Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’
-Sphere Sovereignty (p. 488) cited in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
Two Approaches to the Concept of the Image of God
Despite the fact that the image of God is a concept rarely used in the Bible, the concept has been the subject of voluminous discussion throughout the history of the Church. However it possible to extract two distinct approaches to understanding the concept of the image of God.
The first approach is known as the political interpretation of image of God which analyses the concept in terms of sort of roles or functions which mankind are appointed to by virtue of being made in the divine image. The second approach is what I shall call the ontological interpretation which analyses the concept in terms of the sort of properties or characteristics humans possess by virtue of being made in the image of God. This approach has been the dominant one throughout the history of the Church and many qualities, from the soul to reason to dignity to freewill, have been posited as the referent of the term. However this highly speculative endeavour has provoked the following dry remark from Karl Barth: “One could indeed discuss which of all these and similar explanations of the term is the most beautiful or the most deep or the most serious. One cannot, however, discuss which of them is the correct interpretation of Genesis 1:26.”
Fortunately in this particular case our contemporary knowledge of the Ancient Near East (ANE) puts us in a better position to determine the meaning of the concept which points to the priority of the political interpretation over the ontological one. I will therefore begin with the political interpretation before trying to draw out some of its implications for the ontological one.
Image of God as Divine Vice-Regents over the World
Modern ANE scholarship has given us a better understanding of the culture and literature which surrounds the world of Genesis and that scholarship points very strongly to an understanding of being made in the image of God as essentially a divine ordination to rulership or dominion over the world.
It would be useful to quote John Walton’s insightful explanations on the ANE context to the concept of the “image of God” in his commentary on Genesis 1:26:
Image … likeness (1:26).
Throughout the ancient Near East, an image was believed to contain the essence of that which it represented. That essence equipped the image to carry out its function. In Egyptian literature, there is one occurrence of people in general having been created in the image of deity in the Instructions of Merikare, dated to about 2000 B.C. …, but it is generally the king who is spoken of in such terms. The image is the source of his power and prerogative.
In Mesopotamia there are three categories of significance. (1) As in Egypt, the king is occasionally described as being in the image of deity. (2) An idol contained the image of the deity. (3) The image of a king was present in monuments set up in territories he had conquered. I. Winter concludes in a study of royal images that the representations of the king did not intend to capture the features of “his own historically particular physiognomy, but those aspects of his features/appearance that had been molded by the gods and that resembled (or could be attributed to) the gods, such that the ruler’s features convey qualities of ideal, divinely-sanctioned rulership, not just personhood.”
Thus in an image, it was not physical likeness that was important, but a more abstract, idealized representation of identity relating to the office/role and the value connected to the image… The image of god did the god’s work on the earth.
–Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 1: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Thus, the immediate context of Genesis 1:26, where God goes on to command man to subdue the earth and have dominion over it, confirms this perspective in a rather straight forward way. While ANE texts rarely referred to any other person except kings as images of God, Genesis seemingly democratises this idea to include all humanity as divine vice-regents or kings on earth.
The next question would be what exactly does this “dominion” consists of? The answer can be found in Genesis 2:15, the second creation account, which states explicitly: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” What this means however needs to be inferred and it would be a fair one to say that that dominion consists of “gardening” the earth, that is, beautifying it and caring for it. Perhaps one might say speculatively that ordering the world, and all its creatures within, towards beauty is the task which God has ordained for mankind.
To sum up, us being made in the image of God is to be made, or appointed, God’s representatives or vice-regents in the world, to exercise “dominion” over it and all the creatures therein, ordering it towards beauty.
However are there no intrinsic virtues or characteristics associated with being made in God’s image? Or any essence defining it?
The Character of Images of God
As already noted from the start, the concept of the image of God is one rarely used in the Bible. As such, unlike justification or covenant, there is very little biblical material to work on. We can however begin by citing a long passage from Colossians 3:1-10 where the idea of the “image of God” is used.
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
We can make one direct observation about the image of God from this passage: knowledge is constitutive of us being images of God. This could be read off in a straight forward way in verse 10 whereby the renewal of our “new self” “after the image of its creator” consists of “knowledge”. The most obvious question to ask here is: knowledge of what? The context of the passage however provides a clue. Working our way backwards, the new self is contrasted with the “old self” and its practices (verse 9). These practices are the long lists of “earthly” practices and vices (verse 5, 8) and it is important to note that the “earthly” in this context does not refer to the material as opposed to the spiritual but to sinful vices. The earthly itself is contrasted with the “things that are above” (verse 2) upon which we are to set our minds on. Thus by tracing the argument backwards, it is a fair inference that the “knowledge” which renews us in the image of God (verse 10) refers to our mindfulness “on things that are above”, “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (verse 1).
To sum up the conclusion of the interpretation of this passage: knowledge of Christ is constitutive of our new selves being in the image of God. Here we can agree with both Barth and Westermann that being made in the divine image refers to a capacity or ability to personally relate to God at an experiential level, “knowing” in the Biblical sense, which could be plausibly inferred from the Colossians passage above.
It is however important to note that the characteristics here associated with being images of God are contingent characteristics. Human beings do not essentially or necessarily possess knowledge of Christ. As the Lutheran Confessions would put it, we can cease to be images of God, in this sense, whenever we do not retain knowledge of Christ and engage in sinful activities which negates such knowledge. Thus being made in the image of God at most gives us the potential to grow in knowledge of the Son of God, but it does not by itself entail that we cannot lose our being in the image of God.
The Care due to Royalty
Before we attempt to connect the dots between the “political” reading of images of God with the “ontological”, I believe that it would be helpful to draw out the “civic” or “social” meaning of being made in the divine image which could properly be said to be a species of the “political” reading.
The political reading of the image of God refers to mankind as divinely ordained vice-regents or representatives on earth. Genesis 1:26 directly relates this to man’s task to have dominion over the earth and its creatures. This however only speaks of man’s relation to the lower creatures, what does it imply for man’s relation to other man?
If all mankind are God’s representatives or vice-regents on earth, then it stands to reason that that would entail cares due unto them as we would unto God. One could make that connection with Matthew 25:40 where the King at the Day of Judgment declares that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” The most direct reference however to the care due to our fellow man by virtue of them being made in the divine image can be found James 3:9 where St James censures us who “curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
The Character of Royalties
How does the ontological aspect of being made in the divine image relate to its political/social aspect? I would first suggest that the “political” interpretation, that is, us being ordained to be vice-regents of God on earth to have dominion over it, is the primary meaning of what it means to be made in the divine image, and the other aspects are what helps us fulfil our role.
Claus Westermann argues that the phrase “in the image of God” does not refer to some particular human quality but instead to the divine act of creating man itself. He holds that the phrase “in his image” modifies the verb “let us make” rather than the noun “man”. Thus, the idea basically is that God made man, not with a certain particular quality, but with a specific role or purpose, to be his image on earth. As such, when the Bible speaks of us being made in the image of God, it refers rather to us being made to be God’s image on earth.
Therefore knowledge of Christ, the suppression of sins which contradicts that knowledge, and our charity and care for our fellow rulers over the earth, are the necessary traits for mankind to possess in other to fulfil their ordained role as divinely ordained vice-regents. This general proposition could be inferred from Genesis 2:18 when God declares his intention to create Eve to be a helpmeet for Adam, thus implicitly referring to the role of dominion over the earth as a cooperative and shared one, which mutual cooperation and harmony is intrinsically contingent upon our possession of the appropriate characteristics and love which we ought to have with one another.
Conclusion: The Neo-Calvinist Cultural Mandate
Our brief discussion on the concept of the image of God points to its primary and most direct meaning as that of being ordained or appointed as God’s representatives or rulers over the world. In this we are reminded of Kuyper’s declaration at the start about how all the world belongs to the Second Adam, the true and essential image of God, which exercises a true sovereignty and rulership over all the earth.
All of us who are called into the Kingdom of Christ are renewed and restored to our original calling and appointment, to exercise a like dominion and rulership over the earth in spirit and in truth. This dominion however after the example of Christ is that of service, aimed at the good of others, not for our own self-aggrandisation.
What this means in practical terms has been briefly discussed earlier, all of us are given our little “plot” in this life and earth to “garden” to the greater glory of God. Whatever material talents or goods we have been entrusted in this life, we are to use it to beautify the lives of others. Whether we are kings or commoners, whether we have been given a large realm to rule or a small room to decorate, we are all called to be “gardeners” of this world to partake in the divine task of making the world “good” just as long ago God made the world and called it good.
That we might be restored to our ordained position as divine images on earth, it has pleased God the Father, in the fullness of time, to send his Son, his essential image by nature, to die for us and cleanse us from all sins, that we might be free once more to till the earth and keep it, for the pleasure of both God and our fellow gardeners.