The Theology of the Image

October 10, 2009 Length: 11:09

Fr. Stephen reflects on the "theology of the image," particularly its importance in St. Paul.





I want to begin this podcast with a fairly extended quote from a writing by Vladimir Lossky, who is one of the most important of 20th century Orthodox theologians. He has this to say:

If man is Logikos,

that is if he is in the image of the Logos, that is the Word of God,

then everything which touches the destiny of man: grace, sin, redemption by the Word made man, must also be related to the Theology of the Image. And we may say the same of the Church, the sacraments, sanctification, and the end of all things. There is no branch of theological teaching which can be entirely isolated from the problem of the Image without danger of severing it from the living stock of Christian tradition. We may say that for a theologian of the catholic tradition

and by this he means catholic or orthodox,

in the East and in the West, for one who is true to the mainline of patristic thought, the theme of the Image, in its twofold acceptance—the Image as the principle of God’s self-manifestation and the Image as the foundation of a particular relationship of man to God—must belong to the essence of Christianity. Through the Incarnation, which is the fundamental, dogmatic fact of Christianity, Image and theology are linked so closely together that the expression “Theology of the Image” might become almost a tautology, which it is if one chooses to regard theology as a knowledge of God in his Logos, who is the consubstantial Image of the Father.

For those who have never been exposed to the “Theology of the Image,” particularly as it is found in Eastern Orthodox thought, Lossky’s comments may seem strange. However, a very short collection of New Testament passages immediately elevate his thoughts to a place of serious consideration. These passages like many others in the New Testament are often overlooked or not given careful examination since they fail to fit into many of the interpretive schemes used by many of the non-Orthodox.

A frequent question for me when I’m reading St. Paul is: “Where did he get that?” Simple statements by the great apostle often exhibit a deeply mature theology and reflection, one that cannot be accounted for simply by natural development over time. Most especially, his thought evidences a radically Christocentric reading—that is a reading of the Old Testament that is centered in Christ, one which echoes Christ’s own description of the Scriptures of the Old Testament: “These are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:30)

Just a little thought about this treatment of Image in the Letters of St. Paul—four quotes:

First, Paul says: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29)

And this from 1 Corinthians 15:49, Paul says: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven.”

And this from Colossians 1:15, Paul says: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”

And from Colossians 3:10, Paul says: “For we have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”

Well, first and foremost is St. Paul’s understanding that Christ, Himself, is the Image of the invisible God as he said in Colossians.

Where does he get this? The most obvious candidate is in fact a Christocentric reading of the opening chapter of Genesis, the one place in the Old Testament that describes man as having been created in the image and likeness of God.

Now the Old Testament itself does not make much of the teaching in Genesis that man is made in the image of God. It does not carry though as an important theological theme in the Old Testament, nor for that matter does the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. But for St. Paul and for the early Church, the opening chapters of Genesis take on a central importance in their Christian thought. The entire Christian narrative takes on new meaning when it is read as a reference to Christ.

For instance, in St. John’s Gospel, we can hear this in his very opening words when he says: “In the beginning was the Word.” The echo of the opening words of Genesis are not accidental. In Genesis, we hear “In the beginning God created,” but in the Gospel we hear, “In the beginning was the Word.”

It is a rewriting of Genesis, a retelling of the creation story, but now with the Logos of God at its center. And of this Logos, John will say: “And the Word,” that is, the Logos, “was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).

The importance of this taking flesh is tied with the Logos’ role as Image of God when John says: “We beheld His glory.” This is the image which we can see. He continues to carry the import of this forward when he says, “No man has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”

For St. Paul, Adam’s creation in the image and likeness of God is fulfilled in Christ. Paul will say this: “The first man,” that is Adam, “is of the earth.” Interestingly, the very name Adam in Hebrew is related to the word earth. In fact to be of the earth is adamah.

“The second man,” Paul says, “Christ, is of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47). It is this rereading of Genesis that allows St. Paul to say that just as we have born the image of the man of dust (that is, the first Adam), we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven. So the Genesis story of Adam for St. Paul is a prefiguring of the story of Christ.

In St. Paul, the final meaning of Genesis is to be found in its fulfillment in Christ. The second Adam, one of Paul’s names for Christ, is the true image and likeness of the Father, an image and likeness never truly fulfilled by the first Adam. Salvation in Christ is a new creation for St. Paul. In it those who are saved are recreated and “conformed to the image” of Christ. Salvation as conformity to the image is clearly an important understanding for St. Paul, but its sadly neglected by many Christians.

In place of the Theology of the Image, a theology of sin, debt, payment, forgiveness, has come to dominate the thought of many. The reading of the opening chapters of Genesis has become focused almost entirely on the fall of Adam and Eve, and the guilt engendered by Adam for all mankind—at least as it’s read by certain reformers. The first chapter of Genesis, even more sadly, has been relegated to debates about creation and evolution, which are almost a complete waste of time to my mind.

Indeed the fifth chapter of Romans, in which St. Paul speaks of the sin of Adam as contrasted with the righteousness of Christ, can also be read through the Theology of the Image, which makes a very interesting way of approaching the question of justification.

Now we should always remember that chapters and verses in the Scripture are just a late medieval invention. They are not there in the original. It is not noticed by most that St. Paul’s treatment in the fifth chapter brings him to his summary of baptismal experience that we find in the sixth chapter, in which the Theology of the Image dominates.

There St. Paul will say: “For if we have been planted together in the likeness (omoiwmati) of Christ’s death, we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection.” Likeness, like image, is drawn from Genesis 1:26. There is a new creation in baptism and it is a creation in the likeness of the resurrection.

In this sense justification is renewal according to the true image of God—perhaps a very different way to think about it than you may have ever encountered. Christ is the true image of the invisible God, the God-Man, who makes visible and tangible to us the God whom we could not otherwise know. He is the second Adam, the true image to which we shall be conformed.

Apart from Christ, man lives in the image of the man of earth, the first Adam, and fails to live according to the likeness of God. In Christ, God makes us to become what we were always intended to become, the image and likeness of God. It’s this Theology of the Image that lies behind the Orthodox veneration of icons, however foreign that veneration might seem to other Christians. But it is no more foreign than that very Theology of the Image itself has become in the modern reading of Scripture.

Icons do with color what Scripture does with words. This is the definitive teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Indeed the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council will be remembered in the Church this Sunday. This definitive teaching that icons do with color what Scripture does with words points us towards rightly reading what Scripture does with those words.

Glory to God.