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THE IMAGO DEI

By Jared C. Wellman

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”
Genesis 1:261

Arthur W. Pink once wrote, “The manner in which the Holy Scriptures open is worthy of

their Divine Author.”2 Pink’s reference was to Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning God

created the heavens and the earth.”3 This “Divine Author,” as Pink so elegantly states, is God.4

Genesis 1 portrays God as both creating and filling the earth. Creating the earth involved

such formations as the stars, dry land, and the waters. God said on the third day of creation, “Let

the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”

(Genesis 1:9). Filling the earth, on the other hand, involved placing life among His creation. On

the fifth day of creation God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures,

and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens” (Genesis 1:20).

Furthermore, on the sixth day of creation God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature

according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind”

1
All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) unless otherwise noted.
2
Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Genesis (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 9.
3
The NKJV will be used throughout this paper, unless otherwise noted.
4
This paper is written with the presupposition of a Christian worldview. God is understood to be
omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. Scripture is understood under the Plenary-Verbal
inspiration.
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(Genesis 1:24). God concluded His creation with the inception of man. God said, “Let Us make

man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

There is no doubt that God’s creation of the earth is important, however, this discussion

calls forth the importance of God filling the earth. Most scientists would agree that it is

impossible to number the amount of species existing today. The World Resources Institute has

noted, “Surprisingly, scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the

galaxy than how many species there are on Earth. Estimates of global species diversity have

varied from 2 Million to 100 million, with a best estimate of somewhere near 10 million, and

only 1.4 million have actually been named.”5 This is an interesting evaluation. Genesis 1 speaks

specifically of God inhabiting the earth with life. However, of these estimated 10 million

species, God placed a unique description on mankind only. Genesis speaks only of man being

created in God’s image, with His likeness. Scripture portrays no other creature having this

characterization.

In Latin, this description is regarded as the Imago Dei. The Western hemisphere has

since adopted the description. It is developed from Genesis 1:26, and heavily considers the

words, “image” and “likeness.” In Hebrew, these words are tselem and demuth.6 “Both terms,

obviously, refer to a relation between man and his Creator.”7 In the Hebrew Old Testament,

tselem and demuth are a rare find. In fact, the notion that man is created in God’s image is rarely

stated. G.C. Berkouwer has observed, “If we examine the Biblical witness regarding man, we

soon discover that it never gives us any kind of systematic theory about man as the image of

5
http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8202
6
English transliteration.
7
G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 69.
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God. It is indeed rather striking that the term is not used often at all, and that it is far less

‘central’ in the Bible than it has been in the history of Christian thought.”8 Berkouwer was

correct in his observation. The church is quick to note that man is created in the image of God,

but rarely defines its meaning. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, has

stated, “Human beings have a unique position in the order of creation. As males and females

created in God’s image, we are given the capacity and freedom to know and respond to our

Creator.”9 The Baptist Faith and Message reads, “The sacredness of human personality is

evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man.”10 While

these are biblical statements, they do not define the Imago Dei. Berkouwer was right; the idea is

far less “central”11 in the Bible than it is in Christian thought.

This lack of centrality has led many scholars to investigate Scripture, hoping to find a

specific meaning of the idea. In his work, In the Image of God, William Baker generalized the

various conclusions of these scholars into five categories. He writes, “Christians have offered

various suggestions as to precisely what the image consists of. [They] can be categorized as an

inner quality, as a relationship between God and humanity, as dominion over nature, as a

representation of God, or as sonship.”12 Each view falls under a more general category. Millard

Erickson considers these generalizations the substantive,13 relational,14 and functional15 views of

the Imago Dei.16

8
Ibid., 67.
9
http://archive.elca.org/communication/brief.html
10
Baptist Faith and Message, Article III, Man, 11 1998
11
Not that it fails in importance, only that it is rare in occurrence.
12
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 36.
13
The substantive view believes man to have a spiritual or physical commonality with God.
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This paper will both define and examine each category as noted by Baker and place each

category into one of Erickson’s generalizations. Furthermore, a critique will be offered for each

category, stating the pros and cons as compared to Scripture. Upon conclusion, the

Representation view will be argued as the best understanding of the Imago Dei.

The Image as Inner Quality

“The Inner Quality view identifies the image as an internal quality, such as psychological

make-up, reason, some spiritual quality, personality, or moral awareness.”17 Millard Erickson

would consider the Inner Quality view a substantive understanding of the Imago Dei. The major

proponents of this view are William Baker and Hubert Foston.

Since the Inner Quality view of the Imago Dei is substantive, it suggests that we have

either a physical or spiritual commonality with God. Its advocates would lean more to a spiritual

commonality rather than physical. William Baker notes, “[The] thing that makes humanity truly

unique and different from the animal realm – and Genesis 1 and 2 seem to be stressing this point

– is its spiritual, rational, and moral capability.”18 For Baker, the “spiritual, rational, and moral

capability” are all terms used to describe inner characteristics that only mankind has. God is a

being that has the ability to rationalize, and this is the image that He has bestowed upon man.

Baker sees the Imago Dei as man having the ability to choose, just as God has the ability to

14
The relational view argues that one must be in a relationship with God in order to possess the image of
God.
15
The functional view denies the substantive and relational view, arguing that the image of God is
imprinted on us in function rather than in form or relationship.
16
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 520-530.
17
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 36.
18
Ibid., 38-39.
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choose. Likewise, man has a spirit just as God has a Spirit. This is man’s spiritual commonality

with God.

Hubert Foston advances the same idea in his work, Man and the Image of God. Foston

emphasizes the “triune-ness” of God, stating that man is a tripartite being in the likeness of God.

Foston says that man has a mind, a soul, and a spirit. Moreover, man’s build represents the

Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each part of the body relies on the other and thus cannot be

separated, just as God cannot be separated. Foston writes, “To prove that any one of the three

indefeasibly united living characters, abiding in and pervading one’s invisible life, could actually

exist as we now know it if the other characters were not present with it, would be an impossible

task.”19 For Foston, this represents God being one Person, not three separate Persons. One part

of the Triune Godhead is not greater than the other. Additionally, Foston believes that each

Person of the Godhead represents one characteristic of man.

Foston defines his tripartite system as the intellect, the will, and the feel. Each represents

a part of the Imago Dei. They can only be understood in relation to the Trinity. The intellect

speaks of man’s ability to rationalize. It is a term used to define the mind and is representative of

Christ. He writes, “Observation, together with reflection on what you observe – that is the sum

of your intellectual business.”20 The will represents the body or the soul, and is representative of

the Spirit. The soul is the “effort involved when we make up our minds to move some part of

our bodies. That is one department of the analysis of willing or striving.”21 Foston lastly notes

what he calls the feeling of man. This characteristic is representative of the Father. Foston

19
John Foston, Man and the Image of God (London: MacMillan, 1930), 22.
20
Ibid., 27.
21
Ibid., 38 .
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writes, “There is a third phase which we naturally regard as the mind’s own inner secret. It has

been called ‘subjectively subjective.’ This is the life of feeling.”22 Foston defines the Father’s

representation in this characteristic as so, “[There is] One whose being remains the hidden secret

of the life of Deity. The attitude of the Father to the world constantly appears to be finding

expression through the other beings of the triune Godhead.”23 These are all understood as inner

qualities, and thus Foston holds a substantive Inner Quality understanding of the Imago Dei.

Baker notes that the Inner Quality view has been “held by most orthodox theologians

since Augustine,24 [and] has prevailed for most of Christian history.”25 It is true that for many

years the overall understanding of the Imago Dei has been a tripartite understanding of the

human person. However, this is not grounds enough to believe the Inner Quality view.

Biblically, the man is said to have a body, soul, and spirit. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:23,

“May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus

Christ.” Scripture also portrays God as triune. 1 John 5:7 says, “There are three that bear

witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.” It seems plausible to suggest that

since God is triune in nature, and that since man is a tripartite being, that this is the interpretation

of the Genesis 1:26 Imago Dei. However, this view fails to account for the Fall and its possible

implication on God’s declaration. As Berkouwer noted, the Imago Dei is sparse in Scripture, and

perhaps it could be that the declaration was more functional or relational, than substantive. The

Inner Quality view fails to make answer for this possibility, and thus is an inadequate

understanding of the Imago Dei.

22
Ibid., 53.
23
Ibid., 53.
24
Although Augustine did not hold this view himself.
25
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 36.
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The Image as a Relationship Between God and Humanity

The second view, as noted by Baker, is the God-Human Relationship view. “The [God-

Human] Relationship view identifies the image as humanity’s relation to God at its strongest

when faith is present.”26 This view would be generalized into Erickson’s relational category.

Notable proponents of this view are John Calvin, Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.

This view sees the Imago Dei as being fulfilled when man has a correct relationship with

God. The relationship was corrupted by original sin. Baker gives the analogy, “An analogy of

this can be seen as someone stands before a mirror and perceives both an intangible personality

as well as a physical being. This view includes both the immaterial and material being of

humanity, but it does not imply that God Himself has a material part. The point of the analogy is

not in the similarity between the subject (God) and His reflection, but in what the subject wants

the mirror to reflect. For example, if a flashlight is reflected in the mirror, the reflection is what

is intended, but if the mirror is turned around so that it no longer reflects the light, the reflection

is hampered even though the light is still there. In the same way, sin hampers our relationship to

God.”27

This illustration befits John Calvin’s perspective of the Imago Dei. He wrote, “There is

no doubt that Adam, when he fell from his dignity, was by this defection alienated from God.

Wherefore, although we allow that the Divine image was not utterly annihilated and effaced in

him, yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is but horrible deformity.”28 Calvin was

staunch in his understanding of the Imago Dei. He believed man to have corrupted the image

26
Ibid., 37.
27
Ibid.
28
Ellis Tiffany, The Image of God in Creation (California: Interface, 1997), 112.
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nearly beyond repair. Karl Barth and Emil Brunner advanced this thought. Ellis Tiffany says of

the men, “These churchmen vied as verbal gladiators in a world arena before cheering

partisans.”29 The proponents had essentially issued in a new era on the Imago Dei.

This view rightly takes into account sin’s influence upon the Imago Dei; a tenet the Inner

Quality view failed to account for. Critically, this view does experience some faults. Very little

is said as to how the Imago Dei is restored. Calvin, Barth, and Brunner note that a righteous

relationship with God helps to restore the image, but a conclusive end to that relationship is not

mentioned. Can man continually restore the Imago Dei only to corrupt it again the next day?

Baker’s illustration seems to say so. Emil Brunner, however, benefits the view, “We have to

consider the image of God in man in two ways: one formal and one material. The formal sense

of the concept is the human, i.e., that which distinguishes man from all the rest of creation,

whether he be a sinner or not. Even the Old Testament speaks of man’s likeness to God in this

sense. It signifies above all the superiority of man within creation. This function or calling as a

bearer of the image is not abolished by sin; rather is it the presupposition of the ability to sin and

continues within the state of sin. We can define this by two concepts: the fact that man is a

subject and his responsibility.”30 Tiffany has noted that of Barth and Brunner, “Brunner adhered

more closely to Calvin’s psychology [regarding the Imago Dei],”31 however, it seems that both

men advanced their understanding of the Imago Dei beyond that of Calvin. “Karl Barth

extended the idea of the relational image to relationships between humans, a kind of

‘partnership’ or ability to relate. In fact, the image is centered in the fact that humanity was

29
Ibid.
30
Ibid., 113.
31
Ibid.
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created both male and female, two people who were related to each other.”32 The God-Human

Relationship view argues well on sin’s impact to the Imago Dei, however, a definition of the

relationship (that fulfills the image) is unclear. Moreover, any substantive quality displayed in

the man is ignored. Scripture is clear on man’s substantive likeness of God, at least spiritually.

The Image as Dominion Over Nature

The third view of the Imago Dei is the Dominion view. This view sees the image of God

as “something a person does.”33 Erickson generalizes this view as functional. According to

Baker, the Dominion view has experienced a recent spurt of popularity by young theologians.

Leonard Verduin and Harry Boer are both notable advocates of this view.

The Dominion view interprets Genesis 1:27-28 as influencing verse 26. Genesis 1:27-28

says, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and

female He created them. Then God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and

multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the

air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Baker explains, “Adam, who has just

been described as having been created in God’s image, is commanded to exercise dominion over

the earth. This phrase is taken, therefore, to be the definition of the image. Humanity is different

from the animal and plant realms in its lordship over all creation.”34 Harry Boer agrees. He

states that dominion was God’s way of placing His image upon man. Boer cannot see the image

any other way. It is the unique rank of the man that portrays God’s image. Boer writes,

32
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 37.
33
Ibid.
34
Ibid., 38.
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“[Christ] is the light that distinguishes a human being as Imago Dei from the highest animal as

Vestigium Dei. This light illuminated the whole man.”35

The Dominion view hinges on a proper exegesis of Genesis 1:26-28. Baker has

interpreted, “[the] biblical reference to humanity’s dominion is probably less of a definition and

more a statement of what results from humanity’s having a spiritual, rational, and moral

capacity. In other words, it is the presence of the image of God in people that make them able to

exercise dominion over the earth. Dominion itself is not what constitutes the image.”36 Baker

has correctly interpreted the verse. The Dominion view states that the Genesis context of image

and dominion result in the definition of the Imago Dei. This simply is not the case. Millard

Erickson writes, “There certainly is, at the very least, a very close connection between the image

and the exercise and dominion. There is also, to be sure, a parallel between Genesis 1 and Psalm

8 (i.e., in the description of the domain over which humans are to have dominion). One

difficulty concerns the connection between Psalm 8 and Genesis 1. The terms image and

likeness do not appear in Psalm 8.”37 For Erickson, the Dominion view is weak due to a simple

analysis of Psalm 8. Psalm 8:6-8 says, “You have made him to have dominion over the works of

Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen – even the beasts of the

field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas.”

Interestingly, the terms image and likeness are not present in this Psalm. “If the psalm is indeed

dependent upon Genesis 1, where we do find specific reference to the image, and if exercising

dominion over the creatures mentioned in verses 7-8 of the psalm does indeed constitute the

35
Harry Boer, An Ember Still Glowing (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 86.
36
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 39.
37
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 531.
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image of God, then one would expect in this passage as well some specific reference to the

image.”38 The Dominion view fails to agree with the totality of Scripture.

The Image as a Representation of God

The Representation view sees humanity as “intending in its whole being to represent God

primarily as a holy being.”39 This view is similar to the Inner Quality view, in that it speaks of

man currently bearing an image of God, but it also resembles the God-Human Relationship view

in that it calls the man to be conformed to God’s likeness. This view can be generalized into

Erickson’s substantive and relationship categories. Major proponents of this view include

Anthony Hoekema, James Orr, G.C. Berkouwer, and Augustine.

James Orr wrote, “A kindred question is – how far does man as fallen possess the divine

image?”40 For advocates of this view, this is the overarching question. The answer is that the

image has been damaged. Man is working his way back to the Imago Dei. “The Old Testament

commands people to ‘be holy’ (Lev 11:45-46), and Jesus said, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly

Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48). Furthermore, the apostle Paul taught that the regenerated ‘new

self’ – the believer – is being ‘renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’ (Col 3:10).

This line of teaching looks to Jesus Christ for its best definition of that image, since He is the

very image of God (Col 1:15).”41

Augustine is defends the Representation view. For Augustine, the creation of the world

was uniquely intertwined with the creation of man. The regeneration of man is an important part

38
Ibid.
39
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 38.
40
James Orr, God’s Image in Man (London: HOdder and Stoughton, 1906), 58.
41
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 38.
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of the creation story. John Sullivan explains, “The principal role in creation and in re-creation is

assigned to the Word by Augustine, but he also sees the Spirit playing some part in these

processes. The Spirit is understood by Augustine in the words of Genesis which speak of the

‘Spirit moving over the waters,’ which is the yet formless creation. To the Word is attributed

formation by illumination, and to the Spirit is attributed movement and order. The activity of the

Spirit is performed concomitantly with the formation in which it is somehow included. In the

historical conversion of the rational creature to God the Spirit will have a prominent role to play,

as He had a role of significance in the original creation of God.”42 Augustine seems to believe

that just as God took a “formless and void” earth, then created and filled it with wonderful

things, that He too will regenerate and illuminate the human person back to the perfect Imago

Dei. Man is unique in the world, having dominion over the rest of life. However, he must

conform to the image of Christ. Sullivan noted, “The inner quality must correspond, of course to

something about God Himself that is not found in animals and that makes human beings

distinctive. In fact, it is such an image that makes the incarnation of Christ possible and makes

Christ in His humanity the perfect example of what the image is.”43

The Representation view attempts to take into consideration the totality of Scripture.

Supporters see a thread of thought throughout the Holy Writ. This thread speaks of man’s need

to be conformed to the image of God. This is not to say that the Representation view believes

that man is currently without the image of God. Hoekema writes, “Some believe that at the time

of man’s fall into sin that he lost the image of God, and can therefore no longer be called God’s

42
John Sullivan, The Image of God (Dubuque: Priory Press, 1963), 40.
43
Ibid.
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image-bearer. [There] is no hint of this in Genesis.”44 It is to say that man was created perfect,

and sin corrupted the image. Man is now seeking conformity back to that image. This can only

be done through Christ. Berkouwer writes, “The whole Scriptural witness makes clear that our

understanding of the image of God can be sound only when [understood] in unbreakable relation

to the witness regarding Jesus Christ, who is called the image of God.”45

The Representation view blends the Inner Quality and God-Human Relationship view to

form a biblically sound understanding on the Imago Dei. The weaknesses found within the

aforementioned views disintegrate and a healthy balance is produces. Baker critiques, however,

that “the same weaknesses are true [of the] Relationship view. God desires that a person be a

representation of Himself, but to do that He must create a kind of being with the capacity to do

so, and that brings us back to the idea of a quality within humanity that constitutes the image, the

Inner Quality view.”46 This simply is not the case. The Inner Quality view fails to account for

original sin and its effects upon the Imago Dei. The God-Human Relationship fails to produce a

consistent idea of the same.47 The Representation view solves both weaknesses, and thus

provides a biblically sound picture of what it means to be created in the image of God.

The Image as Sonship

The final view, according to Baker, is the Sonship view. This view seeks to combine all

the previous views into one. A major proponent of this view is H.D. McDonald. “McDonald

44
Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 15.
45
G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 107.
46
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 39.
47
That is, an explanation regarding the consistency of man’s image of God. The reader is left to assume
that man can fulfill the Imago Dei when he lives righteously, yet lose it when he sins. This is inconsistent and does
not portray Scripture well.
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believes that all the ideas included in the views just described could be combined into the idea

that sonship was the purpose for which God created humanity and that this constitutes the

image.”48 The Sonship view is considered purely relational.

McDonald places his evidence in Scripture. He lists the following kinds of evidence:

“Luke 3:38 calls Adam the ‘son of God’; Jesus Christ is the image of God because He is

uniquely the Son of God; and believers are the image of God by the way ‘image,’ ‘glory,’ and

‘sonship’ are used. Thus, believers are carrying out the mandate to express in themselves the

image of God.”49 Baker notes of the Sonship view, “[This view] seems similar to both the

relational and representational views. Sonship is a rich and complex relationship with God, and

when it is functioning as it should it is a representational thing as well.”50

The Sonship view is weak for many reasons. Firstly, it is impossible to combine every

Imago Dei view while maintaining a proper understanding of each. Many of the views lose

value and their basic characteristics are compromised. Secondly, when combining the views, the

weaknesses carry over. For example, the Dominion view sees the Imago Dei as man’s functional

rank over animals. When combined with the Sonship view, the weakness of Scriptural

compromise is absorbed.51 Thirdly, the Sonship view misinterprets its own use of Scripture.

The verses stated by H.D. McDonald are simply miscontextualized. McDonald haphazardly

transposes the word “image” with various other words and ideas found in Scripture. This

exegesis results in a blunder of the Sonship view.

48
William Baker, In the Image of God (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 38.
49
Ibid.
50
Ibid., 39-40.
51
The Dominion view is not consistent throughout Scripture and this weakness is carried over into the
Sonship view.
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Having noted difficulties with many of the leading views, an attempt at advocacy must be

made. Millard Erickson has discerned, “The existence of a wide diversity of interpretations is an

indication that there are no direct statements in Scripture to resolve the [Imago Dei] issue.”52 Of

the diversity, the Representation view best represents the biblical understanding of man’s Imago

Dei. This view best defends sin’s impact and Scripture’s total representation of the image. Of

its many tenets, the Representation view sees Christ as the perfect image of God. G.C.

Berkouwer wrote, “The whole Scriptural witness makes clear that our understanding of the

image of God can be sound only when in unbreakable relation to the witness regarding Jesus

Christ, who is called the image of God.”53 In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul wrote concerning

Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15a). Verse 15 parallels54 verse 19 which

says, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell.” The “invisible God”

that Christ bears image of is none other than the “Father” of verse 19. Essentially, Christ is

looking to the Father, imitating Him. The Father is looking back to Christ declaring, “I am

pleased that in You all fullness dwells.” To conclude, man is substantively like God,55 but the

complete56 Imago Dei can only be restored when the man imitates Jesus Christ. This requires an

incorruptible and undefiled relationship that can only be revealed by His saving grace. The

perfect57 Imago Dei, however, can only be restored upon entering His kingdom.

52
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 531-532.
53
G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 107.
54
In its Greek chiastic structure.
55
The tripartite make-up.
56
Meaning, as close as possible in a fallen world.
57
Meaning, a restored image that is not corrupted by sin. This can only be fulfilled in heaven.