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Episode 17 - What Does it Mean To Be Created in God's Image?


Date: October 3, 2018
Run Time: 14:23
Host: Dr. Gregory R. Perry
Guest: Dr. Vincent Bacote
From the Series: The Image of God

Program Notes

You may have been called a lot of things in your life, but you've probably never been accused of being a "divine image-bearer." In this episode, our guest, Dr. Vincent Bacote unpacks:

  • Three views of what it means to be a divine image-bearer
  • Why no one should ever be treated as "some kind of other"
  • How the two greatest commandments compel us to help others flourish

Sponsors this Month: Center for Applied Christian Ethics and the Center for Public Justice

To help us explore the remarkable, biblical description of human identity, 4 the World welcomes Dr. Vincent Bacote to our conversation. Vince is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. He is also the host for our newly revised series, Building Your Theology. Vince has contributed to numerous theological works and has authored two books: The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, published by Zondervan, and The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper, published by Wipf & Stock. Vince resides in the Chicago area with his family.

Podcast Transcript

EPISODE 17: What Does It Mean To Be Created in God's Image?
Guest: Dr. Vincent Bacote

4 the World is a production of Third Millennium Ministries where we believe every Christian deserves a well-trained pastor. To study Scripture deeply or to learn more about how you can partner with us to provide Biblical Education. For the World. For Free. download our App to your phone or visit our online classroom at Thirdmill.org. And now, your host 4 the World, Dr. Greg Perry.

Welcome back, everyone, to 4 the World, the weekly podcast of Third Millennium Ministries where we’re reimagining Biblical Education. For the World. For Free. I am your host, Greg Perry, and this week we welcome Dr. Vincent Bacote to our studios in Orlando, Florida. Vince is Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. Vince has written two books: The Spirit in Public Theology, and The Political Disciple, and coedited the book, Evangelicals in Scripture. He’s contributed articles to several others. Vince is also the host of our series entitled “Building Your Theology,” and a friend of Third Millennium. So Vince, welcome to central Florida. Have you and your family been having a good time?

Dr. Bacote: We’ve had a great time. They’ve gone home. My kids and wife are off to theater camp now, as we’re recording this, but they definitely enjoyed their time in Orlando.


Fantastic. Well, I want to start this whole series, really, at the beginning of the human story, with some of the first words ever written about human identity. Now I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but no one has ever accused me of being a divine image bearer. But that is the first description that God gives to Adam and Eve about what it means to be human. So Vince, what are some of the ways that theologians have described the image of God? How have they sort of unpacked that through the centuries? What are some of the views?

Dr. Bacote: One of the ways that theologians have done that is by talking about some kind of quality that humans have within themselves. So, for example, the fact that humans are reasoning creatures or reasoning beings, and that that’s something that makes humans distinct from other forms of animal life, that that’s what it is to be in the image; or the fact that we have a soul, that we have a spiritual side to us, a part of us that can relate to God, and it’s only humans who are the ones that are relating to God, then the fact that we have souls are evidence of being in the image. Those views also sort of come from the idea of thinking about the distinctiveness of being human, or perhaps even thinking about being the one that says with reason … if God is thought of as being something like the ultimate version of mind or reason, then for us to be in the image is to be those who are capable of being reasoning beings. So those are examples of something that you might call substantive. Certainly there are those who emphasize humans as relational beings, being in the image of God. The last book that Stanley Grenz wrote right before his untimely death in his mid ‘50s was a book called The Social God and the Relational Self. So that’s a book that is emphasizing the idea of humans being image bearers as relational beings because of God being relational. So that’s emphasizing the social model of the Trinity, and you’re thinking about the unity being connected very much to the– so threeness and oneness sort of constituting each other is a way of thinking about that.

Right, inter-related. Inter-dependent even.

Dr. Bacote: Yes, and so to be an image bearer, then, is not to be the person that strikes out on their own. No one being an island; definitely doesn’t fit being truly human in this view. To be an image bearer requires being a person in relationship with others. And this view would even suggest that you can’t really be, or express what it is to be, in the image without being in some kind of community relationship. So, that was a view.

And then a view you might call more functional is the view that’s arguably explicitly there in Genesis 1:28 language about dominion or rule. The tricky thing about dominion or rule, of course, is that there are some people that don’t like that view because that view can be connected with ideas of humans being over creation and it being over-creation permission for being destructive. So there are people who don’t like dominion language for that. Of course, what I think is important to recognize with the dominion language is it’s a derivative dominion of God being the ruler over everything. So the idea with this, in its best sense, is humans being image bearers in their ability to exercise what I like to call the “responsible stewardship” over the created order. If you ask yourself, how do you assess how a ruler manages their kingdom, what label would you use to talk about how they’ve done a good job or bad job with their kingdom? Stewardship is, I think, a fair word to talk about that because you’ve got the responsibility for domain and how you’re managing that responsibility.

Right. So, three main views: substantive, humans have capacities like God; relational; and then also the more functional view that we’re to serve and keep the earth.

Dr. Bacote: Right.

Do you think that maybe there are aspects of all three views that might be reflective? Or in your mind, is one view kind of predominant?

Dr. Bacote: I am one of those people — and it’s not just because I’m a synthetic thinker — but I am one of those people that thinks that there is perhaps some sense in which all of those are dimensions of what it is to be in the image. I think what’s not clear in Scripture is particularly, let’s say, the capacity views or the substantive views. Certainly humans are engaged in Scripture as people who have souls, engaged in Scripture as people who are reasoning persons or discerning persons. But there’s nothing explicitly said about it that connects being in the image to having those things.

Especially in Genesis 1.

Dr. Bacote: Correct. So, there’s, I think you can derive that from what we’ve seen in Scripture, but you don’t have, I would say, direct language there, none of which means that the soul’s not part, that it’s not part of what it is to be in the image. I just think it’s important to say that because a person might ask, well, why would somebody get that kind of idea? Right? I think you would get that idea by asking, what is it that is making human beings distinct in their behavior?


Now, as I recall my sort of biblical studies, especially biblical backgrounds and some of the ancient Near East literature around the time that the exodus community was hearing this from Moses, that the title “son of God” or the title “image of God” was really only applied to kings. And so it seems like a radically liberating idea to this group of Hebrew slaves that Moses is saying, “No, everyone is created in the image of God.” So, help us unpack some of the implications of this biblical doctrine for social ethics.

Dr. Bacote: It’s amazing to think about it, honestly, because it’s not a new thing for human beings to find ways to dehumanize those that aren’t their people, or those people who aren’t of a certain class — if you’re not the ruling class or just the ruler. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that other conceptions of talking about being in the divine image conveniently marginalized the people that weren’t in charge. So, arguably you could even say it goes back to at least, you know, Cain killing Abel. Certainly by Genesis 6 when it’s all against all, that people are finding ways to destroy each other.

It’s an old story, yeah.

Dr. Bacote: So I think an important implication, then, of emphasizing humans being in the image of God is that this says something about the fundamental dignity of all persons. And if there’s that fundamental dignity of all persons, then there’s no reason, no rationale for saying that someone is less than human and less than a person that ought to be dignified in the way that we treat them. So what that means, then, if you think about all the different ways that people have been “some kind of other,” and in that meaning of some kind of other, that otherness is cause for a person with greater power, or their country, or whatever, for them to then oppress a person on the basis of otherness, whether it’s the modern concept of race, which is a social construct, but it operates like it’s a real thing. Whether it’s race or whether it’s about …


Dr. Bacote: Gender, absolutely. Social class for certain. You know, regional identities, national identities. On it goes. Ways that people are some kind of other can be a reason to construct ways of telling falsehoods about those people, because those falsehoods then become reason for saying that you can then mistreat someone or treat somebody as being beneath you. But if you take image-bearing language seriously, then you have a hard time doing that. Instead, you are more compelled to dignify people rather than to try to destroy them. It’s unfortunate, I think, that Christians have been inconsistent in doing that. Sometimes Christians have been involved in helping those kinds of things to improve; other times, not so much.

So we have a spotted history on that.

Dr. Bacote: Yes. Yes, which at one level shouldn’t surprise anyone, because only if you expect Christians to live like people who are absolutely perfect, in other words, perfectly sanctified people, then sure.

None of us are that. We need a Savior.

Dr. Bacote: Yes we do. Yes we do.


That’s a powerful idea because I think it probably undergirds the great commandments in terms of, if we’re created in God's image, then it makes sense that we’re to love our neighbor. If we love God, we love our neighbor. If we love our neighbor, that’s an indication of how we love God. Those things seem to fit together with this foundation that we’re created in God's image.

Dr. Bacote: Israel had been given this language basically from the beginning of having the Law given to them, and it was one of the things that was supposed to make them characteristic as people who are God's covenant people. And so, if you think about all of the laws as being some expression of that fidelity to God, or that orientation to treat others in a way that is oriented to their flourishing rather than their destruction, everything in some degree is one version of that. It’s either about God or about how we treat the neighbor, you know, the other person, in some way.

That covers both tables of the Law, doesn’t it?

Dr. Bacote: It does. It does. I think sometimes when people think about the Law and, you know, they’ll read Jesus saying there’s just these two commandments, they’re like, “How?” because there are so many. But if you think about what they actually are, at bottom they’re about true worship of God, you know, no idols, and then all the implications that flow from that. And then, you know, the proper way to live with other people. And, of course, that proper way to live with other people is to seek their flourishing. Not to ignore yourself, right? But it’s really almost like a commonsensical thing. You might say it this way: A sane person is, of course, going to take care of themselves. What do sane people basically want for themselves? Well, this is what you should also want for other people rather than antagonizing that for other people.

Well, this is a really great beginning, and you’ve already shown how this is a foundation for even talking about social ethics and our relationships with one another, including God. So we have a lot to talk about over this series. We’re really glad you’re here, Dr. Bacote. Thank you for joining us on 4 the World, and we look forward to continuing our conversation about the image of God.

4 the World is a production of Third Millennium Ministries where we are reimagining biblical education for Christian leaders in a global church. Each week we bring you conversations to cultivate your curiosity about God’s word, to inform your intercessions for God's people, and to equip your efforts in God's mission for the world. Our host is Dr. Greg Perry. Our sound engineer and editor is Christopher Russell. Our web designer is Ra McLaughlin. And our director of communications is Darlene Perry. Production assistance is provided by David Zoeller and John Cook. And I’m your announcer, Cindy Sawyer. Our guest for this series is Dr. Vincent Bacote, the author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, published by Zondervan, and the host of our newly revised series, Building Your Theology.