Examining the Different Interpretations of 'The Image of God'

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Humanity is created in the image of God. This has different meanings in different parts of the world. Where do those meanings compare and contrast? How do those different meanings alter the effect of sin on this humanity that is created in the image of God? When comparing and contrasting the understanding of humanity’s creation to be in God’s image, together with the understanding of the nature and effect of sin on the human vocation, one sees similarities and differencesthat have large implications on one another, as presented by Vladimir Lossky, as a representative of Eastern Orthodox thinking, and Augustine, as a representative of Western thinking.

God says in the Bible, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Vladimir Lossky, as the Eastern Orthodox representative, explains that for man to be created in the image of God is the reflection of the mystery of the singular and plural in God, demanding the expression of one’s nature in the diversity of persons in communion, rather than solitude. This means that man is a personal being, just as God is personal. Because man is created a personal being, one is created a free responsible being to be called to the supreme vocation of deification; that is to say, to become that which God is by his nature. This vocation of deification has to be a choice made by man; in order for man to love God, one must admit that one can do the other. Therefore, the image of God in man is man’s freedom with regard to his nature. Fairbairn goes on to explain that modern Eastern theologians take the image and likeness to be two different things: the image being a created characteristic that man possesses from the beginning and the likeness being what man hopes to attain at the end of the journey.Through this understanding, humans were created immature, but capable of growing into maturity from the initial image to likeness by harnessing the potential God gave them by creating them in his image. Thus, Fairbairn explains that because the image is what one possesses and the likeness is what humans strive to attain, the vocation of deification has to do with humans growing in their likeness of God. Another point taken out of this belief that humans were created immature is that humans were created imperfect and are to strive for perfection. Lossky then explains that both the soul and body of man are created in the image of God, not allowing the imageto be attributed to one part or other of the human being because the soul and body were created together. In this, Lossky explains that deification is applicable not only to the soul, but to the body as well.

Augustine, as the Western representative, states that mankind being created in the image of God meansthat God created for man a soul endowed with reason and intelligence. Claudia Welz, when interpreting Augustine, reinforces this statement by saying that the divine Trinity is reflected in the memory, the intellect, and the will of the mind, thus giving the mind a triadic structure. Etienne Gilson takes this interpretation of Augustine to a further level and explains that the image of God expressed in the mind of man can be portrayed in three main ways: mens, notitia, and amor (mind, knowledge, and love); memoria sui, intelligentia, and voluntas (memory, intelligence, and will); and memoria Dei, intelligentia, and amor (memory of God, intelligence, and love).

The first main possible image of God is portrayed in mens, notitia, and amor (mind, knowledge, and love). Love is comprised in three terms: oneself, the thing one loves, and the love itself. When one is the object, the terms are diminished to two because one and the thing one loves are one in the same. The object loved is the mind, as an essence, not because of will but because this love is the natural disposition of the mind to desire the enjoyment of itself. Thus, the object loved is exactly equal to the thing that loves. And the mind cannot love itself without knowledge of itself. This knowledge that the mind loves itself is exactly as equal as the mind’s love of itself. Therefore, mind, knowledge, and love are three that are all equal as one.

The second main possible image of God is portrayed in memoria sui, intelligentia, and voluntas (memory, intelligence, and will). By memory, Augustine means the mind’s knowledge of itself. Now the mind is not always thinking of itself and so, therefore, the mind is present in memory because it is always present but not always being thought of. Therefore, when the mind comes to notice itself, it recognizes itself rather than knows itself. For the mind to recognize itself, it must become aware of itself. The reason why the mind should want to become aware of itself is because it loves itself. Within this image are “the memory or the mind’s presence to itself, the self-knowledge it expresses, and the love which unites them. These three are one and form but a single substance.”

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The third main possible image of God is portrayed in memoria Dei, intelligentia, and amor (memory of God, intelligence, and love). The soul turns to God and becomes aware of its character as a divine image and, remembering itself, expresses itself in a word and loves itself in the same way that one recalls God in the way he expresses and loves himself. By this, wisdom is born in man that is participation in God’s wisdom, which restores the bond between man and God. To be with God means “to remember him, to know him through understanding, and to love Him.”

Therefore, according to Augustine, the image of God applies to the soul, and notto the body. “The distinction of being an image belongs only to man, and in man it belongs by right only to his soul, and in his soul it belongs by right only to the mind.” But Augustine also shows in these images that there is an incomprehensibility as to what the image of God in man really is. He shows this in the fact that he could not simplify the image of God in man to have one meaning, which the Eastern Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, agrees with when explaining that the image of God in man is necessarily unknowable because it must reflect the unknowability of the divine being of whom the image is of. Augustine agrees with the Eastern Orthodox belief that the soul is created in the image of God, but disagrees with the belief that the body is created in the image of God as well. John Calvin agrees with this belief of Augustine’s in stating, “For though the glory of God is displayed in his external form, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul.”

Gilson explains Augustine’s Western belief as to man’s vocation to be the realization of the divine order, compiled of the sum-total of all the eternal essences and of the temporal things participating in those essences forming a hierarchy of higher and lower realities. Not only this, but it is also to realize one’s place in this divine order to allow the order imposed by God on nature to reign within himself. Thus, Augustine’s Western understanding of man’s vocation is more about being, as opposed to the Eastern understanding of man’s vocation to be more about becoming. Augustine also disagrees with the Eastern Orthodox view that image and likeness of God are different. “In making man an image of God they do not introduce an accidental but an essential quality into his mind, for since man has been created ad imaginem, his divine likeness is inscribed upon his being as an inalienable property.” Augustineagrees with the belief that man does not ever cease to be in the image of God, but rather than differentiating between image and likeness, states that the image of God in mankind is tainted by sin to be redeemed, renewed and transformed through God himself. For the image of God in mankind to have been tainted by sin means that at one point it had to have been untainted, thus making the image of God in mankind perfect at creation, as opposed to the Eastern belief that mankind was created imperfect.

So what is the effect of sin on mankind and what is the meaning of the fall of man? The Eastern view is that “The fall was not a departure from an originally static and perfect nature; it was the interruption – the cessation of a priceless process.” The fall did not take mankind into a new condition, but rather made the process of deification impossible. The fall did not make mankind mortal, because it was already mortal; but rather the fall caused mankind to lose the ability to transcend mortality. The vocation of mankind was made impossible in that the gap between the image of God in mankind and the likeness of God was made so large that it was impossible to bridge. And there are two things that result from the fall that make it impossible to bridge that gap: “Sin itself, which makes human nature incapable of receiving grace, and death, the outcome of that fallenness.” Lossky goes on to explain that at creation, the spirit was meant to live from God, the soul from the spirit, and the body from the soul, keeping with the belief that the soul and the body were created in the image of God. But what happened at the fall was that the spirit started living from the soul, and the soul from the body. As the soul lives off the body, passions are born, and as the body lives off the earth, man finds death.

Augustine, on the other hand, states that disobedience is the punishment of the fall. “What but disobedience was the punishment of disobedience in that sin?” The punishment, according to Augustine, is man’s disobedience to himself, meaning that rather than choosing not to do what he could do, he now chooses to do what he cannot do. Man could have willed to adhere to his vocation and be in unity with God in his untainted image but chose not to, and now man wills to take part in his vocation but cannot. Man’s vocation was to allow God to reign within him in the divine order, but he chose to disobey, and thus was punished with disobedience. For in the fall, Augustine agrees with Lossky, the mind and the flesh of man no longer obey the will. The mind, or as Lossky would put it, the soul, and the flesh, or the body, no longer obey the will, or the spirit. This is not to say that Augustine believes that the body is created in the image of God, but he does agree that the body is spiritual and that it plays a role in the fall of man. “Man, who by keeping the commandments should have been spiritual even in his flesh, became fleshly even in his spirit.”

But when push comes to shove, Augustine agrees with Lossky to the end that the fall of man is the origin of human death. But to the end of salvation, the East and West hold very different views. The Eastern belief is that salvation is vocation as an elevation to a new level of blessing never experienced before by humanity, even before the fall; this view resulting from the belief that the fall was a temporary malady. The Western belief is that salvation is restoration to the original blessing; this view resulting from the belief that the fall brought mankind into a new condition that one returns to upon salvation.

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