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Published Date: October 31, 2021

Published Date: October 31, 2021

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Created in God’s Image: Theological and Social Impact

26 Then God said, “Let us make a human being in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created the human being in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:26–28)1

PART ONE. Wrong Interpretations in the Past

The early Christian communities were heavily influenced by the cultural prejudices of Hellenistic and Roman thought. Patriarchy reigned supreme. Women were seen as subordinate to men by nature, ontologically. This had its effect on how Gen 1:26–28 was interpreted. Of course, the interpretation of NT texts, especially 1 Cor 11:7 and 1 Tim 2:12, also influenced their views, but Gen 1:26–28 remained the root passage.

AD 100–800

According to Greek/Hellenistic thinking, animals were made up of two elements: sarx (body) and psychê (life, breath). Human beings possessed a third element: pneuma (consciousness, soul).

In general, the church fathers thought that Genesis teaches two stages of creation: during the first stage God created man (the male person) in his own image (Gen 1:27a); during the second stage woman was created from man’s body (Gen 1:27b; 2:21–22). The question was: what does God’s image in man consist of?2

Theory 1: God’s image in man is the human soul, the pneuma.

Augustine (354–430) and his followers believed that it was the human “soul” which, during the first stage of creation, was created in the image of God. This applied to the souls of both men and women. So women are in the image of God according to their soul.3 But their body makes them inferior to men. This is confirmed by nature (ontology) and by civil law, he thought.

It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands, because the justice of this lies in [the principle that] the lesser serves the greater. . . . This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serves the stronger.4

When a woman was made of his rib, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” . . . Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one (i.e. man) rules, the other (woman) is ruled; the one (i.e. man) ought to command, the other (woman) to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned upside down. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over her husband? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves.5

Augustine maintained that women’s inferior status can be remedied by them fully integrating Christ. A woman can become a man by abstaining from all sexual activity and being spiritually transformed.

Theory 2: God’s image in man is his power to rule.

Ambrosiaster (fourth cent. AD) and others believed that God imposed his image on man by giving him authority, dominance, and the power to rule. He asserted that women are not in the image of God, because God did not give them such authority.6 This is what Ambrosiaster says:

The image of God stamped on man is the power of command. . . . How can one say of the woman that she is in the image of God, whom we see subject to the rule of man without having any authority? For she can neither teach nor witness in court, nor commit her word, nor judge, how much less can she command?7

Man is the image of God, as it is written, God created man, and created him in the image of God (Gen 1:27). This is why the Apostle says: “Man should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; the woman, to the contrary, must put a veil over her head (1 Cor 11:7).” Why? Because she is not the image of God. It is for the same reason that he says elsewhere: “I do not allow women to teach or take authority over their husbands (1 Tim 2:12).”8

Man and woman, it is true, have the same substance in their souls as in their bodies, but man is superior in dignity to woman. . . . It is by the will of God, and not by man’s nature, that man is superior to woman. Just as, in the same body, some members are more prominent, not by their nature, but by the rank which has been given them.9

AD 800–1900

The patristic interpretations, unfortunately, became normative during the centuries that followed: from the Middle Ages to almost the end of the nineteenth century. The result has been disastrous for women. It was believed that the prevailing cultural dominance of men in all spheres of life was also sanctioned by the Word of God! This can be demonstrated in the views of some key theologians during this period.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) has been hailed in the Catholic community as the greatest theologian in the past, a touchstone of orthodoxy. Well, Thomas taught that only men are fully created in God’s image—like God they are made to rule, to take charge of things. Women are not. They reflect God’s image only indirectly, that is: in as far as having a mind they resemble men.10 Men are intellectually superior to women. For men have a greater power of reason since God equipped them for intellectual tasks. Women not so.11 For this reason women are naturally (ontologically) subject to men.12 Even a woman’s hair is a sign of her subjection.13

Aquinas followed Aristotle in considering each woman a mishap at birth, a failed male.

A female is deficient and unintentionally brought forth (at conception). For the active power of the semen always seeks to produce a thing completely like itself, something male. So if a female is produced, this must be because the semen is weak or because the material [provided by the female parent] is unsuitable, or because of the action of some external factor such as the winds from the south which make the atmosphere humid.14

If it were not for some [divine] power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be just another accident, such as that of other monster births [like a dog with two heads, a calf with five legs, etc.]15

Women are still useful, of course. In God’s overall scheme, Aquinas says, they serve the purpose of being the fertile fields in which men can sow their seed, as Aristotle had already pointed out.16 In fact, in spite of their lower function, female genitals will indeed be preserved at the resurrection.17

Among the theologians of the Reformation, John Calvin (1509–1564) has written most about the image of God.18 He deserves credit for maintaining, somewhat following Augustine’s line of thinking, that women, like men, carry the image of God. That is: as far as the cognitio Dei, the innate understanding of God’s presence in the world and of the moral order, is concerned.19 However, women do not carry God’s image to the same extent men do. In his commentary on Genesis he writes that “woman was created in the image of God albeit to a secondary degree.”20

Moreover, Calvin clearly teaches that God made women inferior to men. For Eve was made from Adam’s rib to serve him.

As woman derives her origin from man, she is therefore inferior in rank . . . as woman was created for the sake of man, she is therefore subject to him. . . . God’s eternal law has made the female subject to the authority of men. On this account all women are born that they may acknowledge themselves as inferior in consequence of the superiority of the male sex.21

Let woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.22

Woman is not entitled to teach, because woman . . . by nature (that is, by the ordinary law of God) is formed to obey. For gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing.23

John Knox (1514–1572) was a disciple of Calvin. He led the Reformation in Scotland and founded the Church of Scotland. While in exile in Geneva (1558) he wrote a pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet, mainly to denounce the three queens who were ruling England, France, and Scotland at the time.

Like Ambrosiaster, Knox interpreted being in God’s image as meaning sharing to some extent in God’s authority. However, men were a superior reflection of God and women were an inferior reflection. For women were created in the image of God to the extent that they exercised command over animals and plants, not over men.24

Nature paints women to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish; and experience has declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel, lacking the spirit of counsel and self-discipline. . . .

Woman in her greatest perfection should have known that man was lord above her; and therefore that she should never have pretended any kind of superiority above him, no more than do the angels above God the Creator, or above Christ their head. So I say, that in her greatest perfection, woman was created to be subject to man.

To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; an insult to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.25

Conclusion of Part One

During the first nineteen centuries of Christianity, women were not believed to have been created in God’s image to the same and equal degree as men. Genesis 1:26–28 was interpreted according to what was thought to be the natural order, therefore in line with the prevailing patriarchal social culture. It resulted in a climate of total inequality. Women were subjected to prejudice, discrimination, the denial of their human rights. In fact, scriptural texts were used to justify abuse.

PART TWO. The Correct Interpretation of Genesis 1:26–27

1. “In the image of God” means being a mini-creator with authority over other creatures.

In Gen 1:26, carrying God’s image is directly connected to sharing his authority. “Let us make a human being in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea. . . .” Human beings are different from other creatures because they have the power of reason. In this they resemble God. God’s mind is pure light and God has given human beings a ray of that light. Empowered by this inner light they can rule the world almost like “mini-creators.”

This was expressed most eloquently by Albert the Great (1193–1280) and his disciples:

The human creature with the power of reason is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of God’s Eternal Reason. . . . As the psalmist says (Ps 4:6): “The light of your face, O Lord, is signed upon us”—which implies that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, is nothing else than an imprint on us of divine light.26

2. It is not the man/male who is created in God’s image, but the human being.

Latin dominated language and thought in early and medieval Christianity, apart from Hellenistic eastern countries. In Latin, homo, like “man” in traditional English, stands both for “human being” and “a male person.” “God created man in his own image” was understood as “God created the male in his own image.”

Hebrew and Greek, like northern European languages still do, have two separate words for human being and a male person. In German, for instance, Mensch stands for “human being,” Mann for “a male person.” In Hebrew adam means “a person,” îsh means “man/a male.” So does zâkar. In Greek anthrôpos is “a human person,” anêr “a male.”

The Masoretic Hebrew text of Gen 1:26–27 says twice that God created adamthe human being—in his own image. It is clearly distinguished from zâkar, the male, in v. 27. And the Septuagint Greek translation of the third century BC again clearly says that God created anthrôposthe human—in his own image.27

Genesis 5:2 says, “On the day God created Adam, he made him in his own image, male and female he created them.” Both Hebrew and Septuagint have adam/anthrôpos here. Genesis 9:6 reads, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (NIV). Again, Hebrew has adam (three times), and the Septuagint anthrôpos. In other words: both men and women are created in God’s image.

3. The human being was created male and female to enable rational deliberation.

The sudden change to the plural in the creation account has puzzled many commentators: “Let us make a human being in our image, in our likeness.” To see a reference to the Trinity here is not right. The Trinity was only revealed through Jesus Christ. The plural, like in the word Elohîm (“God”) itself, is a majestic plural.

At the same time, it seems clear from the text that being male and female is somehow a consequence of being in God’s image. “God created the human being in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is also clear that it seems required for the human being to be able to exercise authority rationally.

Remember that the process of creation is presented as a process of God’s reasoning. Each time we read: “And God said”—but the word amar in Hebrew can refer to thinking as much as speaking. Then at the end of each day of creation we read: “and God saw that it was good.” It implies God assessing what he has done and concluding it well done. In other words: the Creator is presented as using his infinite mind power—planning, reflecting, approving.

To take over a share in God’s rule of the world, the human being—like God, acting “in God’s image”—needs to exercise mind power and moral reasoning. But here the human being’s limitation shows up. Thinking requires language, but language requires interaction with others. Responsible action can only be taken after deliberation, consultation, discussion with someone else. The book of Proverbs confirms this many times, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is a person who listens to advice” (Prov 12:15). “Without consultation, plans fail. But with many counsellors they succeed” (Prov 15:22), and so on (Prov 19:20; 20:18; 24:6; 28:26). That is why God creates the human being to be male and female—so that they can deliberate and take responsibility together. It confirms again the equality of men and women.

4. This interpretation is confirmed in the second creation story (Gen 2:5–3:24).

Within this context, let us read how the text deals with the creation of human beings: “Then Yahweh God moulded the earth-creature [adam] of soil from the earth [adâmah] and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life. So the earth creature became a living spirit” (Gen 2:7).

The author sees a close connection between the human being, adam, and “earth” which is adâmah in Hebrew. Human beings are a mixture of matter and spirit, of rootedness in the earth with their spirit/soul having its origin in God’s creative breath. Since the earthly being had as yet no gender, in English it should be referred to as “it.” We translate it as “earth-creature.”28

Yahweh God said, “It is not good for the earth-creature to be alone. I will make it a companion like unto itself.” So from the earth Yahweh God moulded all the animals and the birds of heaven. These he introduced to the earth-creature to see what it would call them; each one was to bear the name it gave them. The earth-creature gave names to all the cattle, the birds of heaven and the wild beasts. But not one of them was a companion like unto itself. (Gen 2:18–20)

The “companion like unto itself” is not a “helpmate,” an assistant, or a second-rate attendant. The Hebrew êzer denotes a real partnerScripture often calls God our êzer.29 The equality also follows from the inability of the animal world to produce such a partner.

So Yahweh God made the earth-creature fall into a deep sleep. While it was sleeping, he took one “side” from it and closed the gap with flesh. Then Yahweh God built a “wo-man” from the side he had taken from the earth-creature. And he introduced her to the earth-creature.

The earth-creature exclaimed: “This at last is bones from my bones and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘wo-man’ because she was split off from a man.” This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his “wo-man.” And so they become (again) one body. (Gen 2:21–24)

In this passage the author describes a marvellous transformation. God was often thought to act on human beings while they were in such a “deep sleep.” For instance, God concluded a covenant with Abram while he was in a deep sleep (Gen 15:12–21). He made people see visions and dreams in such a state (Job 4:13; 33:15; Dan 8:18; 10:9).

In this case, while the earth creature was in a deep sleep, God, as it were, split the earth creature into two equal parts. This interpretation of the text follows from the correct translation of tsêla. Tsêla does not meanribbutside,” such as:

  • the side of a mountain (2 Sam 16:13);
  • the side of the tabernacle (Exod 26:20–35);
  • the sides of the altar (Exod 27:7);
  • the side wings of the Temple gates (1 Kgs 6:34);
  • and even the “wings” of the Temple building (Ezek 41:5–26).

In fact, in no other verse of Scripture is the word tsêla translated asrib.”30 Then what does this Scripture verse mean?

The image the author has in mind becomes clear if we put his story next to other ancient creation stories. According to these, the first human being was androgynous, that is: he/it was man and woman at the same time. It/she/he carried two faces, looking in opposite directions, had four arms and walked on four legs. To make the two sexes, the Creator God cut the human being into two halves, giving each half one face, two arms, and two legs. A full record of this creation account can be found with Plato (428–348 BC) in his Symposion, chs. 14–16. The story was also known to the Jews and often linked to the Genesis story by rabbis.31

This seems to be the image which the scriptural author had in mind. God makes the earth-creature fall into a sleep of ecstasy. God then divides the creature into two equal halves: a man and a “wo-man.” In Hebrew the words are related: man is îsh, woman îshshâh. Rightly can the man exclaim that woman is bones from his bones and flesh from his flesh, for they are truly equal and need each other to become once more a complete body.

When Adam and Eve sin, God announces their punishment. They are driven out of paradise (Gen 3:23–24). God says to Eve that she will suffer pain at childbirth, and the “man will lord it over you” (Gen 3:18). However, this does not take away her fundamental equality.

Moreover, God announces the ultimate victory of women. Cursing the serpent—that is, the devil—God says:

I will make you enemies of each other,
you and the woman,
your offspring and her offspring.

He/she will crush your head
and you will strike its heel. (Gen 3:15)

Who will crush the devil’s head? Will it be “he” or “she”? The present-day standard Masoretic Hebrew edition has “he.” So has the early Greek Septuagint translation. But St. Jerome, who translated Genesis into Latin in AD 382 based on a Hebrew text available to him, has ipsa, “she.” In any case, whether “he” or “she,” we have here a first messianic prediction and a declaration of woman’s ultimate liberation which would happen in Christ.

Overall Conclusion

Genesis 1:26–27 clearly teaches that both man and woman are created in God’s image. Women and men are therefore fully equal as human beings. There are other important Scripture texts that imply women’s fundamental equality. But this passage indicates the root of that equality. Every woman, just like every man, is created in God’s image. Her full equality derives from her reflecting God as much as any man does.

This principle also applies to other areas in which discrimination plays a part, such as race. Every human being enjoys full human rights because he or she in his/her deepest essence reflects the Creator.

This article was presented as a lecture at CBE International’s annual conference, hosted jointly with the Women’s Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance and the Anglican Diocese of Norwich in September 2021. At that conference, CBE was pleased  to present Dr. Wijngaards with its Lifetime Achievement Award.


1. Unless noted otherwise, translations of Bible passages are the author’s.

2. A more extensive and detailed analysis of patristic views can be found in Kari Elisabeth Børresen, “The Ordination of Women: To Nurture Tradition by Continuing Inculturation,” ST 46 (1992) 3–13.

3. On Genesis Literally; On the Trinity VII–XV; Kari Elisabeth Børresen, “In Defence of Augustine: how femina is homo,” in Collectanea Augustiniana. Mélanges T.J. van Bavel, ed. Bernard Bruning et al. (Institut Historique Augustinien, 1990) 263–80.

4. Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, §153.

5. On John, Tractate 2, §14.

6. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, “Imago Dei privilège masculin? Interprétation augustinienne et pseudo-augustinienne de Gen, 1,27 et I Cor. 11,7,” Aug 25 (1985) 213–34.

7. Ambrosiaster, Scriptural Order Old Testament, 1st category OT, qu. 45.

8. Ambrosiaster, Scriptural Order Old Testament, 1st category OT, qu. 21.

9. Ambrosiaster, Scriptural Order Old Testament, 1st category OT, qu. 24.

10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I qu. 92, art. 2 & I qu. 93, art. 4 ad 1.

11. Aquinas, Summa Theologica I qu. 92, art. 1.

12. Aquinas, Summa Theologica I qu. 92, art. 1, ad 2.

13. Aquinas, Summa Theologica Supplement qu. 28, art. 3 ad 1.

14. Aquinas, Summa Theologica I qu. 92, art 1, ad 1.

15. Aquinas, De Veritate 5, 9, d. 9.

16. Aquinas, Summa Theologica I qu. 92, art 1, ad 1 & II, q. 18, art. 1, ad 4.

17. Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, qu. 88.

18. Shu-Ying Shih, The Development of Calvin’s Understanding of the Imago Dei in the ‘Institutes of Christian Religion’ from 1536–1559 (Heidelberg 2004).

19. Mary Potter, “Gender Equality and Gender Hierarchy in Calvin’s Theology,” Signs 11 (1986) 725–39.

20. John H. Bratt, “The Role and Status or Women in the Writings of John Calvin,” in Renaissance, Reformation, Resurgence: Papers and Responses Presented at the Colloquium on Calvin & Calvin Studies, ed. Peter De Klerk (Calvin Theological Seminary, 1976) 3; John L. Thompson, “Creata ad Imaginem Dei Licet Secundo Gradu: Woman as the Image of God according to John Calvin,” HTR 81 (1988) 125–43.

21. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Calvin Translation Society, 1848) 357–58.

22. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 361.

23. Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle (Calvin Translation Society, 1856) 68.

24. Constance Jordan, “Woman’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987) 421–51.

25. “The First Blast of the Trumpet” (Geneva 1558) passim; see Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh 1864).

26. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I–II, question 91, article 2; based on Albert the Great, Summa theologiae, Pars II, tract.14, q.89, m.3.

27. Alfred Rahlfs, ed., Septuaginta, 6th ed. (Stuttgart, 1920) 1:2.

28. In Hebrew, “he” and “it” are the same word; about “earth creature,” see F. Ferder and J. Heagle, Partnership (Notre Dame, 1989) 31–46.

29. Hos 13:9; Pss 33:20; 70:6; 115:9; 146:5; Exod 18:4.

30. For a fuller discussion, read: L. Arnaldich, “La Creacion de Eva,” Sacra Pagina 1 (1959) 346–57; J. J. ORourke, “Early and Modern Theologians and Eves Formation from Adam,” ScEccl 13 (1961) 427–35; J. De FraineGenesis (Roermond, 1963) 50–51; Phyllis Trible, “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2–3,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York, 1979) 74–83.

31. R. Graves and R. Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (London, 1965) 65–69.