In the Image and Likeness of God.


Ruined through transgression,
the one made in God’s image
became wholly subject to corruption,
fell stumbling from a better and divine life.
Him the wise Creator now refashions,
for he has been glorified.

[Tr. Fr. Ephrem: See ANASTASIS]

With these words the first Ode of the Christmas canon teaches the Orthodox theology of salvation - humanity, fashioned in the image and likeness of God, has fallen, damaging the image and obscuring wellnigh totally the likeness. Christ, the eternal Image of the Father comes, putting on our nature - he clothes Himself, the hymnographer says, "in me" - so that through his sharing in our humanity the image may be restored to its pristine beauty and the likeness remade. The Logos puts on our humanity to draw us to Himself and offer us incorporation in Him, so that we may be restored to what we truly are, and then be taken beyond into the abyss of His divinity.

The biblical text:

When commenting on the Old Testament, the Fathers of the Eastern Church are almost reading and commenting on the Septuagint text (the LXX), which Eastern Orthodox have always accepted as the Christian Church's Old Testament. The LXX text of Genesis 1:26 translates the "adam" of the Hebrew not as a proper name, but by the word "anthropos", "man", "human being". Gregory of Nyssa comments on this:

16. What is it then which we understand concerning these matters? In saying that "God created man" the text indicates, by the indefinite character of the term, all mankind; for was not Adam here named together with the creation, as the history tells us in what follows? yet the name given to the man created is not the particular, but the general name: thus we are led by the employment of the general name of our nature to some such view as this—that in the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate, but that each existing thing should have some limit and measure prescribed by the wisdom of its Maker. 17. Now just as any particular man is limited by his bodily dimensions, and the peculiar size which is conjoined with the superficies of his body is the measure of his separate existence, so I think that the entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and that this is what the text teaches us which says, "God created man, in the image of God created He him." For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race: and a sign of this is that mind is implanted alike in all: for all have the power of understanding and deliberating, and of all else whereby the Divine nature finds its image in that which was made according to it: the man that was manifested at the first creation of the world, and he that shall be after the consummation of all, are alike: they equally bear in themselves the Divine image. 18. For this reason the whole race was spoken of as one man, … [On the Making of Man. 16:16ff. The translation is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, vol. V. Available at

Gregory sees all humanity as created according to the image of God, and every individual human being as created according to the image of God. (The distinction between male and female he sees as something secondary, something God introduces to ensure humanity has a suitable means of reproduction in the fallen state.)

A parallel text to Genesis 1: 26 is to be found in Wisdom 2: 23

That God founded the human being on incorruption,
and made him the image of His own individual nature.

Who addresses who when God says "Let us make…"? The consensus of the Fathers is that it is the Father who is addressing the Logos, who is His perfect Image.

The dimensions of the image:

The early theologians of the East sought the image of God in many aspects of human nature. St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, sees in the human being the image of God's kingship:

For as in our own life artificers shape a tool in the way appropriate to its use, so the best Artificer made our nature, as it were, a formation fit for the exercise of kingship, preparing it both by superior advantages of soul, and by the very form of the body, to be suitable for kingship: for the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, being far removed from the lowliness of private station, in that it has no lord and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will; for to whom else does this belong other than to a king? And besides this, its being the image of that Nature which rules over all means that our nature was created to be royal from the first. For just as in normal human practice, those who make images of princes both mould the figure of their form and also represent the royal rank by means of purple robes, - and even the likeness is commonly spoken of as "king," so too, human nature, since it was made to rule the rest, was made, as it were, a living image by means of its likeness to the King of all, partaking with the archetype both in rank and in name, not robed in purple, nor giving indication of its rank by sceptre and diadem (for the Archetype itself is not arrayed with these), but instead of the purple robe, clothed in virtue, which is in truth the most royal of all raiment, and in place of the sceptre, leaning on the bliss of immortality, and instead of the royal diadem, decked with the crown of righteousness; so that it is shown to be perfectly like to the beauty of its archetype in all that belongs to the dignity of royalty. [On the Making of Man 4.]

In the next chapter of the same text he sees the image of God in the human mind, 'word', understanding and love:

And if you were to examine the other points also by which the Divine beauty is expressed, you will find that to them too the likeness in the image which we present is perfectly preserved. The Godhead is mind and word: for "in the beginning was the Word" and the followers of Paul "have the mind of Christ" which "speaks" in them: humanity too is not far removed from these: you see in yourself word and understanding, an imitation of the very Mind and Word. Again, God is love, and the fount of love: for this the great John declares, that "love is of God," and "God is love" : the Fashioner of our nature has made this to be our feature too: for "hereby," He says, "shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another" :--thus, if this be absent, the whole stamp of the likeness is transformed. The Deity beholds and hears all things, and searches all things out: you too have the power of apprehension of things by means of sight and hearing, and the understanding that inquires into things and searches them out.

With various differences of emphasis and detail, the Eastern Fathers are in general agreement with Gregory's analysis. Most emphasise that the intellect (nous) is the main aspect of human nature that is according to the image of God; human freedom is probably the next most emphasised aspect. There is, however, a wide range of other issues raised by various writers many of which are recorded by the Catholicus of the Church of the East Isho bar Nun (823-828) in his discussion of the text of Genesis:

QUESTION What then are the obvious reasons because of which man is called an "image" and "likeness" of God. ANSWER: One [reason], and the foremost, is because only in man is there a complete theoria, which concerns the qualities of the Persons of the Godhead. For, as the Father is not begotten, Adam (possessing the quality of an "image") is not begotten. And as the Son is begotten, Seth (possessing the quality of an "image") is begotten. And as Eve who proceeded from Adam, the Holy Spirit (possessing the quality of an "image") is proceeding. Joined to the possessing of the quality of an ''image'' of the three of them is the possessing of the quality of a "likeness" [and this too] in a threefold sense. Furthermore, there is seen in the soul, in its essence, an "image" and "likeness" of the Father. In the word which is being born from it [the soul] without pain; being not later in time than it, we see, properly a prefiguration of the begotten quality of the Son who is from the Father, [born] without pain, who is not [later] than Him in time. And in its [the soul's] own spiritual quality, which it possesses by nature (possessing the quality of "image'') the Holy Spirit is prefigured. In addition, man (possessing the quality of an "image") is called, in a proper way, "image" and "likeness" of God because he is the summing up of creation: and especially (that is to say, in a special way) because the man Jesus Christ would be assumed from this lineage and race, [Jesus Christ] who would be the image of God who is not seen in His nature, as He really is, by the creatures. [The Selected Questions of Isho Bar Nun on the Pentateuch. Ed. & Tr. Ernest G. Clarke. Leiden, E.J.Brill. 1962.]

The first of Isho Nun's reasons is fascinating: he sees the image of God in Trinity in the nature and attributes of Adam, Eve and Seth - as a triad they are the image of the Trinity as well as being each and collectively in their shared humanity images of God. The presentation of Eve as in the image of the Holy Spirit is particularly fascinating. Equally interesting is Isho Nun's seeing the human soul as itself an image of the Trinity, something also canvassed by St. Augustine of Hippo amongst others.

Isho Nun's relating the status of the human being as in the image of God to the status of Christ as the express Image of the Father marks a point of great theological importance for the East, where the salvation of humanity is very frequently seen in terms of the restoration of the damaged image by the descent of the True Image into our humanity, to share our humanity so that we may be deified in Him, and to pour out His Spirit on us to transform us into His living likeness.

He who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of His Godhead. He that is full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while, that I may have a share in His Fullness. What is the riches of His Goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in

the image; I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second Communion far more marvellous than the first, inasmuch as then He imparted the better Nature, whereas now Himself partakes of the worse. This is more godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding. [Gregory Nazianzus; Oration 38:13 NPNF]

Clarke records yet other issues as raised by Ishodad of Merv (consecrated Bishop of Hadita, 837) in his biblical commentaries:

The human soul with its powers of speech and spirituality represents the Father who contains within Himself the Son and Spirit.

The human being symbolically represents the Trinity of Divine Persons and the Unity of the Divine Nature.

The human being is like visible things through the body, like spiritual things through the soul, and like God through the power to hold dominion.

The whole world is united in the human being (an important theme in John of Damascus), just as a king sets his image on his city.

Like God the human being can create, though unlike God the human being cannot create out of nothing.

The human being is like God in His Kingship and Judgeship.

[Clarke, op. cit. P.95]

The image and the likeness:

An image as such need not be a likeness. Even faced with a portrait we often say "It's a good likeness" or "It hasn't captured her likeness at all". The Quinisext Council (691), recognised by Eastern Orthodox as of Ecumenical authority, in its 72nd canon forbids the symbolic depiction of Christ as a lamb. The lamb was clearly an icon of Christ, the Lamb of God, but was not in the normal sense of the words a likeness.

Eastern theologians see human nature as created according to the image of God, and see that image obscured, damaged, almost lost as the result of sin. The likeness is attained by virtuous conduct responsive to grace: it is the work of the Spirit. In the state of original innocence the likeness is there. In the state of sin it is lost. Its restoration is not a matter of all or nothing; if we respond to Its promptings, we are led by the Spirit from glory to glory.

St. Diadochos (c.400-486), Bishop of Photiki makes the difference clear:

All we human beings are in God's image: to be in His likeness belongs only to those who through much love have subjected their freedom to God. … [Logos Asketikos, ch.5 tr. From Philokalia DJM.]

Holy grace bestows two good things on us through the baptism of regeneration, one of which infinitely exceeds the other. The one is granted directly; for it renews us in the actual water and brightens all the outlines of the soul, i.e. that which is according to the image, washing away every stain of our sin. The other - that which actually is according to the likeness - needs our co-operation. When indeed the intellect begins to taste the goodness of the All-Holy Spirit with great awareness, then we ought to know that grace is beginning to paint, as it were, the likeness over the image - just as portrait painters mark out the outlines of the person in monochrome then little by little adorning colour with colour, until they capture the appearance of the subject down to each hair. In the same way God's holy grace shapes through baptism the image the human being possessed at his coming into existence, but when it sees us filled with longing and yearning for the beauty of the likeness and standing naked and undaunted in its workshop, it adorns virtue with virtue and leads the soul's form up from glory to glory, preserving for her the impression of the likeness. … [op. Cit. Ch. 89]