Col. 1:15-20: Who is Man?

A right understanding of who Jesus is then becomes the starting point for rightly understanding who we as humans are.  Colossians 1:15-20 depicts Jesus’ relationship to creation and to the new creation, specifically the church.  He is the one and only Creator and Ruler as well as the Covenant Redeemer, reconciling all things to himself through his own physical death.  These two identifying truths about Jesus are a good starting point for thinking of ourselves.  It is in light of these great truths about Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of man, that we are able to see ourselves as creatures made like him and redeemed to be in covenant with him.

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The earliest anthropological statement in scripture is made even before man is created.  God, speaking within the Trinitarian community, says, “Let us make man in our image,” and creates man out of the dust.   The question of what exactly the “image of God” is has been the source of much debate.  The phrase rarely occurs in the Hebrew Bible and the other instances don’t explain the meaning of the phrase beyond what is stated in the creation account.[1]  The enigmatic nature of the phrase and its seemingly foundational role in understanding who we are as humans has lent it to much speculation.[2]   With scant biblical evidence, it is difficult to definitively state what the image of God actually is.  However, one thing is obvious, it implies that we are similar to God in some capacity.

Being in the image of God has a second and necessary meaning, too; namely that we are not God.  We are created in his image.  This creates a class differentiation.  We are merely made in his likeness.  We are merely creatures.[3]  Though it may seem odd to some that this even needs to be argued, consider that some Ancient Near Eastern cultures considered kings to be a human body filled with the essence of divinity.[4]   Deification of rulers and nobility was common through the Greek and Roman period.  Even today, watching popular movies, reading comic books, or watching major sporting events, you hear fictional men being imagined and real men being described as superheroes, something more than human.  The desire to see oneself as something more than one is goes back to the fall, when the Serpent’s tempted Eve with forbidden knowledge that would make her “like God.”[5]

Identifying wrong conclusions about the image of God is a start, but identifying what exactly what it is has proved much more difficult.  Some have sought to define the image of God, and from that human personhood in general, in ontological terms.  In this view, being human is a result of something we have.  We are defined by some essence that we possess and have inherited from God.  Even those who would agree that some essence defines the image of God disagree on what that essence consists of.  Aristotle, working from a philosophical rather than theological viewpoint, famously defined humans as “rational animals,” making rationality the essence of humanity.[6]    We are the only creature capable of developing concepts and using our imagination.    Great thinkers throughout history, including Augustine, have engaged with this definition of man.[7]    Others have considered the intellect, ability to discern right and wrong, and the freedom of the will to choose right and wrong as either part of or the sum total of the image of God.[8]   While each find the essence of man in different aspects of his being, they all identify the essence as a thing which people possess.

However, other anthropologists argue that the image of God and the defining feature of personhood is not a noun, but a verb.  Instead of defining man ontologically, they argue that man should be defined functionally.  That is, the image of God and personhood in general is defined not by what we are, but by what we do.  One of the functions proposed as defining man is our dominion over the earth.[9]   This proposition leans heavily on the fact that once God creates man in his image, he gives him dominion over all the earth.  Not only is dominion the immediate context of Gen. 1:26, but Psalm 8 also says that though man is created a little lower than the “heavenly beings,” God has given man, “dominion over the works of your hand.”[10]   The close proximity of God creating man in his image and giving him dominion have led many to assume that it is in the act of having dominion that man images God.

Others have put forward an understanding of the image of God that is realized in community.  Relationally defined anthropology argues, “Man cannot be man ‘by himself’; he can only be man in community.”[11]   The biblical grounds for this view of the image of God and personhood is found in the equally enigmatic words in the phrase, “Let us make man in our image.”  The plural pronouns serve as the first hints at what would later be understood as the doctrine of the trinity.  God is forever in a perfect love relationship to himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Man, therefore, images God when we act out love toward one another.  Karl Barth famously stated this in a slightly different way when he said, “…we have to do with a clear and simple correspondence, an anologia relationis, between this mark of the divine being, namely, that it includes an I and a Thou, and the being of man, male and female.”[12]   Barth begins with an understanding of the I-Thou confrontation within God himself and moves to thinking of man in an analogous way.  Man, in Barth’s understanding, is created as a creature in confrontation with God and with each other.

The functional theories of the image of God also are compelling in many ways.  They make sense of biblical data that the ontological theories do not.  The statement that man is made in God’s image in Gen. 1:26 is followed immediately by the statement of man’s dominion over the earth.  The plural “us” in Gen. 1:26, followed by man being created as both male and female, seems to imply a communal aspect of humanity as well.  Understanding the divine image in these functional ways begins to fill out our understanding of the divine image.  However, defining the divine image solely as a function becomes problematic when you consider those who are not fully or properly functioning humans.

How then should the divine image be understood?  It seems that to do justice to the full presentation of the biblical texts on the issue, we must account for both the ontological foundation for humans as well as the necessary functions in which humans take part.[13]   When reading the creation account in Gen. 1, there are obvious textual clues that something different is happening in the creation of humans.[14]   The first and most foundational truth about humans is that we are creatures, created by God.  While humans are part of creation, we are also its pinnacle.  Man is created at the end of God’s creative act and crafted by hand from the dust of the ground.  If that is not enough to set man apart, he is also said to be created in God’s own image.  While the exact nature of that image is mysterious, it does set man apart as being like God in a way no other part of the creation can claim.  The image of God that Adam, as the first man, possessed is passed on to all humans by their common descent from Adam.[15]   Our standing as God-like creatures, distinct from God but unique in creation, is the grounding for the ontology of all humans.

But God-like creatures, as a necessary function of their God-likeness in creation, function in covenant with God and all of creation.   Man was created to be in a covenant relationship with God.  God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden and enjoyed unhindered communion with them in a covenant relationship that had not been interrupted by sin.  Adam and Eve also enjoyed perfect communion with one another.  They were naked, unashamed, and enjoyed a perfect one flesh marriage covenant with one another.  Sin broke this initial covenant, disrupting both the relationship man had with God and the relationships with one another.  However, as the biblical storyline unfolded, God continued to relate to man through covenants, “providing divine direction concerning (1) a right relationship to God, (2) how to treat each other in genuinely human ways, and (3) how to be good stewards of the earth’s resources.”[16]

Along with directing both relationships between God and man and between men themselves, it is also through the covenants that man is directed on how to properly exercise dominion over the rest of the earth.   The grammar of Gen. 1:26 shows that man was made in the image of God “so that” he might rule.[17]  Adam was set up as the vice-regent for God in creation.  He was to rule this creation for God.  He was placed in the Garden as a priest-king to expand the Garden’s boundaries until the glory of God covered the dry lands as the waters cover the seas.[18]  The nation of Israel, as a new Adam, entered the land of Canaan, as a new Eden, with the same mandate.  And Jesus, as the second Adam and true Israel, came to redeem and restore the whole earth and create a new Eden in the new heavens and new earth.  More than just an arbitrary result of being created in God’s image, having dominion over the earth is a necessary consequence of bearing the divine image.[19]   Therefore, it is correct to say of man, “If he were rightly related to his Creator, then he would rightly respond to creation.”[20]

This view of man as a God-like creature in covenant flows from our understanding of the Christology presented in Col. 1:15-20.  As the God-man, Jesus most perfectly represented the transcendent God in an immanent human body.  And by his death, he inaugurated a new covenant, reconciling all things to himself.  Therefore, we, as God-like creatures in covenant, image God all the more clearly, the more closely we are identified with Christ.[21]  While all men bear a God-likeness, Christians are able to more clearly see God and themselves in proper perspective, admitting their creature-ness and finding their life in Christ.  Similarly, all men live in light of various covenants before God, with each other, and over the world, but only Christians are able to have their covenantal relationship with God and each other reconciled.  This renewal and reconciliation, the “blessing,” that Christians are able to experience is only due to faith in the person and work of Christ and the renewing of the image of God by the work of the Holy Spirit as Christians are made more like Christ each day.[22]  And, ultimately, we wait that day when we will finally, “be like him, because we will see him as he is.”[23]


[1] Gen. 5:1-3; 9:6

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.1, Translated by G.W. Bromiley, G.T. Thomson, Harold Knight (New York:  T&T Clark, 2010), 192ff.

[3] Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 5-10.

[4] D.J.A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968): 81; Stanley Grenz, “Jesus as the Imago Dei:  Image-of-God Christology and the Non-Linear Linearity of Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47/4 (December 2004),  621.

[5] Gen. 3:4

[6] Aristotle, De anima 3.3.427a19-427b9 as cited in Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self:  A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 143.

[7] Augustine, City of God and Christian Doctrine Chapter 13, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Volume 2, ed. by Philip Schaff http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.IX.13.html?highlight=man,is,an,animal#highlight (Accessed December 1, 2012).

[8] John Paul II, The Theology of the Body:  Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston:  Pauline Books & Media, 1997), 520; Benedict Ashley, Theologies of the Body:  Humanist and Christian (Braintree, MA:  The Pope John Center, 1995), 594.

[9] G.C. Berkouwer, Man:  The Image of God, in Studies in Dogmatics series, trans. by Dirk W. Jellema (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 70.

[10] Ps. 8:4, 5

[11] Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt:  A Christian Anthropology, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1939), 106 as quoted by Grenz, The Social God and Relational Self, 313.

[12] Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.1, 196.

[13] Bruce A. Ware, “Human Personhood:  An Analysis and Definition,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13/2 (Summer 2009), 29.

[14] Peter J. Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant:  Humanity as the Divine Image,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12/1 (Spring 2008), 22.

[15] Gen. 5:3

[16] Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant,” 32.

[17] Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant,” 25.

[18] G.K. Beale, “Eden, The Temple, and The Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48/1 (March 2005), 8.

[19] Cline, “The Image of God in Man,” 96.

[20] William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation:  An Old Testament Theology of Covenants (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1984), 17 as quoted in Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant,” 39.

[21] Ian A. McFarland, The Divine Image (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), 55.

[22] David H. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence:  A Theological Anthropology, vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 166.

[23] 1 John 3:2

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