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On What It Means To Be An Image Bearer

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June 16, 2010 Tags: Image of God

Today's video features N.T. Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video conversation, N.T. Wright considers what it means to be an image bearer of God. He suggests that what the book of Genesis and the apostle Paul mean by humans reflecting the image of God is less a static picture and more of a “creative, dynamic” proposition.

To emphasize the point that bearing Christ’s image is multi-dimensional, Wright suggests the metaphor of an angled mirror as example. To contextualize this in practical terms, he recounts a childhood anecdote about being ill in bed as a child and having his mother rest an angled mirror on his bedroom door so he would be able to see the comings and goings of other family members and not feel so isolated and alone. Similarly, Wright comments, we can use this metaphor to understand what the Bible means about being an image bearer—God can reflect his love, care, and stewardship toward humans, and in turn, they can reflect God back to the world.

As such, the “image of God” is not something about us—instead, it is what we do and how we do it. That is, how we reflect God into the world—aptly described by Paul in Colossians 3:9-10: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (ESV).

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.

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Michael W. Kruse - #17675

June 17th 2010

I like the angled mirror metaphor but I continually have an issue with his characterization of the image of God.

He makes the point that when humans offer praise to God they do so on behalf of creation. Then he adds:

“But when humans are looking after creation, and bringing God’s healing restorative justice to creation, in all sorts of different ways, there they are reflecting God into the world.”

Yet no where does he mention, nor have I ever seen him mention economic labor ... the transformation of data, energy, and matter from less useful forms to more useful forms ... as reflecting God ... in his creative glory ... into the world. The Bible begins in a garden and ends in a garden city, incorporating that which humanity creates. We are called to dominion and to bring the world to fullness. Surely our creative powers applied to creation are at least on a par with restorative justice. It is core to the reason we were created! Yet unless creative work is in the form of art, I’ve never heard Wright say one thing affirmative about economic labor.

Bilbo - #17679

June 17th 2010

Hi Michael,

Maybe the problem is that “economic labor” (should we just call it technology?) can be both helpful and harmful. 

Meanwhile, I like the angled mirror metaphor, also.  Too bad we reflect someone else’s image far more often that God’s image.

Gregory Laughery - #17698

June 17th 2010

What I find most striking and helpful is that Wright is willing to re-consider possibilities for image. These kinds of thoughts, it seems to me, are important to get us moving in a direction that takes the natural and biblical informer seriously.

Image being something we do however, is reductionistic. While doing is valid, there also needs to be the additional notion of being connected to image. This being does not have to be thought of in specific ways, but can be considered more holistically.

I think the Colossians 3 passage needs work. The ESV translation is perhaps not the best. Who is the creator of the new self? And what image is being referred to here? Christ is, back in 1:15, the eikon of the invisible God. The focus here may be more on renewed knowledge, than some kind of re-dressing an image problem. It does not appear here, or from the wider biblical context, that humans have an image problem - they still be and do what humans be and do - represent God on the earth creationally - yet we have other problems that distance us from God - that can only be dealt salvifically with through Christ - and being transformed into his image means being a closer image of God than has ever been possible.

norm - #17708

June 17th 2010

According to the NT the Image of God is the Spirit which is conferred upon the believer through Christ. Gen 1:26 appears therefore more of a prophecy of the end result of the Messiah than the beginning. The heart of stone is removed to be replaced with the “Spirit” which Ezekiel prophesied.

Gen 1:26 ..Then God said, “LET US make man in our image,

Col 1:15 He (Christ nv) is THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD, the firstborn of all creation.

Rom 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be CONFORMED TO THE IMAGE OF HIS SON,

1Co 15:49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust,

2Co 3:17-18 Now the Lord is the Spirit, … And WE ALL, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, ARE BEING TRANSFORMED INTO THE SAME IMAGE

2Co 4:4 …. of the glory of Christ, WHO IS THE IMAGE OF GOD.

Col 3:10 and have put on THE NEW SELF, which is being renewed in knowledge AFTER THE IMAGE OF ITS CREATOR.

Eze 36:26-27 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 
27 And I will put my Spirit within you,

Rick - #17725

June 17th 2010

How, if at all, did the Fall (and/or our sin, “missing the mark”) impact that image?

Norm - #17743

June 17th 2010

Adam was created as the natural earthy man and failed so due to the limitations of the human capacity “sin” entered into the world of men seeking relationship with God in this manner (namely Adam’s descendants Israel). Sin for the God seeker remained in effect until Christ when it was defeated for those in Christ.

1Co 15:46-48 ESV But it is NOT THE SPIRITUAL THAT IS FIRST but the natural, and THEN THE SPIRITUAL.  (47)  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.  (48)  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as WE HAVE BORNE THE IMAGE OF THE MAN OF DUST, we shall also BEAR THE IMAGE OF THE MAN OF HEAVEN.

Adam never had the full spiritual Image thus the need for redemption from the first natural state or mode of existence with God.  Gen 1 was viewed by the early Christians as a prophetic prologue of the events that would encompass their entire Creation development from the first Adam to the Second Adam (Christ).  It was a seven Day Temple creation account and the six Days were not consummated with the full Sabbath Rest until the Messiah finished bringing in the “Image of God”.

Rick - #17751

June 17th 2010

Norm #17743-

“Adam never had the full spiritual Image thus the need for redemption from the first natural state or mode of existence with God.”

Gen 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Gen 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”

I see the fullness aspect, and I agree (thanks to Walton) with the potential of a Temple creation interpretation, but these passages would indicate that the image is present in man from the beginning.  So how did the Fall impact that?  Likewise, is sin the problem, or as Eastern Orthodoxy emphasizes, is death the problem?

Norm - #17764

June 17th 2010


IMHO the answer is that Gen 1-11 is written more as apocalyptic literature with heavy prophetic application based upon a sparse historical past. All of these themes in Gen 2-11 resonate as types throughout the history of Israel and especially are picked up during the time of the Messiah’s coming. As an example you’re quoting Gen 9:6 “Whoever sheds THE BLOOD OF MAN, BY MAN shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” resonates with Christ speaking to the Jews in Matt 23 that the blood of the righteous would fall on the heads of the Generation that he was speaking to. We find just about every theme and thread from Gen 2-11 picked up at the NT eschatological end.

Mat 23:32-35 ESV FILL UP, THEN, THE MEASURE OF YOUR FATHERS.  (33)  You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?  (34)  Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom YOU WILL KILL AND CRUCIFY, ...  (35)  so that ON YOU MAY COME ALL THE RIGHTEOUS BLOOD SHED ON EARTH, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered.

Notice that the blood is related to the faithful and is shed by the supposedly faithful

Norm - #17769

June 17th 2010


If the “Image of God” which was “Spiritual” was first endowed upon Adam then Paul is contridicted in his statement that “first the Natural” and then the “Spiritual”.  Paul also aludes to Adam in Rom 7 in which he says that I once was alive but then I “died” when the commandment came.

Rom 7:9-10 ESV I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.  (10)  The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.

Paul’s entire thesis in His letters is that Adam was given the oppurtunity via the natural man but could not uphold his side of the Covenant. Adam represents the plight of Israel under the Law and we might want to realize that Genesis was very likely written/redacted around the time of the end of the First Temple and very likely reflects their theology.

“Sin” was the problem as it reflected seperation from God which meant “Spiritual Death” which left faithful man in a state of mortality and not the immortal that was intended.

1Co 15:54 ESV When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
56 The sting of death is sin,

Michael W. Kruse - #17778

June 17th 2010

Bilbo - #17679 Everything human can be used for good or bad. Art is frequently used for evil yet Wright has not problem citing this as a way bear God’s image.

My issue is that two things stand out in the purpose for which we were created. One is community ... with others and with God. The other is to exercise dominion (Genesis 1) and serve as vice-regents (Psalm 8) over creation. We bear Gods image best by being who God created us to be. Therefore, we most reflect God’s image when we are exercising dominion while in relationship to Him, others, and creation.

Our mission is a balanced mission of creation and preservation. Yet Wright, along with so many theologians, have a huge blind spot to economic labor. And this blind spot is precisely why so many of us see no connection between out daily lives and God’s mission in the world

Rick - #17780

June 17th 2010


  Good thoughts, although I think I take more of a past/future, both/and take on those passages.

  Would you then say that the image of God is absent in those outside the faith?

Michael W. Kruse-

    Good thoughts (as usual).

Norm - #17783

June 17th 2010


I think it is unmistakable that the “Image of God” was reserved for the faithful which we see reflected in early church writing of Barnabas.

Barnabas 6:11
Forasmuch then as He renewed us in the remission of sins, HE MADE US
TO BE A NEW TYPE, so that we should have the soul of children, as if
He were recreating us.

12 For the scripture saith CONCERNING US, how HE SAITH TO THE SON; Let
us make man after our image and after our likeness, and let them rule over the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the heaven and the fishes of the sea. And the Lord said when He saw the fair creation of us men; Increase and multiply and fill the earth.

14 Behold then WE HAVE BEEN CREATED ANEW, as He saith again in another
prophet; Behold, saith the Lord, I will take out from these, that is to say, from THOSE WHOM THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD FORESAW, THEIR STONY HEARTS, and will put into them hearts of flesh; for HE HIMSELF WAS TO BE MANIFESTED IN THE FLESH AND TO DWELL IN US.

Did you notice that Barnabas tied in Gen 1:26 with Ezekiel 36 concerning the stony heart of flesh and equates it with the Spirit dwelling in us through Christ. This idea has been lost through Hellenizing the church.

Rick - #17792

June 17th 2010


  Your look at the image of God in relation to new creation is interesting, and as someone who leans towards paleo-orthodoxy, I appreciate your Barnabas quote.  However, I think Scripture is more varied on the topic.

As Scot McKnight wrote:

“we can look to Theology (we are like God) and we can look to Creaturehood (how do we differ and how are we like the rest of creation; the history of this discussion centers almost completely on how humans are different from creation, and by this is meant how are we “superior” to creation). Third, we can look to the World and speak here of how humans are called to govern the world. And, what I think no Christian theologian disputes, we can look to Christ as the perfect Eikon of God.
So, we can be theological, anthropological, cosmological, and christological.”

Rick - #17794

June 17th 2010


Elsewhere, McKnight wrote:

“Genesis 1:26-27 cries out that humans, somehow, are “like God.” We are God’s representatives on earth, God’s stewards and governors of his creation. And, because we are God’s stewards, we answer to God. And, because every single one of us is “like God,” we are to hold each person we meet and work with as special—as an Eikon of God…..
.....Anyone who digs around a bit in Genesis 1-3 will learn that humans have four relationships: to God, to self, to others, and to the world (Garden of Eden). In Genesis 1-2, everything goes well: Adam and Eve relate to God beautifully, they understand themselves as Eikons, they relate to one another in trust and honor, and they care for God’s good garden. But, Genesis 3 disrupts each relationship: they hide from God, they blame one another, they are ashamed of themselves and their bodies, and they get kicked out of the garden.”

Rick - #17796

June 17th 2010


Finally, McKnight states:

  “The Christian response to this four-fold distortion of the Eikon is found in Jesus Christ—whose mission was to restore cracked Eikons in each of these four directions. According to the apostle Paul, Jesus Christ is the perfect Eikon, and we are called to be transformed from the cracked Eikon condition of Genesis 3 to become Christ-like Eikons (2 Cor. 3:18-4:4). As we become more and more Christ-like, we are restored in our relationship with God, with self, with others, and the world.”

So perhaps the image is not just reserved for believers, but is “repaired” in/for the believer.

Norm - #17831

June 17th 2010


I do like Scot McKnight and agree with much he has to say.

I do think though that we have to be careful in what we are proposing doesn’t end up as a form of Universal humanistic gradualism toward righteousness on its own merits. In everyday practical living that has some practical value but the idea of a redemptive walk as defined in the scriptures is a picture of a cataclysmic breaking down of spiritual barriers. That is what the Cross and the impartation of the Holy Spirit upon believers has been classically understood to achieve for the God fearer. Christians often believe that there is a special enhancement that goes beyond the philosophical and metaphysical through this “spiritual endowment” we receive. If mankind at large was able to appropriate this special attribute ”Imago Dei” through gradualism then one must ask why was there the need for Christ coming, dying and His resurrection.  Personal resurrection is simply lifting one out of the spiritual forces of darkness that bound Adam/Israel under Law and brought them into the “light and life” of the Spiritual accompanied by the blessing of eternal life something not promised to those without the Image. 


Norm - #17832

June 17th 2010

From the worlds point of view do we really need Christ when we have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seemingly solving our problems of right thinking and living? That would be a classic humanist view of human improvement when coupled with solid logical philosophical examinations of ourselves and culture. However if we all had the opportunity to chose between a worldview of humanist self improvement or choose Christ in His purest Spiritual embracement which world would we chose that would give us a better society 500 years from now.


Norm - #17833

June 17th 2010

Concerning dominion rule by Christians.

Dan 7:27 ESV And THE KINGDOM AND THE DOMINION and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven SHALL BE GIVEN TO THE PEOPLE OF THE SAINTS of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and ALL DOMINIONS SHALL SERVE AND OBEY THEM.’

Did you notice the parallel dominion rule from Gen 1:28 that is still being espoused in Daniel concerning the purpose of the saints? This rule is not a physical rule but is as Scot sets forth are as an influencing agent of God upon humanity at large. The call to join in to this “Imago Dei” conferment is sacred and special and I’m afraid we lose its significance when we try to distribute its divine nature to those who have no interest as emissaries of God. As his ambassadors we hope that we have a leavening influence upon the world for its betterment and as members of Christ Body it is our calling. So yes I agree with Scot in his assessment to a large extent but I will hold out for the individual to join God by putting on that ”Imago Dei” not expecting it to happen through evolution or philosophical humanist experience.

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