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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

3. Imago Dei: a Challenge to Immanentist Human Identities

The scientific image of man comprising existential categories of universalism, communalism, organized pessimism and traumatic anguish, together with the psychosocial model, present a challenge to any unilaterally conceived transcendental concept of the Imago Dei. This recent development is causing a new attention to be paid to the historical facticity and the humane aspect of the Christian Image which is usually neglected in our theologies.

It is a paramount duty, now, that the reverse challenge of the Imago should become a factor in a broader concept of man in the secular realm. Though we again risk to easy generalization in our conclusions about the characteristics of some of the secular models of man in today's confused anthropology given above, we can remark finally that man in this new situation of disillusionment remains a man of courage and of adventure, enjoying his autonomy and his well-being, living in the affluent, abundant society of north-western hemisphere of our globe. Satisfaction and pleasure as well confidence in progress continue in spite of all kinds of deceptions, frustrations and suffering, and in face of the rise of uncertainty in public security, terrorism of all kinds and abuse of drugs. The archetypes of Prometheus and of Dionysos are still valid behind most of the models of secular anthropology in today's crisis. Secular anthropocentricity can survive even in the most tragic revelation of human limitation, solipsism and despair. Man can be paradoxically happy and self-sufficient in his own appreciation of happiness and momentary satisfactions within the most contradictory human situations. The immediacy of the experience of life of the autonomous human enterprise has kept its priority over any concept of a theoritical, philosophical and religious nature. The need of changing in the sense of biblical «metanoia» can appear as absurd today as during the prevalence of optimistic models of man which is definitely over. We have to be conscious of this fact and not produce any kind of easy apologetics based on the manifold frustrations of modern disillusioned man.

There is, however, an evident reaction against this anthropomonistic satisfaction in today's human secular models from within this contradictory anthropology. Dramatists, writers, radical politicians and sociologists as well as the new revolutionaries in political theology are becoming more and more aware of the human person without escape, caught up within his solipsism. To this contradictory experience corresponds a radical opposition which cannot be expressed otherwise than as a scheme opposing frustrating disillusioned human reality inherited from the past with an utopian extended concept of man which is extended to the future. Utopianism is a substitute for the new natural theology of our days in the area of secular anthropology, social radicalism and revolutionary, political theology. Utopia is for man the necessary breathing-hole for seeking a false transcendence as he deceives himself suffocated by the totalitarianism of technocracy and material welfare within impersonal modern society.

The Imago Dei approach can only demythologize this new extension into horizontal Utopian humanism by debating the question of identity as it is expressed in the secular models of man. Personhood and selfhood can be the missing fundamental elements in the secular image, while the image of God is precisely a model of reference and relationship which seeks human identity in man as a being-in-personal-and communal-relationship. If there is a single determinism in anthropology it is that man as individual has to pass from individuality to personhood in order to find his identity in himself as a free, responsible, communal being. Wayne Oates defines self-hood as “the habitual center of focus of man's identity” (1). We can say this center is always a center of interpersonal relationship. It is an encounter with another person who determines my free choice of freedom not seeking independence but always returning back to the original nature of freedom as communion having its origin in God as a plurality of persons in identity of essence which is love. The Imago Dei approach in anthropology is also anthropocentric, because of human freedom, but only when it reveals to man its theocentric origin and purpose. It is the outcome of encounter with the historical Jesus as the Image of God, i.e. as the incarnate Word of God.

The dialogue with utopianism of today centers in this sense on the issue of identity. If «personhood is an ethical concept» (2) then it is inevitable that to seek identity means to create models of life and action beyond subjective limitations. Ralph Ruddock remarks «man develops as a person in so far as personhood is imputed to him by others and by himself», and he continues that this person is socially conditioned, so that the term person has two distinguishable meanings. One is the complex of rights and duties imputed to the human individual, embodied in ethical prescriptions and cultural value systems. The meaning is in principle universal. The other is the freely acting participant in a social system, whose capacity for such action has developed on the same basis of some attribution of personhood (3).

This is the meaning of selfhood in a pure consistent immanentistic line. There is nothing against it. But there is a question about the universal principle of cultural value systems and ethical prescriptions. The Imago Dei would never admit a pure anthropocentric autonomy as a unique source of such universal concepts. Especially when selfhood relates to the anxious seeking by man of his identity, «universal validity» in the area of culture and ethics cannot be referred to or conceived without the uniqueness of a principle of transcendental order or, better, a person who by his uniqueness has universal value. It is true, precisely, as Ralph Ruddock, in the end, admits, that «religious writing informs us that 'identity-in-the-world" is itself transient and contingent, and requires the individual to live in the awareness proper to his 'real self within a cosmic frame of reference» (4). It is not simply a matter of «writing in» cosmic reference, but of a Person realizing communion between God— since he speaks of religion — and the whole Creation. The Imago Dei is called upon to play precisely this role in the search for identity of modern man by recapturing his selfhood in relationship with the historical event of the personal relationship realised between God and man as the pivot event in history.

It is in this sense that contemporary Christian theologies are trying to expound new identities with the Image of God within the limits of historical facticity. We can detect a twofold identity in these theologies, first, the one that God himself in Christ established by the humanity of Jesus and his appearance in the form of a servant; and second, the identity of man with this Image as he has to conform himself to this form and act accordingly. Christ as the Image of God in Jesus realizes God's identity with these who are in the state of a servant, in the sense of self-humiliation but also in the act of service to the one and paramount duty, that man by his effort has to realize this identity of servant hood in order to become more human and also to serve the process of humanization of other men who are also created at the Image of a servant and suffering God.

This double realistic identity is implied by the emphasis on the historicity and facticity of the Image of God as it can be conceived by stressing the human nature of Christ and by the christological affirmation of the inner inseparable unity between anthropology and cosmology, man and creation in a renewed ktisis. The radical appreciation of the historicity and humanity, following also the critical attitude towards metaphysics and transcendental notions in anthropology, have resulted in an anthropocentric and activistic attitude of Christians and the affirmation of the identity of the Image of God in this immediate and realistic manner. In the liberation theologies God's Image is to be found as identical with the suffering man, the disadvantaged black person and man exploited by the forces of injustice and repression15. God acting in Christ as Saviour can be grasped in the person of the oppressed as «God of the oppressed» (6) and his Image in the same way can be grasped in the person of poor people (7).

This implies a consistent action of man sharing in the salvation given by God in Christ by an ethical conformity to his image in the historical person of Jesus who liberates from the manifold slavery, or heals of sick, helps the poor, the prisoners and the afflicted following the biblical appeal addressed to all men as the main sign of the messianic role of Jesus (Luc. 4, 18-19). The humanity of Christ is the main feature of the Image in this world, identical with those who suffer and also with those who share in this suffering in the name of Jesus for man's liberation from all kinds of bondage in the unjust world-wide community. The humanity of Christ is professed here as not only the point of contact with the human condition in general but concretely with man in the state of bondage. The Imago Dei is reflected in this condition and in the struggle against it (8). History renewed as part of the new Creation of the cosmos has its own main purpose in the liberation of the oppressed people as the Image of God and his children. The fundamental traits and constitutive element of the Image of God is love and freedom and therefore the Christian image of man cannot be conceived without his identity with the oppressed and those who are denouncing it by consistent action. The love and freedom of the Christian Image of man has to become liberation of the human person. The Imago Dei must be interpreted as continuous liberating action by human persons who are professing and preaching it as it has been revealed in the historical Jesus.

This understanding for a Christian Image of the human person today must be accepted as a consequence of the inseparable link between cosmos, history and man. It arises from a Christology of nature as a new ktisis and as a corrective against the traditional unilateral, sometimes promonophysite way of thinking in Christian anthropology which emphasized the divine nature of the Image of God only. Certainly, the contextual theologies of liberation are betraying also an one-sidedness, perhaps because of their effort to call upon a more practical and active approach to Christian faith. It is necessary, therefore, now to try to construct the Christian Image of man by referring also to the missing transcendent and existential element of the Image of God, focusing it more in an inductive method on the humanity of Jesus and its implication as the necessary final reference for Christian anthropology, as seen especially from the tradition of Eastern Christianity.


1. Wayne Oates, Christ and Selfhood, New York (Associated Press) 1961, p. 21.

2. As Ninian Smart maintains in «The Six Approaches to the Person» Edited by Ralph Ruddock, London (Routledge and Kegan Paul) 1972, p. 13 ff.

3. Ralph Ruddock, ibid., p. 203.

4. Ibid. 205.

5. For this notion of identity see the book of James Cone: Black Theology and Black Power, New York (Seabury Press) 1969.

6. The book of James H. Cone: God of the Oppressed, New York (Seabury Press) 1975.

7. The book of Julio de Santa Ana: Towards a Church of the Poor, Geneva (W.C.C) 1979, especially chapter IX: Theology from the Perspective of the Underdogs of History, p.p. 114-139.

8. The book of Gust a v o Gutierrez: A Theology of Liberation, Mary-Knoll (Obis Books) 1973.

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