The Imago Dei

Posted by Jeffrey Tiel on

The Imago Dei

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?


(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)

Texts: “Let us make man in our image . . .” (Genesis 1:28); “ Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:6).

Man is created in the image of God. The Church proclaims this great truth unflinchingly. But what does it mean? What does being created in the image, the ikon of God, really mean?

Well, let’s look at some possibilities. We might think that being made in God’s image is what distinguishes man from animals. Citing Aristotle, some have suggested that the imago dei is none other than our rationality. To be rational, Aristotle explains, is to operate from inner reasons rather than outer causes. It is to act, instead of being acted upon. Rocks don’t act, they don’t behave, they don’t choose. To choose is to operate freely. Thus, freedom of the will and rationality are mutually entailing. To act is to behave for the sake of some end. To act for the sake of ends is to choose value, to place value on those ends or purposes. Thus, all human action is moral, it entails value. Thus, rationality is necessary for morality. Could this rational moral quality constitute the image of God in man? Since only man is said to be made in God’s image, we should test this hypothesis by seeing if we find rational morality in creatures other than ourselves.

There is little doubt that this rational moral quality distinguishes us from the animals, but does it differentiate us from the angels? Only in a sense, since both angels and human beings are intellectual, while no animal is intellectual. Intellectual beings are divided into two kinds: pure intellects (angels) and embodied intellects (human persons). Philosophers call human intellectual nature “rational” because it operates differently from angelic intellectual nature. Angels do not draw conclusions from premises in the temporal way that we do. We work our way through an argument, while the angel sees it all at once. So, philosophers call human reasoning discursive, and angelic reasoning intuitive (don’t confuse this with “women’s intuition” or something along those lines). Discursive reasoning makes us rational intellectual beings, the term “rational” denoting the use of discursive reasoning. But regardless of how rapidly we see the conclusions from arguments, both human beings and angels are intellectual. And so, both angels and human beings are capable of moral choice. The angels have already made theirs, since their choosing—like their reasoning—happens all at once, not stretched out in time as ours choices are. Thus, the angels have completed their moral choices (and this goes for dark angels too, the demons, who made bad moral choices). But for all that, angels are moral beings. So, being intellectual is not what separates us from the rest of God’s creation. It does not seem identical to being made in God’s image.

We have finally found something that ties us to the divine nature but distinguishes us from both angels and the animals: the ability to beget persons.

Well, perhaps instead of looking at what we share with angels over against the animals, we should flip things around and consider what we share with the animals but not with the angels. One important factor must be our ability to reproduce ourselves. Angels don’t reproduce at all, but God does, since God is Father, and he eternally begets His Son. But divine begetting differs from animal begetting in two ways. First, divine begetting does not require physical bodies. Second, divine begetting produces persons. Both human and animal reproduction require bodies, but unlike the animals, only human beings—like God—beget persons. So, we have finally found something that ties us to the divine nature but distinguishes us from both angels and the animals: the ability to beget persons.

Let’s take a closer look at divine begetting then. Divine begetting is the procession of the divine persons within the Trinity, as the Father begets the Son, and the Spirit spirates from the Father and the Son. There is no biology intermixed with divine begetting—nothing physical—and as such, divine begetting does not occur within physical time. The Church says that this begetting is an eternal act, so it’s not as though there was any time at which the Son and the Spirit didn’t exist as eternal God. But when the Father thinks eternally, he thinks himself perfectly, and to think himself perfectly is to think of God thought, or we might say, God spoken. Hence, when the Father speaks himself, we get the Eternal Word, the Son of God, the perfect Image of the Father. Similarly, when God loves eternally, God loves God, but to love himself is to love God beloved. Hence, when the Father loves God, we get the living Love of God, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Because God is Person, he both thinks and acts. Hence, from his eternal thought and eternal action, we see the eternal procession of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Man begets according to his species, as the animals do. ... But the replication is also spiritual, since human parents produce human persons as offspring, not merely human bodies.

Man, like God, begets. Man begets according to his species, as the animals do, a biological (or, material) replication. But the replication is also spiritual, since human parents produce human persons (strictly speaking a “spirit” is a person, an immaterial mind) as offspring, not merely human bodies. Thus, human reproduction entails a merging of spirit and matter, the only creature in the entire universe (that we know of) that is comprised of both kinds of stuff. This marks human beings as unique. What’s more, we know from the purpose of the Incarnation that God intended to become man from the beginning, whether our species had fallen or not. If our first parents had obeyed God, God would have met them in the garden as man, not merely as wind. So, man was originally designed to be the means by which God entered His creation. Thus, our species is not merely the merger of matter and spirit, but also was planned all along as the merger of God with His creation. In fact, we can probably go so far as to the say that man is the merger of God and creation. Our being human is a participation in this great creative purpose, almost as if we are an afterthought, an addition of particular finite human beings created for the sake of this One. We were indeed made for God, just as the Scriptures have always said. Not just we as individuals, but we as a species. Human nature was made to be the matter of God, to be that special creation assumed into divinity. God thus created human nature for Himself, and only then created us to join Him as His brothers.

Our species is not merely the merger of matter and spirit, but also was planned all along as the merger of God with His creation.

We have now discovered what being made in God’s image must mean. We are literally in the image of God, for God created our species for Himself in the first place, to reflect Himself as completely as can be done within creation, the fullness of grace and truth says St. John. When God chose to create additional human persons—besides the body and nature he prepared for Himself in the Incarnation—he created those persons in his image, since human nature was prepared as his image all along.

For this reason many odd things that the Scriptures say make more sense. For example, St. Peter says that through redemption we are made partakers of the divine nature, a nature to which we were always destined as participants. Thus, redemption is not re-creation so much as restoration (you can’t get better than the image of God). Or, again, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that man is to rise above the angels. This rising doesn’t seem to accord with nature, since angels are higher in power than we are. But power is not the only measure of nature. Man is the composite of spirit and matter, designed by God as His entrance into creation. And God is above the angels. Thus shall man indeed rise above the angels once our redemption as sons of God is complete. Or, again, in his letter to the Roman Christians, St. Paul describes God’s eternal plan for us to be “conformed to the image of his Son,” an image that we now understand as the imago dei.

The philosophers also make more sense when we view human nature as the image of God, because human creativity extends not only to the replication of persons sexually, but also to every sort of imagistic replication, something found in neither the communities of the angels nor the communities of the animals. Human beings are obsessed with creativity, as the proliferation of the arts amply displays. Only a creature possessed of mind and body can employ the meanings grasped in the intellect as embodied images. Admittedly, some of the angels are the muses, but the muses inspire the actual creativity that takes place in the human artist. Thus, angels don’t do poetry, but we do. We better understand love by thinking of a rose, because the rose as an image of love unites spirit and matter, idea with body. And that is divine, because that is the divine activity of God’s uniting himself with his creation, the Word made flesh.

The Orthodox Church talks of theosis, not merely of God becoming man, but of man becoming God. To Western ears, this sounds tantamount to idolatry, but fortunately for the Eastern Church, it was St. Athanasius, that great defender of orthodox Catholic thought against Arianism, who first coined the phrase. What does it mean for man to become God? Well, let’s take it first in the species sense, for in redeeming man, God redeemed not only this or that individual man, but our nature, human nature, i.e., Man. Thus, for our species to be fulfilled properly, we must create a home for God to be one of us, to live with us physical person to physical person, so that one will not worship God only on Mount Gerazim or on Mount Jerusalem, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4, but everywhere, since God is spirit, and we worship him in spirit and in truth. Only, thanks to our foregoing discussion, we now understand that God never intended to be solely spirit, since the one speaking to that woman was already the Incarnate God! As such, Jesus was revealing to this woman what he would shortly explain to the disciples in John 6—that he would become one with all men through the Eucharist everywhere in the world, not just on this or that particular mountain. And one day, because God has already assumed man fully into himself and promised to return to earth as man, we will worship him as a physical person on any mountain top he chooses to invite us to climb with him; “Christ with us, the hope of glory.”

But theosis also refers to an individual man becoming God. Men particularly “become God” by reflecting God’s image, being images of the Image of God, the Incarnate Son. Hence, all the talk in the Church about being Christ-like, i.e., godlike or godly. By becoming like him, we fulfill the image of God. A man does this individually by reflecting the divine goodness through himself naturally and supernaturally.

He does this naturally through the exemplification of cardinal virtue in his conduct and thought. With respect to nature, he does this through excellence in the arts and the sciences. With respect to his fellow men, he does this through virtuous relations within the three great divine institutions: family, state, and Church.

Thus, the imago dei is fulfilled when men—infused by God through supernatural virtue and sacrament—become the best men possible.

Supernaturally, a man reflects the divine goodness through the exemplification of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love in both natural and supernatural contexts. So, in the contexts of the arts and sciences, as well as family, state, and the Church, the supernatural virtues should augment and expand upon what the natural virtues can do. Thus, the Renaissance is the greatest artistic achievement known to man, but it was not possible in the Hellenistic world, because the Renaissance was built upon both natural truth gleaned through the sciences and supernatural truth revealed in Christ. In supernatural contexts, the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love find their highest expression within the Sacraments, where we are born into God, are nurtured by and unified with God, and ultimately are borne away in death to God. Thus, the imago dei is fulfilled when men—infused by God through supernatural virtue and sacrament—become the best men possible. In maximally fulfilling their natures, such men fulfill the Image of God. This is theosis.

When we look back to our original text of Genesis 1:28, it should not be surprising to discover that the notion that human nature is the image of God is staring us in the face. For doesn’t God say to himself, “Let us make man in our image?” He doesn’t refer to the male but to the species, because he immediately identifies “man” as “in the image of God made he them, male and female, made he them.” So, human nature is indeed the image of God. But this last reference to gender must also be taken up, for the reproduction of human persons is only possible through the unity of two persons in one flesh, marital love. Neither the male nor the female is really fully human without the other. We fully represent God when we enter into marital unity and bear children, for God is a multiplicity of persons in one substance, and only in human marriage and then the human family do we find an analogous biological reality. Who knew that when the priest references two being made one so much was at stake?

Let’s lastly consider the negative side of the image of God, namely its violation, by examining our text from Genesis 9 where God explains to Noah that murder is a violation of the image of God in man. When we commit atrocities upon one another, we are defacing and assaulting the very image of God, so that we commit a double crime. All evil is thus sin, for sin is a theological violation, not merely a criminal one. Every time we hurt our neighbor, we commit a violation against God, because our neighbor reflects God’s image. Every time we help our neighbor we enact charity not just to that neighbor but to God himself, for God is represented in that person. Didn’t Jesus say that if we offer a cup of water to the least person we have done it unto Him?

And so we come to the ultimate murder, the crucifixion of Jesus. Murdering Christ was the single greatest version of the violation referred to in Genesis because the Romans didn’t just murder an image of God, they slaughtered the image of God. Jesus refers to Himself not only as the Son of God, but also the Son of Man. In the particular sense, this means that He is really human. But in the universal sense, this means that He is the son—the representation—of man as man, i.e., human nature. Thus, Christ is the highest exemplar of what a human being can be. In murdering Jesus, then, the Romans didn’t just violate the image of God by committing murder, they violated the image of God by attacking the image of God Himself, He who is the Son of Man, the perfect representation of human nature.

Shifting back to the positive, and pulling the strands of our inquiry together, it follows that if Jesus is the perfect representation of man as man, then He must enter into us through love to bear the fruit of personhood. The Eucharist is the foretaste of that unity, a unity that the Scriptures tell us will prove to be the marriage of which all human marriages always spoke, the nuptial mass of Christ to his Bride, the Church. When the Church unites to her husband and king in the great marriage supper, a fruitfulness of God unified to Man will be ushered in on a level beyond anything we can yet conceive. So great a unity and fruitfulness will be achieved that Jesus tells us that in the final kingdom we won’t be given to one another in particular marriages, since that marriage for which all marriages were created will finally be achieved. What sex and gender are ultimately for will finally be known, for we shall know God as he knows us, face to face, uncreated naked intimacy to created naked intimacy.

But back in the here and now, we are the bride-to-be on the one hand, and the body of Christ on the other. To be a human person is an extraordinary privilege, a grace beyond nature, since human nature is supernatural to begin with. When our lives are also unified by the supernatural virtue of charity through the sacraments of the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit of Love, we are the Body of Christ. Why? Because we are the living Image of God. Christ in you, the hope of glory, indeed.

To be a human person is an extraordinary privilege, a grace beyond nature, since human nature is supernatural to begin with.


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