[[This article is an adapted excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World: Why Language Is at the Center of Everything (Wipf & Stock, 2019).]]
People comprise a unique part of God’s creation precisely because we are made in his image and likeness. But it can be difficult to understand precisely what this means. Theologians throughout the history of the church have often defined the image of God (imago Dei) more broadly as consisting in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that God “created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image” (WCF 4.2). This is certainly true and plain from certain passages of Scripture, such as Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24. Our ability to know anything on a creaturely level, to live a righteous life by the Spirit of God, and to set ourselves apart from the sinful world mark us as image bearers. Another part of our image is our dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26). God rules over all things, but he has given ruling privileges to his creatures that reflect his own dominion.
However, there is an element of God’s image in man that presents itself in the immediate context of the creation account (Gen. 1–2), and this element follows from all that we have witnessed so far: we image God in our ability to use language, that is, in our exercise of communion behavior. In fact, I would argue that this is the burning core of God’s image in us and the basis for all of our other imaging attributes (i.e., knowledge, righteousness, holiness). Language is thus a very special reflection of God in us. It is the prism through which divine light refracts and illuminates the world around us. Richard Gaffin seems to bring this out when he writes,
As our being itself is derived from God (we exist because he exists), and as our knowledge is an analogue of his knowledge (we know because he knows), so, too, our capacity for language and other forms of communication is derivative of his. We speak because God speaks, because he is a speaking God; that is his nature and so, derivatively, it is ours. In other words, man in his linguistic functions, as in all he is and does, is to be understood as the creature who is the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). In fact, should we not say that especially in his language man reflects the divine image he is? (Gaffin, 2004, pp. 182-83)
Yes, “especially in his language.” We can better understand this once we have a sense of who we were created to be. So, let us begin with a question: who are we? The church’s teaching on the image of God is meant, in part, to answer this question with Scriptural fidelity. So, let us follow in that path and first try to understand who we are by looking at the creation of Adam and Eve as persons. This will help us better appreciate how language is central to our being made in God’s image.
A Genesis Definition of ‘Persons’
Much has been written about the meaning of the word ‘person’ over the centuries. This was a particularly important word for the church, since ‘person’ (with its variations in Latin and Greek) has long been used as a reference for humans and yet, since the formation of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century, it has also been used in a distinct sense to refer to the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. So, we must be careful in how we define human persons in distinction from divine persons. Remember that there is a qualitative distinction between God and his creatures, but amidst that distinction there is also continuity and analogy. Thus, when we say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are divine persons, we are simultaneously separating them from humans and yet relating them to humanity in some way. This is required by the biblical teaching of God’s image in us.
So, what does Genesis have to say about who we are as human persons, as image-bearing creatures of the tripersonal God? As we have already noted, Genesis 1:26 tells us that we were made in God’s image and after his likeness, and that we were given dominion over all else that God had spoken into being. It also tells us that we were created “male and female” (1:27). Then, after offering abundant, sustaining resources to his image bearers (1:29–30), God makes his pronouncement: all that he had made was “very good.”
We might ask, in what sense were persons created as “very good”? There are many senses that we could explore, but let us focus on the sense that involves language, what I call communion behavior. As Bavinck writes, “It is not man alone, or woman exclusively, but both of them, and those two in interdependence, who are the bearers of the image of God” (Bavinck, 1956, pp. 184-85). He goes on to say that Adam’s nature “inclines to the social—he wants company. He must be able to express himself, reveal himself, and give himself. He must be able to pour out his heart, to give form to his feelings. He must share his awareness with a being who can understand him and can feel and live along with him” (p. 188).
You might notice the parallels here that are drawn between God as the self-communicating Trinity and man as his communicating image bearer. Even before the creation of Eve, Adam had interpersonal communication with God. In that sense, part of his personhood—in fact, the foundation of his personhood—was communion behavior with his maker (See the related post on communion as the heart of God’s image in us). God’s creation of Eve confirms the centrality of communion behavior to Adam’s identity. As persons, we long to express, reveal, and give ourselves to God and to others. And in that expressing, revealing, and giving we long to grow closer to the God who made us in his image and to our fellow human beings who are also in relationship with God. In other words, people long to practice communion behavior in a way that parallels God on the creaturely level. God is three divine persons in one essence who eternally commune with each other in love and glory; his finite image bearers are endowed with a capacity and longing for communion with him and with other finite persons. To put it briefly, God is supernaturally relational in himself; we are derivatively relational with him and with one another.
Colin Gunton, among other recent theologians, has reinforced this notion that personhood is intrinsically relational. Following the thought of the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, Gunton writes, “As persons we are only what we are in relation to other persons” (Gunton, 1997, p. 88). Gunton finds this truth professed most emphatically in the Eastern church (which, admittedly, has its own theological problems to wrestle with). For him, “The logically irreducible concept of the person as one whose uniqueness and particularity derive from relations to others was developed by the Eastern Fathers in the heat of their concern for the loyalty of the Christian church to the biblical understanding of God” (p. 96).
Now, this may sound novel to some readers. In the history of western orthodox Christianity, this understanding of personhood has not been emphasized. Much of the time, the rational nature of humans has been the focal point in defining persons as individuals. But what I hope our brief discussion of Genesis 1–2 has pointed out thus far is that understanding persons as intrinsically relational is patently biblical. Adam and Eve together constitute the image of God. They are pronounced “very good” as relational creatures.
Genesis 1–2 thus reveals that we are communing creatures—spoken into being so that we might speak back to God and to other persons made in his image.
Conscious and Interpersonal Speakers
The previous discussion helps pave the way for a deeper understanding of the image of God in us as it relates to language (communion behavior).
There are two senses in which we image God in our use of language. The first sense is what I will call the consciousness analogy. That phrase sounds abstract, but here is what it means. In Genesis and all throughout Scripture, we see that God the Father speaks the Word in the power of the Spirit. Recall Ps. 33:6, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” At creation, the Father spoke his Word in the power of the Spirit and uttered reality as we know it into existence. This was a reflection, we noted, of the eternal communion behavior of God in himself. In eternity, God forever speaks his Word (the Son) in the power and hearing of the Holy Spirit.
The Father, his eternal Word, and the Spirit are also coinherent. The Father is in the Word, and the Word is in the Father, and the Spirit is in the Father and the Son, and so on. We can also refer to this as indwelling. The persons of the Godhead mutually indwell one another, and so by extension the Speaker (Father), his Word (Son), and his Breath (Spirit) indwell one another.
The Father’s wisdom is expressed in the Word. This expression in the Word shows that the Father dwells in the Son. The Father’s thought is in the Son. In addition, the Father’s word is in the Father even before he expresses it to the world. That implies that the Son dwells in the Father. And the Spirit, as the breath of God, works in power in conformity with the character of the Word. The Spirit is in the Son and the Son is in the Spirit. The Spirit carries out the purpose of the Father, and manifests the power of the Father, which implies that the Father dwells in the Spirit and the Spirit in the Father. (Poythress, 2009, p. 21)
This is the consciousness analogy of language for God: Speaker, Speech, and Breath.
Because we are created in God’s image, we also speak words in the power of our breath. Thus, the consciousness analogy of language is simply another thing we can observe in light of the union between Genesis 1 and John 1. “In the Trinity, the language in John 1:1 represents the Father as the speaker, the Son as the speech (the Word), and the Holy Spirit as the breath. This triad in speech is clearly analogous to what happens in human speech. We have a human speaker, his speech, and the breath or other medium that carries the speech to its destination” (Poythress, 2009, p. 31). Every day we image God the moment we open our mouths. In fact, in a sense, we even image the divine Speaker, Word, and Breath with regards to coinherence or indwelling. Our words dwell in us, as does the breath we use to produce them.
Our imaging of God in the consciousness analogy (speaker, speech, and breath) is quite profound and should draw us to awe and worship. Of course, because of the difference between the Creator and his creatures, there are differences between us in this analogy. Though it may seem that I have driven this point into the ground, we must constantly remind ourselves that God is qualitatively different from us. (Much theology goes awry precisely because this qualitative distinction is disregarded or forgotten.) An example of this qualitative difference is the fact that we do not have the ability to create things with our speech; that is a power only God has. But even here, because we are made in his image, there are creaturely derivatives that point back to this creative capacity of God’s speech. For example, we forge or create relationships with our words. Every time we meet a stranger, we have the opportunity to use the God-given power of language to begin forming a relationship with that person. We can use language, too, when building upon our existing relationships with our family members and friends. Language for humans has been endowed by God with a creative or shaping power that images God’s all-powerful speech on a creaturely level.
The second sense in which we image God in our use of language is what I will call the interpersonal analogy. I have written elsewhere about how God is a self-communicative being. He is one God in three persons who eternally express accolades of love and glory to each other. In an analogous way, we express ourselves to other human persons. As Bavinck put it, we long to express, reveal, and give ourselves to others. However, because of the effects of sin on our lives, “love and glory” are seldom the words that capture our interpersonal communication. Now, it is true that we should only be “glorifying” God, not other people, so that word does not apply to creaturely communication. But we are repeatedly called upon to honor our father and mother (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16; Matt. 15:4) and to honor one another (Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 12:26; Phil. 2:29; 1 Tim. 5:3; 1 Pet. 2:17; 3:7), and honor is a derivative of glory. In addition, there are many passages in the New Testament that call us to love one another (John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 17; Rom. 12:10; 13:8; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 4:2; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9; Heb. 10:24; 1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11). Foundational to this interpersonal human love, however, is the love we are to have for God himself, as Moses wrote in Deuteronomy, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5).
Let us pause here to make a very important point: our love for God grounds our love for others. In other words, the interpersonal love we have for God is meant to inspire interpersonal love for other creatures made in his glorious image. The interpersonal love we have for God is rooted in the interpersonal love that is expressed among the persons of the Godhead. So, there is a relationship between God’s love for himself, our love for God, and our love for others.
Having said that, we struggle to love God and to love others because of the effects of sin in our lives. Elsewhere I discuss what I call the “linguistic nature” of sin—how our sinful behavior is a disruption and distortion of the communion behavior we were always meant to practice in faithfulness.
The interpersonal analogy of communication in God is also represented in the New Testament, where each of the divine persons is given speaking or hearing roles. As Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “the gospels assign speaking parts to each of the three divine persons” (Vanhoozer, 2010, p. 246). The Father speaks (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11); the Son obviously speaks throughout the gospels; and the Spirit speaks through believers (Matt. 10:20). The Son also hears (John 12:49–50), as does the Spirit (John 16:13). In obvious ways, we image God in how we speak to and hear other human persons.
Now, with these two senses of linguistic imaging—the consciousness and interpersonal analogies—let us return to God’s creation of Adam. Adam and Eve were each marked with the consciousness analogy of language as image bearers. We see this first in Adam’s linguistic action of naming the animals in Genesis 2:19–20. This action marks Adam as an image bearer of the God who speaks (consciousness analogy). This extends even to the nature of Adam’s speech with regards to its meaning, control, and presence. These attributes of Adam’s speech image the ultimate meaning, control, and presence of God’s speech.
God repeatedly speaks. And the words he speaks have meaning. Each of God’s utterances in Genesis 1 has specific meaning, and each specifies what will come forth. Sometimes the utterances include specifications as to how the newly created thing is to function.
Second, God’s words exert control. God’s word controls the world that he creates. The immensity of his power is clearly exhibited in the immensity of the effects that his word has. As Psalm 148:5 summarizes it, “He commanded and they were created.” God’s word exhibits his own omnipotence.
Third, the word of God manifests the presence of God. The presence of God is made strikingly evident by the fact that God’s word has the attributes of God. It has divine power, or omnipotence, as is evident from its power to bring forth created things that match its specification. It has divine wisdom, as is evident from the wisdom displayed in the completed creation. It has divine goodness, as is evident from the goodness of the created product (Gen. 1:31). God’s word shows us God.
These three elements are coinherent and bound up with one another, since the Father (as the source of all meaning), the Son (the controlling power and wisdom of God who upholds the world; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17), and the Spirit (the living, breathing presence of God) are coinherent. Analogously, Adam’s words have meaning, control, and presence. This is evident in his naming of the creatures. By using names to differentiate between animals, Adam expresses meaning. He also calls our attention to the unique identity of each animal. Adam simultaneously exercises control, a control that reflects God’s own linguistic control in naming elements of creation (e.g., the day and night; Gen. 1:5). Lastly, Adam is present with his words because the names that he chose reflect his personal decisions as a unique human being. Thus, as an image bearer of the speaking God, Adam’s use of language, his communion behavior, reflects the meaning, control, and presence that are rooted in God’s Trinitarian creator.
And consider this: Adam’s very speech (as part of creation) is grounded in the Trinity and sustained by the Word of God, which upholds all things. In other words, Adam’s communion behavior rests upon and reflects the divine communion behavior that brought him into being!
Adam and Eve were also marked with the interpersonal analogy of language, as they converse with God and with one another (Gen. 1:28–30; 2:23; 3:9–13).
Both analogies—our ability to speak and our ability to commune with the tripersonal God and his creatures—constitute the core of the image of God in man. Geerhardus Vos once wrote, “That man bears God’s image means much more than that he is spirit and possesses understanding, will, etc. It means above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God” (Vos, 2014, p. 13). Language (communion behavior) is the ground of God’s image, from which all of our other good imaging behaviors or attributes emerge. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, we image God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, but those behaviors are only ever manifested in communicative settings of one sort or another—either in the consciousness or interpersonal analogies of language.
Our knowledge forms and develops in the context of our engagement with the world, which we already noted is communicative, expressing God’s glory and handiwork. And because knowledge pertains to the personal world that the Triune God has created, the world that continues to speak to us about him, our knowledge is ultimately personal, not propositional. In other words, knowledge does not ultimately have to do with facts and functions; it has to do with facts and functions in the exhaustively personal and purposeful atmosphere in which we have been placed by the self-communicating God. So, we image God in our knowledge, but that knowledge lives in a communicative context—either in the world that communicates to us about God or in personal relationships that this personal God has ordained, relationships which image the personal communion of God himself. What I mean to say is that language—communion behavior—is the playground for human knowledge. Whatever we know, we know in relation to other persons who are made in the image of God, and in relation to the God who is three persons in one essence. We perform the action of knowing in the profoundly communicative world of the Trinitarian God. Human knowledge thus grows out of communication between God and his people and between people themselves.
Righteousness, too, is grounded in language, for righteousness has to do with moral uprightness. Much of the time, moral uprightness takes shape in interpersonal relationships. The command not to covet or steal is an interpersonal command. Do not covet or steal from this or that person. Or, when righteousness does not take shape in interpersonal relationships among humans, it does so in our personal relationship with God, a relationship that is based upon God’s communication with us both in the world he has made and in his inspired Word. Again, whenever we are righteous, we are righteous in personal, communicative contexts. So, language is the playground for personal righteousness. Whenever we are righteous by God’s grace, we are so because of and through communion behavior.
Holiness is grounded in language as well. Holiness refers to our being set apart. We are first of all set apart from the rest of creation precisely because of language, because of our ability to speak and commune with others. Communion behavior is what makes humanity the crown jewel of God’s creation. Thereafter we were meant to continue to live in holiness as those who love and honor other persons. So, whenever we are holy, we are holy in communicative contexts—in our speech with others, or in our decision to refrain from taking part in certain activities, which is a response to God’s speech in Scripture. Language, again, is the playground for human holiness. Whenever we are holy, we are holy because of and through communion behavior.
In all of this, I mean to draw our attention to the profound gift of language as the core of the image of God in us. So wonderfully have we been made; so perfectly spoken into being, that we speak back and shine light on the glorious communion of the Trinity. To answer the question we posed at the beginning—who are we?—I would say, we are creatures who speak, creatures who are meant for communion with God and with other creatures.
Bavinck, Herman. Our Reasonable Faith. Translated by Henry Zylstra. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1956.
Gaffin Jr., Richard B. “Speech and the Image of God: Biblical Reflections on Language and Its Uses.” In The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries, edited by David VanDrunen, 181-94. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004.
Poythress, Vern S. In the Beginning Was the Word: Language–A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.
Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. 2, Anthropology. Edited and translated by Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.