The Dual-Function of the Imago Dei as the Key to Human Flourishing in the Church Fathers

Fr. David V. Meconi, S.J., D.Phil.

Learn more about this Routledge Research Companion to Theological Anthropology and this chapter contribution!

This chapter tries to show how a rich anthropology informed how the earliest Christians saw the unity of heaven and earth in the human person’s imaging the divine.

An “image” by definition both unites as well as distinguishes the copy from the model, the participant from the Participated-in. As such, the first Christians saw how the human person reaches excellence only by embracing God’s good creation in such a way that they discovered how God was “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

As creatures immersed in this world of materiality, relationship, flux and time, Christians were called not to apologize for being bodily or contingent, but to find God precisely there: in the very mundane and material world in which they were planted. In the fourth century, however, a “stern minded” Christian anthropology that (perhaps unknowingly) sought to extinguish the imaging of God in order to make the soul one with God in such a way that one’s own will and desires became dangerous distractions.

The ascetic and hermetical movements of the post-Constantinian turn in the life of the Church thus gave rise to a theology of sanctity that required gargantuan feats against one’s humanity (one thinks easily of Simon the Stylite or Patermutus, who in the hagiography of John Cassian, wins favor for standing silently while monks beat and berate his young son). As the monk replaced the martyr, much of Christian theology forgot that the human person has been given the primal vocation of finding God in one’s everyday life and need not have one’s own humanity absorbed into a monism which finds distinction and individuality sinful. Instead, as later correctives show, imaging God means encountering the divine through the human, finding God in his good and doxologically deiform creation.

Possible works for further study (by author):

Questions for Further Study

  • As a created image, the human person is called to find God as an embodied reflection. This means to find God as “All in all” (1 Cor 15:28) and not directly as he dwells in and of himself. Why do you think that most religious traditions fail to embrace creaturliness and all that it entails (materiality, relationship, desires of the heart) as the foundation of searching for the Transcendent?
  • What does the incarnation for Christians do to affect this understanding?