The book of Genesis launches with the apparent highlight of divine creation, the formation of Man. After having created the animals, God says, “Let us make man in our image” and in the image of God, God created us. So, to get a handle on the significance of being created in the image of God, we should begin with figuring out what the image of God in human nature really is.
Let’s look at some possibilities. We might think that being made in God’s image is what distinguishes man from animals. Citing Aristotle, some have suggested that the image of God is none other than our rationality. To be rational, Aristotle explains, is to operate from inner reasons rather than outer causes. It is to act, instead of being acted upon. Rocks don’t act, they don’t behave, they don’t choose. To choose is to operate freely. Thus, freedom of the will and rationality are mutually entailing. To act is to behave for the sake of some end. To act for the sake of ends is to choose value, to place value on those ends or purposes. Thus, all human action is moral, it entails value. As a result, morality is necessary for rationality. Could this rational moral quality constitute the image of God in man? Since only man is said to be made in God’s image, we should test this hypothesis by seeing if we find rational morality in creatures other than ourselves.
There is little doubt that this rational moral quality distinguishes us from the animals, but does it differentiate us from the angels? Only in a sense, since both angels and human beings are intellectual, while no animal is intellectual. Intellectual beings are divided into two kinds: disembodied intellects (angels) and embodied intellects (human persons). Philosophers call human intellectual nature “discursive” in order to distinguish it from angelic intellectual nature. Angels do not draw conclusions from premises in the temporal way that we do. We work our way through an argument, while the angel sees it all at once. So, philosophers call human reasoning discursive, and angelic reasoning intuitive (don’t confuse this with “women’s intuition” or something along those lines). But regardless of how rapidly we see the conclusions from arguments, both human beings and angels are intellectual. And so, both angels and human beings are capable of moral choice. The angels have already made theirs, since their choosing—like their reasoning—happens all at once, not stretched out in time as our choices are. Thus, the angels have completed their moral choices (and this goes for dark angels too, the demons, who made bad moral choices). But for all that, angels are moral beings. So, being intellectual is not what separates us from the rest of God’s creation. It does not seem identical to what being made in God’s image in Genesis 1 means.
Well, perhaps instead of looking at what we share with angels over against the animals, we should flip things around and consider what we share with the animals but not with the angels. One important factor must be our ability to reproduce ourselves. Angels don’t reproduce at all, but God does, since God is Father, and he eternally begets His Son. But divine begetting differs from animal begetting in two ways. First, divine begetting does not require physical bodies. Second, persons proceed from divine begetting. Both human and animal reproduction require bodies, but unlike the animals, only human beings—like God—beget persons. So, we have finally found something that ties us to the divine nature but distinguishes us from both angels and the animals: the ability to beget persons.
Let’s take a closer look at divine begetting then. Divine begetting is the procession of the divine persons within the Trinity, as the Father begets the Son, and the Spirit spirates from the Father and the Son. There is no biology intermixed with divine begetting—nothing physical—and as such, divine begetting does not occur within physical time. The Church says that this begetting is an eternal act, so it’s not as though there was any time at which the Son and the Spirit didn’t exist as eternal God. But when the Father thinks eternally, he thinks himself perfectly as existing God, and to think himself perfectly is to think of God thought, or we might say, God spoken. Hence, when the Father speaks himself, he begets the Eternal Word, the Son of God, the perfect Image of the Father. Similarly, when God loves eternally, God loves God, but to love himself is to love God beloved. Hence, when God loves God, he spirates the living Love of God, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Because God is Person, he both thinks and acts. Hence, from his eternal thought and his eternal action, we see the eternal procession of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
It seems pretty clear from the purpose of the Incarnation that God intended to become man from the beginning, whether our species had fallen or not. The Nicene Creed states that the Son was incarnate both for man and for our salvation, not solely for our salvation.
Man, like God, begets. Man begets according to his species, as the animals do, a biological (or, material) replication. But the replication is also spiritual, since human parents produce human persons (strictly speaking a “spirit” is a person, an immaterial mind) as offspring, not merely human bodies. Thus, human reproduction entails a merging of spirit and matter, the only creature in the entire universe (that we know of) that is comprised of both kinds of stuff. This marks human beings as unique. What’s more, it seems pretty clear from the purpose of the Incarnation that God intended to become man from the beginning, whether our species had fallen or not. The Nicene Creed states that the Son was incarnate both for man and for our salvation, not solely for our salvation. So, if our first parents had obeyed God, God would have met them in the garden as man, not merely as wind. Thus, man was originally designed to be the means by which God entered His creation. Our species is not merely the merger of matter and spirit, but also was planned all along as the merger of God with His creation. In fact, we can probably go so far as to the say that man is the merger of God and creation. Our being human is a participation in this great creative purpose, almost (but not really) as if we specific human creatures are an afterthought, an addition of particular finite human beings created for the sake of this incarnate One. We were indeed made for God, just as the Scriptures have always said. Not just we as individuals, but we as a species. Human nature was made to be that special creation assumed into divinity. God thus created human nature for himself, and only then created us to join him as his brothers.
We have now discovered what being made in God’s image must mean. We are literally in the image of God, for God created our species for himself in the first place, to reflect himself as completely as can be done within creation, the fullness of grace and truth says St. John. When God chose to create additional human persons—besides the human body, soul, and nature he prepared for himself in the Incarnation—he created those persons in that image, since human nature had been prepared as his image all along.
Redemption is not re-creation so much as restoration (you can’t get better than the image of God).
For this reason, many odd things that the Scriptures say make more sense. For example, St. Peter says that through redemption we are made partakers of the divine nature, a nature to which we were always destined as participants. Thus, redemption is not re-creation so much as restoration (you can’t get better than the image of God). Or, again, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that man is to rise above the angels. This rising doesn’t seem to accord with nature, since angels are higher in power than we are. But power is not the only measure of nature. Man is the composite of spirit and matter, designed by God as his entrance into creation. And God is above the angels. Thus shall man indeed rise above the angels once our redemption as sons of God is complete. Or, again, in his letter to the Roman Christians, St. Paul describes God’s eternal plan for us to be “conformed to the image of his Son,” an image that we now understand as the fulness and perfection of human nature, since Jesus is the Son not only of God, but of Man.
We humans better understand love by thinking of a rose, because the rose as an image of love unites spirit and matter, idea with body.
The philosophers also make more sense when we view human nature as the image of God, because human creativity extends not only to the replication of persons sexually, but also to every sort of imagistic replication, something found in neither the communities of the angels nor the communities of the animals. Human beings are obsessed with creativity, as the proliferation of the arts amply displays. Only a creature possessed of mind and body can employ the meanings grasped in the intellect as embodied images. Admittedly, some of the angels are the muses, but the muses inspire the actual creativity that takes place in the human artist. Thus, angels don’t appear to do poetry or sculpture, but we do. We humans better understand love by thinking of a rose, because the rose as an image of love unites spirit and matter, idea with body. And that is divine, because that is the divine activity of God’s uniting himself with his creation, the Word made flesh. It follows that all human artistry is an image of and homage to the Incarnation.
The Eastern Orthodox Church also makes more sense in her talk of theosis, not merely of God becoming man, but of man becoming God. To Western ears, this sounds tantamount to idolatry, but fortunately for the Eastern Church, it was St. Athanasius, that great defender of orthodox Catholic thought against Arianism, who first coined the phrase. What does it mean for man to become God? Well, let’s take it first in the species sense, for in redeeming man, God redeemed not only this or that individual man, but our nature, human nature, i.e., Man. Thus, for our species to be fulfilled properly, we must create a home for God to be one of us, to live with us as physical person to physical person, so that one will not worship God only on Mount Gerazim or on Mount Jerusalem, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4, but everywhere, since God is spirit, and we worship him in spirit and in truth. Only, thanks to our foregoing discussion, we now understand that God never intended to remain solely spirit, since the one speaking to that woman was already the Incarnate God! As such, Jesus was revealing to this woman what he would shortly explain to the disciples in John 6—that he would become one with all men through the Eucharist everywhere in the world, not just on this or that particular mountain and not solely as Divine Spirit. And one day, because God has already assumed man fully into himself at the Ascension and promised to return to earth as man, we will worship him as a physical person on any mountain top he chooses to invite us to climb with him: “Christ with us, the hope of glory.”
But theosis also refers to an individual human being becoming God. Men and women individually “become God” by reflecting God’s image, becoming images of the Image of God, the Incarnate Son. Hence, all the talk in the Church about being Christ-like, i.e., godlike or godly. By becoming like him, we fulfill the image of God. A man does this individually by reflecting the divine goodness through himself both naturally and supernaturally.
He does this naturally through the exemplification of cardinal virtue in his conduct and thought. With respect to nature, he does this through excellence in the arts and the sciences. With respect to his fellow men, he does this through virtuous relations within the three great divine institutions: family, state, and Church.
The Renaissance is the greatest artistic achievement known to man, but it was not possible in the Hellenistic world, because the Renaissance was built upon both natural truth gleaned through the sciences (available to our pagan ancestors) and supernatural truth revealed in Christ (not available to anyone until the Incarnation).
Supernaturally, a man reflects the divine goodness through the exemplification of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love in both natural and supernatural contexts. So, in the natural contexts of the arts and sciences, as well as family, state, and the Church, the supernatural virtues should augment and expand upon what the natural virtues accomplish. Thus, the Renaissance is the greatest artistic achievement known to man, but it was not possible in the Hellenistic world, because the Renaissance was built upon both natural truth gleaned through the sciences (available to our pagan ancestors) and supernatural truth revealed in Christ (not available to anyone until the Incarnation).
The image of God is fulfilled when men and women—infused by God through supernatural virtue and sacrament—become the best men and women possible, people bathed in love, i.e., Saints.
In supernatural contexts, the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love find their highest expression within the Sacraments, where we are born into God, are nurtured by and unified with God, and ultimately are borne away in death to God. Thus, the image of God is fulfilled when men and women—infused by God through supernatural virtue and sacrament—become the best men and women possible, people bathed in love, i.e., Saints. This is authentic theosis, for when God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man!
Neither the male nor the female is really fully human without the other. We fully represent God when we enter into marital unity and bear children, for God is a multiplicity of persons in one substance, and only in human marriage and then the human family do we find an analogous biological reality.
When we look back to Genesis 1, it should not be surprising to discover that the notion that human nature is the image of God is staring us in the face. For doesn’t God say to himself, “Let us make man in our image?” He doesn’t refer to the male but to the species, because he immediately identifies “man” as “in the image of God made he them, male and female, made he them.” So, human nature is indeed the image of God. But this last reference to gender must also be taken up, for the begetting of human persons is only possible through the unity of two persons in one flesh, marital love. It follows that neither the male nor the female is really fully human without the other. We fully represent God when we enter into marital unity and bear children, for God is a multiplicity of persons in one substance, and only in human marriage and then the human family do we find an analogous biological reality. Who knew that when the priest references two being made one, so much was at stake?
But this foray into human marriage must drive us to the final question: what is marriage ultimately for? The Apostles told us that God intends a stunning erotic unity with human beings, for just as all creation is feminine to the Eternal Masculine, so the Church is the very Bride of Christ. That celestial nuptial mass is yet to come, of course, but the Eucharist is the foretaste of that unity, a unity that the Scriptures tell us will prove to be the marriage of which all other marriages speak. For just as Christ enters us as foretaste through the Eucharist, so that taste must be fulfilled when the King finally and truly enters into his Bride, the Church. And just as all unities of God with his creation bear fruit, so must the unity of Christ with his Bride bear fruit, for there is no divine sterility. What that fruitfulness will be is what gender and sex were always ultimately for, but something, too, that exceeds all of our best imagery in this world. What will produce that fruitfulness of God loving the femininity of human nature is that toward which the theological virtue of hope endlessly drives us: knowing God as he knows us, face to face, uncreated naked intimacy to created naked intimacy, Beatitude.