What is the ‘Image of God’? God’s Face!

What exactly is ‘the image of God’? Western theology asks which facet of humans makes them ‘like’ God – intelligence, emotions, morality??  This approach defines the precise qualities that people share with God (personality, will, sensibility, etc.) from a philosophical vantage point, but misses the honor-shame dynamics that biblical writers infused into the phrase ‘image of God.’

Creation of Man, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508-12
Creation of Man, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508-12

 The image of God denotes the fundamental status and importance of humans, not a particular characteristic that humans possess. We are not made “with” the image of God, as though it were a feature like floormats or tinted windows added on to the base model at the dealership. We are made “in” the image of God. This defines people’s very essence and core function.  

The image of God indicates the dignified and honorable status God granted humans at creation Perhaps a helpful paraphrase of imago Dei would be “the face of God.” The advantages of this translation are two fold:

  1. The double entendre of the word “face” helps us nicely define the phrase.  Face in English can imply representation (“The press secretary is the face of the White House.”) and reputation (“He lost face before his peers!”).  To say “humans were made in the face of God” means both (a) we are God’s symbolic face to the world, and  (b) we possess God’s Face (i.e., glory and honor).  The imago Dei God denotes divine representation and glorification.
  2. The notion of “God’s face” exposes the presupposition of philosophical essentialism (defining something by its essential properties – “what makes a chair a chair?”) that hinders Western readings.  It does not work to ask “What precise part of us is ‘the face of God’ – rationality, relationality, morality, etc.”; we simply are the face of God.  We represent and possess God’s face.

Three key areas of the Bible interpret the imago Dei as divine glorification.

1- The narrative of Genesis 1-2 suggests the image of God fundamentally means honor/dignity.  Immediately after God resolves to make man in his image and likeness, humans are blessed (i.e., honored through a covenant with God) and granted a respected position of responsibility over creation. In Gen 1-2, people are vice-regents exercising divine lordship.  The function of ruling sovereign in God’s creation confers honor and prominence to Adam/humankind.  The previous blogpost explained eight symbols of Adam & Eve’s honorable status.

2- The remaining biblical witness about ‘the image of God’ defines it as honor and glory . Psalm 8 – a divinely inspired commentary on Gen 1:26-28–says God “crowned him (Adam/humankind) with glory and honor” at creation.  NT writers assume dignity and worth are the main features of God’s image. “For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7); “With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

3- NT Christology speaks of the exalted Messiah as the image of God par excellence.  In 4 key passages, Jesus’ unique association with God’s image implies honor, glory, precedence, and worship (not ontological qualities of morality, rationality, or relationality per se.), as the bold terms indicate below.

  • Phil 2:6 –  He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.
  • Col 1:15 – He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
  • 2 Cor 4:4 – The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
  • Heb 1:3 – And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.

We cannot interpret the image of God in Genesis 1:27 apart from subsequent biblical testimony.  God’s image implies the fundamental dignity and honorable status accorded to humans by God.  We are the radiant face of God’s glory.     

But, why does our definition of the ‘image of God’ matter?  What is the goal of divine history?  What direction is the overall story moving?  The question of ultimate destination is partly answered by original intention.  How God created the world suggests how God will restore the world. As creation in God’s ‘face’ suggests, the intention of God has been for humanity to live with inestimable honor. Honorification was God’s original objective; then shame invaded, thwarting God’s intention and requiring a rescue mission.  The image still exists in the core of every person, but the mud of shame must be removed so the light of divine honor can fully shining forth.

Some missional applications:

  1. Do people see the face of God in us?
  2. People’s quest for honor is innate and divine.  We must not disciple Christians to not chase honor, but disciple them to chase the right kind of honor.
  3. Christian witness is not only addressing shame, but helping people express their inherent honor.


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6 Comments on “What is the ‘Image of God’? God’s Face!

  1. I found this post informative and uplifting, but there is one word that slightly bothers me: the use of “Adam” (as a proper noun). Most people regard Adam as a man (i.e. a male human being).

    Surely “The image of God denotes the fundamental status and importance of men *and women*.”

    Even though God calls humanity “Adam” in Genesis 5:2, from experience I’ve come to realise that most people assume that “Adam” refers to a man, or signifies men, only.

    • Marg, thanks for your keen eye in noting that. To confirm, my intended meaning was the same as this line later in the post, “God’s image implies the fundamental dignity and honorable status accorded to humans by God”, as you suggest. God’s image in “adam” refers equally to all humans, male and female. I edited the blog text to reflect this more clearly. Thanks!

  2. Very helpful thoughts. Thanks Jayson.

    This conversation has gone on at many levels, but…. The indigenous/tribal people (honor/shame based) I live among would feel very uncomfortable stating the Genesis 1&2 narrative gives them dominion and lordship over the rest of creation. (Yes, the original language uses terminology that implies that, but isn’t that literal interpretation more of a western theological model?) They tend to interpret the narrative as something more along the lines of a unique responsibility conferred on them/us by God. They don’t recognize their existence as something above or outside of creation but as an integral part of it. We are created with the “face of God” in the midst of creation to be Creator’s physical representation. No other created entity is given this honor.

    Like I said, this has been an ongoing debate for generations of theologians. I just mention it here because honor/shame societies might not choose to place themselves in a position of dominance over a creation that they believe they share a common existence with. For many it would be like one brother deciding that he can be lord over the other siblings because dad wanted him to take out the trash.

    • Marv, thanks for your comments. I completely agree with the interpretation of your host culture, and realize I used the wrong word in that post. Though it is not what I intended to communicate, “dominance” does imply separation from and exploitation of, and that is clearly not scriptural. Thanks for pointing that out with great insight. I updated it to – God “granted a respected position of RESPONSIBILITY over creation.” I think of it like a first-born child, it is a position of respect and honor, but primarily a responsibility to take care of the family (parents and siblings). Thanks again!

  3. Great post as usual. Digs into some rich meaning. On a simplified level or one facet, couldn’t it also be seen as the idea that we were made with a spirit and therefore able to have direct relationship with God as spirit in the garden? So, stressing the personalness of the intent in creation for people who have never considered a personal God. At least, that’s the picture I’ve had in my head…

  4. Hi, this is a really insightful post. I would like to do further study on “the image of God” and “honor”. Would you be able to point me to some resources? Thanks!

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