Learning From the Church Fathers: Imago Dei || Alvin Rapien

Posted on September 26th, by Alvin Rapien in Heart. 2 comments

Learning From the Church Fathers: Imago Dei || Alvin Rapien

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27, NRSV)

The Latin phrase imago dei, or “image of God”, stems from Genesis 1:27, where Scripture states that humans were created in God’s image. In my personal experience, discussions about the human condition are primarily focused on depravity, often leaving out or overlooking the importance of this passage. However, the imago dei was a foundational concept for the Early Church Fathers. But what is the imago dei exactly? Is it just an abstract concept? Aren’t humans just “sinners”?

St. Gregory of Nyssa remarks that the imago dei is another way “to say that [God] made human nature participant in all good; for if the Deity is the fullness of good, and this is His image, then the image finds its resemblance to the archetype in being filled with all good.” In other words, if humans are made in the image of God, who is good, then human nature is inherently good at Creation. When sin and death entered the world (Romans 5:12), humanity was thrown into a cycle of birth, sin, and death. This sin affects our relationships with God, fellow humans, and creation. Humanity went from serving God to serving sin (6:17). Even creation has been affected by human sin (8:20). Some modern preaching gives the impression that, because the Fall, humanity lost the imago dei and it can only be recovered through salvation in Christ. For the Church Fathers, the imago dei was never destroyed. Rather, it became distorted. St. Gregory Palamas emphasizes that all of humanity “possesses the image of God inalienably, even if it does not recognize its own dignity, or think and live in a manner worthy of the Creator’s image within it… yet although we cast away our divine likeness, we did not lose our divine image.”

The imago dei tells us about our human worth. All of humanity is made in the image of God. We all have the Creator’s image. In many settings, it is common to downplay “the worth of humanity” to avoid a “man-centered” theology. In these circles, it is more popular see others as “sinners” rather than “images of God”. One extreme outworking of this mindset is the famous sermon that depicts a condemned humanity in the hands of an angry God. In this sermon, the preacher depicts God as a wrathful archer who “keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with [sinners’] blood” and executes “his awful vengeance on the poor sinner”. St. Clement of Alexandria, writing from the 2nd century, sketches another picture of salvation:

“Sick, we truly stand in need of our Savior; having wandered, of one to guide us; blind, of one to lead us to light; thirsty, of the fountain of life of which whosoever partakes shall no longer thirst; dead, we need life; sheep, we need a shepherd; we who are children need a tutor, while universal humanity stands in need of Jesus…”

Clement describes Christ as a healer and restorer – the Savior who leads us back to life. These depictions reflect the idea of the distorted imago dei. Jesus looks at humanity and sees a faded portrait of the Divine – a picture that has been ruined and is in need of restoration. When Christ takes sinners into his hands, he restores and heals them. Christ was and is the perfect Imago Dei. His self-sacrificial love, time spent to with others in their pain and suffering, and mission for reconciliation are the actions of the God in human presence. It is through reflecting Christ that we reflect God.

Reminding ourselves every day of the imago dei will bring a new set of eyes into our world. Though we share the same spiritual disease, we also share the same Creator. Since we are all created in God’s image, we should see God in the face of every person we meet. Any demeaning or degrading thing we say, we say about someone whom God has created. With everyone you meet, remind yourself that they are made in the image of God. Let that dictate how you interact with them.

Alvin Rapien Alvin Rapien blogs about Christian Theology and Hermeneutics at www.thepoorinspirit.com.
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2 Responses to “Learning From the Church Fathers: Imago Dei || Alvin Rapien”

  1. “It is through reflecting Christ that we reflect God.”

    So simple and yet so deeply significant. Imagine what it would look like if we focused on just doing that :)

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