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“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. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death, and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked; perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us saying: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not: where St. John calleth men darkness. Therefore we reject all that is taught repugnant to this, concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin; and has nothing of himself, unless it is given from heaven. For who may presume to boast, that he of himself can do any good, since Christ saith, No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him? Who will glory in his own will, who understands, that to be carnally minded is enmity against God? Who can speak of his knowledge, since the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God? In short, who dare suggest any thought, since he knows that we are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God? And therefore what the apostle saith ought justly to be held sure and firm, that God worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. For there is no will nor understanding, conformable to the divine will and understanding, but what Christ hath wrought in man; which he teaches us, when he saith, Without me ye can do nothing.”

Article XIV, The Belgic Confession


In the previous article we concentrated on the very first clause of Article XIV and limited ourselves to the doctrine of man’s creation. We emphasized in that connection the uniqueness of man’s creation by God out of the dust of the earth. That uniqueness is evident from three facts: the significant pause in the Genesis record between the creation of the animals and that of man and the Divine soliloquy, God’s forming of man out of the dust of the earth, and God’s breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. All this means that man, while he is “of the earth, earthy”, is more excellent than the animals and in a real sense stands above the earthly. By virtue of his creation man is a thinking, willing, and personal being. In this article we wish to focus on the first part of Article XIV once more and treat the concept of the image of God in man. We believe that God: ” . . . made and formed man after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” This, the fact that he was created in God’s image, the Creed terms man’s “honor” and “excellency.” 

Just what is meant by the image of God in man? What do the Scriptures have to say to this question? There is little or no disagreement among the theologians as to the general meaning of this concept. The image of God simply means that man was created in such a way that there was “a creaturely likeness of God in him” or a “reflection of the perfections of God in man.” (H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 204) Calvin speaks of man before his fall as a “mirror of the glory of God.” (Institutes, Book I, Chapter XV, 4) This clearly is the idea of the Genesis account which reads:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

Genesis 1:26, 27

The text teaches that God made man in such a fashion that he resembled God Himself. As created in God’s image, man reflected something of the very virtues of God. This, in general, is the idea of the image of God in man and concerning this there is little difference of opinion. This is also the meaning of our Confessionwhen it speaks of man being made and formed by God “after his own image and likeness.” 

However when it comes to specifics concerning the image of God there is a wide range of opinion among theologians both past and present.* Some of the earlier fathers of the church distinguished between the terms “image” and “likeness.” It is much better, however, to understand “likeness” as referring to the same thing as “image” and a further explanation of “image” in Genesis 1:26. Thus what the text teaches is that God so created man in His Own image that there was a likeness of God in man. Others have found the idea of the image of God in man to consist in the dominion man was given over the rest of creation (Cf. Genesis 1:26ff.). These often made appeal to Psalm 8:5, 6 where Scripture speaks of man’s creation in these terms:

“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.”

It is true that man stood as lord under God over the creation as image bearer of Jehovah. His lordship over creation also revealed man’s excellency and honor as God’s image bearer. But his dominion over creation must not be identified or confused with man’s having been created in the image and after the likeness of God. His dominion, as is obvious from God’s command (Gen. 1:28ff.), refers to man’s unique and holy task as God’s friend-servant. The late Karl Barth proposed a rather novel view and insisted that the image of God in man consisted of the male and female relationship. According to Barth, when Genesis 1:27 states: “. . . male and female created he them, ” it is describing the image of God. There is a community of Persons in the Godhead argued Barth. This is reflected in the fact that God created man as “man and woman.” In this way man stands in the image and after the likeness of Maker. For reasons which will become obvious as we continue this discussion we find this view of Barth unacceptable. 

A view of the image of God rather commonly held in the Reformed community distinguishes the image of God in the wider (or broader) and the narrower sense. To the image in the broader sense belongs man’s rationality, morality, and “immortality” (It should be noted that “immortality” in Scripture does not merely mean that man lives on after death, but it refers to the state of “not being able to die” and is attainable only by grace and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Cf. I Cor. 15). This part of God’s image man still possesses; he did not lose this in the fall. And this too distinguishes man from the animals. By the image of God in the narrower sense is meant man’s original righteousness which he no longer possesses as a result of his fall into sin. The inherent danger involved in this distinction ought to be apparent at once. This means that man retained something of God’s image and likeness even after his fall. He still possesses a rational, moral, and “immortal” soul and in this sense still stands in the image and after the likeness of God. This leads quite naturally to the next step, that of saying there re mains a remnant of good left in man after the fall. And, this in turn: ” . . . lends itself very easily to support the view of those who insist that’ there is a s 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.” (H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 207)

Preferable, if distinctions must indeed be made, is the one made by the late Herman Hoeksema. (To the best of my knowledge this distinction is original with Hoeksema.) According to this distinction we speak of the image of God in the formal and in the material sense. By the formal sense is meant that man’s nature is adapted to bear the image of God. God created man in a way which made man capable of reflecting His perfections. From this point of view we may speak of man as image bearer of God. As image bearer with a mind and will and moral nature, man was created capable of bearing God’s Own image. By the material sense is meant the actual contents of the image of God. In this sense man actually bore the image of God; he really mirrored God’s virtues. This is commonly called: “man’s original righteousness.” Those virtues making up that original righteousness are the true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness. As created in God’s image man knew God as His Creator, Father and Friend; he stood in harmony with God’s will; and in purity of nature man was consecrated to the service of God in love. These virtues he lost when he fell into sin and consequently, into death. Now man is image bearer of the devil according to his fallen, sinful nature. He is still man. Still he possesses a rational, moral nature, but no longer does he reflect God’s virtues. About this we shall have more to say in our next article. 

This is the Biblical view. Scripture always presents man’s redemption as a restoration of the image of God in him and that image of God consists in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. In Ephesians 5:23, 24 we read:

“And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”

Putting off the old man involves the renewal of our minds; this is knowledge. And that new man which we must put on is created (formed, transformed or completely changed) according to God in righteousness and true holiness. (Cf. also Col. 3:10;Romans 12:1, 2Ephesians 5:8I John 3:1, 2John 17:3) This is what man possessed originally, lost in the fall, and is given by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. This the elect can never lose. In the glory of the new creation and for all eternity the saints will mirror, as God’s image bearers, the beauty, the power, the matchless glory of His infinite perfections. 

This is the view of Calvin and our Confessions. CitingColossians 3:10 and Ephesians 4:23, 24, Calvin argues that we can know “in which faculties man excels” and is a “mirror of the glory of God” from the restoration of the corrupt nature of man. (Institutes, Book I, Chapter XV, 4) The Catechism asks: “Did God create man so wicked and perverse?”, and answers: “No; but God created man good, and after his own image, that is in righteousness and true holiness.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day III). The Canons of Dordrechtteach: “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.” (III, IV, Article 1). And the Belgic Confession in Article XIV emphasizes the same truth when it says: “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.” 

This, therefore, is the truth concerning the image of God in man; the truth taught in Scripture and our Creeds. 

to be continued. . .


* A rather extensive survey of the many views may be found in G.C. Berkhouwer’s, Man: The Image of God, pp. 67ff.