The Image of God and Stewardship


This is the first of a series of articles on the implications of the creation of humanity in the image of God.

To be human

One of the most important statements in Scripture about what it means to be human occurs in the very first chapter of the Bible:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth.”

So God made man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27 ESV)

Although this is the essence of the Biblical definition of humanity, it is frequently ignored, misinterpreted or given little real consideration in contemporary Christianity. Misunderstanding this point leaves us with little practical foundation for understanding the multi-faceted responsibilities God has given us in this world.

Before exploring what the image of God is, it will be helpful to clear up some misconceptions that come from failing to understand the use of the phrase “image of god” in the ancient near east.

  • The image of God is not, as some liberal scholars have suggested, an explanation for anthropomorphic deities (i.e. gods who look like humans). Aside from getting things backward—if anything, the term describes humans as “theomorphic” (God-shaped) rather than God as anthropomorphic (man-shaped)—this idea misses the point of what the phrase was trying to convey. It says nothing about God, and everything about humanity and our responsibility to God.
  • The image of God is not found in human beings having a body like God’s, as the Mormons teach. This again misses the point. Scripture is clear that God is Spirit (Jn. 4:24) and the only body He has is Jesus’. This is why the second commandment bans the use of images in worship: by their very nature no image can convey the essence of an invisible, non-corporeal being. Images thus conceal more than they reveal and they can encourage us to think of God as less than and other than what He has revealed Himself to be. Yes, Scripture describes God as having arms, eyes, and ears. But these are metaphors to convey His ability to know and act in the world and do not tell us that God actually has a human-like body any more than the passages that say we are sheltered under His wings suggest that God is a heavenly chicken.
  • The image of God is not a form of idolatry, as Islam teaches. Mohammed grew up in the world of Arabian paganism, where idols were everywhere. In his move to monotheism, he rightly recognized that God does not have a body and so Islam absolutely banned any images of Allah because of the fear that they would lead people back to paganism and idolatry. Like the second commandment, Islam also argues that any representation of God is by nature false. So far so good. But Mohammed and his followers did not understand the significance of the phrase “image of God” in its cultural context. It does not refer to anything idolatrous. Ironically enough, its principal meaning is not very different from Islam’s understanding of the place of humans in the world.

So what did the phrase, “image of a god” mean in the ancient near east? In the Mesopotamian world, life was unpredictable and precarious. The area was subject to erratic and destructive flooding, and was open to invasion. It is no wonder then that the city states were literally built around religion: the center of every city was a ziggurat, a temple to the city’s major deity. Kings and queens solidified their position in these highly theocratic societies by associating themselves with the gods as their official regents and representatives to the world. As a result, they were commonly called the images of a god, because they were that god’s “face” in this world and thus had the right to rule.

Royal authority!

By designating humanity the image of God, Genesis conveys royal authority on us. This idea is further reinforced by the rest of Gen. 1:26. In Hebrew, when you want to emphasize something, you repeat it. Thus the angelic beings in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 declare God to be “holy, holy, holy.” Further, Hebrew poetry is characterized by “parallelism,” the repetition of an idea in different words. This can be seen in Ps.1:1-2 (ESV):

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the LORD

and on his law he meditates day and night.

The indented lines show parallelism at work: each line in the two groups repeats and elaborates on the same basic theme.

In Gen. 1:26, for the first and only time in the creation story, God consults with Himself about something He is about to create. The pronouncement He makes thus highlights the fact that something special is about to occur, and as is suited to the occasion, the language is heightened by a kind of parallelism similar to Hebrew poetry. God says He is going to create humanity in His image, and then elaborates on what that means by indicating that we are to have “dominion” over fish, birds, livestock, and all the earth.

At this point, a lot of Christians get nervous, because we know from history how tyrannical royalty can be. “Dominion” easily turns into domination and abuse. And in fact, Christians have been regularly accused of using this verse as an excuse for everything from strip mining and plundering resources to pollution.

In response, we must recognize that in the ancient near east, royal authority came from a god and thus was exercised in the god’s name and under the god’s authority. This is especially true in Genesis. True, we are given authority, but it is the authority of a steward, not of an independent monarch.

The Lord of the Rings (the book more than the movie) illustrates the difference well. The Stewards of Gondor have absolute authority to rule the city in the absence of the king, protecting it and holding it until such time as the king returns. If or when the king returns, the stewards are to return their stewardship to the king and are to be judged for the faithfulness with which they carried out their duties. As 1 Cor. 4:2 puts it, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.

In the same way, the earth is the Lord’s, not ours (Ps. 24:1). We may have dominion, but it is only the dominion of a steward, carrying with it the responsibility to pass on a carefully tended world to our heirs and to Christ when He returns.

This is not a new understanding of our environmental responsibilities. For example, John Calvin, who is regularly (and wrongly) vilified as providing the theological justification for out of control capitalism and the accompanying exploitation of the environment, had this to say in his commentary on Gen. 2:15:

Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavour to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits, that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits [it] to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let every one regard himself as the steward of all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God required to be preserved.[1]

In his sermon on Gen. 2:7-15, Calvin adds that whether rich or poor, we must remember that whatever we have, we must use it with the sure knowledge that one day, we will have to give an account to God of what we have done with the things He has entrusted to us.[2]

A question of stewardship

The historical Christian tradition has thus been committed to environmental stewardship, recognizing that though we have authority on earth, we also have great responsibility to use and develop the world as caretakers of God’s possession. We cannot fall into the trap of worshipping the world, as both ancient and modern paganism has done, but we cannot neglect our responsibilities either.

In the first instance, the image of God refers to humanity as royalty, appointed by God as His representatives, regents, and stewards over creation. This gives us enormous responsibilities, but also dignity and the right to enjoy the creation. It also establishes the only firm foundation for the idea of universal human rights, the subject of the next article in this series.


For additional insight to this topic, get the book,
Redeeming Creation, by Fred Van Dyke, et al, from our online store. Or read the article, “Appointed to Rule,” by T. M. Moore.

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, translated from the original Latin and compared with the French edition, by the Rev. John King, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 125.

[2] Jean Calvin, Sermons sur la Genèse, Chapitres 1,1-11,4, ed. Max Engammare (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2000), 108-109.



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