The Imago Dei: A Truly Christological Doctrine

Books & Culture recently published an article on the imago Dei by Stephen Webb, author of the extraordinarily presumptuous book, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. Webb is a conservative—both politically and theologically—but somewhat hard to classify. He wrote a book on a "theology of compassion for animals" entitled On God and Dogs, and he's coming out with a book on Bob Dylan this fall, Dylan Redeemed. That said, I find that I differ with him on most major topics, and his essay on the imago Dei is no exception. In this post, I will explore his arguments as briefly as possible, then explain how I think the doctrine of the "image of God" should be approached.

Analysis of "In Whose Image?" by Stephen Webb

First, this article is not primarily a presentation of Webb's own theological views, but rather a review article on two books: The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, by J. Richard Middleton, and The Divine Image: Envisioning the Invisible God, by Ian McFarland. Webb's discussion of these books is worth a post of its own, but for now I will focus on Webb's own position, presented as follows:
I should state up front my own interpretation of the imago Dei. I think this idea is at once impossibly simple and profoundly surprising. The image of God makes little sense in the Old Testament context, where it is mentioned explicitly only three times (Genesis 1:26–27; 5:1, and 9:6). If we are to rescue it from hopeless obscurity, it must be taken both literally and christologically. Our bodies look like they do because God decided from eternity to become incarnate in Jesus Christ. Simply stated, we are like God because we are like Jesus.

Our bodies are not an accident of evolution any more than the Incarnation is a divine afterthought to the Fall. God did not become incarnate in order to look like us. Jesus could ascend to heaven because he has been the Son from eternity, and our bodies will be glorified in heaven because their form is a reflection of his. This does not mean that the flesh of Jesus is the same as the second person of the Trinity, but it does suggest that the imago Dei is a thread that runs through and ties together the pre-existent Christ, the uniqueness of humanity, the specificity of the incarnation, and the resurrection of the body.

How else do we explain why Paul calls Jesus "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15)? And how else do we explain all of the passages in the Old Testament that imply the corporeality of Yahweh? When God appears to Ezekiel as having "something that seemed like a human form" (Ezek. 1:26), is Ezekiel the victim of a crude anthropomorphism? Or does Ezekiel see the Son of God, who, as the original copy, so to speak, is the prototype for the image in which humans are made?
I give credit to Webb for trying to think christologically. This is at least a step up from thinking anthropologically (imago Dei = human sociality) or metaphysically (imago Dei = human rationality as a reflection of the perfect Divine Rationality). However, Webb shows little theological acumen in the fact that he plays fast and loose with Christ by effectively separating Christ's person from his work. The Jesus presented by Webb came to the world almost as if to say, "Hey check it out, ya'll, you look like me, and that means you were all created to be like God! Now go out and live like it." Webb forgets that to think christologically means to think through the 'word of the cross.' This means that the person of Jesus must never be separated from the mission of Jesus, that is, the work of reconciling sinful humanity to a God of grace. The Son did not come to the world simply to show God's affinity with humanity, but rather to execute a radical judgment of sin in the cross and resurrection as the mediator between humankind and its loving Creator.

Webb thus perpetuates the tragic error in Christian tradition of turning the imago Dei into a general anthropological reality. He simply replaces the rationality of the Scholastics with a modern emphasis on physicality. Granted, he wants to see this physicality as definitely revealed in Jesus, but he nevertheless defines the imago Dei by something naturally available to all people. That is, the "image of God" is not actualized in Jesus Christ. Jesus merely confirms that all people are, in their natural physical form, akin to God. Webb misses the theological import of Genesis and ends up with a washed-out Christology that is entirely disconnected from the salvific mission of Christ. Webb ends up with a crudely anthropomorphized God, an overly literal reading of Genesis, and a Christ without a mission. In other words, like most theologians writing on the imago Dei, he thinks the subject rests on creation, when it actually depends upon soteriology.

A Brief Exposition of the Imago Dei

Webb assumes, as most Christians do, that the imago Dei refers to something special that is intrinsic to human creatures. The most common answer given by theologians over the centuries has been human rationality. Thomas Aquinas simply piggy-backed on Aristotle, who defined the human as a "rational animal" and Boethius, who defined a person as "an individual substance of a rational nature." Since then, critics of the "rationality" school have offered other choices, including human creativity (Dorothy Sayers, et al.) and human relationality (many contemporary theologians). What most thinkers fail to recognize is that the early medieval precedent regarding the imago Dei has confused the debate over the image of God. Early on in Christian theology, the concept of the imago Dei was disastrously redirected from addressing the question, "What makes us in God's own image?" (which should be the obvious question) to addressing a different question, "What makes humans different from the rest of creation?"

To rectify this, the imago Dei must not be understood as something that we possess, something inherent in human beings as opposed to other animals. The early tradition understood that original sin greatly affected our relation to God, but it wanted to retain something of the image in order to distinguish humans from other creatures. They were misguided in trying to use the imago Dei toward that end. We must affirm that God's image belongs to God and God alone; in fact, the image of God is God alone, in that the image of God is Jesus Christ. According to both 2 Cor. 4:4 and Col. 1:15, Jesus is the image of God. We have lost that image and remain separate from it insofar as we are remain separate from God. This does not mean we have lost our humanity, because the concepts of "human" and "image of God" are not coterminous. To be "human" is to be created by God in relation to God, others, and ourselves. To be "in the image of God" is, now after the fall, to be re-created by God as a new creation—as part of the catholic community of the saints who await the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, as the creed affirms.

The imago Dei is a christological category, not because Jesus came in the form of a human, but rather because Jesus is the image of God and we participate in this image by participating in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who brings us into ontic correspondence with the Son of God incarnate. The imago Dei is thus a soteriological-eschatological category, because in our brokenness and separation from God, we do not naturally correspond to God. The Genesis account can only be read rightly in the context of the rupture between God and humanity that followed human sin. Similarly, the creation account must be read in close connection with the rest of the Torah and the biblical witness, in which we read of God's persistent desire to establish a covenant of grace with sinful humanity. God's gracious election of humanity is one that establishes a sign of the new creation within this fragmented world in order to witness to the overflowing grace of God upon all creatures. God's election is one that occurs in and through the person of Christ, since all the economic acts of God—from creation to reconciliation to new creation—revolve around him. As the author of Colossians attests, "all things were created through him and for him ... and in him all things hold together" (1:17).

The imago Dei is, therefore, intimately associated with God's covenant of grace established concretely in the person of Christ. As those who are brought into this covenant, we participate in the person of Jesus Christ, and thus we correspond to the Image that is Jesus. In this correspondence, in which our lives are conformed to the cruciform image of God in Jesus, we bear witness to God in the world. The imago Dei is soteriological in that we depend on this restored relation to God, others, and ourselves, effected in Jesus, in order to be the community that reflects God's image to the world. The imago Dei is eschatological in that we depend upon the consummation of creation according to God's promise to make all things new. The imago Dei is ecclesial in that the church is the people of God called to be a holy people and a royal priesthood. The imago Dei answers the question, "What does it mean to be like God?" with the answer, "Be holy, because I the LORD your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). But we must also remember Exodus 31:13: "You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy." And all of this is brought together, in light of Christ, in Colossians 3:9-11:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
What it means to be "in the image of God" is not having rationality or relationality—something intrinsic to us, something we possess—but being-in-relationship with the Creator, being-holy, being-righteous, being-new. In other words, our new ontological identity in light of the gospel determines our being-in-the-imago-Dei. We must receive from God a new life, and thus receive from God our new humanity conformed to the person of Jesus Christ. When we are conformed to Christ (conformitas Christi) by the creative grace of God, we become agents of reconciliation as those who witness to the abundant love of God made manifest in the true imago Dei, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


A truly christological account of the imago Dei forces us to reject Webb's theology, which attempts to locate God's image in our physical humanity. As Webb writes at the end of his article:
The imago Dei assures us that there is an essential correlation between humanity and God that guarantees our basic intuitions into God's nature. We can properly imagine that God is like us because we are like God. In a world saturated with images, we are the only images that count, and we count only because we were made according to the specifications of someone else.
The only responsible answer to Webb is a loud and resounding, No! There is no "essential correlation" between us and God, whether such a correlation is based in relationality, rationality, or physicality. We do not have the freedom to "imagine" what God is like. Webb should have learned a lesson from McFarland, who, despite making other errors, at least emphasizes that the "divine is both revealed and hidden in Jesus." God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is a hiddenness in revelation. God assumes the veil of human flesh and is not self-evidently God even to those who saw Jesus with their own eyes. Peter's confession of faith is, clearly, an act of faith. As Jesus says to him, "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 16:17). God truly reveals Godself in Christ, but God remains the hidden and invisible God who is not accessible except through faith in God's Word to humanity—the Word incarnate in Jesus.

In conclusion, we are not the "only images that count." Jesus Christ alone is the Image of God, the self-revelation of the divine, the sole mediator between God and humanity. In him alone we find our identity as the people of God. And in him alone, other human images and words find their proper place as "parables of the kingdom," not as usurpers of God's centrality or distractions from our ontological participation in the reality of God, but as witnesses and signs to the creator and perfecter of creation—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.


Halden said…

I think your criticisms of Webb are more or less right on. I also find him to be very puszzling as a thinker and for the most part I despise his theological and political views. Though you should check out his The Divine Voice and The Gifting God if you haven't. They are quite interesting.

My only question about your account of the Imago Dei regards what seems to be a potentional Christomonism inherent therein. While I'd agree that the image of God is a soteriological-eschatological reality, is it not also grounded creationally? This is in no way to deny that the image is always from begining to end, christological, but to emphasize that creation and redemption all take place in Christ and for that reason, I would have no problem describing fallen humanity as bearing the image of God. For even fallen as they are, they are created in Christ and Christ has born their fallen humanity in the incarnation (that sounds pretty Barthian to me).

Also, the issue of humanity and the image of God not being coterminous is interesting and perhaps tenable. But I think the issue of "possession" becomes difficult. It seems like you're saying that we don't possess the image of God, that's the eschatological-sotierological gift of God in Christ. But, we do possess our humanity which means to be created by and in relation to God. However, I'd be wary of describing that state of being as a possession rather than a gift. From the standpoint of theological ontology, I think we would have to hold that all being is gift that is bestowed and upheld by the abundance of God's gracious self-giving through Christ and the Spirit in creation and redemption.

I agree with you that we do not possess our humanity. If anything I said led you to think that, then I will change it. But even if all being is a gift, we are still alienated from a right relation with our Creator. All I am arguing for is that we see "humanity" as a creation-centered term, and "image of God" as a new creation-centered term.

Of course, the imago Dei is grounded creationally, but there's the issue of the Fall that comes between creation and redemption. We are not naturally born into the covenant of grace (though we are born into a position of elected humanity, via Christ). I want to locate the image of God in a relation with God, not in anything latent within human persons. We must be brought by God into the covenant of grace, and in that we are restored to God, we bear the image of God by participating in the reality of Jesus Christ.

In short, I do not think we should say that not-yet-redeemed persons bear the image of God. If the image is located in the relation between said person and God, then they cannot, logically. This should have no bearing on our ethics, because all people are created, and the very fact of creation requires our responsibility and care. It was the use of the image of God to separate humanity from the rest of creation that led to the justification for the exploitation of the earth and other creatures. By locating the image of God within the kingdom of God, among the redeemed, we allow all creation, humanity included, to be equally valued as a divine gift for our responsible stewardship.
Halden said…
This is interesting because I don't know how it fits with your understanding election that you take from Barth. Wouldn't you have to say that all humanity objectively does bear the image of God by virtue of all humanity being objectively in Christ? Would that not merely mean that unconverted persons only lack the image of God in terms of its subjective realization, while ontologically they are objectively constituted in the image of God by by virtue of objectively being in Christ?

Since for Barth, creation and covenant stand in a fundamental unity, I don't see how his thought could sustaine this understanding of the image of God. But maybe you've read parts of him that I haven't that would shed some light on this.

As an aside, how do people recive the image of God, on your view? My guess would be baptism, which would again bring us back to our discussion of infant baptism that we had some time ago.
Anonymous said…
thanks for the article link. ian mcfarland was my intro to systematics prof and i'll be working with him again this year. i find his reading of his book somehow both charitable and flawed. it is as if the author is bringing his own worries about other religions and liberals and forcing it onto the book (something ian doesn't address in it). another question is why he reads maximus the confessor as primarily a negative theologian, but that is for another day. as far as the body, doesn't mcfarland's move toward the church as the body of Christ have far more theological and biblical weight than the author's physicality?
Shane said…
you've said some interesting things here. i am going to need more time to think through the issue though. i am reluctant to embrace three ideas that you have proposed here:

1.) That the imago dei is primarily christological.

2.) that 'we do not possess our own humanity'.

3.) that the image of God should be dissociated from ethics.

I can see the reasons that you are developing these and I would say that you have a pretty persuasive case, but I have some apprehension about this move. But, just so that we're on the same page, this is really what you are claiming isn't it? I thought I followed through, but i wanted to make sure i had you right.

more thoughts as they clarify.


Election is not salvation; it is the divine decision to be God for us. Indeed, our entering into the covenant of grace is an existential realization of what is ontologically true in Jesus Christ. The point I want to make, though, is that the imago Dei has to do with our restored relation to God. It is in that relation that we bear God's image, because the image belongs to God, not to us. We only bear the image insofar as we are reconciled to God, that is, insofar as the Holy Spirit empowers us to be the image of God. Furthermore, I do not think baptism is where this occurs. Baptism is the sign and seal of the relationship, but it is not the relationship itself. Whether one is baptized as an infant or as an adult, the baptismal event simply witnesses to the covenant relation of grace.

Joshua, I would be interested to hear more about what McFarland thinks theologically. When I looked at his book on the divine image in the bookstore, I was rather unimpressed, and Webb's article confirmed my fears. Tell me if I am wrong, but it seems that he goes so far as to assert that the image of God is not only naturally in creation, but that it can even be used as a means toward knowledge of God. In other words, by looking for the image of God in others, we can actually learn about who God is. This seems to be the ultimate natural theology, finding God not in Scripture or in nature (which is also bad) but in the people walking down the street.

Shane, of those three ideas, only the first is straightforwardly my position. The second should really say, "Nobody possesses anything." I do not mean to suggest that humanity is less our possession than something else in life, but that we owe all things, including our very being, to God the Creator. The third one is more complex, and is actually something I adopted at Wheaton with some of your own concerns in mind. I want to affirm that being in the image of God means that we are "truly human," but I did not want to lose the affirmation that all people are human and thus worthy of ethical and moral treatment. This does not mean the imago Dei is a non-ethical category, only that ethics should not be so quick to use the "image of God"-card whenever it wants to discuss why people are valuable. There are other resources for this conviction.
Shane said…
ok, david, thanks for the clarification. let me ask another clarifying question about how you are using the word possess.

At first you said "we don't possess our own humanity", then "nobody possesses anything". but then you seemed to explain this as meaning that our being is a gift from God, (which is something I can readily accept). However, you also seemed to use the first instance to say that there were some people who weren't "really" human.

Now, my question is this: are you intended the word 'possess' to mean that something 'has' a certain essence? i.e. Do all human beings "possess" humanity the way that a circle "possesses" roundness? I thought your answer to that question would be no initially, but now i'm not sure.

Halden said…
Fair point about election versus salvation, but still doesn't your position require that all have been reconciled to God through Christ? Thus, objectively all would stand in "restored relation to God", true? Thus, even if the subjective realization of the image of God is not present in those that have not acknowledged Christ isn't it objectively present by virtue of all being reconciled to God through Christ?
Yes, but herein lies the point of my post. In whom are we elected? Christ. In whom are we reconciled to God? Christ. In whom is the image of God? Christ! So yes, objectively, the image of God is effected — but only in Jesus Christ. For us to be the bearers of this image, we must subjectively be brought into the covenant of grace. We must be existentially reoriented in order for us to be the people of God, the witnesses to the glory and grace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Halden said…
So then, is being in the image of God an ontological reality? If it is merely the subjective realization of what is objectively real in Christ, that would seem to make it nothing more than an experiential or existential reality that is evacuated of ontological content.

It still seems to me that your position should force you to say that since all are reconciled in Christ, who is the image of God, all objectively bear the image of God through Christ. Certainly the state of being in God's image is not experienced or lived out until they are subjectively brought into relationship with God, but from an ontological standpoint, I don't see how we can really deny that they bear the image of God since all truly are in Christ. Unless you maintain that bearing the image of God is merely subjective and experiential, which to me seems to eviscerate the image of ontological content.
You're right, objectively we do bear the image of God, but that's only because objectively we are in Christ. The problem here is that I do not view the subjective realization of this reconciliation as non-ontological. The ontology of salvation is both objective and subjective. We are subjectively made into new creatures; we become "truly human." In that true humanity, we bear God's image. And this image is a communal one, in that we bear it alongside our brothers and sisters in the faith and never as abstract individuals.
Halden said…
Fair enough. Definately correct about the communal nature of the image and becoming truly human.

I wonder if it would actually be appropriate to distinguish the created image of God as discussed in Genesis from the eschatological telos of bearing the image of Christ. Or if the patristic and medieval distinction between imago and similtudo has anything to offer in terms of how we think of the image of God and theological anthroplogy.

I definately agree that we cannot reduce the image to an anthropological category or some kind of generic transcendental sociality (Daniel Hardy's term, I believe).
Anonymous said…

I had quite a bit to say about the imago Dei in my series entitled "Becoming the Father through a Spirit-empowered Cruciformity: Prolegomena to a Narrative Spirituality of Mission" (I hate writing titles). If you ever get around to looking at it (it's rather longish) I would really be delighted to hear any thoughts you might have.

Grace and peace.
Shane said…
Just to nitpick a little, you say, "Thomas Aquinas simply piggy-backed on Aristotle." There are actually remarkable differences between Thomas and Aristotle on this point. Look at their divergent concepts of the human telos and the virtues they think fulfill that telos. Thomas doesn't really piggy-back on very many things from Aristotle. There are broad areas of similarity, but the devil, like all good theologians, is in the details. . .

You're right, of course, Shane. However, on the definition of a human person, there was very little variance throughout theology and philosophy. I could have said, later thinkers just followed earlier thinkers, but that doesn't sound very sophistocated.
Anonymous said…
I could have said, later thinkers just followed earlier thinkers, but that doesn't sound very sophistocated.

The other problem with this claim is that it's demonstrably false. Do you think you are the FIRST to question the anthrophologies that came before you? The history of Christian thought from the patristics forward is filled with nuance and complexities worth exploring, rather than writing off as mere pagan imitation.