I meet Thursdays with a small group of men at a local coffee shop to discuss Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (1939). Last week we read the section on the image of God (imago Dei) in human beings. I was just a little irked that the Dutchman was very reluctant concerning the view that I personally hold: the image of God in man is primarily the dominion he was to hold over all creation.
He started out in his historical summary of the doctrine: “The Socinians and some of the earlier Arminians taught that the image of God consisted only in man’s dominion over the lower creation” (pg. 203). Yeah, I didn’t appreciate being lumped in with these guys.
Later, Berkhof – still seeming reluctant – discusses the reasoning why dominion is considered a possible aspect of the image Dei: “There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether man’s dominion over the lower creation also formed a part of the image of God. This is not surprising in view of the fact that Scripture does not express itself explicitly on this point. Some regard the dominion in question simply as an office conferred on man, and not as a part of the image. But notice that God mentions man’s creation in the divine image and his dominion over the lower creation in a single breath, Gen. 1:26. It is indicative of the glory and honour with which man is crowned, Ps. 8:5,6” (pg. 205). Honestly, the fact that the imago Dei and dominion are mentioned in the same God-breath should mean that the issue is profoundly settled, and that any discussion of the topic ought to start here and only very reluctantly leave! I’ll return to this in a moment, but I seriously wonder how Berkhof can say “that Scripture does not express itself explicitly on this point”?!
“To sum up it may be said that the image consists: (a) In the soul or spirit of man, that is, in the qualities of simplicity, spirituality, invisibility, and immortality. (b) In the psychical powers or faculties of man as a rational and moral being, namely, the intellect and the will with their functions. (c) In the intellectual and moral integrity of man’s nature, revealing itself in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10. (d) In the body, not as a material substance, but as the fit organ of the soul, sharing its immortality; and as the instrument through which man can exercise dominion over the lower creation. (e) In man’s dominion over the earth. In opposition to the Socinians, some Reformed scholars went too far in the opposite direction, when they regarded this dominion as something that did not belong to the image at all but was the result of a special disposal of God” (pg. 207). Berkhof himself seems to have been influenced by this going “too far,” but at least he included dominion in his summation.
I’m not saying that the imago Dei is limited solely to dominion (I think Berkhof does a good job covering the other possibilities and their biblical basis), but consider it to be the scripturally primary and foundational aspect.
In the dawning days of the new creation, the second Adam gives His spiritual children a “Great Commission” (the new covenant version of Genesis 1:28). It is framed by the dominion He holds as the Man in perfect reflection of God’s image (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3): “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
(By the way, the plural pronouns of Genesis 1:26 find their echo in the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 in the creation of a new humanity at the head of the new creation.)
Dominion is one of the foundational biblical principles behind the idea of “good news,” or Gospel: “How lovely on the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news, Who announces peace And brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).
The imago Dei in the second Adam is manifested in His absolute authority over all of Creation. He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5), the One Who “overcame and sat down with [His] Father on His throne” (3:21), the One Who is named “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16), and is “the root and descendant of David” (the eschatological King, 22:16). Remember, too, that Jesus, sole authoritative Exegete of the Father (John 1:18), speaks constantly of “Kingdom” during His earthly ministry (something near 120 times!).
From the standpoint of a thoroughgoing biblical theology, dominion should be viewed as the chief aspect of the imago Dei. Humanity was to display the absolute sovereignty and reign of God on His eternal throne. We cannot think of ourselves without thinking of the King.
As I told the men last Thursday morning, the idea of the imago Dei is not just abstraction. Berkhof rightly touches on the moral/ethical implication when he says, “the doctrine of the image of God in man is of the greatest importance in theology, for that image is the expression of that which is most distinctive in man and in his relation to God” (pg. 206). He further points out that “the Bible represents murder as the destruction...of the image of God in man, Gen. 9:6” (pg. 205). I made the point to the men that how we define personhood and what our attitude is toward persons is determined largely by our doctrine of the imago Dei. What qualifies as “human” and how humans are to be treated is on the forefront of our society’s ethical identity crisis.
Well, that basically where it ended in the coffee shop the other day, but I’ve been thinking about it further since then, convinced that I was missing something obvious and more basic to the discussion. I think I found it today while splitting some firewood for kindling in the backyard this morning.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule...’” (Genesis 1:26). Perhaps more foundational to the doctrine of imago Dei is not what it is, exactly, but the fact that it is fact as a result of the proclamation of God. There needs to be a logocentric point at the base level of any consideration of this doctrine, I would think. The creation of God’s image in humanity at creation and the new humanity in the new creation is Word-based. When we are Word-centered, thinking God’s thoughts after Him, seeking to obey what He has commanded, aligning our relationships according to His revealed will, and viewing everything by a Word-created worldview, we will most accurately embody the imago Dei in this life. Merely exercising dominion, having morality, self-aware intelligence, respect for our bodies, existing in community (Berkhof didn’t mention this one, but I’ve read it in later 20th century systematic theologies), or any other option in the discussion of this doctrine, are all worthless unless they grow out of the presence of Scripture alone. “God said” must be the ground of our self-understanding as the imago Dei. As the apostle Peter said, “you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). It comes through the Christian community: “...this is the word which was preached to you” (1:25). The imago Dei is the presence of that Word which is God’s.