image with the sign of Myriobiblos

Main Page | Library | Homage | Seminars | Book Reviews





Internet Dept.



Previous Page
Nikos A. Nissiotis

"Secular and Christian Images of Human Person"

Theologia 33, Athens 1962, p. 947- 989; Theologia 34, Athens 1963, p. 90-122.

III. The Image of God: Christian Anthropology in Dialogue with Secular Images of Man

2. Imago Dei: a hopeful and repenting sinner.

The complementarity between the ontological and existential approaches to the interpretation of the Image of God is given in the biblical narration of the creation of the human person. There is no possibility of interpreting the image without the likeness of God. That we are the image of God means that we are created after his likeness also. There is a givenness, a constitutive element of man in God, which however depends on whether we are ready to put it into action by our free choice and will. Imago Dei means reciprocity between the gift of God and our conformity to it through our free decision. The essence of God and the vehicle of his creative act is love, which includes both the constitutive element of the Image and the freedom of the bearer of this Image to live in accordance with it, «after his likeness».

This dialectical situation of the Image explains to us why it is never lost, because it is the creative constitutive element of the human being. But it can be seriously shaken, darkened, perverted. The Image of God is a gift of grace of God without which man cannot be constituted as a person. It is not a supernatural additional grace. The Image itself is both the basic constitutive substance of man and a gift of grace, because creation by love of God places man in a state of grace. One cannot lose entirely the Image as something «superadditum» or as «justitia originalis», something created by a second special act, which one can lose and still exist as a natural man. The grace of the Image constitutes the Image itself, identical with the being of man. He cannot lose it and still exist. But the existential side of the Image is expressed by the «after our likeness». This becomes almost a condition for the real presence and function of the Image. The «likeness» stands for the dynamic interpretation by life and existence of the Image, which cannot be lost — as the constitutive basis of man — but can be corrupted. To the constitution of man belongs the static being but its full realization and activation depends upon the existence in freedom of man and his choice.

The main property of man's nature is that he can live towards his likeness to God, which includes the possibility of his dissociation from God for «recovering» a fascinating independence which is given as possibility in his constitutive basis: the Image of God. A human being
is truly human only when he realizes his communion with God which is already given as his basic being, but even when he fails to keep himself fully in this communion he does not cease to be human. From a state of grace man is reduced to a state of expectation of a new manifestation of the grace of God who shall restore his Image by reestablishing his broken communion with man in Christ.

In the Greek patristic tradition we are given this dialectic between the ontological and the existential interpretation of the Image. On the one side one has the impression that sinful man has entirely corrupted and destroyed the Image of God in himself. But the same Fathers, on the other hand, defend the thesis that sin is not an ontological reality because God has not created it. It is the sin which made man lose almost everything that he was given with his creation («immortality... the conaturality with the divine life, the divine virtues, the fruits of the Spirit etc») (1) and still he remains within the framework of the grace of God which cannot be entirely negated by man. At the basis of this paradoxical dialectics there is an existential approach to the Imago Dei through the «likeness», and the Christological and pneumato-logical understanding of the Image (2).

The fallen man can be defined in the following three stages:
a. He is the Image of God but has deviated from his main purpose. He is the living manifestation of the love of God, his Creator, but he is deprived of full communion with him.
b. The sinful man reveals the power and the transcendent nature of his self-determination. Freedom as of the essence of the Image of God qualifies the creating act of God operated by his love.
c. The fallen man makes manifest a perverted will, which changes his freedom as gift or grace to a false autonomy, resulting in alienation from God, egocentricity, false self-sufficiency, carnal spirit, the judgment of the law awakening the feeling of his guilt. Sin is broken relationship with God and with the other men, and the Creation. It is the absence of the grace of God which operates only through communion with man.

The state of sin is neither a total negation of man's nature nor a definite fall. The existential «side», i.e. the «likeness» of the Image, at the same qualitative level with the ontological, defines the fallen man, following the manifestation of the Image in Christ, as a human being who by his appropriate use of freedom is on the way to repair this state of sin. To the decision of the first man to guarantee his autonomy by using the existential possibility of independence given to him by the Image corresponds now in Christ the new decision accorded again by the Image and the likeness of God arising from a completely different attitude, a change of heart and mind, the metanoia, as a new beginning towards recovering the broken Image. Repentance is also not a status originalis but a new direction within the state of fallen man, who is now defined by what he can become through a progressive change towards his full restoration. This is possible only in the reestablished full communion with God by sharing in Christ's body.

Within this same attitude of Christians towards recovering the full Image of God through repentance as the initial state towards the end, there are different emphases by different theologies and forms of praxis, which have a particular importance when we encounter Christian and secular images of man. Generalizing easily for a moment, I would risk making the remark that, while in the East we insist on the recovery of the Image through repentance in the communion of God (that is why Church, liturgy, Eucharist, and resurrection are at the center of the Eastern spirituality), in the West the emphasis is more on the redemption and justification of the fallen man (that is why prophetism, judgment and the Cross are at the center of Western Christian spirituality). Both theologies, the one of the Logos and the redemptive, are equally legitimate, but they are complementary and equally constitutive of an authentic approach to the interpretation of the Imago Dei today.

These two different emphases, dissociated from each other, risk inspiring two different types of spirituality of hidden, unconscious and latent triumphalism — with many variations for each one of them — which can, if professed in a radical one-sided way, isolate Christian images of human persons from possible secular ones. The Logos theology though everything in it is entirely dependent upon the will and the energy of the Trinitarian God and the broken heart of the self-humiliated sinful man is always tempted to disregard the historicity and facticity of the Imago Dei. There is a tendency to spiritualization, to sanctification of all things without reference to a consistent involvement, oriented towards the world, in the struggle with and for the secular. The Logos theology as more reflecting upon the mystery, mystically experiencing and liturgically celebrating Christ's victory, is bound to inspire a more transcendent spirituality with a cosmic vision resulting in a contemplation of eschatological fullness, which is already symbolically hero in the liturgy. The Imago Dei in this case can become a detached reality from the world. It can be expressed by esoteric language and celebrated liturgically rather than worked out ethically by intense activity in the realm of secular powers. The activists in the realm of social revolutions as well as the scientists in their organized pessimism and their «traumatic anxiety» cannot find here an easy partner for action and discussion in anthropology.

Redemptive theology, on the other hand, can inspire an exaggerated expectation of salvation, which might concentrate our interest on receiving grace for justification while man still remains an unchanged sinner. To escape from the Eastern «deification of man» it falls back into a justified humanism, which might camouflage another type of self-sufficiency, superiority and individual enjoyment of salvation. While the East sees in the Imago Dei a «supernaturally natural reality», the West by professing as the supernatural element the created «justitia originalis» introduces a juridical term into anthropology and builds a theology of justification. Certainly, this approach makes the Image of God more world oriented and realistically linked with the human condition. But the ((Justus» idea dominates the «peccator» in a juridical scheme and the idea of salvation becomes too individually centered. The danger here is that a justified sinner is inclined to create in himself, though everything in this theology depends on the grace of God, too great a confidence in his self-justification.

The well-known psychoanalyst Alfred Adler criticizes this tendency as a probable danger of a superiority complex which is the permanent result of the reaction of the individual against his own feelings of inferiority" (3). He suggests an alternative term, which better corresponds to the whole of the Christian heritage, i.e. «repentant sinner», because «he is the type of man, in whom not only our times, but also the times of the greatest development of all religions have recognized the greatest value, as his position is far higher than that of thousands of justified people» (4). Alfred Adler, in the end, does not spare his criticism of an easy and superficial teaching about the biblical term «Imago Dei» given to young pupils attending catechetical classes, because of the possibility that young people easily — unconsciously — can create a false tendency to regard themselves as equal imaginary to God and fall into the complex of an imaginary superiority (5). It is only the permanent state of repentance as a sinner that can help man to understand the Imago Dei concept in the appropriate way.

On the other hand, Christian anthropology dealing with the image of the human person should not insist on the sinfulness of man in a unilateral, onesided direction. In many cases, theology has confined itself to the problem of interpreting the how all men have sinned and are guilty because of the act of disobedience of the first man, Adam, according to the biblical verse Romans 5,12: «for that all have sinned». Christian anthropology has not equally emphasized that much more the grace of God in Jesus Christ «has abounded into many» (5,15). Repentance, therefore, has meaning only in the perspective of the hopeful expectation of man to be delivered from the bondage of sin. There is not only a solidarity or identity of all men as sinful but also a solidarity in hope. Perhaps the Christian message has to insist more on this dimension of the recovery of the benefits of the image of God, restored in Christ, than on the destructive effects of the fall. Otherwise theology risks offering an image of the human person threatened by all kinds of neurosis.
Christian anthropology should not forget that Sigmund Freud has focussed his theory about the origin and function of religion on the universal unavoidable consciousness of guilt, which is the result of the assassination of the «first father» by his four sons. This myth explains the solidarity of guilt of all human beings and it is for him at the root of all religions, which can be interpreted as a transformation of man's guilt complex and the sublimation of the libido. Religion in this sense should be characterized, according to Freud, as a universal necessarily imposed neurosis by which man escapes from his individual neurotic status (6). This approach to the guilty conscience betrays a certain kind of influence from an onesided Judéo-Christian anthropology centered exclusively around the fall and the sin of man and the identity in sin of the whole human race. It is possible that a traditional Christian anthropology, which has not equally emphasized the dynamic aspect of repentance and the hope of man for sharing in the restored image of God in Christ, can offer a desperate deterministic image of man (fall — sin — redemption—justification) which provides the reasons for such a psychoanalytical, deterministic and mechanistic interpretation of the origin and function of religion and can create various complex situations in some believers. Together with the generalized sinfulness of the whole human race, which is right and fundamental according to the biblical message Christian anthropology, avoiding all kinds of absolutization of sin, has to focus its image of man also and equally or perhaps more in the positive side of salvation in Christ which is the hopeful continuous process of fulfilment of man's aspirations and expectations of realizing a more human life in this history.

The Christian image of man, on the basis of the «Imago Dei» doctrine, has to be professed against both of the possible deviations which have tempted theology in the past, against the idealistic, heavenly oriented doctrine divorcing it from its historicity and facticity, and against the pessimistic doctrine of the image oriented only towards the world and destroyed by sin, divorcing it from its higher original purpose and fulfillment. So to be faithful to its biblical basis, the Christian image of the human person, interpreting the «Imago Dei» concept of man, has to be focused at the same time on the solidarity in sin but also on the solidarity of salvation as fulfillment in hope of the human expectation of overcoming in Christ his sinful state, and thereby feating all kinds of guilty conscience.

Especially today, the reinterpretation of the «imago Dei» through an existentialist approach and at the same time through the ontological affirmation of its essence as communion with God, as it has been revealed in history in the Person of Christ, the image of the human person that Christians suggest points both to the tragic aspect of human existence as well as to its God-given origin and its higher purpose. The misery of sin has to be grasped in the glory of God's realized communion in history. Repentance is a continuous change of heart and mind operated within the sure hope of the final fulfillment in realizing authentic humanity as the image of Christ, who is the unique «Imago Dei». Now, we can say of man in existentialist terms that he is what he has to become. Definition of the human person is impossible, because it can be understood only as a continuous process of change through repentance and self-humiliation in the light of Christ's exaltation and glory. Neither sinfulness nor glorification are the permanent status of the human person. If there is something permanent in man, that is his continuous struggle to overcome the status of misery in order to share gradually and progressively in the new reality of the new man in Christ.

Solidarity in sin and contemplation and sharing in the revealed glory of the unique «imago Dei» in history should make us in East and West understand and profess the repentant sinner as an alternative to the man of pessimism and anxiety. It must be understood as a hopeful and repentant sinner. The Christian image of man, without being superficially optimistic, has to be a model of sober joy and dynamic hope, which is the motive of faith. Hope is the other name of faith exercised in love. Hope is the power moving man towards the future with vision, perseverance and joy. Without hope there is no faith, and love remains a sentimental, emotional reaction. The hope of the Christian model of man is a link with the hopes of the world, but it is also their critical justification and restoration.

The Christian image cannot exist without repentance. It is necessary that secular images of man should be challenged on this difficult point of contact. Metanoia, as a continuous change of heart and mind after a serious self-criticism, is always relevant for the secular models, especially today. Modern secular images of man are the fruits of pragmatism and immanentism in science and philosophy and of the submission of all ideologies to society acting as a detached machine in which politics dominate by seeking to secure a welfare state without cultural and moral dimension. Leslie Paul, commenting on atheistic existentialism and popular pragmatism, makes the remark that «the positivist or empiricist's hypothesis would necessarily be that one arrives at the concept man as one arrives at the concept house by the accumulation of a series of atomic sensations about them which upon reflection are united into a single concept, as with Locke's theory of how we arrive at the notion of substance—an idea, which is a kind of mental shorthand to save one from repeating additive processes» (7).

This concept of man indirectly refuses normal communication with other human persons in love and mutual self-limitation and forgiveness. It is an horizontal view which makes all transcending values disappear in face of a confident pragmatist development. No wonder that the new pro-communal trends in science and society are in danger of being deprived of mutual deep appreciation of the other persons. Utilitarianism applied to persons and to society has replaced the value of the distinctive person, deriving from an ontological and existential principle. These new humanistic pragmatist images of man based on simple egalitarian principles of biological, social and behaviourist similarities disregard the dialectics of freedom and unify human persons in one simple organic and mechanical function in the name of justice and progress. Freedom as a one-dimensional quality for achieving independence in this context is becoming a negation of personal values. It lacks the deeper dimension of responsibility vis-à-vis the other distinct persons, since there is no reference to the transcending person qualifying freedom's essence as communion.

It becomes evident, however, that these inherited models of pseudo-social man begin to crack and shatter in the consciousness of modern man, especially amongst the young generation. The liberal, bourgeois, democratic welfare society, as well as the directed, collectively egalitarian society, have proved to be problematic equally for today's model of a free human person in a free society, conceived by a simple functional humanism. In the anthropology of today there is too much uncertainty, confusion and disappointment undermining by frustration the remains of an optimistic humanism. The question is how the Image of God, i.e. the Christian Image of the human person, can contribute to clarifying some basic issues and remind the present generation of a missing basic dimension in contemporary secular anthropology in the understanding of man as a «hopeful repentant sinner».


1. St. Gregory of Nyssa, P.G. 44,800 c.

2. S.Paul Evdokimov writes: «It is the source which is poisoned, because the ontological norm has been transgressed by the evil spirit... but as St. Gregory of Nazianzen writes (P.G. 37,2) by Christ the integrity of our nature is restored, because he represents in fugure (archetype) that which we are» (P. Evdokimov, Orthodoxie, Paris 1959, p. 92).

3. Adler Α., Menschenkenntnis, Frankfurt (FischerTaschenbuch Verlag) 1980, p. 189.

4. Adler Α., ibid., p. 27 «der reuige Sünder» is the expression and the quoted phrase. We have to remind ourselves, however, that Martin Luther has not only spoken of «simul justus et peccator» but in one case he adds appropriately ((et penitens».

5. Adler Α., ibid., p. 190.

6. Freud: Moses und Taboo: assassination of Urvater: Totem und Tambu, IX, S. 175, 19613-Religion as universal Zwangrhandlungen und Religiousübungen; Gesammelte Werke. Frankfurt (Fischer) 1966, S. 139,

7. Lesslie Paul, Alternatives to Christian Belief, London (Hodder and Stoughton) 1967, p. 109.

Previous Page