The Concept of Image and Likeness

THURSDAY

What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God? Genesis 1:26 says:

NAU Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

NIV Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

KJV Genesis 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Western Christianity has derived their understanding of these terms not only from defining the terms but by noting the contrasts in the context.  God created many things over the previous six days but not once did He say that the elements, the fishes, the birds or land animals were created in the image and likeness of God.  These terms were reserved for man alone. When we examine man in contrast with the rest of creation we notice that man alone has a complex internal development that includes advanced mental development, conscience, reasoning abilities, will, and desire.  Furthermore, Genesis 2:7 says uniquely of the creation of man that God breathed into man and he became a living soul. There is something different about man when compared with both other created things and God Himself. We should note these differences, compare them and define them within the context of the language used to describe them.

By contrast, Eastern Christians define being created in the image and likeness of God as having the propensity (ability and desire) to pursue perfection (which they then define as image) as well as the ability to become perfect after great effort (which they define as likeness).  Where did Eastern Christians get this idea? Not from the definition of these Hebrew terms (or even their Greek counterparts in the Septuagint). It comes from going outside the context of Genesis and flows from their understanding of theosis and their interpretation of the divine nature in 2 Peter 1:4. As the Eastern Orthodox writer Leonid Ouspensky has said: ‘Man, created in the image of God is consequently called to realize his likeness to God. To be in the image of God is to have the possibility of acquiring divine likeness.’ A noble thought but not based on appropriate contextual and biblical concepts.

Selecting the right concept of image and likeness will have a profound effect on one’s view of the Fall of Man as we will see tomorrow. But today, a contextual study of these terms will show that image and likeness are synonymous terms that describe similar characteristics, resemblance or correspondence with the Person of God not a propensity to become perfect if the effort is put forth.  Note the use of image and likeness in Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 5:3 where they are used together, and then in Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 5:1 where they are used interchangeably. This indicates synonymity rather than redefinition.

Example of Image and likeness used together:

NIV Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

NIV Genesis 5:3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.

 
Example of image and likeness used interchangeably:

NIV Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them

NIV Genesis 5:1 This is the written account of Adam’s line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.

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