The Image and Likeness

This article was inspired by a profound conversation we had in the Virtual Chapel recently. We shared some silence and fellowship together and then discussed the three quotations below from Columbanus and Basil. You can learn more about our regular Chapel meetings, which are always free of charge, by clicking HERE.

In the Christian tradition, the human story begins in goodness. Before the story of the fall from Eden, God makes human beings in her image and likeness. Genesis 1 names the creation as good a total of seven times. The seventh and final declaration of goodness is in reference to humanity and we are told that humanity is not only good but “very good.” All of creation is good and humanity is doubly so because we are made in the image and likeness of God. In one of his sermons, Columbanus, a wandering Irish monk from the early middle ages, reflects on what it means to be created in the image of God.

“Moses wrote in the Law, ‘God made man in his own image and likeness.’ Consider, I beg you, the weight of these words: God, the all-powerful, invisible, unfathomable, ineffable, and unsearchable, when making man of clay, ennobled him with the dignity of his image. What does the human race have in common with God? What does earth have in common with spirit? For God is spirit. It is a great honour that God bestowed on men and women the image of his eternity and likeness to his own character.”

When Columbanus equates the image of God with eternity and the likeness of God with character he is referring to an important distinction which was well known at his time. It is easy to assume that the image and likeness of God are one and the same, but that is not the case. Basil of Caesarea, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, has a lot to say about our being created in the image and likeness of God. In the following quote from his homily On the Origin of Humanity Basil establishes a beautiful framework in which to understand the human condition. 

“As you have that which is according to the image through your being rational, you come to be according to the likeness by undertaking kindness… Thus the creation story is an education in human life. ‘Let us make the human being in our image.’ Let him have by his creation that which is according to the image, let him also come to be according to the likeness. For this God gave the power. If he created you according to the likeness, what would be yours to give? Through what would you be crowned? For if the fashioner gave you the whole of it, how would the kingdom of heaven be opened to you? But now the one is given, the other left incomplete; that you may complete yourself.”

There are two gifts described here – one is given to us and the other is given by us. We receive the gift of God’s image and we give the gift of God’s likeness. To grow into the likeness of God’s character is the completion of our creation. God has left our creation incomplete on purpose so that we may grow and learn. A new baby is a potential and not a finished product. This incompleteness is a blessing which allows us to not only receive goodness but also bestow it. When we grow into kindness we become like God but when we turn away from kindness we do violence to our own souls. Columbanus went on to say,

“It is a great adornment for men and women if they can preserve a likeness to God, while the defiling of the image of God is a great condemnation. For if they abuse what they have received from the breath of God, and corrupt the blessing of their nature, then they distort their likeness to God and destroy its presence in them. But if they use the virtues implanted in them appropriately, they shall be like God.”

For Columbanus, to receive human nature is a great blessing. All of the virtues exist within us from our beginning because we are the image of God. He gets this idea from Ephesians 2:10 which says, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Columbanus describes these virtues planted within us as a beautiful jewel which must be cared for with great attention.

One pays attention to something according to its value. Just as one would not casually toss a precious diamond into a pile of gravel for making a road, one should not treat the image of God which is inherent in our souls as if it were of no consequence. This beautiful gift which we have been given is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey. We are wise to care for it with all our attention, lest the greatest gift of God be given to us as if pearls before swine.

So be mindful and attentive of the precious gift which you carry from God, dear sisters and brothers. Tend to it according to its value. It is the most precious possession you will ever concern yourself with. It should be guarded from false images, polished and kept pure, and from it you should draw inspiration and wisdom to live your life in a good way.

The image of God in which we are created is a gift freely given, but our creation was left incomplete on purpose so that we may complete it ourselves. To grow into the likeness of God is the gift which we give back to our creator. So be an artist. Paint upon your heart an image in the likeness of Christ for there is no other image as good and true. Adorn yourself with the likeness of God and live a beautiful life.

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