Current theological discussion about the image of God is centered around a rather pragmatic view. “Ancient interpreters foolishly assigned the place of the image to the soul,” say contemporary scholars, “while we realize that man has no soul. Since man has no soul, the image was imbued purely to the work that God created man to do.” But this sort of reasoning is, for one thing, naturalistic. Why take the revelation of God as descriptive of truth (ie man is made in God’s image), while at the same time argue that the revelation of God is not descriptive of truth (ie that man has a soul)?
But, for those scholars that still believe humans have souls, and yet argue that the image of God is only in the practical outworking that humanity was tasked to do, Wilhelmus à Brakel has a rather profound argument! His logic starts off in sound contradiction to the contemporary argument when he says
The image of God does not consist in the perfection of the body, for God is a Spirit. It does not primarily consist in the exercise of dominion which was bestowed as a consequence of this image, but rather it exists in the soul.Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service Vol. 1, p. 323
The three possibilities of the “seat” of the image are: the body of man, the utility of man, or the soul of man. Wilhelmus states that the body cannot be the “seat” of the image because God has no body. Dominion cannot be the image because, he reasons, dominion flows from the fact that man is made in God’s image.
He goes on to explain how the image of God in the soul of man becomes the basis for dominion. First of all, man was created in the image, and not “in a purely natural state” without the image (p. 325). Further, the image wasn’t “bestowed upon him above and beyond his nature.” The image is “a natural element of man’s nature” (p. 326). This matters because it entails that “image-bearing” isn’t something that is imparted like a crown placed on a head. Instead, it is an element originally constituted in human nature, though not essential to it.
So, what then is the “image”? Wilhelmus states that it is the “goodness of man” or the “perfection of man, which consists in a faint resemblance to the communicable attributes of God” (p. 323). He uses the illustration of a painting. The soul’s nature–it’s spirituality, rationality, immortality, and various faculties (intellect, will, affections) form the canvas of the image. The soul’s form, or the painting itself, or “the true essence of the image of God” (p. 324) is its knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.
In effect, Wilhelmus is saying that if you were to look simply at the “painting” without regard for the canvas, you would see un-fallen man’s perfect knowledge of God, his complete righteousness, his pure holiness, and this would be the “image” of God. You did not see what God is like, first of all in the works of man, but first of all in who man was in his innermost character. From this character, then, perfect dominion was exercised. This expressed the image, or was a consequence of the image.