Introduction: Cornelius Van Til's first main interpreter to a wider audience was Rousas John Rushdoony. His By What Standard remains a most readable and incisive introduction to Van Til's thought. Chalcedon has based much of its ministry on the epochal ideas articulated by Van Til and has worked constantly to highlight his theological perspective before a largely effete and compromising Western Christianity.
One of the prime Van Tilian thinkers today is Joseph Braswell, whose writings we often feature. Men with the combination of Braswell's native intelligence and theological conviction are rare today. The following article on the image of God in man brilliantly summarizes the Van Tilian perspective on this foundational issue.
The kingdom of God is the eschatological goal of covenant-history, the overarching and unifying theme of the history of revelation. The story told in Holy Scripture is the story of the coming of the kingdom of God, God's work in establishing his kingly reign "on earth as it is in heaven." According to Dan McCartney, this kingdom-theme is integrally bound up with the Bible's teaching concerning the image of God.1 The glory of the kingdom is the eschatologically consummate glory of the image of God and man's exercise of vice-gerential dominion to the glory of God.2
God's Image in Man
To understand the concept of the image of God we first must distinguish between two aspects of this image: the stative and the dynamic sense of the image. The former refers to the fact that man is the image, that this is a metaphysical given of his being whereby he is a creaturely reproduction or replica of God. This is a constant of man's being. In distinction from this stative sense, the latter refers to the normative dimension of an imaging-response — imaging as man's ethical calling. According to this calling or demand, man is expected to reflect God by expressing an analogous moral character in all his activity and behavior as the image of God. This latter sense of the image and likeness is variable in the sense that man's character was to mature over time unto a fuller expression of God-likeness, a greater degree of glory-reflection. The stative image is a gift that is the "presupposition" of the demand and task of the dynamic imageideal.3 Man by virtue of being the image ought to image God self-consciously, and man fulfills himself in a genuine self-realization as he matures in this ethical imaging of God in glory-likeness The representation ought to act as God's representative by faithfully employing all his image-capacities in an expression of godliness, acting for the glory of God and doing all things in the name of God.4
Effects of the Fall
What man lost in the Fall is the ability he originally possessed of that dynamic imaging which answers to the normative image-calling of the covenantal demand for holiness unto the Lord and right response to God's revelation. He has lost his ethical capacity to image God in glory-likeness, in covenantal activity that expresses godly character. He has lost the power to fulfill his glory-reflective vocation of officially representing God as vicegerent in the exercise of godly dominion. He has come short of the glory of God.5 As the metaphysical (stative) image, man is a covenant-being, a covenant-responder, and as such his every activity is metaphysically analogical in nature. This state of affairs has not changed — and cannot. Man cannot but respond to the covenant of God, because he is the image. However, he ought to respond appropriately, as a covenant-keeper, in order to express in self-consciousness the glory-reflective image-likeness of being holy as God is holy. What has changed in the lapsarian situation is that this covenant-being can no longer respond obediently to his covenantal-religious calling. He is now, as the ichabod-image, a covenant-breaker who responds in self-conscious repudiation of his task; his response is invariably one of rebellion, a refusal to heed the covenantal call of duty to image God ethically in obedient sonship-service. Because of his sublapsarian (post-fall) condition of total depravity, his every thought, word, and deed is an apostate response of radical disobedience-transgression. He cannot do good (inability); he cannot be subject to the law of God. He cannot analogue the prescriptive will of God which stands as the norm of authentic image-behavior, though he nevertheless cannot but analogue the creative power and the dominion-activity of God according to his metaphysical determination as the image of God whose being cannot be metaphysically autonomous and must analogue the decretive will of God as this determines nature and history. There remains in human activity an analogy of form (creative power) but not of content (moral character). Man still imposes his will upon the world in that analogically creative dominion-activity that transforms nature into culture, but his will is not ethically oriented by a love for God to the self-conscious seeking of the glory of God.
Man's Constitutional Covenantalism
By virtue of his being in the stative sense the image-replica of God, man's very being is constituted such that he is formally structured — fitted — to the covenant task given to him by God. The fulfillment of that task is man's proper role and function. The fulfillment of that role of being-unto-God as the divine image in the fullest sense (including the glory-likeness to which he is called) is the fulfillment of his very being, a being that has been designed to be self-realized and consummated in his realization of his calling. This vocational task involves dominion. Indeed, dominion centrally and constitutively characterizes the meaning of the image as an official investiture of vicegerency, of status or office as God's appointed representative (a steward). Man's dominion replicates God's kingship. Appointment to this office under God calls man to serve as the faithful vassal of the Suzerain, to rule in God's name and by his authority, exercising with responsibility to God a delegated authority from God. The image is by nature a dominion-being who is driven by the radical impulse to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it, to humanize the world such that it is made to express the stamp of man's image and reflect human glory. Such dominion-labor is an objectified (or externalized) praxis — expression of man's image — subjectivity (the existential dimension of his being) in its replication of the divine kingship and the divine creativity.
Man is by his created nature inescapably analogically creative; he is reproductively recreative in the image-expression of the Creator-God. Man is a workman or craftsman who replicates on his own level of action the archetypical divine workmanship in creative self-expression. The capacity for dominion (and all that this involves) is as such a given of man's essential being, a gift bestowed in his creation as the image of God, an "ontical a priori" or law of his being. Because of this metaphysical determination, man "instinctively" forms nature into culture and creates a human reality out of the materials of the world, making it his world (a tamed and ordered environment of familiar and comfortable surroundings suited to his wants and needs — a dwelling-place in which he can feel at home). This metaphysical given of a dominion-exercising impulse in man is correlated to his divinely-intended task of exercising dominion under God as an equipping thereto; it is an inherent capacity which is a necessary condition for fulfillment of the demand, for the stative image is the "presupposition" of the reflective image (ethical glory-likeness), and the dominion-impulse lies at the heart of the stative image.
Man's Inescapable Covenant Action
The given of man's nature is designed to suit him for the fulfillment of that covenantal task as the fulfillment of himself in his calling (self-realization). It is thus his very nature — integral to what he essentially is as man qua the image of God — to act according to this inner determination that defines him in his innermost being as an analogical creator. This impulse to expressively externalize his subjectivity, to impress his image upon the world-material and produce human culture, is so constitutively integral to his being the image of God that he cannot but function in terms of this basic capacity and constraint that sets for him his historical task and literally impels him onward according to the dynamic of historical realization in temporal reality.
Thus, as a temporal being situated in time, man unfolds himself — actualizes his being — progressively in a dynamic process of gradual self-realization, growing and developing over time unto maturation. Man is a work in progress, an incomplete and open being, directed to the future and completing himself over the span of his entire life. He is a process-being in a dynamic state of change of becoming. He becomes as a goal-oriented or goal-directed being according to his project, by which he projects himself in his creativity. He is restlessly driven by this fundamental impulse of historical existence that is the internal law of his being unto idionomic self-actualization through historical city-building (culture-formation, labor) unto a maturization that accords with his ethical deportment as a covenant-responsible being (responding either as covenant-keeper or as covenant-breaker).
Accordingly, history, as the field of human activity in city-building, is shaped by, and discloses, the heart of man (out of which are the issues of life) in its religious orientation, whether informed by theonomy or by autonomy. All cultural activity is expressive either of the historical project of the City of God or that of the apostate City of Man.6 This must be so because every act of man is necessarily a response to the revelation of God,7 whether of obedience or rebellion. Every moment of man's consciousness is a response to covenant facts (which, as covenantal, are normative in nature), and the specific response evoked by these theistic facts (whether that of obedience or disobedience) is made according to man's image-determination as covenant-responder. Man at every turn, at every moment and in every circumstance, unavoidably responds to the inescapably ubiquitous, pervasive covenantal revelation of God that confronts man in every fact of creation. Every fact man encounters challenges man covenantally, revealing itself as a task to be performed (how man is to use it, what function it serves) and thereby evoking a response from him — a decision by him — as to what he shall do with it, how he shall react to it. Every situation raises a question for man as to what he ought to do, what is the proper course of action, what action will serve his good (as he perceives that to be). Man, in approaching any fact of creation, uses it either to the glory of God by consciously submitting to God's pre-interpretation of it or else he seizes it for his own autonomous project (in service to his autonomous self-interest). It cannot be otherwise.
Because man is dynamically in action as a projection of himself into the world qua sphere of historical activity, because he is self-expressively engaged in praxis qua his impress of recreative power upon his environment, he is always active in the concretization/effecting either of his autonomous interpretation or of the self-consciously analogical (theonomic) reinterpretation of his situational context as it calls him to covenantal-responsible action. Whether inspired by the spirit of theonomy or that of autonomy, of covenant-keeping or covenant-breaking, he necessarily acts to transform nature (the given), producing either the culture of the City of Man or that of the City of God according to the specific religious vision that informs and motivates his heart (one determined by either sin or grace).
God's Facts Limit Man
Of course, the circumstances of the situation set before men themselves serve as constraints that effectively circumscribe the potential of human action at every turn, limiting the range of possibilities — of possible outcomes—that are open to the finite powers of his creativity. Man's action is held in check by the limits inherent in the given, the initial conditions within the situation he confronts and upon which he seeks to act transformatively, and these circumstances are determined by the providence of God. Although would-be autonomous man attempts to impose his own original (autonomous) meanings in his praxis-interpretation of created reality, the facts, as God-interpreted facts, are not wholly malleable, are not amenable to every imagined interpretation and use. They stubbornly resist many manipulations; they refuse to submit to many projects. They are determinate in character and can only be manipulated by man within a narrowly circumscribed range of applications. For example, water cannot be used for fuel,8 nor can rocks be used for food. The function various things can serve is limited; their range of potential uses is not simply dependent upon the creative imagination of man but is set by their very nature which man must discover and respect. Man must yield to a substantial degree to the way things are, for the degree to which things yield to his will is a bounded variable with very definite (and relatively narrow) parameters. Discovering the way things work, their properties and functions, and conforming or adapting to a predetermined state of affairs is vital to a successful cultural project. This means that the world must be met on its own ground — i.e., upon the metaphysical common ground of theistic facticity — if man is to exercise dominion over it.
Thus, the world yields itself to man's dominion only as he knows it truly, as he discovers the divinely preinterpreted meaning of things and rightly applies what is therein disclosed regarding their intended functions (their created essence). The suppression of natural revelation by fallen man accordingly renders the facts opaque to him (relative to the degree of successful suppression) as the facts, operating under God's law and within his order, refuse autonomous man's misinterpretations and illegitimate manipulations. To the extent that man disobeys natural revelation by resisting what the facts would disclose of themselves (which is a revelation of their place in the covenantal task, their role and function in the plan of God in which they have their meaning as facts), man is hindered in his dominion over nature. God-facts inevitably resist man's false interpretations commensurate to man's resistance of the duty they confront man with according to the will of their Creator, and only by some degree of submission to the a priori meaning of the facts (a partial submission made possible by common grace) can man progress in using them as material for his cultural project.
The Benefits of Common Grace
Thus, even the progress of the City of Man lends itself to the advancement of the City of God in history as the fruit of the rebels' apostate labors, despite the would-be autonomous intention behind those labors, issues by virtue of common grace and divine providence in true scientific and technological advance that can be utilized for the glory of God by his people. The ungodly cannot help but create capital that ultimately will serve the City of God; they do so despite themselves and their wicked aims. They unwittingly fulfill to some extent the covenantal task despite their self-conscious repudiation of it, despite their pursuit of humanistic culture and a secular city. God's world is a kosmos, an ordered system; it is a laworder, and man can survive (let alone prosper and flourish) within it only to the extent that he adapts himself to its intrinsic lawstructure, to the extent that he submits himself to the truth as an ought. Fallen man, despite his foolish and darkened imagination, must conform himself to reality and deal with the real world, rather than living in a delusional state of his imagined godhood. He must obey the laws of the world if he is to exercise dominion. Although fallen man incessantly attempts to wrest the world to his own autonomous ends, to make it a servant to him in his revolt against God, it not only resists this misuse and strives against the false project, but it (in supreme irony) actually serves to pull man back and direct him to proper applications, providing him with a reality-check and restraining his delusional pursuits from being consistently carried out to their end.
Man survives only by skill, by know-how, and that practical knowledge involves a more or less correct grasp of how God's world actually functions according to the governance of God. The absolutely depraved could not function; only God's common grace allows for the success of any of the rebels' labors in gaining control of their environment. Thus, every genuine advance in knowledge is ontically suited to serve godly culture when appropriated by the people of God who have lawful claim to all things as their rightful inheritance. All of science and technology can be interpreted and applied to serve the cause of God and truth under those who exercise godly dominion. "The wealth of the wicked is laid up for the just," and even the wrath of man will praise God as useful for his glory. Covenant-breakers create tools of dominion for the City of God despite themselves; every "success" of the City of Man, despite its self-deluded pretentions to the contrary, is but slave-labor (and alienated labor) expended in the capitalizing of the historical City of God so as to assure its prosperity to the glory of God.
Every confrontation between man and his world (subject and object) involves a synthesis and transformation. Neither man nor the facts he encounters remain unchanged, unaffected by the encounter. The relation between subject and object is by nature dynamically interactive. Man is altered in this confrontation because he is challenged anew with his covenantal task by the revelation of God and its evocation of a covenant response from the heart of man to this state of affairs. Man thus grows in knowledge and responsibility, confirming the state of his heart in its theonomous or autonomous orientation. So too, the facts are transformed by the assertion of man's dominating will upon them to subdue them to human ends (whether godly or ungodly in ultimate point of reference). Man is projected upon his situation and leaves his imprint as he turns the natural thing into a cultural artifact, a product of human labor. Yet it is not simply the facts of creation in their purely natural, raw or primitive state that are God-facts; even the "artificial" facts — that which is manmade or refined, formed from the "raw material" of nature, the products of prior syntheses and transformations — remain revelational in character, thus continuing the dynamic dialectic that impels man forward in covenant-responsive historical activity. Cultural and technological products also witness to their proper applications and uses, ethically challenging man to put them to good and appropriate use (for godly purposes), rather than perverting them to evil ends, according to the hatred for God's creation-order that burns in the depraved heart of the rebel. Each human achievement reveals itself as a gift of God, thus continuing to point man to how it can and should serve the cultural advance of the City of God and prodding him to be wise in his cultural stewardship, to seek the kingdom of God as summum bonum in that covenantal obedience by which man can consciously glorify God and enjoy him forever. Metaphysically, all the facts remain in common between the two cities; the world ever remains God's world and truly subject only to godly dominion, claimable by those renewed images of God who act as faithful vassals of the true Suzerain. The facts have true meaning only in terms of kingdom-pursuit, each advance in human knowledge bearing witness to the kingdom's ultimate triumph and the futility of metaphysical revolt.
The Impossibilities of Cultural Passivity
From all this we see that cultural retreat, cultural passivity and quiesence, is impossible. Man is inherently an active historical agent, a culture-producing being who is actively engaged in the world. If man does not grow, he dies. We see as well that, because God is sovereign, this relentless drive that is the mainspring of historical action is directed to true cultural progress, despite fallen man's false cultural project and all his vain efforts to subvert God's order. We have thus seen that the stage is set, even in the fallen world, for the eventual victory of the servants of God. When God reintroduces the City of God into history by the Covenant of Redemption, he clearly intends for the original Cultural Mandate, the call to dominion, to be fulfilled; he intends history (the arena in which his victory was accomplished) to reveal the success of the City of God in realizing kingdom-culture, lest the creation be rendered meaningless by its failure to realize itself in terms of the design of the creation-covenantal plan. Should the meaning of the facts not be fulfilled by the fruition of man's covenantal project, by his use of the facts in accomplishing his cultural task, we could not speak of creation being redeemed and delivered, but Scripture so speaks (Rom. 8:19:22), and so must we. History must reveal the victory of the kingdom as that kingdom makes its presence known in history unto the filling of the earth with the glory of God. It is given to man as the renewed image of God to show forth that glory in all his activities and endeavors, in all areas of his life, as God's priest-king and an instrument of righteousness.
1. Dan G. McCartney, "Ecce Homo: The Coming of the Kingdom as the Restoration of Human Vicegerency," Westminster Theological Journal 56 (1994), 121.
2. Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, 1980) passim.
3. In traditional terminology we speak of the image of God in a "wider" and "narrower" sense. Obviously, the narrow sense depends upon the wider sense, supplementing it or pouring further determinative content into the wider concept. The stative image roughly corresponds to the wider sense of the image, while the reflective sense, dealing with the content of a specifically godly character (true holiness and righteousness, glory-likeness), roughly corresponds to the narrow sense. The stative image is a necessary condition for the expression of glory-likeness; the ability to respond in obedience is contingent upon the ability to respond as a free-moral agent.
4. For all that has been said thus far concerning the twofold sense of the image of God I am indebted first and foremost to M. G. Kline, Images of the Spirit, 2634, and, secondly, to John M. Frame's comments on the twofold sense of Van Til's "analogical activity" in Frame, Van Til the Theologian (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1976), 20.
5. See the comments on Rom. 3:23 in James D. G. Dunn, Romans 18 (Waco, TX, 1988), 1678.
6. Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Philadelphia, 1959), chaps. 5 and 6.
7. Cornelius Van Til, "Nature and Scripture," in Paul Wooley, ed., The Infallible Word: A Symposium, 3rd rev. ed. (Presbyterian and Reformed , 1967), 263301.
8. I realize this illustration of common sense breaks down out of the field of everyday, ordinary experience. We can indeed turn water into fuel by breaking up the molecule into hydrogen and oxygen. Still, because of this chemical change, we are no longer dealing with water; water itself cannot be a fuel, and no amount of physical change to it will make it such. Man ought not to pour water upon his fire if his intent is to keep it burning.