The Image of God and Human Dignity

Since this month is black history month and since I’m one of the rare African American voices in the PRCA, I figured it’d be fitting to speak on (mostly critique) an article titled “The Image of God and the African American Experience,”  which you can read here:

When I first saw the title of this article I got a bit excited, it was around the time of the Mike Brown shooting when debates of race where constant and honestly a bit (lot) annoying, and I was hoping this would help bring some theological sanity to the situation. The fact that it was on the image of God also excited me since it’s one of my favorite theological subjects to ponder. Sadly, I was left a tad disappointed, because the image of God theology that was presented in this was one that I’m not too fond of. It follows a formula that I often see when people discuss the Imago Dei (I’m gonna start calling it that now because I don’t feel like typing “image of God” over and over and it sounds cooler). The formula basically goes like this:

  1. Mankind (even reprobate) are the Imago Dei
  2. They therefore have inherent dignity/value
  3. Therefore should be treated as such

Here’s some quotes from the article that correspond to this formula:

  1. “Every person is a jewel in the crown of God’s creation and precious in His sight.”
  2. “The image of God in humanity gives everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, economic level, or anything else—inherent dignity and value.”
  3. “Every person-regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, language, or any other factor-has teh right to a dignified life.”

The first point usually comes by having a very broad understanding of the Imago Dei. In the article he writes, “It is best to recognize that all elements of humanity in some way speak to being made in the image and likeness of God.”  however, a reformed and more biblical approach narrows the Imago Dei to three things: holiness, righteousness and true knowledge. We get these from Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 where it talks about our being made into a new man. If these three things make up the Imago Dei, then what happened at the fall? Instead of being righteous we became unrighteous, instead of being holy we became unholy, instead of a true knowledge we became a slave to the father of lies. The image we once had, was lost.

Some would say that the Imago Dei is something that’s so essential to what it means to be human, that to say that man has lost the Imago Dei is to deny man’s humanity. This is where the genius of Herman Hoeksema comes in to play. He makes a distinction between the image in a material sense and in a formal sense. By material sense what is meant is holiness, righteousness and true knowledge. He explains the formal sense this way, “By the formal sense is meant the fact that man’s nature is adapted to bear the image of God. Not every creature is capable of bearing God’s image and of showing forth the reflection of God’s own ethical perfections of knowledge, righteousness and holiness. It is evident that it requires a rational, moral nature to bear that image of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, 296).

Thus, though we lose the image in the material sense, we are still creatures that are capable of bearing God’s image. Some may look at the fact that we retain this formal sense as something that gives man inherent dignity and value. Professor Hanko,  in the book For Thy Truth’s Sake,  had this to say when speaking on that formal sense we retain. “In fact, his retention of rationality and morality only makes matters worse, because now, still a rational and moral being, but having lost the image of God, he has become an image-bearer of Satan. The wicked are children of their father, the devil. They look like him in that they do his works (John 8:44)” (For Thy Truth’s Sake, 347).

This may sound so dark and bleak for man to be considered the image of Satan. But it’s this truth that makes the gospel message so much more powerful and beautiful. We are redeemed from being an image of Satan to being conformed into the image of Christ who is the true image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4, Hebrews 1:3).

It’s for these reasons that I do not feel comfortable saying that (reprobate) man has this inherent dignity and value. It may be true, and many intelligent, godly, reformed men would agree with it. However, as I believe that the image of God in man is not just simply “damaged” but utterly destroyed,  I don’t know how to reconcile that. It is for this reason that I always try to look for alternatives to using that line of reasoning.

Many who believe in this inherent dignity within man, use this fact as the basis for all ethics. As this article tries to argue, racism is wrong because it defaces the image of God. Yet it’s not necessary to appeal to the image of God in man in order to argue for the sinfulness of racism. This is because the true basis for all ethics is found in the righteous character of God which is explained to us in His commandments. “Thus saith the Lord” is all that’s necessary for me to know the sinfulness of any sin.

Therefore in my next post, I’ll take an alternative approach in my use of the image of God to explain racism and then show that racism is a denial of the gospel.

Mike Murrell


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