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God's Image in the Human Person

Updated on June 8, 2020

Then God said: Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. (Gen 1:26).

God is transcendent and different from us, but has given us a share in his nature. Of all visible creatures, only man is able to know and love his creator. He is the only creature on earth that God has willed for his own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. Clothed in the image of God, man possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession; and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with God and with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his creator to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.

As an image and likeness of God, the human being is graced with a unique nobility, a good and generous gift that brings man to share a state with God. Through this unique nobility, humanity is related directly to God. God’s image and likeness in man is understood to mean that there exist something in man that relates to God. This relation is the basis for seeking a personal relationship with God. Man and woman are above all relational beings who are destined for communion with God. They are beings with whom God can strike a friendship and have a dialogue. Like God, the human person is a being possessing freedom and creativity.

The image and likeness of God in man is also understood to mean a reference to the Trinitarian nature of God. The trinity is one but not solitary, it is a relation of persons held fast in communication and love. Man created in this image and likeness, is not just the individual, a prisoner of his loneliness and egoism; rather, man and woman are seen as relational, two people in communion, who are bearers of life.

THE HUMAN MIND: THE SEAT OF GOD’S IMAGE

The image and likeness of the human person to God consist not so much in his/her bodily form but in his/her inner faculties. Aquinas affirms that God’s image in man is the rational soul, which includes the intellect and the will. To manifest this truth, he says the idea that in all creatures there is some likeness to God. In rational creatures we find a likeness of image, in other creatures we find a likeness of trace. This is akin to the reality that it is in the intellect that the rational creatures supersede irrational creatures. Thus, this image of God which renders chiefly in the intellectual nature stays in the mind, the seat of knowledge. Thus outside the mind, the rational creature share boundaries with irrational ones but as in a trace since other parts of the creature are products of causative effects. So, the rational creatures are like God, having divine nature because of their ability to be intelligible, to use their reason and thus imitate God who is pure act and rational not only in life and being, but in intelligence all encompassing. Other creatures without reason cannot understand albeit their disposition to act intelligibly. God’s image in man is in his mind by way of the likeness unto an image while in irrational creatures by way of a trace; it is impressed on his mind and not in every part of the body as in a coin which has the image of a king. So we find in man a likeness to God by way of image in his mind; but in the other parts of his being by way of trace.

Furthermore, in man, the uncreated trinity exists, God’s image renders on the mind, because of the divine procession of the word on the intellect and a procession of love in the will. As the trinity is not static but a procession of the son and the Holy Spirit, so the image of the Trinity in the souls consists of the active processions of word and love. This trait is lacking in irrational creatures i.e. in irrational creatures we do not find the principle of the word, the word and love and we do see this in traces since they are causative effects of a principle. The man is the image of the Trinity in their one nature, for to the image of God he created him.

This image does not come via sex or transmission from creatures or pre-existing matter, but it proceeds from God in the mind ontologically and applies to both sexes. It is in the mind of man, the seat of his intellectual powers and not in his bodily shape, and thus to be found in the acts of the soul. The soul acts in the procession of thoughts and words which make up the knowledge capacity of the soul. This word is the internal word which accrues from the sharing in God’s intellectual essence. More so, this thought is to break forth in love. In all that the soul does by way of habits and powers, the image of the trinity abides.

Truly, human beings are made in the image of God. It is so by reason of the intellectual nature which they share with God though imperfectly since they are a participation in God’s intellect. This means that the intellectual nature imitates God who loves and understands himself. Man too loves and understands himself. Man’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul which raises him above the beasts of the field.

GOD’S IMAGE IS PRESENT IN THE WHOLE HUMAN PERSON

The image of God exists in the mind, not because it has a remembrance of itself, loves itself, and understands itself; but because it can also remember, understand and love God by whom it was made. The best human act will be the act of the highest power engaged with the highest object; thus we are most in the image of God when we remember, know and love God. But this acts of remembering, knowing and loving are the acts of the person, not the mind and will alone. We say the mind thinks and the will chooses, but it will also be proper to say that the person thinks and chooses. And the person is not just the soul. Thus insofar as we are the image of God in our acts, we are the image of God as persons, and our personhood includes everything about us, not just the intellect.

More so, the Scriptures recognized and present the incarnate Jesus as the perfect image of God (Heb 1:3). However, Jesus is the image of God not just through his intellect and will but in his whole person, fully human and fully divine, and since man is a likeness of Jesus Christ although an imperfect one, the limiting of the image of God in man should not be chiefly relegated to the intellect and the mind, but rather the whole human person should be seen as an image of God but lacking in the degree of perfection; an image with a lesser perfection. This position is supported by the various shades in which the image of God in present in man.

SHADES OF GOD'S IMAGE IN MAN

At creation, God granted the created man and woman freedom as images of His self. They however in this freedom rejected God’s friendship and became estranged from Him, thereby damaging and repressing their spiritual and moral likeness to God; however God’s image in them was not lost. Although as humans we inhibit God’s image, this image in each one of us is not exactly present in the same manner, we encounter slight differences in the form it takes in us, but it does not often and necessary remain the same all through our lives. The fact that it is natural and innate in us does not downplay the need to grow and nurture it to further enhance its visibility and capacity, for the differences experienced is basically due to its intensity in us. Consequently, this image is present in us in three (3) shades of nature, grace, and glory.

First, as human persons we have a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God, and this truth is common to all irrespective of the religion or faith practiced. By nature we have the capacity for God and we cannot ignore this inner aptitude to move towards the Divine, for it is part of our being human. This natural aptitude is more than just the capacity to know and love God, it is the natural presence of Christ in the person given in creation; Christ who is the perfect image of God. Having this natural presence of Christ does not necessarily means faith in Christ, for to have faith is not part of human nature; however it is part of human nature that the mind should not thwart its inner instinct and the outward preaching of the truth which is imbued in us as humans, and which signifies the presence of God in the soul. This actual presence of God in the soul drawing us to Him is more the image of God than is the mere capacity to know and love God. Creation was good and thus cannot be completely destroyed by sin. This instinct for God, which draws man to Him, and to the knowledge of the incarnation are not just volitional or intellectual potentialities of nature; rather they exist actually in the full human nature, body, mind and spirit.

Second, is in the sense of man loving and knowing God by habits, an action brought about by divine grace albeit its imperfect nature and cooperation with the divine grace. Grace is a gratuitous gift of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ through the internal workings of the Holy Spirit illuminating the mind and inspiring the will to seek salvation. Grace describes the renovation or regeneration of the human being as a new creature. Just as nature, grace is freely given to us all, but unlike nature it needs to be internalized and actively worked on. This gift is a cooperating grace, it is what God does in man with man, and therefore it requires his cooperation. The daily alignment with grace builds in us a grace pattern for living our lives. This habitual grace dispose him to live and act in keeping with God’s call. The image of God is more perfect in man by grace, which is in those who habitually know and love God.

Third, is based on man’s ability to know and love God perfectly which consists in the likeness of his glory. This perfection is only achieved in those who in their earthly life have lived and loved God and thus gain admittance to the heavenly abode of the almighty Father. This is the work of nature and grace made perfect in the human person. Glory here is the actualization and perfection of God’s image in us, for we too shall be like God and see Him as He is. Knowledge, love and life attains it apex, which is the glory that was to be ours before the estrangement from God. In this third shade, the image of God is most perfect in man by glory, in those who share the beatific vision.

The desire to repair the image of God in man can be seen as a quest for wholeness, or one’s essential self as Jesus acted to repair the relationship with the creator. In reality, it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. St Paul affirms that the human race takes its origin from two men: Adam and Christ. The first man Adam became a living soul, the last Adam a life-giving spirit. The first Adam was made by the last Adam, from whom he also received his soul, to give him life. The second Adam stamped his image in the first Adam when he created him. That is why he took on himself the role and the name of the first Adam, in order that he might not lose what he had made in his own image.

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