This is an excellent question. There are probably very few people in the church today who have ever stopped to ask themselves what the Imago Dei is really all about. There are even fewer who could come up with an answer if asked point-blank to state their beliefs concerning this point of biblical doctrine.
You speak in terms of man “possessing” the Image of God. We respond that the Image of God is not so much something that man bears as something that man is. Biblical scholar D. J. A. Clines, in his groundbreaking article “The Image of God in Man” ( Tyndale Bulletin 19, 1968, 53-103) argues that the Hebrew preposition be (“in”) in the phrases betsalmenu, “in our image,” and betsalmo, “in his image” (Genesis 1:27), should be taken as an instance of “beth essentiae” or “beth of the essence.” We realize that this may be difficult to grasp if you don’t know any Hebrew, but the point is that the grammar favors the translation “God created man as His image” over “God created man in His image.” As Cline puts it in his concluding remarks: “Thus we may say that according to Genesis 1, man does not have the image of God, nor is he made in the image of God, but is himself the image of God.” Humankind, then, was created to be a “copy” or a “graphic image” of the Creator – a formal, visible, and understandable representation of who God is and what He is really like.
Did man’s fall into sin destroy or remove the Image of God? No – it merely marred or disfigured it. This is a crucial distinction, since it is the Imago that makes us different than the rest of creation. As theologian Louis Berkhof puts it, “The doctrine of the Image of God in man is of the greatest importance in theology, for that Image is the expression of that which is most distinctive in man and in his relation to God. The fact that man is the Image of God distinguishes him from the animal and every other creature” (Systematic Theology, p. 206).
To put it another way, it is precisely the Image of God that makes man human; man could not lose the Image without ceasing to be what he is. Furthermore, it is only because he retains it, even in a broken or distorted form, that man is redeemable and worth redeeming. Without it, God would have had no reason or motivation to send His Son to die on our behalf. This is a vital point, not only from a strictly theological point of view, but also in connection with practical issues such as the sanctity of human life.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these concepts at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
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Christian Research Institute