Update
Home / ECCLESIAL MEDITATIONS & THEOLOGICAL ARTICLES / An outline of the theology of the “Image”, as articulated in the Orthodox Christian tradition

An outline of the theology of the “Image”, as articulated in the Orthodox Christian tradition

Introduction

According to the Orthodox Christian tradition, the doctrine on the creation of the human being “in the Image and Likeness” of God is considered to be amongst those doctrines which reveal the basic truths about God and the world.

If one were to embark on a detailed study on the literature available on this doctrine, it would not be too long before they would realise that there is no precise formulation on the Image in which the human being was created. Furthermore, the multifarious explication on the Image, not only enlightens and serves to form a correct understanding of cosmology, but at the same time leads the one who is “searching” to an awesome encounter with a mystery.

Indeed, St Gregory of Nyssa writes that the Image of God in the human being is incomprehensible. [1] However, in the absence of a precise definition, there is an ultimate truth which reveals humanity’s purpose within the temporal sphere of this life. This article will describe the Image in various ways, all of which contribute to the unveiling of this ultimate truth which is the perfection of the created world in God.

Image as Christification

St Paul teaches that Christ “… is the image of the invisible God…for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth…” (Col 1:15-18 NKJV).  He also exhorts the Corinthians to “bear the image of the heavenly Man”, who is Christ (1 Cor 15:49). The Fathers of the Church use St Paul’s teaching as a starting point on their theology of the image and make the distinction that Christ constitutes the image of God and the human being the image of Christ.[2]   The Christological dimension of St Paul’s teaching implies that creation in the image refers to humanity’s Christification.[3] Humans has been endowed with a mind, reason and freedom, all of which contribute to their ability to commune with God. Such communion with God presupposes freedom, a willing response by humans “which should lead to marriage, that is, to hypostatic union, the unconfused but real and fulfilling mixture and commingling of the divine and human natures”.[4]

Therefore, the human being was created “in the image” so that it should become “the image of the heavenly”[5]  human who is Christ.

These qualities or structural elements of the human being, also reveal humanity’s place within creation. For just as Christ who is humanity’s archetype, is the recapitulator and saviour of all humans, so too, are humans responsible for the creation and “consciousness of all that has been brought into being”.[6]

Image as Personhood

The Holy Trinity is a trinity of three persons, “not a simple monad, not one person loving himself alone, but three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – loving one another in a reciprocal relationship”.[7]

Therefore, humans created in the image of the Holy Trinity are also to love one another. This can only be achieved if the human being begins to see itself as a person, not as an individual.

Two terms which are synonymous in modern day use, are in fact distinct. An individual is one who is inward, self-contained and isolated. Person, refers to the human being as a face, outward looking in relationship with others i.e. communion which has love as its driving force.[8]

Image as Destiny

The image of God also refers to the dynamism through which the human being can attain the likeness of God. God said “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26). Although certain Fathers see no difference between the image and the likeness, there are those who treat the likeness as the potentiality within the human being to attain a state of perfection through the grace of God. Although this perfection can only be fully realised in the eschaton, the human being has the power to seek for such perfection in the present age.

Through the grace of God, such a quest has the power to transfigure and to lead those who are willing, beyond their limits to an intimate relationship with God. It is unending for “God is inexhaustible, and so the potentialities of our human personhood according to the divine image are likewise inexhaustible.”[9]  It is a constant renewal which leads one to a knowledge of God. Participation of the mysteries involves the entire person, that is, both soul and body.

The body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:10), therefore the image cannot be confined to a particular part of the human makeup. The light of Christ radiates throughout the whole person. The human being in its entirety offers itself as a sacrifice – the human’s body provides the means through which it can execute divine inspiration and “quench its unquenchable” desire to know God.

Image as Sovereignty

The human being’s pre-eminence over the rest of creation exercised through its lordship; its self-determination, are all capacities that reflect the power of God.[10]  St John Chrysostom says “His reference is to image in the sense of government, as the sequel indicates: after saying, in our image and likeness, He went on, and let them govern the fish of the sea.”[11]

However, the commandment to govern is not referring to conquest, as this would result in war between humanity and the rest of creation. It is a responsibility leading to love and knowledge; an imitation of the transforming and salvific love that God has for His creation.[12]  Being the Image of God the human being is to take into its hands the material world, the natural environment in order to transform it into form and beauty and to impart to it its personal seal.[13]

Image as Divine Energy

The image refers to that which lies in the innermost depths of the human being; that life giving force; that which allows the human to know its creator; that which energises the human to respond to its creator; that which underpins all that has been described in this article as God’s image.[14]

However, to confine it to a particular endowment means that the human being ceases to be a created person; what is significant is not that which enables, but its expression realised as the relationship with its creator.

Dumitru Staniloae writes, “Our being has its kinship with God through the spirit that it has received, but it receives the spirit because it is capable of conscious relationship with God.”[15]

Conclusion

The views provided on the Image are not disparate; they express a common theme, or rather a task, which is the perfection of both the human being and all creation made possible through God’s love.

Humanity’s failure to realise this task has resulted in the ecological crisis and one should be careful not to attribute this crisis to the advancement and application of scientific knowledge. As Panagiotis Nellas writes, “Man, in organising the world and discovering its mysteries, does nothing but fulfil one of the marks of his destiny, provided, of course, that his organisation of the world proceeds in the direction of its becoming fully human.”[16]

Moreover, being in the Image of God, does not imply that the human being identifies or will ever be able to identify with the essence of God. There is an unbridgeable ontological gap between God and humanity – God is uncreated, and humanity created by God out of nothing. If the human being’s task is to be realised, a correct understanding on the doctrine of the Image of God is necessary.

Creation springs forth from within God, it is an act of love and consequently all things created are holy, are called to holiness and are “elevated from ontological mortality to charismatic immortality”[17]

Bibliography

Chirban, John T. (ed.). Personhood. Connecticut, Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1996. Chrysostom, John. Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis. Translated by Robert   Charles Hill. Boston, Mass: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004. Gunton, Colin E. The Triune Creator. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998. Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. London: James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1957. Nellas, Panagiotis. Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987. Sherrard, Philip. Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998. Stylianos, Archbishop. “The Sacredness of Creation.” Phronema 5, (1990): 5-13.


[1] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Creation of Man 11, PG 44, 153D-156B, esp, 156AB.
[2] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 24.
[3] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 24.
[4] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 37.
[5] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 24.
[6] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 26.
[7] John T. Chirban, ed., Personhood (Connecticut, Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1996), 3.
[8] John T. Chirban, ed., Personhood (Connecticut, Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1996), 4.
[9] John T. Chirban, ed., Personhood (Connecticut, Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1996), 7.
[10] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 27.
[11] John Chrysostom, Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis, trans. Robert Charles Hill (Boston, Mass: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 47.
[12] Archbishop Stylianos, ‘The Sacredness of Creation’, Phronema 5 (1990): 10.
[13] Metropolitan John of Pergamon, ‘Orthodoxy and the Problem of the Protection of the Natural Environment’, So That God’s Creation Might Live (1991): 19-56.
[14] St Gregory of Nyssa remarks on this apparent synergism: “Through the natural glow lying within it, the eye, attracted by the innate power of what is akin to it, comes to have communion with the light. Similarly, it was necessary for something akin to the divine to be mingled with human nature, so that through this correspondence it should have a desire for what is its own…. For this reason it has been endowed with life and reason and wisdom and every good thing befitting God, so that through each of these things it might have a desire for what is its own…. The account of creation indicates all this succinctly by a single phrase when it says that man was made in the image of God.” in Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration 5, PG 45, 21CD.
[15] Dumitru Staniloae, ‘Image, likeness, and deification in the human person’, Communio 13 (1986): 67.
[16] Panagiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 29.
[17] Archbishop Stylianos, ‘The Sacredness of Creation’, Phronema 5 (1990): 8.

About admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*