The Image of God

This Sunday we will be entering the venerable Hebrews 2. I am not exaggerating when I say that this chapter of the Bible has influenced my theology more than any other single section of Scripture. From it I get my understanding of Christ, his work, and our world. I can’t believe I’ll be preaching it coming off an eight week break, which probably did more to regress my preaching than refresh it! But we’ll soldier on. 

Since the sermon will be abbreviated, and the room filled with babies, I felt I should send some background information that might anticipate some questions you could have. What follows is nerdy. You don’t have to read it. You also don’t need to read it to understand the sermon. I just thought it might help explain where I’ll be coming from. 

The Image of God

Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. That is a fact. Though that fact is explicitly taught in Scripture, it isn’t really explained. Students of the Bible are left to figure out what it means based on various other passages. Since Scripture speaks about it in different ways there are multiple theories as to what it means. The three views, and my names for them, are 1) the anthropological view, 2) the dominion view, and 3) the redemption view. These theories aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are distinct enough that they can seem so. I wanted to provide a quick synopsis of these views since the image of God will play a staring role in Sunday’s sermon. And I won’t have time to make the necessary nuances.

THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL VIEW

The anthropological view is what our Confession promotes. In this view, humans are in the image of God because we possess attributes that reflect the attributes of God. Humans possess things like a soul, moral agency, holiness, mercy, self-awareness, responsibility, creativity, etc. Though these attributes got distorted by the Fall, they are attributes that every human in the world still has. In this view, the image of God is what makes mankind unique. In fact, the people that hold this view often say that God’s image is what separates us from the animals. Your dog can pee on the carpet but it isn’t the same as your disobedience because you have moral agency, your dog does not. 

This view isn’t really supported by much Scripture. It is mostly just inferred by the fact that we really do have attributes that reflect the character of God. The Bible does teach that at least a shadow of God’s image remains (Genesis 9:6, James 3:9), but this view advances that idea more than the others.

THE DOMINION VIEW

This view is what I was taught in seminary and aligns closely to the Dutch Reformed tradition. It is also becoming the more popular view in Reformed circles. In this view, the image of God isn’t about Adam possessing God’s attributes, it’s about Adam representing God’s dominion. This view is directly tied to the authority that God gave Adam in Genesis 1-2. 

This, I believe, is much closer to how ancient people would have understood the image of God. In the ancient world, a shrine with an image represented the god’s authority and jurisdiction, far more than his attributes. And in this view, Adam was like a governor that expressed the authority and jurisdiction of the Creator. This view is far more consistent with the biblical narrative, from the Abrahamic Covenant to the Great Commission. 

I love this view, but it’s fraught with pitfalls. People consistently take it too far and end up teaching that culture making is the primary calling of the church. That just doesn’t line up with the New Testament. Others often make the mistake of minimizing the effect of the Fall which leads to a shallow understanding of Adam’s original dominion. Adam’s dominion was thoroughly gutted by his sin. If you doubt that, go to a zoo and try to pet a bear like Adam could! Jesus walked on water partly because he possessed Adam’s dominion… we sink. 

This idea of dominion will be the background to my sermon this Sunday. I will talk about the fact that Jesus possesses the image and dominion that Adam had. But I will go further than that, which is why I am writing the email. I will mix this view with the next one, because I believe that is what Hebrews is doing. 

THE REDEMPTIVE VIEW

More and more, I’m appreciating the concept that God’s image is intimately connected to God’s righteousness. If Adam would have remained righteous, then God’s image would have continued to reside with him. When Adam sinned, the image was broken and barely recognizable. This view is less popular and may be a surprise to those of us used to the image being mostly unaffected by sin. It’s this I wanted to alert you to. This view doesn’t have to mean the image is totally gone, but it does underscore the depth to which Adam fell and the shattering effect of sin.

My two theological heroes hold this view: John Calvin and Cyril of Alexandria. Calvin completely rejects the dominion view and goes so far as to make it sound like Adam completely lost the image at the Fall. Cyril, on the other hand, has a fascinating view… The image of God was given to man by God breathing the Spirit into Adam (Gen 2:7). When Adam sinned, the Spirit departed and the image deserted. The image of God did not return to man until the Spirit descended from heaven and rested on Christ at his baptism. 

In this view, there are only two people who have fully possessed the image of God: Adam and Christ. In the other views, the image of God is almost a human quality; in this view it is unmistakably divine. We as Christians regain this image through redemption, which fits several New Testament passages: 1Cor 15:49, 2Cor 3:18, Eph 4:24, Col 3:10. Possessing the image of God is about possessing his righteousness, therefore it requires fellowship with him. As Calvin might say it: the image of God is relational. 

As I mentioned, these theories are not mutually exclusive, but Sunday morning won’t be the place for me to do details. The sermon won’t be technical, but it’s one of those weeks where there are mountains of technical data underneath the things I’ll be saying. So hopefully this will help let you know where I’ll be coming from and address the various views that I will be flattening and neglecting on Sunday morning. 

Hebrews 2 is such an astounding passage. It is nothing short of the origin story of how Christ became the Second Adam. I’m not sure that any other section of Scripture gives us this vantage point. It is terrifying to preach a passage that has so dramatically shaped my worldview, but having this out of the way will make it a little simpler. Thanks for reading.