imago Dei: Qualities and Nature

imago Dei: Qualities and Nature April 26, 2019

Last autumn, I began to share some writings on a view of persons from a Christian perspective.  This encompassed writings from a psychological standpoint, integrating Theology.  This also included writings from a Theological standpoint, incorporating multiple disciplines.  As I forge ahead, I have been looking forward to a point when I could share some research on the image of God, or imago Dei.  I am adapting this series from some previous research, but will also include adaptations which reflect the dialogue I had with Professor Brian G. Edgar, Ph.D.  This post will begin our series with the qualities and nature of the imago Dei.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, 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. (Genesis 1.26-27, New King James Version)

What implications does a Theological understanding of imago Dei hold for a contemporary scientific understanding of human nature?  The purpose of these writings is to pursue this question through readings in partial fulfillment of the course The Human Person: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives.[1]  I explore aspects of human nature and science in light of our readings and various writers.

“Human beings have intrinsic value by virtue of being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), which distinguishes human beings from animals.  The image of God, a doctrine often referred to in Latin as imago dei, is fundamental to the notion of human nature, which grounds personal identity through time and change.”[2]

Multiple scholars through time have emphasized the Theological concept of imago Dei.  What makes the human unique?  Does anything set him apart from other forms of created life?  What connects him to the Creator?  We do not often find the answers in one view or another, but rather in the tension between them.

For instance, is man merely a fully functioning body, as proposed by physicalists or monism?  Or is man a complex entity consisting of a body, soul, and even a spirit? For the monist, how is the imago Dei sustained over the years (continuity), in spite of the fact that our cells continually reproduce themselves?  For the one who subscribes to a dualist or tripartite view of human nature, how is the imago Dei truly embodied and the whole person redeemed?  This paper explores questions like these.

JVI | Cruz worshipping | PCG Michigan District Convention | 09.22.17

Qualities and Nature

“Image and likeness were contrasted in differences between ‘natural qualities’ such as reason and ‘supernatural graces’ such as spiritual qualities (Irenaeus c.130-c.200).  Tertullian (c.160-c.220) suggested that the image of God was retained after sinning, while the lost likeness was restored through the renewing activity of the Spirit after conversion.  However, there is little support for such exegetical distinctions.”[3]

Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian, a couple of Early Church Fathers, offer a couple of the basic views about imago Dei.  Irenaeus says there are certain qualities we possess that prove God has made us in His image.  We will refer to his concept as a standard.  For Tertullian, imago Dei is always present in humans, but the likeness of God is fully restored upon salvation, a view of the status of man.  Either as a status or standard, the human being has God-given dignity.

As for Murray and Wilkinson’s critique of Irenaeus and Tertullian at the end of this quote, I think it proves a point.  We feel that with modern science and all of our advances in the various disciplines, that ancient voices may no longer have the bearing they once had.  After all, we have developed since then.  However, I would never be so quick to dismiss the voice of early Patristrics, especially those who are within a couple generations of Christ Himself.  What better commentators on Scripture do we have than those who have passed on a tradition that probably stems from the New Testament Church?


The simplest, and perhaps the most profound, understanding of imago Dei is that it is a gift given by God to all humanity.  “Imaging God is a gift, an office given to us by God, not a set of functional attributes that human beings may define, or define away, according to our fickle and selfish ends.”[4]  People bear the image of God only because they are in fact people.  In a sovereign act, God bestows His image on individuals. This is the simplest and clearest understanding we have from Scripture.


“Whereas all human beings have the status of images of God, human beings vary considerably in the degree to which they measure up to the standard of the image of God.”[5]  This is not a particular set of characteristics, but rather a standard of how humans are to reflect God’s character and will.  In some branches of Theology, we understand redemption in terms of becoming fully human.  What has God designed man to live up to?  The standard of imago Dei is not to be confused with particular traits, such as rationale or morality.  Rather the standard reflects the renewed life.  We are being conformed to Christ’s image (Romans 8.29; 1 Corinthians 14.45-49; Colossians 3.9-10).


Against the status and standard of imago Dei stands utilitarianism.  This is a modern philosophy that undergirds some of the ethics in our time.  Consequently, utilitarianism may have an influence on science as well.

“According to a utilitarian perspective, what ultimately matters is the benefit itself (e.g., pleasure or preference satisfaction), not the individuals who benefit.  Individuals whose existence impose a burden on the whole – whether that whole is understood, for instance, in terms of society or of the family – must be eliminated to improve the well-being of the whole.”[6]

Is Mitchell painting in black and white?  Do various factors and people color the issues?  Utilitarians may object to Mitchell on two grounds.  First, they believe they are trying to provide real benefits for people.  Secondly, certainly not all utilitarians would state that those who are a “burden” must be eliminated.

In response to the first objection of a utilitarian, I have two questions.  1) How do we define benefits?  2) How do we decide who benefits?  As for the second objection, I concede that not all utilitarians carry this philosophy out to the nth degree . . . but some do.

In all reality, there is an element of truth in Mitchell’s critique.  If someone subscribes to utilitarianism, the philosophy measures a human’s worth by his ability to contribute to society.  When this is no longer possible, by some nebulous measure, then the person’s life is no longer worth living.

Toward renewal

If Irenaeus and Tertullian were to discuss the matter further, they might conclude that both status and standard are fundamental to the understanding of imago Dei.

Like Irenaeus, I believe that we possess certain aspects of the image of God simply because we are human.  “From Genesis onward, the fact that a being is human rather than not human is what identifies that being as in the image of God.”[7]  Regardless of socioeconomic status, health, development, etc., people bear God’s image and they are worthy of protection.  This line of thinking about the imago Dei is diametrically opposed to utilitarianism.

I would also have to agree with Tertullian.  Although we bear the image of God, we are marred representatives.  We are marred by the Fall, by Original Sin, and by our own conceits.  Once we become Christians and start living unto righteousness, the imago Dei is renewed within us, as Paul points out multiple times (see above).  We are becoming fully human, and journeying toward renewal.


[1] adapted from Jared V. Ingle, “imago Dei: At the Intersection of Science and Human Nature” (paper presented in, The Human Person: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, Asbury Theological Seminary, May 8, 2011).

[2] C. Ben Mitchell, Edmund D. Pellegrino, Jean Bethke Elshtain, John F. Kilner, and Scott B. Rae, Biotechnology and the Human Good (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2007), 55.

[3] Paul D. Murray and David Wilkinson, “The Significance of the Theology of Creation within Christian Tradition: Systematic Considerations,” in God, Humanity and the Cosmos, ed. Christopher Southgate (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), 45.

[4] Mitchell et al., 145.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Ibid., 76.

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