Today I’m beginning a series of posts (4 actually) on “the image of God in humanity.” We will look at the issues of “Image and Likeness,” why we should begin with Jesus when seeking to understand the Image of God, how Jesus reflects God, and how the image of God is renewed in believers.
Although the Bible absolutely affirms humankind’s creation in the image and likeness of God, theologians through the centuries have puzzled over just what that affirmation means. Scripture offers us several clues, but remains surprisingly quiet on the matter. Since the inspired authors of Scripture did not lay out a systematic understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness, we must deduct from the relevant passages what this biblical doctrine means for us today.
Image and Likeness
The Bible first introduces the concept of the “image of God” as part of the creation narrative, in which the story of God’s special creation of Adam and Eve is told. God’s deliberation before the special creation of humanity is the context for the first saying. In Genesis 1:26-27, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Two Hebrew words are used here: tselem for “image” and demut for “likeness.”
Some theologians have understood these two terms to mean there is a distinction between “image” and “likeness.” It is possible that there are major differences between “likeness” and “image,” but it is more likely that these are synonyms. The biblical text seems to use the terms interchangeably. James 3:9 prohibits the cursing of people, because they have been made in God’s “likeness.” Genesis 5:1 speaks of God making people in His “likeness.” In Genesis 9:6, the prohibition of murder has as its reason the fact that people have been made in God’s “image.”
Scripture does not support the idea that human beings were made in the image of God and the likeness of God and that we lost one of these attributes in the Fall and maintained the other. Instead, it is easier to see these texts as using two terms to describe one concept. Both terms point to “reflection” as a main idea. Human beings reflect God. We have His image stamped upon us. We were made in His likeness. It is similar to the way one would say, “I saw my reflection, my mirror image, when I looked at the window.” This sentence contains two terms that express the same idea.
Tomorrow we will discover how Jesus should be the starting point for all reflection on the image of God.