In his seminal work on the image of God, Clines rightly states that “the importance of the doctrine is out of all proportion to the laconic treatment it receives in the Old Testament.”[1] Mentioned in only a handful of biblical texts, it is the foundational truth from which we derive a proper understanding of mankind.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, to be made as the image of God infers the idea of representation. Commensurate with ancient Near Eastern ideology, an image-bearer is one who acts on behalf of his king. He is responsible to communicate and execute the will of his sovereign.

The implications of this are significant. At the most fundamental level it can be said that the role of every man and woman is to represent the Creator. We are all responsible to think, speak, and act in such a way that projects his person, his mind, his will. In turn, this necessitates that everybody is a student. In order to be successful image-bearers we must all strive to better understand the King whom we represent and the world that is his domain.

We must be life-long learners.

But what should we study? In part the answer is theology. If we are to project God accurately, we must always be growing in our understanding of him. This learning is usually accomplished by the ministry of a local church. As we attend to the faithful preaching and teaching of the Bible, week by week, we increase in our understanding of God and thus become better equipped as image-bearers. But our studies need not stop there. Indeed, they should not. Simply stated, the pursuit of knowledge in any area of life facilitates a more accurate representation of the Creator within the created order. It equips us to fulfill our role within his world.

Therefore, the point is not that we should only study God, but that our studies must be God-centered. To pursue excellence in mathematics is a wonderful thing, provided that calculus is understood as a part of a divine economy. To strive for mastery of a language is a laudable aim, so long as verb systems are rendered as a gift given by God. While it’s not always obvious how to orient our studies in this manner—the assertions of post-modernity often cloud such relationships—it is a skill that we must learn. Indeed, only when our studies are intentionally theocentric do we truly advance as image-bearers of the King.  

Having acknowledged that the image of God provides an incentive to study, is there more that might be said concerning the means by which we learn? Sadly, many hours are often given to the pursuit of knowledge with little discernible fruit.

True understanding is a rare commodity

If we desire to be life-long learners who are continually improving in our ability to represent God within his created order, a handful of good study habits could prove to be invaluable. Thinking well about how we learn is critical. The following list comprises three broad-brush principles that I believe are essential in our pursuit of knowledge.

First, learn to ask questions.

We live in the information age. We have more information at our fingertips than any previous generation. We can look up any question and have the answer within seconds. This is not necessarily a good thing. This ready access to information prohibits a sense of curiosity. Simply stated, the information age is training us to stop thinking. It is encouraging us to no longer wonder.

The problem with this is clear. As Socrates rightly pointed out, you cannot educate someone with an answer until they are personally invested in asking the question. Curiosity must be encouraged before real learning can begin. If we are no longer asking questions, then we are no longer learning. We must be those who ponder. We must be inquisitive.

Second, seek clarification over accumulation.

If we are disciplined to shut-off potential distractions and exercise a sense of curiosity, we will begin to ask questions. This is the first step towards meaningful learning. Thereafter we want to make sure we are asking the right questions. Despite what you were told at school, there is such a thing as a bad question. So, what makes a good question? Principally, those that seek clarification are preferable to those that seek accumulation. Put another way, it is usually better to understand one thing well than to have a mediocre grasp of many things. We should strive for excellence in one area rather than trying to forge a façade of excellence in many areas. My continual encouragement to students is to pick one thing and pursue it. Seek mastery within one discipline. This begins by asking questions of clarification over accumulation.

Third, pursue synthesis in addition to analysis.

At the risk of sounding contradictory, we must also ask questions that pursue synthesis in addition to analysis. If analysis isolates one concept and probes it to the nth degree, synthesis seeks to understand that same concept within a much broader framework. As post-Enlightenment thinkers, we tend to be very good at analysis, to the detriment of synthesis. Incidentally, this doesn’t violate the principle of pursuing clarification over accumulation because the emphasis is always on understanding, rather than mere information gathering. Thus, we continue to seek clarification, but we do so by acknowledging the interconnected nature of seemingly unrelated disciplines.

This third principle will often prompt us to ask questions that we otherwise would not ask. “How is idea ‘A’ affected by principle ‘B’?,” “Is there an overlap between ‘C’ and ‘D’?” etc. Not only does synthesis often explain things that analysis cannot—because it necessarily probes a different set of questions—but it frequently yields a fuller and richer appreciation for life itself. Indeed, synthesis coupled with analysis will drive us towards more holistic, theocentric learning. This is the kind of study necessary for us to grow in our ability to represent God, to be successful image-bearers.

[1] David J. A Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1967): 53.


[Editor's note: This post was originally published in October 2019 and has been updated.]