Book Review: Created in God’s Image

“It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of the doctrine of man”.[1] Anthony A. Hoekema begins his book Created in God’s Image with this bold statement and spends the next 243 pages exploring every implication and outworking of the Christian view of man.[2] He breaks his treatise down into two main sections: man as created in the image of God (chapters 2-6) and man and sin (chapters 7-10). The book then closes with a look at two important anthropological issues: man as a whole person (chapter 11) and man’s free will (chapter 12). Throughout the book, Hoekema carefully and methodically answers the question “What is man?” from a biblical perspective. In the process, he weaves together a compelling, measured, and scholarly anthropology that shows us how “the most important thing about man is that he is inescapably related to God.”[3]

Section One: Created Imago Dei

Hoekema sets the stage by pointing out that man does not exist autonomously but rather as a being created by (and dependent on) God. And at the same time, man is also a person, a being with a level of relative independence; what Leonard Verduin refers to as a “creature of option.”[4] While dependence and freedom may seem to be incompatible concepts, Hoekema points out that Scripture teaches we are both and, thus, “our theological understanding of man must . . . keep both of these truths clearly in focus.”[5] With that tension recognized, Hoekema then outlines the theological implications of man as a created person, including the origin of sin, how God redeems man, our covenant relationship with God, and restoring the image of God in man. These are all themes he will examine in greater detail throughout the rest of the book.

The author next takes a survey of Scriptural data regarding man being made in God’s image, concluding that man was created good and did not lose the image of God after the Fall. Hoekema also brilliantly connects the imago Dei with the incarnation: “It was only because man had been created in the image of God that the second person of the Trinity could assume human nature . . . In other words, the incarnation confirms the doctrine of the image of God.”[6] According to Scripture, the author concludes, our understanding of the image of God must hold that it is both (1.) an unlosable aspect of man, and (2.) something that was perverted after the Fall but can be restored and renewed via the process of sanctification.[7]   

Hoekema then turns from Scripture to a historical survey of Christian theologians on the topic of the imago Dei. He examines the views of Irenaeus, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Brunner, and Berkouwer, illuminating how theories and beliefs have evolved among Christian thinkers over time. Hoekema engages with each thinker, asking questions, and refusing to take their teachings as truth without holding them up to Scripture. His historical survey is made stronger by the fact that he both points out aspects in each thinker that he disagrees with as well as aspects he appreciates. While Hoekema only offers a high-level summary of each thinker, he nevertheless expertly takes the reader through the evolution of Christian thought, tracing the themes, theories, and missteps through the centuries.[8]

The author next summarizes the theological description of the meaning and significance of the doctrine of the image of God, concluding that “the image of God is not something accidental to man, which he can lose without ceasing to be man, but is essential to his existence.”[9] Hoekema looks at the structural and functional aspects of man being made in God’s image and at Christ as the true image of God. He then suggests that God placed man into a threefold relationship: with God (vertical), with his fellow man (horizontal), and with nature (also horizontal?). While the first two are indisputable, the Scriptural support for the relationship between man and nature, as Hoekema describes it is less compelling. Hoekema suggests God has given man a cultural mandate: “Man is called by God to develop all the potentialities found in nature and in humankind as a whole.”[10] While God’s injunction to Adam to work and take care of the Garden and to subdue and rule over the earth (Genesis 1-2) is clear and important, putting man’s relationship to nature on the same level as his relationship to God and his fellow man is debatable. After all, the Greatest Commandment—as Jesus gave it to us in Matthew 22:36-40—only includes our relationships with God and fellow man.

The author closes the first section of the book by looking at the question of self-image. Hoekema warns that man’s relationship to himself should not be thought of as “a fourth relationship alongside the previous three. It is, rather, a relationship that underlies all the others, and makes possible a person’s proper performance in his or her relationship toward God, others, and nature”[11] This was a very thoughtful chapter in light of the rise of existentialism in modern times. The author includes a compelling warning from Paul Brownback—“The greatest peril of self-love is that it is worship of self”[12]—and on that basis eschews the term self-esteem, opting instead to use self-image. Hoekema then follows his previous pattern and carefully examines the perversion of the self-image that came with the Fall, and the renewal of the self-image that occurs when God’s Spirit renews us.

Section Two: Man and Sin

This section opens with a fascinating examination of the origin of sin. “Did God create man as a sinful being? Or . . . did man become sinful sometime after his creation? If he became a sinner, how did this happen?”[13] The author begins unpacking these questions by first building an argument for a historical Adam, claiming, “The denial of the historicity of Adam is not only contrary to Scripture; it also has devastating results for the doctrine of man”[14] While he builds a strong case, it is difficult to fully embrace the notion that, as the author suggests, a symbolic Adam would necessarily tie sin to man’s humanity. After all, symbols stand for real things. As a historical Adam relates to sin as a perverted state of his humanity, so a symbolic Adam could relate to sin in the same way.[15]

Hoekema’s discussion then moves through myriad topics including the covenant of works, the fall of the angels, and the riddle of sin, where he ultimately concludes, “We shall never understand how a person who has been created in a state of rectitude, in a state of sinlessness, could begin to sin.”[16] From there, Hoekema turns to a discussion of the spread of sin, tracing the results of the first sin to the universality of sin, and considering how it is transmitted. Chapter nine surveys the nature of sin, where Hoekema notes that sin is “not something physical but something ethical. It was not given with creation but came after creation; it is a deformation of what is.”[17]  

The author offers a more pastoral perspective as he turns to the restraint of sin and the doctrine of common grace. He considers the question of how we can account for the degree of goodness we see in unbelievers—which we can sometimes view as unfair, akin to the attitude of the prodigal son’s older brother—and positioned it in such a way that we can see its ultimate value in glorifying God. Hoekema also guarded against the doctrine being construed as letting believers off the hook, arguing, “One of the important implications of the doctrine of common grace for us is that we must continue to work and pray for a better world.”[18]  

With the discussion of sin complete, the author then tackles two important anthropological issues. First, in chapter 11, he considers the make-up of the whole person. A consistent theme of Hoekema’s thought is the concept of unity, and the composition of the person is where that theme is seen most clearly in the book. Here, he analyses the dichotomy and trichotomy views but ultimately lands on a position he refers to as psychosomatic unity. According to Hoekema, this position says that “Man is one person who can, however, be looked at from two sides.”[19] He offers a great quote from Berkouwer which supports the idea that the make-up of man is less important than man’s relationship to God: “We may say without much fear of contradiction that the most striking thing in the biblical portrayal of man lies in this, that it never asks attention for man in himself, but demands our fullest attention for man in his relation to God.”[20] However, despite the author’s claim that, unlike dichotomy, the term psychosomatic unity “does full justice to the two sides of man, while stressing man’s unity,”[21] his term appears to be a distinction without a difference.

In the final chapter, Hoekema examines the question of freedom, suggesting that, “Instead of asking whether the ‘will’ is free . . . we should ask whether the person is free when he or she makes decisions.”[22] This idea seems to be a distinction without a difference, as well, especially when considered from the perspective of psychosomatic unity, where one’s will and one’s self would undoubtedly be viewed as one person. Later, as the author skillfully works his way through man’s ability to choose and the origin of true freedom, he offers a very helpful and important distinction between man’s ability to choose and true freedom. He defines the latter as “freedom to do God’s will voluntarily, as a way of showing our thankfulness to him.”[23] Hoekema then applies the familiar lost-restored-perfected pattern as he considers how true freedom was lost, how it is being restored, and how it will be perfected in the life to come when, “as Augustine put it, we shall be in a state of ‘not able to sin’ (non posse peccare).”[24]

Conclusion

Hoekema’s analysis of the implications of the imago Dei is substantial and compelling, and he is fair and respectful in his handling of differing views. He presents various views on each topic, is candid where he disagrees, and yet presents his disagreement with gentleness and respect. The author’s commitment to Scripture in all of his arguments is also commendable. His sound and knowledgeable exegesis gives weight to his claims. Another strength is Hoekema’s commitment to redemptive history. He uses the storyline of Scripture—creation, distortion, redemption, perfection—as a framework for his examination of various aspects of the doctrine of the image of God. If there is a weakness to the book, it could perhaps be found in the fact that the majority of Hoekema’s sources are from Reformed thinkers. Although he mentioned in the preface that his intent was to present the doctrine of man from a Reformed/Calvinistic perspective, the book would perhaps have been stronger with more input from theologians of the Arminian persuasion. Lastly, in contrast to a writer like Grudem, there seemed to be more Hoekema could have offered in the area of personal application of the principles he was so ably presenting throughout this impressive work‌


[1] A. A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 1.

[2] I use the word man (and pronouns referring to man) in the same generic sense that Hoekema does in his book: meaning “human being,” whether male or female.

[3] Hoekema, 1994, p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 6.

[5] Ibid,. p. 6.

[6] Ibid., p. 22.

[7] Ibid., p. 32.

[8] More than once I found myself wandering down a rabbit trail of research, most notably in trying to better understand Barth’s concept of an “I-thou” confrontational relationship.

[9] Hoekema, 1994, p. 66.

[10] Ibid., p. 79.

[11] Ibid., p. 102.

[12] Ibid., p. 103.

[13] Ibid., p. 112.

[14] Ibid., p. 116.

[15] I am not suggesting that I do not hold to a historical view of Adam personally, but simply challenging this particular argument of Hoekema’s on philosophical grounds.

[16] Hoekema, 1994, p. 131. We know that sin was already in the world, and if we combine that with free will, maybe that’s a way into a possible answer?

[17] Hoekema, 1994, p. 169.

[18] Ibid., p. 200.

[19] Ibid., p. 217.

[20] Ibid., p. 204.

[21] Ibid., p. 217.

[22] Ibid., p. 228.

[23] Ibid., p. 240.

[24] Ibid., p. 243.

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