“And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness”. These words of Genesis 1:26 have often fascinated exegetes. What is its fundamental meaning and why is there a distinction between likeness and image? Aquinas introduces this question as being about the purpose or end of humanity’s creation insofar as humans are made in God’s image and likeness. He is concerned to understand what it means for something to be made in the image and likeness of God but he also wants to understand how the image of God in man relates to man’s ultimate purpose.
The Thread of the Argument
A1: In Genesis 1:26 we read that man was made in the image and likeness of God. This allows Aquinas a straightforward answer to the question of whether the image of God exists in man! However, he takes the opportunity to add a little precision. After Augustine, he differentiates between a likeness, in which there is some sort of resemblance to a prototype and an image, which is definitely modelled on the prototype. So the concept of an image contains the concept of a likeness, but the reverse does not hold. Going further, we must differentiate between an image and a perfect image. In the latter there is a notion of equality; a perfect image has the same dignity or function as its prototype. This idea of equality is lacking from a (non-perfect) image.
Aquinas concludes that man is definitely modelled on the prototype of God is some way and therefore can genuinely be called an image of God. But the image of God that man is falls short of being a perfect image; following Col. 1:15, only the “Firstborn of every creature” is the “Image of the invisible God”. Aquinas makes a linguistic distinction based on the Latin of the Vulgate version of the bible: man is made to the image of God (ad imaginem Dei) rather than in the image of God. This distinction signifies that the approach to the image of God in man is actually an approach to something in the far distance.
A2: Aquinas makes use of the first article’s distinction between image and likeness to address whether the image of God is unique to man amongst the animal kingdom. He argues that something is an image of a prototype rather than just a likeness when it is either in the same species as the prototype (rather than just in the same genus) or when it shares a proper accident like shape with the prototype. So, the son of a father is an image of his father; a bronze statue of a great queen is an image of the queen herself. We can identify a sort of hierarchy of likeness: an arbitrary thing is like God in that both it and God exist; an animal is like God in that they are both living; a human being is like God in that they are both intellective. It is this last likeness that raises human beings to the level of being made to the image of God.
A3: Human beings occupy a puzzling place in the hierarchy of creation. Lying at the boundary between the spiritual and the material they are the lowest of the intellectual creatures, beneath the hierarchy of angels, and yet they are especially favoured by God. As they are lower in the hierarchy of intellectual being, does this mean that the image of God is found to a greater degree in angels than in man? Or rather, does humanity’s favoured relationship with the creator mean that the image of God is stronger in man?
Aquinas answers by making a distinction. We can think of being the image of God in two ways. In the first and primary way, being in the image of God relates to the intellectual nature of the creature. As such angels bear the image of God more strongly than man as they are the more perfectly intellectual creatures. However there is also a secondary sense, and in this secondary sense the image of God is stronger in man than in the angels. This latter sense lies in a sort of imitation of God that is not open to the angels: the examples that Aquinas gives are of the way that man come from man in analogy to how God is from God and in the way that the human soul in present in the body in analogy to the way that God is present to the created world.
A4: We’ve seen that the first woman was made from the rib of Adam, so perhaps we should ask whether only some human beings are made in the image of God rather than in the image of Adam. If we also consider that only some are predestined to eternal glory and that sin destroys the image of God within man, then perhaps we would be inclined to this position.
In answering this question Aquinas takes the opportunity to distinguish between different senses of the image of God in man. The first sense identifies the image of God in man with man’s intellectual nature that allows him to understand and to love God. In this sense, all humans carry the image of God; this is the image corresponding to creation. The second sense is that of the justified human; this is an image corresponding to re-creation in which they have a habitual but imperfect understanding and love of God. In the third sense, the gloried in heaven have a perfect understanding and love of God and an image of likeness of glory.
Therefore we can rightly say that all human beings are made in the image of God in the first sense; but not every human being is made in the image of God in the latter two senses.
A5: As God is both divine substance and Trinity of divine persons, an obvious question to ask is whether the image of God in man pertains to the substance of God or to the persons of the Trinity. The questions is framed in such a way that the objections support the idea that the image is to do with the substance of God. Three of the objections are based on discussions by other Church Fathers, but the third argues that as knowledge of the Trinity is an object of faith beyond natural reason this could not be consistent with having a Trinitarian impression within our minds because this would allow us knowledge of the Trinity by introspection as an alternative to revelation.
Aquinas replies that the distinction between the divine persons is intrinsic to the divine nature and therefore any image worth its name should both be of the divine substance whilst maintaining the distinction of persons, even if this distinction is only representational or vestigial. Counter to the third objection we have to remember that the image of God in man is not perfect image. Following Augustine we can identify Trinitarian aspects of our own minds, but these are simply not enough for us to demonstrate the existence of the divine Trinity.
A6: In the second article, Aquinas argued that it was in our intellective natures that our likeness to God becomes sufficient to be considered an image. Other creatures bear some likeness to God in that they exist or in that they are alive but this can only be considered as a vestigial image. He now asks whether it is only because of that intellective nature that we carry the image; or are there any other aspects of human beings that correspond to the image?
Aquinas is firmly of the opinion that this image is only rooted in the intellectual nature of human beings, arguing that the way in which other creature are like God does not rise to the level of an image. In the uncreated Trinity there is a procession of the Word from Him who speaks and a procession of Love from both of these (Ia.q28.a3). In human beings this is mirrored by the coming forth of a word (expressing a concept) from the intellect and by the coming forth of love from the will. In non-human living creatures this does not happen, or rather what happens in the higher non-intellectual creatures is only a trace of what happens in humans.
A7: Aquinas has firmly asserted that the image of God in man is associated exclusively with the intellect. Can more be said? Is it the mere fact that human have intellects that are capable of thinking that founds the image of God, or is it something more? Following on from the analogy established in the sixth article, Aquinas claims that the image of God in man is to be found in the intellect as it is in act; that is, as it is actually thinking. The Trinitarian structure of human thought, wherein the mind expresses a word and the will expresses with love, is found most fully when the mind is actually thinking. We can, however, say that the image of God exists in the intellect in a secondary way with regard to the habits and powers of the intellect when it is not actually in act; we can consider the acts of the soul to exist virtually in the powers of the intellect to act.
A8: So far in this question Aquinas has taken the image of God in man to refer to the image of the Trinity insofar as it is reflected in the structure of the intellect in act. Perhaps it is possible that this image does not simply refer directly to God as its object. After all, the acts of our intellects that give this Trinitarian correspondence don’t simply happen when we’re thinking about God; they work whenever we’re thinking about any object whatsoever!
To answer this Aquinas goes back to his understanding of the divine processions. The Word of God is begotten of the Father insofar as He knows himself, and Love proceeds insofar as He loves Himself. So when we look for the image of God in man we must look for acts of the intellect that mirror this mode of divine procession and which therefore imply a likeness that corresponds sufficiently close to be an image. As Aquinas puts it, we’re looking for a representation (as far as is possible in a creature) that corresponds to the species of the divine persons. When we think about things other than God, like a rock or a horse, it is clear that there is a specific difference between these objects of the intellect and between any species that might be representational of the Trinity. Therefore, the divine image in man is associated with the word that is conceived when we are thinking about God and the love that is derived from that word. We might also note that the procession of the divine persons in God is associated with a self-contemplation. So to a certain extent the same is true in the intellect of man; self-contemplation also corresponds in a way to the image of God but only insofar as this self-contemplation is leading towards God.
A9: The final article in this question is dedicated to a more detailed examination of how likeness is distinguished from image when we are considering humanity made in the image and likeness of God. Aquinas has already observed that the idea of a likeness is more general than that of an image and that a likeness can be considered an image if it is sufficiently close to represent the actual species of the prototype in some sense. One might also note that the more general concept of likeness corresponds to a certain degree to the transcendental notion of unity, or of being one. Something that is the likeness of something else can be considered one with that something else in a certain sort of way.
If we think about other transcendentals such as good, then we may identify a helpful analogy. The idea of the good can be consider under two aspects, one prior to and the other consequent from a particular individual. That is, a particular human being can be considered as a particular good (at the very least insofar as he exists) prior to consideration of any other human beings. But that individual man can be also be considered as consequently good if he is a particularly good example of his species. The same is true when we consider the concept of likeness: likeness can be considered as prior and preliminary to image and can also be considered as subsequent to image insofar as the likeness signifies a certain perfection of the image.
This approach gives us two ways of distinguishing likeness and image. In the first instance, we can consider likeness to be preliminary to image and therefore to be found in more things. In the second way, we can consider likeness subsequent to image insofar as the image is a more vivid or perfect likeness of its prototype.
- Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Likeness is a generality of resemblance that attains more precision in the notion of image and yet more precision in the notion of perfect image. The image of God in man is an image that reflects both the divine unity of substance and the blessed Trinity of persons.
- The image of God in man is associated with man’s intellectual nature, and more specifically with the acts of the intellect. More specifically still it is in acts of the intellect that are associated with the contemplation of God that give the firmest relation to the image of God in man.
- Although as related simply to intellectual natures, the image of God is found to a greater degree in the angels, there is a secondary sense in which man images God more perfectly than the angels.
- Aquinas lays the foundation for his ideas about the image of God in man on a distinction between likeness and image. A likeness is a sort of resemblance; it is sufficient to become an image if the likeness represents the species of what is being represented. But, as is pointed out in the first article, the approach that any created likeness can make towards God is a very distant one. One might ask whether anything created can, at such a distance, really resemble God in a sufficiently close way to meet Aquinas’s criterion of image. Likewise, in the other direction one might argue that lots of things in creation show principles of unity and of tri-unity in such a way as to resemble God. Aquinas’s solution to these problems is to identify that which is unique to man in creation in resembling God; the intellect.
- Having introduced this question as investigating the purpose or end of man’s production in the image and likeness of God, Aquinas doesn’t actually spend much time discussing this! Most of the discussion is about an understanding what it means to be in the image and likeness of God. Perhaps Aquinas’s answer to this latter question implicitly answers the former and he takes this as obvious. Man images God insofar as man has an intellectual nature contemplating God: in being made in the image of God, man turns to God in intellectual contemplation in this life and in the beatific vision in the next.