There are, generally speaking, three broad categories of error regarding the doctrine of image that Christians are prone to. The first is not maintaining the rightful place of humanity in God’s created order. The second is reductionism that seeks to make one part of our humanity the defining aspect of what it means to be human. The third is defining what it means to be God’s image bearers in terms of something we do rather than who we are. We will deal with each category of error in succession.
First, error occurs regarding the doctrine of image when there is a failure to maintain the theological tension that Scripture does. Genesis 1 and 2 (especially 1:26) reveals that mankind was made under God in and over the rest of creation. Generally speaking, nearly every error in anthropology puts us up to be divine like God or pushes us down to be animals like the rest of creation.
The former is common when human depravity is overlooked and/or there is an erroneous belief that we are somehow part of the divine, as is common in pantheism and panentheism, as if we had at least a spark of divinity within us.
The latter is common when humans are seen as little more than highly evolved animals incapable of denying our depraved instincts. This explains why, for example, such things as sexual sin are often tolerated in our culture. In this view, we are little more than animals and thus do not have the ability to live above our base and sinful desires, which is really a simple way of excusing and promoting sin with an evolutionary excuse. Also, those holding to evolutionary thinking, radical environmentalism, and animal rights activism are most prone to place humanity at or near the same level of plants and animals. Examples of this error include the occasional legal efforts to extend human rights to animals such as chimpanzees that are actually being heard in some courts as viable cases.1
Only by seeing ourselves between God and the animals can we have both our humility and dignity; there alone are we in the right place that God intended for us at creation. By noting our position under God as created beings, we should remain humble toward and dependent upon God. By noting our position in dominion over the rest of creation, we should embrace our dignity as morally superior to animals and expect more than is common from ourselves and others as God’s image bearers. It is vitally important that we know that our place is between God and the rest of creation. In fact, our English word human derives its meaning from the same Latin root word as humility, which means “knowing your place.”
Second, numerous errors emerge when it is believed that rather than being God’s image bearers, we bear the image of God in some specific part of us. This is called the substantive view and has been the predominant position historically. Paul Ramsey writes that in this mode of thought, the imago Dei refers to “something within the substantial form of human nature, some faculty or capacity man possesses” that distinguishes “man from nature and from other animals.”2
The truth is that it is not just a part of us that bears God’s image while the rest of us does not. Instead, we are in totality (mind, body, soul, etc.) the image of God. When a part of us is thought to be the image of God, or at least the defining aspect of what it means to be human, it is lifted up above the rest of our person in various ways.
For some, we are entirely material so that our body alone is the totality of our humanity. Those holding this belief deny any immaterial or spiritual aspect to our being, such as a soul. Atheism and a denial of life after death are common beliefs related to this position.
For others, it is the mind and our ability to reason, communicate, learn, and the like that is the defining aspect of what it means to be human. This kind of belief was perhaps most popular during the era of modernity, which was marked by rationalism.
Perhaps the most popular error for those religiously and spiritually oriented is the belief that the soul alone is the defining aspect of what it means to be human. Even the great Bible teacher John Calvin erred by elevating the immaterial soul as what the Bible means by imago Dei. In some Eastern religions (e.g., Sikhism, Bahái’, Hinduism) our physical body has little worth, which explains why meditation and yoga are used in an effort to connect with one’s soul and disconnect from one’s body.
Quite popular since the Romantic period is the belief that the essence of our humanity is to be found in our emotional feelings. In this ideology, to be human is to be most deeply connected to one’s feelings and the worst of sins is to not be true to one’s emotions. This kind of thinking is promulgated by such things as pop psychology and the prevalent teaching about self-love and self-esteem. The result is that we are defined not as much by God’s love for us but rather by our love for ourselves. Some even try in vain to Christianize this thinking by saying that learning to feel love for ourselves allows us in turn to love God, when the Bible says God loves us first.88 Furthermore, the practical implication of this teaching is that we must be true to our feelings over and above God’s commands. This excuses much sin in the name of being true to oneself, which is often simultaneously being untrue to God.
Lastly, as psychologists such as B. F. Skinner have become popular, it is increasingly common for people to define themselves in light of their environment. This teaching says that who we are is in large part the result of our environment so that, generally speaking, we are victims of environmental conditions beyond our control. In popular terms, this explains why people are prone to blame their genes, father, socio-economic background, media, and the culture for who they are and how they act. In some ways, this is little more than a more nuanced and mature version of the blame- shifting that our first parents did when God confronted them about their sin. The problem with each of these errors is found in Romans 1:25, which defines idolatry as worshiping anything created. By taking an aspect of our being (e.g., body, mind, soul, emotions, environment) and elevating it to be the defining aspect of what it means to be human, we are guilty of worshiping that part of our being instead of seeing ourselves as one whole person who bears God’s image.
The third error regarding imago Dei (image of God) occurs when we define our humanity in terms of things we do. This view is often called the functional view because it emphasizes a human function, usually the exercise of dominion over creation.3 The problem with this view is that those who are not able to function as most people do would logically be considered somehow less human than the rest of us. Yet, the unborn, sick, comatose, elderly, infirm, and the like are as much image bearers of God as those who can do certain things.
This point has incredibly practical implications. In cultures where Christianity has not flourished, discrimination and abuse has flourished. The Bible teaches us that all people are equally created by God and bear his image, and that all people are equal in the sight of God and equally deserving of equal rights. This also explains why the Bible has laws. Laws provide equality and justice for everyone regardless of such things as race, gender, income, culture, age, health, or mental capacity. All of this is the result of a biblical understanding of humanity bearing God’s image.
In sum, the Bible teaches five things regarding the imago Dei. (1) Human beings alone are God’s image bearers. (2) As God’s image bearers, human beings are under God and over lower creation, and great error arises when they are pulled up toward God or pushed down toward animals. (3) Human beings are the image of God, and this fact is not reduced to any aspect of their person or performance. (4) As God’s image bearers, human beings have particular dignity, value, and worth. (5) As God’s image bearers, humans were made to mirror God as an act of worship, which is only possible as we turn toward God.
Together, these biblical truths reveal to us who we are. Thankfully, the Bible begins by telling us who God is and then moves to tell us who we are. Apart from this revelation we would not be able to rightly understand God or ourselves.
Are you more prone to push people up too close to God, or pull people down too close to animals? Why?