Fully Human and Truly Human: Grasping the Image of God—and of Christ

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Fifty years ago, the question landed like a bombshell on the cover of Time magazine: “Is God Dead?” Theologians like Thomas J. J. Altizer, William H. Hamilton, and Paul van Buren rode this frothy new wave of atheism. It made headlines because it didn’t come from outside the church, but from inside. Not to be outdone, one professor rewrote Psalm 23 to mark God’s death:

He was our guide and our stay
He walked with us beside still waters
He was our help in ages past . . .
He is gone, he is stolen by darkness . . .
Heaven is empty.

In 2019, a new question has emerged in the West: “Is Man Dead?” People all around us ask this question in one form or another. It seems to many that the human race has no greater purpose, no sure foundation, no end to which we’re headed.

We are alive, but lost.

Disenchantment of Our Humanity

Over the last 50 years, Western society has reenvisioned the human person. For millennia, humanity was understood in light of God; humans had certain duties before God and were fundamentally spiritual beings. But with the rise of death-of-God theology, mankind is no longer seen as the creation of God. The prevailing view in critical circles today is that humanity is a blank slate, evolved from an eons-old combustion of gases. Humanity has no divine origin, but an accidental one. Therefore, chaos and randomness account for the order (ironically) that we find before us. The human race is not distinct from the beasts; we’re a higher animal, nothing more.

If the major issue of the 16th century was that of acceptance (how man may be forgiven by God), and the major issue of the 20th century was that of authority (whether the Bible is inerrant), then the major issue of our time is that of anthropology.

So it is that we have no greater story we’re living. Atoms collide, and so do people. Because of our godless origin, we have no greater body of ethics, either. We are here; we die; we dissolve into nothingness. Until then, we create our realities; we become who we want to be. Any participation we might have in bigger structures or what Charles Taylor calls “buffering” institutions should not inhibit our rights to express the self. No code, creed, or religion should shape us more than our self-conceptions do. We’re true to ourselves, alone by ourselves, and supposedly free.

If the major issue of the 16th century was that of acceptance (how man may be forgiven by God), and the major issue of the 20th century was that of authority (whether the Bible is inerrant), then the major issue of our time is that of anthropology.

Does the human person live in an ordered cosmos and have an appointed identity, or do we make our own identity in a world without God? This is the question of our age.

Who Are We—and What Is the Image?

The Christian doctrine of humanity starts from the opposite perspective. If we wish to know ourselves, then we must look beyond ourselves. “No man,” said Calvin, “can survey himself without . . . turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves.” To know God and his intentions for humanity, we must start where the Scripture starts: Genesis 1.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female. (Gen 1:26–27)

It was on the sixth day that God made man, the day before God rested. From time immemorial, the Lord had planned this moment, the moment when he would produce his greatest creation, his masterwork, the only being made in his own “image” and carrying his own “likeness.” But here we must pause. Theologians and exegetes agree that mankind is made in God’s image. The moment you try to define the nature of the image, though, that agreement is put on a hard pause. Is the image rationality? Relationship? Spirituality? Attributes we share with God?

Does the human person live in an ordered cosmos and have an appointed identity, or do we make our own identity in a world without God? This is the question of our age.

In my view, we best understand God’s image as an ontological reality that leads into function. The image speaks to our being, in other words. It’s not something we possess; it’s who we are. The image, then, isn’t fundamentally a trait or attribute. The image isn’t a quality that may wax or wane in a human person. The image doesn’t depend on a rationality-nurturing environment. The image isn’t inhibited by physical deficiencies. The image isn’t unlocked when a person gets married. Rather, humanity is made in God’s likeness. To see the man and the woman—made in this order, with much hinging upon it—is to see the image and glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7).

It’s true, as some will note, that our ontology is directly connected to function (see Gen. 1:28). Function flows elegantly from ontology, and Adam was made to be a priest-king before the Lord. But while human function goes awry in the fall, our ontology stays the same (just as the ontology of manhood, womanhood, and marriage stay the same—these things are affected by the fall, but not altered). The human race reflects and represents the person of God even after the fall (Gen 5:1–2, 9). One person is no more an “image-bearer” than any other; we’re all image-bearers, and nothing can erase this truth.

Jesus the True Image

But there is more to say here. We find an enlightening parallel in 1 Corinthians 15 between the first Adam and the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

The story of the first Adam—a real historical man—explains why we suffer and die and hate God. The story of the second Adam—a real historical man—explains how we may rise from the dust of death and inherit a “spiritual body” that cannot suffer decrepitude (15:44). Born image-bearers in Adam’s likeness, we bear the image of “the man of heaven” through faith in Christ (15:49). We were like Adam, but by God’s grace, the Spirit is remaking us in the image of Christ (15:49).

It’s not that Adam was a false image; he represented the person of God in the earth, and we do too. Adam was fully human by virtue of divine creation. But Christ is truly human by virtue of his incarnate existence, the Son of God made flesh, as Stephen Wellum has profitably explored. Jesus is the true image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4) who forms a new humanity by his blood. This second Adam, this greater image, shows us the telos of our humanity.

In Adam we’re fully human, but we’re not truly human. In Christ we become truly human, for we’re remade in the image of the true man.

Against the secular and neo-pagan thinking of our time, we don’t express authentic humanity when we sin, but when we obey the Lord as the Son of God did. We live truly when we worship the Lord, not when we worship the creation and ourselves. We flourish when we submit to our Maker and Redeemer, not when we rebel against any constituted authority. In Adam we’re fully human, but we’re not truly human. In Christ we become truly human, for we’re remade in the image of the true man from one degree of glory to another.

What Difference Does This Doctrine Make?

Some might wonder what all this high-level discussion entails. In other words, if you hold this conception of the imago Dei, what difference does it make? Let me suggest three key implications of an “ontological” view of the image.

1. It renders dignity to every life.

In modern Western culture, we believe the lie of extrinsic worth. Said more simply, we believe we have value if we show ourselves to be valuable. High achievers matter most in such a context. The wealthy, well-born, accomplished, and successful rank higher than other people. Those possessing birth defects, physical challenges, and mental deficiencies end up less human than others, as do the poor, unimpressive, and merely average.

But if you embrace the ontological view, you see that every human life has intrinsic value. In other words, we’re not valuable because we have great talent, success, or advantages. We have tremendous dignity and worth because God made us. He made us all for his glory, and we actually display that magnificence through our distinctiveness, our uniqueness, our normal day-to-day personhood. Every life is a little miracle, every child a blessing, whether supremely gifted or not. By extension, no child deserves abortion; every child should experience love, welcome, and care.

Our theology, staked out in fancy language, actually makes a tremendous difference in this and other areas.

2. It prevents us from confusing nature and being.

I find that some conceptions of the image essentially equate our nature—whether righteous or unrighteous in biblical terms—with our being. This means Adam’s fall signals our becoming subhuman, whether or not a given theologian recognizes or intends this move. This happens because the image is marred, destroyed, ruined, tarnished, disfigured, and other such formulations.

But I believe that the ontological view guards against such a problem. We don’t end up subhuman animals following the fall. We’re totally depraved per traditional Reformed categories, but we still possess fullness of humanity. We can’t thus see any human person in less-than-human terms. Further, in conversion we don’t morph into spiritual superhumans. We’re remade in Christ’s image, yes, but we haven’t graduated to extra-human status. Just as marriage is the same ontology pre-fall and post-fall (though function is terribly impaired post-fall), so human ontology remains the same pre-fall and post-fall (even as we do not function at all as we should).

3. It shows what we were meant to be.

The “fully human” concept meshes nicely with the “true human” concept (theologians like G. K. Beale, John Kilner, and Marc Cortez have all made contributions here). All around us, people make the terrible mistake of thinking they experience “authenticity” and live truly when they embrace a sinful identity. Our culture’s framing of homosexuality and transgender identity displays such a view in spades. But if Christ is the true human, then we may avoid this trap. We’re fully human in Adam as we have said, but we’re not truly human until saved by the gospel of Christ.

We’re fully human in Adam, but we’re not truly human until saved by the gospel of Christ.

This has major cash value for everyday Christianity. All of us feel pulled in different ways to think that we would know greater happiness if we could just sin as the old man tells us we should. We can counter such deadly whispers, however, by remembering that even now we who love Christ are being changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). Even now, we live in freedom, and yet so much more freedom awaits us in the age to come. When we want to sin, we can fight such an instinct in part by remembering that Adam does not show us the way to happiness. Christ does.

Sin isn’t an essential part of humanity, then; sin is always a corruption, always a corrosion, always an eating away of what is good and beautiful. When we desire wrong things, when we say wrong words, and when we do evil actions, we repent, confess our sins to God, and pray for fresh power in the Spirit to love and live out what is true.

Image Remade

There is much here to ponder; these are weighty theological confessions. People all around us are in fact asking about such realities, whether they know theological language or not. Thankfully, we have answers.

In the 21st century, when so few people around us have any strong understanding of what makes us human, we’re well equipped to help them see both what renders us fully human and what enables us to become truly human in the image of Christ.

In an age of great confusion, a time when many people celebrate not only the “death” of God but also the death of man, we speak the truth in love to fellow image bearers lost in sin just as we once were. We say what the Scripture plainly teaches us, and confess these ancient truths: God is not dead; all mankind is the image of God; yet we must be remade by gospel grace in Christ’s image. This doctrine—and no other—reenchants our humanity.

Editors’ note: 

These themes are unpacked (and in some places adapted from) in Owen Strachan’s new book, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind (Mentor).

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