Friday, 14 January 2011

Question 35 - The Name "Image"

Why this Question Matters.

Continuing his discussion of the Person of the Son, Aquinas now dedicates one of the shortest questions in the summa to the name “Image” (Colossians 1:15). How are we to understand this name in the context of Aquinas’s Trinitarian theology?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas argues that to be an image means at least to have some likeness to another. More is required than this though, as one thing may be a likeness of something else completely accidentally. What is required is for the image to proceed in some way from the other. As an example, a photograph may provide a likeness of a person but it has also come to be by light reflected from that person being collected and focussed by the lens of the camera; the image has, in a sense, proceeded from the original. It is therefore entirely reasonable to apply the word “Image” to God when we think of the second Person of the Trinity proceeding from the Father.

A2: The slickness with which Aquinas justified the name “Image” to the second Person of the Trinity appears to run into difficulties when one points out that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Father and also that scripture tells us that man is the image of God (1 Corinthians 11:7, for example). It would seem that “Image” is not simply a proper name for the second Person of the Trinity but has to be shared. Aquinas points out that the Greek Fathers of the Church are willing to apply the name “Image” to the Holy Spirit whereas the Latin Fathers restrict the name to the Son because that is the use made of the name in scripture (as far as God is concerned). He rehearses a number of arguments about this simply in order to reject them as inadequate before settling on an argument that parallels the rejection of the application of the term “begotten” to the Holy Spirit. It belongs especially to the notion of “Word” to be a likeness of that from which it proceeds whereas one simply cannot say the same about the notion of “Love”.

When one considers that man is made in the image of God, one has to recognize that the word “image” is being used in a different way to when it is applied to the Son as the Image of God. The Son is the perfect Image of the Father and He agrees in nature with the Father; man in a sense is tending towards the image of the Father as he is perfected, but remains of a different nature to the Father.

Handy Concepts

  • An “image” of an object is something that is like the object (including the sense of being of like species) but which also “proceeds” from that object in some sense. Therefore it is reasonable to apply the name “Image” to God as second Person of the Trinity.
  • One may apply the name “Image” to the Son as a proper name by observing that the “Word” of God pre-eminently images the Father.
  • Man is in the image of God, but in a way that is fundamentally different to the way that the Son is the Image of the Father.


  • The arguments rejecting the application of the term “Image” to the Holy Spirit (including Aquinas’s) appear to be rather weak.

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