Monday, November 2, 2009

Image & Likeness


According to most of the Greek Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean exactly the same thing. ‘The expression according to the image,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue.’ the image, to use the Greek term icon, of God our free human use of our will, our reason, our sense of responsibility - everything in short which marks us out from animal creation and makes each of us a person.

The image denotes the powers with which each of us is endowed by God from the first moment of our existence; the likeness is not an endowment which we possess from the start, but the goal at which we must aim, something we can only acquire by degrees. However sinful we may be, we never loose the image; but the likeness depends on our moral choices, upon our ‘virtue’, and so it is destroyed by sin.(The Orthodox Chruch, Timothy Ware, 1963 AD)


Patristic anthropology (the way that the church Father’s understood humanity) is very different from the common anthropology of today’s western church. The basis for the Father’s perspective is first and foremost Trinitarian, they understood that mankind was created in image of God, and that the image was not something that could be destroyed by sin, hence certain traits of a human being could never be altered by the fall into sin and death. The Father’s believed that even after the fall and its corruption of humanity, man’s Trinitarian like capacity to ‘freely use of our will, our reason, and our sense of responsibility’ was not reversed.

It is precisely the failure to distinguish between Trinitarian image that cannot be undone and the Trinitarian likeness which must be attained, which has resulted in the endless and irresolvable battle between the Calvinists and the Non-Calvinists regarding the human will. Only after the patristic doctrine regarding man as the image or icon becomes clear in our understandings can we begin to dig into the concept of the will and its role in the story of redemption. It is here that the comments of Bishop Ware become priceless to the western mind. When Bishop writes, ‘the image denotes the powers with which each of us is endowed by God from the first moment of our existence,’ he uncovers the basis for all teaching and debate regarding the human will.


  1. Thank you for this post, Father. I struggle to explain this to folk when they ask about theosis. 'But we're made in God's "image and likeness"', is what I always hear back but actually, the creation story does not tell us this. God says, 'Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness'. There is a clear distinction drawn. Then, a little later, we read, 'In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them'. There is no mention of us being made in the likeness of God. The fathers are right. The likeness is the full realisation of our humanity as it is intended by God, as we are imbued with and reflect his energies.

    I'm sorry I haven't been around lately. I do enjoy your blog and find it encouraging.

  2. Michael,

    Your observation is absolutely correct. However, this distinction is a mystery in western Christian circles. For that reason there has existed a great deal of argumentation regarding the individual's role in working out their salvation; moreover, even the goal of salvation itself has become muddled. Thank you for your comments.