The 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 question. Is it true that to be a person means freedom from “space, time and natural necessities”?  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 some manner of spatio-temporal existence, however inconceivable such may seem to us now. Yannaras discusses the bodily resurrection of Jesus in his Elements of Faith. Perhaps the following passage assuages any 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 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)

Returning to the Imago Dei

I am with Yannaras 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. This is precisely what God has accomplished in the Incarnation and Resurrection. 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 may be suggesting something different. If salvation means absolute liberation from nature, then  how does this not signify transubstantiation into pure subjectivity. (Angels are persons, too, right?) Philosophy meets theology meets science fiction.

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.

(1 January 2015; mildly edited)

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1 Response to The Human Person as Icon of God

  1. brian says:

    I think the sci-fi angle is apt. Two names one might look at in conjuction with Yannaras are Michel Henry and Stratford Caldecott. Henry is a bit of a Cathar, so one should read him with discernment, but his insistence that God is uniquely Life resonates with Yannaras’ claim that Hypostasis is not a natural phenomena. I am only semi-successful with embedding links. The following intends an article by Caldecott in the Radical Orthodoxy online journal from 2012:

    Is Life a Transcendental?

    In the article, Caldecott asks if life is a transcendental and concludes “not yet,” but that it will be in the eschaton — this should be imagined as including all of the cosmos. Note as well that pretty much throughout his oeuvre and especially in Against Religion, Yannaras refuses the morality of religion and its concentration on individualistic salvation. Such an egoistic conception of theosis is utterly at odds with the agape of truly personal being.

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