Image and Likeness of God in Genesis 1:26

Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Every human being is created in the image of God and it is the purpose of each of us to attain to His likeness, that we may be “partakers of the divine nature” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).

Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in his classic book “The Orthodox Church”, tells us, “According to most of the Greek Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean exactly the same thing. ‘The expression according to the image,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue’ (On the Orthodox Faith, 2, 12 (P.G. 94, 920B)). The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies man’s free will, his reason, his sense of moral responsibility — everything, in short, which marks man out from the animal creation and makes him a person. But the image means more than that. It means that we are God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts 27:28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity. The gulf between creature and Creator is not impassable, for because we are in God’s image we can know God and have communion with Him. And if a man makes proper use of this faculty for communion with God, then he will become ‘like’ God, he will acquire the divine likeness; in the words of John Damascene, he will be ‘assimilated to God through virtue.’”

This “optimistic anthropology” of the Eastern Orthodox with its “original blessing” in the creation of Adam and, by extension, of all humankind, differs markedly from the “pessimistic anthropology” of the Western church with its emphasis on “Original Sin” and its logical extensions.  Bishop Kallistos observes, “This picture of Adam before the fall is somewhat different from that presented by Saint Augustine and generally accepted in the west since his time.”

It is not surprising, then, that many Western theologians consider the Hebrew words for image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) to be synonyms; and their use in Gen. 1:26 to be a simple example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism.  Eastern Orthodox theologians disagree, citing a distinction in meaning between tselem and demuth.

To the Orthodox, the words, “image and likeness” are used to indicate two different aspects of the “image” of God.

  1. Image is the Hebrew word tselem, צֶ֫לֶם, and always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind.
  2. Likeness is the Hebrew word demuth, דְּמוּת, and usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, likeness or expression.

There seems to be a clear distinction between the two words tselem and demuth as used in the Hebrew Bible.

  •  tselem indicates a “physical” image or structure and would refer to the “structural” image of the Godhead
  • demuth indicates a “functional” likeness, similitude – the idea of “acts like.”

What do the Greek translations of tselem and demuth in the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible (ca. 300 BC) tell us about image and likeness in the light of the use of these Greek words later in the New Testament?

In the Septuagint, at Genesis 1:26, the LXX translates tselem as εἰκόνα, eikona

In the 23 New Testament occurrences of eikōna and its derivatives, it appears that there is no clear distinction in what eikōna references regarding the two aspects of God’s image.

At Gen. 1:26, the LXX translates demuth as ὁμοίωσιν, homoiōsin.

Used one time in the New Testament at James 3:9, “men, who have been made in the likeness (homoiōsin) of God.” Indicates the present status of mankind. They were created originally and all men are presently “in” the image of God.

Since homoiōsis is only used one time, we should probably interpret James as focusing on the fact that men have all been created in the “functional” image of God, that is with the purpose of bringing glory to Him.

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  1. #1 by Mark Downham on August 21, 2016 - 9:45 AM

    “It is not surprising, then, that Western theologians consider the Hebrew words for image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) to be synonyms; and their use in Gen. 1:26 to be a simple example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism.”

    Not exactly….from a normative Evangelical perspective (in Soteriological terms) we consider the “reconstructive restoration of the Image in us to the “finished work of the Cross in terms of “Justification” – being “Justified in Christ”. We consider Likeness (in Soteriological terms) to be the “ongoing work of the Cross in us” through the indwelling Presence and Person of the Holy Spirit – (Progressive) Sanctification. So for us both (Christological) Justification (Image) and Sanctification (Likeness) are present and active soteriological agencies in the scope of Genesis 1:26 from the perspective of the Work of the Cross.

    • #2 by Dallas Wolf on August 21, 2016 - 5:18 PM

      Again, Mark, what you describe I do not hear preached from Roman Catholic or Protestant pulpits. I indeed hope it spreads.

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