Do Humans Possess the Image of God?


“What man does not possess he can neither bequeath nor forfeit.” Karl Barth Church Dogmatics, III.1, 200.

So says Karl Barth on the question of whether the divine image (imago dei) is something that humans can either pass on or lose. No, he says, on both accounts. Why not? Because the image of God in humans beings is not something we possess and so cannot be passed on to our descendants. Nor is it something that we can willingly dispose of, which would be true if it were somehow our possession.

So what then? It is something lost? No again. The image of God is neither something that is a long lost posession in a past ideal state or history, nor is it something that can be, by human failure, be something which can be obliterated beyond recognition by our own volition, whether evil or good.

Characteristically, Barth insists that the image of God in humans, therefore, is not something either passed on or lost in some way, but something which is continually and freely given as a grace of God to every male and female human. The image of God in us is pure gift, the possibility that in you and in me, others encounter a being who, by definition, is what he or she is strictly by virtue of a relationship to God.

To be human is to be related to God by his initiative–no more and no less.