Bavinck the Dogmatician Human Nature: The Image of God

In his reflection on the biblical doctrine of man, Bavinck provides an extensive, and at times rather complex, treatment of the doctrine of image of God. Consistent with the Bible’s emphasis on the creation of man as the crown and apex of God’s work in creating the world, the Bible teaches that what distinguishes man as a creature is his being created in the image of God. While the entire world in its own way exhibits and reflects the glory of its Creator, human beings alone bear God’s image. Among all of God’s creatures, “only man is the image of God, God’s highest and richest self-revelation and consequently the head and crown of the whole creation, the imago Dei and the epitome of nature, both mikrotheos (microgod) and mikrokosmos (microcosm)” (RD 2:531).

Considering the importance of the biblical teaching that man as creature is alone created in God’s image, it is rather remarkable that the account of creation in Genesis does not say a great deal about wherein the image of God consists. Throughout the Old Testament, and even in the New Testament, we are not provided with an extensive explanation of the nature of this image. In some passages like Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10, we are indirectly taught that the work of redemption in Christ entails the renewal and restoration of the image, which was broken and marred through the fall into sin. Redemption is a work of re-creation, and therefore a work of restoring and perfecting human beings in the image of God. But the Scriptures never give us a single, fulsome definition of the image of God.

Before addressing directly the nature of the image of God, particularly within the framework of the history of doctrine, Bavinck offers a few comments on the language of “image” and “likeness” in Genesis 1:26. Though some theologians and traditions draw a sharp distinction between these two terms, Bavinck argues that there “is no essential distinction to be made between them” (RD 2:532). If there is a slight difference in emphasis between these two terms, “image” refers to the idea of man as an “ectype” in relation to God who is the “prototype.” Man bears God’s image as a being that corresponds in some way to God, who is the original model or prototype against whom his nature and being is to be measured. The term “likeness” is a more fluid and less substantial term, suggesting that man bears some similarities to God his Creator. Both terms together teach us that man alone among all of God’s creatures bears a striking resemblance and correspondence to God in whose image he has been created.

While the Scriptures are rather reserved in their explanation of the way man bears God’s image, there are, in Bavinck’s estimation, at least three broad emphases in the scriptural data on the image of God.

First, the terms “image” and “likeness” do not refer to anything in God himself, but to something that is in humankind. When the Bible speaks of man as an image bearer of God, it is not referring to some particular aspect in God that is properly his “image” or “likeness” and to which man corresponds. For example, when man is described as God’s image bearer, the image refers to all the ways in which man resembles the triune God in all his attributes and perfections. We are not to think, therefore, that man bears God’s image merely in resembling the eternal Son of God. Rather, man was created, as the Genesis account’s use of the plural “us” intimates, after the image and likeness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Second, the biblical descriptions of the image of God, limited though they may be, do not refer narrowly to some particular feature of man’s nature that bears a resemblance to God as the original prototype. No such restrictions on the way man bears God’s image are evident in the scriptural testimony. Because no such restriction exists in the comparison or likeness that the Scripture draws between God and man whom he has created in his image, the scriptural view implies that “the whole human person is the image of the whole Deity” (RD 2:533). In every legitimate aspect of human life, we may discern some or another way in which man uniquely resembles God and exhibits his likeness. In the scriptural representation of the image of God, we are taught that man is an image bearer of God in the totality of his being, nature, and calling. Whether in the exercise of dominion over the creation under God, or in the active conformity of man to the holy will of God—in the fullness of his nature and calling, man bears the image and likeness of God.

And third, Bavinck notes that the Bible teaches that the Son of God in his incarnate life and ministry especially reveals to us what it is to bear the image of God. For this reason, the redemption of God’s people through Christ aims to conform them wholly to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29). The absence of scriptural definitions of the image of God does not leave us in the dark so far as the meaning of the image is concerned. When believers ultimately see God in the state of consummation, they know that they will be “like” him, for they shall see him as he is (1 John 3:3). In union with Christ, such believers will have been wholly conformed in body and soul to the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Defining the Image

In the history of Christian theology, a variety of different definitions of the image of God have been offered. Some theologians identified the image of God with man’s freedom of will or ability to conform or not conform to God’s moral will. Others stressed features of human nature such as human rationality. Still others emphasized man’s dominion over the creation as the distinguishing feature of human life in relation to God and other creatures.

In his review of the history of reflection on the image of God, Bavinck identifies two broad types of definitions of the image of God that emerged in the period prior to the Reformation. Both of these types of views proceed from the conviction that a sharp distinction needs to be drawn between the terms “image” and “likeness” of God.

The first example of this type of viewpoint, which Bavinck terms “naturalism,” argues that God created man after his image, that is, “as a rational being, in order that man himself would acquire likeness with God in the way of obedience and receive it in the end as his reward from God’s hand” (RD 2:534). This view, which was taught, for example, by Pelagius in the early church and the Socinians at the time of the Reformation, claims that man’s original state was a kind of childlike state of innocence and moral indifference. Only as human beings exercise their free wills and rational faculties in a way that conforms to the moral law of God do they eventually come to bear a “likeness” to God. Bavinck terms this view “naturalistic” because it assumes that man has the native ability to move from an original natural state as an image bearer of God to a higher state of moral and rational excellence in which he comes to bear a likeness to God.

In all the various expressions of this naturalistic type of viewpoint, including even evolutionary naturalism, Bavinck argues, the Scriptures’ teaching that man was originally created in a state of excellence and moral integrity is compromised. The Bible’s teaching is that man was created in the image and likeness of God, in a state of moral integrity in which he was able to please God and resist the temptation to disobey God. The naturalistic view of the image and likeness of God, therefore, denies the biblical distinction between man’s original state of integrity and his subsequent loss of original righteousness through the fall and disobedience of Adam.

The second example of this type of viewpoint, which Bavinck terms “Roman Catholic supernaturalism,” also distinguishes between the “image” and “likeness” of God. In the Roman Catholic tradition, a distinction is drawn between man’s natural state as a rational and moral creature who was created in the image of God, and man’s supernatural state as a glorified and ethically perfected creature whose final destiny is to enjoy likeness to God. Before the fall into sin through Adam, man as a natural creature first possessed the image of God, and then by the “superadded gift” of “original righteousness” also was granted a “likeness to God.” After the fall into sin, man continued to possess the image of God as a natural creature, but no longer retained the “likeness” to God that was originally granted as a “superadded gift.” In this scheme, fallen man retains the natural image of God in an unimpaired and uncorrupted condition. Man’s natural constitution as a moral and rational creature, though burdened with a natural propensity to give in to the lower fleshly passions (concupiscence), remains intact despite the fall into sin. However, having lost through sin the superadded gift of original righteousness, man can now only regain the “likeness” to God that he once possessed by cooperating freely with the grace of God.

In Bavinck’s evaluation of Roman Catholic supernaturalism, he identifies several unbiblical features of this view.

First, the Roman Catholic view implies that God’s supernatural grace was required even before the fall into sin to elevate man above his natural condition as an image bearer of God to the higher state of likeness to God. In the biblical representation of the fall into sin, however, we find that man was originally created in the image and likeness of God and did not yet require God’s grace in order to be elevated to a higher state of blessedness in fellowship with God. Though perfect obedience on the part of Adam in the pre-fall covenant relationship was the required condition for the fullness of human blessedness, Adam was created holy and able to obey God, which obedience did not require a superadded gift of elevating grace.

Second, in the Roman Catholic doctrine of supernaturalism, God’s grace after the fall is not a “restorative” or “reparative” and “perfecting” grace, so much as it (even as it was before the fall into sin) an “elevating” grace, which raises man from a lower, natural state of being in the image of God to a higher, supernatural state of being in the likeness of God. The grace of God in this conception remains what it was before the fall into sin: a superadded divine gift that raises man from a natural to a supernatural state.

Hence, according to Rome, grace is a supernatural gift as such and not incidentally (per accidens), not only because of sin. Sin has not in any way changed the nature of grace. Perhaps grace has been increased by sin; but both before and after the fall it was identically the same, namely, an elevation [of man] above nature. That is its character and essence. Christianity, accordingly, may also still be a religion of redemption; but preeminently it is not a reparation but an elevation of nature; it serves to elevate nature above itself, that is, to divinize humanity (RD 2:547).

And third, the Roman Catholic doctrine diminishes the significance of the fall into sin and its consequent corruption of human nature. Because fallen man continues to possess the image of God and retains the proper use of the faculties of free will and intellect, he is able to “cooperate” with the elevating grace of God and thereby properly merit salvation and eternal life. Rather than the fall into sin pervasively corrupting man and all his natural faculties, the fall only resulted in the loss of certain supernatural gifts that are regained in redemption. Thus, in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the image of God, fallen human beings retain the power and ability to cooperate freely with God’s elevating grace in order to merit and obtain the glory of likeness to God. Just as Adam was able to merit blessedness in communion with God by cooperating with God’s elevating grace, so believers are able to merit blessedness after the fall by cooperating with God’s grace. In this way, the biblical distinction between the pre-fall covenant of works and the post-fall covenant of grace is obliterated. Salvation, whether before or after the fall into sin, comes when human beings, cooperating with God’s grace, truly merit the blessedness of a higher, supernatural state in fellowship with God.

The Reformation View of the Image

In the Reformation view of the image of God, Bavinck observes that the Roman Catholic distinction between man’s natural state and supernatural state is rejected. Contrary to the idea that man as an image bearer of God before the fall into sin needs a “superadded gift” of original righteousness to possess a “likeness” to God, the Reformation taught that man was created from the beginning in the image and likeness of God, and that his original righteousness was an integral feature of his humanity in the state of integrity. The Roman Catholic dualism between man as a natural image bearer of God and as a supernatural likeness to God is in principle rejected. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic insistence that God’s grace is an “elevating” grace, which raises man from a natural to a supernatural state by virtue of his free cooperation with God’s grace, is also repudiated. For the Reformation, the grace of God is a grace that, after the fall into sin, restores and perfects believers for fellowship with God. Such grace does not enable human beings to merit the blessing of salvation. Rather, it is a sovereign and unmerited grace in Jesus Christ, whose work of redemption restores believers to favor with God and renews and perfects them in holiness.

One of the principal objections of the Reformation to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the image of God was its failure to reckon with the serious consequences of the fall into sin. In the Roman Catholic scheme, man retains his integrity after the fall as an image bearer of God. As a natural being, man remains able to exercise his will and intellect within the natural realm of life without any need for God’s grace in restoration and renewal. Within the natural sphere and common things of life, human beings are able to perform their duties and carry on with the ordinary affairs of natural life rather well.

Contrary to this benign view of the consequences of the fall into sin, the Reformation taught the radical corruption of human life and the frightful deformation of the image of God in fallen human beings. Though Reformed theologians generally retained a distinction between the image of God in a broader sense (fallen human beings remain human and continue to possess many excellent faculties by God’s preserving grace) and in a narrower sense (believers are being restored after God’s image in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, in conformity to God’s will), they taught the radical and pervasive corruption of all human beings after the fall. For the Reformers, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is a sovereign and restorative grace that restores believers to fellowship with God and perfects them in the righteousness and blessedness that was lost through the fall into sin. In Bavinck’s words, the Reformation view taught that the image of God, that is, original righteousness, was inseparable from the idea of man as such and that it referred to the normal state, the harmony, the health of a human being; that without it a human cannot be true, complete, or normal. When man loses that image of God, he does not simply lose a substance while remaining fully human. Rather, he becomes an abnormal, a sick, a spiritually dead human being, a sinner. He then lacks something that belonged to his nature, just as a blind man loses his sight, a deaf man his hearing, and a sick man his health. In Rome’s view a human being can lose the “supernatural righteousness” and still be a good, true, complete, sinless human, with a natural justice that in its kind is without any defect (RD 2:551).



In the course of his summary of the Reformation view of the image of God, Bavinck makes an important observation about a subtle difference that emerged between Reformed and Lutheran theology on this question. In Lutheran theology, a feature of the older Roman Catholic dualism between man’s existence as a natural and a supernatural being was retained. According to Lutheran teaching, the image of God—original righteousness—is completely lost through sin, and is only restored through the grace of redemption in Christ. No distinction is drawn between the image of God in a broader and a narrower sense. Moreover, in the Lutheran view, fallen sinners who have lost the image of God are still able to “do much good” in a natural sense and within the natural kingdom (RD 2:554). Though Lutheran theology denies the possibility of fallen human beings performing any spiritual good, it does allow for a considerable ability on the part of fallen human beings to perform much natural good without the restoring and renewing work of God’s grace. The importance of Bavinck’s discussion of this difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology at this point, warrants quoting him at some length.

In this [Lutheran] theology the lines of demarcation between the spiritual and the worldly, between the heavenly and the earthly, are so sharply drawn that the result is two hemispheres, and the connection between nature and grace, between creation and re-creation is totally denied. The supernaturalist [or dualist] view is still at work here; the image of God stands alongside nature, is detached from it, and is above it. The loss of the image, which renders man totally deaf and blind in spiritual matters, still enables him in earthly matters to do much good and in a sense renders him independent from the grace of God in Christ . . . [In Reformed theology] sin, which precipitated the loss of the image of God in the narrower sense and spoiled and ruined the image of God in the broader sense, has profoundly affected the whole person, so that, consequently, also the grace of God in Christ restores the whole person, and is of the greatest significance for his or her whole life and labor, also in the family, society, the state, art, science, and so forth (RD 2:553–4).1


Bavinck concludes his treatment of the doctrine of the image of God by returning to a point made at the outset. Human beings do not “have” or merely “bear” the image and likeness of God. Rather, human beings were created to be the children of God who exhibit in their entire existence and life the image and likeness of God. The image and likeness of God, therefore, must extend to the “whole person.” No legitimate feature of human existence and life as created by God can be arbitrarily excluded from what it means to bear God’s image.

While all creatures display vestiges of God, only a human being is the image of God. And he is such totally, in soul and body, in all his faculties and powers, in all conditions and relations. Man is the image of God because and insofar as he is truly human, and he is truly and essentially human because, and to the extent that, he is the image of God (RD 2:555).

In his elaboration on this point, Bavinck discusses several features of human existence and life that together exhibit the image and likeness of God. These features include, most notably: the human soul (or psyche); the human faculties (emotions and passions, desire and will, thinking and knowing); the virtues of knowledge, righteousness, and holiness in conformity to God’s law; and even the human body. In each and every feature of human life in its integrity and wholeness, as well as in its complexity and diverseness, human beings are the image and likeness of God. And since redemption entails nothing less than the restoration and perfection of the whole of human life in communion with God, all of these features of human life will ultimately be perfected in the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Since Bavinck closes his treatment of the image of God with a beautiful and lyrical summary of his position, I will close by quoting him at length:

1. Though it is anachronistic to put it this way, Bavinck offers in his criticism of the Lutheran view of the image of God an insightful assessment of what today is sometimes called the “two kingdom/natural law” view. Bavinck’s point is that, just as sin pervasively corrupts all of human life “before God,” so God’s grace in Christ restores and perfects all of human life under Christ’s lordship. To be restored and perfected as an image bearer of God is not to be elevated to a higher plane of supernatural life and existence, but to be perfected in the fullness of natural (that is, creaturely) human life in communion with God.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.