The Imago Dei in Historical Perspective

By: Diane Chandler
Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Throughout history, theologians have attempted to define the imago Dei (Latin, image of God) and identify what exactly being created in the image of God refers to.  Four perspectives have been offered.

The first perspective relates to humankind’s capacity to think and reason.  This has been termed the substantive view, connoting that the imago Dei can be described by any one or more of its essential parts, but particular human rationality.  Church fathers such as Irenaeus (d. 202) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) fashioned their theological views around God’s creating humankind in his image with the ability to reason and think over the non-human creation.

Influenced by Plato and Aristotle, Irenaeus is acknowledged as distinguishing between the image of God and the likeness of God (i.e., Gen. 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness and let them rule…’”).  He maintained that humans retained God’s image after the fall but lost God’s likeness because of disobedience.  Drawing from his magnum opus, Summa Theologica (“Summary of Theology”) Aquinas, a theologian of the medieval church, also regarded the imago Dei as man’s intellectual and reasoning capacity. This perspective relates to intellectual formation.

The second perspective regarding what imago Dei refers to has been called the functional view, relating to the God-ordained dominion of humans over the earth (i.e., Gen. 1:26b, 28: “…let them rule . . . Be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”). The functional view asserts that being created in the imago Dei means to have stewardship, dominion, and oversight over God’s creation. This view directly ties to these three formational areas: vocational, physical/wellness, and economic/resource formation. As Anthony Hoekema argues in his book, Created in God’s Image, “If it is true that the whole person is the image of God, we must also include the body as part of the image” (p. 68). God created us with potential to steward the resources He has given us.

The third perspective advances the notion that the imago Dei involves relational capacity, namely that male and female collectively reflect God’s image through their relationality with each other and with God.  Emil Brunner, Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth all affirm this perspective. To Brunner, the imago Dei is clearly possible because of humanity’s relationship and fellowship with God. For Buber, the “I-Thou” relationship between the individual and God should inform and enact all other human relationships. Dietrich Bonhoeffer depended on Buber’s “I-Thou” perspectives, while Karl Barth drew on the work of Bonhoeffer in defining his position. This third perspective connects to emotional and relational formation. God has given us relational capacity to relate to Him and to others.

A fourth perspective signifies that the imago Dei is humankind’s divine goal and destiny. Defined by Stanley Grenz in his book, The Social God and Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (2001, pp. 177-82), this view suggests that God, then, becomes our model to whom we are to aspire; and through whom over time, we become increasingly conformed into his likeness in the spiritual dimension. This fourth perspective relates to spiritual formation, with the goal of becoming conformed to Christ’s image. God has given us spiritual capacity to respond to His grace in order to know Him.

I propose that each of the seven areas of formation referred to above:  spiritual, emotional intellectual, relational, vocational, physical health/wellness, and economic/resource stewardship are evidenced in the creation narrative and supported by an historical discussion of the imago Dei theme.  As mentioned in my blog last week, I argue that these seven areas of formation are dimensions that comprise the capacity of the human person created in the image of God.

I’d like to suggest that God holistically created us in His image with capacity in each of these seven dimensions to both receive His grace and steward each dimension in order to bring Him glory.

Your thoughts?

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Diane Chandler
This entry was posted by on Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Faith & Culture, Holistic Formation, Spiritual Formation, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

6 Responses to “The Imago Dei in Historical Perspective”

  1. EJ says:


    Interesting enough, I received the following email yesterday.

    Genesis 1:26-27 (New King James Version)

    (26) Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (27) So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

    Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

    The word “image” is translated from the Hebrew tselem, and it means “shape, resemblance, figure, shadow.” There is nothing abstract in it. This same word is used in Genesis 5:3:

    And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image [tselem], and named him Seth.

    Adam lived 130 years and begot a son in his own likeness, after his shape, after his resemblance, after his figure, after his shadow. There is absolutely no argument from anyone anywhere about the meaning of “image” here. There is nothing abstract.

    Even as the animals reproduced after their kind, so did Adam and Eve reproduce after their kind. What was reproduced was in the form and shape of Adam and Eve. It was in their image. It is only when we apply this to God that people begin to question. All go on the assumption that God really does not have any shape—it is only something that He uses when convenient. However, that is not what the Bible testifies.

    If we want to be accurate with the scriptures, we must be consistent with the way these words are used in the Scripture. The same word is used of Adam and Eve as is used of God.

    This word is also used in Exodus 20:4—right in the commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image [tselem]. . . .” This is the same word as Genesis 1:26. Does anybody contend that these images do not look like eagles, dragons, snakes, or men or women? No, the image, the idol, looks like something that is a resemblance, the shape, the form of what it is being copied from. This word can also be found in Leviticus 26:1; Psalm 106:19; and Isaiah 40:18-20; 44:9-17.

    Seventeen times the word tselem appears in the Old Testament, and even the liberal Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, which goes to great lengths to avoid saying it, admits that concrete form and physical resemblance must be considered for Genesis 1:26-27: “Perhaps we may conclude that, while much of the thought that there is an external resemblance between God and man may be present, Ezekiel, who was a priest, has it” (vol. II, p. 684).

    The Scripture cannot be broken; they do not contradict one another. They have to grudgingly admit that it is there in the Bible. Man looks like God. Continuing the quote: “However cautiously he states it, P [P stands for priestly, one of the four different groups of people who edited the Bible] seems to have reached a measure of abstraction.”

    They are very sneaky. Well, maybe there is a concrete resemblance, and we know that Ezekiel has it, yet the fellow who wrote Genesis 1, perhaps he reached a measure of abstraction. How hard it is to give up the assumption!

    The same consistency is shown with the word “likeness.” In the Hebrew it is demooth, which means, “model, shape, fasten, similitude, and bodily resemblance.”

    Notice Genesis 5:1, 3:

    This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness [demooth] of God. . . . And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness [demooth], after his image, and named him Seth.

    If it is used for God in Genesis 1:26 (God’s creation of man in His image), and then we see it here in Genesis 5:1, 3. Do we not have to apply the same discernment of what God intends? The word demooth also appears in Isaiah 40:18; Ezekiel 1:5, 10, 13, 16, 22, 26, 28; 10:1, 22.

    When we begin to study the whole subject, we begin to understand why Interpreters had to say that Ezekiel showed man in physical resemblance to God.

    Read more:

    Question: If humankind was created physically in the image of God, (physically as stated by the Berean analysis) then, why is it that we are not replicas of each other? Is God a chameleon? Or perhaps a magician? Or perhaps God has the capacity to transform every second of the day to resemble all of humankind?

    From what I have learned, God is a spirit. John 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”NRSV
    Therefore, if God is spirit, then how can God have body parts?

  2. Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:


    Interesting question that you pose about why we are not all replicas of each other, if indeed we are made in the image of God. When God said in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Expositors are fairly unanimous in viewing this indication of genuine plurality of God as His fundamental essence. God’s essence is “we” and “our.” Gunkel asserts, “A special self-determination of God indicates the extraordinary event which is to follow.” He argued that the image of humankind to God was physical by references in the Old Testament to God’s ears, hands, feet, etc.

    God is Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). A true mystery of how this actually occurred, the Father sent His Son Jesus in bodily form to time and space in human history. Yet He was fully God (i.e., the incarnation). From Hebrews 10:5 (cf. Psalm 40:6-8), God prepared a body for Christ.

    I have gleaned from Karl Barth’s interpretation of the Hebrew wording that you reference from Genesis 1:26-27. Barth draws from German theologian Franz Delitzsch’s work (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of Creation, III.1, p. 197) regarding the Hebrew word meanings. Barth proffers this interpretation: “Let us make man in our original (Heb. tselem), according to our prototype (Heb. demut).” He puts stock in the prepositions as well as the nouns.

    It seems from my reading that when humankind was created in the image of God, God created them made according to His essence, including His deepest character in order to both mirror God and represent God as an ambassador. Yet the God’s original image in humanity was broken (or perverted as Anthony Hoekema asserts) and was restored/perfected in Christ.

    Karl Barth might help us in our understanding when he speaks that a human body was necessary to contain the human soul and spirit. Essentially he says that it is the soul which quickens the body (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of Creation, III.2, pp. 373-74). I’m further reminded that God became a human being in the person of Christ. In the mystery of creation and the diversity of how He creates each individual uniquely according to specific DNA, the fact that we do not all look the same, think the same, act the same all attest to the creative power of God; yet at the same time to remember that God created humanity to be in fellowship with Him.

    I do not claim to understand the complexity of this mystery of creation. Yet I am convinced that humankind being created in the image of God in multidimensionality is worthy of stewardship of all the dimensions of life in order to bring Him glory.

  3. Wow, this isn’t easy, and you’re not letting me off the hook. First of all my apologies for not being more specific. My use of “melody, movement and color” are synonymous with “music, dance and visual art.” The terms have become a local means of communicating creative movement in our corporate life together. I did not mean to use the terms in any way that would marginalize or suggest any wrongness with your suggested dimensions of a holistic way of imaging our Father. Because the nurturing of the creative is so necessary in our community, it seems that the creative (creativity) could possibly qualify as a dimension or as one of the “primary aspects of the human person in which God has entrusted us to steward” and commensurate with imago Dei.

    My discussion continues quoting from Clark Pinnock’s Flame of Love (1996, IVP, Downers Goove, Illinois – ch 2). Pinnock argues that with the capitulation of Spirit to the realm of private devotion at the beginning of the modern era, we have limited Spirit to personal experience and charisms. However, we should realize the cosmic dimension of Spirit, especially in creation. “Most fundamentally the Spirit is associated with the gift of life and with every new beginning.” Pinnock points out that Jesus tells us that the Spirit gives life (Jn 6.63). “Spirit is the ecstasy that implements God’s abundance and triggers the overflow of divine self-giving. Power of creation, the Spirit is aptly named ‘Lord and giver of life’ in the Nicene Creed.” The resultant understanding is that Spirit is active in development and consumation. “Spirit is involved in implementing both creation and new creation.” (50)

    Paintings and symphonies exist because of a creative impulse. “Works of art flow freely and overflow out of a rich inner life. “God is like the artist who loves to create and who delights in what is made . . . Not narcissistic or self-enclosed, God is inwardly and outwardly self-communicating, a gracious being. Creation arises from loving relationships in the diving nature. God creates out of his own abundant interpersonal love . . .” (55)

    I would offer that creative responsibility (development) is a dimension that must be redeemed in order to image the greatness of the Lord and giver of life. Too much of what is considered art is poison to the soul and seeks to dehumanize people thus the loss of the imago Dei. The creative is a means of communicating the fullness of Spirit in us as we reflect the newness of life that has been restored. Human creativity (melody, movement and color ;-) ) looks and acts like God. I agree with you that worship flows from the dimension of spiritual (Spiritual?) formation, but I would also encourage creativity in that worship.

    Beyond this offering, I have another question – sorry.

    Do you hold to Hoekema’s assertion that the fall somehow erased the imago Dei? I think the value of each individual is based on the fact that we were created in the image of God. I haven’t much pondered this, but what if everyone maintains something of the image of God. Perhaps this image is the means by which we can respond to the move of Spirit in redemption. The radical understanding of the fallen nature in reformed theology (based on Ephesians 2.1 ff) has always seemed off to me for there have always been those who hear the voice of God and respond from Cain onwards. Anyway, I’m off topic.

    blessings to you . . .

  4. Dave says:

    Dr Chandler, I noted in your response to EJ that you assume that the image of God was damaged in the fall. For the sake of discussion, there is also the eastern perspective, which distinguishes the image of God from the likeness of God. The image in many of these sources (for example, Clement of Alexandria) refers to the rational quality, while the likeness refers to our moral quality. The latter was lost in the Fall, whereas the former remains by virtue of our being human. Therefore, the Christian life consists of our reaquiring the likeness of God lost in the Fall. I should point out that not all the eastern Fathers distinguish image and likeness (for example, Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa- who still tends to focus on the loss of our moral capacity).

    If your thesis, that “these seven areas of formation are dimensions that comprise the capacity of the human person created in the image of God,” is correct, historically it is possible that some of these would fall under the catagory of the image of God, and others would be under the idea of God’s likeness. What do you think? God Bless.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      I appreciate your raising the issue of the Eastern perspective in Patristic thought that asserts the distinction between the “image” of God and the “likeness” of God, leading to the assertion that humanity retained the image of God despite the fall but lost the likeness of God.

      The work of Irenaeus, Clement, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem each reflect to some degree this Patristic thought that you note. For example, Irenaeus maintained that reason and will are core elements of the image of God and continued even after the fall. Irenaeus, who countered Gnostic beliefs, also held that God’s salvation impacted the whole person (body, mind, soul, and spirit), to which I concur and reflect, in principle, in the proposed holistic formation model.
      Augustine built on these Patristic foundations, maintaining that the imago Dei is imprinted upon the human soul through the work of the Trinity in memory, intellect, and will. According to Augustine, these three faculties are the conduits of being in right relationship with God in order to know and love him. Then Aquinas, who drew heavily from Augustine, advanced the notion that humans are like God in the nature of the human mind in knowing and loving God.

      So related to your question about my proposed formational model, I take an approach to the imago Dei that relies less on the distinction of interpretation of “image” and “likeness” and more on the human person that considers a confluence of the four main historical perspectives on the imago Dei that I outlined in last week’s blog. I suggest through the holistic formation model that humanity is created in the image of God and through redemption has the capacity to further develop into the divine image of God through the likeness of His Son. As such, I propose that each of the seven dimensions of holistic formation align with this overarching premise.

      I appreciate the question and your perspective~

  5. Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

    I appreciate your respect for the creative capacities that humanity displays. A church demonstrates these values as it seems your church does is so encouraging! I marvel in hearing of the release of the creative in all the arts, when given for the glory of God and as a way to express worship of the living God. Despite the fact that creativity can be exploited and perverted for self and material gain in the absence of recognizing God who has blessed with inherent gifting skills, abilities, and talents is such a sad commentary.

    You raise a great consideration related to the element of creativity in the imago Dei. And I would agree that the creative abilities and expressions of humankind are evidence of the creative character of God. If you were to ask me how creativity (i.e., in the arts and performing arts including music, drama, art, and dance) would fit into my proposed holistic formation model, I would say that creativity would represent a demonstration of the confluence of several of the holistic dimensions (i.e., spiritual, emotional, perhaps relational (i.e., dance), intellectual, vocational, physical). For in the creative expression of humanity, the spirit, mind, emotions, social interactions, and the body are often all involved.

    You asked if I hold to Hoekema’s assertion that the fall somehow erased the imago Dei? I read Hoekema as concluding that humankind’s image was perfect in the creation but lost the original image through disobedience and sin. However, he maintains that the imago Dei must be seen in light of redemption. According to Hoekema, humanity lost the original image, which was perverted because of disobedience and sin. In his words, “The image in the structural sense was still there – man’s gifts, endowments, and capacities were not destroyed by the fall – but man now began to use these gifts in ways that were contrary to God’s will. What changed, in other words, was not the structure of man but the way in which he functioned, the direction in which he was going” (Created in God’s Image, p. 83). Hoekema maintains that the perverted image was renewed through the process of Christ’s redemption and is being “rectified” over time, or what the Bible calls sanctification, “the progressive renewal of man in the image of God” (p. 86).

    I believe that because Christ has become for us the perfect image of God (cf. Col. 1:15), whereby the original image lost during the fall can be restored through receiving Him into our hearts. And we, as fallen humanity, can have right relationship with God and others, and fulfill our destiny to care for and steward all of God’s provisions to us (i.e., all of His gifting in us, as well as the care of creation) through new life given us through Christ and the Holy Spirit’s working in us. The Holy Spirit, then, transforms us into every increasing likeness to Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). I love how Jurgen Moltmann portrays the work of the Spirit: “The indwelling of the Spirit brings the divine energies of life in Jesus to rapturous and overflowing fullness” (The Spirit of Life, p. 61). The life-giving Spirit then is the conduit for conforming us to Jesus.

    Thank you for your ongoing reflections, Gary.