Are all children created in God’s image? Many people who want to serve the LORD say yes. Various books on Christian education use this as the starting point for educating children. Sometimes one also hears this view made by people at Bible study meetings, by reformed teachers in reports and, dare I say it, even by reformed ministers. However, one looks in vain to find justification for this in Scripture and confession. Moreover, it attributes to the child qualities which it does not have and leads to wrong practices.
The reason many Christian educators refer to children as being created in God’s image is because they want to build on something which is “in the child”. Children are said to be religious beings and so an educational philosophy is set up based on the religious nature of the child. This, for example, is what Fennema (Nurturing Children in the Lord 1977) does. Using Genesis 1:27 as his starting point he says that ‘each child is totally religious’ and argues that ‘because he is a religious being, each child possesses an intrinsic desire to worship’. It is then for the Christian educator to direct this desire to the worship of God!
But Fennema is no orphan in adopting this position. Norman de Jong (Education in the Truth), Harro van Brummelen (Walking with God in the Classroom) and others speak of the ‘unique abilities’ all people have because they have been created in God’s image and likeness. Stronks and Vreugdenhil’s Hallmarks of Christian Schooling, a book presented some years ago for discussion at our (Armadale) high school, also adopts this position. It says that one of the hallmarks or fundamental principles underlying Christian education is that ‘the Christian school affirms that the student, a unique person created in God’s image, matures and develops his/her abilities within the general pattern of human growth’.
What happens is that, instead of looking to God and the covenant He established with His people, the authors look to man and set up an educational philosophy based on the ‘image-bearer’ qualities in each child. These authors do not necessarily deny that man fell into sin but consider that the remnants of his ‘image-bearer’ status nevertheless provide a basis to build on.
Rev Stam, in a speech titled ‘Covenantal Education’ (1979), warns against the consequences of such a position:
“It is my contention that because the COVENANT factor between the home, the church and the school fell away, and the emphasis came to fall on the ‘religious nature of the child as image bearer’, the route to interdenominational schools was opened. Specific ‘denominational creeds’ were no longer adhered to in the school and soon Presbyterians and Methodists (Baptists) were invited and welcomed.”[I]
Every Foetus Image of God?
It is not only evangelical educators who assert that all people are born in the image of God. Even reformed people, who would not share the position of the educators mentioned above, make this claim. Some years ago a Una Sancta editorial[ii] rightly condemned abortion but used as argument that each ‘foetus is a human, created in the image of God, as special to him as any other person.’ This was then justified on the grounds that Genesis 9:6 says: ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man.’ Since these verses occur after the flood and therefore well after the fall into sin, a cursory reading would suggest that the fall into sin has not taken away the fact that children are still born ‘in the image of God’.
However, a number of reformed commentators point out that what it seems to suggest is not necessarily what it says. For example, Aalders (Bible Student’s Commentary: Genesis, Vol. 1) denies that this text shows that all people after the fall into sin are made in God’s image. One finds support for Aalders’ explanation in Schilder’s Heidelbergsche Catechismus Vol 1 in which he deals at length with the concept of being created in God’s image. Similar explanations are given by Rev Joh Francke.[iii] Aalders says that the text must be read in its context and that the words ‘for in the image of God has God made man’ refers to the whole pericope preceding it.
“Why did God spare the human race from the destruction of the Deluge? Why did God bless humanity with fruitfulness? Why did He protect people from the threats of wild animals and other human beings? Because God created man in His own image.”
God created Adam in His image with a view to populating the earth with people who, as His image, would glorify Him as rulers of creation. Through man’s fall in to sin this glorious purpose was threatened. Christ steps into the breach and, on the basis of the salvation which He will obtain, those whom He has chosen will again begin to reflect the image of God. Man should therefore not commit murder (Gen 9:6) because the initial purpose that man should image God (now only able to be done by those saved through Christ and renewed by the Spirit) still stands. But this is something different than saying that since the fall into sin every person or even every ‘foetus’ is ‘created in the image of God’.
Consequences of the Fall
There is no denying that when Adam was created it was ‘in the image of God’ (Gen 1:26). But this does not refer to the body, as some people claim. When Adam fell into sin, he lost the image of God but he didn’t lose his body. What he lost was knowledge, righteousness, wisdom, power, etc., the things mentioned in Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10 and elsewhere in Scripture. Consequently, Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that the words ‘in His image’ means ‘in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him’. As Stam says: ‘two characteristics (righteousness and holiness) plus the calling: knowledge, love, yes, COMMUNION with God’.
But what did Adam, man’s representative created in God’s image, do? He swapped communion with God for communion with Satan! In Adam we chose God’s enemy, Satan, as our ally. And through this fall into sin ‘our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin’ (Lord’s Day 3). Man ‘lost all his excellent gifts which he received from God’ (Belgic Confession art. 14). Man no longer shows the image of God in this world. That is why it is wrong to speak of man being born in the image of God.
That is also why the notion that all people are born in the image of God cannot function as a basis for Christian education. Any ‘glimmerings of natural light’ man may have left after the fall into sin are SO FAR ‘from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God that he is incapable of using it aright’. Worse still, he completely pollutes even these glimmerings (Canons of Dort III-IV:4). There is nothing in man left to build on after the fall into sin. The future for Adam and hence mankind could not have looked more bleak, dark, hopeless.
Restoration in Christ
But when we were dead in our sins God promises Adam redemption in His Son, the One who makes the covenant between God and man possible. When all seems so absolutely hopeless, God drives us to Christ. Dead in sin, we need redemption and renewal. Christ redeems and, through the Holy Spirit, restores us to become God’s image again. In the covenant we and our children are given wonderful promises – God as our caring Father, Christ as our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier – and the obligation to respond obediently in faith to God’s honour. Through such an obedient response our lives again show something of the ‘image of God’ (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; Col 3:10). Christ is the lifegiving Spirit Who restores us and our children to a position wherein we more and more show His image. Rev Stam says that through a ‘covenantal context’ our education will not build on ‘what is IN THE CHILD, but what God has said TO the child, and WORKS in the child by His Word and Spirit’. Stam warns:
“If we do not retain this prime principle, we will inadvertently slide into an Arminian and ultimately humanistic direction, seeking in the child some redeeming feature to which we might address ourselves.”
Through faith in Christ we share in Christ’s anointing so that, as His image, we are again in a position, albeit with sin, to exercise the office given to Adam in paradise. This office: that as prophet, priest and king we confess Him, sacrifice ourselves in thankful service to Him, fight against sin and the devil and, finally, completely restored as His image, reign with Him eternally over all creatures (LD 12). In Lord’s Day 32 we confess it so beautifully (underlining mine):
“Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit to be His image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His benefits, and He may be praised by us.”
There’s nothing of God’s image intrinsic in the baby (or foetus); no Godly image to build on, no Godly image to respect, no Godly image to murder (though abortion is murder), no Godly image we share with unbelievers, no Godly image to use as a platform for unity in organisations with those who are not one with us in Christ. Nothing in ourselves to which we may appeal; we appeal completely to the saving work of Christ.
BUT through the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, those who take their baptismal vows seriously and teach their children and have them taught to the best of their ability (Form for Baptism) there is the wonderful promise that the child, when it comes to faith, will again begin to show something of the image of God and, after this life, image God perfectly.
[i] Rev Clarence Stam, “Covenantal Education”, speech held on Professional Development Day to Canadian Reformed principals in Burlington, Canada, 26th January 1979.
[ii] Rev. C Bouwman, “Abortion – the issue is God”, Una Sancta, Vol. 45 No. 9 (1998)
[iii] Rev. Joh. Francke, “Het kind als Gods welgelijkend beeld” in In Dienst van de Scholen, van de Berg, Kampen, 1982, pp. 34-53.