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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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Deb in BC - #25227

August 10th 2010

Thanks Pete….still working on the paradigm shift!

A couple of thoughts:

1. Genesis: created in God’s image and “you will surely die”
God is spirit; believers (post Pentecost) are given God’s spirit; so, our ‘death’ was the removal (?...no Adam? no fall) of God’s spirit from us.

2. Dualism
related to the ideas of being made in God’s image, the question of the soul immediately arises (as seen in one of the first posts here). Fudge in “The Fire That Consumes” makes a very strong exegetical case against dualism and for monism. We are body and soul, but the soul does not exist without the body. Eternal life is a gift given to believers (Paul) not to everyone; therefore, there is no eternal conscious suffering in hell (second death). These ideas are probably relevant as we ‘shift our paradigms’ and rethink what it means to be made in God’s image.

Deb in BC - #25228

August 10th 2010

p.s. re #1 above:  ....and the presence of that spirit was what made relationship with God possible; i.e. the death, which wasn’t physical, was the death of the direct, intimate relationship. That is restored when we come to Jesus and the HS is put in us.

Gregory - #25240

August 10th 2010

Deb in BC:

The Holy Spirit coming to believers *only* ‘post-pentecost’ is a hard position to hold given Luke 1:41, before the birth of Jesus, don’t you think?

So this really is mainly an ‘in-house theology’ conversation, rather than theology interacting with sciences here? Pete seems to be saying that no ‘science’ can say *anything* about being made ‘imago Dei’ *except* for theology. Since all religious believers are also ‘theologians’ to one degree or another, all can pronounce on this. There are good questions raised in the comments in this thread already.

Again, I ask to folks on the board, what to do, to respect ‘other’ spheres of the Academy:
“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+).”

This is a far more dangerous and difficult conversation than is the mere ‘age of Earth.’ Once human beings become involved, one is not just talking about ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ anymore. A third category (and a fourth) is introduced, which fits very well with the trinitarian notions that *all* Christians have been taught.

Deb in BC - #25242

August 10th 2010

Is it taking away ‘image of God’ or ‘soul’?
Tradition has held the two coterminous.
Isn’t this conversation about not conflating the two?

Norm - #25245

August 10th 2010


Your question is moot in the sense that as a Christian we have accepted the context that we are endowed with something that those outside this providence hold which is eternal life. This is not a new concept due to biology but is one that says we are a set aside people which is just as problematic to the non believer. This is ultimately the bottom line that all us must deal with or as some do decide that all humanity is in God’s Image and declare Universal Salvation as the answer.

Can we live with the concept that we are a chosen people of God?

Norm - #25250

August 10th 2010


I think Pete and Walton gets very close to the core of this issue but IMO their needs to be a bigger emphasis upon Christ than to allow a little wiggle room for the idea that humanity somehow has God’s Spiritual Image.

Pete actually discusses this subject better than just about anyone else I have run across so I must give him his dues. I just think it is a little more concrete than what he fully demonstrates occasionally. One of the offshoots of taking the Image of God to all humanity is a proclivity toward Universalism as it tends to simplify difficult issues for some. There simply are theological ramifications when you think through the implications of applying it to the “all”.

Norm - #25251

August 10th 2010

Sorry folks this last response was meant for a similar discussion on scot mcknights beliefnet site. Someone can delete it if they wish.

ted - #25289

August 10th 2010

Did evolution stop?  If it did, then why did God choose to have “imago dei” in an individual (Jesus) born in a class of evolved beings that were not “fully developed” so to speak?  And, if by bringing Jesus to humanity meant that evolution stopped, then why did it stop?  Are those laws designed by God to direct evolution stop being active?

ted - #25290

August 10th 2010

Did evolution stop?  If it did… I meant if it didn’t…

gingoro - #25391

August 11th 2010

HornSpiel (http://ourspiel.blogspot.com/)@25183

“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.”

While that is an important point it is NOT the point I was making.  IMO while I think most of the authors of the main thread posts are Christians I wonder if they should be classified as evangelicals?  While I try not to use the word inerrant about scripture I do use both the words inspired and trustworthy.  I also agree that we need to attempt to figure out if a particular passage is poetry, hyperbole, historical, uses phenomenological language etc.  For example to my mind Job is poetry and not literal history although it might have been based upon a real person and could be classified as an epic.  Where the bible touches on matters in the field of science I have no problem if the writers simply used the science of the day.  However when it comes to history beyond the first eleven or so chapters of Genesis then I tend to take it as written, as to my mind Christianity is definitely rooted in history.

gingoro - #25392

August 11th 2010

As it happens I take A&E as real people about whom an epic poem was written to teach theological truth but I can live with other more figurative understandings of Genesis.  Some people question if I am an evangelical and since the authors of the main posts seem to be considerably much more liberal than I am, it seems natural to wonder if they are evangelicals in any real sense or not.

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

Because of these statements in your original comment:
“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.’

Had you qualified your statement that God acts mainly through natural processes I would have agreed with you.
That sounds like deism of some kind to me, as I think the world is open to God’s (occasional) intervention and that he does at times intervene.  Miracles are real once one accepts “In the beginning God”, I fail to see the issue.
Dave W

HornSpiel - #25417

August 11th 2010


Thanks for your response. Your comments beg for a discussion on what defines an Evangelical. Can you imagine Jesus saying “Unless you hate your brand of religion, you cannot be may disciple.” I can.  I do consider myself an evangelical. However I feel embarrassed by the suppression of the truth and blinders to reality so common in my experience. To paraphrase the late Alaska senator, “To hell with Evangelicalism, just do what’s right for God.” 

It’s like God gave us keys to the car, the Owners Manual, and the Traffic Code Handbook and we say “Thanks for the Traffic Codes, but we don’t need the Owners Manual.”

As far as my statement ” God acts consistently through natural processes” I do not mean to say Gos does not intervene in miraculous ways as signs. I do mean that God will not intervene to fix human caused natural disasters any more than he intervenes to stop earthquakes, volcanoes, or tsunamis.

We needed to stop the Gulf oil spill if we did not want the entire underground reservoir leaking into the ocean. Thankfully though, our best efforts to clean it up pale in comparison to God’s natural cleanup mechanisms.

Kyle - #25471

August 12th 2010


Any good recommended reading on this one?

Gregory - #25489

August 12th 2010

Hi Deb in BC,

You wrote:
“Is it taking away ‘image of God’ or ‘soul’?”

Take your choice. Are we dealing with public or private education here? One would be missing something if they didn’t mention that YEC is likely more prominent per person in kids who are home schooled.

Without ‘image of God’ and/or ‘soul’ what is a religiously musical sociologist to do? Are you saying we should follow the path of C. Darwin on this one?

Here is what Nietzsche said here:
“Darwin forgot the soul.”

I agree with you, Deb, that ‘this conversation’ is partly about “not conflating the two.” But it also cannot escape the question of how ‘image of God,’ ‘soul’ or even ‘spirit’ can, cannot, should or should not be used by non-theologians.

Thus, if an anthropologist goes to do research in a foreign community or nation, about which little is known, he or she would ‘give up the ghost’ so to speak if they did not acknowledge the ‘immaterial’ worship &/or religion of that community or nation. Naturalism fails here.

How much must be discarded in order to say: A&E were not ‘real, historical’ persons & ‘image of God’ has *nothing* to do with ‘what makes us human’?

Enns seems to need bogochilovechestvo!

Pete Enns - #25517

August 13th 2010

Deb #25242

Yes, I agree. This is about not conflating the two. “Image of God” and “soul”  are both important, but they are not to be equated, regardless of how often this is done or how “non-theologians” decide they want to use these terms. If we impose upon the biblical language concepts it is not prepared to handle, we may begin to claim “biblical support” for things the Bible doesn’t address. Here is a practical and obviously relevant implication: If we assume that the image of God in Genesis refers to things like a soul or other qualities that make us human, we have CREATED an obstacle to the discussion over evolution that is not there in the biblical text. The discussion will continue in a more profitable direction if we remain clear on what the parameters are.

Troysko - #25537

August 13th 2010

I very much appreciate these conclusions about the meaning of the image of God. But to support them from Hebrews 2 seems questionable.

Isn’t it likely that the author of Heb is taking Ps 2 out of its original context (“man” = humankind) and interpreting it messianically (“man” = Jesus)? You assert that Heb 2:8 is talking about humanity, but isn’t it likely that it’s speaking of Jesus?

If Heb 2:8 is talking about Jesus, then this passage is NOT an instance of “the exalted Jesus is the royal image of God that humankind was always supposed to be.” Rather, the author is arguing, as in Heb 1:13, that the exaltation of Jesus is real (2:9) but not yet fully realized (2:8).

Following this reading, Heb 2:5-9 and 2:17 are not particularly relevant to a discussion about the image of God as relates to humankind.

gingoro - #25554

August 14th 2010


Thanks for your response.

“what defines an Evangelical.”

One way of looking at my definition of evangelical is to think of the teaching of Stott, Packer and mainly Carl Henry as they taught what I see represented in the Bible, to a great extent.  Another is:

1. Orthodox and Orthoprax: Evangelicals subscribe to the main tenets—doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical—of the churches to which they belong.
2. Crucicentric: Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross.
3. Biblicist: Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God’s Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.
4. Conversionist: Evangelicals believe that everyone must trust Jesus as Saviour and follow him as Lord; and everyone must co-operate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.

gingoro - #25555

August 14th 2010

5. Missional: Evangelicals actively co-operate with God in his mission of redeeming the world, and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel.
6. Transdenominational: Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the Kingdom of God.

(from Steve Martin’s excellent blog http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/11/what-is-evangelical-am-i-one-why-do-i.html)
Dave W

gingoro - #25556

August 14th 2010


“I do mean that God will not intervene to fix human caused natural disasters any more than he intervenes to stop earthquakes, volcanoes, or tsunamis.”

IMO God can and does intervene extremely occasionally more than the signs given in the Bible and of course often in changing hearts and drawing people to him.  However in general I am not sure it is scientifically provable even with statistics or using the techniques of ID.  I do believe in prayer that requests help and expects answers, in that I differ from L as I perceive him.

“Thankfully though, our best efforts to clean it up pale in comparison to God’s natural cleanup mechanisms.”

To my mind that is simply God pre-arranging things to help his struggling children.  I praise God for his provision in nature and for his potential interventions as I can’t tell the difference for sure.  Of course we need to stop the spill and place companies under greater supervision when they undertake such activities as drilling for oil and IMO the top executives should be open to criminal charges as they set the tone and goals and lower level people take the shortcuts to meet those goals.  IMO the earth is not expendable as another piece of garbage.
Dave W

Gregory - #25610

August 14th 2010

“If we assume that the image of God in Genesis refers to things like a soul or other qualities that make us human, we have CREATED an obstacle to the discussion over evolution that is not there in the biblical text.” - Dr. Pete Enns

This is simply *not true*. For Enns & a few others, it may be true. But that’s another story.

The ‘obstacle’ of discussing ‘evolution’ & ‘image of God’ or ‘soul’ for non-theologians today is an illusion created by (mainly) USAmerican theologians.

ID is likewise “an American thing.”

Pete has been told this by others; he has been told that he contradicts Roman Catholic & Orthodox Christian theology. So what?

The biggest irony here, of course, is that ‘evangelical’ is oftentimes (but not always) equivalent with ‘Sola Scriptura’ & ‘biblical literalism.’

Yet Pete & others here have chastized YECs. They are ‘evangelicals’ leaning heavily towards being ‘liberal Christians.’ Yet they don’t identify ‘liberal Christians’ as consistent with BioLogos!

God created the Biosphere. God directly created human souls. Can Pete repeat this please?

No? Didn’t think so. Supended from Seminary!

Enns is yet another theologian who cannot curb his excesses re: evolutionism.

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