Q&A: Meaning of Image and Likeness

Meaning of Image and Likeness

What does the Bible mean when it says that human beings were created in God's image and likeness?

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Answer

Genesis 1 verses 26 to 28 famously speaks of God determining to make human beings after his own image. I think the first thing to say about this text is that it's creating a distinction between human beings and the nonhuman creation, because only human beings are so designated as bearers of God's image. Now, the language of image bearing is actually quite rare, only three texts in the Old Testament. And there's really not a definition that comes with it, and because of that, we've kind of felt free throughout two thousand years of history to simply read our cultural expectations into the text. Hendrikus Berkhof famously made the comment that you could tell the whole Western intellectual history through how we have read this text, and we have taken image bearing, being an image bearer as possessing a soul, being rational creatures, just on and on and on. Without getting into all the complexities here, I think that the suggestions have kind of fallen into two categories. Either image bearing is something we are – a kind of static endowment, say, the possession of a soul or that I'm a rational creature – or it's a task, it's something we do. It's a noun or a verb. It's a thing or an activity. The verbal idea is more appealing in some ways because of what follows right after that: "Let us make man in our image and let them rule." However, and I realize that the habit or the tradition of the last one hundred years has been to move away from ontological answers and move towards dynamic answers, we shouldn't be too quick to say it's, well, we've swung the pendulum completely in the other way – it's not a thing, it's simply a verb, it's simply either ruling or relationship or that kind of thing. One of my professors, Tony Hoekema, years ago in his book Created in God's Image made this very point. He said that God has made the eagle as a flying creature, but the eagle must possess the abilities to fly, so there's something both nominal and verbal. And it may be that the image of God is both telling us our constitution, telling us what we are, but also telling us what we are to do. I've used the analogy here of a copy machine, a copier. It is not just a thing, and it's not just an activity, it exists for the purpose of making copies. That's both its constitution – it tells you what it is – and it tells you what it's supposed to do. So, we are creatures who have been placed in God's world to represent him. It gives us a mission, it gives us a task, it tells us why we're here.

Answer by Dr. Michael D. Williams

Michael Williams is the Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, where he has been teaching since 1996.