Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Here is a quote from each exploring the biblical idea that we humans are created in the image and likeness of God. First, from St Basil we get a warning not to reverse the thinking about humans being in God’s image by reading back from humans to discover what God must be like. Basil wants to be clear that God is not like humans in any way. His writings are perhaps the most theologically abstract of the three Ecumenical Teachers.
“In what sense are we according to the image of God? Let us purify ourselves of an ill-informed heart, an uneducated conception about God. . . . Do not enclose God in bodily concepts, nor circumscribe him according to your own mind. He is incomprehensible in greatness. . . . He is everywhere and surpasses all; and he is intangible, invisible, who indeed escapes your grasp. . . . For the shape of a body is corruptible. The incorruptible is not depicted in the corruptible, nor is the corruptible an image of the incorruptible. . . . ‘Let us make the human being according to our image.‘ It speaks of the inner human being. . . . I recognize two human beings, one the sense-perceptible, and one hidden under the sense-perceptible, invisible, the inner human. Therefore we have an inner human being, and we are somehow double, and it is truly said that we are that which is within. For I am what concerns the inner human being, the outer things are not me but mine. For I am not the hand, but I am the rational part of the soul and the hand is a limb of the human being. Therefore the body is an instrument of the human being, and an instrument of the soul, and the human being is principally the soul in itself.
‘Let us make the human being according to our image,’ that is, let us give him the superiority of reason.” (ON THE HUMAN CONDITION, pp 34-36)
St Basil wants to be clear that God is not simply an infinitely larger human being. God is completely unlike His creatures in terms of nature. God has no physical attributes. For Basil being in God’s likeness does not refer to anything physical, but rather to our inner, spiritual being as humans. He is warning against returning to pagan ideas about the gods who are often simply like human beings but perhaps with some ‘super powers.’ Basil’s concern is that people will anthropomorphize God rather than deify humans. And he wants to be clear that while we humans have bodies, the body does not define who we are, so therefore could never tell us about God. In Basil’s thinking, we have a body but “we” are distinct from the body we have and God does not have a body and so we should never think about God in bodily terms.
St Gregory the Theologian emphasizes that humans are indeed a midway point between God and creation and so are mediators between divinity and the created cosmos. Gregory has God saying:
‘Wherefore it pleases me to form a species out of both, midway between mortals and immortals: thinking man, who shall delight in my works, and be a level-headed initiate of heavenly mysteries, and a great power on earth, another angel sprung from the soil, the chanter of my mind and dispositions.’
Having said this, then, he took up a portion of new-formed earth and with immortal hands set up my shape, to which he then imparted his own life. For into it he shot spirit, an efflux of the unseen Godhead. And from dirt and breath he made a man, image of the immortal: for mind’s lordly nature is in both. And so I feel attachment to this life, through what’s earth in me, but inwardly long for another, through the part that’s divine. Such was the conjoining of the original man. (ON GOD AND MAN, p 65)
Gregory has humans being both made of created material and also with an influx from God of His Spirit which is why humans are drawn both to eternity and to the world since we are composite beings made of both the spiritual and physical.
St John Chrysostom perhaps has the most ‘down to earth’ understanding of what it is for humans to be created in God’s image and he avoids more abstract speculation on its meaning. Chrysostom is clear that our being in God’s likeness does not refer to any physical feature of humans. Rather, it refers to the authority/power that God has shared with and bestowed on humans in giving them a unique role in creation.
“So ‘image’ refers to the matter of control, not anything else, in other words, God created the human being as having control of everything on earth, and nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls.
As the word ‘image’ indicated a similitude of command, so too ‘likeness,’ with the result that we become like God to the extent of our human power – that is to say, we resemble him in our gentleness and mildness and in regard to virtue, as Christ also says, ‘Be like your father in heaven‘ (Matthew 5: 45).” (HOMILIES ON GENESIS 1-17, pp 110, 120)
All three of these Ecumenical teachers agree that it is significant to our comprehending God’s will that humans are created by God in God’s image. Each of the Three Teachers have a slightly different take on to what exactly being in God’s image refers. Basil wants to defend the transcendent nature of God and wants to disabuse people of thinking about God in human terms. Gregory portrays humans as being created by God with divine and created characteristics so that the humans are the mediators between divinity and creation and were created to unite divinity with creation. Chrysostom, more of a moralist, looks at the virtues found in humans as a sign that we are made in God’s image. God has empowered us to do His will.
The views of these three Ecumenical Teachers don’t contradict each other but show a diversity in understanding biblical theology and anthropology. There is a broad unity in their thinking but also significant diversity as they show the depths of Christian thinking. All three creatively applied theology to address particular pastoral issues and concerns but also to show the depth and riches of God’s revelation to us.