Imago Dei

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

In the Christian religion, the imago dei - which is Latin for "the image of God" - refers to the unique imprint God placed upon humanity, identifying people as a special creation. What the "image of God" precisely is, and what it implies, has been debated throughout history and is answered different by various Christian denominations. Summaries of the positions and arguments can be found below.

Although several Bible verses and passages are relevant to this discussion, the foundational one is Genesis 1:26-27, which reads,

"Then 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 birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (ESV)

Definitions of Imago Dei (The Image of God)

Christianity has been influenced by four definitions of the imago dei:

(1) The Image of God as Similarity Some posit that the imago dei describes people’s similarity to God. Most proponents of this view focus on physical similarities people have with God, while others expand the definition to incorporate non-physical components. People's similarity with God, it is argued, is passed down from Adam.

(2) The Image of God as Counterpart Others suggest the imago dei describes people as God’s counterpart in the universe. This view focuses on humans as the relational partner for God. The relationship operates to some degree in the manner that humans relate to one another – by conversation. Proponents emphasize that God primarily created people for fellowship.

(3) The Image of God as Dominion The third definition of the imago dei is that it describes people’s dominion over the earth. In this view, the application of the imago dei is the focus. Ruling over creation is the essence of the imago dei to some who subscribe to this definition. More common, however, is the notion that having imago dei qualifies people to rule. Therefore, all proponents advocate that the imago dei refers to the human’s status as created beings.

(4) The Image of God as Representation The fourth definition of the imago dei is that the term describes people as God’s representatives on earth. This view does not focus as much on God’s relationship to people, as it does people’s relationship to others. Advocates emphasize the transcendence of God over people, thus making a special need for His continued presence on the earth. God meets this need through giving people the imago dei.

The Image of God Key Texts

There are four widely accepted Old Testament texts that deal with the imago dei:

(1) Genesis 1:26-28 (2) Genesis 5:13 (3) Genesis 9:5-6 (4) Psalm 8

Two New Testament passages address the issue as well:

(1) 1 Corinthians 11:7 (2) James 3:9

The cornerstone of the doctrine, and the one other passages build on, is Genesis 1:26-27, which reads:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (NAU).

In these verses, the author uses plural pronouns three times: “us” once and “our” twice. Before one can thoroughly understand the contentions made by theologians about the imago dei, two Hebrew words from Genesis 1:26-27 must be understood. The words are selem, translated in the passage as “image,” and demut, translated in the passage as “likeness.” Whether the terms are intended to be synonymous or distinct is at the core of the debate.

Knowing how the words are used elsewhere in the Bible is important to understanding them.

Selem The Hebrew word selem occurs seventeen times in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Christian Old Testament). It is found five times in Genesis (twice in Genesis 1:26,27, and in 5:3 and 9:6), five times in the history books (twice in 1 Sam. 6:5 and in 6:11; 2 Ki. 11:18, 2 Ch. 23:17), once in Numbers (33:52), twice in the Psalms (39:7, 73:20), and four times in the prophets (Eze. 7:20, 16:17, 23:14, Amos 5:26). The use of selem suggests it was a widely known word since more than one author uses it in more than one period of Israelite history.

In ten of the twelve usages outside of Genesis, selem refers to a physical representation. In 1 Samuel 6:5 and 6:11, selem refers to a concrete, visual representation of a natural object. 1 Samuel 6:5 reads:

“So you shall make likeness of your tumors and likeness of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land” (emphasis’ mine, NAU).

The physical representation of rats is again mentioned in 1 Samuel 6:11. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, selem refers to the physical representation of non-Israelite deities (e.g. 2 Chronicles 23:17).

The other type of physical representation selem is used for is human likenesses associated with idolatry. In Ezekiel 16:17, it is used in reference to males, and in Ezekiel 23:14, it is used to describe figures hanging on a wall.

Selem’s uses by the Psalmist is particularly significant because they are two of the few that do not refer to a physical entity. In Psalm 39:6, selem is used to describe human existence as shadow like:

“Surely every man walks about as a phantom; surely they make an uproar for nothing; He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them” (emphasis mine, NAU).

Finally, in Psalm 73:20, selem is used to describe the remnants of a dream left over in the mind after one wakes:

“Like a dream when one awakes O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form” (emphasis mine, NAU).

Demut Demut occurs twenty-five times in the Old Testament. It occurs three times in Genesis (1:26, 5:1,3), twice in the history books (2 Ki. 16:10, 2 Ch. 4:3), once in the Psalms (58:5), and nineteen times in the prophets, mostly in Ezekiel (Isa. 13:4, 40:18, Eze. 1:5 2x, 1:10, 13, 16, 22, 26 3x, 28, 8:2, 10:1, 10, 21, 22, 23:15, Dan. 10:16). Eleven of demut’s uses occur in first and tenth chapters of Ezekiel. The word is usually translated “something like,” or “looked something like,” or “form,” in these verses.

Influential Theologians on the Image of God

Four theologians have been especially significant in contributing to the doctrine of the imago dei - Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.

Irenaeus Irenaeus lived in the second century after Jesus Christ. The primary post he held was the Bishop of Lyons. In AD 185 he wrote a book called Against Heresies, where he wrote in opposition to Gnosticism. It is in this refutation that his beliefs on the imago dei are found.

Irenaeus’ premise was to make a distinction between the words selem and demut in Genesis 1:26-27. It was his contention that due to the fall of mankind, people lost the likeness of God, but retained the image. To Irenaeus, “image” in Genesis 1:26 meant people are rationale and free beings. Because people have retained these attributes, even though sin is in the world; thus, the “image” must have been unaffected by the fall. Therefore, what is being restored in people through Christ is their likeness to God, since their image was never lost.

Irenaeus’ assertion of the restoration of people’s likeness to God is largely Christocentric. Because Christ was God in the flesh, he showed people how the unmarred likeness of God resides in a person. Moreover, since Christ is the likeness of God, in becoming more like him, people progress in being restored.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas held that the imago dei exists in a person’s intellect or reason. Intellect, in his assertion, is a person’s most God-like quality. Because less rationale creatures, like animals, were not created with a mind that has the abilities of a human’s, they do not have the image of God. On the other hand, Aquinas teaches that the minds of angels are better than humans, so they have the image of God more so than people.

According to Aquinas, before The Fall there was a struggle between reason and the “lower powers” within people. The “lower powers” means the physical temptations, such as lust and gluttony, which overwhelmed a person’s ability to reason. People were not able to control their urges through reasoning that those sins would have a negative affect and gave in to them.

People did not fall immediately after being created because they had a supernatural grace that enabled them to control themselves. When The Fall occurred, people lost the supernatural grace with which they were created. After The Fall, people lost all control of their “lower powers.” This idea is reflected in Psalm 81:12, “So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices” (NAU), and Romans 1:24 “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them” (NAU). Aquinas articulates his idea this way:

In his original state man was divinely endowed with the grace and privilege that, so long as his mind was subject to God, the lower powers of the soul would be subject to his rationale mind, and his body to his soul. Man’s mind by sin abandoned subordination to God, with the consequence that now his lower powers were no longer wholly responsive to his reason; and such was the rebellion of the flesh against reason that the body as well was no more wholly responsive to soul.

Aquinas wrote that the imago dei existed in people in three different stages. Stage one includes all people, whether they are Christian, Jew, or Muslim, whether an atheist or a theist. All people have the ability to rationalize that there is an understanding and loving God. For example, people can know through reason that there is an Ultimate Cause of all things. Aquinas calls it the “Unmoved Mover."

Stage two consists of people who are just. This stage is made up of people who know and love God. However, people’s knowledge and love of God is imperfect. Their affections toward God are real and genuine, but because of their limitations due to sin, they are unable to do so perfectly.

Stage three consists of those people who know and love God perfectly. Aquinas calls these people "blessed." He does not hold that this perfection is attained only when life is over, but it is possible to enter this third stage while living on earth. Whereas stage-two people have the image of God by the conformity of grace, stage three people have it by having a likeness of God’s glory.

Aquinas holds that it is necessary for people to enter stage two for two reasons. One, people need to be healed from the damage The Fall did to them. Entering stage two would restore their intellect. Two, people need to enter stage two to “achieve the meritorious good of supernatural virtue.” In stage one, people have a knowledge about God, but not knowledge of God. Moreover, stage one does not enable salvation for people.

John Calvin

John Calvin gave more attention to the doctrine of imago dei than any theologian since Augustine. Familiar with the African bishop, Calvin advanced Augustine’s metaphor of likening the image of God in people to a mirror. That is, people in some way reflect God as a mirror reflects images.

Contrary to Irenaeus and medieval theologians, Calvin did not distinguish between the Hebrew words selem and demut. Like other Protestant Reformers, he rejected the contention that there is a difference between “image” and “likeness.” To Calvin, Genesis 1:26-27 reflects poetic parallelism, which is common in Hebrew literature. He sees a hendiadys, which is when two words are used to communicate one idea.

To Calvin, the image of God exists in the soul: “For although God’s glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul.” While the soul is the central part of the image, Calvin asserts that no part of an individual is untouched by the imago dei.

The Fall had a drastic affect on “image” and “likeness” according to Calvin. He suggests that before the fall Adam and Eve were perfectly intelligent, righteous, and obedient, and that the image of God was clearly seen in them before they sinned. After The Fall, the image was frightfully marred. Reason and will remained, although tainted; but the mirror was essentially shattered.

Calvin concedes the imago dei in people was not reduced to non-existence. Rather than being completely erased from all existence, it is like an object that has been badly burned – it does not cease to exist, but it lies in the form of ash and dust, unrecognizable and bearing no resemblance of its former self.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth challenged the biblical anthropology of scholars like Iranaeus, Calvin, and Aquinas. He did not hold that the imago dei was something that was in people, like the soul, as Calvin did, but it is something that people are. He reasoned that people were created as men and women whose purpose is to be in communion with one another as the Trinitarian Godhead is with each other.

Barth centers his position on Genesis 1:27 where it states that God created people in His image “male and female He created them” (NAU). He suggested that the description of “male and female” explains what image is. He does not hold that the image of God in people is like a mirror as Calvin does, and therefore rejects the claim that the logical consequence of his assertion leads one to conclude that God has gender.

Barth’s emphasis on “male and female” leads him to stress the component of relationship in the imago dei. The aspect of relationship includes men and women with each other, as well as people in communion with God. When two people share in communication and love with one another or with God, they are doing the activity of the Trinity. The better the human relationship, the more closely they reflect the members of the Trinity.

Bibliography Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-60

Cairns, David. The Image of God in Man. London, England: Collins Press, 1973.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeill, 2 vols. Philadelphia, PN: Westerminster Press, 1960.

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Grenz, Stanley. The Social God and the Relational Self. Louisville, KY: Westminter John Knox Press, 2001.

Hoekema, Anthony. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids, MI: The Paternoster Press, 1986.

Torrance, T.F. Calvin’s Doctrine of Man. London, England: Lutterworth, 1949.