I am deeply indebted to Sam Soleyn for some of the key ideas in this blog.
At the time of creation, God determined to create “man” in a manner that was to distinguish this particular creature from all others. Nothing else in creation was to bear the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Not the angels in their various kinds, nor any other mortal creature was to be made in the same manner. Let’s grasp that truth before moving on. Not even angels in any of their kinds were created in the image and likeness of God. Only man was to be created in such manner. By any standard of consideration this was simply extraordinary – even in the context of the radical period in which all things that are created were being created. This epoch of creation had not previously occurred. It would not occur again. Very suddenly, all that is created came forth out of the un-created. This fact is so astounding that to further assert that at the end of the cycle, a living creature was to come forth in a manner unlike that of any other creature seems to overwhelm our capacity for understanding.
So, what is that? What is the “image and likeness” of God? At a fairly superficial level of analysis one might conclude that the use of the two terms is merely a matter of emphasis. In other words, this point of view suggests that the terms are not different in substance, they are just used together to really drive home the point that God was doing something special in the creation of man. Even at that fairly simple level, there was still something really special going on. But what if “image” and “likeness” are recorded because they are related, but different, dimensions of God’s intent in the creation of man? What if God meant for man to have the image of God and, in addition, to bear the likeness of God? God could have created man in the “image” of God without making man to have the “likeness” of God, or vice versa, if the two are not the same thing.
The real issue for us is whether or not “image” and “likeness” mean exactly the same thing. Are they equivalent in their meanings? Are they exact synonyms? They may be in the context of Genesis, but they may not be. For purposes of this analysis, I maintain they are not exactly the same thing. Further I maintain the so-called semantic difference between them is meaningful in precisely this situation in which they are to be examined. In other words, what follows is based on the proposition that the two terms are different enough to merit separate consideration.
It is not true, on the other hand, that the two terms refer to completely different ideas. They both seem to refer to the fact that a relationship between two different entities can be inferred reasonably well based on either of the two terms. If they are the same thing, then there is no difference between using the two together than in using either of them alone. If, however, they are not exactly the same then the use of both may be superior to the use of either of them alone, and that the use of either of them alone is less effective than the use of both. So, our proposition is that God’s intention in having both terms apply to man is more informative than only one of the two terms. Either of the two terms adds to the other in terms of helping us understand God’s intent in the creation of man.
These assertions require us to distinguish between the two terms in a meaningful way. So let’s get to it. I’ll point out some distinctions in the general sense to get that started. Then we can apply those ideas to the specific context of God’s intent for man – keeping in mind that God’s intents are not thwarted.
Physically I look quite a bit like my biological father: he was about the same height as I am; my skin is colored about like his was; the face shape was very similar to mine, and so forth. In a number of ways my physical appearance is very similar to the physical appearance of the man who was my biological father. While we were not identical, people will generally agree that I look very much like my natural father; so much so that a person might say that it was obvious to them, based on physical appearance only, that he was my father. In these characteristics, I bore the “image” of my father. In fact, I have a younger brother who also bears the image of our father. It’s not that any of us would be mistaken for another one of us, but we have very similar physical appearances. This biological resemblance among us suggests our shared DNA.
The evaluation of our similarities could easily be carried out by an examination of photographs. Photographic “images” alone could be used to detect a high likelihood of kinship among us. The similarities and shared image have a particular and useful range of meaning.
However, one would not assume that I could be totally known by the physical similarities that are so shared. There was a lot more to my father than his physical appearance. The same is true for me or for any other person for that matter. Our physical characteristics are not everything we are. In fact, our physical characteristics – our images – cannot be used to predict very much about the totality of our persons. There is a lot more to us than the physical package in which we occur. In some instances, certain of our physical characteristics are related to other aspects of our being, but we are not deterministically influenced by them.
The propositions I presented earlier beg an explanation for how I could be like my father in ways other than simply physical characteristics. A few simple examples should suffice. To people from certain parts of the country, I have an accent in my speech. That accent has been affected by a variety of factors, but one of the earliest of those factors was the speech patterns of my parents. Even the sound of my voice and inflections were influenced more by what I observed in my father than in any simple biological explanation. In addition, there are certain mannerisms that I adopted from observing my father. These include things like cocking my head in a certain way and other aspects of what we call “body language.” We learn certain sayings or even points of view from our parents through the process of imitation rather than through inherited physical characteristics.
People who knew my father might well make comparisons of some of my behaviors to his through such observations as “like father like son.” I have even been accused of being “just like your father.” Whether that was a favorable comparison or not, it indicated behavioral similarity.
In a fairly simplistic manner, I bear the image of my natural father in many of my physical characteristics and I am like (bear the likeness of) my natural father in quite an array of mannerisms and behaviors. It can be said that, to an extent, I live in the “image and likeness” of my natural father.
So, let’s get back to God and His intent in the creation of man. Our simplistic analysis suggests that He intended to have a category of creature that would look and behave like Him. This creature would have some characteristics that were built in simply because they were inherent in the creature by virtue of Who its Father was. The creature would also have the capacity to adopt behaviors like those of its Father. Of course, it might well not adopt those behavioral traits.
What can all this mean to us? I don’t expect that this body of mine looks much like God. In fact, He is a spirit anyway. He has no body of flesh so the comparison is not possible. But just suppose that the spirit person that I am first (before I was placed in flesh) does look like God. In other words, can it be that the spiritual entity that I am in eternity is something like a replica of God? God is spirit and I am a spiritual entity. In that sense, I may well exist as an entity that exists in the image of God.
As to the likeness of God, Jesus stated that He only did what He saw God the Father doing and only said what He heard His Father saying. He behaved like God. If I behaved like God then I would be in His likeness. So I am created in the image of God and have the capacity given to me through the work of His Firstborn and His Holy Spirit to act like God. Oh, and that was His plan and desire. Hmmmm…