The Image of God, Revisited

Dear Reader,

I have had some feedback on my recent post on the image of God so I wanted to expand/give clarification. You  can read that post (which was itself a reworking of an earlier post) here.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to explain a little bit about where this post came from. I think as I write and to some extent each post builds a little on what has come before. If you haven’t read much here previously and/or don’t know me, you are probably not going to have a lot of context. It is very easy as a writer to think that your audience knows and understands what is in your head, but someone who doesn’t know me and hasn’t followed my convoluted train of thought can easily misunderstand where I am coming from.

Until fairly recently I was a Charlotte Mason (CM) style homeschooler and I blogged on her philosophy of education a lot. Over time, I became aware that her theology — upon which her approach to education is directly based — did not line up with mine as well as I thought it did. I ended last year with a series in which I asked the question “Is CM’s philosophy biblical?” My goal at the time was not to judge her by my own standards or those that a reformed person might ordinarily turn to (read: Calvin), but to hold her ideas up to the light of Scripture and also to place her within the scope of orthodox Christian thought. I tell you this now to try to explain how the very first version of this post came about. I looked at the image of God in Scripture specifically (as opposed to looking at what other Christians writers had to say) because my goal was to see how her ideas fit with Scripture. I included a section on Christian ideas about the image of God, not to give a thorough review of the history of thought on this huge topic, but just to give a sense of the range of thought and where she and I fit in.

A lot of Christians have said a lot of things about the “image of God.” Two thousand plus years after the birth of Christ (and many thousand more after the writing of Genesis 1), there is still no one clear definition of what this phrase means. Even within the smaller world of reformed theology, it is not a settled point. Here is what Meredith Kline said in 1999:

“When defining the imago Dei, dogmatic theology has traditionally tended to engage in an analysis of what constitutes humanness. But to answer the general question “What is man?” is not the same thing as answering the precise question “What is the image of God?”. If our objective is to discern what the biblical idea of the image of God is, it would appear necessary to abandon the traditional dogmatic wineskins, go back to the beginning of Genesis, and start afresh.” [Meredith Kline, “Creation in the Image of the Glory Spirit,” from Meredith Kline.com, 2006 (1)]

Note that Kline calls for us to abandon old concepts, to start afresh and to use the “biblical idea” as our starting place. I had not read Kline when I wrote my post, but this is essentially what I was trying to do.

The big problem with the phrase “image of God” is that we use it to convey two different ideas. Sometimes when we say “man is in the image of God,” we mean that he has inherent dignity and worth. This often comes up in conversations about abortion which makes it quite a heated, emotional topic. At other times when we say “man is in the image of God,” we are saying something about his character or characteristics. This can take different forms. To some the image of God equals a certain faculty or set of faculties such as reason or creativity. To others it means that we are spiritual and/or relational creatures. Or it may be associated with original holiness or righteousness or goodness. It may mean that we were given dominion. Or it may be some combination of these things and more besides. Simply put, it’s confusing because we use the same words to mean very different things.

I said that children are not in the image of God. That was poorly phrased not so much because of the image of God bit as the children bit. First of all it probably put you all in mind of the whole abortion issue which was not what I had in mind (I did make clear at the time that I am anti-abortion).  I said “children” because my overall topic on this blog is education. But in truth what I meant to mean was “unsaved people” or perhaps “man in his post-Fall, pre-saved state” is not in the image of God (I know, I know, you are still bothered but bear with me for a minute; I’m getting back to what bothers you in a few paragraphs). I want to be clear that I do believe in the concept of covenant children, that the children of believers are considered holy. I believe that God can save children at any age, even before birth. So in truth I never meant that all  children are not in the image of God but only those who are unsaved as well as adults who are unsaved.

Returning to the image of God — you remember I said there are two main ways we use the phrase? One has to do with man’s inherent value and one has to do with certain characteristics (however we identify them). My intent was to make a statement about the latter but I was in no way intending to deny the former.

There is an inherent tension between these two ideas. They are linked ideas because they are both tied to this phrase, “image of God,” but they are distinctive. That is largely what I was trying to show when I quoted random Christian theologians — that they all struggled with this tension and that they came up with different ways of trying to address it (again, this was just a general survey intended to give the range of Christian thought). We want to say at one and the same time that:

  • individual people, all people, have value because they are made in the image of God but–
  • people are fallen and something — which we may also equate with the image of God — has been lost or corrupted in them.

The Catholic Church eliminates the tension by distinguishing between the image and the likeness. As I said in my earlier post, I don’t think the biblical text supports this interpretation. The Dutch Reformed speak of the image in a greater and a narrower sense. The narrower was lost; the wider is still present in all people. To some degree they, like the Catholics, are just coming up with two ideas to replace one that seems to contradict itself. “Common grace” is often cited as an explanation (2). The argument goes something along the lines of “yes, man is fallen and no longer has his original righteousness which made him like God, but common grace means that even unregenerate people are still valuable enough that we recognize they mean more than the animals and we shouldn’t kill them.” A similar argument is “corrupted but not lost” which is pretty much what it sounds like — the image of God in man was severely damaged at the Fall but there is enough of his Creator still reflected in man to keep us from killing each other willy-nilly.

If I have been dissatisfied with how Augustine and the Dutch Reformed and others have dealt with the tension, some of you have been dissatisfied with what are apparently my own theological calisthenics. Essentially, what I argued was that the image of God, as the phrase is used in the Bible, refers to some quality or characteristic that was lost at the Fall. I did not mean by this to deny the inherent value of all people but to divorce the two issues. I am not the first by any means to do so. But I understand that it is still a dissatisfying answer because (a) it seems to throw the value of people, particularly the most vulnerable people, to the wind and (b) it seems to ignore the biblical connection between the image of God and the injunction against spilling human blood.

With regard to (a) I will say again that I never doubted the value of each human. Personally, when I think about abortion and other hot-button issues, I have always thought that killing a person is wrong not so much because he is in the image of God as because I have no authority over him.  Compare my child to my pet. One I can kill if I like — I have authority over him because God has given him to me. The other I cannot kill because he does not belong to me. I don’t have that kind of authority over him (3). Nor do I have authority over myself in that way. That’s why suicide is wrong. It’s why I can’t do whatever I like with my body (because it is not mine) and why you can’t do whatever you like with my body. It is an argument from Genesis 1:28, not Genesis 1:26. It also explains why the government can put to death certain kinds of criminals — because God has given it specific authority to do so.

With regard to (b) — the connection the Bible makes between the image of God and not killing each other– I’ll concede maybe I downplayed this a bit too much. But on the other hand, when I read verses like 2 Corinthians 4:4 in which Christ is called the image of God and 1 Corinthians 15:49 which says believers shall bear the image of God, it is hard for me to say that the image is something that all men bear. How can an unregenerate person bear the image of God when the image is Christ and Christ is something believers put on? I suspect that you will say I am being too narrow in my interpretation and that may be the case. But I am willing to say this: It is wrong to kill other people (or do lots of other random bad things to them) because we were all in Adam created in the image of God. However we also all in Adam lost the image of God. The elect regain it in Christ though in an imperfect form in this life.  This is a very corporate view of the image of God which sees us all as being in Adam at Creation and at the Fall. I think it actually fits kind of nicely with the creation account in which God says “let us make man, male and female, in our image” in Genesis 1 but in which Eve is not actually created until Genesis 2. Eve was made in the image of God because she came from Adam. Male and female were both in Adam in Genesis 1:26 though only a male had been created as a stand-alone sort of human being. It is the same for us — we were all in Adam at creation and in that sense we were all created in the image of God.

But perhaps I am still doing too many theological calisthenics — Why, you ask, not just say “corrupted but not lost”? I have been told that my earlier post didn’t seem very reformed, but, honestly, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about “corrupted but not lost.” I don’t want to put words in others’ mouths, but to me “corrupted but not lost” feels less reformed. If what was in us is only tarnished, one might argue, then maybe we don’t need quite as much of a Savior. One need not go down every slippery slope, of course, but it seems we could easily slip into “well, if it’s only corrupted, we can clean it up a bit ourselves” or maybe “we can at least help God out by dusting up a bit around the edges.” Lost makes me feel a lot more comfortable because what is lost we cannot get back on our own.

Summing up then, for absolute clarity (hah!)– Adam was created in the image of God in Genesis 1. Eve and all the rest of us were in Adam at this point and were thus also created in the image of God. It is wrong to spill human blood because we were created in the image in this way and also because we do not have that kind of authority over one another or even over ourselves (governments, however, have been given such authority). Adam, and the rest of humanity in him, lost the image of God at the Fall. Christ is the image of God. Believers put on Christ. We once again bear the image of God and are being transformed more and more into His image.

I’ll end with this — I think as I write but I am not a politician; I have absolutely no problem with changing my mind. I certainly don’t have all of Christian theology worked out. I am happy to have friendly discussions on this or any other topic as long as you approach me directly and respectfully. I raised the issue of what the image of God is and what it means because it relates to the nature of children which relates to education. I do not think, however, that all the fine details here are going to be important to my overall approach to education (which is still being worked out). To me this is somewhat of a subsidiary issue so while I am always happy to discuss theological issues, I don’t intend to spend a lot more time on it.

Nebby

Notes:

(1) I am citing an article from MeredithKline.com because it is what I have access to but the text seems to be identical to the beginning of his book Images of the Spirit (1999).

(2) Because just having one footnote looks bad, I’ll add that in reading Van Til’s book on education recently I was struck by his use of “common grace.” It made me think that I don’t really understand this phrase and that we need a lot more good teaching on it.

(3) Look, a third footnote! Just to clear — I know parents have authority over their children, but they don’t have the kind of authority that allows them to kill their children or to maim them or to do whatever they want with them in a million other ways.

One response to this post.

  1. […] will last throughout this life. Sanctification means that we are gradually being made more holy. The image of God in us is being perfected as we are made more like Christ who is Himself the perfect Image of God […]

    Reply

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