‘So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Gen 1:27). Because a solitary egocentric monad is incapable of love, God created not a unit but a couple with the intention that love should reign among people. And because the love of the couple is not yet the perfection of love and being, God commands: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:28). From two human beings the third, their child, must be born: the perfect family — husband, wife and child, is the reflection of divine love in three Hypostases. Indeed one cannot but notice the affinity of the interchange between the singular and plural when the Bible speaks of God (‘Let Us make man in Our image’ — ‘God created man in His own image’) and the singular and plural when it speaks of humans (‘created him’ — ‘created them’). This interchange emphasizes the unity of the nature of the human race even when there is a distinction between the hypostases of each individual person.
The theme of image and likeness is central to Christian anthropology: to a greater or lesser extent it was addressed by nearly all early church writers. The Fathers of the Church usually equated ‘the image of God’ to the rational and spiritual nature of the human person. ‘What is after the image if not our intellect?’ asks St. John of Damascus. ‘We are created in the image of the Maker, we possess reason and the faculty of speech, which comprise the perfection of our nature’, writes St. Basil the Great.
‘The image of God’ has been understood by some Fathers as our free will and self-determination. ‘When God in His supernal goodness creates each soul in His own image, He brings it into being endowed with self-determination’, says St. Maximus the Confessor. God created the person absolutely free: in His love He wishes to force him neither into good nor evil. In return, He does not expect from us blind obedience but love. It is only in our being free that we can be assimilated to God through love for Him.
Other Fathers identified as ‘the image of God’ the human person’s immortality, his dominant position in the world and his striving towards good.
Our ability to create, as the reflection of the creative ability of the Maker Himself, is also regarded as being ‘in God’s image’. God is the ‘worker’: ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’, says Christ (John 5:17). The human person was also commanded to ‘till’ the garden of Eden (Gen 2:15), that is, to labor in it and to work the land. While the human person is unable to create ex nihilo (‘out of nothing’), he can create from material given to him by God, and this material is the entire earth, over which he is lord and master. The world has no need to be improved by people; rather, humans themselves need to apply their creative abilities in order to be assimilated to God.
Some church Fathers distinguish ‘image’ from ‘likeness’ by identifying the image as that which had been originally fixed by the Creator in the human person, and the likeness as that which is to be attained through a life of virtue: ‘The expression according to the image indicates that which is reasonable and endowed with free will, while the expression according to the likeness denotes assimilation through virtue, in as far as this is possible’ (St John of Damascus). The human person is called upon to realize all of his creative abilities in ‘tilling’ the world, in creativity, in virtue, in love, so that he can be assimilated to God. For, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says, ‘the limit of a life of virtues is the assimilation of God’.