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The Difference Between Image and Likeness in Genesis

This is the sixth in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The last post was Touch not God’s Anointed.

In the last instalment of the series, Cyril is quoted in saying that the newly baptised and chrismated believers were now the “images of Christ.” (XXI, 1) Concerning the image of God, elsewhere he says the following:

At that time God said, let us make man after our image and after our likeness. (Genesis 1:26) And the image he received, but the likeness through his disobedience he obscured. (XIV, 10)

That simple passage of scripture contains two words that, in the history of Greek theology, are loaded ones.

The first is image, eikon or more simply ikon. Icons, of course, are a hallmark of Orthodox churches. You walk into one and are greeted by the iconostatis, that large structure around the altar defined by the icons. The use of icons provoked the last controversy that the Orthodox felt necessitated an ecumenical council. The idea of “imaging,” that is to say God impressing his image on his creature, is a core concept in Orthodox thinking

The second is likeness, omoiosis. The central dispute in the Arian controversy was whether Jesus Christ could be said to be omoousios (of one substance) with the Father, omoiousios (almost the same substance) as the Father, omoios (like) the Father as is the case with the rest of us, or even anomoios (not like) the Father, which would have put Our Lord below the rest of us.

In any case the distinction between the image and the likeness of God that he placed within us at the creation is a consistent theme in Greek theology, drawn from their use of the Septuagint. In short, as Cyril explains, the image remained after the fall, but the likeness was obscured. It’s an important point because it highlights the difference between the Orthodox and the Western view of the fall. As Valerie Karras explains in her piece Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective:

For the Greek Fathers, this spiritual capacity of human nature is encapsulated in the language of Gen. 1:26-7: God created humanity according to God’s own “image”. Furthermore, both the Eastern Church and the medieval Latin Church distinguished between the “image of God” (Latin imago Dei) and the “likeness” or similitude of God, based on the differences between Gen. 1:26 and 1:27. The image designated the potential or capabilities inherent in all human beings, i.e., qualities such as reason; the likeness meant true likeness (at the level of human existence, of course) to God, the realization of human potential as the perpetual fulfillment of a dynamic process between the human person and God. The Greek Fathers in particular developed a generous anthropology around the concept of the imago Dei, even for postlapsarian human nature; as Gregory of Nyssa states in his Sixth Homily on the Beatitudes, the divine imprint may be obscured but it is still intact.

I say “Western” view of the fall, because, thanks to Augustine, Catholic and Reformer alike shared the same view of the effect of the Fall on free will. As Karras continues:

The question of the imago Dei is significant because it is here that East and West disagree on a second important element of theological anthropology: free will. While Orthodoxy maintains that free will is a constitutive element of the imago Dei, both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism – sharing an Augustinian heritage – assert that one of the aspects of original sin is the loss of free will with respect to humanity’s orientation toward God. Human freedom was one of the issues at the heart of the fifth-century Western Christian debate over faith and works, i.e., over the relative divine and human contributions to salvation. The Western Christian historical context has caused many theologians, particularly evangelical Protestant theologians, to experience great difficulty thinking “outside the box” of the Western either/or approach to this topic. For instance, at a 1999 conference sponsored by the Society for the Study of Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy, J. I. Packer distributed a copy of some course materials. I noted that under the topic of faith and works he listed the Orthodox as “semi-Pelagian”. He was “semi-right”. As Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia proclaimed at the beginning of his address for the 1998 Bellarmine Lecture at Saint Louis University, “I suppose I should tell you straightaway that I am an Arminian.” Ware’s comment was amusing but also truthful because, in Eastern Christian soteriology, human freedom plays an important role, but not as Pelagian foil to Augustinian determinism.

A more detailed explanation of this distinction can be found in Fr. Titus Fulcher’s series on the subject, catalogued here (HT to Fr. Greg for putting me on to all of these articles).

Needless to say, Protestants have taken exception to this by pointing out that the Hebrew doesn’t make the same distinction as the Greek Septuagint does. In this regard we should consider the following from Moses Maimonides, first on the term zelem (image):

Some have been of opinion that by the Hebrew zelem, the shape and figure of a thing is to be understood, and this explanation led men to believe in the corporeality [of the Divine Being]: for they thought that the words “Let us make man in our zelem” (Gen. i. 26), implied that God had the form of a human being, i.e., that He had figure and shape, and that, consequently, He was corporeal. They adhered faithfully to this view, and thought that if they were to relinquish it they would eo ipso reject the truth of the Bible: and further, if they did not conceive God as having a body possessed of face and limbs, similar to their own in appearance, they would have to deny even the existence of God…As, however, it must be admitted that the term zelem is employed in these two cases, viz. “the images of the emerods” and “the idols” on account of the external shape, the term zelem is either a homonym or a hybrid term, and would denote both the specific form and the outward shape, and similar properties relating to the dimensions and the shape of material bodies; and in the phrase “Let us make man in our zelem” (Gen. i. 26), the term signifies “the specific form” of man, viz., his intellectual perception, and does not refer to his “figure” or “shape.” (Guide for the Perplexed, I, 1)

Then we turn to his idea of the demut (likeness):

Demut is derived from the verb damah, “he is like.” This term likewise denotes agreement with regard to some abstract relation: comp. “I am like a pelican of the wilderness” (Ps. cii. 7); the author does not compare himself to the pelican in point of wings and feathers, but in point of sadness…As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared-though only apparently, not in truth — to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form. (Guide for the Perplexed, I, 1)

Although Maimonides doesn’t make the same distinction between image and likeness as the Greeks do, he doesn’t subscribe to the same idea of free will as the Latins came to do:

The theory of man’s perfectly free will is one of the fundamental principles of the Law of our Teacher Moses, and of those who follow the Law. According to this principle man does what is in his power to do, by his nature, his choice, and his will; and his action is not due to any faculty created for the purpose. All species of irrational animals likewise move by their own free will. This is the Will of God; that is to say, it is due to the eternal divine will that all living beings should move freely, and that man should have power to act according to his will or choice within the limits of his capacity. Against this principle we hear, thank God, no opposition on the part of our nation. (Guide for the Perplexed, III, 17)

This not only puts him in opposition to the Augustinians (who were contemporary to him) or the Reformers (who came after him) but to the Muslims as well (of whom he had personal knowledge, to say the least).

As Maimonides placed at the beginning of his work:

“Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.” — (Isa. xxvi. 2.)


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