Berkouwer on the Image of God

I recently delved into G.C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984; orig. pub. 1957). I have been accused of having some non-standard views of the image of God and I was excited to tackle this book and to see where Berkouwer stood on the issue.

This is a dense book and fairly wide ranging. Berkouwer tackles many issues that relate tangentially to his main topic and which I never would have thought to address (for example, is each new human soul a unique new creation?). Overall, I like how thorough he is and how he analyzes the various positions and their weaknesses. My biggest disappointment was that he does not state clearly once and for all how he would define the image of God. One has to piece together his arguments to see where he actually comes down. The short story on The Image of God is that if you have any interest in this topic it is a must-read book. It addresses many issue and shows the many weaknesses of the usual, pat answers. But you will not necessarily walk away with the issue resolved in your mind.

As Berkouwer says a number of times, we Christians have been studying the Scriptures for about a millennium and we have yet to come to one generally accepted conclusion of what it means that man was created in the image of God. The two big questions we have to address are: What is the image? and What affect (if any) did the Fall have on it?

As I said Berkouwer’s own position is a little hard to discern, but here is my take on it (scroll to the end of this article for the notes I took as I read the book):

  • Man was created to have a covenant relationship with God and cannot be understood apart from God. He must always be seen and understood in this relational light and never on his own. (God, on the other hand, may be understood apart from man.) When Genesis 9:6 says that man may not be killed it is because of his creational relationship with God. 
  • Man is a whole. He is both saved and judged as a whole. We must avoid all dualism which pits body against soul or speaks of one as the greater and one as the lesser part of man. Any identification of the image which places it in one part of man — usually in his soul to the exclusion of his body — must be rejected. 
  • There is a functional or public aspect to the image; to be in the image includes representing or showing God. 
  • Scripture shows man as totally corrupt with no goodness in him and we need to maintain this standard. God’s common grace restrains evil rather than preserving something good in us. If it were not for this, we would become completely dehumanized or demonized. 
  • In the New Testament, we are told that Christ is the image of God (not merely in the image). We do not become God, but as children reflect their parents we are to reflect God by being in His image. Being in the image is closely related to sonship. We are told to put off the old man and to put on the new. This is a renewal of the image of God in us. It is only in Christ, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, that man comes into his true nature as God intended him to be (in Genesis 1). This is a new creation. There is an already and not yet aspect to this renewal; as we become sanctified we reflect the image more and more. The image is connected with what makes us human; as we become more in the image, we also become more truly human.

To sum up and answer the two big questions, if I am understanding correctly what Berkouwer is saying, he would say that the image involves the whole man; it cannot be compartmentalized to one aspect of human nature or to the soul to the exclusion of the body, and that it is about relationship with God. There is also a public aspect to the image in that we “image” or represent God to others. The image of God in man was lost at the Fall, but for believers is being restored through the union we have with Christ in sonship as we come to better and better reflect God.

I largely agree with his position. I would add the following, which are not corrections to what he is saying (as if I could) but simply further thoughts:

  • In the modern world, we have come to use the phrase “image of God” in our argument against abortion so whenever someone suggests that the “image of God” was lost at the Fall, we have a knee-jerk reaction and fear that they are arguing for abortion and against the value of every human life. This a modern failing. We cannot base our definition of what the image is on a modern political argument. We need to start with the Scriptures and move forward from there. 
  • We have a tendency look at our anthropological definitions to determine what the image of God in us is. We say: “we are rational, we communicate, we have relationships” and then we equate the image of God with such things. This method starts with us and makes in image of God in our likeness.
  • We detract from who God is when we break Him into parts and identify some of these with the image of God. We say “God is love” and “God has dominion,” and because we can love in some fashion or because we rule over creation, we equate these particular characteristics of God with the image. But in doing so we ignore the doctrine of divine simplicity which says that while we may speak of God’s attributes in this way, due to our own human incapacities, that God Himself cannot be broken down in this way into parts, some of which are the “image” and some of which aren’t.
  • When we break down the image of God into specific parts — human rationality, human communication, even the ability to love — we also run into problems when we encounter people who, for whatever reason, cannot communicate or do not exhibit rational thought. We risk saying that the baby born with half a brain or the adult in a coma is not fully human because they lack some characteristic or ability. The image is not about ability unless it is the ability to have a relationship with God.
  • The image is not just something we are. It is something we are called to be.

That is my take on Berkouwer’s Image of God. Overall definitely a book to make one think. Below as promised are my more detailed notes.

——————————————————–

My notes on the book:

Chapter 1:

In the first chapter Berkouwer discusses the definition of man and his nature among non-Christians. He spends considerable time on the humanists as these were prominent in his day. He argues that while the humanists have moved away from a completely idealistic, positive view of man, that they have can’t help but come back to it at some level. They have a view of the ideal man, what man should be (which seems Platonic). Berkouwer, for his part, argues that man cannot be understood on his own, apart from God. This is not a two-way street. God is not understood in the light of man, but man means nothing apart from God. Those who spend a lot of time talking about man’s nature but do not look at him in the light of God, have no self-knowledge. They theorize generally about others but do not know themselves.

Chapter 2:

In this chapter, Berkouwer gives an overview of how the image of God in man has been understood in Christian thought and what the key questions are. Despite millennia of study, there are still many questions on this point and no clear definition of what the image of God is. In reformed thought, it has been common to distinguish two uses of the phrase “image of God,” a wider and a narrow. In the wider sense, the image of God is about man’s essence, what makes him man, and this is something he cannot lose. In the narrower sense, it is about his nature and this he lost at the Fall. However, the Bible does not distinguish these two senses and as Bavinck points out we must view them as interrelated, and yet we always end up dualistic when we start with this framework. There are lots of problems with this wider/narrower conception. On one wide the Lutherans have traditionally held that the image of God in man is original righteousness and that it was lost. But they tend to back away from this somewhat and to say that there is some remnant that remains as well. On the other end, the Eastern Orthodox identify the image of God with the wider sense, that it is man’s essence and includes what makes him man, his personality, rationality, etc. But they end up semi-pelagian because it is hard to take this view and then not end up saying that there is some good in man and some ability to approach God. 

One problem with all the wider views of the image of God is that they are making an assumption. They assume that whatever makes man man, his humanness, has to be what is called the image of God. But the “man of lawlessness,” i.e. the antiChrist, is also called a man. Does he also bear the image of God? Though Berkouwer does not say it as such, we seem often to be making God in our image when we seek to define the image of God as what makes us human. We also tend to divide man when we do so. We do not identify his body with the image of God (eg. we do not have ears because God does) and so we separate body and soul. The image of God is only identified with non-physical characteristics. 

Schilder took what might be called a functional view of the image of God. Man was in God’s image because he was to be God’s image on earth, to show God. He still has the faculties he needs to do this but he no longer does it or can do it post-Fall. The image is lost but what makes man man is still there (but was never identified with the image). Berkouwer thinks that Schilder and two others who have similar views and whose names start with Sch- are on the right track. 

A main reason not to say the image is lost is Genesis 9:6 (and the verse in James). One can say that this is a historical fact — that the image of God was in man so others may not kill or abuse him — but Berkouwer is dissatisfied with this. Here Berkouwer returns to what he said in chapter 1, that man only makes sense in light of God.  Taking this idea to Genesis 9:6, he says that man cannot be killed with impunity because of his creational relationship with God. This seems like just the germ of an idea here which he will expand on later in the book. 

Chapter 3:

In this chapter Berkouwer discusses how the image of God has been identified. He starts by saying that there is no clear consensus. He dismisses the idea that there is any distinction between “image” and “likeness.” In the immediate context of Genesis 1, some have identified it with having dominion or with something about “male and female.” Berkouwer rejects both of these. He also spends some time on the relation between being in God’s image and being commanded not to make images of God. 

Calvin and Bavinck both understand the image in light of NT passages which speak of the renewed image of God in man. Berkouwer accepts this method but argues against Barth who goes a bit farther and sees the image of God in man as defined by Christ, the image of God. It is not, as Barth says, that Christ is the perfect definition of man but that He became man. 

Berkouwer then moves on to expounding his own theory which is largely based on the New Testament evidence. He includes not just those few verses which use the word “image” specifically but also others which speak of our becoming like Christ. John’s writings hold a prominent place in his theory. 

In the NT, Berkouwer argues, we are told to put off the old man and to put on the new. This is a renewal of the image of God. It is only in Christ, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, that man comes into his true nature as God intended him (in Genesis 1) to be (p. 99). Berkouwer speaks of this as a new birth and a re-creation. 

There is an outward, public or communal aspect to this as well — in our sanctification, the image of God becomes visible. It is seen by others. 

This renewal of the image of God in man has a now and not yet aspect — the image is renewed but in our sanctification and ultimately in our glorification it becomes clearer and clearer in us. 

To be like Christ in this way is not to be the same as Him. We do not become gods. The image of God Berkouwer links to being children of God. We reflect Him as children reflect their parents. It is similar, but not the same. Again, there is an outward aspect as we are called to reflect God in our lives. 

Chapter 4:

In this chapter Berkouwer discusses the problem of a “remnant” or vestige of the image of God remaining in man and how this can be compatible with total depravity. He looks first at Kant who seems to advocate total depravity but then as he talks about the remnant ends up backing off of this. This is typical of those who speak of a remnant of the image in man. It’s hard to maintain this position without saying that there is some good that remains in man. We need to be careful how we understand the use of the word “remnant,” however. When the confessions use this language, it becomes clear from context that they are not speaking of any goodness in man but of something which serves to condemn him all the more for his sin. 

Berkouwer spends some time on a dispute within the Lutheran church to show that using the categories of accident and substance also do not help in this discussion. 

Berkouwer ends the chapter by stating strongly that Scripture shows man as totally corrupt with no goodness in him and that we need to maintain this standard. He ends the chapter with a question: why does this not seem to be what we see? That is, why do men appear to have some goodness in them?

Chapter 5:

Berkouwer goes on to discuss the question he raised at the end of the last chapter: if man, post fall, is totally corrupted why does it appear that he can do good? He looks at Calvin and Kuyper and their arguments for and definition of common grace which has often been the reformed answer to this question. He notes that by their definition common grace restrains sin in man but does not enable him to truly do good though there may be outward conformity to God’s law. Common grace does not mean that there is some good still in people, though there is a tendency to take it in this direction. Berkouwer finds common grace a half-satisfying answer which still raises a lot of questions. 

Berkouwer goes on to look at a few other positions and spends considerable time on the Catholic position (official and unofficial). 

Because many equate “conscience” with what is good or from God in man, Berkouwer then looks at what the NT has to say about conscience. A “good conscience” is not a guide but an assurance of faith and salvation. A “weak conscience” is one that can be a false guide and is subject to whims. Never are we told in the Bible that our conscience is there to tell us what is right and wrong. God’s law is our guide for what is right and wrong (Heidelberg catechism). 

Berkouwer makes clear that there is a difference between (outward) conformity to God’s law and actual obedience.

At this point he begins to advance his own theory. As before, Berkouwer relates the image of God in man to his relationship with God. Our relationship with God cannot be divorced from our relationships with other people. These two are linked and we need our neighbor as well. We cannot understand our humanness as our will or reason because these things are individualistic and we are social.  

God’s work among people is a preserving more than a restraining. He preserves our common humanity so that we are not completely demonized or dehumanized. Our humanness is always threatened but there is a limit placed on our corruption.

Chapter 6:

In this chapter Berkouwer looks at the parts of a man and how he may (or may not be divided). The Bible does not give us a clear, scientific anthropology. Berkouwer’s emphasis throughout is on wholeness. In Genesis man’s body, made from dust, does not get a soul added to it but he becomes a soul. 

Berkouwer rejects a tripartite division (body, soul, and spirit) and being inherently dualistic (the third part mediates between the other two) and coming from Greek philosophy. He rejects dualistic conceptions which pit one part against another and inherently imply that one is greater and one is lesser. He rejects the idea that the body is the source of sin and that the soul is greater. Scripture speaks of sin coming from man’s heart.  Duality need not be dualism, however, if the two are not pitted against one another.

Various approaches try to locate the essence of man in one part, the central part. This might be the heart; Scripture seems to speak of the heart this way. More modern people speak of the “person.” This “personalism” emphasizes the relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ but also tends to a kind of subjectivity and away from fixed truth. Berkouwer rejects “personhood” as a solution.

Again Berkouwer ends by emphasizing the whole man. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body shows how important the body is. The whole man is saved. Scripture never speaks of a valuable part in man but of his lowliness in relation to God. 

Chapter 7:

In this chapter Berkouwer discusses the phrase “the immortality of the soul” and what part of man is immortal. Bavinck says that the soul is inherently immortal and that man’s body, as its organ, originally partook of this immortality. This immortality was lost and not mortality characterizes man.

Berkouwer looks at and rejects the position that there is a difference between death and dying and that dying has always been part of the plan as a kind of transition and something to draw men closer to God. 

Bavinck notes that many religions posit an immortal soul. But does this mean we should follow them?

Turning to the biblical evidence — In the Bible death and life are opposed. Scripture never speaks of “the immortality of the soul,” nor does it deny it. John says that those that have the Son have eternal life and those that don’t, don’t. Berkouwer believes we should take Christ literally when He says that Lazarus was asleep. Death, seen in the light of the Resurrection, is a sleep.

There is no intermediate state. Berkouwer spends a long time on this but in the end seems to simply say that it is a mystery what happens between physical death and judgment. 

Because we believe in the wholeness of the person, we need not fear science when it links psychic things to physical things (eg. explaining one’s emotions through chemical processes). 

Only God is essentially immortal. We have no natural immortality.  Scripture does not speak of “the immortality of the soul” and those who do tend to reject the Christian faith. It is not that there is one part of us, the soul, that is immortal and another, the body, which is not. There is no distinction between body and soul in the effects of death but judgment affects the whole man. Our continued existence is not a source of comfort but should make us fear judgment. So too the whole man, body and soul, is resurrected. The testimony of Scripture is not that there is some part which will escape death but that God will see us through it. “[L]ife is being-with-Christ.” 

Chapter 8:

Berkouwer turns next to the origin of the soul. There are two schools of thought: creationism, held mostly by Catholics and Calvinists, and traducianism, held mostly by Lutherans. The former says that each human soul is created directly by God and the latter that souls are not thus directly created. Catholics tend toward the creationism position in  part as a response to evolution. That is, they are willing to admit bodily evolution because they believe that the soul is added to the body as a separate creative act thus making the being human though he may be descended from apes. Lutherans tend to care less about the soul’s creation because they believe the image of God in man is original righteousness or holiness and that it was lost at the Fall. 

The problem with creationism is that it tends toward a dualism in the nature of man, a separation between body and soul and also a natural preeminence of the soul over the body as being more directly created by God. Berkouwer argues that traducianism also assumes a kind of dualism, however, since even it asks the questions about the creation of the soul as a separate entity apart from the body, a question Scripture never addresses. Thus the two positions actuary have common presuppositions and Berkouwer rejects both as asking the wrong questions. 

Chapter 9:

Next Berkouwer discusses human freedom and what it means to be free. He says we usually discuss this in anthropological categories, not biblical ones. Determinism and indeterminism are humanistic, not biblical, ways of viewing things. Biblically speaking we are not free from but free for. It is not about throwing off all restraint but about being free for the possibility of doing good.

For Calvin man lost “free will” at the fall but it is not that he no longer wills but that he is no longer free to choose good. It is enslavement to sin. Divine grace makes us once again free to do good. 

Berkouwer speaks of this as “real freedom.” “Formal freedom” is what people are often talking about — being able to choose freely between two options, one good and one evil. But this cannot be modelling the image of God because choosing evil can never reflect God. Man is free in his submission to God. The closer we get to God the more free we become. 

Liberation, freedom from a number of evil, oppressive things, is the work of the gospel and a sign of the kingdom of God. It is a blessing. 

There is some question of the origin of sin and if Adam and Eve had formal freedom if God created the possibility for sin. Berkouwer rejects this idea but does not offer an alternative, only speaking of “the riddle of sin.” 

Berkouwer rejects the idea that God created man with formal freedom and with two paths equally open before him. Even in those passages in which He says “choose which way you will go,” He also always makes clear which path should be chosen. There is also a command saying which way to go, never an arbitrary choice. The command given to Adam and Eve was not a probationary one. It was not an either-or choice. It was the serpent who interpreted it that way. 

Chapter 10 (conclusion):

In the final chapter, Berkouwer discusses the phrase “man of God” as it appears in the NT. It occurs only twice in the NT. He says it refers to any believer and denotes a close relationship with God. Becoming a man of God is the opposite of annihilation. 

True human nature is not obscured but only becomes more pronounced in right relationship to God. 

“Man rediscovers his destiny only in sonship, in which the following of God restores the image of God.” (p. 352)

It is not wrong to speak of man’s greatness but we must speak of it as the Bible does. Greatness comes through service and points to God. The man of God is the central point of creation rightly understood. Man is sometimes lumped with beasts and at other times is not. We must understand his position relative to the rest of creation. He is central but not independent of it. His centrality is seen also in the corruption of all creation through his Fall.  

The relation between men and angels is not one of higher and lower or greater and lesser. 

Summary of points Berkouwer makes:

  • Man cannot be understood on his own, apart from God. To try to do so is humanism. This is not a two-way street. God is not understood in the light of man, but man means nothing apart from God
  • There are not two senses of the image. Reformed Christians have tended to speak of the image in wider and narrower senses but there are problems with this. The Scriptures do not make this distinction. It tends to lead to semi-Pelagianism.  Neither can we distinguish between the image and the likeness.
  • When we identify the image of God with certain characteristics we tend to divide man in unbiblical ways, placing the image in his soul/spirit and ignoring his body. 
  • Those with a function view of the image — it is something we do

 — are on the right track. There is an outward aspect of the image; it is something we show or represent.

  • Man cannot be killed with impunity (Gen. 9:6) because of his creational relationship with God. 
  • Christ is the image of God. In the NT, we are told to put off the old man and to put on the new. This is a renewal of the image of God. It is only in Christ, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, that man comes into his true nature as God intended him (in Genesis 1) to be (p. 99). This is a new creation. 
  • The image of God in us is linked to sonship. We reflect him as children do their parents but we do not become God. 
  • There is a now and not yet aspect to the image. It becomes clearer and clearer in us as we are sanctified. 
  • Those who speak of a remnant of the image in man tend to end up speaking of some residual goodness in him. Scripture shows man as totally corrupt with no goodness in him and that we need to maintain this standard. 
  • We must always consider the whole man. In Genesis man is not a body with a soul attached but the body becomes a soul. The two cannot be divided. There may be a duality (two complementary parts) but we cannot accept a dualism (two parts in conflict with each other or where one is the greater and one the lesser). The whole man is saved. Judgment also affects the whole man.
  • The image is often identified with what makes us human (as opposed to angels or animals). True human nature becomes more pronounced in right relationship to God. 
  • There is always a threat that we will be dehumanized or demonized. “Common grace” is God’s restraining (nor preserving) work. Our humanness is always threatened but there is a limit placed on our corruption.
  • “[L]ife is being-with-Christ.” 
  • Man lost “free will” at the fall but it is not that he no longer wills but that he is no longer free to choose good. It is enslavement to sin. Divine grace makes us once again free to do good.
  • “Man rediscovers his destiny only in sonship, in which the following of God restores the image of God.” (p. 352)

One response to this post.

  1. Your previous articles definitely revealed the need to make sure the first question is “DO we have the image of God?” rather than assuming that. Berkouwer’s argument does hold more weight after that. I think I do end up landing on the more widespread interpretation of Gen 9:6, though. I haven’t read a whole lot on the subject, despite being quite annoyed at how flippantly the term is thrown around to point to certain aspects of things people do as being because of imago Dei. The only book I have read on the subject is Anthony Hoekema’s Created in God’s Image, so I lean towards his functional holism view, but haven’t read many arguments to the contrary as of yet. Sounds like Berkouwer would be a good place to start!

    Reply

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