Getting Clear on Image-Bearing
If we are going to reclaim and celebrate imago Dei, we must follow the lead of the key biblical texts.
After the recent post-shooting protests in Tulsa and Charlotte, I called Dr. John F. Kilner for his help. Kilner serves as professor of bioethics and contemporary culture and is the director of Trinity International University’s Bioethics Programs. He co-chairs the bioethics section of the Evangelical Theological Society, and he is author of a new award-winning book, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God. It has been the most corrective book I’ve read in 2016, exposing several presumptions in my own theology that needed to be exposed, challenged and reformed.
It takes a 400-page book like Kilner’s to cut through the common assumptions over imago Dei, to make the glory of the doctrine clearer, and to make the truth of the doctrine simpler.
As Kilner sees it, to be made in God’s image gives us two important personal applications. First, it means that you have a dignity (a special, undiminished connection to the Creator). Second, it means that you have a potential destiny (an intended trajectory to reflect the glory of God in Christ).
Christ Is the Image, Not Us
Christians often speak about how humans are “image-bearers,” but this is a misleading way to say it, Kilner told me. The image of God is not found in the interior of our bodies, and it’s not located in our rational or creative powers. Instead, he said, referencing 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The image of God is Jesus Christ.”
General mankind, the first humans (Adam and Eve), and you and me—we are not the image of God. “Christ is the image, and people are created in his image,” Kilner said. “The preposition ‘in’ more specifically means ‘according to.’ So the idea here is that God created people according to his image, which is Jesus Christ. Christ is the standard, the model for what a human being should be.”
If that sounds historically backwards—the resurrected, glorified Christ was the prototype for humanity, before Adam and Eve were fashioned from dirt—that’s because “according to Romans 8:29, before people were created, God determined that Christ would be the model according to which humanity would ultimately be conformed.”
Theologian Oliver Crisp has more recently labeled this position “the Christological doctrine of the image of God.” It means that “human beings are made in the image of God by being made in the image of Christ” (Crisp, 61; his emphasis).
This means “Christ is the archetype whose human nature is the blueprint for all other human natures,” writes Crisp (63). And it’s driven by the design of the incarnation. We are made according to the nature of Christ, a human nature that was first determined to be “sufficient to be in hypostatic union with a divine person” (64). The primary design of humanity is its capacity to be united to the divine. This Christological, incarnation-centered ordering of human nature is easy to miss in Genesis 1.
So if the glorified Jesus Christ is the original image of God, designed in the blueprints of the cosmos from the beginning of time, then humanity was later created according to the image of Christ. This means that humanity, created in the image of God, does not possess a damaged, warped, twisted, or marred image. The image of God is Christ, and his image remains undistorted. Nothing in Scripture suggests otherwise.
Man was made according to God’s image before the fall (Genesis 1:26–27).
And after the fall, man continued to be made according to God’s image (Genesis 9:6).
Such consistency can only hold true if Christ himself is the image, says Kilner.