The doctrine of the image of God is based on Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-3, and 9:3 that state that God made human beings—male and female—to the image and likeness of Him. The basic implication of this doctrine is that all human persons regardless of gender, race, and capacities are created according to the likeness or the image of God. Other texts in the Scriptures that are useful for this doctrine are Col. 3:10 where Paul speaks of the renewed human being created after God’s image; 1 Cor. 1:17 where Paul asserts that in some respect the male is both the image of God while the female is the glory of the male; and 1 Cor. 3:16 where Paul asserts that the body is also a temple of the Holy Spirit. Since the Early church several Christian theologians have discussed this issue and have offered different answer to this question: What does constitute the image of God? Without being restrictive, there are some major views to understand this doctrine.
(1) The structural view. This has been the dominant view throughout Christian history. It is believed that Early Christian theologians such as Irenaeus, Augustine, and Aquinas held this view. This model argues that human beings have one or a series of properties/characteristics which resemble God, which differentiate animals from human kind. The real question which emerges is what characteristics that human beings have resemble God. It is, in this regard, theologians offered different rationales but a similar answer: For Irenaeus the image was reason; for Augustine it was the intellect/will; for Aquinas it was a person’s rationality. In summary, for these theologians, it is the ability to reason what makes us different from animals.
It is important to note that during the Early church and the Medieval period, theologians tended to make a difference between being created in the image of God vs. being created in his likeness. Reformed theologians still associated the image of God with the intellect/ reason, but they advanced the notion of the image of God further. Thus, Luther interpreted Genesis 1:26-27 as stating that both the image and the likeness of God is the same thing. For him, the image has a universal public dimension where all humanity shares vs. a private dimension that represents the righteousness that the human being had in the creation. This righteousness is what it had been lost, and through Christ, it will be restored. Although Calvin follows Luther in his understanding of the image of God, he does it only partially. Calvin rejects the public/private dimension, but focuses on the corruption of the image/likeness of God. He claims that this image/likeness will be completely restored in the believers’ glorification, but in the meantime, Christians have been partially restored.
(2) The relational view. One of the best representative of this model is Karl Barth and others from the Neo Orthodoxy movement such as Brunner. Barth understands the image of God as the human ability to have a relationship with God. In his section about the Image of God in his Church Dogmatics, Barth asserts that what the Genesis 1:26-27 is the relationship between God-humans and the relationship between humans. This has the implication that the purpose of the creation of humanity was that all persons, male and female, could live in fellowship.
(3) The functional view. Perhaps this is the most known model in evangelical and biblical circles. It makes emphasis in what it says Genesis 1:26-28 regarding the role of humans to fulfill the cultural mandate. Under this model, the role of ruling or having dominion over creation would be what makes the difference between humanity and the animals. Human beings are then the representatives of God on earth and have the duty to fulfill God’s command to subdue the earth and taking care of her. Of all the three views, the functional one is a more anthropological approach rather than theological.
(4) The synthetical view. Although these three major views represent the major perspective to understand the image of God, other particular views are also known, such as the case of Bavinck, which I find interesting.
Some years before Barth, Bavinck publishes his Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch, where he offered a theological synthesis of the image of God: an integrative/holistic view which interprets the image of God ontologically in both a broad and narrow sense. For Bavinck, the image of God is not located in a characteristic/property of the human person or one of their functions. Instead, he argues humanity as a whole—every human person—constitutes the image of God. The advantage of this theological synthesis is that it offers us a holistic approach which can allow us to include the insights of the other major views such as the structure of the human person such as reason and capacities as well as the functional and relational perspective.
Implications. One question we can ask is: what insights the doctrine of the image of God can provide into the doctrine of God and the church? To the doctrine of God, the image of God allows Christians to better understand the progress of the divine eschatological plan: that despite humanity has been tainted by sin, we are going to a point where the triune God will restore the created order in its totality, including the part of the image that was broken. All this process of restoration has been through Christ. In fact, God will not only restore His creation through Christ in the future. As important as the previous implication, there’s an already aspect that happened in the cross: God, through Christ, restored the communication between the triune God and humanity restoring the image of God in the believer as the Apostle Paul suggests in Colossians 2. This doctrine of the image of God has also have implications for the church. It is important the church as the body of Christ understands that being created in the image of God has both senses: a broad sense which avoids excluding marginalized groups in our society such as women, people of color, and people with disabilities; and a narrow sense which emphasizes the redemptive work of Christ for those who are called into the church.
Importance of the image of God. As I highlighted it earlier, God not only restores the image in the present life. He is also is working in us preparing us for the eschaton when every faithful follower of Christ will be glorified and when the image of God will be restored in its totality. If the church fails to pay attention to this two-fold dimension of the image of God, it might create a series of problems for the healthy development of a person’s Christian life. On one hand, if the narrow sense of the image of God is downplayed, then, it might cause some Christians to forget the importance of the Christian life in areas as morality and perseverance until Christ’s return. On the other hand, if we locate the image of God solely in the intellect or any other human characteristic/property, we might leave no room for an inclusive theology that concerns everyone. Sometimes in the past, certain groups have charged the traditional views to understand the image of God as incomplete or as they served a basis to promote discrimination. For instance, theologians who believe the image of God refers to an ability to rule the creation tend to leave out people with developmental disabilities who struggle to exercise such a feature. This situation is not only unfair but creates issues to these people when they read the biblical text with those lenses.