Athanasius on the nature of man

Let me expand a little on the quote I gave in the last piece from Athanasius, because it seems to give some pointers, derived from Scripture, on the essential nature of Christian creation teaching. Here’s the quote:

…for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says:

“God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.”


Athanasius - εικον

Athanasius – εικον

Now as I said in the previous post, it appears that Athanasius (c. 296-373), whose main achievement for Christianity was the defeat of the prevailing (and imperially sponsored) Arian heresy, had meditated deeply on John 1. The Son is the divine Logos, with the Father in the beginning (vv1-2), through whom everything that was made came into being (v3). In that pre-existing Logos was life, and that light was “the light of men” (v4). Athanasius reasons (correctly in my view) that since the prophetic announcement through John the Baptist and the coming of Jesus starts in v6, v4 refers to the role of the Logos at man’s creation – his life became, in some way, the life of humanity.

Now let’s consider another biblical concept, the image of God. Genesis 1 (of which, remember, John 1 is a christological interpretation) says (v26):

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness, and let them rule…”.

In Hebrew, “image” is tselem, which elswehere in the OT usually refers to the representative image of a god or king. “Likeness” is demuth, meaning similarity, usually (elsewhere) in appearance.

But the Septuagint Greek translation of Genesis 1 is a link with the Greek New Testament, and it uses the words eikon and homoiosis for “image” and “likeness”. The latter is used in James 3.9 of the sacredness of man because made in God’s likeness. The former word, though, has an additional nuance of meaning beyond “similarity”. As Vine’s Expository Dictionary puts it:

The word involves the two ideas of representation and manifestation … eikon is a derived likeness.

To give an idea of what that implies, Heb 10.1 speaks of the Law of Moses being only a shadow of the reality, not “the realities themseves” – so the NIV, but the Greek says “not the very image (eikon) of the things.”

And so we can appreciate the strength of what it means in 2 Cor 4.4 that Christ is the eikon of God, and even more so in Col 1.15; and we can appreciate what it means for Jesus to say that “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” in John 14.9.

What should give us even more pause for thought is the frequency with which the New Testament, following Genesis, refers to humans as “the image of God.” It obviously gave such pause to Athanasius, who read on in Colossians to find that:

“[B]y him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”

Incidentally this is, of course, a statement of Christ’s Deity, for Isa 44.24 is insistent that God made the world alone – there was absolutely no co-creator. When the Logos, the image of God, created, then God created. But If Jesus is the “derived representative and manifestation” of the Father, and man, as created, was the “derived representative and manifestation” of God, it follows that it was the life of Christ itself that constituted the image of God in man – and that this is the implication in Gen 2:

The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground [as the animals had come from the earth] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.

Athanasius concludes that it was this life of Christ himself – constituting the image of God – that was attenuated through sin so that it became subject to the mortality of the physical nature; and it is the life of Christ that needs to be renewed in us through his passion to restore us to eternal life.

Let’s consider what this implies for creation doctrine, though. Much ink has been spilled speculating on what constitues the “imageness” of man. Most often particular attributes like rationality, moral sense etc are considered, and not infrequently in TE circles these are attributes that have arisen through natural evolution. Hence the idea that if intelligent dolphins or elephants had arisen instead of primates, God would have dealt with them as those in his image. But the discussion so far shows that, if anything, such attributes must be seen only as the likeness of God (homoisosis), not the image.

OT scholars, among them John H Walton, have pointed out that in the cosmic temple setting of Genesis 1 and the temple-precinct imagery of Genesis 2, “image” must refer to the kind of representive of divinity found in ANE temple-worship, and/or the kind of image set up by a king in a vassal state to “be” him there (cf the image set up by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel). In paganism the image of the god does not picture the god, nor symbolise it, nor become indwelt by divinity. Rather, through its special origin (falling from heaven helps, like that of Diana in Ephesus in Acts) and sacred consecration, it is the representation and manifestation of the deity.

This mindset, which doubtless informed Genesis, fits so well with the christological origin of man summarised by Athanasius. The tselem of God in Mankind was not to do with what powers he had, evolved or otherwise, nor even primarily with a God-man covenant of some sort, but was the divine light of Christ breathed into his essential nature, the life that itself was the image of the Father, or as Hebrews 1.3 puts it:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being.

The word “representation” (“image” in KJV) here is charakter, the stamp from a die that is separate from it but identical. It is the life and light of Christ that sets man apart from all else in creation, not his biology.

At the same time we must be careful not to see humanity as an animal-with-a-soul, a kind of hybrid between the biological and the divine. In Hebrew thought man is an essential unity – Adam became a soul when God breathed into the dust from which he was made. This is a very similar concept to the hyelomorphic dualism of A-T metaphysics. It is the very special spiritual human form that is united to matter that makes people. There is indeed an animality to us – and it might might even be evolved – but even if so it cannot, and must not, be separated from what is heavenly about our constitution.

The situation is analogous, though not identical, with the Incarnation itself. The Logos was not added to an ordinary man to make Christ in some kind of chimaera – there is one Christ, with two natures distinct but in perfect union (for more see the Definition of Chalcedon).This is a mystery, of which Athanasius was gloriously aware:

The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father. As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world.

Likewise Christ’s life was not added to an animal to make man, a beast with an immortal soul: there was only a man, whose earthiness and Christ-likeness were a unity. Our thinking about human origins needs to reckon with that: as in Aristotelian causation (matter + form -> essence or substantial form) so in the Bible dust + breath of Christ -> Soul = Image of God.

There’s a wise saying that you don’t have a soul: you have a body – and you are a soul. And that soul – which is the totality of what we are as humans, body and spirit – is also the Image of God – which means the manifestation and representation of the being of Christ in the world, tragically marred though that now is by the Fall. In one sense, perhaps, Christ was living in the world through us even then – maybe that’s part of what it means that creation was made for him.

Now I’m not at all sure how that works out in a world of evolution. But it’s pretty clear that, in certain respects at least, the creation of man was an act of special creation – the derived manifestion of the divine Logos is not a known feature of Darwinian selection – and nor could it be even in principle. That is rather scandalous to the naturalist, obviously, but conceptually it’s also rather difficult for the Christian who believes in evolution, since what differentiates man from the beasts is not an image added to him, in some kind of Cartesian dualism, but a different kind of form from the animals’ that makes their unity of nature fundamentally different from our unity of nature.

Perhaps we should heed GD’s advice on the previous post not to speculate on how God creates, but to accept that he does. But if the “imageness” of man did indeed derive from the spiritual life of the Son of God, biology and physical anthropology are likely to be distractions to a true understanding of man’s origins.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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9 Responses to Athanasius on the nature of man

  1. Jon

    Interesting reflections from Athanasius .

    As for your final comment, I offer the analogy of disease. What is the cause of disease, and what is its cure? At the most profound level these are spiritual realities inaccessible to science. However, I don’t think we ought to regard medical research and practice as distractions bound to make us think unspiritually, and therefore wrongly, about disease. The same can be said about scientific research into biological origins.

    Keeping a grip on unseen spiritual realities while studying material processes is not always easy. It is a challenge God has placed before us, to which we must rise with his help. “Of the one to whom much is given, much will be required.” The lesson is probably not, “. . . therefore avoid accepting what you are given so that less will be required of you.”

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Darek, as a medic I obviously support understanding disease processes – and even eradicating guineas worms. I don’t think how they were created casts too much light on it though. It would be a case where science legitimately downplays the final causation as inaccesible – “Why did God create guinea worms?” doesn’t prevent one killing them. “How did God create guinea worms?” doesn’t solve many problems – genetics, for example, is a given, however the genes arose.

      That said, an appreciation that, within the economy of the world, nothing is fortuitous is going to make one seek to understand what things are for as much as possible: then one can avoid the unforeseen side effects. Eradicating the wolves (and the native Americans) from Yellowstone had a deleterious effect on the ecology.

      As to origins, it’s the simplifying assumptions that are dangerous – especially when it comes to our own origins. In that case the simplification of methodological naturalism – if there is reason to believe mankind has an essentially supernatural element to its nature – will have one speculating, or even drawing conclusions, on the evolutionary development of that which has no evolutionary development.

      The hardest issue in the Athanasian discussion, it seems to me, is the impossibility of dichotomising the earthly-divine origins of mankind. Doing the family tree almost inevitably nudges one towards a Cartesian dualism, where God adds a soul, or some such thing, to an evolved animal – the ghost in the machine, rather than the indivisible unity.

      Keeping a grip on unseen spiritual realities while studying material processes is not always easy.

      Amen to that – but if so, it suggests that believers are going to need to emply a raft of considerations to their research that secular scientists won’t. Their science will not be identical. I wonder how you feel that sits with methodological naturalism, “leaving faith at the lab door”, etc?

  2. GD says:

    “Keeping a grip on unseen spiritual realities while studying material processes is not always easy.”

    This ‘hits the nail on the head’ (if I may indulge in a metaphor); when we do scientific research our mind is well and truly involved in a study of material processes. Our methodology will also be one dealing with experimentation and theory of the material. To avoid a lengthy discussion, I would prefer to mention great thinkers who have had the time, inclination and capabilities, to consider science as part of the reasoning capabilities of humanity – and from this, try to bridge the intellectual and the material. People such as Polanyi, for example, show us why scientific endeavour is intellectual, even though the subject matter is physical reality. Others (e.g. Heller) provide insights that are derived from mathematics, but deeply theoretical, so that we may contemplate the intelligibility of both humanity and the accessibility of the Creation to us, and people such as Kierkegaard (since I have begun to slowly read some of his material) help us understand our own limitations and yet our innate capacity to deal, and question, the revealed spiritual truth.

    I think the point to all of this is that unseen spiritual realities are part of the reasoning activities we as Christians are expected to undertake (and in this way, so are scientific, philosophical, and artistic matters), for the simple reason that we are also expected to value and seek the truth – theologically we are grounded in our faith which teaches us that God is Truth.

  3. GD

    You put it beautifully.


    To answer your question . . . In disciplines such as genetics or paleoanthropology I don’t envision the technical equipment and procedures to be different, but the conversation about them would be. A difficulty has been created by the high public profile assumed by combative YECs such as Ken Ham and Kent Hovind. This allows scientists with secularist agendas to present otherwise innocuous evidence as a victory for their ideology . . . even without explicitly saying as much.

    To proclaim as widely and forcefully as possible, “If the God of Scripture exists he can only have accomplished result B by means A, and revelation can only be interpreted one way by any person with genuine faith” rolls out a red carpet for those with strong anti-theistic positions, and pushes scientists who might be somewhat open-minded to become rigid ideologues.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Darek – I look forward to hearing those different conversations (although we do get the occasional one here!). In practice they often seem to be the old secular conversations with “but I believe Jesus saves” added.

      Doctrinaire Creationism indeed perpetuates the culture wars, but to be fair the anti-theistic ideology predates “militant” Creationism by nearly a century, if we look to the rise of Creation Science in the 1960s as the religious fulcrum.

      Long before that one can see not only the assumption of a-theistic evolution being touted as the death knell of religion, but the sidelining of academics with doubts about it (alluded to by C S Lewis, amongst others).

      How Fundamentalism came to be belligerently Creationist is an interesting historical study in itself – one attempt here.

  4. Jon

    Opposition to evolution on “fundamentalist” grounds may have become more organized and evident after the Great War, but it was hardly new. Charles Spurgeon railed against evolution. In one of his sermons, for example, he said, “There is not a hair of truth on this dog!”

    Beligerents have hardly needed any Darwinian philosophical justifications to go to war, as the long and blood-drenched history of Europe demonstrates. The U.S. Civil War in many ways ushered in the era of modern warfare and set the stage for WWI, racking up casualties at a shocking and unexpected rate due to improvements in firearms. The Confederate States were far more eager to give their cause–and their horrific oppression of black people–a religious cloak than a scientific one. Every major religious denomination in the U.S. split during the war, with the exception of the Menonites and Quakers.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist sect and have attended conservative churches in the US all my life. There is a formidable undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in US evangelicalism that someone like C. S. Lewis would have found hard to imagine and which I’m sure he underestimated. You have to be immersed in it for decades to realize how powerful its grip really is. Many US evagelicals have genuine contempt for “scientists” and “experts” in general as being too stupid to see beyond the ends of their noses.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      I’m sure you’re right about the anti-intellectualism of American Fundamentalism, and that has its roots well before the Fundamentals too, and even before Darwin, I suspect. It sadly colours the whole discussion of science-faith not only in the US, but across the world, because of American cultural dominance.

      It means that it’s almost impossible to treat nuances of argument on their merits, because an emotional response, one way or the other, to the whole Fundmantalist thing, is always in the background. I get that sense with some of the positions BioLogos takes: so many of its people seem to have been indoctrinated with anti-intellectual Creationism and then react against it as they would against a cult from which they’ve escaped.

      That’s why I think the Transatlantic viewpoint can contribute: I grew up in an Evangelicalism where evolution and creation were no bigger a deal than infant or believer’s baptism , and both in the pew and in the University Christians would toss the various arguments back and forth usually openly, sometimes strongly, but seldom from trenches.

  5. Cal says:

    I love what Athanasius is going for here. It definitely connects creation to redemption, maintaining the graciousness of all life.

    I wonder though that by even drawing the bridge to A-T metaphysics, one is giving to much weight to all the wrongs ways this develops. In the Fall, our image, ikon, is fundamentally cracked (i.e. total depravity).

    Given this, we can’t take any sort of A-T natural theological approach to our own understanding. Where it is rooted in non-temporal, a-kairotic (if I may coin a Hellenicism), ontology, the Messianic vision is not ‘telos’ but ‘eschaton’, if the two are may be semantically divided. There needs to be a crash, an uprooting and replanting, from Adam to Christ, for that new to be new.

    Our attempts at eudaimonion are frustrated and confused in Adam. There is no merely cardinal virtues, separable from the topping-off of the supernatural ones. At this point I think Thomas drank too much Aristotle, and neglected what was in Augustine.

    Those are some thoughts that popped up anyways. Glad I made my way back over to your grounds, Jon.


    • Jon Garvey says:

      Good to see you back Cal! You’ve been missed.

      Regarding A-T thinking, I agree that the concept that natural theology can prove the existence and many of the attributes of God is over-optimistic given the effects of the Fall on reason. I find that over-optimism with some of the Modern Catholic Thiomists like Ed Feser.

      But given that revealed doctrine is bound to be couched in some kind of metaphysical and philosophical terms (and has been since long before Athanasius’ time) the scholastics seem to me to do a much better job than much of the modern scheme assumed in science. That’s not least because the philosophy was worked out in the context of revealed doctrine: the appeal to reason was implicitly an appeal to Christian reason in those like Aquinas or Suarez (not Aristotle, obviously).

      The reason that was corrupted in the Fall is no more or less so wrt philosophy than it is to theology or science – so I’d say let’s use it, but with caution and humility.

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