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.