Created in the Image of God

The high point of the first six days, we could say, is the creation of man, male and female, in the image of God, but the special status of man has been under an intense attack for some time. After completing a little detour to address that attack, it is time to return to Genesis and write a little bit about what it means for man to be created in the image and likeness of God.

There is perhaps a difference between “image” and “likeness” so we will begin with the meaning of “image” and then consider the meaning of “likeness”.

Traditionally, man is said to be created in the image of God because of his powers of intellect and will, his ability to know and to choose and hence the capacity for a rational love, as compared a purely passion driven love. That means that the image of invisible God in the visible man is first of all found in man’s invisible soul.

Further, this being in the image of God means being in the image of the Most Holy Trinity. This is hinted at in the text when God says, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. (Gen 1:26) St. Augustine, then, instead of speaking of just intellect and will, speaks of memory, intellect, and will.

St. Thomas Aquinas develops St. Augustine’s line of thought (perhaps moving more in the direction of ‘likeness’ as we shall see) by saying that the ‘image’ is found not so much in mere capacities of the soul, as in their action, and not just in any action, but in their action in respect to God. What does that mean?

That means that while the image is rooted in the powers of the soul, it achieves its perfection, we could say, in the measure that the soul remembers God, remembering him thinks upon him, and thinking about him loves him. This reflects indeed the reality of the Most Holy Trinity in which the Father knowing himself brings forth or begets the eternal Word, his Son, and from the Father and the Son mutually knowing and loving each other the Holy Spirit proceeds as the “breath” of their mutual love.

The essential image rooted in the powers of the soul reflects the inseparable unity of the three persons, but fails to reflect their distinct personhood.

This is one reason why today it has become popular is see a sort of ‘image’ of the Trinity in the relation of male and female, or more specifically in the relation of husband and wife.

This line of thought poses a number of difficulties and dangers. We must first avoid suggesting that the primary relation of husband and wife somehow mirrors the relation of Father and Son in the Holy Trinity, while the generation of the child, somehow mirrors the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. That would be a grave error, which indeed was one of the reasons that led St. Thomas Aquinas to reject the comparison altogether.

A better comparison, actually suggested by St. Maximillian Kolbe, would see the wife and mother – after the birth of the child – as reflecting in some way the role of the Holy Spirit in Trinity, insofar as she helps the father and son to know and love each other.

St. Thomas Aquinas had another important objection to the comparison of the family (husband, wife, child) to the Trinity: namely that physical generation is common to human beings (in the image of the Trinity) and animals (not in the image of the Trinity).

For that reason it is very necessary to make this comparison precisely on the basis of what is characteristically human about marriage and family. So when a man and woman simply are joined together by passion and in this way beget offspring, there is no particular reflection of the Most Holy Trinity. Rather, such a reflection only takes place when the two are joined together first by the intelligent and intentional promise whereby they commit their whole lives to each other, to love each other and to beget children. Then their copulation and their begetting of children becomes an expression of their rational love.

Further, it is through intentional and rational love that husband and wife are not joined together only in ‘one flesh’ but in a true communion of persons. Consequently, marriage and family life can only reflect the Most Holy Trinity in the measure that husband, wife, and children attain to a true communion of persons.

The reflection of the Trinity in the communion of the persons found in marriage and family, unlike the image in the soul, shows the reality of the union of persons, but fails to attain the unity of substance that is found within the soul. Further, we have seen that the visible reflection in marriage and family presupposes the invisible image in the soul, because the powers of intellect and will are what make true marital and family love possible.

When we begin to recognize the image in the soul, then we see that man actually transcends his activity in the created world, just as God transcends the world he created. This leads us to the sanctification of the seventh day and the Sabbath rest, which also connects to the “likeness” the reality of God’s grace that brings the image to perfection through sharing in God’s own knowledge and love. (To be continued)



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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