Although it is rather difficult for us to comprehend precisely what being formed out “of the dust of the ground” (Gn 2:7), or out of ‘nothingness’ actually means, perhaps we can try to understand the general concept and why we were given “the breath of life.”(Gn 2:7). Genesis then tells us that “man became a living soul,” so what is this change taking place, and what does it mean? Whether we look at it as being a landmark in the process of evolution or not, there is a greater mode of existence that distinctively changes the creature of the earth, or should I say separates certain beings from their primitive ancestors and fellow creatures. Rowan Williams describes this change of being and existence on the earth, as moving from a sense of no identity, to God making a community of individual persons.1 So God therefore adds meaning, individuality and a sense of community when creating this ‘special’ being. Panayiotis Nellas tells us that this being was at the centre of creation, and was “really and truly bound to God.” 2 But why so important and central to creation? The breath that the Creator gave to man is described by Nellas as being “raised to spiritual life.” 3 So here we have this distinct, highest form of being. We begin to see that this being not only has a physical form of existence - but something greater, something spiritual and personal. This being that has been given this gift of spiritual, personal and relational life, shares aspects of The Creators nature, as we are told “Let us make man in our image.”(Gn 1:26) We can now see that man, certainly has, to put it simply, an additional mode of existence compared to the beasts and cattle that “creepeth upon the earth.” (Gn 1:26)
1 Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford:Blackwell, 2000) 67-68.
2 Panayiotis Nellas, Deification In Christ (New York:St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997) 31.
3 Nellas, Deification In Christ, 32.
To summarize, Zizioulas’ perspective; we are not only constrained to our natural and biological existence, but are able to be renewed and transformed through Christ. Galatians (3:27) immediately comes to mind, as it tells us “ For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” As we are baptized and live a theocentric life, then we ‘put on’ Christ Himself - so we are transformed into another ‘mode’ of existence and being as Zizioulas says. Christ brings the fullness of personhood and being onto us, as we are replacing our old being with the perfect image of the Creator - Christ. Of course the person will still have this biological form of existence, and as I discussed, this results in passions and transgressions. However a life filled with Christ - the perfect image of God - will lead to a life of continual repentance and a growing spiritual life - so even though we may lose our way, this Christian life of repentance and love will bring us back towards the fullness of personhood and image of God.
This seems to make sense, as we can clearly see that although we are immensely different as human beings, there are times when we feel rather animalistic - always attracted by so called ‘lower pleasures’. Saint John Chrysostomos emphatically tells us that the human being has great potential, but “if you wish to know how great man is, don’t turn your eyes towards the thrones of the kings or the palaces of the great men, look up towards the throne of God and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Glory.” 5 To reach this great potential, we must then have a full relationship with Christ, and seek Him, rather than materialism and matters of the physical and environmental mode of existence. To see how holy and how significant man potentially can be, we must look up to the Saviour of mankind, and as I had mentioned earlier, the perfect image of the Creator - Christ. Why though, have I been relating to the image of God as Christ?
Some theologians however, have a rather different stance on what the image of God means. Contrary to the idea of this being something that we should aim to achieve, Aquinas and other western theologians say that in fact it is solely the rationality of the human being.
6 Nellas, Deification In Christ, 23-24.
Our abstract reasoning and ability to gain truth is a reflection of the Logos, Aquinas tells us - so it is a reflection of Christ. 7 I would be very wary of this interpretation, as some human beings do not have advanced rationality - they are unable to think situations through and do not have a chain of rational thought. Humans with special needs and disabilities may not have this ‘intellectual’ rationality, and may be far more instinctive and less reluctant to accept change. Does this mean simply because they do not have the same understanding as other rational humans, that they are unable to have what we see as full personhood. I would emphatically argue against this way of thinking - as being a person is far more than our intellectual capacity. Being a person is about something that is limitless and boundless. Love. Christ does not put any emphasis on our intellectual and rational abilities - but on our humility and love. These fruits of the Holy spirit are certainly alive within every being that loves, making them a personal, relational being in the image of Christ - and in my opinion sometimes even to a greater extent in those who do not perhaps have the rationality and ‘knowledge’ that we think we have. Furthermore, when we look at the creation in Genesis, there is no evidence in my opinion of rationality being part of the image and likeness of God.
Athanasius poses another issue regarding the statement that being in the image of God solely means being a rational intellectual being. Many human beings would claim, and quite rightly so, that they are rational and knowledgable - but they do not have any faith and love for God. If they are filled with Christ’s image, how then can they not understand Him? Athanasius says “ for they would in no wise differ from irrational creatures if they knew no more than earthly matters.” 8 Athanasius clearly agrees that rationality plays a great role in personhood, but he gives a more interesting and perhaps realistic view in my opinion. He explains that reason was given in order for us to understand and follow God, but through our weaknesses this grace given to discern the Divine Word , turned into confusion, illusions as well as immoral behaviour.
8 James Ridgeway, A Discourse of S. Athanasius on the Incarnation of the Word of God (Oxford : James Parker and Co , 1880) 39.
Rationality therefore turned into some kind of animalistic irrationality Athanasius explains - as the human being that was supposed to strive to gain a full and absolute relationship with His Creator and fellow being, concentrated on the other matters. Something was needed in order to close the gap between God and man’s relationship. Human’s are able to go against God to such an extent that Athanasius even asks the question why God would want to keep such beings, if they had simply walked in the opposite direction, in a reverse path and self-centred mindset. “ What, then, ought God to do?” 9
This renewal of the perfect image and likeness of God was ofcourse the appearance of Christ. Man was re-created and renewed through Him, and so man is able to form a full and Christ-like personhood. The uttermost passion and tragedy of the human condition was trampled upon and destroyed by the perfect image, the perfect loving and humble God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Christ gives us this ability of life giving change in our sinful existence. He says “ Truly truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”(John 3:3)To conlude, I have shown through various points of view that personhood is nothing less than having a loving and humble relationship with Christ and our fellows. Although there are differences in theologian’s views, there is a very common and reassuring theme - that only Christ is able to transform, renew and fulfill our true existence. The essence of a person is therefore “not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends.” 10 Christ, being the perfect and absolute image of God, has enabled us to experience what is incomprehensible to us, but what makes us a person of God - and this is love. “God is Love” ( 1 John 4:8) and so He is very much present within us. By having a complete loving relationship with God, not as substance, but as an individual identity and person, we are granted eternal life.
9 Ridgway, A Discourse of S. Athanasius on the Incarnation of the Word of God, 47.
10 Nellas, Deification In Christ, 33.
“Life and love are identified in the person: the person does not die only because it is loved and loves; outside the communion of love the person loses its uniqueness and becomes a being like other beings..” 11
Zizioulas, D 1985, Being as Communion, London : DLT , p. 27-49.
Sourozh, A 2004, God and Man, London : DLT, p. 75-85.
Williams, R 2000, On Christian Theology, Oxford : Blackwell, p.63-79.
Migliore, D 2004, Faith Seeking Understanding, Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, p.139-142.
Ridgway, J 1880, A Discourse of S. Athanasius on the Incarnation of the Word of God, Oxford : James Parker and Co, p. 39-47