Q&A: The Transcendence of God

The Transcendence of God

Question

If nothing is like God, then how can humans be made in the image of God? (Isa. 40:25; Gen. 1:27)

Answer

Isaiah 40:25 "To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One.

Genesis 1:26-28 Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

Isaiah is declaring the transcendence of God and not denying all similarity between God and his creation. The Lord is the incomparable One (Isa. 46:5; 55:89). However, God is reflected in his creation (Psa. 19:1; Rom. 1:19-20). The transcendence of God is closely related to his sovereignty. It means that God is above, other than, and distinct from all he has made - he transcends it all. Paul says that there is "one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:6). And elsewhere Scripture says,"For you, LORD, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods" (Psa. 97:9; 108:5). Therefore, there are many ways in which God and man differ!

Additionally, note that in Genesis 1:26-28 does NOT say that humanity is the "exact image" of God, but "in his own image." In Hebrew, the expression "in our image, in our likeness" means that God made human beings to be his image and likeness. We are image-bearers.

Traditionally Reformed theology has spoken about several important dimensions of what this means. John Calvin drew upon Paul's letters to stress that being the image of God is closely connected with becoming like Christ (the second and last man Adam - 1 Cor. 15:45, 47), "like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24). Believers have "put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Col. 3:10). While it is true that we are corrupted images defiled by sin, in Christ we are restored to the original goodness that characterized Adam and Eve in the Garden. Others have stressed that all people are like God in that we are personal, rational, creative, and moral creatures.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter IV.2 - Of Creation) states:

After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, [4] with reasonable and immortal souls, [5] endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; [6] having the law of God written in their hearts, [7] and power to fulfill it:[8] and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. [9] Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, [10] and had dominion over the creatures. [11]

4. Gen 1:27
5. Gen. 2:7; Eccl. 12:7; Luke 23:43; Matt. 10:28
6. Gen. 1:26; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24
7. Rom. 2:14-15
8. Gen. 2:17; Eccl. 7:29
9. Gen. 3:6, 17
10. Gen. 2:17; 2:15-3:24
11. Gen. 1:28-30; Psa. 8:6-8

While these explanations are indeed true and helpful, I believe the immediate context of Genesis 1:26-28 is stressing the idea of being royal sons and daughters. Ancient kings were thought to be sons of gods, imbued with the honor of ensuring that the will of heaven be enforced on earth. This concept was part of God's design for Israel's kings, who were called sons of God (1 Chron. 28:6; Psa. 2:7). In Genesis, a radical extension of this outlook of the son or image of God takes place: The term "image of God" is applied to every human being: "Male and female he created them" (Gen. 2:7).

So, in the biblical view all human beings assume the honor and value attributed to royalty (Psa. 8:3-8). All people have been set in the world to display the glory of the true and living God (and sin comes short of this glory - Rom. 3:23), the great King of the universe, by establishing his will on the earth. In Reformed theology, this role for human beings is often called the "Cultural Mandate," a reference to our blessing and our responsibility to develop culture under the Lordship of Christ (Gen. 1:26-30). This finds ultimate fulfillment in Christ, who commanded the redeemed image of God (his faithful people) to fulfill the cultural mandate through the "Gospel Mandate" by proclaiming Christ's name, gospel, and will throughout the world (Matt. 28:18-20).

Reference:

Richard Pratt, General Editor. Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).