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What is man (3): The image of God — why Man is unique

July 2018 | by Edgar Andrews

The Creation by Michelangelo
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The third edited extract from Edgar Andrews’ new book What is Man? Adam, alien or ape?

In a previous chapter we considered how humans are unique among animals. In this chapter we shall see why we are unique. Previously we assessed Man’s relationship with the biosphere; now we must explore his relationship with God.

So why are human beings unique? I’ll give the short answer now and we’ll work it out in detail below. According to the Bible, we are unique because among created things only Man bears God’s image. Nothing in the inanimate cosmos was made in the image of God. Nothing in the plant or animal kingdoms is imprinted with that image. Not even the angels were made according to the likeness of God. You may believe that or not, but I’m inviting you to think it through.

In writing this chapter and the previous one, I was in two minds as to which should come first. Logically perhaps, our discussion of the image of God should have preceded the story of Adam’s fall into sin. But on the other hand, unless Adam, Eve and the fall were genuinely historical, the idea that Man alone bears the image of God would be little more than a pious platitude. The great apes would surely object if they had the wit to do so, and at least some animal-rights activists would be up in arms.

A special relationship

But can we take it for granted that there is a special relationship between God and Man, other than that of Creator with creature? Perhaps Mark Twain had a point when he wrote, ‘I cannot help feeling disappointed in Adam and Eve’. How could two people, allegedly made in God’s likeness, turn out so badly?

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole
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I gave a partial answer to that question in the previous chapter, describing how Adam and Eve, of their own free will, chose to please themselves rather than obey God. However, we still need to investigate what it means that Adam and Eve were created ‘in the image of God’, and how far that image survived their fall into sin.

It is clear that the divine image did survive, because a few chapters later in Genesis 9, God prohibits murder in the following terms; ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God he made man’.  In spite of their rebellion and sin, therefore, human beings retain special value in the sight of God because they still bear his image. This stands in stark contrast to the animals, concerning which God said; ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you’.

The meaning of ‘image’

So what does it mean that Man bears the image and likeness of God? Clearly it cannot mean ‘physical image’ because God is a Spirit, having no material substance. If he did possess such substance he would be part of the material world he created, which is self-contradictory. (I’ll deal with the incarnation of Christ in the next chapter).

Some think the image of God in Man isn’t the big deal it’s made out to be. They say it just signifies that God, as Lord of heaven and earth, deputed Man to be lord of Earth as his representative. In effect, God sub-contracted the care and rule of the Earth to mankind, saying; ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the face of the earth’.

Others go a little further and see the image of God as Man’s ability to form relationships with God and with one-another — relationships which support sophisticated social structures that lie beyond the capacity of other creatures.

But neither of these ideas does justice to the Bible’s ‘image of God’ concept, which must surely imply that humans actually share certain attributes or characteristics with their Creator. As philosopher J. P. Moreland points out, the lesser functions, of being God’s representative and building relationships, require Man to possess God-like capacities.

He writes; ‘As image-bearers, human beings have all those endowments necessary to re-present and be representative of God … and exhibit the relationality in which they were meant to live, such as endowments of reason, self-determination, moral action, personality and relational formation. In this sense, the image of God is straightforwardly ontological …’

In this context, ‘ontological’ means that the image shares something of the ‘being’ or nature of the divine Original, not just his functions (like ruling) and abilities (like language). This does not mean that Adam and Eve were mini-gods; they were, after all, creatures (created things). But it does mean that they were uniquely designed to know and have fellowship with God.

Christ as the image of God

This ontological relationship between God and Man is further implied by the incarnation of the Son of God — the man Christ Jesus who is ‘the image of the invisible God’ and ‘the express image of [God’s] Person’.  Of course, the word ‘image’ means different things in different contexts, but it is no accident that Man (male and female) and Christ are both said to bear God’s image.

Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, working backwards in time, ends thus; ‘Cainan the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God’ (Luke 3:38, emphasis added; note that in each case the words ‘the son’ are not in the original but are obviously implied). Thus according to Luke, Adam was God’s offspring as truly as Seth was Adam’s — though Adam’s relationship with God was obviously spiritual rather than physical.

Jesus Christ is also called the ‘son of God’.  The word ‘son’ has a whole new meaning when applied to Jesus, who was ‘begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father’, as the Nicene Creed declares. But nevertheless, Christ obviously desired to identify with our humanity, and during his days on earth he actually preferred the title ‘son of man’. This further suggests that Adam bore the image of God in the ontological sense defined above. In this chapter we’ll focus on Adam and Eve, but Jesus Christ, the ideal man, will occupy us in the next.

What we can and cannot share with God

In what sense, then, did Adam and Eve share the nature of God? Clearly, there are some divine attributes that created beings cannot share (they are ‘incommunicable’)—such as God’s self-existence, omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. But other divine characteristics can be shared (they are ‘communicable’)—like intelligence, wisdom, love and mercy.

So in seeking to understand what it means that humans bear the image of God, I’m going to consider four duplex attributes, to which I’ll attach easily remembered names. They are (1) soul and spirit; (2) language and logic; (3) creativity and competence; and (4) law and love. I call them “duplex” because the two members of each pair are closely related. These things may not exhaust the meaning of God’s image in Man, but I think they go a long way towards explaining it.

More importantly, they demonstrate the unique privilege and role assigned to Man in creation, and point forward to a future for humanity that the apostle Paul describes in unforgettable terms; ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things that God has prepared for those who love him’.

That God has planned such a future for those who (on account of their fallen nature) do not love him, constitutes the ‘amazing grace’ celebrated so eloquently in John Newton’s famous hymn — and which lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. We shall see more of what it means for man to be made in the image of God in the final chapter of this book.

Prof. Edgar Andrews is Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London. He is co-pastor of Campus Church, Welwyn Garden City, and was senior editor of Evangelical Times. His new book What is Man? Adam, alien or ape? was released last month.