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What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 3

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August 9, 2010 Tags: Image of God
What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 3

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

One of the portraits the New Testament paints of Jesus is that of ultimate image-bearer of God. Jesus fully reflects God’s image; he is the true representative of God in his creation. No one embodies more fully this truly human quality.

We can begin where we left off last week, with Psalm 8. This psalm praises God for how he has exalted humanity: man is a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and everything has been placed under his feet. Humankind, in other words, is one step below God, given authority to rule creation. Psalm 8 is fully consistent with Genesis 1:26-27 where “image of God” is described as ruling over all of creation.

In Hebrews 2:5-9 (see side-bar), the anonymous author cites Psalm 8 for a reason that might not be obvious at first glance: Jesus ranks higher than angels, a topic he began in 1:5. (In fact, all of Hebrews is one long “Jesus is better than…” argument, e.g. Moses, the high priest, and the tabernacle).

Psalm 8 supports his argument. Creation was not subject to angels, but humankind. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “everything” is put under human royal authority—everything is subject to him (v. 8). But the author of Hebrews laments, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him” (v. 8). The “him” refers to humanity. What we do see, however, is Jesus who is now crowned with glory and honor because of his death (v. 9).

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little[a] lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet." In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
-Hebrews 2:5-9

Jesus, who is like his brothers and sisters in every way (2:17, see side-bar ), is the “ultimate human” because everything really is under his authority. The lofty status of humanity as God’s royal image-bearers, however true, is not fully realized in humanity as a whole. It is fully realized in Jesus as, paradoxically, the crucified and resurrected Son of God.

Jesus is the true image-bearer. You might say that Jesus is the only truly and fully human figure who has ever lived. By looking at the crucified and risen Son, we see what “human” really means, not the corrupted dysfunctional version that stares back us from the mirror, or that we see in others.

Colossians 1:15-20 (see side-bar) makes the same point in a different way. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (v. 15): he rules creation because all things were created by him. It is understandable to read this passage and think it is only focusing on Jesus’ divinity, but that would be missing half the point. As the resurrected son, Jesus is “head of the body, the church, the beginning and firstborn from among the dead” (v. 18). By his resurrection, Jesus is the first to embody fully the image-bearing role conferred on all humanity in Genesis.

Jesus does this not for himself, but for those who would come after, the people of God. Jesus is not simply “over all creation.” He is “firstborn over all creation” (v. 15). Christians, in other words, go along for the ride. As firstborn over creation he sees to it that those born after would achieve that same status. Simply put, in his resurrection, Jesus “completes” Genesis 1:26-27, for him and for us.

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
-Hebrews 2:17

This theme is already announced at the beginning of Hebrews, 1:1-4. In the past, God had spoken through prophets, but now he is speaking through the Son he himself has appointed. The echo of Psalm 2, where Israel’s king is God’s appointed Son, is confirmed in v. 5 where the author cites Psalm 2:7. As Son, Jesus is the newly appointed Davidic king, the representative ruler. But this Son takes it up a notch: he is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is God’s representative ruler like no other.

The image of God in Genesis is not about “what makes us human,” such as one’s soul. It is about the lofty role God has given humankind to be his representative rulers. That is what image means: nothing more—but nothing less.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
-Colossians 1:15-20

Understood this way, we can and should speak of the image of God as marred, incomplete, subject to sin in all of us. The true image of God is only realized in the crucified and risen Son of God. And this gives us a much fuller understanding of the incarnation. The incarnate Son of God is fully God and fully human.

Jesus is the full image-bearer of God. He is the most human of any human who has ever lived. By faith, we too participate in restored humanity. Next week we will look at what that means for us today.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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JKnott - #25138

August 9th 2010

All I can say is: right on, Pete. (and write on)

Kyle - #25159

August 9th 2010

Very good.

Question however, if the Imago Dei is exclusively our “dominion” as “Yahweh’s Representatives” then what does this say about the soul, is their a soul to the extent we have imagined it in the past or is the soul merely an extension of our rational self? Or is the soul part of the di/trichotomy we have imagined it to be in times past.

Kyle - #25160

August 9th 2010


Pete Enns - #25161

August 9th 2010


I can’t answer what the soul is. I’m just saying that it isn’t the image of God. What makes us human is a hugely important question, but “image of God” language shouldn’t be used to describe it.

HornSpiel - #25162

August 9th 2010

I would like to know if you would agree that our practice of science as an exercise of our Imago Dei. I believe that the kind of science advocated by YEC and even ID is irresponsible because it suppresses scientific truth in the name of theological and philosophical concerns.

In the case of, for example,  global warming. YEC, being blind to the age of the earth, leads to, discounting the best evidence for global warming. Because ID insists that the Designer intervenes in natural processes, this may lead to complacency and an unwillingness to act.

The TE perspective says that God acts consistently through natural processes. We can be certain that He will not intervene to fix the mess we are heading for. As responsible stewards, not only of the natural order, but also of the most vulnerable peoples, we—-meaning the Church that is able to influence those in positions of power—-need to act to protect His creation.

gingoro - #25164

August 9th 2010

August 9th 2010
“I would like to know if you would agree that our practice of science as an exercise of our Imago Dei.”


“I believe that the kind of science advocated by YEC and even ID is irresponsible because it suppresses scientific truth in the name of theological and philosophical concerns.”

With your definition of TE, I believe TE is also irresponsible and in fact for that reason I no longer call myself either an EC or TE, although my beliefs about origins, age of the earth has not changed.
Dave W

gingoro - #25165

August 9th 2010

“The TE perspective says that God acts consistently through natural processes. We can be certain that He will not intervene to fix the mess we are heading for.”

He may or may not intervene, we don’t know and thus we need to assume that we need to attempt to fix problems on our own.  IMO what you are saying is not orthodox, historical Christianity although it may well be what BioLogos promulgates. It would be interesting to hear Enns, Flak or Giberson would say.  At this point I no longer recommend the BioLogos site to young Christians in our CRC church who are asking about origins.  I assume you at least believe that Christ is risen and that seems to me to be an intervention either at the time or when the incarnation occurred.

“As responsible stewards, not only of the natural order, but also of the most vulnerable peoples, we—-meaning the Church that is able to influence those in positions of power—-need to act to protect His creation.”

Yes to the extent that those in positions of power can take remedial actions that make sense otherwise each of us needs to care for the environment in a myriad of ways.
Dave W

Norm - #25167

August 9th 2010

Basically the idea that the soul has something to do with “the image of God” is rooted in scientific corcordism in some fashion. This is probably one area that the YEC and OEC concordist possibly agree on but both are wrong biblically. It’s also not surprising that the scientific minded especially have a fondness for this understanding because it fits their paradigm of explaining things systematically. 

This rationale has drifted into theology as a whole and permeated the church to the point that the Image of God is still applied to the mass of humanity at large instead of keeping it in the perspective of the covenant people of God whom it pertained to. How can it be argued that the Image of God is not a biological function yet it is an inherent attribute of all mankind? These are contradictory ideas yet it’s not the first nor will it be the last that contradictory positions are taken in mass that eventually are proven incorrect. 

The Image of God is exactly as the NT details it is and that is one who is endowed with the Holy Spirit of God through faith in Christ.

Gregory - #25168

August 9th 2010

Pete Enns wrote:
“What makes us human is a hugely important question, but “image of God” language shouldn’t be used to describe it.”

This ‘shouldn’t be used’ sounds quite firm, i.e. not a flexible issue!

May it be, Pete, that it is only *in theology* that one ‘shouldn’t use’ the ‘image of God’ in such a way about “what makes us human”? But otherwise, in non-theological or non-religious studies *fields,* instead this could actually be seen as a *good* use of the phrase’s (pathway) meaning that involves humankind *somehow*.

Iow, isn’t it o.k. to echo ‘image of God’ on topics of human spirituality &/or religious belief in a ‘population’?

The ‘secular humanist’ S. Fuller speaks of the ‘image of God’ as being abundant & fruitful in pre-Enlightenment (& for some even now) ‘Science’ & without which human-social sciences take on a fundamentally different meaning.

If you take away ‘image of God’ or ‘soul’ from a Christian so(ul)ciologist, or from a Muslim sociologist, you’ve effectively stripped them in part of sacred -Logos (i.e. words+).

Hello Kyle.

You asked: “is the soul merely an extension of our rational self?”

I would say no. But Malebranche would subtly argue & mediate with that.

Kyle - #25170

August 9th 2010


So I know I am repeating what you have said, but I am doing so just to get the point in my head. The imago dei is our dominion? The soul is not the imago dei, nor is any other human attribute? Got it, I am with you, this is just a major paradigm shift from my Western theological training . . .

Pete Enns - #25173

August 9th 2010


I understand your paradigm shift. The Bible has a habit of doing that to us!. I am really just trying to follow what Genesis says and how that works itself out elsewhere in the Bible and ANE. For what it’s worth, and if it helps, I am saying nothing new in these posts, just packaging it.

Gregory - #25174

August 9th 2010

yes, as with Kyle, if space had permitted I would have included ‘western’, ‘protestant’ & ‘evangelical’ inside of the words *in theology* (his reference to a ‘paradigm shift’), with the word ‘Christian’ added. I.e. in western protestant evangelical christian theology, the ‘image of God’ is being filtered or marginalized (cf. re-prioritized) to *only* a theological or in-church conversation.

(A funny paradox with the current state of affairs in some Orthodox Christian countries that are now finally introducing departments or faculties of theology into their universities! They are reaching beyond the seminaries to public education. E.g. BioLogos)

The opposite extreme is to suggest that *we are/were not created* ‘in the image of God,’ which surely some ‘x’ theologians at various times have done. But I don’t think Dr. Enns is saying this.

Just limiting the topic to ‘soul’ in the western-English meaning is not enough in itself. Neither is ancient Greek or Hebrew. The living languages proliferate in ways that “shouldn’t be done” could be considered an unpleasant suggestion.

Pete is surely not suggesting that “what makes us human” has *nothing whatsoever* to do with ‘imago Dei,’ after all!

HornSpiel - #25183

August 10th 2010

Pete is surely not suggesting that “what makes us human” has *nothing whatsoever* to do with ‘imago Dei,’

Indeed.  Our capacity for rational symbolic though, our ability to create and use a plethora of tools to extend all our abilities, and our spiritual soul, all allow us to exercise dominion over creation. Imago Dei becomes not only stewardship of the earth, but stewardship of our God given gift of “what makes us human.”

Dave W.
I can understand that you might feel this site might challenger the faith of young Christians if the standard Evangelical apologetic was an important factor in their conversion. I pray that any who read the discussions here will sense the underlying faith of those who are taking these matters seriously and not be disheartened.

btw: I do not see where I defined TE above.. I would like to know why you feel TE is “irresponsible.”

Rob Kashow - #25189

August 10th 2010

Would following this line of thinking lead one to an unorthodox understanding of Christology? Up until the second to last paragraph, that’s where my mind was headed. The conclusion ‘fully God’ and ‘fully man’ didn’t seem to follow.

Pete Enns - #25192

August 10th 2010


Is a fully human Christ unorthodox? What do they teach you in these seminaries of yours

Rob Kashow - #25193

August 10th 2010

referring to the ‘fully god’ side. The connections woven together in the post seem to portray Christ as subordinate in his deity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m open to that, but if you go back through the post with that clarification, I think you might see where I’m coming from. Wanted to see if what you were suggesting opens up that gate.

Michael W. Kruse - #25204

August 10th 2010

Is it safe to extrapolate from “image-bearers” as those who exercise dominion, that humans have unique qualities .... say, reason and discernment ... that the rest of creation does not? Would ANE folks have thought something along these lines?

Michael W. Kruse - #25205

August 10th 2010

Here is a question on dominion. It is my impression that the ANE world perceived themselves to be in a steady-state eco-system. (Yes, the flood that wipes out folks but then the same eco-system returns.) Thus, dominion could be seen as keeping things as steady-state as possible while providing for humans ... humans leaving the smallest footprint possible. I think this is the perspective of many environmentalists.

Yet we now know this is not the case. The earth is more than 4 billion years old. Multicelluar life is a billion years old. There have been several rises and falls of eco-systems. Apox 13,000 years ago the Clovis civilization and many large mammals were made extinct by rapid climate changes. Other lesser events have happened before or since. So what does it mean to exercise dominion ... to tend the garden ... in an ever changing eco-system? Why is it so critical to keep this system pristine? Why shouldn’t human impact change the eco-system?

(I’m playing a bit of devil’s advocate here but I think there are challenges when we try to translate ANE notions of dominion into modern notions of environmentalism.)

Philip Donald - #25215

August 10th 2010

Hi, I’m new here but spent much time listening to lectures on the Christians in Science website in the UK. When it comes to Soul and Imago Dei, I agree fully with Pete. Rob Bell’s video everything is Spiritual helped get my mind around the Soul bit. We are our Souls as in there is no separation from our body. I like how John Polkinghorne describes our post-death pre-resurrection state, we download our software onto God’s hardware until we get our new hardware onto which God downloads our software once again. I think this ties in nicely with the concept of Logos and information. So may I suggest that our soul is the information stored in us. When we get our resurrection bodies, we get our souls back (i.e. the same information we have when we die).

eddy - #25222

August 10th 2010

What makes us human is a myriad of biological, chemical and physiological systems uniquely designed together, if in a proper way, to produce certain animal bodies with unique emotions, reasoning and responsibilities.

And if I am going to be faithful to this definition, I am going to believe there is nothing extra special, metaphysical, out- of-human entity, in form of the soul or spirit or whatever, that makes us human. We are just mere humans, fleshy animals, with nerves and blood to make us uniquely human, as much as fish have nerves and blood to make them uniquely fish.

And this should probably make us humble. If we are not going to use our unique arrangement of nerves and blood to responsibly do what we are basically designed to do, we will be relegated to a downgrade place - what we are - mere flesh. And this is what happened to Adam and this is what most of us, most of the time, are.

But I am not going to deny that there is Soul. But if there is human “soul”, there is also fish soul.

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