Imago Dei is Latin for "image of God," a theological doctrine common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims that denotes humankind's relation to God on the one hand and all other living creatures on the other. Traditionally, only human beings are in the image of God, and it is by virtue of this image that human beings are moral and spiritual creatures. Because the image of God is ultimately a doctrine of human nature, it has also been inappropriately used historically to justify racism and sexism.
The term image of God is originally found in the biblical book of Genesis, where it occurs three times (1: 26–27, 5: 1–3, 9:1–7). The meaning of the term in the original Hebrew context has been much debated, although current scholarship has moved to understanding it as a designation of stewardship or representation of God's sovereignty. This understanding of the image of God seems to be significantly changed in the Christian New Testament, where it is used primarily by the apostle Paul, who speaks of Christ as being in God's image and of human beings becoming in the image of Christ.
In the Christian theological tradition, the image of God has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. Most ancient and medieval theologians identified the image of God primarily with the human ability to reason, and it was this quality that was seen to distinguish human beings from all other organisms. Irenaeus of Lyon (second century) made a further distinction between the image and likeness of God, as both terms are used in Genesis 1. As a consequence, later theologians argued whether or not human beings are still in the image of God after the Fall, or whether human beings have lost the image and are now merely in God's likeness. On this understanding, the Fall permanently altered human nature for the worse, the image being restored only through the redeeming action of Christ.
In the wake of the Reformation, the image of God came to be reinterpreted along two primary lines. The first, following Martin Luther (1483–1546), interpreted the image of God primarily in terms of human relationality with God, a move followed especially by Karl Barth (1886–1968) and the neo-orthodox movement. The second followed the dominant philosophical interpretations of human nature in the Enlightenment and after. Particularly after Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the image of God has often been seen in the human capacity for self-consciousness.
Many modern theologians continue to be influenced by one of these two strands of thought. The chief influence of the sciences has been to emphasize human continuity with nature, either because of humankind's evolutionary heritage or because of humankind's increased knowledge of the animal world. For this and other reasons, theologians such as Langdon Gilkey (1919–) and Gregory Peterson (1966–) have argued that all of nature should be understood as being in the image of God. Nevertheless, interpretation of the image of God continues to be dynamic, and will no doubt be increasingly influenced by both scientific perspectives and inter-religious dialogue.
See also Fall; Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Soul
borresen, kari elisabeth, ed. the image of god: gender models in judaeo-christian tradition. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1985.
gilkey, langdon. nature, reality, and the sacred: the nexus of science and religion. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1993.
johnson, gunnlaugur a. the image of god: genesis 1: 26–28 in a century of old testament research. stockholm, sweden: almqvist & wiksell, 1988.
peterson, gregory. "the evolution of consciousness and the theology of nature." zygon 34 (1999): 283–306.
gregory r. peterson