What is the “Image of God?”

In the last few blog posts I shared a bit about how to approach the “image of God” and some of the shared assumptions most theologians have about the doctrine. Now we can finally turn our attention to the meaning of the “image of God” in contemporary theology.

This term’s meaning typically falls into one of four categories: Structural, Relational, Functional, and Dynamic.

Structural Accounts
Structural accounts of the image of God argue that there is some substantial or structural feature of humanity that humans share with God. Historically this similarity has been located in the soul or in rationality or the will. When theologians have attempted to discern the structural similarities between God and humans, they have typically taken one of two approaches. They either begin by looking at the rest of creation in an attempt to discern how humans are different from other created beings or they look directly to God to discern what features humans share with him. The structural view is no longer popular among theologians, although it maintains a high level of influence in popular thought. There are a few reasons why the structural view has fallen out of favor. First, the structural view lacks exegetical basis. Although arguments could be made for how scripture teaches that humans have (or are) a soul or that humans are rational beings these arguments are not connected in a significant way to passages which address the imago Dei. Second, the structural view tends to exclude those who lack features deemed normative. If rationality defines what it means to be made in the image of God, then young children and those with several mental incapacities would not be considered to be made in the image of God. Third, many of the features of humans that have been thought to ground the uniqueness of human beings from animals have been shown to be shared features. Rationality or the will are no longer considered to be the exclusive possession of humans. Other animals display rationality. The difference seems to be one of degree and not kind. Finally, the features which ground the structural view tend to be disembodied features. This does not take into account the embodied nature of humans nor does it account for the embodied nature of the image of God.

Relational Accounts
If structural accounts of the image of God have fallen out of favor among systematic theologians, then relational accounts have now become the most popular account. According to relational accounts, it is some particular relation that forms the basis for being made in the image of God. Sometimes this relation is thought to be humanity’s relational nature, which is shared with God. Other times, it is thought to be a particular relation that humanity bears to God. Calvin for example advocates for the image of God as being a relation of “mirroring.” Humans image God as a mirror images it’s subject. More commonly, theologians have argued that humans are relational just like God. Karl Barth grounds his relational doctrine of the image of God in the fact that within God there is an I-Thou relationship. Just like there is an I-Thou relationship in God marked by unity and difference, humans experience a relationship of unity and difference in their sexuality. There is unity and difference, Barth says, between male and female. The advantage of this view is that it is highly embodied and that it has an exegetical basis. Moltmann, also takes his cues from Trinitarian theology. He argues that much like God, who is a social Trinity, humans are found in community marked by sexual differences. Moltmann explicitly argues against accounts of the image of God based on psychological analogies to the Trinity and chooses to ground the imago Dei in the social Trinitarian account of perichoresis. The primary critique leveled against relational accounts is that they tend to derive from social Trinitarianism (only non-social Trinitarians will find this critique significant) and that they rely on the modern I-Thou philosophy of thinkers like Buber.

Functional Accounts
If structural accounts have fallen out of favor, relational accounts have become primary among theologians, then functional accounts have won the day among biblical scholars. Functional accounts argue that the image of God is a particular function that humans carry out. This function is usually described in reference to the ancient near eastern context of Genesis. Most ANE scholars recognize religious and political language in Genesis’ use of selem and demut. In Egypt and Babylon, the term was often used to denote the representative function of idols or kings, standing as the personal presence of a god. Accordingly, the have the idol or image of a diety present was to have the diety there. Similarly, the king stood as an image of the diety, representing the deity’s authority in that location. The notion also carried political implications. Kings might set up an image or a statue of themselves in some far off location to denote their presence. Given this ANE background it seems as though to say that humans are made in God’s image means that humans represent his presence. It also means that humans rule on his behalf. This has been described by biblical scholars like G.K. Beale, Richard Middleton, and N.T. Wright as a vice-regent role. The human’s function, as the image of God, then, is to represent God and to rule on his behalf. This view has the strengths of having a strong exegetical basis. Its biggest weaknesses, however, is that it might be an instance of “parallelomania.” This is a term used by biblical scholars to denote that too much is being drawn from parallel concepts found in the bible’s cultural backgrounds. Also, it may be the case that the function is a result of being made in the image, not that the function is the image itself. Thus we are still left asking, what does it mean to be made in the image of God?

Dynamic Accounts
A fourth, common view about the image of God that is held in contemporary theology is the dynamic understanding of the concept. Accordingly, the image is something that is primarily eschatological. This view does not deny that humans were made in the image of God, as it states in Genesis, nor that humans don’t currently posses the image of God. Rather it places the emphasis on the future, as the telos of the image of God is actually found in the eschaton. Isaac Dorner represents this view well when he says that the image of God is our current endowment but that it is also our destiny. As I noted above, most theologians agree that there is a dynamic aspect built in to the biblical understanding of the image of God. There are some theologians, however, who emphasize this more than other. Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example, is one such theologian. He argues for a Christological account of the image of God, however, he argues that the Christological fulfillment of the image belongs to humanity proleptically. Grenz, who studied under Pannenberg, also emphasizes the dynamic nature of the image of God. Like Pannenberg, Grenz emphasizes that Christ is the true image of God. He is the perfect image of God. Accordingly, human beings who have put their faith in Christ, are being transformed into his likeness. This is a process that occurs in this life and is completed in the eschaton. One beneficial feature of the dynamic view, is that it can be added to any of the other views of the imago Dei. The relational theologian can say that the relationship comes to its completion in the eschaton, the functional theologian can say that we will rule in perfect unity with God’s will in the new creation.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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