The Image of God and the Likeness of Men

The Image of God and the Likeness of Men

Submitted by frlarry on

St. Paul emphasizes Jaesus' inherent divinity in his letter to the Colossians [Col 1:15-20]:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation;
for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities --
all things were created through him and for him.
He 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 first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,
making peace by the blood of his cross.

[Emphasis added.] This hymn from Colossians may remind us of something very similar from the book of the Wisdom of Solomon (known among Catholics simply as the Book of Wisdom) [Wis 7:22b-30]:

For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
mobile, clear, unpolluted,
distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,
beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
all-powerful, overseeing all,
and penetrating through all spirits
that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.
For wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God,
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness
Though she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the man who lives with wisdom.
For she is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

Although such expressions as "a breath of the power of God" and "a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty" (cf. Gen 1:2, where the "Spirit" of God is taken from the Hebrew term for wind or breath, "Ruwach," and the expression in the Nicene Creed, "who proceeds from the Father and the Son," as in an emanation) led Scott Hahn to equate personified Wisdom with the Holy Spirit, St. Athanasius, and most of the Church Fathers who wrote about this, equated Wisdom to the Word of God, namely, Christ. The phrasing, "a spotless mirror of the working of God" is even more suggestive of "image," as is "a reflection of eternal light." Thus, in the typical fashion of Hebraic poetry, we find that Wisdom is the image of God in life (wind, breath or spirit), glory, wisdom/understanding/knowledge (eternal light), power (the working of God) and holiness (goodness), and in all of these ways, pure and unsullied, i.e., perfect. In the same way, we find that in Jesus, "all things were made [and] are held together [i.e., continue in being]." For, "in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell," but not just in indwelling (considering body and soul as a temple), but in his very nature.

Athanasius goes on to say [discourse "Against the Arians"],

An impress of Wisdom has been created in us and in all his works. Therefore, the true Wisdom which shaped the world claims for himself all that bears his image, and rightly says: The Lord created me in his works. These words are really spoken by the wisdom that is in us, but the Lord himself here adopts them as his own. Wisdom himself is not created, because he is the Creator, but by reason of the created image of himself found in his works, he speaks thus as though he were speaking of himself. Our Lord said: He who receives you receives me, and he could say this because the impress of himself is in us. In the same way, although Wisdom is not to be numbered among created things, yet because his form and likeness are in his works, he speaks as if he were a creature, and he says: The Lord created me in his works, when his purpose first unfolded.

What does St. Athanasius mean by "an impress of Wisdom?" Today, we might think of a tattoo, or a brand, and St. Athanasius may have been thinking along this line. It seems to me, however, that the "impress of Wisdom" is deeper than this. The language of Wisdom 7:24 strongly suggests comprehensive penetration: "For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things." We should include the laws of physics in this "pervasive penetration of Wisdom." We should include the human capacity to reason and to make moral choices. In this sense, we may liken the "impress of Wisdom" to stamping a mold on a metal sheet. In other words, in Aristotelian terms, the very form of the universe, and of humanity, bears the stamp of Wisdom. As I have suggested before, one can see the signature of the divine artist in the trinitarian Quark structure of Baryons (a class of particles that include Protons and Neutrons, the stuff of which, along with electrons, atoms are formed) reflects the trinitarian Godhead, both in number and in the strength of unity (referred to by physicists as "Quark confinement). This trinitarian composition is reflected, too, in the structure of the family: father, mother and child, where the child "proceeds from the father and the mother, and is the product of their love." The Quark structure of the components of atomic nuclei, however, is merely a reflection, or approximate analogy, of the Trinity, and the same is true for the family.

This analogical approximation is consistent with the theological fact that the universe is "fallen" from a state of original grace. Thus, neither the universe nor the human family is a perfect reflection of the Godhead. Neither is perfect, and neither is eternal, as is God.

What's important about this for human beings is that we can grow in our reflection of God. The impress of Wisdom can increase. There are hints of this in Wisdom 7, because "she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the man who lives with wisdom." The prophet Micah sums up what God expects of us in this exchange [Mic 6:8].

He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In particular, we should present ourselves to God as ready, willing and able to receive the imprint of Wisdom. Being ready, willing and able, of course, requires that we be ready to let go of our vanities and our vain ambitions and strivings. Since we enter this world in a state of original sin, we must be willing to let go of life, itself, in order to grow in holiness. Jesus sums this up by telling us,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

We can put this together along the lines of the Beatitudes by saying that we must love justice, mercy and humility before God more than life itself. God personalizes this in the two greatest commandments, to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbor as ourself. To put this in terms of giving, we may say that we give ourselves totally to God, and we try to give as much of ourselves to others as we would aspire to receive from them (or, more generally, from any of our neighbors). We try to give ourselves totally to God, without reservation of any kind, in part because God deserves even more, and in part because God can and will give us infinitely more than what we can ever give to him (if only we do not hold back anything). In the process, we must be willing to suffer: to suffer inconvenience; to suffer discomfort; to suffer correction; to suffer deprivation of the positive regard of others; and to acknowledge and let go of the resentment that wells up within us when we suffer in any of these ways. We could call this the dark night of the senses. It's only the groundwork for entering the dark night of the soul. We must endure both in order to satisfy the demands of the two greatest commandments.

This discussion brings us to the Kenotic Hymn (or hymn of emptying) related by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians [Phil 2:5-11]:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant [doulos: a slave],
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form he humbled himself
and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

[Emphasis added.] This hymn introduces us to the expression, "the likeness of men." Although it parallels "the image of God," it has a distinctly different meaning and import. Humanity fell from original grace because Adam and Eve desired to "know both good and evil," and to "know" these in the biblical sense of experiencing. God cannot "experience" evil. In order to experience evil, Jesus had to come "in the likeness of men." Thus, he took on human "form" (in the Aristotelian sense of "nature"). I believe this is the meaning and import of "the likeness of men." If this is true, then what does it mean to say that Adam and Eve were created in both the image and likeness of their creator, God?

We already have a sense of what it means to be created in the image of God. What about the likeness? If we take the kenotic hymn as our guide, we must conclude that Adam and Eve shared in the very nature of God. This is one way to explain how it is they might have lived for eternity if they had not fallen. It is one way to explain how the names of all the animals and plants were declared by Adam's fiat. It is one way to explain how Adam and Eve could have fulfilled God's command, "fill the earth and subdue it." Indeed, the "likeness of God" is measured primarily in what human beings do and have the capacity to do. This makes sense, even though it overlaps (and is largely redundant with) being in God's image, because, for God, being and doing are ultimately the same. So where is the difference, if any, between the image and likeness of God in humanity?

One may say that, as fallen humanity, we bear more of the image than the likeness of God. Having the image of God enables us to know God, even though we cannot love selflessly as God loves, even though we cannot know as God knows, even though we cannot do as God does. Nevertheless, perceiving truth we can come to know of ultimate truth (or the source of all truth); perceiving beauty, we can come to know of ultimate beauty; perceiving power, we can come to know of ultimate power; perceiving knowledge and wisdom… Our perception of these things stems from the impress of God on creation.

We should bear in mind in all of this that the clear tradition of the Church is to regard "image" and "likeness" as Hebraic parallelism, i.e., as a poetic form of repetition for the sake of emphasis and an aid to memory. Our reflection here is, in essence, speculative rather than normative. Our best hope is that it is an aid to meditation, and an aid to apprehending the meaning and import of the Incarnation.

It may help to remember the primary use tradition makes of this kenotic hymn, the very purpose St. Paul makes of it. Saints throughout history have learned its lessons. One of the more beautiful examples of this self-emptying is evident in the Prayer of St. Francis. For further reflection on this, I can recommend "The Poured-Out Life: The Kenosis Hymn in Context," by Dennis Bratcher.


The postings on this Blog are © 2003-2024, Fr. Larry Gearhart.

Individual comments are the property of the contributors.

The views expressed on this website are mine alone (or the contributors of comments)
and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Church or any of my superiors.