Glory Lost, Glory Regained: The Image of God

Stephen J. Tracey

New Horizons: June 2024

The Thrill of Desecration

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The Thrill of Desecration

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We are made in the image of God, after his likeness. This is a foundational truth, giving dignity and worth to every human being, yet strangely there is some recurring confusion as to precisely what is meant by “image of God.” Pause your reading now and jot down what you think it means to be made in the image of God. You might be surprised. Perhaps you will suggest it means rationality and intellect; perhaps dominion over the creatures; perhaps our capacity for relationships, or spiritual relationship. Does your definition maintain the dignity and worth of every human being?

We don’t always get this right. Let me give you an example, a horrible example. You can skip to the next paragraph if you want. In Table Talk, Martin Luther is reported as suggesting that a boy with a severe disability be suffocated. Asked why, he replied, “Because I think he is simply a mass of flesh without a soul” (Works, 54:396–397). Luther had more to learn.

OP pastor George Hammond wrestled with this question about his late daughter, Rebecca. His book is titled It Has Not Yet Appeared What We Shall Be. His subtitle gets to the point: A Reconsideration of the Image of God in Light of Those with Severe Cognitive Disabilities (P&R, 2017). Listen to the cry of his heart:

One day while I was watching Rebecca play by herself (the only way she plays) a thought occurred to me that filled me with horror: My daughter does not bear the image of God. The thought was abhorrent to me; every fiber of my being told me that my conclusion must be false. But there was no denying my theological grid. (2)

It’s that theological grid we want to examine, a grid that puts cognitive ability and image of God into tension. The tension lies in other areas too; instead of cognitive ability, read “autism and the image of God”—or “dementia,” or “acquired brain injury,” or “personality change.”

Generally, there are three approaches to the doctrine of the image of God. First, that the image of God is something substantive in humanity, a godlike quality, usually thought of in terms of qualities that distinguish us from animals (rationality, communication, will). Second, that it is something about the function of humanity (dominion over the earth). Third, that it is something relational (our ability to form relationships). Now do you see why Pastor Hammond’s question was painful and cut him to the core of his being? Here are his own words:

If the imago Dei is to be found substantively in those things which separate us from the animals such as language and intellect; if it is to be found functionally in the ability to exert dominion over the environment and other creatures; or if it was to be found relationally in creating and maintaining intricate human relationships, then it was evident that Rebecca’s life did not fit these criteria. (2–3)

This is a painful reflection on the question, “Is my child made in the image of God or not?” It is a theological question, too: “Did we lose all or part of the image of God in the fall into sin?” It is also an honest question on what it means to be human: “Is there a point where we would say someone is not fully human?” Sadly, like Luther, there are some who say just that. But it will not do. To be made in the image of God is tied to the glory of God. We all fall short of the glory of God, but we do not cease to be human.

Image, Broad and Narrow

Some theologians make a distinction between the image of God in a “broad” sense and the image of God in a “narrow” sense. This may be helpful. G. C. Berkouwer comments,

The broader sense of the image is used to stress the idea that man, despite his fall into sin and corruption, was not bestialized or demonized, but remained man . . . The narrow sense of the image is used to stress the idea that man lost his communion with God—his religious knowledge, righteousness and holiness, his conformity to God’s will. (Man: The Image of God, 38)

The image in that narrow sense—religious knowledge, righteousness and holiness, our conformity to God’s will—has been lost, though this is restored in Christ. We still bear the image of God in that broader sense—we are still human—yet the broader sense has also been affected by sin. There is sweat, toil, pain, and finally death. Sinful man is still man. We bear the image in a broad sense, though vandalized.

It is to fallen, sinful humans that God forbids murder because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:4–6). It is to fallen, sinful human beings that God says in James 3:8–9, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”

The Whole Person as Image

While this is helpful, it still does not give us a clear idea of what it means to be made in the image of God. So, let’s turn to the traditional Reformed view of the image of God. It is well-stated in five points by Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics (see vol. 2, especially “The Whole Person as the Image of God,” 554–562). Bavinck asserts that “a human being does not bear or have the image of God, but . . . he or she is the image of God.”

First, that we have a soul, every one of us. There is no soulless human. “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). Bavinck says, “The breath of life is the principle of life; the living soul is the essence of man” (555).

Second, that we have certain faculties: heart, mind, and will. These are abilities of the human that are images of the faculties of God. Says Bavinck, “Precisely because man is so wonderfully and richly endowed and organized, he can be conformed to and enjoy God in the fullest manner—from all sides, as it were, in all God’s virtues and perfections” (557). We were made for communion with God.

Third, that we possess certain virtues: knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Bavinck reminds us that

Man was not created as a neutral being with morally indifferent powers and potentialities, but immediately made physically and ethically mature, with knowledge in the mind, righteousness in the will, holiness in the heart. Goodness, for a human being, consists in moral perfection, in complete harmony with the law of God, in holy and perfect being, like God himself (Lev. 19:2; Deut. 6:5; Matt. 5:48; 22:37; Eph. 5:1; 1 Pet. 1:15–16). (557–58)

Fourth, the body, as your soul-carrier, is part of the image of God. This is unexpected. Bavinck states various cautions, but asserts,

[The body] is so integrally and essentially a part of our humanity that, though violently torn from the soul by sin, it will be reunited with it in the resurrection of the dead. . . . It is always the same soul that peers through the eyes, thinks through the brain, grasps with the hands, and walks with the feet. . . . Now, this body, which is so intimately bound up with the soul, also belongs to the image of God. (559)

Fifth, dwelling in paradise is part of the image of God. Finally, Bavinck says, “also belonging to this image is man’s habitation in paradise (Gen. 2:8–15). Holiness and blessedness belong together; every human conscience witnesses to the fact that there is a connection between virtue and happiness” (561). Living in Eden, as a Garden-Temple, is part of the image of God.

Here is Bavinck’s conclusion, “Nothing in humanity is excluded from God’s image; it stretches as far as our humanity does and constitutes our humanness” (561).

Image and Glory

Meredith Kline provides us with more insight. He argues that “a survey of all the Scriptural data would disclose that consistently the image of God is identified in terms of a glory like that of the Glory-Spirit” (Kingdom Prologue, 44). Though not all agree, this refreshing insight does not abandon the traditional Reformed view but adds a whole other dimension to it. Linking the image of God in man to the Glory-Spirit hovering over the creation, Kline connects several biblical themes and pushes us to consider “that the biblical exposition of the image of God is consistently in terms of a glory like the Glory of God” (Westminster Theological Journal 39, 267).

We are creatures, made by God, but as image-bearers we were glorious creatures. Above all other earthly things, we enjoyed the glory of communion with God. And image as glory seems to hint that we were designed to rise higher into glory. The opposite of “dying, you shall die” (Gen. 2:17), is “living, you shall live.” As created, humanity had a glorious function, like that of God, a dominion over the earth. As created, we were a glorious reflection of the holiness, righteousness, and truth of God. And Kline argues that even our bodies, as a kind of glory-likeness, reflected the “theophanic and incarnate Glory” (268). Now, as Peter says of Paul, there are some things hard to understand in Kline, but the thought of image and glory as “twin models in the Bible for expressing man’s likeness to the divine Original” (268) is deeply stimulating and encouraging.

As created in the garden we were crowned with glory and honor. We were already like God when Satan tempted us to be like God. As fallen into sin we are destitute of that glory of God. Adam is become Ichabod. Though still human, we are effectively naked and ashamed before God. Kline says, “Fallen man is a naked image” (269).

But thanks be to God, there is good news for us in our indignity; the Lord of Glory has come and laid down his life for us. As redeemed in Christ, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Our redemption in Christ is the beginning of the restoration of glory.

Some Implications

What, then, are some of the implications of such a glory-image? Pastor Hammond reached this conclusion about his beloved Rebecca: “My daughter does not bear the image of God. She is the image of God, as I am. Her brokenness now reminds me that I am broken. It has not yet appeared what we shall be” (It Has Not Yet Appeared, 231). Image always stretches us on to glory. I am sure there are many implications, but here are four to consider.

The glory-image of God is a doctrine that pushes us to love. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). As Calvin explains, “It is a false boast when anyone says that he loves God but neglects his image which is before his eyes” (Commentary on 1 John 4:19–21).

The glory-image of God is a doctrine that pushes us to evangelism. Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). This desire that others may see the glory of God moves us to take the gospel to all.

The glory-image of God is a doctrine that pushes us to unity within the church. Jesus will not keep that glory to himself: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22).

The glory-image of God is a doctrine that makes us long for heaven when all shall be made new. Kline says, “The Glory-Spirit was present at the beginning of creation as a sign of the telos of creation” (WTJ, 257). It is no accident, then, that Paul speaks of our resurrection state as a spiritual body: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). What is here perishable, marked by dishonor, and weak, shall, at the resurrection, be raised imperishable, in glory, and power. Even our body will be raised as a body fit for the realm of the Holy Spirit. In the end, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). The image of the man of heaven is glory.

Glory indeed. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

The author is pastor of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. New Horizons, June 2024.

New Horizons: June 2024

The Thrill of Desecration

Also in this issue

The Thrill of Desecration

The Habits of the Heart

An Anthropology of Addiction

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