Christos Yannaras: Human Person as Icon of God

The Almighty God, Holy Scripture teaches us, created humanity in his Image; but precisely what this means is unclear. Theologians have offered various interpretations of the Imago Dei over the centuries, typically identifying a property or attribute mutually shared by divinity and mankind: the human being images God because he possesses the faculty of reason … or because he he has an immortal soul … or because ____. Staying within the framework of his personalist philosophy, Christos Yannaras locates the divine image in hypostatic identity: each human being sums up in himself human nature, but each also transcends (or at least has the potential to transcend) human nature “because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 19):

This mode of existence which is personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man, making man a partaker in being. It is not as nature that man constitutes an image of God: it is not because he has natural attributes in common with God, or analogous to His. Man constitutes an image of God as an ontological hypostasis free from space, time and natural necessity.

The reason for this is that human existence derives its ontological substance from the fact of divine love, the only love which gives substance to being. The creation of man is an act of God’s love: not of His “kindly disposition,” but of His love which constitutes being as an existential event of personal communion and relationship. Man was created to become a partaker in the personal mode of existence which is the life of God—to become a partaker in the freedom of love which is true life. (p. 19)

This passage raises an immediate red flag. Is it true that to be a person means freedom from “space, time and natural necessities”? I’m not sure if this will be true even in the Eschaton. The Christian confession of bodily resurrection might suggest otherwise. What ever glorified corporeality means—and we cannot know until we have been raised into our new existence—it would seem to entail both space and time, however inconceivable such may be to us now. Yannaras discusses the bodily resurrection of Jesus in his Elements of Faith. Perhaps the following passage assuages my misgivings:

By his obedience to the Father’s will even to the point of death, Christ leads his human nature to the perfect renunciation of every demand for existential self-sufficiency, transposing the existence of nature into the relationship of love and freedom of obedience to God. And this nature which draws its existence from the relationship with God does not die because, even though created, it exists now in the manner of the uncreated, not in the manner of the created. Christ’s raised body is a material body, a created nature. But it differs from the bodies of other raised people [Yannaras is referring here to the resuscitations mentioned in the gospels, e.g., Lazarus] because it exists now in the mode of the uncreated, the mode of freedom from every natural necessity. And so, while it is sensible and tangible, with flesh and bones (Lk 24.30), while it can take nourishment like all other bodies (and the risen Christ eats honey and fish before the eyes of his disciples [Lk 24.42]) and while the marks of the wounds which he received are obvious on him, still this same body enters the upper room “with the doors locked” (Jn 20.1) and vanishes at Emmaus after the breaking of the bread (Lk 24.31) and finally is received into heaven (Mk 16.19; Lk 24.51) enthroning the human “clay” in the glory of the divine life. … The body of the risen Christ is the human nature free from every limitation and every need. It is a human body with flesh and bones, but which does not draw life from its biological functions, but is hypostasized in a real existence thanks to the personal relationship with God which alone constitutes it and gives it life. (pp. 115-116)

Perhaps assuagement. Maybe. Returning to Yannaras’s discussion of the Imago Dei

I am with him when he states that “human nature of itself cannot form a hypostasis of life” (Morality, p. 20). If we insist on life on natural terms, then we will only know death and nothingness. Only Divinity can bestow an existence that transcends the corruption and mortality of human nature. But is this not what God has done in the Incarnation and Resurrection? Has not the eternal Son assumed, redeemed, transfigured, and glorified human nature? This is a traditional way of speaking. Would Yannaras be satisfied? Perhaps … yet I have a sneaking suspicion that he is suggesting something different. If salvation means absolute liberation from nature (and what else can freedom from “space, time and natural necessities” mean? And what about angels?), then I do not see how this does not signify (despite the above citation on the risen body of Christ) transubstantiation into infinite, pure subjectivity.

(I sometimes feel like I’m in an Arthur C. Clarke novel. Is Yannarasian self-transcendence but Childhood’s End?  An unfair comparison, I know.)

All creatures, Yannaras states, derive their reality from the will and energy of God and are dynamic manifestations of the “creative principle of divine love. Man, however, derives his ontological hypostasis not simply from the will and energy of God, but from the manner in which God gives substance to being. This manner is personal existence, the existential potentiality for loving communion and relationship—the potentiality for true life” (p. 20). The human being fulfills his iconic destiny and becomes truly human only when he kenotically surrenders himself to God and neighbor, thereby realizing an eternal mode of love within the Holy Trinity.

(Go to “Did God Choose to Exist?”)

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12 Responses to Christos Yannaras: Human Person as Icon of God

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    The distinction between “individual” and “person” is lost to contemporary culture. This is “person” as love relationship and communion with creation and God. Don’t Lossky, Zizioulas, and Vlachos also echo this idea?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Don’t know about Vlachos but Zizioulas and Lossky sure do. Yannaras and Zizioulas have obviously had a number of conversations over the years. I’m not sure who is influencing whom. 🙂


  2. “Theologians have offered various interpretations of the Imago Dei over the centuries, typically identifying a property or attribute mutually shared by divinity and mankind: the human being images God because he possesses the faculty of reason … or because he he has an immortal soul … or because ____.”

    St. Thomas Aquinas:
    “The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman. Hence after the words, “To the image of God He created him,” it is added, “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Moreover it is said “them” in the plural, as Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iii, 22) remarks, lest it should be thought that both sexes were united in one individual. But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature. So when the Apostle had said that “man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man,” he adds his reason for saying this: “For man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man.”” (Summa Theologica, Part I, Q. 93, A. 4)

    Odd that an Augustinian would assert this about the image of God. St. Augustine would have disagreed with Tommy of Aquino here. He writes in De Trinitas, “Why, then, is the man on that account not bound to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, while the woman is bound to do so, because she is the glory of the man; as though the woman were not renewed in the spirit of her mind, which spirit is renewed to the knowledge of God after the image of Him who created him? But because she differs from the man in bodily sex, it was possible rightly to represent under her bodily covering that part of the reason which is diverted to the government of temporal things; so that the image of God may remain on that side of the mind of man on which it cleaves to the beholding or the consulting of the eternal reasons of things; and this, it is clear, not men only, but also women have.” (Book 12, Ch. 7)

    And then apparently there were some oddball theologians out there who asserted that “the man himself, as it were, indicates the person of the Father, but that which has so proceeded from him as to be born, that of the Son; and so the third person as of the Spirit, is, they say, the woman, who has so proceeded from the man as not herself to be either son or daughter” (Ch. 5).

    But God created both male and female in his image. Are they created differently in his image or something? I’ve heard that Fr. Hopko argued (and that Evdomikov too) that women was in the image of the Holy Spirit and that man was in the image of Christ. And yet nevertheless, it says God created male AND female in his image. Differently in his image? This could be degrading to BOTH women and men depending on how you interpret it. And if they are created TOGETHER in his image so as to indicate that they are only completely in his image when together might be degrading to singles.

    Apologies for this long comment. I’ve been reading up on theological anthropology lately.


  3. Alvin says:

    In my superficial reading of Yannaras’ comment on consumption, he seems to be re-iterating what St Gregory of Nyssa stated in ‘On the Making of Man’:

    “Further, as the resurrection holds forth to us a life equal with the angels, and with the angels there is no food, there is sufficient ground for believing that man, who will live in like fashion with the angels, will be released from such a function.” (XVIII.9)

    Nyssa’s notion of the ‘ancient condition of life’ goes back to angels, as well:

    “…resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the grace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again to Paradise him who was cast out from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of our life is compared to the angels.” (XVII.2)

    Not saying that we should un-critically read Nyssa’s notion of our ‘ancient state’ as mainly angelic, because the ‘bodily resurrection’ does need to be taken into account.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Alvin, for the Nyssen citations. The mention of angels is important, and I’ve been thinking about them while reading Yannaras. If death is the soteriological problem, which it clearly is for Yannaras, then they don’t have it. They have been created by God as immortal beings. What then does self-transcendence mean for them? What does freedom mean for them?

      Are angels a problem for the Yannarasian vision? I don’t know. There’s just something here, which I cannot yet specify, that troubles me. Maybe that means I’m too Western—or just too stupid. Both are possibilities.


  4. danaames says:


    I apologize ahead of time if I’m not clear; I’m not trained in philosophy.

    I think what Y. is saying is that we are free of the limitations of our humanness that can be determinative in our mortal, corruptible state of being. I don’t think he’s saying that we are somehow liberated from space and time, but that they are no longer determinative, just as Christ’s resurrection body was not determined by them any longer.

    “The body of the risen Christ is the human nature free from every limitation and every need.”

    I believe Y. uses “nature” with a more patristic sense, similar to ousia – “human-ness” in general, which is only known in a particular Person in encounter with that person’s Energies. This helps me make sense of things as I read him. He’s talking about theology in a way that’s not familiar to us, and we have to read it in translation (although I get the sense that his translator has done a good job), which can make things even more difficult.


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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Dana. Good to see you back. I’m not trained in philosophy either. I suspect you have a better grasp of this material than I.

      “I think what Y. is saying is that we are free of the limitations of our humanness that can be determinative in our mortal, corruptible state of being.”

      You’re probably right, and I will keep this in mind and test it as I continue my reading. I admit that I find Yannaras annoying and frustrating at times, and I intentionally let some of that annoyance through in this blog piece.

      One quibble. You intimate that Yannaras is doing theology in a way unfamiliar to us. Maybe but that’s not because he is speaking in a patristic idiom and has read the Fathers more than the rest of us (which he probably has). I see him as being very much a modern philosopher. A number of 20th century theologians and philosophers were strongly informed by existentialism, and I suspect they would have found themselves at home with Yannaras, even while vigorously disagreeing with him at points. One reason I’m struggling in my reading of Yannaras is because of my ignorance of Continental philosophy.

      Happy New Year!


      • danaames says:

        I check in every day; haven’t commented in a while as I am not familiar with some of things discussed, but I always learn something 🙂

        I think Y’s theology does have a philosophical edge to it, and that in the context of late 20th century European thought (about which I really know nothing), but I also think there is a difficulty in translation, as I said – not with the word choices of the translator, necessarily, but because the ideas are so thick, as well as not knowing the context of how it was for Y. in Greece/Europe 30 years ago. Checking things against “Elements of Faith” is a good idea, as that is more overtly theological. I would have done that, had I owned EoF at the time I first read FoM; I just jumped into FoM feet first on the recommendation of my friend J. Burnett 😉

        My Orthodox reading these days has been in St Silouan “line”, mostly Elder Sophrony and Archm. Zacharias, along with the Saint. I second what Fr Stephen wrote below. Y. is trying to put words on this to be able to speak about it with other thinking people… and for some things (most things?) one just has to put one foot in front of the other, whatever that means in any given moment, in the attempt to throw the doors of one’s heart open before God… Sometimes words come with that; I think most of the time, not so much. Difficult in our American cultural/philosophical/religious milieu.

        Happy New Year to you & family, too.



  5. Ben Myers says:

    I share your reservations about all this business about limitless freedom. It’s interesting how often this stuff surfaces in modern Orthodoxy. This seems to me, at least in emphasis, to be the opposite of John Chrysostom’s constant refrain that all sin is a stretching of the human spirit beyond its created limits. To match up the Chrystostom line with the Gregory of Nyssa line (if I can abbreviate the problem like that!), we need a way of talking about the limitless capacity for growth as a human person, and not as some kind of blank potentiality. This would mean growing within certain non-negotiable created structures. Maybe an analogy is the way we can (endlessly) grow in our command of a language without ever trespassing or rewriting any of the grammatical rules. Those rules aren’t an obstacle that could some day be overcome; instead they’re the structures which make growth, freedom, and creativity possible at all. Within the given limits, there is scope for unlimited freedom. But as for freedom without limits – well, I’ve read my Faust and my Paradise Lost…


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ben, thank you so much for dropping by and sharing your misgivings about Yannaras’s presentation of freedom. I have had the same questions also about Zizioulas. It’s not at all clear to me that the kind of freedom of which they speak is required for the kind of love and communion for which we have been created. But all I have at this point are questions.

      May I ask a big favor of you. I would love to hear your thoughts about Yannaras’s essay “The Distinction Between Essence and Energies.” I have wondered specifically how Barth might have responded to it. Would have have approved of Yannaras’s rejection of natural theology? Would he have been sympathetic to Yannaras’s construal of divine energies? etc. It seems to me that a Barthian engagement with Yannaras would be quite interesting.


  6. Fr. Aidan,
    There is another way to approach all of this. Reading Elder Sophrony, particularly His Life Is Mine, the personal (hypostatic) existence is pushed to its extreme, but it is seen through the lens of experience and ascesis. It is, I think, among the more remarkable works in contemporary Orthodoxy. Archm. Zacharias did a dissertation on the theology of Sophrony and it’s been published as well, though I’ve only just begun reading it. It, too, is far more grounded in experience than theory.

    It is a very interesting way of approaching all of this in that it is kenotic in the extreme on the one hand, with a transcendence as well. Thus St. Silouan (the saint par excellence in Sophrony’s work), utterly empties himself, following the kenotic path of Christ. In doing so, he becomes experientially the whole Adam (as is Christ). And as the whole Adam in Christ transcends as well. The ascetic in such a case need say nothing more than “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” in order to pray for the whole world.

    The shared inner experience of some of our remarkable elders necessarily push the envelope in all of this. What criticism there has been of Sophrony was more or less of the sort that felt it better that he pass over all of this in silence than to say as much as he did.

    Yannaras is interesting, but more of the theoretician. Sophrony and company, on the other hand, speak with a voice that shakes me to the core.


  7. brian says:

    Yannaras reads patristics as a person committed to Orthodoxy, but also as someone aware of complex philosophical arguments that constitute the modern and the “post-modern.” It seems to me that the philosophical arguments are important and I like the kind of conversation Yannaras initiates. Too many Orthodox (and Catholics) attempt a simple return to the pre-modern. I don’t think that will work and I don’t find it particularly compelling.

    In any event, Yannaras is pointing towards an eschatological conclusion that necessarily evades our imagination. Anyone who has read his Variations on the Song of Songs will be disabused of any notion that there is something anti-incarnational in his sentiments. For me, he is the ONLY theologian/philosopher that I have come across that suggests anything close to a satisfactory understanding of what would aptly “answer” to the heart’s longings and the nature of the person’s relational capabilities. Because one can only guess at how this would work out, one must make use of negative theology; no cataphatic image is likely to work.

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