What is the image of God?
Irenaeus and Athanasius would compare Scripture with Scripture and say: Christ. Paul does say that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” and speaks “of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4). So the image of God is Christ.
Christ reinstates this image
He has come to reinstate this image. Paul explains that our new self “is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). Elsewhere he states the same and identifies this image as a renew in righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24; cf. 2 Pet 1).
So for these early Christians, God created humanity in the image of the Image, that is, God the Son. The Image of God the Father is like a mirror. When we look into a mirror, we see an image that is us but different from us. So the Image of the Creator is God yet distinct from him.
In any case, Irenaeus and Athanasius are right. The image of God is the Image of God. Christ came to bring us back to the subject of that image—the Father. Nobody comes to the Father, claims Jesus, unless they go through him. That’s at the heart of the Gospel.
We must restore the image of the creator in our selves. This is why Jesus made us new creations. Now we again can image the creator through conforming to the image of the Image of the creator. Humans partake analogically of God’s nature, meaning that we rule, reason, and have the capacity for goodness.
The creation story and the angels
The Genesis account fills out the meaning of being created in God’s image. Image-bearers emulate God by their actions. God commands, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28).
King David would later reflect of mankind:
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Ps 8:5–8)
God made humanity “a little lower” than the angels. And yet he did so in a secret way, as Irenaeus notes, because sometime later humans would ascend above the angels to judge them (1 Cot 6:3).
For it is not to the angels of the universe that God has bestowed his image and likeness but to humanity. Our salvation therefore is that much more profound. We are not merely saved from sin and from death, but we are saved to unite to God. Our high priest Jesus prayed for this very purpose:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20–21).
Our union with the creator through our new creation into the image of the Image of God ensures that we have something better than the angels—something into which the angels long to look.
So interpret Scripture by Scripture
Locating biblical definitions from the Bible itself provides a key to understanding it. Christians have known that interpreting Scripture by Scripture clarifies its intent. My suggestion is that some of our discussion and disagreements over the meaning being created in God’s image arises because we have not interpreted Scripture by Scripture.
Yet we must. We must read Genesis in light of the whole Bible. In so doing, we can return to a Christian reading of the Bible by the Spirit to uncover its meaning. When it comes to the image of God, we ought to say: that Christ is the image of God in whose image our first parents were created and into whose image we are recreated.