Icon (Close Menu)

Missing keys to the Imago Dei mystery box

When one is tired, the brain does strange things. nd t the beginning of September, I felt a bit like a modern Albert Schweitzer writing his Quest for the Historical Jesus in the middle of Africa as I rested on Likoma Island in the middle of Lake Malawi. Not having much facility with languages, modern African dialects are still a mystery box to me, so that my sense of hearing there no longer draws me out toward other people. I found myself thrown back upon my own resources, and I spent more time in prayer and reflection, preparing to visit our daughter house on the mainland, not a bad thing.

My interest in theological anthropology brought me to reflect on Douglas John Hall’s Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship. It was a fruitful reflection on Gen. 1:26-27. He delineated two major perspectives. The first, beginning in patristic writing, tries to answer the question “What is unique in man that comprises this image of God?” This search leads logically to human qualities that separate anthropos from all else in nature. My attention was riveted by Douglas John Hall’s insight that this substantive approach always results in a list of qualities most admired by a contemporary culture, but with no objective assurance that these have any relationship to God. In the time of Roman fascination with Greek philosophy, Augustine listed the unique qualities of anthropos as memory, will, and understanding which just happened to mirror his understanding of the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — with a Platonic flair. Rousseau’s more modern answer was a denial of the rationalism fostered by the medieval Scholastics. In Armenia, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda, understandings of the highest and best qualities of anthropos led to ethnic cleansing of many different cultures and religions. This sounds disturbingly close to situations across the globe today. Clearly, we are victims of our own thinking.

The second perspective on imago Dei is a more active, relational, using “image” as a verb, meaning to make a representation of, an external form of “something.” When image is thought of as a verb, imago dei becomes a relational metaphor, a symbol telling of God’s work. “Let us make man in our image.” Now the imago is derived from God’s revelation of his Trinitarian being. When the emphasis is both on the verb “to image” and the sense of the image (i.e. noun) reflecting the reality of God, then what is unique to anthropos is God’s gift of reflecting his being upon us, male and female, in relation to his essence. This is John Calvin’s “mirror” analogy for the imago Dei. Hall’s conclusion was that “We exist because he is” is a much healthier summary of the uniqueness of anthropos than “I think therefore I am.”

Of course, the ultimate identification of the symbol “imago Dei is Jesus Christ and, taken as an active relational symbol, his Incarnation. We can lean upon Paul’s great passages of Colossians 1:15-20 and Philippians 2:5-11 to teach us what anthropos will be in the world to come. But even better is to see the imago Dei in Hebrews 1:3. “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (RSV). “The stamp of his nature” in the Greek is literally “the character of his hypostasis.” If we appreciate the Cappadocian Fathers’ solution to the Apollinarian overemphasis of the divinity of Christ (by using the term “hypostasis” or “person” to describe the one God in Three Persons), how exciting it is to see this in Hebrews. Am I too fanciful in seeing the Trinity here — the Father upholding the universe by his Son, the Word of power through the Spirit?

St. Basil said it so well in his Letter 38 to his brother Gregory of Nyssa:

Since, therefore, he who has seen the Son sees also the Father, as the Lord says in the Gospels (John 14:9), on this account the Apostle asserts that the Only–begotten is “the image of the person” of the Father. And in order that the thought may more clearly be perceived, we shall also include in our discussion other words of the Apostle in which he says that the Son is an “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and, again, “an image of his goodness” (Wisd. 7:26), not because the image differs from the archetype as far as concerns the meaning of invisibility and goodness, but in order that it may be shown that it is identical with the original although it is something else. For, the meaning of “image” would not be preserved unless in all respects it would be clearly and exactly similar to the archetype. Certainly, then, he who has perceived the beauty of the image arrives at an understanding of the archetype.

For once, we would not be guilty of an anthropomorphism for aspiring to be a “person,” a human hypostasis within the perichoresis of the Three in One. Is this not the intent of our sanctification? John Zizioulas, the Greek Metropolitan of Pergamon, builds upon the Cappadocians’ understanding of Trinitarian being to the height where “the substratum of existence is not being, but love.”

I lay no claim to Greek scholarship and would be delighted to hear other meditations on the the imago Dei, but the love of Jesus in my heart yearns for a closer bond that I may love Him all the more. I eagerly await the statement on the theological understanding of the human person by the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological. Our Church needs this rootedness in the will of God.

And then, that moment of contemplation in Africa ended with a crowd of little Malawian children around me, fascinated by the reverse camera of my tablet. They have never seen themselves in the mirror. One does not need language to enter into their joy. God has His ways of grounding our flights of fancy.

Mother Miriam is Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. MaryThe featured image is the Deësis mosaic in the Hagia Sophia (ca. 1261), from a photo taken by Flickr user V (2007). It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Global Perspectives on Universal Brotherhood

Fratelli Tutti A Global Commentary Edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Carlos Mendoza Álvarez, Ikenna Ugochuwku Okafor, and Daniel Franklin Cascade Books,...

A Ministry of Christlike Service

A sermon for the ordination of deacons, given at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee, June 1, 2024 Today is...

Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates,...

At the Heart of All Being

Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics By John Betz Emmaus Academic, 592 pages, $59.95 In this ambitious work,...