Publications: Articles - Theology
The Human Person - Crown of God's Creation
The Christian tradition claims that the human person is the crown of all creation, created "in the image and according to the likeness of God" (Gen 1:26) to be God's special creature. The human person is more than simply flesh and blood; more than a compound of complex substances and more than a complex system of obsessions; rather the human person is a special creature whom God knows more intimately than human beings know themselves (cf Jer 1:5), "created in the image and likeness of God". Every human person is an icon or epiphany of God. As images of God, human persons are called in their own unique way, to become, by God's grace, power, will, energies and love everything that He is by nature.
Created in the image and according to the likeness of God means that human nature reflects in a created manner the divine attributes or qualities of God and as such expresses them in a creaturely way. Therefore the human person has been endowed with capabilities, such as a mind, will, freedom, and even a body to live, imitate, resemble, within the conditions of creaturely existence, a divine life.
To image God implies to become by God's grace, everything that God is by nature. And since God is all-wise, compassionate, affirming, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast mercy and love, kind, desiring union with all creatures, then it follows that the human person is also called to share and live out these qualities of God in a creaturely way. In fact the human person is called even to share in those qualities of God which include incorruptibility and life eternal. It must be said that the way God lives out these qualities cannot be known because God's essence is beyond comprehension. Yet when God manifests Himself to us through His activities as they are revealed by His Son and Holy Spirit we know that He is good, loving etc and therefore human persons, created in His image must reflect these qualities as well. Whether human persons know it or not, or even accept it, they are all created in God's image and according to His likeness.
Therefore the Christian Orthodox tradition would claim that the ineffable essence of God is made accessible to human persons by the uncreated energies which flow from the three persons of the Holy Trinity by the very fact that as relational or personal beings, human persons can relate to God on a personal level. It follows therefore that there can be no definition of who a person is apart from divine being, for the divine is the determining factor in a human person's life. The deepest element of what it means to be a human person is God Himself.
Human Beings – in the image of Christ
The Scriptures unveil that the image of God after which all human persons are created is Jesus Christ. Since God is holy and therefore completely different from anything in creation, it is only in the light of Jesus Christ, who is the perfect and uncreated image of God that one can learn what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. According to Christian theology Jesus Christ is the uncreated perfect image of God and therefore bearing the image of God, means that the human person is to become Christ-like. Therefore to image God simply means to be like Christ or to imitate Christ. This is made clear in St Paul's letter to the Colossians:
"He Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:15-19)
This passage shows the significance of Christ for an understanding of the human person. That is to say, in order to understand what it means to be human one must attain "the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:13). If Christ is in the image of God and human persons are in the image of Christ then it can be said that humanity is in the image of the Image. For this reason some fathers carried this Pauline line of thought further in stating that Christ is the direct image of God but that human beings are in the image.
Clearly the human person is christological in structure. Therefore united to Christ, the essential gulf between humanity and divinity is bridged and it is in Christ that persons find their true fulfilment and destiny. United to Christ human persons become capable of being raised up into an image of God. The teaching would be that the eternal will of God was that the human race be united to Him and it is for this reason that the incarnation was necessary with or without the fall. Even without the fall, human persons, which Scripture calls the body of Christ lacked a head who is Christ since Christ is the head of the body. Therefore in Christ all of humankind is completed.
The Meaning of the Image
Since the teaching is that the human person is created in the image of Christ and Christ is inexhaustible since He is the Son of God with the exactly same supraessential divinity as His Father, then it follows that the image of Christ in human beings is also incomprehensible. A question which justifiably arises is what part of the human person is in God's image. What is actually signified by the image of God? There are at least three facets of the human person which relate directly to God's image and it is to these that we now turn.
To be created in the image of God implies, first and foremost that human persons are relational beings. If God is a relational being then the human person is likewise relational. Human beings can only exist to the extent that they relate with others in a loving way. The other in this case without whom human persons cannot find their true self is primarily God but it also includes other human beings. Therefore we would say that this relational dimension of being created in the image of God implies both vertical and horizontal relationships.
It could be said that to be a human being implies saying: "I need you in order to become myself." Descartes, the great philosopher was partly right when he affirmed, cogito ergo sum (I know therefore I am); however it is also vital to affirm, amo ergo sum (I love therefore I am) since this is who God is after whose image the entire human race has been created. Human beings are not called to be individuals competing with one another; rather, persons working together with others. The whole purpose of life is to develop from this false sense of security in believing we are fulfilled as individuals to becoming relational loving persons. Human persons are completed to the extent that they love – that is give up their will for the sake of the other. And in doing this they are not annihilated but are rather initiated into a world entirely different – a world as seen through the eyes of that other person leading to an enrichment.
Dynamism and Growth
Furthermore, created in the image of God means that human persons have the potential for growth and maturity in all aspects of their life – knowledge, feelings etc including growth towards Christ-likeness. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul is very clear on the dynamic character of the human person created in the image of the Son of God:
"Thus it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven" (1 Cor 15:45-49).
According to the above passage it is very clear that the creation of the world was for no other reason than for the human person to become like Christ – that is to grow from simply being an image of Adam and become an image of Christ. It is this Christlike form, which completes human beings and therefore it is growing and orienting themselves towards Christ that persons find their true existence.
It was this dynamism and growth which led some fathers in the early Church to distinguish between image and likeness even though it is believed by Biblical scholars that no such distinction is intended in the Genesis account. St Irenaeus, who was the first to make this distinction wrote that that imperfect beings have the image but not the likeness.
It came to be believed that the image refereed to God's gift of His qualities through His will to humankind, while the likeness was the postulate or goal towards which human beings must strive. Whilst the former is God's initial endowment to all human beings without discretion the latter is the purpose or the goal of becoming Christ-like. Regarding this distinction, Origen (d. ca 254AD) explicitly stated:
"Human beings received the honour of the image at their first creation, but the full perfection of God's likeness will be conferred upon them only at the consummation of all things."
Many fathers of the early Church underline this distinction by suggesting that the creation of the first human beings prior to the fall was indeed very good but not perfect. Like small children, simple and innocent, they had to grow to perfection. St Irenaeus for example highlights that Adam:
"was but small, for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow and so come to his perfection."
Viewed in this way, Adam and Eve were given the opportunity for progress, so that by becoming mature they could become god-like and ascend to heaven. Such is the implication of the distinction between image and likeness in the human person. The fathers of the Church teach that human persons have continually before them limitless possibilities yet unrealised and even in the life to come they will endlessly grow towards unending perfection. Human persons must continue to become more aware and more conscious of the world around, through their powers of reason, introspection, and intuitive insight. And the more human beings learn to appreciate the beauty of the world and how it functions the more this will lead them to a sense of fascination, awe and gratitude to their Creator.
Lastly, the image is to be seen reflected in humanity's possession of free choice. God is free so human beings, made in His image are free to choose. "Heaven, sun, moon and earth have no free will" state the Macarian Homilies of the fourth century, "but you are in the image and likeness of God; and this means that, just as God is His own master and can do what He wishes and, if He wishes, He can send the righteous to hell and sinners to the Kingdom, but He does not choose to do this… so, in like manner, you also are your own master and, if your choose, you can destroy yourself." Therefore, humankind's vocation, as persons made in God's image is not to become copies of one another, but through their freedom, to become authentically their own unique image. In the world to come human persons will not be asked why they were not like Moses or Paul, but why they were not themselves. For such a glorious vocation have human beings been destined since they have been created in God's image and according to His likeness. That is, human persons have been "ordered by God" (St Basil the Great) to be all that God is in His nature, by grace. Human persons have infinite possibilities since they are the crown and fulfilment of God's creation.
Human Beings as composite beings
The Eastern Christian tradition claims that the human being is dual – that is a unity consisting of both soul and body where one element does not overshadow the other nor is in opposition to the other. The Christian tradition affirms that the human person is a psychosomatic unity – one where there is a clear interdependence of soul and body. For this reason the body should not be undervalued in favour of the spirit since this would be a deviation into a kind of angelism where the body is dismissed as little more than a hindrance and an obstruction – something quite irrelevant to the notion of personhood. This was the teaching of Origen in the third century which the early Church condemned. Origen believed that originally human beings were purely spiritual entities gathered around God but finally fell into corruption. Therefore God, he claimed, in wanting to rescue them, gave them bodies so as to gather up their fallen souls.
In contrast to this false teaching, many fathers of the Church taught that the body and soul cannot exist separately but are necessarily linked to each other since this is the way that God willed it to be. Following the Holy Scriptures which affirm the sacredness of the body, the early Church taught that the body together with the soul constitute a human person. The body is "the temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 6:19) through which God is glorified (cf 1 Cor 6:20). St Ireneaus is explicitly clear on this:
"By the hands of the Father, that is, by the Son and the Spirit, the human person was created in the likeness of God. The person was so created, not just a part of the person. Now soul and spirit are certainly part of the person, but they are not the person as such. For the complete person consists in the commingling and union of the soul that receives the spirit [or breath] of the Father, together with the flesh [or physical nature] that is fashioned according to the image."
Therefore, faithful to the Scriptures the Christian tradition describes the person as a unity of both soul and body. In fact Niketas Choniates (d.1217) went so far as to say that the humankind can only be thought to be a complete species when considered together as body and soul.
"The term human being applied not to the soul alone or to the body alone, but to both of them together; and so it is with reference to both together that God is said to have created the human person in his image."
It is this totality of both soul and body that is "according to the image". In fact St Gregory Palamas in the thirteenth century went so far as to argue that the fact that human beings have a body makes them not lower but higher than the angels. Therefore for the Patristic tradition, the dual nature of the human person has greater potentialities than the angelic. The conviction of the Orthodox Christian tradition that human persons have been created for a higher purpose than the bodiless powers of heaven is affirmed in St Paul's letter to the Philippians:
"so that the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2.10-11).
From the above we see that human persons, in communion with Jesus Christ who was a perfect human being, are created for a life superior even to angels. This is also reflected to the person of the virgin Mary, who after Christ, was the most perfect human being who is hailed in the Orthodox Church as "more honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim." And that which Mary has accomplished already is the calling which the entire human race still awaits.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College