Practically all Christians are familiar with the idea that Christians are made in the image of God. But what does this initially nebulous phrase mean? Christians are not the only ones to have this sort of idea. Paul notes that even some of the Gentiles believed that humans are the offspring of God. For the Early Church Father, image investiture referred primarily to possessing the rational and moral characteristics of God. Unfortunately, some believed that this extended to man’s bodily traits as well. Tertullian and Irenaeus distinguished between the “likeness” of God on the one hand and his “image” on the other. “Image,” for these writers, referred to bodily traits whereas “likeness” referred to the spiritual nature. Origen and Clement of Alexandria rejected bodily similarities and argued that “image” referred to characteristics that are essential to man whereas “likeness” refers to traits which may be lost. Augustine, John of Damascus, Ambrose, Athanasius and Hilary all share this view.
For Pelagius, however, image investiture referred to rationality and free will, as well as possession of the ability to rule over the creation. The distinction made by early church writers between image and likeness of God was inherited by the Scholastics, with “image” referring to intellectual powers of freedom and reason and “likeness” referring to original righteousness. They also distinguished between the image of God as a natural gift to humanity, which belongs to humans essentially, and the likeness of God as original righteousness, which was regarded as a supernatural gift. The purpose of the latter was to protect against man’s lower nature. Debate centered around whether humans possess original righteousness once at creation or if it is only received later as a reward for temporary obedience. The Reformers, for their part, rejected the distinction between image and likeness. Original righteousness was included as a component of the image of God and as belonging to humans essentially.
Luther and Calvin disagreed with one another concerning what it meant to be made in the image of God. Luther believed that image investiture referred exclusively to original righteousness. Therefore, this image is entirely lost by sin. Calvin took a broader view of the image, insisting that it refers to every aspect according to which humans exceed animals. He writes in his Institutes:
“Accordingly, by this term (‘image of God’) is denoted the integrity with which Adam was endued when his intellect was clear, his affections subordinated to reason, all his senses duly regulated, and when he truly ascribed all his excellence to the admirable gifts of his Maker. And though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine.”
Thus, there is both spiritual and natural endowments such as original righteousness and holiness. This image was damaged by sin but only the spiritual qualities were lost entirely. The Socinians, as well as some Arminians, restricted image investiture to human stewardship of the lower creation. Schleiermacher repudiated the notion that there is an original state of righteousness as a necessary teaching. Indeed, he believed that righteousness and holiness can only result from a process o development, so it is an absurdity, in his eyes, to speak of an original righteousness, and a contradiction in terms.
Schleiermacher rejected the idea of an original state of integrity and of original righteousness as a necessary doctrine. Since, as he sees it, moral perfection or righteousness and holiness can only be the result of development, he regards it as a contradiction in terms to speak of man as being created in a state of righteousness and holiness. Hence the image of God in man can only be a certain receptivity for the divine, a capacity to answer to the divine ideal, and to grow into God-likeness. Such modern theologians as Martensen and Kaftan are quite in line with this idea.
Common among Reformed and Presbyterian writers is a distinction between what Angus Stewart describes as the “broader” vs. the “narrower” view in which humans can be spoken of as having been made in the image of God. In the narrower sense, the image of God refes to true holiness, righteousness and knowledge, which cwas lost entirely in the all. In the wider sense, the image of God refers to humanity’s intellectual power, moral reedom and natural affections. Stewart quotes Henrici a Diest, the Dutch Reformed theologian:
“The image of God (which cannot be lost) was the spiritual, immortal, rational substance of the soul, with the powers of knowing and freely willing: the divine image, which can be lost, lay for knowledge in wisdom, for the will and its effects in true righteousness and holiness.”
Lutherans typically insist that the image of God is entirely lost in the fall and only the Gogspel restores it. Lutherans therefore reject the notion that there is any “broader” sense in which one can speak of the image of God. Some Reformed and Presbyterian writers agree with Luther and his followers concerning the restriction of image investiture as referring to spiritual virtues of righteousness, holiness and knowledge. Among Calvinists, Christian Reconstructionists are particularly keen to emphasize the notion of image investiture as entailing that humans have dominion over the Earth. So Angus Stewart:
“Individual theologians often put the concept to a particular use. Some are especially interested in using the imago dei to explicate man’s relationship to the creation. Christian scholars trying to present a biblical worldview find the image of God concept very helpful.19 Christian Reconstructionists emphasize man’s being in the divine image as involving dominion over the earth in keeping with their hope that all of this world will be governed by Christian civil governments before the bodily return of Jesus Christ. Kenneth Gentry asserts “One vital aspect of that image [i.e., man’s being in the image of God] is that of man’s acting as ruler over the earth and under God.””
Let us examine how image investiture has been understood throughout the history of Reformed theology. Typically, Calvinists are divided among themselves concerning the broader/narrower view and the Lutheran view. Geerhardus Vos believed that the distinction between the broader and narrower view is the distinctly Reformed perspective, whereas Berkhof acknowledges that there is internal disagreement among Calvinists. The exact view Calvin himself held is unclear. At some points he appears to distinguish between the two senses in which humans are made in the image of God, but he definitely seems to emphasize the spiritual sense in which humans are made in the image of God. Stewart quotes Sinclair Ferguson on the view of Calvin and its relation to that of later Calvinists:
“The image has been defined in ethical and cognitive terms. God is holy and righteous. Man made in his image is so as well. Calvin, in particular, argued for this position … The image of God, therefore, consisting of holiness, righteousness and knowledge of the truth is dynamic rather than static in nature. Reformed theology recognized that more than this was required in order to express fully the Biblical teaching (cf. Calvin’s belief that not even the body is excluded from the idea of the divine image).”
Heinrich Bullinger seems to agree with Lutherans in teaching that the imago dei consists in ethical virtues:
“I say, that this depravation of our nature is nothing else but the blotting out of God’s image in us. There was in our father Adam before his fall the very image and likeness of God; which image, as the apostle expoundeth it, was a conformity and participation of God’s wisdom, justice, holiness, truth, integrity, innocency, immortality, and eternal felicity. Therefore what else can the blotting or wiping out of this image be but original sin; that is, the hatred of God, the ignorance of God, foolishness, distrustfulness, desperation, self-love, unrighteousness, uncleanness, lying, hypocrisy, vanity, corruption, violent injury, wickedness, mortality and eternal infelicity? This corrupt image and likeness is by propagation derived into us all, according to that saying in the fifth of Genesis: “Adam begat a son in his own similitude and likeness.”
According to Heinrich Heppe, Johannes Cocceius said that the imago dei consists in the “rectitudo” of the soul rather than in the substance of the soul, the faculties of the soul or the dominion of man over nature. Hepper says that Braun, Witsius, Riisen, Heidegger and others agree with Cocceius in distinguishing between, according to Stewart:
“Nor, says Heppe, is Cocceius alone in this. Heppe tells us that Heidegger, Braun, Witsius, Riisen and others agreed with Cocceius in speaking of, first, the “antecedent of the image” (man’s rational-moral nature); second, the “actual formal nature of the image of God” (the uprightness of the soul as a quality infused into the former); and, third, the “consequent of the image” (Adam’s dominion).”
“The first of these was, as one elegantly expresses it, as precious ground on which the image of God might be drawn and formed: the second, that very image itself, and resemblance of the divinity: the third, the lustre of that image widely spreading its glory; and as rays, not only adorning the soul, but the whole man, even his very body; and rendering him the lord and head of the world, and at the very same time immortal, as being the friend and confederate of the eternal God.”
Heppe says that this view was adopted in conscious opposition to the distinction between the broader and narrower senses of the imago dei. Other continental Reformed theologians also take the Lutheran view that imago dei consists solely of man’s spiritual capacities. So Article 3 of the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560) penned by, among others, John Knox:
“By which transgression, commonly called original sin, was the image of God utterly defaced in man; and he and his posterity of nature, became enemies of God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.”
William Perkins expresses his discomfort of equating the imago dei of rationality or morality. His thoughts on the subject are worth quoting at length.
“The image of God is nothing else but a conformity of man unto God, whereby man is holy as God is holy: for Paul saith, Put on the new man, which after God, that is in God’s image, is created in righteousness and holiness. Now I reason thus: wherein the renewing of the image of God in man doth stand, therein was it at the first; but the renewing of God’s image in man doth stand in righteousness and holiness: therefore God’s image wherein man was created at the beginning, was a conformity to God in righteousness and holiness. Now whether God’s image doth further consist in the substance of man’s body and soul, or in the faculties of both, the Scriptures speak not…The image of God is not to be conceived in bodily things, as the anthropomorphites imagined, nor yet standeth in the essence and faculties of the soul, as memory, reason, will, as Augustine took it, for wicked men have these; nor in dominion and rule, which made man as a little God amongst the creatures, for this is a consequence that followed on the image; but as Paul teacheth, it standeth in these divine qualities, which as certain signs and forms express the divine nature, most holy, most just, so far as the Creator can be figured forth in such a creature.”
The English Puritan Richard Sibbes writes:
“Therefore, when you read of the image of God in the New Testament [this would include I Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9], it must be understood of the image of God in Jesus Christ, the second Adam. Now this image consists in knowledge, in holiness and righteousness. If we compare Col. iii. [verse 10] with Eph. iv. [verse 24], this was perfect in Christ, who was the image of his Father, and we must be like Christ the second Adam in sanctification … When God set his image on the first Adam, it was rased, and decayed and lost, by the malice of the devil … For every man by nature carries the nature of the devil on him, till the image of God be stamped on, and the image of Satan erased out.”
Thomas Vincent (1634-1678), writing in his commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, says in Q. & A. 10:
“Q. 3. Wherein doth consist the image of God, which was put upon man in his first creation?
A. 1. Negatively, the image of God doth not consist in any outward visible resemblance of his body to God, as if God had any bodily shape. 2. Positively, the image of God doth consist in the inward resemblance of his soul to God, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. “Renewed in knowledge, after the image of Him that created him” (Col. 3:10). “Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph 4:24).
Q. 4. What is included in this image of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, as man had it at first?
A. The image of God in man at the first doth include the universal and perfect rectitude of the whole soul: knowledge in his understanding, righteousness in his will, holiness in his affections.”
Robert Rollock, a 16th century Scot and first Principal of Edinburgh University, according to Angus Stewart, said that the image of God is the “soul of the soul” or the godly and spiritual qualities of the human soul. Stewart quotes the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian theologian George Smeaton on the topic:
“The image of God, in which Adam was created, was replaced by the entire corruption of man’s nature (John 3:6). His understanding had been furnished with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator and of spiritual things; his heart and will had been upright; all his affections had been pure; and the whole man holy: but, revolting from God by the temptation of the devil, the opposite of all that image of God became his doleful heritage; and his posterity derive corruption from their progenitor, not by imitation, but by the propagation of a vicious nature, which is incapable of any saving good. It is prone to evil, and dead in sin. It is not denied that there still linger in man since the Fall some glimmerings of natural light, some knowledge of God and of the difference between good and evil, and some regard for virtue and good order in society. But it is all too evident that, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, men are neither able nor willing to return to God, or to reform their natural corruption.”
R.L. Dabney also rejected the broader/narrower view:
“This image [of God] has been lost, in the fall, and regained, in redemption. Hence, it could not have consisted in anything absolutely essential to man’s essence, because the loss of such an attribute would have destroyed man’s nature. The likeness which was lost and restored must consist, then, in some accidens.”