Characteristics of the ‘Imago Dei’

I was recently prompted, given my three-part series on the ‘Image of God in Man,’ to give some specific characteristics of the imago dei. The purpose of the three-part series was to expose the essential intimation of the imago dei – i.e., images are meant to point to whom the image is of – and this emphasis was partly due to my struggle with pinpointing the specifics of the imago dei. There is a scholastic swarm around this topic, and the haze makes it tough to travel through. Nevertheless, I did come across some necessary specifications in my study, but the list is by no means exhaustive (and pardon my disorganization).

The whole of the study will hope to point the student to one assertion: the image of God is that unique characteristic of man, which permits him the ability to represent God by his relationship to Him and others, as well as prescribe man his responsibility over creation.

1) The very words of Scripture – ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1)– are of serious implications.  Easily deduced, the image can never transcend the one whom the image is of – i.e., God is evermore above man. Similarly, being the image of God, the image has some accurate representation of God. The image, therefore, originally consists of nothing evil or inherently wrong.

2) The imago dei is proposed as one of the major distinguishing marks between man and the rest of creation. This is one item that separates man from the animals; it is only said about man. Therefore, logical deduction can conclude that the imago dei includes man’s self-consciousness, his moral choice, and other things that animals do not have. We have to be careful, however, not to assume that everything we have that the rest of creation does not have means that those things are part of the imago dei.

3) The imago dei appears to consist in man’s correspondence to those qualities that create personhood – will, morality, reason, personality, etc. Just as God exerts a will, so man exerts a will. Just as God expresses morality, so man is a moral agent. Just as God is a personal and relational being, so man is a being of attributes and personality.

4) The word ‘image’ in the OT is translated from the Hebrew word selem. This carries some confusion as selem is often translated in regards to ‘physical likeness’ (cf. Numbers  33:52, 1 Samuel 6:5, 2 Chronicles 23:17 and 2 Kings 11:18Ezekiel 7:20, Ezekiel 16:17, Ezekiel 23:14, Amos 5:25, Daniel  2:31-35, and twelve times in Daniel 3). Nevertheless, Psalm 39:5-6; 73:20 use selem as a reference to more of an abstract likeness – e.g. ‘shadow.’ The biblical language, therefore, does not exclusively intend to signify the imago dei as a purely physical likening to God, yet there is a very physical intimation by the terminology used. Principally, being that ‘God is Spirit’ (John 4:24), it would be odd to assume that man’s image of a spiritual being has a strictly physical signification.

5) In Genesis 1:26-27, there is a distinct effort to show a social aspect of the imago dei. Reading the text, one notes the mention of God’s plurality in the trinity – the divine counsel – as well as both man and woman. Barth correctly observed this explicit teaching.[1] There is some profound communal emphasis surrounding the imago dei that may be further elucidated in the person of Christ and his union with the father, our union with Him, etc.

6) Though the fall damaged the image of God in man, there still remain traces of His image, because man still has the capacity of will and reason.[2]  Davis states, “Even though man has fallen and the image of God is marred, man retains this image (cf. Gen. 9:6; James 3:9).”[3] The most important text would be in Gen. 9:6, where ‘capital punishment’ is instituted because of man being created in the image of God, all of which comes after the fall. Of all the reaching and pondering around the imago dei, I believe that this is the most important characteristic: even though we are sinners, we still have the image of God; and it is strictly because of this image that we have the right to life and dominion over creation. The OT does not really extend its teaching on the imago dei beyond this point, which is why scholasticism likes to have fun with it, and why I find myself satisfied with my findings – no need to reach beyond what scriptural authority intended to reveal to us.

7) Christ is mentioned with similar terminology in reference to His person (2  Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15). Looking back to the definition, we see that Jesus was the perfect image of God. “As such, Jesus was in human nature the representation of God so that, in relation to God and others, He might represent God in fulfilling His God-given responsibilities as He functioned, always and only, to do the will of His Father.”[[4] Remarkably, man is then called to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), III. 2. It may be postulated that the German theologian overemphasized this relational aspect, making a secondary aspect an ‘essence’ – the essence of the image of God is beyond relationality, but it is certainly an intended aspect of the text.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I.15.

[3] John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison (Grand Rapids, MI: Sheffield Publishing Co, 1998), 81.

[4] Bruce A. Ware, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne A. Grudem, Foundations for the Family Series (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 79-80.

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