Skip to main content

See also:

Gordon Clark on man being made in the image of God

It is virtually a truism among Christians that humans are made in the image of God(Gen. 1:26-27, 5:1, 9:6, 1 Cor. 11:7, Jas. 3:9). But what does this mean? Clark begins, in his articulation of what it means for man to have been made in the image of God, by emphasizing what ought to be an obvious point to most of us: namely, that God does not have a body. Therefore, being made in the image of God cannot have reference to God somehow "looking" like us. Furthermore, he notes that 1 Cor. 11:7 affirms that man is himself the image, rather than having the image of God as some sort of additional gift given to man. Clark notes that in spite of man's Fall, we are still made in the image of God. Sin mars our faculties but it does not efface the image of God in which we have been made. But what, for Clark, is the essence of having been made in the image of God?

Paradoxical though it may seem, man could not be the sinner he is, if he were not still God's image. Sinning presupposes rationality and voluntary decision. Animals cannot sin. Sin therefore requires God's image because man is responsible for his sins. If there were no responsibility, there could be nothing properly called sin. Sin is an offense against God, and God calls us to account. If we were not answerable to God, repentance would be useeless and even non-sense. Reprobation and hell would be impossible.

But if we say all this, have we not tied ourselves in theological knots? If we acknowledge that we are dead in sin, must we not affirm either that the image has been lost altogether (and then we would no longer be able to sin), or that the image has parts and that most of its parts, or at least the most important parts have been lost (thus destroying the unity of the person), or fdinally shoudl we retract the doctrine of total depravity and minimize sin?

The solution of this paradox is very easy and very clear. We note for one thing that Christ is the image of God (Heb. 1:3), and that he is the Logos and Wisdom of God. We note too that Adam was given dominion over nature. These two points, seemingly unrealted, suggest that the image of God is Logic or rationality. Adam was superior to the animals because [emphasis mine] he was a rational and not merely a sensory creation. The image of God therefore is reason(Clark, pp. 217-218).

But why must this be? Clark argues that the reason which "reason" and "logic" constitute the essence of being made in the image of God is because we alone are capable of fellowshipping with God, and rationality is a necessary condition for fellowshipping with God to be able to have knowledge of Him. For Clark, humans alone are capable of possessing knowledge. It must be emphasized that this does not mean that humans alone are capable of true belief. Rather, humans alone are capable of justified true belief, and are therefore alone capable of knowledge.

Without reason man would doubtless glorify God as do the stars, stones, animals, but he could not enjoy him forever. Even if in God's providence animals survive death and adorn the future world, they cannot have what the Scripture calls eternal life because eternal life is to know the only true God, and knowledge is an exercise of the mind or reason. Without reason there can be no morality or righteousness: these too require thought. Lacking these, animals are neither righteous nor sinful(Clark, p. 218).

But what exegetical defense does Clark have for such a conclusion? He argues that John 1:9, which describes Jesus as "the light which enlightens every man coming into the world", provides us with our answer. On the one hand, John 1 describes man as in darkness. On the other hand, everyone without exception, according to Clark's interpretation of this text, is in some respect enlightened. Clark concludes that this apparent contradiction can easily be solved by arguing that this text speaks of the natural illumination of reason and rationality, afforded man by being made in the image of God.

For Clark, it is a mistake to understand this text as speaking purely in redemptive terms. Instead, it is to be understood creationally, and humanity as God's creation is only produced by means of God's rationality. In other words, the rationality of the Logos is implicitly understood as operative in man's creation, and it is precisely this rationality which constitutes the essence of being made in the image of God(Clark, p. 218). Indeed, Clark famously understands John 1:1 as referring to Christ as the "Logic", rejecting the more popular translation as "Word." For Clark, while sin radically distorts and damages our intellectual and moral faculties, it never completely effaces the image of God in which we were created, and thus never makes us completely irrational.

For Clark, sin is not merely a problem of the will but a problem of the mind.

When men became vain in their imaginations and their foolish hearts were darkened; when they professed to be wise, but became fools; when god gave them over to a reprobate mind - their sin was first of all a noetic, intellectual mental malfunction.

Regeneration and the process of sanctification reverse the sinful direction of the malfunctioning: the person is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him. First the more obvious, the grosser sins are suppressed because the new man begins to think and evaluate in conformity with God's precepts. Second and third, the new man advances to restrain the more subtle, the more secret, the more pervasive sins that have made his heart deceitful above measure(Clark, pp. 219).

Clark notes that this understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God is perfectly in accord with an Eastern Orthodox understanding, despite their unfortunately inadequate view of sin. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, made a distinction between "image" and "likeness." He points out that this distinction is rooted in different words used in Gen. 1:27 and Gen. 5:1. Nevertheless, the two are synonyms and do not represent real theological differences. Gordon Clark outlines the disturbing theological motivation underlying this distinction:

Romanism exhibits another abberration. With the help of a fanciful exegesis, no doubt inspired by theological traditions, the Romanists distinguish between image and likeness. Scripture does not intened such a distinction, for not only is nothing made of it in the New Testament, but also Genesis 1:27 uses the word image alone and Genesis 5:1 uses likeness alone, though in each case the whole image is intended. The theological motivation has soteriological overtones. The image itself is rationality, an "extra gift" (donum superadditum), viz., original righteousness. When man fell, he lost the extrra gift and fell back to the level of his first created state, which therefore remains untouched by sin. The result is that while christ's sacrifice is necessary to salvation, it is not sufficient. Man by the exercise of his freewill must add to Christ's merits some of his own, and if a particular man does not engage in enoughg ood works, he can buy some merits from the treasury of the church, which the saints have amassed by doing more than was required of them(Clark, pp. 220-221).

Lutherans, Clark argues, overemphasize the moral aspect of the image at the expense of the rational aspect(Clark, p. 221). On the other hand, Karl Barth argued, in an attempt to safeguard the radical transcendence of God, denied that man had even been created in the image of God(Clark, p. 221). Indeed, for Barth, there is no similarity whatsoever between our knowledge and God's knowledge. Clark points out that if there is no interlap whatsoever in our knowledge and God's knowledge, it is difficult to understand how we can do anything like theology at all. It is difficult to imagine, Clark points out, how so prolific a theologian as Barth can really claim to have had such serious misgivings about the notion that our knowledge has an overlap with God's. Indeed, Barth wrote tons on theology. He clearly believed that he knew something about God. Clark notes that Barth eventually did acknowledge that man is created in the image of God, but still denied that this image consisted in rationality. Barth still seems to have held a position which more or less makes knowledge impossible. For Barth, being made in the image of God had to do with the distinction among the sexes. Clark notes that since this distinction obtains among animals as well, it is difficult to imagine why the Bible would consider having been made in the image of God so notable (Gen. 1:27, 5:5, 9:6, 1 Cor. 11:7).

one may say that the Biblical material is correctly summarized by identifyinf the distinctive characteristic of man [as mde in the image of God] as reason. Since has caused its malfunction. Redemption will renew men in knowledge (righteousness and holiness) after the image of him that created him. Then in heaven we will not make mistakes even in arithemetic(Clark, p. 222).

Clark, Gordon. The Image of God in Man. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 215-222.