My favorite passage in scripture is Exodus 34:5-8 for three reasons, one of which is pertinent to a discussion on the nature of the image of God. One of the reasons that this passage is my favorite; it is God’s declaration of His name, His character or what He is like.
Two other passages run a close second to this text of scripture as my favorites: Genesis 1-2:3 and Romans 3:10-26. Of these two passages, Genesis 1-2:3 is pertinent to a discussion on the image of God. Since Genesis tells us that man was created by God in His own image; male and female,1 what is the nature of the image of God?
In His book, Christian Theology, Millard J. Erickson points our three ways that Christians throughout church history have viewed the nature of the image: the substantive view, the relational view and the functional view.2 I see validity in all three, but none of them by themselves, fully gives an answer to the question, what is the nature of the image of God?
The substantive view has been held throughout much of church history; developed in the patristic age by Origen and Irenaeus. Irenaeus ideas were advanced during the middle ages.3 The substantive view sees certain characteristics within the very nature of humans: physical, mental or spiritual.4 In the middle ages the terms Image and likeness5 took on different traits, but Martin Luther explained that these two terms are likely Hebrew poetic parallelism and not to be seen as separate traits.6
The relational view has to do with the human relationship to God and our relationship to one another as being the image of God. This idea comes from the first half of Genesis 1:26, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” The idea is that because God used relational language connected to image and likeness that this is what is meant by the nature of the image. The relational view was promoted by Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, though each had varying ideas about it.
The functional view has to do with what man does.7 This view focuses on the second part of Genesis 1:26, “and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” In the functional view, “the image of God is actually an image of God as Lord.”8
So, is the image of God substantive, relational or functional? I would say yes to each and all three. “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”9 During Jesus earthly ministry He demonstrated the character of God as was given to Moses in Exodus 34:5-8; therefore, the image of God is substantive. During Jesus, earthly ministry He loved the Father with all His heart, soul and mind and He loved His neighbor as Himself;10 therefore, the image of God is relational. “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”11 Then, after being raised from the dead Jesus said to His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth;”12 therefore, the image of God is functional. Therefore, in order to understand the nature of the image of God, you must study the image of the invisible God, who is Christ Jesus our Lord.
1 The Holy Bible, Updated New American Standard Bible, (La Habra: The Lockman Foundation, 1995) Genesis 1:27.
2 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 460.
3 Ibid, 461.
4 Ibid, 460.
5 Cf. Gen. 1:26.
6 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 462.
7 Ibid, 466.
9 The Holy Bible, Updated New American Standard Bible, (La Habra: The Lockman Foundation, 1995) Colossians 1:15.
10 Cf. Mat. 22:36-40.
11 The Holy Bible, Updated New American Standard Bible, (La Habra: The Lockman Foundation, 1995) Mark 1:14-15.
12 Ibid, Matthew 28:18.