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What is the Image of God? J. Michael Thigpen

Home » What is the Image of God? J. Michael Thigpen

 

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen on how to best understand the image of God.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The relational and representational aspects of being created in God’s image
  • How the fall affects humanity’s reflection of the image of God
  • The transformational process Christians experience as they are conformed to the image of Christ
  • How rightly understanding the image of God affects our daily lives
  • Resources for further study on this subject.

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is provost and professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as an associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD in Judaic, Hebraic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College.

 

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:17):

Every generation has a particular doctrine that is most threatened. In our generation, that doctrine is theological anthropology. That is—what does it mean to be a human? Think about the questions that are asked in every newspaper, on every television show, and all throughout social media. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Are these genders interchangeable? How do men and women relate to one another? Folks, no other society in history has had to wonder if there’s a difference between men and women. Basic biology has been sufficient to know that there’s a difference. And now we read in multiple news sources about “pregnant people” instead of pregnant women—as though a man can be pregnant. We are on the precipice, or perhaps even over, the cliff of common sense on what it means to be human. Well, to understand this problem rightly, we need to go all the way back to the beginning.

 

Brian Arnold (01:05):

And when I say all the way back, I mean the first page of the Bible, when God created male and female, and he did so in his image. Well, what does this mean? What does it mean to be made in God’s image as male and female? If we get this right, it will help us iron out all the other wrinkles that are coming at us in society today. Well, to help us understand the image of God, we have with us today? Dr. Michael Thigpen. Dr. Thigpen serves as provost at Phoenix Seminary, which means that he runs the school while I get to lead the school. Well, before this, Dr. Thigpen spent the last decade serving as executive director of the Evangelical Society and taught at Talbot Seminary of Biola University. He holds a PhD in Judaic, Hebraic, and Cognate studies from Hebrew Union College, in addition to more than a decade of pastoral ministry. In other words, he’s amply qualified to help us understand this important question. Dr. Thigpen, welcome to the podcast.

 

Michael Thigpen (02:00):

Thank you, Brian. It’s great to be here.

 

Brian Arnold (02:02):

So, as you know, we always ask our guests one big question. Today that question is—what is the image of God? And actually to set the stage for that, I kind of want to complicate the issue, and that’s recognize that theologians have answered this question differently throughout time. So what are some of the different ways that people have understood this question?

 

Michael Thigpen (02:20):

Yeah. They fall into a few broad categories. Some have answered it, what we would say, ontologically. Meaning that something about our spiritual nature, our intellect, things about what makes us human that would be different from the animals, is what qualifies as the image of God. Others have gone after specific things like relational ability, because God’s in relationship in the Trinity, so our ability to have relationships is what is the image. And others broadly have answered it functionally—because we’re given dominion, a reign in Genesis 1, that it’s that reign and ruling function that defines us. Those have largely all fallen out of favor, but that’s kind of the history of the conversation, up until the modern era.

 

Brian Arnold (03:01):

Well then, let’s just dive right in. Of those kind of cafeteria of options, what do you think is the best way to understand the image of God?

 

Michael Thigpen (03:09):

I think the best way to understand it is broadly to say that we are connected to God and reflective of God in the world. And so it has kind of these two components to it. One in which we are related to God, in the same way that a son or daughter is related to their parents. That we have this familial connection. We are like our parents, whether we like that or not, right? We share these resemblances and things. And so you can look at a child and go—”that’s their child.” We can see it in them. But the other part of that is that we stand as people created in God’s image, meaning that we represent him in the world. And so we have kind of these two sides—that we are connected to God and reflective of him in the world. And I would think of this, largely, as a representational reign. That we’ve been put here to represent him through our reigning in the world. And so we have to always keep both sides of this in mind when we talk about us being made in the image of God.

 

Brian Arnold (04:06):

So obviously this is critically important in the Bible, because it occurs on the very first page. As God is creating…and we get these seven days of creation, on the sixth day creating man, and man in his image. So this is going to set a tone for the rest of the Bible, of our relationship with God. So if I am there, and Moses comes down with the book of Genesis, and it’s the first time any of us are reading this together—what is in my mind, as someone in the ancient near east, as to what the image of God means, in this kind of historical context?

 

Michael Thigpen (04:36):

I think we’ve got these two terms in Genesis 1, where we’re made in the image and the likeness. And those two terms really represent those two halves. There’s a famous inscription in the ancient near east, on a statue from Tell Fakhariyeh. So it’s an Aramaic-Akkadian kind of bilingual, so it’s written in two languages. And it uses these terms in it, referring to a king and a statue of the king. And so in the early part, when it begins to talk about likeness, it refers to the role of the king and his relationship to the god. Now this is a pagan king outside of Israel. So he’s not worshiping Yahweh. But he…it refers to his relationship with the god. And this is really the part that’s core to being a king in the ancient near east, because every king is thought of as the “son of the god.”

 

Michael Thigpen (05:20):

And so there is this now familial connection, as it were, between them. But the other term, image, is used to think about his relationship to the people that he rules. And that’s where we would think of things like…kings would put a little statue of themselves, or an inscription somewhere, to remind everybody there—you belong to me, and you are mine. So it’s a reminder of his presence and their relationship. And so they would have thought in these terms. They would have thought of it…you know, Genesis 5, Seth is made in Adam’s image. We think of Genesis 9, we’re going to have to deal with murder, because man is made in the image of God. So they would have thought of these sort of representational kinds of ideas, alongside this way of thinking about familial relationship.

 

Brian Arnold (06:06):

And one of the ways that might help even our listeners to think through this, is we do something like this with the president of the United States. So as soon as the inauguration is happening, all over the country in every federal building, they are taking down the last portrait of the president and putting up the new portrait of the president. As if to say—his rule and his reign extends to this place.

 

Michael Thigpen (06:26):

We even do it in non-image ways. Most states, when you enter the state on the highway, the name of the governor, whoever that is, is on the first “welcome to…” sign that you see. We kind of mark the borders that way.

 

Brian Arnold (06:38):

Absolutely. So we see this in our modern world. This isn’t just an ancient concept. We practice it today, in many different ways. Well, if the story begins in Genesis 1 in this plush garden of paradise in Eden, and everything is right, and man is in relationship with God, relationship with one another…things don’t continue on there, do they? So in Genesis 3, we get the fall of man. And how does that affect the image of God? Does it…is it lost? Is it distorted? Is it marred? How would you describe what’s happened with the fall of man?

 

Michael Thigpen (07:13):

Yeah, this is a huge issue and there is pretty wide disagreement amongst theologians. I think traditionally more theologians have talked about this as the image either being destroyed or marred. And then they think of it coming back again, when someone comes to follow Christ, and they’re recreated, right? So we use that same kind of language. They’re recreated, now we’re made in the image of his Son, we’re being conformed to his image, so they’ll think of that. I think, however, there are some problems when you think about the image being marred or destroyed. And I think what I just…John Kilner’s work in this—John Kilner is an ethicist, and he’s written about this widely—so he asks questions like, well, what does that mean, then, if you have someone…especially if you have, say, a intellectual definition of the image of God? So let’s combine a couple of things here.

 

Michael Thigpen (08:00):

You think the image of God is because we’re rational, we can speak, but it can be destroyed. So what do you do with an infant? What do you do with someone who is disabled? Are they no longer in the image of God? So it creates some ethical issues here, because you might look at someone and go—the image is gone, therefore you’re not really human. And that becomes just a huge issue. I think the better way to think of it is if we think about the two halves of what the image means. Nothing can alter the fact that I’ve been created by God. Even the fact that I may not have a relationship with him as my Savior doesn’t change the fact that he made me. So that is undestroyable. What can be, however, misconstrued—maybe we’ll put it that way—is the way that I reflect him in the world. Because that requires some of my choice, and some of the way that I’m either obedient or disobedient to him, is the extent to which I reflect him or not.

 

Michael Thigpen (08:54):

But this base characteristic, that every human being, regardless of their relationship with God, regardless of any physical or mental attribute, they are created in the image of God, they are, in sort of a colloquial way, they are a “chip off the old block.” We use that expression, there’s nothing that can change that. Not disease, not deformity, not intellectual impairment, nothing. But my sinfulness can impact the way that I represent him in the world. So I can be a really poor representative. And in that way, I may harm the image, in that I’m not doing the role that a good crown prince should be doing of representing.

 

Brian Arnold (09:30):

And are a bad representation of that, until one is in Christ, and made new again, and recreated in a 2 Corinthians 5 kind of way—that if anyone is in Christ, he’s a new creation—the old has gone, the new has come. You’re going to be a better representative of the image of God. I want to go back to a passage you mentioned before, kind of in passing, but I think can help even answer some of this. And that’s Genesis 9. So for those of you who that may not ring a bell for, the flood is now over and God is going to make a covenant with Noah. He’s not going to flood the world again. He sets his rainbow in the sky and says in Genesis 9:6 that if anyone destroys another man, he likewise will be destroyed, because of the image of God. Right? So if the image of God was lost in the fall, there’d be no basis for that kind of argument in Genesis 9, right?

 

Michael Thigpen (10:21):

That’s absolutely true. And there are clear connectors in Genesis 9 that want us to look back. So if you look at the pieces that are part of Genesis 1:26-28, blessing is present in Genesis 9, as Noah comes off the ark. He’s given the command to be fruitful and multiply, exactly like that. The only thing that really is missing, is when we get to the subduing the earth part of the mandate, to have dominion and subdue the earth. What he’s given in place of that, the same spot where we would expect that to come, we’re given this command to carry out capital punishment, to deal with murderers. And so that really is now, on this side of sin, one of the aspects of subduing the earth, is thinking about this. You’re going to have to deal with sin. And the primary sin that led up to the flood was violence and murder and those kinds of things.

 

Michael Thigpen (11:10):

So he’s now saying society is going to have to engage both the victim and the murderer. And they’re going to have to bring justice in that situation. And so you’re exactly right—if the image of God is gone because of sin, then there’s no basis for that text. We could say this in other ways, that it continues, because the core idea here…a lot of people would be surprised—image of God language doesn’t stay around long. In other words, it’s not used over and over and over. What is used is the language of sonship. So we have…Israel is cast as early as Exodus 4:22, as Israel is my son. And we go all the way to the gospels and in the genealogy, right—Adam is a son of God, because he’s been born by him. So we pick it up, and shift it from image to son. And that’s largely how we move through the rest of the time.

 

Brian Arnold (11:59):

And peel back the curtain for some of our listeners, who may not be familiar with even how we theologically put the Bible together. So kind of what we’re doing right now is called biblical theology. We’re taking this idea, this image of God idea, that appears at the beginning of the Bible, and how it unfolds, as you said, through Genesis 5 and Genesis 9, and then into sonship. So maybe continue to trace that out a little bit through the Old Testament. But then I want to hear how it culminates in Christ. And then what that means for the believer, if Jesus is the true image of God.

 

Michael Thigpen (12:30):

Yeah. This one is really, really fascinating to kind of think about how it all comes together. So as we go on, Israel is going to have this reign function, not only in each individual, but they’re going to have this image as a nation, because they are called to represent God in the world. They’re his unique kind of people. So people are supposed to look at them and go, “wow, you have this awesome God, because look at the law he has given you, look at the justice, look at the promises and how he’s kept them.” So they bear this connection to God and reflection of God. That’s their role as a nation. What’s interesting to me, is as we kind of cycle through and we come into the New Testament, when Peter wants to look back and talk about who we are as believers, he doesn’t talk about us as prophets.

 

Michael Thigpen (13:16):

What he talks about is a kingdom of priests, which is the way the nation of Israel is talked about. So we now, as believers, have the same role—that we’re to be connected to God and reflective of him in the world. But more specifically, now we’re to be people who are connected to Christ, made in his image, and then reflective of him in the world. What’s interesting now, though, it is…much of this is now at a process level. Whereas in the garden before the fall they simply are connected to God and reflective of him. They don’t have to work at this, in some ways, because it’s just there. But we think about 2 Corinthians 3:18—we are being transformed into the same image. What image? Into the image of God, the image of Christ, who is the perfect image of God. But we’re being taken there one degree at a time. And so not in our creation—my recreation is perfect. He’s made me new and whole. My expression of that, and my reflection to the world needs shaping and forming and conforming to the image of Christ.

 

Brian Arnold (14:25):

Well, and one of the things you said earlier, about image being about representation, even after the fall—Jesus represents God perfectly.

 

Michael Thigpen (14:35):

Yes.

 

Brian Arnold (14:35):

In every aspect. So to see him is to see the Father. So what does it mean to be in the image of God? He has an exact image, an exact imprint, as Scripture says, of what that looks like and represents. And now, as we’re transformed into Christ-likeness, like you said, one degree of glory to the next, we are beginning to recover, even that fullness of the image, which will be restored, I would think, in glory. So how do you see this, even 10 trillion years into the future? We are around the throne of God…well, really back on earth. Like how does this play out—image of God, fully fulfilled, if you can say, in the eschaton?

 

Michael Thigpen (15:14):

I think we look a lot at what’s going on in Genesis 1. Which is, as humanity, we are connected to God rightly. We’re reflective of him rightly. And we live communal, cooperative lives, right? So if you look at the way that humanity expresses him, this is one of the things we really have to be careful about. If I want to emphasize my creation in the image of God, I have to also recognize and emphasize your creation in the image of God. Because it’s humanity who’s been created in the image of God. And really, as we look in Genesis 1, it’s male and female are man, humanity. It’s that same term that’s used—created in the image of God. So this fullness of the image of God expressed in people requires a communal, cooperative platform. Man and wife have to cooperate together to have a family, and to begin to fulfill the command to multiply and fill the earth.

 

Michael Thigpen (16:04):

Israel, as God’s son, has to cooperate together to live out this life of holiness that they’ve been called to, and to reflect that to the world. The church, thought of as a body, right? So as an image here, almost, has all these parts that have to cooperate together communally, or the body doesn’t work and operate under the head, Christ, the way that it should. So in the eschaton, we will be there—fully communal, fully cooperative, in all the ways we should have been from the very beginning, perfectly reflecting him for all time. Learning and growing together, but doing it the way that we should have.

 

Brian Arnold (16:42):

Folks, if you’re tracking with us, that is from the first pages of the Bible to well after the last page of the Bible, understanding of the image of God. I think you’ve laid that out really well for us, Mike. Let me shift us a little bit and say—what does that mean for the person listening right now, who struggles to see worth and value in their own life? Or just the tensions that are mounting in culture? As we see so much vitriol between people, even between Christians over a lot of questions—how does knowing the image of God rightly, shape our lives now? In some of these really particular ways—we can think about human sexuality, we can think about abortion. So yeah, what do you think?

 

Michael Thigpen (17:25):

Let me go two places here—the two places where I get this most commonly, as I talk with folks in the church. And the first one is identity for us, oftentimes is something external. So I spent a period of time in my life where I didn’t have a job. And so the first thing that happens when you meet someone, is they, you know, “what’s your name?” And the second question is—what do you do? And when you’re without work, you come to realize really quickly that your identity is where your paycheck comes from. I spent a period of time where I was frustrated because I wasn’t teaching. I wasn’t in a pastorate. I was working in the business world. And I’m frustrated because I’m not who I’m supposed to be, because my paycheck is from the wrong place. Now I’m an elder in a local church,

 

Michael Thigpen (18:07):

I’m teaching regularly, I’m doing all the things, but my paycheck is written from the wrong institution. And so part of what I came to learn over time, is that part of the angst, my depression, the things that I was wrestling with is because I make my identity things that come after and flow out of my identity. So if you look at Genesis 1, and the way it lays this out, it says—let us make man in our image, so that—and that’s the way the NIV will translate, and it’s really right, it’s the way the Hebrew reads—so that they can have dominion and do these other things. So everything that we do in the world flows from our identity. It is not the source of our identity. We get that wrong, and everything falls apart from there. So when I…typically, when people are wrestling with worth and value and those kinds of things, it’s because the externals are all not going well. Relationships are faltering, other things are failing.

 

Michael Thigpen (18:58):

They’re not given the respect that they’re due. Everything that happens after our creation is where most of those troubles lie. So you have two things that I would encourage people to think about. One is, you have been created in the image of God. Even the person who may be listening that’s not a believer, is not a follower of Christ. You have been created in the image of God. And that is something that no one can remove from you. But even more beautifully, those who are followers of Christ, they have been remade. They have been recreated, made a new creation in the image of God, in the image of Christ and are being conformed to that. So your worth and your value is in your creation. For those of us who are believers, it’s in our double creation—our creation as people in the image of God, and our recreation and our rebirth into this new humanity, following Christ.

 

Michael Thigpen (19:50):

So I would think about those. I think on the other end, you have a lot of struggles and a lot of conflict. And part of what the image of God does, is it absolutely denies our sense of identity politics, right? So we think about it most…let’s take socioeconomic conflict. And the issue is that I want to think about it in those kinds of ways. Well, normally what we’re looking at here is that I’m going to group people according to whether they’re like me. Are they poor? Are they rich? Are they middle class? And I’m one of those. So I’m mostly connected to them. What the Scriptures really go after is that’s not just. Justice comes when you treat the poor man as though he’s rich. When you treat the rich man as though he’s poor. In other words, their status has no meaning. And the text actually says, do not defer or prefer the poor.

 

Michael Thigpen (20:40):

And it says not to bow to the rich. So you give no deference here. So a lot of our conflicts, whether it’s over a theological stance, how we understand abortion, what we want to do, any of those things, are because we polarize. We grab groups that are like us, and say—that’s my closest identity. The text says no. Even for non-believers, your closest identity is everybody else made the image of God. And you need them all. You need to be communal and cooperative with them, so that you can fulfill what God’s made you to be. For the believer, it is—no, no, the body of Christ is the most significant thing, because you’ve been baptized into this body. And it’s that communal cooperative thing that God is doing that’s most significant. You sort out everything else on the back end, because this is the most critical. So it absolutely says you can not go through life with kind of an identity politics approach, where you’re either taking socioeconomic status, some position, and making that the basis of the most important relationships you have. At a fundamental level, we’re all related, because we’re created in the image of God and we require each other to do this thing we call being human. And on the other end, we require every other believer to do this thing called being a follower of Christ. Because in both we’ve been created for communal and cooperative roles.

 

Brian Arnold (21:56):

I think that’s beautifully and thoughtfully said. And we can really boil a lot of that down to—you are loved.

 

Michael Thigpen (22:03):

Yes.

 

Brian Arnold (22:03):

As bearing God’s image. And that puts us in relationship with others in a way that is not reflected very well in the world today. But if Christians really began to do that and recognize—I’m created in the image of God, and I’m going to love out of my own image-bearing to another image-bearer, that would really change the way we look at other people. And we would see the church, I think, really begin to flourish as that took place. I want to, maybe just in 30 seconds to a minute, see if you could answer—how does it play out in the church, specifically? So we’ve talked kind of on the individual level, but how do you see this impacting a local church?

 

Michael Thigpen (22:45):

I think for the local church, it really is a lot of what Paul’s talking about with gifts and the way that they’re distributed. And we’re going to have various giftings, but we need them all. So we’re going to have humanity’s created in the image, it must be cooperative, it must work communally to accomplish this multiplying and filling the earth. The same way, the church has been created as a communal entity. And so I really think it is the valuing of every individual, not just the pastor, not just the one who holds a title, but everyone. They’re all needed. They’re all necessary. And together we are the body of Christ. I cannot be the body of Christ.

 

Brian Arnold (23:19):

Yeah. Image is not sameness, but it’s value.

 

Michael Thigpen (23:21):

It is. And actually, it’s not just—not it isn’t sameness, it actually is difference.

 

Brian Arnold (23:28):

Yeah.

 

Michael Thigpen (23:28):

We must have the difference, in order to fulfill what God’s designed.

 

Brian Arnold (23:32):

It’s part of how we’re created in the image, is even the diversity of male and female, right? Is to show that, to reflect that. Well, could you mention a resource that would be really helpful to our listeners if they want to dive a little bit deeper into what the image of God is?

 

Michael Thigpen (23:47):

I’ll mention two. One is John Kilner’s Dignity and Destiny. It’s a great resource on this. And the second one is Ryan Peterson’s Imago Dei. Two great theological resources on the image of God. And from my mind, I think that they’re the two best.

 

Brian Arnold (24:03):

And readable, and accessible, and something that could really help people grow in that. Well, that’s great. Well, God has set apart us as humans in a very important way. And that’s that only we bear the image of God. And this should show us just how loved we are by God. It’s why he sent his Son to rescue his image-bearers. And today, amidst all the confusion in the world, I think it’s important that we remind people of their value and their worth. That God has purposefully created them, male and female in his image. Dr. Thigpen, thank you so much for being with us today.

 

Outro (24:33):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

 

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