In the Image and Likeness of God

This is the 11th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is The Fall: Inhuman and Dehumanized, The Loss of Humanity.

One of the most fundamental and frequently mentioned aspects of Christian anthropology found in Orthodox theology is that humans are created in the image and likeness of God.  This is considered to be a basic truth about humanity which even the Fall did erase.  Humans have a natural connection to God, whether they know it or not, whether they believe it or not.  So the first creation narrative in Genesis reads:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:26-28)

Adam naming the animals

Being creatures in God’s image and likeness caused Christians from the earliest days to assume this gives humans, among all creatures, both a unique relationship to God and a special responsibility to God for the stewardship of God’s creation. But it is interesting that after the theologically profound statements in Genesis 1 of the creation of humans in God’s image and likeness, the Old Testament makes little use of the concept except to reiterate it in Genesis 5:1-2  and 9:6–

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.“  (5:1-2)

“…for God made man in his own image.”  (9:6)

This unique relationship between God the Lord and the human creatures may be given some attention and development in Psalm 82:6-7 :

I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.”

This verse is quoted by Jesus Christ in a famous debate with his Jewish interlocutors  as to whether Jesus can rightfully claim to be a son of god.

The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”   (John 10:33-38)

It is in the New Testament that we find the theological importance of the image and likeness being brought to the foreground of reflection.  St. Paul develops the notion of humans being in the image of God as well as the notion of our being descendants of the first Adam according to the flesh but also according to the Spirit being descendants of the new Adam, Jesus Christ.

“Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  (Ephesians 4:33-24.   See also 1 Corinthians 11:7; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; James 3:9).

In the New Testament humans created in God’s image is also the basis for the salvation of the human race being found in the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ.  Early Christian literature continues to explore this idea as the significance of the person of  the God-man Jesus Christ as Savior became better understood.   Then especially in the writings of the Patristic theologians we see the full meaning of humans being in God’s image and likeness being unpacked and proclaimed to the world.

We see a most interesting poetic reference to the image in the Odes of Solomon (13), which variously dated but many think is a 2nd Century Christian document:

“See!  The Lord is our mirror:

open your eyes,

look into it,

learn what your faces are like.”  


If we look into the face of Christ our Lord, we see both God and what we were created by God to be!  Such profound thinking is no doubt the basis for our understanding of iconography.  St. Gregory of Nyssa echoes the insight given us from the Odes of Solomon:

“You alone are an icon of Eternal beauty, and if you look at Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, whose glory is reflected in your purity.  …  He dwells… within you…He pervades your entire being…”  (quoted in WHO AM I? , pp 32-33)

The importance of being created in God’s image and the fact that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ was the basis for:   1) the increased interest in what the image of God in us is exactly, and,  2) what it means for us as human beings to be in God’s image.

“… the Dominican theologian, Père Camelot, remarked: Now this theme of the image is, in the theology of the Fathers, above all the Greek Fathers, truly central: there one sees at the same time the meeting of Christology and Trinitarian theology, of anthropology and psychology, of the theology of creation and that of grace, of the problem of nature and the supernatural, the mystery of divinization, the theology of the spiritual life, the laws of its development and of its progress.”   (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1600-1604)

For the Fathers, the very reason God could become incarnate as a human is because humanity is created in God’s image.  They often argued that in fact only when Christ came on earth do we come to realize in whose image Adam was made.  Adam was made in God’s image so that when the Christ came as the incarnate God, He could be recognized by all humanity.  We always have to remember that the word for “image” in Greek is “icon”.   God is the original iconographer, making each human to be an icon of Himself, and that image turns out to be Christ.

“Sometimes the Greek Fathers associate the divine image or ‘ikon’ in man with the totality of his nature, considered as a triunity of spirit, soul and body.  At other times they connect the image more specifically with the highest aspect of man, with his spirit or spiritual intellect, through which he attains knowledge of God and union with him.  Fundamentally, the image of God in man denotes everything that distinguishes man from the animals, that makes him in the full and true sense a person – a moral agent capable of right and wrong, a spiritual subject endowed with inward freedom.”   (Kallistos Ware, THE ORTHODOX WAY, pp 64-65)

The Church Fathers reflected a great deal exactly on what in humanity is in God’s image or how that is manifested in our lives.  They did not all agree on what being in God’s image means or how we could see this image.

“… Orthodox Christians are to engage life not only with deep faith but also with sound reason, the highest attribute of man created in the image and likeness of god.  For the Cappadocian Fathers our minds are a way of sharing the mind of God.  Without the gift of reason, there would be no free will, no moral responsibility, and no freely chosen progress toward God.”    (Theodore Stylianopoulos, THE WAY OF CHRIST, p 4)

The Fathers assumed the image was not something physical (since God is not visible) but rather was manifested in a human trait (like having reason or consciousness) or in human behavior – in free will, or the capacity to love, or in our ability to be moral beings.

Chrysostom was after justice in defense of human dignity.  Was not every man created in God’s image?  Did God not wish salvation and conversion of every single man, regardless of his position in life, and even regardless of his behavior in the past?  All are called to repentance, and all can repent.”  (Georges Florovsky, ASPECTS OF CHURCH HISTORY, p 85)

God’s image in us is also a goal for us to strive towards and to realize in our lives.  For the Fathers believed being in God’s likeness was a potentiality God placed in us but which we must realize by our choices.  We can grow in our likeness of God.  We become more fully human as we become more God-like.  Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, is fully human.   Theosis is that goal toward which every Christian strives.

“Growth in personhood has as its aim growth towards God-likeness, which is ultimately endless because God is a mystery: ‘ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, existing forever and always the same.’ Growth in personhood is growth and development of one’s humanity and is consistent with growth toward God-likeness.  ‘How could you be God when you have not yet become human?’  St. Irenaeus asks.  To grow in humanity is to grow in God-likeness, and to become more like God is to grow in one’s humanity.”   (Anton Vrame, THE EDUCATING ICON: TEACHING WISDOM AND HOLINESS IN THE ORTHODOX WAY, pp 71-72)

We are not trying to escape our humanity but to fulfill it.   As the Fathers taught, “God became human so that each human might become God.”  We each and all are meant to share in the divine life and partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:2-4).

Next:  Image and Likeness in the Writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa

3 thoughts on “In the Image and Likeness of God

  1. Pingback: The Fall: Inhuman and Dehumanized, The Loss of Humanity | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Image and Likeness in the Writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa | Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: You Are the Body of Christ – Fr. Ted's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.