The whole of patristic spirituality could be summed up under the simple rubric: 'we are made in the image of God and are in the process of gradual transformation into his likeness'. This sentence encapsulates the optimistic, realistic and progressive character of much writing on the subject. It is also essentially biblical. Genesis 1:26 had insisted on the image of God in all humanity when it said, in the person of God, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.' This verse expresses the goodness and essentially godlike character of all human beings. However corrupted by original and actual sins this image might have been, none of the Fathers believed that it had been irreparably destroyed, though they did believe that it had been sadly deformed. The process of restoration had been begun by and in Christ, himself seen as 'the image of the invisible God and the first born of all creation' (Col. 1:15). The upward call to holiness given to all is expressed by Christ as 'You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matt. 5:48).
This positive belief about human nature was in large measure shared by Plato, who in a striking passage describes human beings as having roots in heaven, and in his dialogue the Theaetetus (176 B) had expressed the upward call as 'becoming like God as much as possible'. The biblical and Platonist traditions therefore were at one in their assessment of the basic goodness and noble vocation of man.
As with the treatment of the Lord's Prayer, so too with the use of the pair 'image and likeness', the same formula masks a variety of interpretations. On the whole, though, patristic understandings of image are governed by their idea of the divine nature. As God was thought of as a simple, spiritual being, so too must the image of God in us be. This in its turn meant that for the vast majority of the Fathers the divine element, or 'image' element, in each of us is to be sought in the human soul or mind. Though this is true for the majority, there is one notable exception in the shape of the second-century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-200), who insisted, against the world— refusal of some of the Gnostics, on the goodness and godlikeness of the complete human being. Man for him is essentially a mixture of body and soul, material and spiritual, completely made by God with his own hands, the Word and Spirit of God.
This 'holistic' and positive view of human nature, coupled with his tendency to take a mild view of the Fall, has recommended Irenaeus to modern 'creation' theologians, who find the mainstream patristic tradition unsympathetic, either as being too 'spiritual' or as being too 'negative' towards the material order or too preoccupied with sin. On the first point, Irenaeus does form a strong contrast with Origen. For the latter, the image of God of Genesis 1:26 is identified with the 'inner man' of Romans 7:22. He makes it quite clear in his Dialogue with Heraclides that it is foolish to find the image in anything less than or other than the unseen, inner spiritual nature all human beings share, of which St Paul speaks both in the passage from Romans just mentioned and also in 2 Cor. 4:16, which distinguishes the inner from the outer man.
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328 till 373, composed two short treatises, probably at the beginning of his writing career, about 320, which deal with the structure, fall and restoration of the human race. Although differing from Origen in several points, he echoes Origen's belief about the essential character of the image of God in man. It resides, so he tells us in his Against the Pagans, in our rational soul. In the companion volume, On the Incarnation, the image of God in us is largely concerned with the ability to know God, and there is a close connection between loss of image and loss of the knowledge of God, and by contrast the restoration of the image of God is realized in the knowledge of God given to the human race by and through the Incarnate Word of God. Although Athanasius thought that something tragic happened at the Fall, he never says that the image of God was totally effaced or defaced, but that with the progress of time our ability to grasp spiritual reality was increasingly impaired.
The contrasts and similarities between the Greek Christian vision of the image and that of Augustine in the Latin West are clear. Much of the second part of his work, On the Trinity, is devoted to discovering within the structure of the human mind patterns of the divine nature. Basing himself on Genesis 1:26, Augustine argues that because we are in the image of God and because God is Trinity, it should be possible by introspection to find within us something of God's nature, which is there above all reflected. It is true that the interiority of Augustine may well have its roots in the neo-Platonist tradition of Plotinus, especially when both of them insist that the greatest truths are the hidden truths. Even so, Plotinus makes no attempt to prove a trinity within. Augustine found many trinities, or patterns of threeness, within, but probably the most celebrated of them is that of memory, understanding and will, which he explores in book 10 of On the Trinity. Now, although Augustine holds this very grand idea of the human soul, he also believes that it is corrupted, deformis is the word he uses, deformed. This deformity is a direct result of the choice away from God made by Adam; this choice for self rather than God resulted in a perversion of human nature and a fascination with self and the created universe, which, though not in themselves bad, become so if these objects take God's place within us and become, as it were, a sort of surrogate deity.
It is sometimes said with a good deal of truth that although all the Fathers believed in some form of Fall doctrine, the doctrine in the West, above all in Augustine, is much more sombre than in the East. Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius all believed that something went wrong at the beginning, but not quite as wrong as Augustine thought. Irenaeus does not think we fell quite as far as does Augustine, and even sees the 'Fall' as a step in maturing, like adolescence in human development. All, though, believe that our present condition is imperfect, that we are somehow 'away from God' and must return in order to gain (or regain) the lost paradise, the forsaken likeness of God. This likeness to God, which is to complete us and restore us to God, goes by various names, though the reality remains at root the same. Irenaeus, with reference to Ephesians 1:10 calls it 'recapitulation', Origen calls it 'restoration', Athanasius sometimes calls it 'recreation', but more commonly 'deification'. Gregory of Nazianzus also calls it 'deification', while Gregory of Nyssa follows Origen in referring to 'restoration' or apokatastasis, while Augustine's most common expression is 'beatitude', by which he means the perpetual enjoyment of the vision of God.
Beneath this variety of expression there is a basic similarity of idea. We are all made to become as like as possible to God and to see and know him as he is. 'Likeness', therefore, embraces moral and intellectual perfection and satisfaction. It is not something to be had for the asking, without any labour. It assumes the engagement of the whole person in the strenuous demands of the Gospel. Differing symbols appeal to the Fathers as appropriate forms under which to present the image of the spiritual journey. For example, Origen sees this world as a 'school for souls' which will educate us for the vision of God in the world to come. There and in one of his homilies on the book of Numbers he describes how, under the influence of moral discipline and intellectual food, the soul grows, gradually, to its proper size. This idea of the 'growth of the soul' is quite striking and quite un-Platonic. It introduces into the idea of Christian perfection the important idea of progress, the absence of which in the ancient world has often been noted. Gregory of Nyssa, both in his Life of Moses and elsewhere, uses the image of ascent in order to convey the notion of growing closer to God. In him, however, being a 'darkness mystic', the goal of vision is never reached and the serious Christian is committed to endless progress both in this life and in the future one. Gregory seems to have been influenced in this unusual programme by a verse from the Letter to the Philippians (3:13), which describes the Christian call as ever 'straining forward to what lies ahead'. The word usually used to describe this condition of the created finite spirit before the uncreated and infinite one is epektasis, and is derived directly from the verb St Paul uses. Finally, for Augustine the dominant image is that of 'pilgrimage'. The restless human heart longs for peace and can find it nowhere in this world, except in rare moments of ecstasy, and in the next world, 'where we shall see and be at rest'. This longing for eternity will only be fully realized therefore in the life to come. So he begins his autobiography, the Confessions, with the celebrated sentence: 'Thou hast made us, O Lord, for thyself and our heart is restless till it rest in thee.'
Even here, therefore, apart from the universally held belief that only God can satisfy the created spirit, and that he will do so with himself only when that spirit has prepared itself for the favour of that presence, there exist many differences. But perhaps the most significant are those between the low esteem in which Augustine holds the soul as it is, and the optimism of the Greek Fathers, and between the changelessness for which Augustine believes we are made and the ever-changing upward mobility of Gregory of Nyssa.
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.