Historically, theologians have had a lot of confusion regarding the image of God. Since Scripture doesn’t ever define it in certain terms, those interested in the study have tried to understanding it by piecing together the passages in Scripture that discuss it. Throughout the years, there have been three main ways to look at the image of God.
The image of God is defined Substantially. This is the idea that every human is a person like God; with similar traits and qualities. In the same way a son bears the image of his father, so we bear the image of our Creator. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26). We are persons that bear resemblance to God.
The image of God is defined Relationally. Tied into the passages that speak of the image of God is the idea of male and female. In other words, integral to understanding the imago dei is understanding that humans were made to be in relationship. “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27). The image of God is displayed in plurality–male and female. Though it is true that individual males and a females bear the image of God, this passage shows us that the image of God is more fully displayed in two genders rather than one. To be in the image of God means being in relationship.
The image of God is defined Functionally. The first command given to Adam and Eve after God’s declaration of their image-bearing duty is to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” (Gen. 1:28). God, the great King of all things mediates his rule through his image bearers. Image bearers play out their roles of authority and thus reflect the glory of the Creator. As Adam and Eve were to play out their roles as vice-regents over creation, they would effectively image God. In this way, there is a functional aspect of the image of God.
How should we understand the doctrine of the imago dei?
It is best to say the image of God exists in man substantially, and manifests itself in relational and functional ways. In this understanding we don’t deny the relational and functional aspects of our likeness to God, but we say that they flow from the spring of our substantial likeness to God. We are relational because God is relational. We function like God because we are like God.
It’s been said this way: “The image of God involves both structural and functional aspects. In our structure [or substance] as human beings we possess the image of God. This structural capacity should lead to proper functioning in the realms of relationships and ruling and subduing the creation.”
There are other implications. If we understand the image of God to be primarily relational or primary functional, then we are defining the image of God in terms of what people do rather than what people are. This would mean that those who aren’t able to act relationally or functionally (unborn babies, mentally handicapped, elderly), they either lack the image of God or they bear the image of God in a lesser degree. But it seems that God created all humans in his image–that the mere fact of being a human person means one bears the image of God. Thus, we hold all human life in high esteem not because of certain functions they can do but because of the fact that they bear God’s image.
So when we’re speaking of the image of God in man, we’re speaking of the ways in which man is made like God (substantial aspect), and the ways in which humans act out this likeness: relationships of male and female (relational aspect), and their ruling and reigning over creation (functional aspect).