Chapter Eleven: Man Was Created in the Image of God

Does God have a physical image? Is it the same as man’s image?

The belief that God has a physical image similar to man’s image arises from a misunderstanding of the Biblical doctrine that God made man in God’s own image. The old witticism that “God made man in His own image, so man returned the compliment and made God in man’s own image,” always comes to mind.

How many laymen really think God has such a man-like form and that this form really is the image of God? If it really is the image of God, then surely the Biblical prohibition of images to represent God was only a temporary law.

The Biblical teaching that man is created in God’s image must never be avoided or discounted. It is one of the basic teachings of the Bible. Its importance to man’s self-concept cannot be overstated. On the other hand, this teaching also stands side-by-side in the Bible with the teaching that man cannot make an image to represent God.

It is helpful to note that the Old Testament does not clearly define exactly what is the image of God. (see Charles Corwin, East to Eden? Religion and the Dynamics of Social Change; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), p. 162.) Ideas do vary considerably.

It is helpful to observe that the New Testament speaks of this image as being righteousness and holiness. These are not physical qualities. Wesley saw it as a spiritual image when he said,
Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed with Christ?

(John Wesley, “Awake Thou that Sleepest”, Sermon No. 3 in Vol. V. The Works of John Wesley; Zondervan, n.d.; p. 30).
The more one tries to identify that image of God in which man was made, the more obvious it becomes that this theme harmonizes with, and does not contradict, the Biblical teaching that it is impossible to make an image that truly reveals God. The image of God is not a physical image.

Selected Bibliography

See helpful discussions of the nature of the image of God in L. Berkhof Systematic Theology; (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), p. 202f. Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), p. 112f. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 1940), p. 96 f.

Harry Boer suggests a universal image of God: “I see mankind—the whole of mankind, past, present, and future, male and female, old and young, every race of Man, and as an organic unity—to constitute the one image of God.” Quoted from Harry R. Boer, An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. ix (reviewed by John Bolt in “A Smoldering Ember: Harry Boer’s Continuing Battle with the Reformed Tradition,” in Calvin Theological Journal, April, 1991, pp. 111-124).