I’ve written about this before in relation to reformed education but the frequency with which I read and hear, in our church life and literature, that everyone is in the image of God surprises me. It’s certainly not what we confess in our Three Forms of Unity. It may be worth considering what we confess and what some reformed writers have said about it.
What we confess
Each of our Three Forms of Unity refers to man and the image of God.
In Lord’s Day (LD) 3 we confess that “God created man good and in his image, that is, 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.”
What happened to that “true righteousness and holiness” that characterised man in God’s image? We confess that as a result of the “fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise … our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin … and totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil … unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
Where is the image of God in man here? I can only conclude that through the fall mankind lost it completely.
In Article 14 we confess that God formed man “after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy. His will could conform to the will of God in every respect.”
What happened to that image of being “good, righteous, holy” whereby he could “conform to the will of God in every respect”? He lost it when he “gave ear to the words of the devil and wilfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse”. He “became wicked and perverse, corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his excellent gifts which he had once received from God. He has nothing left but some small traces, which are sufficient to make man inexcusable.”
Where is the image of God in man here? There are some small ‘traces’, not of the image of God but of the gifts. Hardly something on which to claim man is still in God’s image.
Canons of Dort
And in our Canons of Dort (CoD), Ch. III/IV Art 1, we confess: “In the beginning man was created in the image of God. He was adorned in his mind with true and wholesome knowledge of his Creator and of all spiritual things; his will and heart were upright, all his affections pure, and therefore man was completely holy. But rebelling against God through the instigation of the devil and through his own free will, he deprived himself of these excellent gifts, and instead brought upon himself blindness, horrible darkness, futility, and perverseness of judgment in his mind; wickedness, rebelliousness, and stubbornness in his will and heart; and impurity in all his affections”. There is a reference to some “light of nature” which man still manages to “pollute in various ways” (CoD III/IV: 4).
Where is the image of God in man here? There is nothing.
The good news
We see then that that mankind was originally created in God’s image but completely lost that image through the fall into sin (LD 3). The good news is that Christ renews believers, by the preaching of God’s Word and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (LD 32, LD 44, CoD III/IV), to again more and more become the image of God. Hence people are not born in the image of God but believers are in the process of being renewed in God’s image, beginning to reflect again that image in their walk of life.
What some theologians say
Dr J Faber has several essays on Calvin’s doctrine of man as the image of God.[i] Calvin, says Faber, emphasised that the image of God in man was completely ruined through the fall into sin and is only restored through the Lord Jesus Christ. Faber points out that our Three Forms of Unity “are a faithful rendering and summary of Calvin’s convictions in this regard”.[ii] To be sure, Calvin does not always seem to be consistent. “[A]t times Calvin says without hesitation that the image of God is destroyed by sin” for, to quote Calvin, “Scripture … sees that nothing but perversity has remained in the heart of man since Adam was deprived of the image of God”.[iii] However, elsewhere—in his commentary on Genesis 9:6—Calvin does seem to contradict this when he “regards the sixth commandment as based primarily on the fact that man is the image of God”. However, says Faber, if you look at the context in which Calvin speaks, the contradictions fall away because the emphasis is continually on our total depravity. Calvin’s aim throughout, he adds, is to show that every attempt to diminish our guilt is baseless.
H Bavinck & A Kuyper (snr)
These theologians conclude that people must still be the image of God because, they say, this image is characteristic of man and therefore, if man’s fall into sin caused him to lose the image of God, man would no longer be man. Yet they recognise that this seems to diminish the terrible consequence of the fall into sin. To get around this problem they distinguish between ‘image of God’ in broader (ruimer) and narrower (enger) sense. The broader part of being God’s image then relates to the essence (or substance) of man—which was lost through the fall—and the narrower part of the image of God in man refers to man’s nature (capacity or quality), which man retains.[iv]
Being God’s image in the broader sense then includes the body and soul, or what some might refer to as one’s personality, which includes the ability to reason, feel and use will power. On the other hand, being God’s image in the narrower sense includes knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24 & Col. 3:10).[v]
They then say that through the fall into sin the image of God in broader sense was preserved but the image of God in narrower sense was lost. Kuyper used this notion in support of his dangerous theory of common grace. These two theologians exerted so much influence that a lot of theologians followed these ideas of Bavinck[vi] & Kuyper[vii].
Dr K Schilder devoted an exhaustive analysis of the image of God (in relation to Lord’s Day 3) in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.[viii] He rejects the distinction between image of God in broader and narrower sense. He also rejects the appeal to the well-known words of Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 to claim man is still in God’s image. He says these texts relate to the original creation of man but should not be interpreted to say that fallen man is still in God’s image. Schilder refers, a.o., to the archangel Michael (Jude 9) who dared not bring a reviling accusation against the devil, not because of who Satan was but because of the original position of the angels to which God continues to hold them responsible. It’s the same with Acts 17:28 and 1 Cor. 11:7 which presents the person in his original state and connects to them doctrinal and moral consequences for today.[ix]
Schilder would have us see the image of God not as a part of human nature or an element of his personality but as a dynamic exercising of our office. When we speak of an image, we speak of making something visible. Through man’s God-given office, through his kingly governance of creation, man is to image God. He is to represent here on earth his heavenly God. You could compare it to how a governor in some distant land represents the queen. His office is to do everything that would please the queen. There’s no way he looks like the queen, but through his behaviour he images the queen. He acts as the queen would have him act.
That ruling over creation (see Psalm 8), says Schilder, is not a static position but is to be a living service to God as office bearer (and hence image bearer). In order to be able to do that, man needs certain qualities. God therefore gave man knowledge, righteousness and holiness (comp. Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). But the gifts and powers given to exercise that office should not be confused with the office itself.
Sin is the reason man did not use these good gifts in obedient service to God. Instead man began to serve Satan. Thereby the image of God was totally corrupted. Some “small traces” (BCF:14) of those original gifts remained whereby fallen man retains “some notions about God, about natural things, and about the difference between what is honourable and shameful” (CoD III/IV, Art.4). But we should not confuse the left-over “small traces” of the gifts with a residue of the image of God, says Schilder, because then we would ignore that what’s left of the original gifts no longer shows sinful man as being in the image of God (see Jn 8:44). Hence we rightly confess that any leftovers of the “light of nature” there may be, “man wholly pollutes it in various ways and suppresses it by his wickedness” (CoD III/IV:4).
In LD 32 we confess that Christ, by the Holy Spirit, renews us “to be His image”. He does that by giving us the gifts and powers listed in Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10 (see also Rom. 8:29). In the way of faith and repentance we again begin to use those gifts and powers in the service of the LORD.
Schilder makes a sharp distinction between the person and nature of man and the Spiritual gifts that enable man to be God’s image. Therein he also distinguishes between the image of God as an office (official task) and the Spiritual gifts that enable him to exercise that task. Hence he rejects the common perception that the image of God gives one certain qualities (through the Spiritual gifts) with the result that man can rule over creation. In short: the image of God is not a human attribute but the official task he must fulfil.
J Van Genderen & W H Velema
Like Schilder, van Genderen and Velema[x] define the image of God as exercising the office of viceroy over creation. However, they take it further and say that the image of God includes the Father-child relationship and also “those qualities that distinguish man from the animals (… man is a moral, rational being)”. Furthermore, they see this linked to being God’s child: “being God’s image is unthinkable if being God’s child does not form part of it”.
This raises the question whether man was still God’s image after the fall into sin. The authors refer to Genesis 9:6 and James 3:8-9 to say that Adam’s descendants continue to be created in God’s image. Elsewhere, however, they say: “The fact that man is still called God’s image points back to the past and to the possibility of restoration. The negative can become positive again through the Holy Spirit.” This implies that man has lost the image and must again be renewed – as we confess.
But there’s a lack of clarity here. On the one hand they say: “The fact that man must be renewed to the image of God by being transformed in the image of Christ proves that the original image is lost.” On the other hand, they maintain that everyone is created in God’s image. How do they reconcile this? By saying: “There is simultaneously a complete discontinuity and continuity. We formulate this complex situation as follows: sinful man displays the image of God in a negative mode. The fallen child cannot renounce its descent, even though it seeks in every way to blot out the memory of the Father. Sin is the refusal to display the image of the Father and to make the image visible in relation to fellow humans and creation.”
This has some appealing elements, but I do not recognise the notion of a simultaneous “discontinuity and continuity” in our confessions.
J van Vliet
Dr van Vliet likewise argues that everyone is still the image of God.[xi] He does this on two grounds:
First, he defines it as a Father-children relationship: In Genesis 5:3 we read: “And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” Moreover, Luke 3 gives the genealogy of Jesus Christ which starts with Jesus and works backward through the generations till we read in verse 38: “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” Hence, says van Vliet, “to be created in God’s image means that, unlike all the rest of the creatures, Adam and Eve were created to be God’s very own children.” Since Adam was made in the image of God and Seth reflected Adam’s image it follows that Seth was in the image of God. “For this reason we should link the image of God with a Father-children relationship.”
The trouble, as I see it, with this reasoning of van Vliet is that if the image of God rests in the Father-children relationship you would expect that we would read that Cain was born after Adam’s image. But Scripture doesn’t say that; it refers to Seth, a believer. So at best you could say, on the basis of this argument, that the image of God runs through the members of the church. Moreover, we know that Adam was created after God’s image and lost that image through the fall into sin. Since Seth was born, following the fall into sin, in the image of his father Adam, would it not follow that Seth reflected the fallen image of his father?
Second, what Dr van Vliet calls the “most convincing proof” for saying that all men are created in God’s image is Genesis 9:6 where God says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” Says Dr van Vliet: “Clearly, if God’s image were completely eradicated by the fall into sin, this divine warning would have lost all of its weight. It would have become an empty threat.” He acknowledges the drastic results of the fall into sin but says: “Yet there was a remnant among the ruins … God still deals with them as human beings” and expects people to respect one another “as those who were created in his own image”.[xii]
I find Schilder’s explanation (above) far more convincing.
I de Wolff
Actually, Rev I de Wolff also has something to say about this “most convincing proof” to which Dr van Vliet refers.[xiii] De Wolff says whilst it’s true that Genesis 9:6 prohibits murder “for God made man in his own image”, we should not read more into this than it says. It does not say: God made everyone in His image, but God made man in His image. And now God does hold everyone accountable for the fact that in the beginning He created man in His image. It’s like we confess in the catechism. First, we confess that “God created man good and in His image, that is in true righteousness and holiness” (QA6) but that we became depraved through “the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve” so that “we are all conceived and born in sin” (QA7). Indeed, we are all corrupt and inclined to all evil “unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God” (QA8). Now the interesting thing is that we then confess that even though we can’t do anything good, God still holds everyone to it. Why? Because “God so created man that he was able to do it” (QA9).
Well, says de Wolff, it’s the same with Genesis 9:6. Don’t murder, because “God made man in his own image”. Just as, through the fall into sin, we can’t keep the commandments, while God nevertheless holds us accountable because He made man able to do them (QA 9), so too God holds us accountable for the life of one another, because man was created in God’s image.
Life must go on because God will work redemption and renewal in the hearts of his people and will not let Satan prevent it. He continues to demand that mankind walks in true righteousness and holiness, reflecting the glory of His image, even though they lost that image through the fall into sin. For the LORD God has foreseen something beautiful for man: renewal through the Word and Spirit, so that we would more and more reflect Christ, the perfect Image of God (Heb. 1:3).[xiv]
Finally, Rev J van Bruggen[xv] has something pertinent to say about the vestiges left in man, which Kuyper and others use to justify the idea that everyone retains, in some way, the image of God. Referring to Art. 14 of the Belgic Confession, van Bruggen says that of all the excellent gifts God gave man in creation, he has nothing left but “some small traces”. The Latin text uses “vestigia” which means “traces”. If “remnant” was used, one could still say: the thing itself no longer exists, but there is still something, just a fraction of it. The word “traces”, however, nicely indicates that there is still some remembrance of those earlier gifts, but nothing at all of the actual gifts as they once were. “A footprint in the snow points to the foot that was there, but it is not a part of that foot.”
On the basis of this expression in the Confession about “some small traces” one cannot, says van Bruggen, therefore build a doctrine of man losing God’s image in a “narrow sense”, but retaining it in a “general sense”. He adds that this “doctrine” has led to some very questionable views concerning the potential of fallen man. “In Genesis 9:6 God does say that whoever kills a man must himself be killed, for man was made in the image of God. However, this text does not say that fallen man was in any way still God’s image. It merely says that God still regards man with a view to his mandate and purpose.” Christ says concerning fallen man, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (John 8:44). How would that be compatible with man still “being the image of God”?
I would say, along with K Schilder, I de Wolff, J Faber, Joh Francke, J van Bruggen and others (including J Ridderbos, J Kamphuis (snr), C Vonk), that through the fall into sin people are no longer in God’s image. More importantly, that accords with what we confess in our Three Forms of Unity. Having lost God’s image through the fall (LD 3), those who have received God’s Spirit, whereby they believe, strive to be renewed, more and more, to be His image (LD 32, 33, 44; BCF 14, CoD III/IV:1,4).
Wrong conclusions have been drawn by some theologians and others through the belief that everyone is in the image of God.
Some dangers of saying everyone is born in God’s image:
- It diminishes the significance of the fall into sin and lends itself to Pelagianism and humanism whereby it’s implied that we’re not so bad; there’s still something good in everyone because everyone is God’s image.
- It leads to a focus on building upon what’s in a person (the image of God) rather than recognising his total corruption and inability to do any good. Christian educators then build on what’s in the child rather than on the promises of the covenant God gives to the child, as I explained elsewhere.[xvi]
- It leads to interdenominational activities, including interdenominational schools.[xvii]
- It is used to partly underpin Kuyper’s pernicious teaching of common grace.[xviii]
- It’s been used in support of women in office (after all, they’re also seen to be in God’s image) and even to support universal salvation (since everyone is God’s image).
- It waters down the distinction between God’s children, who are being renewed after God’s image, and the world which rejects both God and the desire to again become His image.
[i] Dr J Faber, Essays in Reformed Doctrine, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 1990, pp. 251-281.
[ii] Faber, p. 253.
[iii] Faber, pp. 254-5
[iv] Rev Joh Francke “het Kind als God’s Welgelijkend Beeld” in In Dienst van de Scholen, van den Berg, Kampen, 1982, p. 39.
[vi] H Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek II, 1928, P. 523.
[vii] A Kuyper (snr) in A Kuyper (jnr): Het Beeld Gods, 1929, referenced in Francke, op. cit.
[viii] K Schilder, Heidelbergsche Catechismus Vol. 1, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, 1947, pp. 186-376.
[ix] Schilder, op. cit., p. 300.
[x] J van Genderen & W H Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics, chapter 8. These two theologians are of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken.
[xi] J van Vliet, “Created in the Image of God”, https://www.christianstudylibrary.org/files/pub/articles/20171822%20-%20Jason%20van%20Vliet%20-%20Created%20in%20the%20Image%20of%20God.pdf
[xii] Van Vliet, p. 109.
[xiii] I de Wolff, Geschiedenis de Godsopenbaring Vol. 1, Boersma, Enschede, 1975, pp. 118-124
[xiv] de Wolff, p. 123.
[xv] J van Bruggen, The Church Says Amen: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 2003, p. 88.
[xvi] (see Rev Stam in my previous article on this subject: https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2020/02/everyone-created-in-gods-image/).
[xviii] Pointed out by Schilder, op. cit., p. 368.