Luther and the Image of God

Genesis 1:26-27—On the image of God

“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 and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[1]

In his Commentary on Genesis, Martin Luther provides a compelling and unique perspective on Gen. 1:26-27 regarding humanity’s creation in the “image of God.” Truly, the Imago Dei is a perplexing matter. In one sense, there is widespread agreement on what the phrase fundamentally means—that man is like, and reflects, God. In another sense, there is seemingly infinite variety as to the meaning—how is it that man was created like God? Still more, there is quite possibly a neglect of plain exegesis as it pertains to what the image refers to. This paper will reflect on Luther’s words regarding the image of God, praising and critiquing where necessary, in order to better understand the Scriptural message.

In our image, after our likeness

Luther, commenting on Gen. 1:26-27, summarizes the church’s historical view of the image of God, citing Augustine. The image of God in man, he says, is generally agreed to be “the powers of the soul—memory, the mind or intellect, and will.” He says the church then surmised further that there is similitude in the gifts of grace, in that our nature is perfected through grace. To summarize, Luther says, “the intellect is enlightened by faith, the memory is made confident through hope and steadfastness, and the will is adorned with love.”[2] At this point, Luther appears to be in modest agreement with Augustine.

Luther’s exegesis brings the effects of sin to the forefront, and necessarily points to the gospel as ultimate hope for restoration of that image. Man was not intended to be debilitated as he is now. He was supposed to be like Adam.

Then, in a swift change of direction, it seems that Luther disavows the church’s historical view, saying, “Memory, will, and mind we have indeed; but they are most depraved and most seriously weakened” and if they be the image of God, then Satan contains the image of God more than humanity.[3] No, Luther argues, “the image of God … was something far more distinguished and excellent … [Adam] not only knew God and believed that He was good, but that he also lived a life that was wholly godly … without fear of death or of any other danger.”[4] Interestingly, twice, he refers to the image of God in the past tense and as something, because of the fall, that we cannot presently understand. Yet, even though Luther claims the image of God was far different and is wholly unknowable, he actively describes the image and frequently using the terms memory, will, and mind, albeit heightened.

Harkening back to the opening paragraph, we understand the image of God to be both simple to understand, in that we are like God, and difficult to understand to the full extent of its meaning. Could it be that this difficulty is purposeful? Currid suggests that the explanatory preposition, “after our likeness,” in Gen. 1:26 is a “preposition of agreement in kind” meaning “the point of comparison is vague, in order to allow the analogy to open up.” The reader is called to “engage the analogy and find not one but many contacts between the things compared.”[5] In this sense, Luther’s pondering on the original image of God in Adam is helpful. Luther’s exegesis brings the effects of sin to the forefront, and necessarily points to the gospel as ultimate hope for restoration of that image. Man was not intended to be debilitated as he is now. He was supposed to be like Adam; wholly godly (righteous) and superior in memory, mind, and will.

Could it be that “image of God” is primarily meant to convey humanity’s status as royal vice-regents?

However, Luther’s explanation does obscure an important point: the image, though corrupted and distorted, is in fact retained by humanity (Gen. 9:6). James 3:9 reveals that even in New Testament times, people “are made in the likeness of God.” First Corinthians 11:7 plainly asserts that people still are “the image and glory of God.”[6] Kidner, citing James 3:7-8, maintains that this image is also retained after the fall to some degree.

Yet, Luther also tends to divide the image of God. First, he divides into categories of memory, intellect, will, etc., and secondly he divides that from humanity’s royal status, in which we are commanded to exercise dominion. Luther states of dominion, “even this image has been almost completely lost” (emphasis mine).[7] But the image is not to be dissected. Kidner notes, “the Bible makes man a unity: acting, thinking, feeling with his whole being.”[8] Furthermore, quoting Delitzsch, Kidner argues, “the dominion over all creatures is ‘not the content but the consequence’ of the divine image.”[9]

Subjective inferences rather than objective exegesis?

Yet, even in this response it is possible that we drift too far from objective exegesis. Could it be that “image of God” is primarily meant to convey humanity’s status as royal vice-regents? Luther regretfully does not spend considerable time on the subject. Hamilton contends, “it is clear that v. 26 is not interested in defining what is the image of God in man … nevertheless innumerable definitions have been suggested … most … based on subjective inferences rather than objective exegesis.”[10]

On the contrary, Hamilton sees the primary exegesis of text as plainly decreeing humanity’s royal status. He notes that in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian society it was common for kings or high-ranking officials to be called the “image of God.”[11] Currid and Kidner agree.  Hamilton later affirms that both “image” and “dominion” reflect royal language.[12] The text indicates that man was created to rule. Much more can be said about humanity’s role as vice-regents. But that in itself is a point deserving of further meditation. Perhaps in interpreting Gen. 1:26-27, the reader ought to begin with an acknowledgment of image of God indicating humanity’s royal status and launch to reflection from there rather than circling back to it when dominion is introduced.


[1] All Scripture quotations will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5, Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1958), 60

[3] Luther, 61

[4] Ibid., 62-63

[5] John D. Currid, A study commentary on Genesis (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2003), 85

[6] John Piper, “The Image of God: An Approach from Biblical and Systematic Theology,” Published in Studia Biblica et Theologica, March 1, 1971,

[7] Luther, 67

[8] Derek Kidner, Genesis: an introduction and commentary, Tyndale Old Testament commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 55

[9] Kidner, 56

[10] Victor P. Hamilton, The book of Genesis chapters 1-17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 137

[11] Hamilton, 135

[12] Hamilton., 37


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