Imago Dei: What Does It Mean?
The Bible reveals that of all God’s creatures, only man (humankind) was created in the expressed image of God. While Scripture mentions the imago Dei (Latin for the “image of God”) several times (Genesis 5:1, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:10; James 3:9), Genesis 1:26–27 is the most important text.
Hebrew references to “image” (tselem) and “likeness” (demût) convey the idea of an object similar to or representative of something else, but not identical to it.1 Further, the words “image” and “likeness” should not be understood as referring to two different things, but rather as interchangeable terms that reflect a Hebrew form of synonymous parallelism.2 The New Testament Greek word for image (eikōn) conveys virtually the same meaning as the Hebrew. Both languages indicate that God created humans to be similar to himself, but not identical to himself. Therefore from a biblical perspective, human beings are in some sense both like and unlike the God who made them.
What exactly does it mean for man to be like God? Three qualifications must be made before examining this question further. First, Scripture contains an implicit rather than explicit explanation of the image of God. A definition for imago Dei must come from drawing proper inferences from the biblical text, buttressed by careful reflection about the state of the human condition.
Second, a complete understanding of the imago Dei’s meaning simply isn’t possible because it would require an exhaustive understanding of God’s nature (in addition to that of man).3 Finite creatures by definition cannot comprehend or fully fathom the infinite nature of God; therefore, by necessity people are faced with mystery and limited knowledge.
Third, throughout church history different theological traditions have taken a variety of positions on the exact meaning of the divine image. For example, the three branches of Christendom (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) have each emphasized different aspects of the image.4
This position asserts that humankind possesses a formal nature that serves to represent God. This nature then possesses certain qualities, characteristics, or endowments (spiritual, rational, volitional, etc.) that make humankind like God.
This perspective, while allowing for the idea of formal traits, nevertheless insists that humans are most like God when it comes to their unique relational qualities. Thus it is man’s ability to engage in complex interpersonal relationships that best reflects the divine.
This viewpoint insists that being made in the image of God is more about what a person does than what a person is. Thus when human beings perform certain functions (take dominion over nature or appropriately represent God on Earth) then the divine image is most deeply reflected.
All three views have their biblical strengths and weaknesses. However, rightly formulated and integrated, all three positions could reflect the different ways that human beings reflect the image of their Creator.5
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 442–50.
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), s.v. “Image of God,” 2:803.
- Grudem, Systematic Theology, 443.
- Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v. “imago Dei.”
- See Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids:Baker, 2007), 172–85.