The "Image" and "Likeness" of God (James 3)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from James and 1,2,3 John:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2007)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study



Man in the Image of God in the Old Testament

        Passages of special interest are Genesis 1:26,27, Genesis 5:1-3, and Genesis 9:6.

        At Genesis 1:26,27 we read, "Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, ac­cording to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."  Following is an explanation of the key terms:

        GOD, 'elohim (plural), is speaking.

        LET US MAKE translates the plural form na'aseh.  It is a different word than has been used for "create" (bara) earlier in the Genesis account.  The members of the Godhead are conferring and deliberately planning and purposing what They would do.

        MAN, 'adam, seems to designate a species of creatures, just as in verse 24 chayyah ("beast") marks the wild beasts that live in general a solitary life, and behemah ("cattle"), domestic or gregarious animals, and remes ("creeping thing"), all kinds of reptiles and worms.  As verse 27 indicates, "Adam" includes both the male and female of the species.

        IMAGE is tselem in the Hebrew, eikōn in the Greek.  Tselem is the shadow of a figure, the shadow-outline, a copy, reproduction, duplicate.  Tselem denotes the visible form of an external object.  Eikōn denotes similarity in looks, like the head of the emperor on a coin (Matthew 22:20; Mark 12:16; Luke 20:24).  The coin is not of the same material as the emperor, but the shape of the head is the same.  Eikōn presupposes an original form from which there is derivation.  Apart from the "image of God" passages, the word “image” occurs 12 times in the Old Testament.  10 times it refers to a physical representation of something – i.e., golden images of mice and tumors (1 Samuel 6:5,11); images of Baal (2 Kings 11:18); pictures of Babylonians painted on the walls (Ezekiel 23:14).1  In Romans 1:23 fallen man exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for "an image (eikōn) in the form of (homoiōma) corruptible man ...", and then "image in the form of" is used of idols made in the form of birds, animals, and reptiles.  Again it appears that eikōn refers to a "figure" or a "shape."

        LIKENESS is demuth in the Hebrew, homoiōsis in the Greek.  Demuth means a copy, an imitation, resemblance, similarity.  It is used at 2 Chronicles 4:3 for the "shape" (“figures” NASB) of the oxen which supported the laver in Solomon's temple.  It is used of the "likeness" of a sound at Isaiah 13:4.  It is used in Ezekiel 8:2 where one with the "appearance" ("likeness” NASB) of a man caught Ezekiel away.  A similar usage is found in Daniel 10:16,18.  It is used at 2 Kings 16:10 of the plans or copy or model of an altar Ahaz saw in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest so that he might design one just like it.  The word is used in Isaiah 40:18,25, and Psalm 50:21 where God chides men for attempting to make an image of Him, saying there is no one "comparable" to Him.  The Greek word homoiōsis denotes "the same kind," or "like" (but not "equal"), "of like disposition," of holding possessions "in common," or "similar" in shape (from geometry).  While there is no connotation of derivation, homoiōsis denotes likeness, just as one egg resembles another, or there may be similarity between two men who are in no way related.  Its usage elsewhere in Scripture helps us to grasp its meaning.  In the creation, each species was to bring forth "after its kind."  Jesus, when incarnate, was in the "likeness of the flesh of sin" (Romans 8:3 NASB mg.).  In all points He was made "like" (homoiōthēnai) his brethren (Hebrews 2:14-17).  Paul uses the root word to say that since we humans are the offspring of God, God is not like the animal figures pagans set up as images (Acts 17: 28ff).  At Revelation 1:13 (NASB mg.), one "like the Son of Man" was seen among the candlesticks.  At Matthew 22:39 we find the word means "of equal value" (“a second [commandment] is just like it”).  The word occurs at Galatians 5:21 ("and things like these") to designate works of flesh similar to those already specifically named.

        Perhaps no distinction or different connotation should be sought between the words tselem and demuth.  Luther and Calvin both found virtually no distinction between the two words.  In Genesis 1:26, which is God's resolution to create, both words are used.  But in verse 27, the actual act of creation, only tselem is used, not demuth.  The two words are so intertwined that nothing is lost by the omission of demuth.  Also, the LXX translates demuth at Genesis 5:1 not by the usual homoiōsis but by eikōn, the Greek counterpart for Hebrew tselem.2  Trench argues that eikōn and homoiōma may be used as equivalents (and cites Plato, Phaedr. 250b as proof), the words being used interchangeably to identify earthly copies and resemblances of heavenly bodies.3  A ninth-century BC statue of an ancient king at Tell Fekheriye has both tselem and demuth in an Aramaic inscription explaining what the statue represents.4  Their application to the physical form of the statue indicates that the physical human form is a critical aspect of the function of image.  It was apparently not till the Arian controversy became a heated issue that careful distinction between the two words began to be made.

        The image and likeness of God (Genesis 1) are how man was made, and this was prior to the Fall.  Though Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3), and man has "fallen," Scripture indicates that men still bear the image and likeness of God.  Neither Genesis 9:6 nor James 3:9 would have any meaning if the image/likeness had been lost in the Fall.  In Genesis 5:1-3, when Adam fathers Seth, we are told that the "image" was passed on to Seth.  The image is passed on to each succeeding generation, for 1 Corinthians 15:49 speaks of men generations removed from Adam and Seth as bearing the image (eikona) of the earthly (Adam).  After the flood (Genesis 9:6), when murder is prohibited, it is because men are still in the image of God.  Both eikōn and homoiōsis are claimed for man in the New Testament:  Eikōn at 1 Corinthians 11:7 ("man is the image ... of God"); homoiōsis at James 3:9.  Nevertheless, something happened to man and to creation when Adam sinned.  The creation was subjected to futility (Romans 8:20).  Death entered the world when Adam sinned, and all of Adam's physical descendants were subjected to physical death (Romans 5:12ff).  When men sin, their share in "the glory of God" is diminished (Romans 3:23).  Hebrews 2:5-11 (quoting Psalm 8) shows that the dominion granted to man (Genesis 1:26) has been lost, but that in Christ it is being regained for fallen man.

        Genesis directly asserts that "mankind" (adam, man and woman, not just man alone5) resembles God in some important ways, but the difficulty is that Genesis gives no indication of exactly wherein the likeness and image between God and mankind (adam) consists, save for the function of exercising dominion.  As a result, theologians have never been able to agree concerning precisely wherein that resemblance lies.  The nature of the likeness has been conceived as physical, personal, or functional; all can easily fall within the semantic range of the terms involved.  Yet care must especially be exercised here, for in the Hebrew mind man is not treated as being so many separate parts (say a body and a soul and a spirit), but rather as a total personality, so that the whole man (body on the outside, and soul/spirit on the inside) is somehow in the image and likeness of God.


New Testament References to the Image of God

         New Testament references to image and likeness of God need careful attention, especially since some of them have been used to show that Christians do not yet have the image or likeness of God, but after being born again must keep growing until they finally achieve the goal of being "transformed into the divine image."

Ephesians 4:21-24 -- "You ... have been taught (verse 21) that ... you lay aside your old self (verse 22) ... corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,  and that you are being renewed in the spirit of your mind (verse 23), and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (verse 24)."

Several things need to be emphasized:

  • The old self is corrupt, not because of what Adam did, but because of what men themselves have done (men are "dead through their own trespasses and sins," Ephesians 2:1 ASV).  Verse 22 says that when men indulge in the lusts springing from deceit, that brings corruption to the old self.  "Corrupted" is a present participle, picturing a corruption that is a process that goes on, a condition that progresses to worse and worse.
  • "Renewed” (being renewed, an infinitive) is somehow related to "lay aside" (the main verb) the old man.  The infinitives "lay aside" and " renewed" are dependent on "you were taught" (verse 21).  "You were taught that you lay aside ... and you are (being) renewed ..." is how the Greek reads.
  • It is the "spirit of (the) mind" that is habitually being renewed (a present tense infinitive depicting continuing action).  The verb ananoeō occurs only here in the New Testament.6  "Spirit of your mind" (Greek) is an unusual expression which has generated much discussion.7  Paul is highlighting the continual challenge a believer has to bring his or her thoughts more into line with God's revealed will, parallel to Romans 12:2 where the mind is said to be renewed and thus behavior is transformed.   Perhaps "spirit" here has reference to "attitude."8  The renewal takes place in the "spirit" (dative of reference) which controls the mind (subjective genitive).  In Titus 3:5 it is the Holy Spirit who is the agent doing the renewing.  The present tense infinitive and the passive voice suggest the continuous nature of the renewal and that it takes place as believers allow themselves to be renewed in their thinking.  2 Corinthians 4:16 speaks of a "day by day" or "every day" repeated renewal (anakainountai) of the inner man.
  • Both infinitives, "lay aside" (verse 22) and "put on" (verse 24), are aorist tense and seem to point to a single act in the past, to the time when the Ephesians became Christians.

  • "In the likeness of God" (verse 24) is literally 'according to God' (kata theon).  The "new self" ("new man" ASV),” put on when the readers became Christians, is what is described as being "according to God."  Can it be said that "new man" or "new self" is somehow synonymous either with "image" of God or "likeness" of God?  One should be hesitant to arrive at such a conclusion.9  Since neither the word "image" nor "likeness" actually occurs in the Greek here in Ephesians 4:24, it would be reading into the text to affirm it says the "image" or "likeness" that was (allegedly) lost when man sinned is what is restored in Christ.
  • "Created" (verse 24), ktisthenta, is an accusative singular aorist passive participle, agreeing with "new self."  It does not say that "righteousness" and "holiness" are the things being created.  The "new self" was created at one time in the past, and we would suppose the act of creating took place at the new birth.
  • "In righteousness and holiness of the truth" (verse 24), en dikaiosunē kai hosiotēti tēs alētheias, are two areas wherein the new man is "new" or is being "renewed."  The idea contained in our Greek text is this:  "Righteousness and holiness" "come from the truth."10  This reading balances what Paul wrote earlier.  The evil desires which characterized the old person sprang from deceit (verse 22).  The virtues which characterize the new person come from "the truth."  This "truth" has been disclosed in the gospel preached by Jesus and His apostles.  The usual distinction between the nouns is that "holiness" has reference to God, and "righteousness" to men.  The synonym translated "holiness" means  "in harmony with the divine constitution of the universe."  It speaks of "right relationships to God."  In this context, "righteousness" likely speaks of right relationships with men.  The two terms together are a summary of human virtue, and picture the thoughts that fill the renewed mind, and which in turn transforms the behavior.  Righteousness and holiness are characteristics of God (LXX of Psalm 144:17 and Deuteronomy 32:4 and Revelation 16:5).  New creatures who reflect God's image likewise demonstrate such qualities.11

Colossians 3:9-11 -- "Stop lying (mg.) to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a full knowledge according to the image of the One who created him – a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek or Jew ...."

Several things need to be emphasized:

  • The context is this:  3:5-9a name some sins the sinner used to commit which are to be put away, or put to death, now that he has become a Christian.  3:9b-11 give the reason why they are to be put away.  The fact they have become new creatures in Christ requires such abandoning of old sins.
  • "Laid aside" (verse 9) and "put on" (verse 10) are aorist participles, referring to one time in the past.  Colossians 2:11ff shows it was at the time of baptism the old man was stripped off, and the new man put on.12  We should translate the participles truly as participles13 which describe the past event.  The readers have already put off the old nature and put on the new; that is the basis for the call to abandon the old ways and embrace the new.
  • "Old self" (“old man,” mg.) is used consistently by Paul to denote what belonged to life prior to faith in Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).  The "old man" is not just the former manner of existence "in Adam."  The "old self" is one who has personally committed his first sin, whose spirit has died (because of his own trespasses and sins), and who is now a slave of the devil.  That whole way of life had been abandoned when folk were immersed into Christ.  "The Christian has had a radical, life-changing experience in which he has put off the old self with its practices (i.e., habits or characteristic actions) and has put on the new self."14
  • "New self" – All the Greek has is the adjective "new," so we must supply the noun.  The one to be supplied from the previous verse is anthrōpos, "man" or “self.” 
  • "Renewed" (anakainoumenou) is a present participle, setting forth another side to this newness.  The new self is constantly being renewed (kainos); it is in the process of being renewed.  The same verb form here translated "renewed" is used at 2 Corinthians 4:16, "our inner man is being renewed day by day."  The participle is passive in form.  Who is the agent who does this "renewing"?  Is it the Holy Spirit, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Titus 3:5 may suggest?  Or is it the Christian himself, who stops making provisions to fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Romans 13:14)?
  • "To a true knowledge" (eis epignōsin) means that "knowledge" is either the goal of the renewing (epignōsin is the object of eis) or the sphere (NIV) in which this process of renewal occurs.15  It is not the "image of God" that is constantly renewed,16 but it is the new man's "knowledge" which is being constantly renewed.  For Christians, the Word of God is the source of knowledge (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 1 Peter 2:2).  "Knowledge" was at the heart of man's first failure (Genesis 2:17, 3:5,7).  If Christians embrace the "knowledge" available in Christ, they have all the information they need to live holy and acceptable lives.  It is failure to act in accordance with their knowledge of God that gets men into trouble, and is rather how the "old man" lives.
  • "According to the image of the One who created him" has been given many and diverse interpretations.  Who is "him"?  The "new man" of verse 10 or "Adam" ("mankind") of Genesis 1:26-28?  The best choice is that the "him" is the new man about whom Paul is writing.  Who is the "One who created"?  If the "One who created him" is speaking of God the Father, there is clearly an allusion to the "image of God" in Genesis 1:26-28.17  If "Christ" is the "One" Paul has in mind as creator of the new man, then Christ (who is the image of the invisible God, Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4) serves as the model or archetype for the new man.  If "Christ" is the "One" Paul has in mind, then we likely will say there is no allusion to Genesis 1:26-28.18   "According to" here likely means "in harmony with."  But just what is it which is said to be in harmony with the "image of the One who created"?  Likely it is the "renewal" which is in harmony with the image.  If so, the passage says that the Christian's continual, daily renewal in full knowledge makes him what the Creator intended him to be.  It is an integral and necessary part of putting on the new man.  Instead of the divine image being a future goal, it is something we are realizing every day.
  • "In which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew ...."  In the condition where men are "new men," the old distinctions and barriers that divided people from one another – racial, religious, cultural, and social – are abolished.  A person can be a "new man" whether he be Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, bond or free.  When men are in Christ they have a new status, they are "God's elect, holy and beloved" (verse 12 ASV).19


Jesus Christ in the Image of God

        The pre-incarnate Jesus was the "exact representation of His nature" (Hebrews 1:3).  He "exists" (the Greek is a present participle) in the "form" (morphē) of God (Philippians 2:6).  Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.”  Jesus, as the "image" of God, was both in external shape and inwardly in that image.  "Image" was not restricted to His body, nor to His inner essence.

        The incarnate Jesus Himself bore the "image” of God since He was "the son of Adam, the son of God" (Luke 3:38).  In this "human" form He gives help to the seed of Abraham (Hebrews 2:16).  Jesus' earthly body was just like the bodies of other humans (Romans 8:3; Hebrews 2:14,17), who were in the "image of God" (Genesis 1:26,27).

        When Jesus Christ is spoken of as the image of God, the idea is that He is the visible representation of God.  "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 12:45, 14:9).  In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul indicates that Christ's glory is an expression of the divine glory.  The light of the knowledge of the glory of God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

        "Image" is also used of Christ's resurrection body, a body which Christians, too, one day will share.  Men will one day bear the image of the heavenly (1 Corinthians 15:49).  The glorified body men receive will be just like the glorified body Jesus now has.

  • God's plan, made back in eternity before He created, was that believers might be conformed to the image of Christ. "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren" (Romans 8:29).  At the Second Coming of Christ, when men are glorified, they will finally and completely bear the image Christ now bears.
  • "As we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly" (1 Corinthians 15:49). This, too, speaks of the resurrection body.  Here "image of the earthy" clearly refers to our bodily form, our humanity which we have inherited from Adam. 
  • "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things unto Himself" (Philippians 3:20,21). We shall have a glorified body just like the one Jesus now has. 
  • "When He shall appear we shall be like Him" (1 John 3:2).

        Without the concept of man in the image of God, the idea of adoption as God's children (Romans 8:23) would be difficult to understand.

        Now that we have studied the pertinent Scriptures, we should be able to rightly critique the dogmas the theologians have advanced as they have tried to explain the "image" and "likeness" of God.


IMAGO DEI - Battlefield for Theologians 

        Theologians and scholars have debated the meaning and relationship between the words "image" and "likeness."  Interpretations have swung between two extremes:  that the body is all that bears the image and likeness of God, to the soul alone bearing the image and likeness of God.  Among the explanations offered20 are these: 

(1) Jewish Biblical writers thought of the "image" as being physical, bodily.  The belief that men are made in the material likeness of God is taught both in Biblical and post-Biblical Jewish literature.21

Intertestamental Jewish speculation held that God's image gave the human soul the ability to distinguish between good and evil.    As time went on, the rabbis argued, this ability diminished, and so the image was corrupted.22

Judaism in the Second Temple period and later shows surprisingly little interest in the concept of the image of God (cf. Wis. 2:23; Sir 17:3).  Genesis Rabbah 8:10,11 reports that when the Lord created Adam the angels thought he was divine and would have worshipped him had not the Lord caused him to fall asleep, thus revealing his mortality.  Moreover, humans are like the angels in that they stand upright, speak, understand and see peripherally.  On the other hand, humans are like the animals in that they eat and drink, procreate, excrete and die.  Clearly the "image and likeness" of God here includes both resemblance to the divine as well as a functional role.23

(2) Little agreement is found among Early Church Fathers who tried to explain the image and likeness of God.

Some Fathers were of the opinion that tselem and demuth are synonyms.24

Some early Fathers were of the opinion that "image" and "likeness" were expressive of separate and distinct ideas.25  For some, "image" referred to the body, which by reason of its beauty, intelligent aspect, and erect stature was an adumbration of God.  "Likeness" referred to the soul, or the intellectual and moral nature.26  It is likely one sees in the Fathers the inroads of Greek philosophy in this distinction.  For others, as Philo had done, "image" was locatable in man's soul (or mind or spirit), not in his body.27

For many, the view was that Imago Dei was something distinctive of man unfallen.  When Adam sinned, the image was lost.  In the loss of the image by sin lay man's need for redemption.  “What we lost in Adam, to wit, the divine image and simili-tude, we receive again in Christ Jesus” (Irenaeus).  For others, this seemed too sweeping (e.g., Epiphanius of Salamis [Jerome, chap. 89] argued against Origen and his followers that Adam had never lost the image), so it was modified.

Clement of Alexandria, and Origen taught that "image" was something given to men at creation, which is common to all, and which remains after the Fall (Genesis 9:6), whereas "likeness" is something for which man was created, that he should strive after it in order to attain it.  The striving might involve personal ethical conflict, or it might be accomplished through the influence of grace.  "Likeness" was something that by a gradual process can become like the archetypal image.28

Some identified the image with man's free will to do good or evil,29 while others reckoned man's dominion over irrational creatures as an aspect or a corollary of the image.30  Some argued that both image and likeness had to do only with physical resemblance to God's body.31

The words "image" and "likeness" played a key role in the Arian controversy, as the eternality of Jesus was debated.  Arius taught that Jesus was a created being, and that only the Father was eternal.  Those who opposed Arius insisted the term "image" should not be applied to the pre-incarnate Christ, since the word implies derivation.  Jesus was not a created being, they insisted, so no idea of derivation can be embraced.  "Likeness" is a proper term to apply to Jesus, since he is "just like" the Father in his Divine essence.

Gregory Nyssa, while dealing with controversies raging in his own day, devoted a treatise to the question of the relation between "image" and "likeness."  He argued for a real distinction between the two.  He reckoned tselem (image) as the more static and demuth (likeness) the more dynamic aspects of the same reality.

(3) Because the Godhead was viewed as a trinity, some tried to find "three parts" to the "image of God."

For Augustine, the "image" was located in man's soul.  "We must find in the soul of man the image of the Creator ...."32  Augustine then developed a number of theories about the supposed threefold nature of the human soul.  In one of these, he identified the vestigia (‘foot prints’ or ‘traces’ or ‘marks’) of the trinity in man's memory, intelligence, and will.  According to Augustine, "image" had reference to the cognitio veritatis (knowledge of the truth); "likeness" to amor virtutis (love of moral excellence).

Such a view is attractive in its trinitarian foundation and in its consistency with the Biblical assumption that the image was not utterly destroyed by the Fall.  A weakness lies in the idea the image is located in the soul which is "in (i.e., inside, within) man," whereas Genesis suggests that man as such is the divine image.

When Greek philosophy (i.e., that matter is evil and spirit is good) began to make inroads into theological beliefs, and men began to embrace the idea of hereditary total depravity, the idea that the image of God is located either in body or in soul began to be a problem.  How can men be born evil, or with a bent toward sinning, and still have the image and likeness of God?  Theologians therefore said the image was either lost or badly defaced.

Since somehow the "image of God" has been passed on to succeeding generations, Buswell33 at this point introduces a study on the origin of the soul:  pre-existence, traducianism, or creationism.

    •  He tells how Jerome was a creationist (i.e., when a baby is conceived, a new soul is created for that person).  Hodge argued for creationism, thinking it more in harmony with the doctrine of the sinless humanity of the incarnate Christ.
    • Augustine hesitated between traducianism (i.e., the soul is "conceived" just like the body is conceived) and creationism, not being able to prove either from Scripture.  He wrote a letter to Jerome asking questions about Jerome's view, which Jerome never answered.  Augustine inclined towards traducian theory because of his view of inherited sin.  How can the soul contract sin from Adam and not itself be contracted from Adam?
    • The doctrine of inherited original sin seems to demand traducianism.  Buswell, adopting the traducian theory, argues the virgin birth is how Jesus was kept from inheriting a sinful nature.34


(4) The Eastern Church tended to think of the image as that which distinguishes man from other created beings.  The Greek Christian Fathers defined it as something metaphysical rather than ethical.

The Eastern Church surely took a wrong turn in the road when it interpreted the two Hebrew words as referring to different parts of man's being (e.g., his body and his spirit, or the substance and the form.)

Is it not a fact that "image of God" and "likeness of God" characterize the whole man, not just a part?

(5) Western Catholicism has tended to maintain that "image" refers to man's structural likeness to God, which has survived the Fall, and that "likeness" refers to man's moral image with which he was supernaturally endowed but which was marred or destroyed by the Fall.

Similitudo Dei means the "likeness of God" and is, according to some Roman Catholic teaching, to be distinguished from the "image of God" (Imago Dei) which Adam also possessed before the Fall.  The Similitudo Dei refers to those supernatural graces Adam possessed and which were obliterated when he sinned, while the "image of God" refers to his natural endowments of reason and free will that remained intact even after the Fall.35

The Roman Catholic view that "likeness" was marred or obliterated seems contra­dicted by James 3:9, where we are told the likeness (homoiōsis) still remains.  (Remember, James uses a perfect tense verb in this verse.36)

(6) Views about the image and likeness of God differed among the Reformers.

Some insisted that the image of God designates man's "original righteousness" that was lost in the Fall.  (Note, though, Roman Catholics and Protestants have a different definition of "original righteousness.")  According to the Reformers, Adam's "original righteousness" included the harmony of understanding, will, and affections that enabled him to obey the divine Law both inwardly and externally.

Luther argued that man lost the image of God in everything but name only, and this involved the loss of freedom of the will.  In general, Lutheran tradition has emphasized the loss of the image of God.  The Lutheran Confessions understand the "image of God" in the sense that man is capable of receiving the knowledge of God.

Calvin regarded the image of God as a kind of integrity possessed by Adam whereby the passions were governed by the reason and his nature was a harmoniously ordered whole.  This integrity was not annihilated or effaced by the Fall, but was "so corrupted that whatever remains is but a horrible deformity."  In general, Reformed tradition has regarded it as corrupted but not lost.

Following the Reformation, some began to suggest that "image of God" and man's "dominion" are somehow related.

    • Socinianism and Arminianism defined the image as man's dominion over the animal creation.
    •  The Westminster Shorter Catechism suggests "image of God" has to do with man being created to exercise dominion over creation as God's Vice-regent under the Divine Providence. Defenders of this view have argued that this relationship between image and dominion is stated in Genesis 1:28 and reasserted at Genesis 8:15-9:17, especially 9:1,2.  Not only so, but Psalm 8 is a reflection on Genesis 1.  While "image" is not specifically referred to in Psalm 8, the Psalm does emphasize the Psalmist's recognition of man's lost dominion (which was lost at the Fall).  Hebrews 2:5ff shows that, on this side of Calvary, man still does not exercise this dominion now, but that in Christ it is being restored.  Christ has been crowned with glory and honor, and Christians soon will join Him in that dominion.  Luke 19:13ff pictures redeemed men, after the King returns, ruling over cities, their lost dominion restored.

Following the Reformation, some began to use certain New Testament passages to explain what the image of God is.  Adam Clarke gives a typical Protestant explanation.  Among the points he makes are these:

    • According to the authors of the Westminster standards, what the "image of God" consists in is based upon a combination of Ephesians 4:22-25 and Colossians 3:9,10, from which the words "righteousness, true holiness, and knowledge" are highlighted.
    • With these two passages should be coupled several Scriptures, including Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, which teach that the regenerate are being made to conform to the image of Christ, who already is said to be "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
    • Hence, man (when first made in the image of God) was wise in his mind, holy in his heart, and righteous in his actions.

(7) Higher Criticism since the 1940's has insisted the more important of the two words is "image."

According to the assured conclusions of higher criticism, the more important word is "image" and to avoid the implication that man is a precise copy of God, albeit in miniature, the less specific and more abstract demuth was added.  Demuth then defines and limits the meaning of tselem.37

Barr's view is that the priestly writer of the three "image of God" passages in Genesis was strongly influenced by Second Isaiah (especially the latter's view that God could not be legitimately compared with anyone or anything on earth).38  The priestly writer could not ignore the traditional view of man as being unique among the creatures in his similarity to God.  So the priestly writer used terms that could call attention to the similarity without specifying the nature of the similarity more than was absolutely necessary.  Barr attempts to justify his view by showing that no other terms in the semantic range of tselem were suitable for showing this similarity.  Objectionable is not only Barr's alleged late date for Genesis, but the same arguments used to disqualify other terms could be used to disqualify tselem also.  (The traditional view that tselem calls to mind corporeal similarity is something the priestly writer wished to avoid in Barr's theory.)

(8) Form Criticism has gone searching for the original "forms" which the Bible writers have changed and adapted as they wrote about the "image and likeness of God."  The critics have not been able to agree.

Some form critics have insisted that in Genesis the key word is demuth and that tselem is intended by the redactor to correct a wrong idea he found in his source.  Form-Criticism supposes the [alleged] priestly author of Genesis 1-9 got his ideas from Mesopotamian religion.  Demuth is related to the Hebrew for "blood" (dam).  In Mesopotamian tradition the gods created man from divine blood (so men would work and the gods could rest).  According to form critics, Genesis is a conscious rejection of and a polemic against pagan teaching.  Tselem shows that the similarity to which demuth refers, viz., man's corporeal appearance, has nothing to do with the blood that flows in his veins.39

The comparative religions school has argued that Paul's view of the image is dependent on ideas found in Hellenic mystery religions.  Reitzenstein affirmed (Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen, p.7ff) that Paul's teaching on the image is indebted to the private mystery cults in Egypt, Phrygia, and Persia, particularly those of Isis, Attis and Cybele, and Mithra, with their goal of salvation secured through personal union with the god or goddess.  But A.A. Kennedy has argued convincingly in St. Paul. and the Mystery Religions that the basic New Testament ideas are forged against the background of Hebrew theology rather than of the Hellenistic cults.40

(9) More recently, as Neo-orthodox theologians have struggled to explain the "image of God," attention has focused on the societal nature of the image of God.  In Neo-orthodox circles, the "image of God" has been a lively issue.

Love for God and neighbor is the material image of God in man, say the neo-orthodox writers.  Man as sinner does not love God or his neighbor, therefore he has lost the material image.  But he is still God's creature and therefore still responsible before God; he retains the formal image; sin cannot negate the formal image.  When man becomes a Christian, he now loves God and his neighbor, so the material image is restored.  Brunner insisted it is necessary to make the distinction between the material and formal image of God.

The doctrine of the image of God has been used as a basis upon which to insist that mankind can have a purely natural knowledge of God without benefit of special revelation.  Barth and Brunner debated this matter early in the 20th century.

Barth has proposed at least two interpretations of the image, and Brunner three.  They have proposed new ones because the old ones were full of difficulties.  So are the latest versions.

For Brunner, enough of the material image (natural knowledge of God) remains in fallen man that it constitutes a "point of contact" between God and man.

Thus Brunner argued that the divine "us" and "our" of Genesis 1:26 is reflected in man as the "them" of Genesis 1:27.  The image of God is not the possession of the isolated individual but of man-in-community expressing his "existence-for-love" by actual "existence-in-love."41

Barth rejected this view and claimed that the "image of God" was an "eschatological" concept, and in no sense the basis for declaring that man has a natural (innate) knowl­edge of God.

Barth developed the idea of "image" in characteristically Christocentric fashion:  the image of God is reflected in man-and-woman created as the sign of the hope of the coming Son of Man who is Himself the image of God.  (To suggest that man in himself could be the image of God would be to establish in man the "point of contact" which Barth so strenuously rejected.)

Barth's Christocentrism ultimately undermines the historicity of the creation narrative and the significance of the flow of redemptive history.

Existential philosophy behind Neo-orthodoxy has tended to reject the historicity of the Genesis account.  Adam is a sort of religious "every man."  It didn't really happen the way the writer of Genesis depicts it.  The image is not a state, but a relationship.

(10) Social science critics have made their attempt at explaining "image."

No longer does man "resemble" God in any way, but simply represents him.  Man does not "have" the image of God, but man "images" God.

The word "likeness," rather than diminishing the word "image," actually amplifies it and specifies its meaning.  Man is not just an image but a likeness-image.  He is not simply representative but representational.  Man is the visible, corporeal representation of the invisible, bodiless God.  Demuth guarantees that man is an adequate and faithful representative of God on earth.42  Ancient kings set up statues [images] of themselves in the far-off conquered lands to remind the people they had a ruler over them.  Supposedly, the image represented the king's authority over the conquered peoples.  Likewise, Man is the "statue" God set up when He created.

This view requires we take the beth before tselem as being equal to kaph before demuth.  If so, we could translate the first clause to say God created man "as his image" (as his representative) rather than "in his image."  This is very doubtful (though in 5:3 both the terms and the prepositions are reversed).  To translate the beth "as" requires that the beth be what could be called a "beth essentiae" (or beth of identity).  This identification is crucial to the argument.  (An argument based on the reversal at 5:3 would require taking the kaph as a "kaph essentiae" yet that is a sense never found elsewhere in Hebrew literature.  Kaph is hardly the preposition to signify function rather than similitude.)

Who is to say the statues were anything other than memorials to the kings and their mighty deeds -- and are not at all representations of their royal authority?



        Perhaps it is true that no subject has exercised the devout speculation of the greatest theologians with as little tangible result as this question, "Wherein does the Image of God in us consist?"

        As we study the Scriptures and the history of the debate, we discover several points for which final answers are hard to come by.

1) What is the nature of the image and likeness that Genesis speaks about?

        We must think in terms of the whole man as we look for "image" and "likeness."  Not only do we take into account the shape or form of man's body, but also the fact that the shape/form is animated by soul and directed by spirit.  In this, man is like God, who also has a shape, which can be animated, and can behave in harmony with what is thought or willed.  He thinks, plans, creates, speaks, loves, exercises dominion, etc.  So can man.

        It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that "image of God" has some reference to the form or shape man has.  The idea is that God who is spirit has a shape; man has a shape or form that is similar, alike, but not an exact or precise copy.  In Ezekiel 1:26-28, God is described in appearance like (demuth) a human in form.  The anthropomorphic language of the Old Testament seems to point in this direction.  God's bodily shape and man's bodily shape are essentially alike.

2) What shall we call what was lost in the Fall?

        Image?  Likeness?  Dominion?  Holiness and righteousness based on true knowledge?  Spiritual death?  Creation subjected to vanity?  Man dies physically?  Habitual communion with God?

        Several negative things happened to man at the Fall.  Perhaps Adam died spiritually.  He surely began to die physically.  Dominion was lost.  Creation was adversely affected.  Communion with God was broken, for God no longer walked and talked with Adam in the cool of the evening.

        Did any of these negative things mar or deface or erase either the image or the likeness of God?  Apparently not.

3) What is restored or recreated when man is saved?

        Hardly the image or likeness, for even unsaved men still have these.  Each man's "spirit" that died when he sinned is again alive because of righteousness.  He can now be exhorted to practice self-control (Romans 6:121ff).  He is warned that the wages of continual, habitual sin will be death (Romans 6:23).  The redeemed man's "spirit" is fixed now.  He gets his glorified body at the resurrection, and then man will bear the image of Christ.

4) What does constant "renewal" do for the new man?

        With his thinking in harmony with the truth of the Gospel, and his spirit alive and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, the "new man" is able to function as God intended man to function, in right relationship with God and his fellow man.  His reborn "spirit" continues to live, and the day will come when he will experience the adoption as a "son of God" as Romans 8:23 promises.





J. Barr, "The Image of God in the Book of Genesis -- A Study in Terminology," BJRL 51 (1968), p.11-26.

D. Cairns, The Image of God in Man. London: Collins, 1973.

D.J. Clines, "The Image of God in Man," Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968), p.53-

F. Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966 reprint.

J. Laidlaw, "Image" in Hastings Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Scribners, 1909. Vol. 2, p.452-453.

J.G. Machen, The Christian View of Man.  London:  Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 reprint.

J.M. Miller, "The 'Image' and 'Likeness' of God," JBL 91 (1972), p.289ff.

J. Orr, God's Image in Man and Its Defacement in the Light of Modern Denials. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948.




1 "Image" could be translated "perfect reflection."  Sitting beside a quiet pool of water, with trees on the bank, one can see the reflection of trees in the pool.  The outline in the water is the same as that of the tree standing against the sky, but the leaves and limbs of the tree are in no way identical to their reflection.  That "image" in the water is tselem or eikōn.
2 W.H. Schmidt quoted by Victor P. Hamilton in "dama/demuth" in TWOT, 1:192.
3 Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1996), p.49-52.
4 Millard, A.R., and Bordreuil, P., "A Statue from Syria with Assyrian and Aramaic Inscriptions," BA 45/3, p.135-41.
5 The statement of Genesis 1:27 must be balanced with 1 Corinthians 11:7, where Paul explains that a man must not cover his head because he is the image of God, whereas a woman ought to cover hers because she is the glory of the man.  This does not contradict what is written in Genesis, because it is through the man that the woman shares in God's image, given that she was created out of him.
6 Does the ana- in ananeousthai imply restoration to a former state?  In classical Greek the word does mean "to restore" and the object of the verb denotes what was the original state that is brought into existence again.  However, there are many compound verbs with ana- that express nothing more than change.  For a typical list, see Salmond, Expositor's Greek Testament, 3:342.  If a former state is restored, was it the state which man had after creation before Adam sinned, or is it the state the man himself had before he committed his own first sin?
7 The view defended by Ellicott, that this phrase is a name for the Holy Spirit, is probably not to be accepted.  According to this view, Paul is writing about the indwelling "Spirit" prompting men's "minds" concerning how to think and behave.  While that may be a true doctrine, we are not convinced this Ephesians 4 passage teaches it.  The Greek does not say "Be renewed by the Spirit in your mind," but rather "of your mind."  While the Holy Spirit may be designated as "of Christ" or "of God," hardly is the divine Spirit to be pictured as belonging to a human being or to part of a human being.
8 Each time we come to the word pneuma ("spirit") we must decide whether it speaks of the Holy Spirit, the human spirit, or an "attitude."  Sometimes in Scripture "spirit" has reference to the human spirit, one of the constituent parts of man (e.g., body, soul, spirit).  There are times (such as 1 Corinthians 14:14) when "mind" and "spirit" are distinguished.  A case can be made that "spirit" in this passage is the human spirit, rather than an "attitude."  It should be remembered that it is man's "spirit" that dies when the man commits his first sin, and it is the "spirit" that is born again (John 3:6) when he becomes a Christian.  When a man has become a Christian, the "spirit is alive because of righteousness" (Romans 8:10).  In the unregenerate, when the spirit is dead or enslaved (Romans 7), we see the "mind" pronouncing approval of what God has required in the law, but unable to make the man resist the motions of sin.  Once the old slavery to sin has been broken at baptism (Romans 6), the new man is able to practice self-control.  The "spirit" can give directions to the man's soul, and the soul then animates the body in harmony with what the "mind" approves.
9 Admittedly, there are times when kata expresses "likeness" (2 Kings 11:10; Hebrews 8:8; Galatians 4:28; 1 Peter 1:15, 4:6), but it should not be automatically assumed that is the meaning here in Ephesians.  Whether "according to the image of the One who created" at Colossians 3:10 expresses the same idea as Ephesians 4:24 will be discussed in notes below.  "According to God" can also mean "according to what pleases God" or "according to the will of God" (Romans 8:27; 2 Corinthians 7:9,10, 11:17). 
10  The KJV reads "righteousness and true holiness" and is doubly wrong, says Abbott ("Epistle to the Ephesians," in ICC, p.138), in connecting the genitive (of truth) with the latter substantive only, and in treating the genitive adjectivally.  If we were going to treat the genitive adjectivally, Chrysostom would be closer to being correct when he applied "truth" to both nouns.  He spoke of "true righteousness" and "true holiness."  It should also be observed that there is a manuscript variation at this place.  Instead of the genitive tēs alētheias, some manuscripts read the dative case, kai alpstheia.  This dative reading would tend to support the Westminster standards interpretation that the image of God consists in "righteousness and holiness and knowledge."
11 Instead of speaking of the image or likeness of God being absent in the unregenerate, perhaps we should say that ideas of "righteousness" and "holiness" are what are missing.
12 Baptism was said in effect to be the stripping off, not of any insignificant scrap of bodily tissue, as the old circumcision was, but of the whole "body of flesh," the old nature in its entirety.  (Simpson and Bruce, "Ephesians" in NICNT, p.272).
13 When the passage can be easily translated treating the participles as dependent on the verb "stop lying," there is no reason to try to treat them as having an imperative sense, as though the "laid aside" and "put on" are something the Christian has yet to do.
14 Curtice Vaughn, "Colossians" in EBC, p.213.
15 It is likely that in epignōsin ("true knowledge," or "full knowledge") there is a polemic against incipient Gnostic ideas that are influencing the Colossian readers.  One learns such "full knowledge" from Christian doctrine, not through Gnostic ideas and practices.
16 If the image was never lost (see Genesis 5:1-3 and 9:6), then "renewal" can have little to do with the "image" being restored.
17 O'Brien ("Colossians" in WBC, p.191) argues that in numerous passages in the New Testament, God the Father is the subject of the verb "create."
18 More will be said in the next section about 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Romans 8:29, where believers in this life are growing into the image of Christ and finally (in their resurrection bodies) are to be conformed to His image.
19 All the terms in verses 11 and 12 reflect the situation in Colossae which Paul is addressing.  Someone (Jewish Gnostics) was making Jewish distinctions important.  Paul says, in effect, such emphasis is a threat to the church and is to be rejected.  Terms that used to be applied to physical Israel are here applied to those who are in Christ.
20 Some of the information following is adapted from Harris, Archer, and Waltke, TWOT, p.438.
21 W.E. Oesterly, "James" in EGT, 4:454.
22 G.L. Bray, "Image of God," New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 2000), p.575.
23 E.H. Merrill, "Image of God" in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), p.444.
24 Athanasius (Gent. 34; Inc. 13),  Didymus the Blind (Trin. 2:12), Cyril of Alexandria (Dogm. 3).
25 See Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 5.16.2) who maintained "image" has reference to a bodily likeness to God.  See also Clement of Alexandria (Prot. 12), Origen (Princ. 3.6.1; Cels. 4.30), and Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. 14.10).
26 If all there is to man is an "image" and a "likeness" to God (i.e., body and soul), then the Bible must teach dichotomy.  This extrapolation then requires a long discussion defending the view that "soul" and "spirit" somehow denote only a functional difference, rather than being a difference of entity.  Buswell has several paragraphs (p.238-240) where he defends dichotomy and rejects the trichotomy of Delitzsch (A System of Biblical Psychology).
27 Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 2.19); Tatian (Orat. 12;15), Athanasius (Gent. 34); Chrysostom (Hom. in Gen. 8:3-4).
28 Colossians 3:10 improperly has been used to prove there is a growth into the "image" of God.  See supra.  There is little trace in Genesis of any idea of a likeness that needs to be grown into.  The reference is rather to what God originally made men to be, not to what they may grow to be under His fatherly nurture. (F.J.A. Hort, The Epistle of James, p.78.)
29 Irenaeus (Haer. 4.4.3; 4.38.4), Tertullian (Marc. 2.6), Basil the Great (Quod Deus non est auctor malorum 6).
30 Eusebius (D.E.4.6), Gregory of Nyssa (Hom. opif.4), Chrysostom (Stat. 7.3).
31 This was the view of the Audaeans according to Theodoret (Eccl. Hist. 4.19).  They held the view that man is physically the image of God, who also has a shape or form or "body."  This treats seriously the connotation of "image" and also treats seriously the "image" of Christ which will inhere in the resurrection body.
32 De Trinitate 14:4.
33 J.O. Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, p.248.
34 It begins to become almost mind-boggling to see how many issues are lurking in the background of this discussion about the image and likeness of God.
35 Hugo Vict. De Sacram. l.i, p.6. c.ii;  Peter Lomb. Sent. l.ii., dist.16.D;  Bellarmine, De Grat. Prim. Hominis, v.5.
36 See notes in the commentary in loc.
37 J. Barr, "The Image of God in the Book of Genesis," BJRL 51:11-26.
38 "Priestly writer" and "Second Isaiah" are Barr's terms, and the concepts are not this author's views.
39 J.M. Miller, "In the 'Image' and 'Likeness' of God," JBL 91:289-304.
40 Carl F.H. Henry, "Image of God" in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.545.
41 Dogmatics, 2:64.
42 D.J.A. Clines, "The Image of God in Man," Tyndale Bull. 19:53-103.
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