In this, the fifth instalment of TGCA’s seven part series on the Image of God (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), Andrew Moody revives an old distinction between “image” and “likeness” and explains how Christ fulfils both.

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.”
(Genesis 1:26)

In the early church “image” and “likeness” were often believed to mean two different things. Some held that image had to do with natural attributes while likeness described spiritual reality; others suggested that image was a basic fact about humans to which “likeness” was added. In the West, these ideas died with Aquinas and the Reformers who generally taught that image and likeness were simply synonyms.

I would like to suggest a few reasons why the distinction between “image” and “likeness” is still useful.[1]

Likeness and the new consensus on “image”

One reason why “image” should be distinguished from “likeness” is because, as most exegetes now believe, “image of God” has to do with representation. In Genesis 1, it means that humans are symbols of God. It means they represent God and to his world like ambassadors or viceroys (see Jensen).

This means that the “likeness” between God and humans is a secondary reality. Of course it is obvious and strikingly that humans do possess intellectual, and relational capacities that set them apart from animals. It is also painfully obvious that our moral failures make us very poor “images.” But this doen’t mean likeness is the same as image. Rather being like God is what enables us (or would enable us if we were) to function as God’s images/representatives (see Adam).

Christ: From true likeness to true image

A more profound reason for distinguishing image and likeness as concepts is that these two ideas correspond to two aspects of Christ’s identity. The New Testament presents Christ in two registers:

First, Jesus is God’s eternal Son, stamp, radiance, Word, image, wisdom and form (Heb 1:1-3; John 1:1; Col 1:15; Col 2:3; Phil 2:6). His identity here consists in being a perfect expression of God and sharing in everything God is and does. This corresponds to (but infinitely eclipses) the Genesis 1 idea of likeness – that humans are similar to God in some way.

Second, Christ is the one who receives power and authority over the world. He becomes the functional son who rules on God’s behalf (see Rosner). He is given “all authority in heaven and on earth,” (Matt 28:18). He becomes greater than the angels (Heb 1:4). This fits with what we now understand of the term “image” in Genesis 1:26 – that it refers to a representative relationship from God toward creation.

These aspects of Christ’s identity correspond to his eternal life and his human life. The eternal Son is utterly like God and the mediator of all God does (1Cor 8:6), but he is unseen and unknown until he comes into the world as a man. Jesus the man, on the other hand arrives with his glory veiled but becomes the centre of all creation by reconciling all things to God by his blood shed on the cross.

So the story of Christ is the story of likeness becoming image. The eternal Son of God becomes the visible and functional representative of God in (and now over) the world.

Christ and the story of humanity

Our story – the human story – took a very different path. Although we were made in God’s image to rule over his creation we failed to represent him or obey his words. Under the tutelage of Satan we turned God-likeness into an idol (Gen 3:5) – and came to think of ourselves as rivals to God. These two failures still dog us at every turn. They have poisoned our relationship with God, sabotaged our rule over the world and placed us under the power of death and the devil.

Yet our story and Christ’s story converge – not because we’ve changed for the better, but because Jesus achieved his victory as one of us. Jesus does not simply offer God Plan B – a better alternative to failed humanity. He vindicates Plan A by repairing and overhauling it in himself. Hebrews 2 offers a great summary of this achievement, explaining how Christ:

  • fulfils human rule over the earth (v9);
  • suffers death on our behalf by the grace of God (v9);
  • brings many sons to glory (v10);
  • breaks the devil’s power of death by his flesh and blood (vv14-17);
  • helps us to overcome temptation (v18)

Christ and the vindication of image

Christ also does something for God. In Hebrews 2:10 we read that ” it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, [i.e. God] in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Why should it be fitting for God that Jesus should be perfected through suffering? And what does “perfect” mean here?

It means that Jesus, through his suffering, proves himself to be the true man. His willingness to surrender his own desires and obey God to the bitter end shows that he is the true representative of God. Although the word is not used, the concept is the same as what Genesis 1 means by “image.”

Jesus is thus the image that we should have been, he vindicates God’s plans for the world (see Prideaux). But he also invites us to join him. The next verses depict him calling us to himself, reminding us that we have a common Father and are thus his brothers and sisters (vv11-12). He leads us in his worship of God (v12 cf. Ps 22:22); exhorts us to share in his trust in God (v13) and acknowledges us as the people God has given him (v13b).

Image and the plan of God

The Church Fathers made a great deal of the incarnation, and the fact that it is Christ the eternal Image who perfects humans as images of God. They were right to get excited about that. But the New Testament reminds us that the greatest work of the eternal Image is his work on the cross. Here it is that he both reveals what humanity should be and makes our broken humanity new. Here it is that we see what God is truly like and what he can do through humanity. Here it is that we see how God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11), in exaltation of his Son and the redemption of his broken images.


Original Photo: Katherine Evans, www.freeimages.com

[1] As will become clear, this distinction is more theological than lexical (or even exegetical, though it would seem to apply to Gen 1:26 given the modern reading). To make things complicated, the word translated “image” with regard to Christ would seem to correspond to likeness in Genesis 1:26, while “son” would often correspond to the functional concept conveyed by “image” in Genesis (see Rosner).