In God's image and likeness

Anthony Zimmerman
Not published
May 5, 1999
Reproduced with Permission

Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 26).

St. Irenaeus (c.125-c.203) drew a distinction between image and likeness in this passage. The "image" is a fixed permanent structure in man, whereas the "likeness" is an accessory quality which can come and go, while the man continues to live in his basic nature. The image is man's enduring rational nature (cf. Adv. Haer.II,34,4); the likeness is a super-added quality of the gift of friendship with God (cf.V,6,1). Today we would call this super-added quality the state of sanctifying grace which we receive with Baptism, which we can lose by committing mortal sin, which we can regain by repentance and the help of the Sacraments. The doctrine of sanctifying grace had not yet been formulated with precise terminology in the second century A.D., but Irenaeus already used equivalent terms to describe its nature and mode of operation.

The saint of Lyons characterizes the human image of God found in man as a permanent spiritual being who is immortal, intellectual, volitional and responsible. This basic constitution of man is what he is, a person who lives forever. Whereas the likeness is an added feature, a special gift bestowed upon man by which he becomes an adopted son of God. We would today call it the sanctifying grace which God infuses into a person. Attached to sanctifying grace are further supernatural benefits: the infused theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, plus the infused intellectual and moral virtues which facilitate our pilgrimage march toward heaven. Christ described the infusion of grace as a birth into a new and better life: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, `You must be born anew'" (Jn 3:5-7). The new birth inserts us into God's family of blue-blooded aristocrats.

A person can lose this added feature of being God's "likeness," continues Irenaeus, by committing sin. But he can regain it again by repentance for the sin, through the merits of Christ (cf. III,18,1). Were he alive today, Irenaeus might explain that the "image" of man is like an unlighted electric light bulb. The "likeness" is comparable to the light of a bulb when an electric current makes it bright and incandescent.

Exegete Francis Martin (Communio, Summer, 1993) gives a different interpretation of the words image and likeness than Irenaeus had given them. Martin points out that the word image (selem in Hebrew) usually refers in the Bible to a physical shape of some sort. Idols of false gods are like that. Whereas the word likeness (demut) is more diffuse in meaning. He believes that the author of Genesis used the two words for the set purpose of avoiding a picture of God which is too concrete, which looks like an idol. The added word "likeness" word should diffuse and dilute the sharpness of the "image" term. So reasons Martin, who believes that the Hebrew author of Genesis used the two terms in order to discourage the Jews from making a statue (image) to represent God as an idol (Martin, 245). Perhaps we are fortunate that the Bishop of Lyons did not know such meticulous precisions of exegesis. Had he known this, the knowledge might have hindered him from giving his beautiful version of "image" as a person's substance, and "likeness" as a person's sanctifying grace.

At any rate, the Bible takes care to picture God as a Spirit whom readers should not quantify into a statue. Job declares, for example: "When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him" (Job 9:11). Genesis is careful to not confine God to the limitations of a fabricated image - like the idol of a bull - lest the Israelites ascribe to Him the too obvious limitations of an idol. God must remain in the minds of the Israelites as the "I AM" who is spiritual, transcendent, infinite, omnipresent, self-subsistent; who creates, but who is not created. With good reason, then, Genesis uses two words, selem and demut to describe the human copy of the original model in God. The tactic serves to safeguard the picture of God as the One who is transcendent, who surpasses the capacity of our imaging abilities.

In this Chapter One the author does not elaborate on man's supernature, on His gift of sanctifying grace. Here man is male and female, appointed to be ruler of this earth. But Chapters Two and Three will feature man's supernature, the "accessory" element of sanctifying grace which Irenaeus described as the "likeness," a gift which man can lose by sin. Chapter Three will, in fact, describe symbolically how man, male and female, actually did lose grace through sin. The transition of man from the natural state to the supernatural will be symbolized by depicting God as taking the man and placing him into the Garden of Eden, God's private family garden. There God will introduce Himself to them, speak with them, even walk with them in Eden's wooded paths. These are symbols, as we shall elaborate later, that God adopted our first parents into His family by bestowing on them the gift of divine grace.

Once we are alive, our natural tendency to remain alive is our strongest human drive. We abhor the prospect of falling back into an abyss of nothingness; into non-being, non-existence, into the original void and abyss. As the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II, titled "The Church in the Modern World" describes man's desire for life and eternity:

But a deep instinct leads him rightly to shrink from and to reject the utter ruin and total loss of his personality. Because he bears in himself the seed of eternity, which cannot be reduced to mere matter, he rebels against death (No. 18).

The statement of Genesis that God created man "in his image" has profound implications. It designates that we are spiritual beings, created indeed, but still resembling God's spiritual nature. We are God's reflection in our individual natures. God can look at Himself, in a fashion, by seeing himself mirrored in us. We call own reflection, the one we see of ourselves in a mirror or on the surface of smooth waters, our "image." That image beaming back at us from there is not ourselves, of course. It wouldn't remain there if we went away. The situation of Gen 1:27 is somewhat different. There God does not look into a mirror to admire His image there. Rather, God creates an image of Himself in man. God then sees Himself, His image, in the man whom He has created. In Genesis, God sees the image, and calls it "very good."

In the Bible, God constantly keeps His eye on His human image. Job felt this hot gaze of God upon Himself intensely. He even protested that God was smothering him with excessively close scrutiny. Job was uneasy, like a person with claustrophobia, and begged God to recede somewhat into the distance, to give him more breathing space:

What is man that thou dost make so much of him,
and that thou dost set thy mind upon him,
dost visit him every morning,
and test him every moment?
How long wilt thou not look away from me,
nor let me alone till I swallow my spittle?
If I sin, what do I do to thee,
thou watcher of men? (Job 7:17-20).

If man is God's image, then God is understandably pleased with a man so long as he images God authentically, even though not always not flawlessly. For God's image in man reviews for God His own beholden beauty now captured also on the human mirror. Chapter One tells about the delightful time at the beginning when God's freshly minted image sparkled with His ineffable radiance. This is still before Chapter Three, when sin distorted the image and occasioned new dimensions in God's dealings with man. In Chapter One God is so delighted with His image in man that He immediately does two things: 1) He makes man the inheritor of everything that He had made during the previous six days: "Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 2) He commissions man to increase and multiply and fill the earth, thus to replicate the image of God on our planet far and wide, from east to west, from north to south: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it."

Genesis expresses here the initial wonder which God experienced upon first seeing His own image in humans. He saw that what He had made was "very good." St. Angela Merici captures some of the warmth of God's love for man in this advice given to her sisters:

Mothers of children, even if they have a thousand, carry each and every one fixed in their hearts, and because of the strength of their love they do not forget any of them. In fact, it seems that the more children they have the more their love and care for each one is increased. Surely those who are mothers in spirit can and must act all the more in the same way, because spiritual love is more powerful than the love that comes from a blood relationship (St. Angela Merici, see ISEL, Office of Readings, January 27).

Pope John Paul II never tires of restating the message that man is precious to God, that He loves to converse with him:

The fact that God wished to reveal to man the truth about himself, the truth which is a mystery, testifies that man is a very dear creature to God, a creature made in his likeness, the only one in the visible world with whom God can converse, to whom he can entrust the truth about himself and about his own inner life, the truth of the divine Mysteries (Homily at St. Peter's, 6 January 1996).

Far from picturing God as a Deus Otiosus who dwells by Himself in a distant heaven, who is unconcerned about what humans do down on the earth, Genesis and the rest of the Bible teaches that God broods over man closely; that He is concerned about the behavior of His image here from day to day. In the Book of Job, Eliphaz badmouths Job, claiming that Job disregards God because He is so far away, therefore knowing naught about man nor caring what he does:

Is not God high in the heavens?
See the brightest stars, how lofty they are!
Therefore you say, "What does God know?
can he judge through the deep darkness?
Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see,
and he walks on the vault of heaven" (Job 22:13-14).

The accusation is false, because Job holds the exact opposite to be true, namely that God scrutinizes man very closely. Job is all too well aware of God's constant presence. He says, for example: "Does he not see my ways, and number all my steps?" (31:4).

The Bible even pictures God's mood as changing with the behavior He sees in man, much as a mother fawns over her children when they are good, but is saddened if they turn out to be scoundrels. God, in the Bible, is pleased when man behaves well, but frustrated, rankled and wrathful when he behaves shamefully. When the Israelites rebelled against Moses in the desert, refusing to trod the pathway God had opened for them, God's disgust and fury exploded. "They do not know my ways!" He expostulated. Let them drop dead in the desert! (cf. Num 14). Only the prayer of Moses saved them from a quick and unrepentant death. The Psalmist, recalling the scene, puts these words into the mouth of the Lord:

For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, "They are a people who err in heart,
and they do not regard my ways."
Therefore I swore in my anger
that they should not enter my rest (Ps 95:10-11).

Because man is born as an image of God, he has native knowledge about God's ways. The so-called "first principles" of knowledge and morality are imprinted on his being. Not merely imprinted, but structured into it; into his intellect, his will. Man sees "light in His light" says the Bible (e.g. Ps 35). God is all light and there is no shadow of darkness in Him. Man participates in this light whose glow emanates from God. In it he can know - only he makes the necessary effort to do so - that truth is absolute, is eternal, is universal, is intelligible. Man knows that 2+2 equals 4 with certainty. To recognize truth renders humans to be basically authentic, much as being Truth makes God be God. God IS truth. We act as authentic humans when we walk in the divine pattern of truth and beauty as Paul exhorts:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil 4:8).

Because we are images of God, our total value is measured by our authentic reflection of Him. Whatever is counterfeit to God, is foreign to man's thoughts as well. That is also why Pope John Paul II could write, in the Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, that absolute moral imperatives exist, which brook no exceptions whatsoever; that there are negative precepts of "Thou shalt not!" which are as hostile and implacable to man's created nature as they are to God's uncreated divinity. His image in us is permanent, durable, unchangeable. We are born with a "given" and cannot change its imperatives. We simply do not have in us the ability to refashion our native image of God. Every false thought, every wrong action, is as foreign to our natures as a fish bone lodged in the throat. God designed our human minds and wills to categorically reject what is wrong, what is untrue, much as He designed our bodies to reject implanted organs which are not ours originally and organically.

We do not have "creative consciences" which can re-plant a private tree of good and evil for ourselves individually, to serve arbitrary purposes. We are born as living reflections of the "conscience" which shines eternally in God. An authentic reflection of divine morality is mirrored placidly in our minds and we find it its basic tenets if only we turn our attention to them. Our intellects reflect moral verities and do not manufacture them. Conscience perceives norms already in existence, seeing as in a mirror truth as it exists in God's mind, eternal and unchanging.

When we deviate from truth, we "throw a monkey wrench" into the multi-geared whirling wheels of our authentic characters. We can even make fiction seem to us as truth. As the Wise Man said: "The paths (of the adulteress) are crooked, but she knows it not' (Prov 5:6). We can temporarily, or even permanently, distort the imaging of divine moral truths in ourselves. By single acts we can oppose the truth wilfully and knowingly. We can curse the truth, damn it, shove it aside as we goose-step forward with stupid booted feet. Who of us hasn't done so at one time or another? We can also go off on a misbehavior tangent until we make bad behavior a kind of pseudo-self through which we sift and distort the truth. The telescopic mirror which is not ground perfectly does not give a sharp focus of the stars.

But, thanks be to God and to the resilience of human nature, even if we temporarily obliterate the divine reflection in ourselves by tempestuous behavior, the image tends to reassert itself if only we compel ourselves to conform to rationality, and to accept the deposit of the moral teachings that have been handed down to us. We all carry with us a burden of pseudo-self but by-and-large, working with the grace of God, we come to reflect His image more clearly day by day if only we perform the works God has prepared for us beforehand and so prepare ourselves to become pervious to eternal light which has no distortions or shadows. As the Wise Man says: "The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of the day" (Prov 4:18).

God is the light, we are His mirror. We are not the light, and God is not our mirror. That condition no one can change. Adam and Eve tried it once. It didn't work. A thousand million times descendants of Adam and Eve tried it again. It still doesn't work. We cannot create truth with our consciences. We can only reflect it: into ourselves, over to our neighbors, back to God.

Cardinal Newman somewhere spoke of scenic beauty reflected on the surface of a lake; when its waters are calm, they reflect the blue sky and lofty clouds above, trees along the shore and the snow-capped mountains in the distance; but when winds blow to ruffle the surface, when a storm stirs up unruly waves, the reflection disappears altogether from the surface of the lake as though it had never been there. Almost miraculously, after the squall passes and the waters level off into a smooth surface again, the same blue sky and passing clouds, the trees along the shore and the snow-capped mountains in the distance spread their picture over the lake again just as before. This illustrates how we receive morality into our consciences from the outside, and do not shape it arbitrarily as we might wish it to be. True consciences are gained by calm reflection, by holding still, not by wielding a paintbrush vigorously to create imaginative scenery.

When our "conscience" mistakes the divine pathways, it isn't working right; that is always a deficit, a miss, and never an advantage. We are absolutely impotent to create authentic moral behavior which is not consonant with our inborn native endowment. Our inner awareness rejects untruth much as our bodies reject inserted organ transplants. Our bodies battle them permanently, being subdued only by medication to counteract the rejection mechanisms. Our souls, sadly, do not battle untruth permanently if we willingly accept its lies.

The folly of consequentialist theology, which would base moral behavior on a measure other than our imagery of God, is therefore pseudo-theology. We can't make 2+2 equal 3, nor can we send a rocket to the moon if we don't use correct figures. In like manner, we can't reflect God correctly if we do not form our consciences according to the truth as God sees it. East is east, and west is west, and ne'er the twain shall meet, said Rudyard Kippling. Man is man, and evil is evil, and ne'er do they make peace. Our beings have truth written all over them:

The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body (VS 50).

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.... "There exist laws which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object" (VS 80).

In brief, God approves human behavior when it accords with His Wisdom; and disapproves when otherwise. As E. Michael Jones writes:

Dissent is the sexual revolution inside the Church. The basis for that revolution has been with us since The Garden of Eden, from the time that Eve persuaded Adam that they could both be like gods, knowing good and evil, or, better still, deciding on their own what was good and what was evil without taking into account the intentions of the God who created them in a certain way, with a nature that involved certain immutable though deniable purposes. Choosing self-will over the order of things has been happening ever since (see Fidelity, December 1995, p.45).

In Genesis One, God is pleased, very pleased, with the human image of Himself which He has just made. God dotes over these authentic photo's of Himself. They are re-prints of His being in so many ways; in the beauty of their bodies, male and female; in the richness of intellect which can grasp truth as it is, which appreciates the cosmos for its beauty and order; in the goodness of the free will, which inclines to good, averts from evil, which consolidates the human family into a friendly neighborhood. God's images now inhabit the cosmos and give it purpose. Man can delight in the world of creation, reflect upon it, enrich himself with it, praise God for it.

Chapter Three of Genesis is still to come, where sin enters the world. In Chapter One, man is endowed with God's image of goodness. But it is an initial goodness, and every person needs to develop it further throughout life. God provides us with principles of truth and goodness as our basic given; then He allows us freedom to work out the principles in the life experience. When we weave our pattern of life correctly, our characters develop beautifully, like snow flakes growing their crystals into precise configurations of delicate tracery. When we make mistakes, some of these branching crystals fail to work out their potentialities, and become hard balls of knobby ice instead. Fortunately, we can do much repair work, and compensate, and build anew around the mistake. Knots in a board look beautiful after the tree has built around the damage. The environment -- our family and the world about us -- also impinge upon our learning process for good or for ill. But God makes humans basically right initially, and provides them with the potentiality to grow into adult rectitude, always on condition that we cooperate with God and expend our efforts adequately. Such is the basic lesson of Genesis One. After God had made man to reflect His image and likeness, He next directed man to reflect God in activity.

What God had created, man shall now administrate in Godlike fashion: "Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen 1:28). Having dominion signifies stewardship with a corresponding sense of responsibility, reflective of God's own concerns about the natural world. It's extended meaning encourages humans to not only operate the cosmos efficiently to produce needed food, fiber and products, but also to refine sensitivities with artistic gifts. As Brother Mark says to Brother Cadfael in one of Ellis Peters' mystery novels: "It's no blame to men if they try to put into their own artifacts all the colours and shapes God put into his" (St. Peter's Fair, p.10).