It cannot be claimed that the distinction: “image of God in a wider and in a narrower sense,” is confessionally Reformed. Our Three Forms of Unity rather leave the impression that they favor the idea of limiting the image of God to man’s original integrity, true knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness. This is true of our Catechism in the Lord’s Day we are now discussing. In answer to the question: “Did God create man so wicked and perverse?” it states: “No; but God created man good, and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness.” It certainly leaves out of view the image of God in a wider sense altogether, and confines the scope of that image to “righteousness and true holiness.” This does not mean that the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were not acquainted with the distinction, or even themselves did not favor it. From Ursinus’ Schatboek it is quite evident that they did. He answers the question: “In how far is it (the image of God) lost; and what is left of it in man?” as follows:
“This image of God, after which God created man in the beginning, and that, before the fall, shone in man as a light; this very beautiful image of God man has lost through sin after the fall, and he is changed after the ugly image of the devil. A few remnants and sparks, however, of this image were left after the fall, which are even now present in unregenerated men.
1. The essence of the soul is still incorporeal, rational, immortal and still has its faculties; also the freedom of the will, so that man freely wills what he wills. 2. Great knowledge of God, of nature, of the difference between good and evil; this knowledge is the principle of all science. 3. A few vestiges and seeds of moral virtues, and a certain possibility of external order. 4. The enjoyment of much temporal good. 5. A certain dominion over the creatures; for also this has not entirely been lost, many creatures are still subject to the power of man and he can rule over them and use them to his advantage. These remnants of the image of God in man, even though through sin they have become terribly dark and unstable, are nevertheless, in one way or another left in the nature of man; and that too: 1. In order that they might serve as witness of God’s mercy toward us who are unworthy; 2. in order that God might use them for the restoration of His image in us; 3. in order that the reprobate might have not a single excuse,” pp. 39, 40.
Nevertheless, all this additional material, much of which is derived from Scholastic philosophy, and through it from Plato and Aristotle, rather than from Scripture, is not incorporated in the Catechism. And this shows that the authors of the Catechism considered the image of God as consisting chiefly in the original integrity of man. Also the Belgic Confession limits the image of God in the same fashion in Art. 14: “We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after His own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” And the Canons of Dordrecht, III, IV, 1, have this to say about the subject: “Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole man was holy.” The distinction between the image of God in a narrower and in a wider sense, therefore, even though it is embodied in many works on dogmatics, and commonly taught through the media of question books in catechetical classes, as well as from the pulpit, has never received official standing in the Reformed Churches.
Nor is the distinction an innocent one and without danger to true doctrine. It is dangerous, because it prepares room for the further philosophy that there are remnants of the image of God left in fallen man, and that, therefore, the natural man cannot be wholly depraved. The argument is, that man lost the image of God in a narrower sense, but he retained that image in a wider sense. By the latter, then, is usually meant, that man still has an immortal, rational soul, in distinction from the animals. Now, except for this heresy about man’s “immortal soul,” very little harm results as long as nothing more is said, and as long as it is strictly remembered that nothing of man’s original righteousness is contained in this image of God in a wider sense. But the trouble is that words have meaning, and that the real meaning of words will assert itself regardless of false distinctions we may try to maintain. After all, the term “image of God” conveys a meaning that cannot very well be applied to a man that is changed into the image of the devil. It carries a favorable connotation. It denoted goodness, moral, ethical, spiritual integrity. To state that man after the fall is an image bearer of the devil, and at the same time to maintain that he still bears the image of God or a remnant of it, does not harmonize with each other, contains a flat contradiction. And so it happens, that the distinction of image of God in a narrower and wider sense, gradually but irresistibly is used to teach that there is still a remnant of man’s original righteousness and integrity in fallen man, and that he is not totally depraved. It is a distinction that lends itself very easily to support the view of those who insist that there is a certain common grace by virtue of which natural man is not so depraved as without that grace he would have been. And if this is not a denial of the doctrine of total depravity, words certainly have lost their plain meaning.
It may not be superfluous to insert a paragraph here about the so-called “immortality of the soul.” Above I spoke of “the heresy” that man’s soul is immortal. And a heresy it certainly is, for the which there is no item of proof in the Word of God; which, on the contrary is condemned by Scripture throughout. It is one of those doctrines that have been inherited by the Church from Platonic philosophy, that have simply been received without criticism and without being judged in the light of Scripture, and that have been accepted by the Church ever since. It has become a very “gangbare meening,” a generally current opinion that man has an immortal soul. So general and so deeply rooted is this philosophical tenet, that I have often experienced that the statement “the heresy about man’s immortal soul” will act like a boomerang, so that many consider the statement itself a heresy! People have been taught to speak of man’s immortal soul so persistently; they pray so often that the “immortal soul” may be saved; and they admonish one another so earnestly that they have “an immortal soul” to lose, that it is considered almost sacrilegious to maintain that man’s soul is not immortal, and what is more, very really dead, unless he is regenerated by the Spirit of God. The trouble is that immortality is often identified with unending existence. When philosophy speaks about immortality, it does not take eternal death and hell into consideration. According to its view, man is either immortal, that is, the soul continues to live after this life, or physical death ends all. But this is not the view of Scripture. Surely, there is a continued existence after temporal death, but this is not the same as immortality. The latter term in Scripture signifies the state in which man is exempt from death, the state of incorruptibility, of eternal life. And this state can be attained only in Christ. No man is by nature immortal, either as to body or soul. No man outside of Christ has an immortal soul. Even though it is certainly true, that the soul of every man will continue to exist, and that the body of every man will be raised from the dust, neither this continued existence nor this resurrection means that he is or will be immortal. For the wicked shall suffer eternal death both in body and soul; and it is only the righteous that shall be raised incorruptible. And, therefore, we should not follow the language of philosophy, and we should refuse to adopt its terminology. The truth is, that man is mortal. He has a body that can die and so he has a perishable soul. God can destroy both soul and body in hell. And immortality is the word that can be applied only to the state of the glorified saints in Christ.
If a distinction must be made in the image of God, after which man was created, we prefer to make the distinction between the image in a formal and in a material sense. By the former is meant the fact that man’s nature is adapted to bear the image of God. Not every nature of the creature is capable of bearing the image of God, showing forth a reflection of God’s own ethical perfections, of knowledge, righteousness and holiness. It is evident that it requires a rational, moral nature to bear that image of God. And by the image of God in a material sense is meant that spiritual, ethical soundness of the human nature, according to which he actually shows forth the virtues of knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness. If you will, we may distinguish between man as the image-bearer, i.e. as being capable of bearing the image of God, and man as actually bearing God’s image.
In Gen. 2:7 we read: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man becomes a living soul.” We learn here that man was created by one, special, very distinct, twofold act of God, which emphasizes from the beginning the two aspects of man’s being. Thus, no doubt, we must understand this passage. Often this creative act of God, whereby He gave being to man, is understood as consisting of two separate acts: first God formed a sort of clay image; and when it was finished, He made the image alive by breathing into it. According to this conception, man is really two beings. He is a body with a soul in it. And the soul is really the life of the body. When he dies, his soul leaves the body, and this departure of the soul is the cause of the death of the body. But it is evident that this is not the correct conception of man, and surely not of the text in Gen. 2:7. Do not misunderstand this. God certainly created man by a twofold act: by forming him as to the physical side of his nature out of the dust of the ground, and by bringing into existence the spiritual side of his nature by breathing into him the breath of life. Nor do we agree with those who proceed on the assumption that Scripture uses the word “soul” always in the same sense, and who insist that we cannot properly make the distinction between man’s body and his soul. Scripture certainly teaches that man’s body can die, while his “soul” or “spirit” continues to lead a conscious existence, either in life or in death. Does not the preacher emphasize that, when the body returns to the dust, the spirit returns to God who gave it? Does not the Lord speak of those that kill the body, but cannot destroy the soul? Does not Christ Himself commend His spirit into the hands of the Father, when He is about to die? And does not the apocalyptic seer of the book of Revelation behold “the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God. . . . and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years”? (Rev. 20:4). But even so man is not two beings but one, with a physical and spiritual side, a living physical organism, formed out of the dust of the ground, and this living organism most intimately united with a rational spirit: one physical and psychical, intellectual and volitional rational and moral being, adapted to be lord of the earth and servant of the living God.
Notice, that in Gen. 2:7 the statement: “and man became a living soul” is predicated of the whole man. Man did not receive a living soul, but he became a living soul. He is not a body with a living soul in it, but he is a living soul. And he became a living soul, not merely by the inbreathing of God into his nostrils, but by the whole of God’s creative act: His forming man out of the dust and His breathing into him the breath of life. Thus, i.e. by this twofold act of God man became a living soul. Man is the subject about which is spoken throughout the text: man is formed, into man’s nostrils is breathed the breath of life, man became a living souk “Living soul” in Gen. 2:7, therefore, does not at all refer to man’s spiritual being in distinction from his body. This will be all the more evident if we consider that the same term “living soul” is used also in reference to the animals. In our English translation of Gen. I this is not apparent, but the Holland rendering is more faithful to the original, when it speaks of the animals as “levende zielen,” Gen. 1:20 should have been translated: “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living souls.” And Gen. 1:24 should read: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth living souls after their kind.” In both cases identically the same words are used as in Gen. 2:7 with respect to man. Fish and fowl, cattle and beasts of the field and creeping things are living souls. And thus man also was made a living soul. The term as such, therefore, as it is used in Gen. 1 and 2, denotes nothing more than a creature with locomotion, a creature that is free to move about by an act that has its impetus from within the creature. Plants are not living souls. They are fixed in the earth. They do not freely determine their own movement on the earth. But animals and man are living souls.
However, there is a sharp distinction between the animal as a living soul and man. This is indicated by the way in which man is created in distinction from the creation of the animals. Like the animals he is, indeed, taken out of the ground. He is of the earth earthy. He is not the Lord of heaven, I Cor. 15:47, 48. To the earth he is closely related. The chemical composition of his physical organism is earthy. He is created to live on the earth. As he was created he could not possibly live in heaven. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God! Dependent on the earth he is for his very subsistence and life. From the earth his life must constantly be replenished. And if he cannot eat of the tree of life, he must needs return to the dust sooner or later, Gen. 3:22. And he has a psychical body, a body that is wholly adapted to serve as instrument of a “soul,” to live an earthly life. He has earthly sensations and earthly perceptions. He has an earthly ear to catch earthly sounds; he has an earthly eye to catch earthly sights; an earthly sense of taste and touch and smell that brings him into contact with earthly things only. There are things which his eye cannot see, and his ear cannot hear, and that cannot even arise in his heart without special revelation. Even his thinking and willing, his ideals and aspirations, his ties of friendship and love,—all assume earthly forms. The first man is of the earth earthy!
But let us note the distinction between man as a living soul and the animals. This distinction is indicated by a twofold difference between the creation of man and that of the animals. First of all, the animals were simply called forth from the ground (the fish and fowls from the waters); man is formed as to his physical side by the very fingers of the great Artificer. Man did not simply find his origin in the ground. There is no continuous line of evolution from the animals to man. The line is broken. God formed man out of the dust of the ground. The “missing link” is missing indeed! Closely man is related to the animals. Both are living souls. We may even say that there is a kind of image of man in the animals. This is very evident in the life of the higher animals. Within their limited sphere they reflect an image of the life of man. Also the animal remembers, dreams, rejoices and evinces deep sorrow, loves and hates, shows fear, courage, faithfulness, and even shows a sense of guilt in relation to man. But withal there is a sharp boundary fixed by the very act by which man was created. The animals are called forth by God’s Word out of the ground, man is formed by God’s creative hand. The very act that forms Adam out of the earth elevates him above it! Being closely related to the earth because he is formed of its substance, he is capable of living and moving on the earth, can enter into communion with its creatures, share his life with them, use their resources as means to labor with them and to support and enrich his own life from them; yet, by being formed by God’s own fingers, he is elevated above the earth: his relation to the dust of the earth is one of freedom. For he was made to be lord of the earthly creation, and even his physical organism is adapted to this lordship. His upright position, his noble form bespeak royalty; his finely formed hand was shaped for the scepter; his face is the face of a king. And by his being formed out of the dust of the ground even his physical organism was worthy of a being that was adapted to be the image bearer of God!
But there is another distinction between the way in which God created the animals and that in which He gave being to man: the breathing into man’s nostrils of the breath of life. This act of God is absent in the creation of the animals altogether. It is an act of the Spirit of God. While God took and formed man out of the dust of the ground, He so belabored him by His Spirit that he became a living soul which is also a personal spirit. Of the animals nothing more is said than that they were called forth out of the ground and out of the waters. They are purely material living souls. Their soul is in their blood. Not so with man. He is made a psychical body, a body that is so finely and delicately constructed as to be adapted to be the instrument of a personal soul; and he is made a personal spirit by the very inbreathing of God into his nostrils of the breath of life. By this second aspect of God’s creative act man’s whole nature became adapted to be the bearer of God’s image. This is not the same as saying that he is God’s image. But it means that he is a personal being, with a rational, moral nature, capable of standing in a conscious, personal relation to God, capable of knowledge of God, of righteousness and holiness. And this capability of being endowed with God’s image, we would prefer to call God’s image in a formal sense. No matter what becomes of man, whether he actually shows forth the beauty and glory of the image of God, or whether he turns into the very opposite and reveals the image of the devil, always you can distinguish him as a creature that ought to show forth God’s image, always he remains the living soul that was formed by God’s fingers out of the dust of the ground, and into whose nostrils God breathed the breath of life originally; always he remains a personal, rational and moral being, who ought to live in covenant fellowship with the living God!