St Athanasius: The Creation of Humanity in the Image of the Image

“In the beginning wickedness did not exist,” writes St Athanasius of Alexandria. In the beginning God the Father created human being in the image of his Image, that is to say, in the image of the eternal Word who would become Man:

For God Maker of all and King of all, that has His Being beyond all substance and human discovery, inasmuch as He is good and exceeding noble, made, through His own Word our Saviour Jesus Christ, the human race after His own image, and constituted man able to see and know realities by means of this assimilation to Himself, giving him also a conception and knowledge even of His own eternity, in order that, preserving his nature intact, he might not ever either depart from his idea of God, nor recoil from the communion of the holy ones; but having the grace of Him that gave it, having also God’s own power from the Word of the Father, he might rejoice and have fellowship with the Deity, living the life of immortality unharmed and truly blessed. For having nothing to hinder his knowledge of the Deity, he ever beholds, by his purity, the Image of the Father, God the Word, after Whose image he himself is made. He is awe-struck as he contemplates that Providence which through the Word extends to the universe, being raised above the things of sense and every bodily appearance, but cleaving to the divine and thought-perceived things in the heavens by the power of his mind. For when the mind of men does not hold converse with bodies, nor has mingled with it from without anything of their lust, but is wholly above them, dwelling with itself as it was made to begin with, then, transcending the things of sense and all things human, it is raised up on high; and seeing the Word, it sees in Him also the Father of the Word, taking pleasure in contemplating Him, and gaining renewal by its desire toward Him; exactly as the first of men created, the one who was named Adam in Hebrew, is described in the Holy Scriptures as having at the beginning had his mind to God-ward in a freedom unembarrassed by shame, and as associating with the holy ones in that contemplation of things perceived by the mind which he enjoyed in the place where he was— the place which the holy Moses called in figure a Garden. So purity of soul is sufficient of itself to reflect God, as the Lord also says, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Gent. 2)

We immediately think of Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his own image”), but we also need to hold this verse together with Colossians 1:15 (“He [Christ Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation”), as well as perhaps Hebrews 1:1-3 (“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power”). The line between the pre-existent Word and Jesus Christ is so very thin. The line must be there, because we must be able to posit the eternal God as eternally subsisting as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from the world he might not have made; yet the unity of the Word and the Nazarene is so tight that we cannot truly conceive of the Word apart from his embodied form: even when we speak of the pre-existent Son, we know that he is the One who will “become” incarnate in Jesus Christ. The eternal Word is the Image of the Father; Jesus is the Image of the invisible God and first-born of creation. The Father eternally begets the Son who is his perfect Image, and in his Image he knows and delights in himself. How do we know this? Because the Father’s Image has taken upon himself the human nature of the creatures whom he made in his image. And so perhaps we should not be surprised when St Athanasius states that God created mankind “through his Word our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Athanasius’ understanding of the Holy Trinity flows from and is grounded upon the economy of the divine self-revelation.

Humanity is made in the image of the eternal Image. For Athanasius this means that man was originally created to enjoy unbroken spiritual communion with the living God. Within this communion he was given to apprehend the invisible God, to know the divine Son and in him to know the Father. His mind (nous) was free to transcend the sensible reality of the world and contemplate divine realities. It was not bound to the world nor driven by bodily desires. And as long as this spiritual union was maintained, man delighted in his Creator and enjoyed an immortal, ever-renewing existence. We should not think that Athanasius is merely speculating on our primordial beginnings: he is describing what life must be have been like, and will be again, in light of the new creation manifested in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Behr, Nicene Faith, I:174).

Later in Contra Gentes Athanasius identifies the soul (psyche) as the divine image in human beings, for “the soul beholds as in a mirror the Image of the Father, even the Word, and by this means reaches the idea of the Father, Whose Image the Saviour is” (Gent. 34). The specification of the soul as image and locus of contemplative union with the divine raises the question as to how Athanasius understands the relationship between body, soul, and mind. Athanasius appears to be appropriating a Platonic anthropology, but Khaled Anatolios suggests that this would be a hasty inference:

Athanasius also speaks of the structure of the human being in terms of “soul” (psyche) and “mind” (nous). In distinguishing between the “soul” and “mind,” he appears to presume the Platonic tripartition of the soul into appetitive, reasonable, and spiritual parts. Yet these are analytical categories for Plato, delineating parts of the soul, whereas for Athanasius the distinction between “soul” and “mind” refers more to determinations of the self in its relation to God. If the body is conceived as the starting point of the Godward ascent, the “mind,” or nous, conceived along the lines of the biblical notion of the “heart,” is the locus of communion with God. The “soul,” on the other hand, is an intermediate category, generally correlated by Athanasius to the body as its “pilot” or governor. It governs the body precisely by orienting it toward the divine contemplation whose locus is the “mind.” “Mind” therefore refers to the determination of the soul which is properly ordered toward communion with God. Thus, body, soul, and mind are hierarchically ordered within a continuum of self-transcending ascent. (Athanasius, pp. 45-46)

But then man broke the communion with God …

(Go to “The Fall of Man into the Body“)

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6 Responses to St Athanasius: The Creation of Humanity in the Image of the Image

  1. coffeezombie says:

    “But then man broke the communion with God …”

    Way to leave us with a cliffhanger there, Fr. Aidan! 😉

    To pick up what is perhaps a minor point from the post, the whole “soul, spirit, body, mind, etc.” stuff has always been something very confusing to me. Especially when (as I understand it, at least) the Greek terms get translated into various (and overlapping) English terms. For example, nous is, here, translated “mind,” but, then, I also see it translated in places as “heart” (and “mind” means something quite different, for example, in Achimandrite Meletios Webber’s Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).

    As I understand it, just from the terms, we have (for our non-physical bits) soul (psyche, animus), spirit (pneuma, spiritus), and mind/intellect (nous, intellectus). And, as far as I understand, they all kind of overlap somewhat, or, maybe, the soul and spirit are the same thing, or…

    Anyway, would you happen to have anything to suggest to help clear all this up? Or, at least, start to?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Way to leave us with a cliffhanger there, Fr. Aidan!”

      Bloggers, like soap opera writers, live for cliffhangers! 🙂

      Regarding nous, pneuma, and psyche, I do not have much knowledge to share. Athanasius’s usage seems to be somewhat fluid. As you know, these terms receive more explicit definition in the later ascetical and theological tradition. Perhaps others can help us out here.


  2. PJ says:

    It seems to me that there is a dimension of Athanasian soteriology which is definitely forensic and legalistic. I’m interested to see how you handle this aspect. His thought seems at times divided, swinging between a vision that is juridical and even mercantile, rooted in images of satisfaction and payment, and a vision that is “ontological,” focused on man’s recreation and divinization.

    Of course, “On the Incarnation” was written for a catechumen, and so the great bishop may have intentionally simplified his ideas…


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      PJ, I look forward to a discussion of the forensic element in Athanasius’s soteriology. I expect it will come up in the next post or two. Stay tuned.


  3. PJ says:

    I’ve heard mixed reports about this Archimandrite Webber. Do you recommend him, Fr Aidan?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      PJ, I know very little about him. Fr Stephen, I believe, is acquainted with him and his writings. You might ask him.


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