St. George
Serbian Orthodox Church
Carmichaels, PA

The Image And Likeness Of God
by Dr. Darren J. Torbic

"Image Is Everything"


You often hear the term, "Image Is Everything." This term is used primarily because of the materialistic and/or secular nature of today's society. Many teenagers and young adults only want to wear clothes and shoes with a specific name brand and/or desire to attend a college based upon its name and reputation rather than the educational instruction they will receive. Many adults want to live in a certain neighborhood, drive a certain sports car or sport utility vehicle (SUV), and/or work for a certain company or business. Much of this is done either consciously, or subconsciously, in an effort to enhance one's "image" as seen through the eyes of one's friends or society in general. The term, "Image Is Everything" is true, not for the reasons described above, but rather because man is created in the "Image" and "Likeness" of God. This is the true image that should shape the manner in which Orthodox Christians live their lives.

"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and 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.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen 1: 26-27) The significance of man being created in God's image is sometimes overlooked due to the complete silence of the rest of the Old Testament on this subject (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). However, the Orthodox Church lays the utmost emphasis on the image of God in man (The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware), and to acquire the likeness of God is to become deified or to become a "god by grace", this is the ultimate goal of Orthodox Christians. This paper summarizes the Orthodox perspective on man being created in the "image" and "likeness" of God.

According to the Church Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean the exact same thing. In general, the term image can be thought of as the powers with which each one of us is endowed by God from the moment of our existence. By making proper us of being created in His image, each one of has the ability to acquire God's likeness or to be deified. The following sections discuss the meanings and understandings of these two terms (i.e., image and likeness).

In the Image of God

The various Church Fathers focus on slightly different issues when discussing the image of God within man. St. John Chrysostom focuses on the latter portion of Genesis 1:26. He indicates that "image" refers to the matter of man having control over everything on the earth, for nothing on earth is greater than the human being (Fathers of the Church. Homilies on Genesis 1-17 by St. John Chrysostom). Chrysostom states that the human being is the creature more important than all other visible beings, and for this creature all others things have been produced (i.e., sky, earth, sun, moon, stars, reptiles, cattle, etc.). Man is the center of God's creation. However, in his Homilies on Genesis, Chrysostom doesn't really explain what distinguishes man from all the other created beings.

Some Church Fathers associate the image of God with man's intellect (The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware). The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies man's free will, his sense of reason, and his sense of moral responsibility. These are the highest aspects of man which distinguish him from the animals and makes him a person. With his spirit and spiritual intellect man attains the knowledge of God and union with Him.

St. Gregory Palamas argues that it is not sufficient to simply connect the image of God with man's intellect because man's nature is "mixed," material as well as intellectual. Thus, St. Gregory explains that the image of God embraces the entire person, body as well as soul. The fact that man has a body makes his nature more complete than the angelic and endowed with richer possibilities.

The aspect of free will is particularly important for an understanding of man as made in God's image (The Orthodox Way by Archimandrite Kallis Ware). As God is free, likewise man is free. Having freedom, each human being realizes the divine image within himself in his own distinctive fashion. As such, each human being is unique, and because he is an icon of God, each member of the human race is infinitely precious in God's sight, even the most sinful (The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware). It is important to note that the image of God is distorted by sin, but never destroyed. In the words sung at an Orthodox Funeral Service for the laity, "I am the image of Thine inexpressible glory, even though I bear the wounds of sin." Thus, however sinful a man may be, he never loses the image of God. The respect for every human being is visibly expressed in Orthodox worship, when the priest censes not only the icons but the members of the congregation, saluting the image of God in each person. Clement of Alexandria taught that, "When you see your brother, you see God," and so after God, we must count all men as God himself.

Another important point is that man is made, not only in the image of God, but more specifically in the image of God the Trinity (The Orthodox Way by Archimandrite Kallis Ware). Since the image of God in man is a Trinitarian image, it follows that man, like God, realizes his true nature through mutual life. Just as the three divine persons live in and for each other, being made in the Trinitarian image, man becomes a real person by seeing the world through other's eyes, by making others' joys and sorrows his own. As St. Symeon the New Theologian explained we who are of the faith should be ready to lay down our lives for the sake of our neighbor for there is no other way to be saved, except through our neighbor, and as the Desert Fathers say, each of us should look upon our neighbor's experiences as if they were our own. We should suffer with our neighbor in everything and weep with him, and should behave as if we were inside his body; and if any trouble befalls our neighbor, we should feel as much distress as we would for ourselves. As another one of the Desert Fathers said, "If it were possible for me to find a leper and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it. For this is perfect love." (The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware) This is true precisely because man is made in the image of God the Trinity.

Being made in God's image, man is a mirror of the divine. Because he is God's icon, man can find God by looking within himself for "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8)." The doctrine of man's creation according to the image means that within each person, within his or her truest and innermost self, often termed the deep heart or ground of the soul, there is a point of direct meeting and union with the Uncreated. As Luke stated the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). The image doctrine means that man has God as the innermost center of his being. This is the determining element in our humanity (The Orthodox Way by Archimandrite Kallis Ware).

This quest for the inward kingdom is one of the primary themes found in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Clement of Alexandria said that "The greatest of all lessons is to know oneself; for if one knows himself, he will know God; and if he knows God, he will become like God." St. Basil the Great stated that, "When the intellect is no longer dissipated among external things or dispersed across the world through the senses, it returns to itself; and by means of itself it ascends to the thought of God." And Saint Isaac of Syrian wrote, "If you are pure, heaven is within you; within yourself you will see the angels and the Lord of the angels." (The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware)

Another way to understand the divine image of God in man is to see man as priest and king of the creation (The Orthodox Way by Archimandrite Kallis Ware). Consciously and deliberately, man can do two things that other animals can only do unconsciously and instinctively. First, man is able to bless and praise God for the world. Man is not only a logical animal but a Eucharistic animal. He does not merely live in the world, think about it and use it, but man is capable of seeing the world as God's gift, as a sacrament of God's presence and a means of communion with Him. Therefore man is able to offer the world back to God in thanksgiving, as stated in the Divine Liturgy, "Thine own from thine own, we offer to thee, on behave of all and for all."

Secondly, besides blessing and praising God for the world, man is also able to reshape and alter the world. Man puts the seal of his understanding and his intelligent work onto creation. The world is not only seen as a gift from God, but also as a task for man. It is mans calling to cooperate with God in His creation. As St. Paul explained, man is called to be God's fellow worker (1 Cor 3:9). The fact that man is made in God's image means that man is a creator after the image of God the Creator. Man fulfills this creative role through the clarity of his spiritual vision; his vocation is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to transfigure and hallow it. Thus, man is priest of the creation through his power to give thanks to God and to offer the creation back to God. Man is also king of the creation through his power to mold and fashion the world.

Several issues associated with the image of God within man are described above; however, the image means more than this. It means that there is a similarity between God and man such that man can be considered God's offspring (Act 17:28). Thus, the gulf between Creator and created is not impassable. Man is a microcosm, a bridge and point of meeting for the whole of God's creation. Since we are made in God's image, man can know God and be in communion with Him. If man makes proper use of this faculty for communion with God, man will acquire the divine likeness and be assimilated to God through virtue (The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware).

In the Likeness of God

"God made Himself man, that man might become God." These words are first attributed to St. Irenaeus but are also found in the writings of St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzua, and St. Gregory of Nyssa (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). However, as mankind was endowed with the image of God from the first moment of his existence, man can only acquire the likeness of God by degrees. St. John Chrysostom indicates that we become like God to the extent of our human power (Fathers of the Church. Homilies on Genesis 1-17 by St. John Chrysostom). We resemble him in our gentleness and mildness and in regard to virtue. To expand upon this further, the likeness of Christ consists of truth, meekness, righteousness, humility, and love of mankind (The First-Created Man by St. Symeon the New Theologian). The truth is beheld in all one's words and meekness in all words spoken by others to oneself because, one who is meek preserves himself passionless and is neither exalted by praises nor embittered by reproaches. Righteousness is beheld in all deeds by keeping in mind those measures which the Lord has given us - the commandments. Humility is formed in the mind that bears the conviction that only by the power of grace are there any good qualities to be shown in oneself. Love of mankind is a likeness of God, since it does good to all men, both the pious and impious, both good and evil, and both those known and those unknown, just as God also does good to all.

Mankind can only achieve these degrees and the likeness of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). By receiving the Holy Spirit, man bears witness in full consciousness to the divinity of Christ. As the Son has become like us in the incarnation; likewise man can become like Him by partaking in the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Holy spirit is not only a function, and it is more than a relation of God to man. It is God Himself communicating Himself and entering into ineffable union with man. By grace, God totally embraces those who are worthy, and this divine experience is given to each according to his measure and can be more or less profound, depending on the worthiness of those who experience it.

We know that man can attain this likeness to God, this deification, by looking at the lives of the saints. Take for example, St. Mary of Egypt, the life of whom we just celebrated recently on April 9, 2006 (the 5th Sunday of Great Lent), she walked acros s the River Jordan to receive the Holy Mysteries. Only through attaining the likeness of God was St. Mary of Egypt able to perform this miracle.

The Incarnation

The Incarnation of the Word is closely linked to our ultimate deification (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). Christ is the first perfect man. Christ is perfect in the potential sense, as Adam was in his innocence before the fall, and in the sense of the completely realized 'likeness'. The Incarnation is not simply a way of undoing the effects of original sin, but it is an essential stage upon man's journey from the divine image to the divine likeness. The true image and likeness of God is Christ himself (The Orthodox Way by Archimandrite Kallis Ware). It is through Christ that man is able to apprehend the Father (On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius). As St. Gregory of Nazianzus said, "The Son is not the Father, because there is only one Father, but He is what the Father is." In other words, the Son is a concise definition of the nature of the Father, for every being that has been begotten is a silent definition of his begetter (In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky). This can best be explained by considering that each human individual is "the picture of his father" by the family characteristics which he has in common with him, not by the personal qualities which distinguish his father.


When God created man, He created man in His own image and likeness. This is what distinguishes man from the rest of creation, and above all explains man's unique position in the cosmos. Whether the image of God in man is interpreted as man having dominion over all of the earth, focusing on man's intellect or man's spirit, body, and soul when explaining his personhood, seeing each human being as infinitely precious, etc., there are numerous ways to explain and understand the significance of man being created in the image of God. The fact is, because God created man in Him image, man was created with great potential. He was created pure, holy, passionless, and sinless. Only as a result of man's fall was this potential corrupted, but through the Incarnation, Jesus Christ has restored human nature to its fullest potential. This is the image that should shape the lives of Orthodox Christians.

Parents often tell their children that they have the potential to be anything that they want to be if they work hard enough. In most cases, parents are referring to their children's career path. But God gave mankind the greatest potential of all. The Church challenges us to look at the lives of the saints as examples to follow, such as St. Mary of Egypt (sermon by Father Milan Pajic). This should be the focus of our lives. This is the potential that we should all strive to achieve. Indeed, "image is everything" for man was created in God's image, and because of this man has the ability to achieve the fullest potential of our human nature, to realize the likeness of God or to become like God.

1. St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1944.

2. St. John Chrysostom. The Fathers of the Church. Homilies on Genesis 1-17. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, DC. 1986.

3. Vladimir Lossky. In the Image and Likeness of God. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1974.

4. Father Milan Pajic, Sermon on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, delivered at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, Carmichaels, PA, April 9th, 2006.

5. St. Symeon the New Theologian. The First-Created Man. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, California, 2001.

6. Archimandrite Kallis Ware. The Orthodox Way. St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood, New York, 1979.

7. Timothy Ware. The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, New York, New York, 1964.

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