Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Imago Dei”
Though it’s been a dead language for centuries, Latin continues to be bandied about in theology. And in Reformed churches, we love our theology, which means we’re going to inevitably encounter some Latin. Today’s expression is not a difficult one to figure out: imago Dei. The first word is clearly related to our English word “image,” and “Dei” is a form of Deus, “God.” So: the image of God. Why not just say “the image of God”? I don’t know for sure, but you do save two words, five letters, and two spaces!
Imago Dei is used in reference to humanity. Human beings are “the image of God.” It’s easy to say that; it’s much harder to explain. At the very least, it means there is something in humanity that reflects God. God has some attributes that cannot be reflected in human nature — for example, we cannot reflect his omnipresence or omniscience (comprehensive knowledge). But we can, in some measure, reflect his love, wisdom, and goodness. We can communicate with him and with one another. These things are part of what it means to be imago Dei.
The Scriptures first tell us of this truth in 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.” Now there are those who say that the fall into sin meant that humanity lost the image of God. This is based, I believe, on Ephesians 4:24 which encourages Christians “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” This seems to indicate that becoming a Christian involves a recovery of the image of God — regeneration gives us a new nature which is again the imago Dei. Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 6 uses the language of Ephesians 4:24 and confesses that at the beginning man was created good and in God’s image, “that is, in true righteousness and holiness.” It seems to be implied that we lost this image with the fall into sin. Thus, some say, if you are not a Christian, you’re not the image of God. God has only restored his image in the regenerated.
Now if Genesis 1:27 and Ephesians 4:24 were the only passages bearing on this, we might be able to agree and leave it at that. But Scripture says more. Even Genesis says more in 9:6 — after the fall, after the flood: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Killing a human being is a weighty matter because of the imago Dei. Cursing a fellow human being is treated the same way in James 3:9. The Holy Spirit speaks of the tongue: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” That’s not a reference to cursing fellow Christians, but to cursing people in general. In general, all people are thus made in the likeness of God.
Evidently we need to make some kind of distinction here. Theologians have sometimes distinguished between the image of God in the narrow or moral sense and the image of God in the broader sense. Ephesians 4:24 refers to the former; Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 refer to the latter. The fall into sin shattered the imago Dei in the moral sense and horrifically vandalized (but didn’t obliterate) it in the broader sense. Sin has affected both, but to varying degrees. Regeneration begins to restore and refresh both.
One reason why a proper understanding of the imago Dei is so important is that it directly relates to human dignity. Being image-bearers means that we human beings all have inherent dignity and worth. Our value comes not from who we are in ourselves, but because of who we were created to reflect. As Psalm 8 poetically states, we were created as the pinnacle of God’s creation, second only to the Creator himself. So, when we look around us at our fellow human beings, we are looking at the image of our Creator. Though shattered and vandalized, it’s still there and therefore they’re all valuable. For each precious image-bearer, God wants us all to be part of his image restoration project through the sharing of the gospel.