essential image and it cannot be transmitted, lost, or damaged anymore than he could be duplicated or fail to be the second person of the Trinity.

The image of God in mere humans, however, is a natural gift originally given to Adam at creation. From him, it has been passed on to the whole race and, in the fall, was also severely damaged and partly lost. The damage was done to the intrinsic aspect of the divine image, which is how humans are, like God, spiritual beings with intellect, will, and affections. Though damaged, these faculties survive the fall and in this sense humans continue to bear the divine image. The extrinsic aspect of the divine image, which is how Adam and Eve, also like God, were originally righteous, holy, and pure, was lost in the fall.

To confuse the Son's essential image with the image of God given humanity is to confuse the divine and human natures. Our speaker is aware of the danger:
Here, I do not intend to confuse Christ's human and divine natures. What I mean is that Christ's human nature [or humanness], which is the original form by which human nature is created, is within him.[4]
The statements on the image of God above, however, fail to maintain any distinction between the essential image of God in Christ as the divine Son and the divine image given to humanity as a gift. Consequently, they fail to prevent this kind of confusion between the divine and human natures. On the contrary, by tracing the imago Dei in humans back through "the ontological being of Christ" to "God's being," this sort of confusion seems unavoidable.


[1] First Recording

[2] Second Recording. The phrase "Unknown humanity of God in Christ" is originally given in English by the speaker and thus not translated, and for that reason offset here in quotation marks

[3] This sense of the imago essentialis should not be confused with, for example, G. C. Berkouwer's use of that term in Man the Image of God: Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 38-41, to refer to the constitutive aspect of the image of God in humanity. Note also that Lutheran theologians draw a similar distinction between the substantial image of God (imago substantialis) uniquely in Christ as the divine Son and the accidental image (imago accidentalis) originally in Adam.

[4] Second Recording